Sermon for Evensong – 10th Sunday after Trinity – OT20A 2017 – Encountering Grace and God

Sermon for Evensong – 10th Sunday after Trinity – OT20A 2017

2 Kings 4:1-7
Acts 16:6-34

Encountering Grace – Encountering God

‘Grace to you, and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ’

I always head my sermons with a biblical text – and usually a reference – but in the case of these words, the references would be too long – for the Apostle Paul opens every single one of his 12 letters in the scriptures with this very same greeting. ‘Grace to you, and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ’. Even his letter to the Galatians, which dispenses with all of the standard courtesies of saying how much he is praying for them etc. has these words. Grace, Grace and Peace to you, From God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ

And there is a temptation to skip over them – to move on to the meat of the theology of Paul’s message – a bit like when you are graced . . . with the receipt of a letter, we skip over ‘Dear . . .’ not least because most letters we receive continue ‘Sir or Madam’ – from strangers who do would not call us dear to our face.
‘Dear’ an address which like so much of our language has lost its density, we just tag it on out of custom – we write back to the bank, or we did, even our writing has now been reduced to typing and that on an all but frictionless keyboard . . . ‘Dear Sir, or Madam’ and what follows the ‘Dear’ expressed precisely why we don’t mean ‘Dear’ Words without weight – no Density

But we should not pass over Grace to you, and Peace . . . For Paul these words are words from the stuff of his life as a disciple of Jesus – they express his being taken hold of by the Living God – they are not mere words. Paul’s culture unlike ours knows no such thing as ‘mere words’. By his Word, God created the heavens and the Earth. Words speak Matter – they are concrete. Paul speaks out of his Encounter, and his words are words of encounter. Grace TO you, Peace TO you, FROM God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. May you be apprehended by Grace – may it come to you, and so with Peace also . . . but that’s another sermon, or 50

Grace is a very familiar word to us as Christians – we sing Amazing Grace, one of the best selling Christian books of recent years has the title ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ (many of you I know have read it) – but our Faith is in the Word made Flesh. Words in Our dictionary have form, density, materiality always guiding us into the encounter with this Grace which comes to us from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ – who is Grace in the Flesh.

It was John Wesley – that fine Anglican 🙂 – who added to the somewhat cerebral three legged stool of ‘Scripture, Tradition, and Reason’ a fourth leg – and an indispensable one – Experience. The heart of the Evangelical faith, is faith in the Evangel, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who comes to us from God the Father . . . it is in this encounter that Grace moves from being a concept, a nice word, to an experienced dense reality.

That move is the move to the Faith of the Apostles – the Density of Faith. Embodied. We can in our conceptual terms come up with a dictionary definition of Grace – but ultimately you cannot put it into words because Grace is the WORD. But where is Grace to be found? Rather like, or indeed very very like Wisdom, it eludes our searching. Rather Grace finds us, where Jesus is – in the very depths of our existence, in the deep places.

A widow has her husbands creditor banging down the door – demanding her two sons as slaves to settle the debts . . . Grace comes to find her in the person of Elisha (a prophetic figure of Christ) . . in the midst of her distress . . . Oil . . . the symbol of Life – Grace. John Newton in the depravity of his life as a trader in human cargo – in the utter shame of an inhuman life – is apprehended by Jesus. Grace

I think of a couple of encounters this week. With a woman who has an extraordinary ministry as an evangelist . . . but her husband is dying of cancer. She is called to speak at a conference but there is no place for him at the hospice and she doesn’t want to leave him anyway for she fears she may not see him again, and then as she told me, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, the hospice ring, there is a place, he can go, and she can go and in faith she goes – literally between her home in Auckland and the conference in Wellington she has three encounters – three people encounter Jesus in her and through her, they are converted, they become Christian. As she put it to me, ‘it is Absolute Glory, in the midst of total Hell’ . . . Grace . . . On the Edge of death – Christ who tramples down death – Harrows Hell . . . the earthquake rips the doors of the jail away . . . those long imprisoned in darkness are brought blinking into the bright light of the Knowledge of the Glory of God in Jesus Christ. Someone else who in the hell of a divorce is apprehended by an angel . . . Grace TO you, FROM God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

So, Paul. When he writes ‘Grace to you, and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ’ – he knows what he is talking about. KNOWS. In the biblical sense (a phrase which always raised a titter when I was at school 🙂 ) For in the Bible the Only Knowing is the Knowing of encounter. It is deep and rich and messy – often it is bewildering for we are caught up in something much much bigger than ourselves. We have been sleep walking through life, and then Grace takes hold of us – throws us up – to use a wonderful word, it discombobulates us – throws all our categories up in the air. Paul has the world figured – he sets out to deal with this Jesus sect, and encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. The vision is so bright and terrifying – he is apprehended by the Grace that has come looking for him, and he sets out on the journey of living by and out of that grace. All other bets are off – Grace has taken hold of him

So we find him living by Grace. Paul and his companions are swimming deep in Grace – attentive to its currents in the depths – ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia – the Spirit of Jesus preventing them going into Bythinia – in Troas a vision, a call to Macedonia. Living by Grace as vehicles of that Grace – and finding Grace . . . going to the place of prayer, a rich woman – Lydia – a worshipper of God – in amongst the crowd, Grace finds her
On the way to her house they meet a slave girl trapped by a spirit of divination – her chains fall off – Grace. So Paul and Silas are thrown into prison – Grace is not always well received – but in the midst, they Know the Grace of God. They’re Deep Deep in its flow – singing hymns – full of Joy even in the dark place. They know the truth of God’s promise of Treasures of darkness, and the earthquake strikes – but why run off? Their freedom is to remain – Grace does this. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who returns to Germany from England. Grace sets you free to live as free even though in chains. And free people are the only ones who can free people and so the jailer becomes a free man and the Grace spreads to his whole family . . . but what of us? When we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ do we Know that Grace?

 

A man is walking his dog alongside a lake. Absentmindedly he throws a stick into the water for his dog, which calmly walks across the water to bring back the stick. Rubbing his eyes in disbelief he repeats the stick throwing, . . . both times the dog walks across the water and brings back the stick. Thinking he is going mad he calls someone over – ‘Look at this!’ he cries and throws the stick out once more. The dog once more walks across the water and brings back the stick. ‘Amazing!’ the onlooker cries out – your dog!!! He can’t swim!!!

We may well see Jesus walking across the waves, but if you are going to walk on the water, you first have to learn the density of the water – how it will hold you up . . . it is the same with Grace. If we haven’t learnt to swim in it. At the turn of the C17 an otherwise unknown French Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote a short book. most people know it by its modern name, one which is light and spiritual and unchallenging. ‘The Sacrament of the Present moment’ – I have to say the original title ‘Abadonment to Divine Prividence’ far better sums up its thoughts. We Know grace – it comes to find us when we abandon ourselves to God’s goodness and mercy. it is so so so tempting and indeed easy no to do this, to plan for tomorrow and next month and next year – rather than to Seek his Kingdom and allow Him to bear us up.
If we haven’t found the incredible density of the Grace of God, have we even stepped off the side of the lake? Are we mere onlookers to this Grace? is it just a word, like the ‘Dear’ at the opening of a letter? Have we begin to paddle in the shadows, or have we found ourselves away from the shore, swimming in it – as our natural surrounding our true home? Can we bear witness to being borne by Grace

Often people will say – I just found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to rely on the Grace of God . . . to which it seems reasonable to ask ‘but why did you stop doing that?’ St Paul would say ‘why do anything else?’

For most of the churches existence bodily difficulty and hardship was known as a sure way to encounter the healing power of Christ. ‘To share in his sufferings’ as St Paul puts it. Today the physical and the spiritual are in our world all but ‘put asunder’, and we have lost sense that it is in the depths of the darkest experience that Grace meets us. The deeper we go in the life of Christ, the denser it is – and often the harder. For Christ went down into the very depths – he redeems and transforms from the bottom up. That is where he is – and we have to learn to let go and find our true weight, our true density, our Existence as embodied life in the Ocean of Grace From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

 

Sermon for the tenth Sunday after Trinity – OT20A – 2017 – Fresh Water

Sermon for the tenth Sunday after Trinity – OT20A – 2017

Matthew 15:10-20

Fresh Water

‘Create in me a pure heart O God and renew a right Spirit within me’
Psalm 51:10

There is perhaps not graver danger to our Life before God than confusing what counts for a respectable life in wider society with that Life that comes from God.

As human beings grow ever greater in their own eyes – as wealth and technological developments lead them ever deeper into the deception that our lives are in our own hands, to be presented before God on the last day, if we indeed believe we will have to stand before God to give and account of ‘our life’ – more and more the words of older liturgies sound close to offensive.

Take for example the collect for Ash Wednesday

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Worthily lamenting our sins . . . ‘I’ve done nothing wrong – I am a fine upstanding member of the community

Acknowledging our wretchedness . . . ‘come now, I’m not wretched!’

Or indeed the words of the 1662 confession . . .

‘We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed.’

. . . and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable . . .

Well pardon me, but is anyone losing sleep over the intolerable burden and remembrance of their sins?? When outwardly our lives look so good and fine – when many fine folk will no doubt bear witness at our funerals to ‘what a fine fellow – or fellowess’ we once were . . .

So of course our modern liturgies catch up with the prevailing mood – One of our liturgies says ‘God forgives you, forgive others, forgive yourself’ or as several folk have put it to me – ‘get over it, it isn’t that big a deal’. Of course if we live in and amongst people who are paragons of comfortable middle class morality – then of course we may well feel we can write such an insipid so called ‘absolution’ . . . but here and there, often amongst those whose lives are not so insulated from the reality of the lives of others, that is not the case – here and there a soul cries out to God in the night time – have mercy on me o lord, for you are justifiably angered by my sins . . .

Jesus of course lives as we do amongst such human beings – he associated with the lost sheep – those who Knew their sin and acknowledged their wretchedness. ‘as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ The Scribes and the Pharisees – those whose society looked up to – criticising Jesus for the company he keeps – for he has not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance . . .

For God looks not at ‘the public record’ – the plaques of attainments – he looks at the heart and Jesus is not unaware of ‘what is in a man’s heart’ The pharisees he called ‘white washed tombs’ For on the surface, as far as their friends and neighbours were concerned they were upright religious people – but on the inside they were dead. Outwardly righteous, inwardly dead – not even alive enough to notice their – evil intentions, murder (hatred of others), adultery (lust for others), fornication, theft, false witness (lies), slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

One writer puts it like this – “The nature of sin can be easily overlooked in a “merely” moral approach to the Christian life. The “dead men’s bones” that lie beneath the moral surface were obvious to Christ. “We do not have a legal problem,” I have written, “We have a death problem.” “Dead men’s bones” are the result of the . . . corruption that is the very heart of sin. And the deepest and most corrupt sinners among us can also appear to be the most moral. If the morality of your life does not reach beneath the surface and into the depths of the corruption that is at work there, then your life is indeed an expression of moral futility.

An equally great tragedy rises from this untended inner corruption. The assurance of moral rectitude is fortified by the unwillingness to rightly acknowledge and bear the inward shame of sin. This dries up the well of compassion that should mark the soul. A gulf grows between the “morally” competent and those who are clearly and visibly broken by sin. True compassion would require the recognition of a kinship of shame.”

The writer here speaks of that separation between those whom society deems acceptable and those whom it calls unacceptable – the equivalent in our culture of the Pharisees on one hand and ‘sinners’ on the other When our sense of our moral rectitude separates us from others, it separates us from where Jesus is, who comes to seek and save the lost – he is with those who Know their inner state is a matter of shame.

I remember years ago a man who had had long experience of sharing the Good news of forgiveness of Sins in Jesus name – and for those who live with the shame of their inner state, it is THE Good News. He said how much easier his work was amongst the poor of London, for assuredly they didn’t need telling that they were sinners – the way they were ostracised reminded them daily of their need, and the news of a God who loved them and came to find them in their lostness and indeed heal their condition was to them glorious Good News

And what is God’s remedy? It is as the prophet Ezekiel says – a New heart – a New Life. Whitewashed tombs are full of death. those who are not alert to their inner desperate state as expressed in the confession and collect we began with are as St Paul puts it ‘dead in sin’. Jesus in dying for us, does not merely enact some legal transaction – he gives his life so that we might have it. He replaces that life of Sin with His life. To use a very timely metaphor for us here in Dunedin, he gives us a clean water supply, from one that brings death, to one that brings life.

A couple of points to close – firstly we began with liturgy, and our liturgy CAN be a reminder of this Gospel – the words of our opening Collect express this so well. Almighty God, before whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden – We come before God acknowledging that He is Looking at our hearts and Sees everything that is in them, and we do that because we seek his healing – so we ask ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts’ week by week it is our prayer, let us not as it were come here, mutter these words and then go out and forget that prayer, ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts’. How? ‘By the inspiration of thy holy spirit . . .’ by taking in the life giving water of the Life of God, the Life of the Spirit of Jesus. and the result ‘That we might perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name.

If we are obsessed with our own lives, with our outer state – there is little gratitude for one who is only concerned with the state of our heart – but if we are open and honest about our hearts and our need for healing – there is only love and worship for the one who comes to us in our distress with healing in his wings.

So we come, week by week, seeking the mercy of the great healer, and receiving his life. Finally we come to the heavenly banquet where we feast on his life. In bread and wine Jesus makes solid the medicine for our condition. As we come to receive communion, let us not do so unworthily, distractedly, let us not do so absent mindedly, but as those who know the state of their hearts, their need for deep healing, their inability to heal themselves – let us come to His table, for the medicine of Christ himself, the one who will save our Souls. The Good One

 

Amen

The Reckless Kingdom – Sermon for 8 after Trinity – OT18A 2017

Sermon for Sunday 8 after Trinity – OT 18 Year A

 

Isaiah 55:1-5(7)

Matthew 14:13-21

 

The Reckless Kingdom

 

‘My Kingdom is not of this world’

John 18:36

 

Last Sunday, I spoke a little about that story which Ruth Burrows tells, of how we create this life for ourselves and carry it up the mountain to show it off to God, and then discover that God is not there, and that to find God we have to descend the mountain down a narrow perilous path, far too steep dark, narrow and dangerous for us to even consider carrying this precious vase of our life down . . . and we have to make a choice. Is it to be God or what the life we have careful made for ourselves??

For those who have ‘made much of their lives’ this might be a little hard to take, indeed it may be a little offensive. Rather like in CS Lewis’ book, the Great Divorce, where an Anglican Bishop refuses the gift of life in ‘Heaven’ because his great theology isn’t needed there, he’s too full of himself . . . The early church suggested that certain trades were incompatible with life in the church. Being an actor, for example, for it required deception, or being in the army, for it required you to kill people – I’m not entirely sure what the early church would have made of religious professionals either . . .

 

This last week Sarah and I were sharing our regular coffee, and she was telling me about an old friend and her children. How they were all committed Christians although one was an Army Officer. She wondered how the young man squared his faith with his work. After all, it might be reasonable to suggest that there is a bit of a problem with killing people ‘for a living’.

We do find ways to justify ourselves in this respect – we are very good at justifying ourselves, telling ourselves stories about ‘just wars and the like’, calling these killing entities ‘Defence’. But in the light of this weeks readings, I followed up her question with another? Why do we assume his father doesn’t have at least as big a problem as his son, after all he is an accountant . . .

 

For there is no accounting in the Kingdom of our Father – ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!’ Reading the prophet Isaiah we think – what on earth is going on? Where’s the profit and loss account! you can’t just give food away . . . but then if we found ourselves amongst the poor we might perhaps think that it was the announcement of Salvation . . .

 

‘You can’t just give it away’ I know of far far more reasons for not giving to those who ask me – lots of them – I am a child of my culture, i’ve been well drilled in it. ‘they will only spend it on . . .’ Of course we give all sorts of money to all sorts of people without running a moral inventory over them despite the fact that addiction to drugs and alcohol, and any other list of ghastly behaviours seems not to be a unique problem for the poor . . .

 

I have an association with a family who live in a remote part of rural NZ. two parents and a son, the son and the father have cancer. The father struggles to get any work, the police come round and get on their case because the boy isn’t often at school – because the father can’t afford fuel for his car – they are often hungry – drugs for treatment are beyond them, trips to hospital mean they go without more food . . . Escape from the economic order, from the unforgiving bottom line sounds like Salvation to such people . . .  for the world of money and economics is utterly impersonal and utterly unforgiving. If you don’t have money you don’t eat – if you don’t have money you can’t keep warm or a roof over your head – that’s the bottom line . . .

 

Why live with an open hand to the poor? Or, perhaps to put the question better, why live with an open hand towards those who are undeserving . . . because after all that is one of the labels we use to avoid living with an open hand . . .Well I’ll give you two reasons that are at the end of the day the same reason . . .God

 

Firstly lets examine that ‘they’ll only spend it on . . .’ line. Firstly I ought to make a disclosure – I from time to time waste money on alcohol . . . 🙂

 

Our lives are lived moment by moment before God. Someone might say ‘you can’t trust this or that person’, but Jesus says ‘give to everyone who asks you’. To whom am I answerable? My life is a breath – so I am in town and someone asks me for money for food say, and I say no, and then am run down by a bus. So I stand before God – with my fist clenched . . . If I am answerable to God . . . now there is a fairly common get out at this point, it goes like this ‘God has given you a brain and understanding so that you can discern the people you should help and the people you shouldn’t’ Notice three things 1) does that come from God? Doesn’t that sound rather like what the serpent promised ‘you will be able to tell good from evil . . .’ After all, Jesus says ‘give to everyone who asks of you’ 2) If you are at all alert to the state of your heart, you will know that you will find ANY reason to avoid doing these things. If like me you are regularly confronted by these situations you will know that tug. I’ve spoken about Dante’s diving comedy a bit these past weeks – Hell is populated by people who had good reasons in their own eyes for doing what they did . . . and 3) Jesus doesn’t make those distinctions . . . For Jesus’ ways are not our ways, and they have nothing to do with the world of money – of accounting, of making distinctions

 

All of us stand before God – Jesus has given us his command – so I close my hand to someone I judge to be undeserving, I get run over by the bus – and do I really think that God is going to say, ‘well done, I’d have done the same thing in your place . . .’ Really??? This God who loves everyone without distinction???

 

Jesus feeds the five thousand, not counting the women and children. Not counting . . . he seems a bit slack in his counting . . . He has compassion on them, without distinction. He has healed their illnesses and he notes their hunger. Note the disciples question – ‘where could we buy . . .’ They can only imagine a world where everything has a price, and therefore where people are priced out . . . This is not the Kingdom of God – The Kingdom of God is in our terms utterly reckless!! Jesus feeds the these people whether or not they deserve it . . . This is what the Life of God is – it is poured out without calculation – without expectation of return. Many of those people whom Jesus fed will be in the crowd that cry ‘Crucify’ indeed they are the crowd that cries Crucify. for as of Old God fed his people in the wilderness and yet they threw off his rule – so too do these people . . . they prefer another kingdom, a kingdom where they are God and can judge who gets fed and who doesn’t. Who imagine that what they possess is theirs – even their own life . . .

 

To become Christian is as St Paul reminded us last week  to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . to become Christian is to become like Jesus, and we become like Jesus as we spend time with Jesus learning from him, obeying him and conforming our life to His – that our lives might reveal the Life of Jesus, who feeds even those who will crucify him

 

Perhaps to be in the kingdom of heaven requires us above all to change our lives??

 

 

Isaiah’s announcement of Salvation – of bread without money or price – is followed by a plea – a plea from the Very Heart of the Living God – Sadly one which those who prepare the lectionary have missed out – for it is the Therefore – in the Light of this Kingdom – in the Light of the overflowing abundant generosity of God . . . Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; (Don’t put it off . . . you life is a breath! Not one person here can say with assurance that they will live to see tomorrow . . .) let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; (Stop trying to justify yourself – stop walking in the way of judging between people – James the brother of Jesus calls this evil an it is) Rather – Repent! If you have two coats and your brother has no coat . . . if you have plenty of food and your brother has no food – how difficult is this????  Repent – return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, Do we not desire the mercy of God – or do we not see how much we need it???

Return to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. God is no calculator . . . he doesn’t tot up – he doesn’t know what accounting is – bread without money or price . . . he even feeds us with his own life every week in the Eucharist. Living with closed hands to others is to live in the darkness, it is to live ignoring God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ – who dies for ALL, without calculation . . . He is utterly reckless with his Love and looks for those who are his children – those who are conformed to the image of his Son, who live with such abandon, for they See the Great Treasure of the Kingdom and Love God with an undivided heart . . .

 

God’s Life is not life for Himself – neither is that of those who are in truth his children . . .

 

A moment will come when ‘the Lord will take away’ . . . but the Gospel, the Good News is that Now – Even Now is the day of salvation. We feed on this salvation in Bread and Wine – let us not fail to discern God’s reckless love of us in the sacrament

 

Sermon for Evensong – Sunday July 16th, 2017 – -through many persecutions . . .

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday July 16 2017

On Old things in the Modern World – Losing our way
Acts 14

‘Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’

These words of Luke in describing the life of those early disciples sound strange to our ears – a world away from our own life and experience, indeed as we may have been taught about Christian faith – no one ever said to US that ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God’ Yet, did not Jesus say ‘Make every effort to enter in through the narrow gate, for hard and narrow is the way to life and few they are that find it’ Does this resonate with the faith in which we were brought up?

Well let’s try an get a bit of perspective. Preachers of course preach from 6ft above contradiction 🙂 But what about the perspective from 40000 feet? (It sounds better in feet 🙂 )

Not given as I was to much intercontinental air travel, this perspective first came to me in 2010 – when the parish flew their prospective vicar, by Emirates of course, over to NZ – Over India. As I crossed that vast sub continent, I remember watching the great clouds rising up from the baking plains below – and it struck me for the first time of the great disconnection between my experience of life and that of those ‘who toiled below’ (to pick up on the words of a well known and not entirely inappropriate hymn, for who toils below??)
As I pondered it came to me that the annual income of one who lived below me would barely pay for my ticket. Our lives were disconnected by much more than 40000 feet. My life was insulated (after all it is more than 50 degrees below zero at that altitude and the plane is flying at 1000 km an hour, fast enough truly to take my breath away were I to experience it.) Instead I sat in ‘cattle class’; ‘another bottle of wine sir? I don’t mind if I do . . .’ the warmth, the air-conditioned comfort made for a lofty perch from which to ponder existence . . . to quote someone else ‘I continue[d my] midair philosophizing on our two-level world, where the global elite fly comfortably while children of the dust fight famine and fall asleep to the sound of gunfire.’

Sayers, Mark. Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval (p. 8). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

We used to call those who flew thus ‘the jet set’, lives unimaginably separated from ours, but how many of us know it now, are We not The Global Elite? Yes we may ‘look upwards the Trumps and the Gates’ etc, yet perhaps the comfort of our lives is closer to theirs, much closer than those 40000 feet below? This separation is I think an apt metaphor for Modern Life. We sit in unimaginable comfort – with a choice of wine and food, and experience the world out there, via a screen. We know at one level that in so many ways the world is a shocking place, but we do not experience it as such . . . and if we find it hard to relate to such a tragic world in our own experience, is it not reasonable to ask, ‘has our insulated experience shielded us from the very reality of God who is known in the very thick of existence and in its darkest places’, and has is suggested to us a more amenable faith than that of hard and narrow ways, or coming to the Kingdom of God ‘through many persecutions’? Surely – coming to the Kingdom of God is no more than seeing things differently . . . as if what was really at stake was no more than a set of ideas?? Insofar as we think ‘the jet set have little to teach us about real life’ perhaps also we ought to be wary of any writers and guides who enjoy such existence, myself included . . .
For as there is such a gulf between our lives and those 40000 feet below, but there is another ‘gulf fix-ed’ to use Luke’s words, between our culture and those of the past . . . and it is with regard to our understanding of ‘The Past’ I’d like to focus my comments, and especially with regard to books 🙂

Of course I always travel with books. My Son in law, rightly and gently mocked me for my ‘small library’ when I told him that ‘because it was mainly an opportunity for visiting people as opposed to study! I’d only brought ten books with me’ 🙂
But what we read, if we read, is not unimportant and that was brought home to me when I visited a friend who had had his curiosity piqued by a Modern writer on the spiritual life. He asked me what i thought of this individual and I said that I hadn’t read them closely, so he sent me away with a book for my comments – and opening it, I was reminded of CS Lewis’ rule – ‘always read ten old books for every new one you read.’ Well I had my ten books, but how many were old?
Of course its always easy to read new books, written in our culture in our time – and of course someone is always saying – ‘you really should read this or that or the other . . . one is reminded of the words of Jesus when he says ‘If they say to you Look He is Here, or Look He is there! do not believe them . . . ‘ Certainly this writer is considered something of a modern guru in ‘spiritual’ circles. So it is easy to read new books, but whatever happened to the test of time. Why should I bet remotely interested in a book written only last year??
Just as not so long ago you couldn’t go to church without singing Shine Jesus Shine, I can’t imagine it will find its way into tomorrows equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern, we are obsessed with things that pass away and do not last. Our obsession with the new, the up to date etc etc as if these things were automatically Better is troubling, as Lewis amongst others points out. And another voice to whom I will return shortly who warns sternly

‘If for the love of that which does not endure,
A man gives up that love which is eternal,
He well deserves to suffer without end’ Paradiso Canto XV 10-12

But Lewis had something more in mind than just the test of time,, for Lewis Diagnosed a fracture in History, readily discernible in our culture A vast shift in which to borrow LP Hartley’s phrase ‘the past [became] a foreign country’ Or to use my metaphor, we discovered the delights of the broad and easy way of mass intercontinental travel by jet.
As perhaps two of my daughters might ask – if you suddenly find yourself a long way away, who has moved?

For as Lewis pointed out in ‘the past’ people if puzzled by various aspects of one another writings understood each other. As he said Dante knew Virgil (1300 years before) – and I’ll return to Dante in a moment. But there is a great dislocation – and Lewis locates this at the turn of the C19. Although philosophically the roots of Modern life can be traced back several hundred years earlier – Lewis locates his change there in terms of shared understanding of the world at least in the West. And speaks of the coming of the age of the machine . . . it is perhaps no surprise therefore that the person who best expressed this change is perhaps Henry Ford, the man who turned men into machines in order that men might be ruled by machines. ‘History is bunk’. We may pay lip service to The Past and ‘learning from the past, but our lessons tend to be those which reinforce our idea of the superiority of the present – as Lewis puts it, we add a negative value to words which formerly were positive, for example ‘Primitive’ – which once meant merely Radical, of the Root, the fundamental – now of course its meaning has become negative – ‘we have moved on’ (and how glibly we say this)

Now what it seems to me happens in this regard is the beginning of the decline of History as the tool which teaches us who we are, to one which ‘scientifically’ teaches us who we were and thus, vaingloriously, who we are becoming – so ‘civilization [is] converg[ing] upon a new evolutionary leap?’ according to the writer my friend was anxious to commend to me

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Kindle Location 172). Shambhala. Kindle Edition. . . .

It is as if there is a discontinuation in the story of the human. If human existence can be considered as a tree, then the Modern age saw the arrival of the conceit that leaves could live without a trunk. and of course that great machine the modern airliner reinforces our sense of separation.
‘Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’

In these Modern days, the Scriptures seem to us the stories of ‘a foreign country’ another planet even. Just this week I was at a preaching seminar where the leader asked ‘how can we relate to these words from two thousand years ago?’ as if he thought that the human was a different species then as if indeed we had evolved. Yet the question ‘what planet are you on?’ is a good one I think – in a month when 12% of the Larsen C iceshelf has collapsed, Scientists who are careful with their words tell us we are in the middle of biological annihilation of other species, we learn that if we eat fish we will incur lifetime ingest 11000 pieces of plastic in a world which makes one million plastic bottles a minute, and rumbling along, climate scientists are finally saying that a 6C temperature change is ‘within the reasonable margin for error’ . . . If we believe as modern people that we are on the cusp of a great evolutionary leap forward – all I can say is that evolution requires numberless dead ends for one advance and that humankind is looking as if it falls in the statistically highly probable category at present – Somewhere along the road we have lost the plot . . . but lets pick up with an old writer for a moment, one who doesn’t say ‘well how can I relate to Scriptures which are 1300 years old . . . Someone who realises he has lost the plot and become disconnected from reality from whom I quoted earlier

Half way along the journey we [all] have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way

This is the opening of an Old book – the basic message of which would have been as clear to those first disciples as it was to the author, both living on the far side of the great Chasm which separates us from most of History. It is known by some as the opening of the world’s greatest poem – the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri.
Dante lived between the C13 and C14. The first part of his life was in some regards a life from 40000 feet. He was born into a noble family and rose to high estate in his native Florence, but there, he took decisions bold and difficult decisions – including exiling one of his own good friends, which made him the enemy of the Pope and led to his being sent into exile, stripped of all he possessed and the citizens of Florence being given the right to execute him on sight. So, halfway through his Life – the journey we all have to go – he finds himself lost.

And yet, and yet . . . it is from This perspective the he finds discovers himself found. In the midst of an incredibly difficult life, he finds Life, or rather Life finds him. It is in this context that Dante is shown all that it is that has separated him from God as his guide, the poet Virgil (from 1300 years earlier) takes him on a tour, first of the Inferno – or Hell, although like the outside of the airliner it is so cold that Satan who lies at the very centre is frozen in ice up to his waist.
Dante is then led up in the second part of the poem climbing the slopes of Mount purgatory, as he begins to take responsibility for his plight and undergoes the difficult healing necessary for those who would know the Divine Light of the the Kingdom of God, finally to ascend to Paradise then and only then where he need no longer the guidance of Virgil.

At the outset of the poem, discerning the Light of Paradise her tries over and again to climb to it, but his wise guide knows better, The Way Up is the Way Down – it is only through entering the turbulence and difficulty, the ambiguity and mystery, the many many things that seem to make no sense to us, that we come to realise. And here and there from time to time, others make the same discovery.

The insulation which life at 40000 feet offers, is only at great cost – it requires great energy to maintain this, like the energy needed for air conditioning – and as the literal burning of that energy comes to an end, so too here and there by God’s grace we run out of energy, we fall to earth. Dantë, like others here and there even today discovers life amongst the ruins of his self created existence. He had had it all, and he lost it, and in losing it, found it. Jesus warns us about a life we make for ourselves, the 40000 foot life, that ‘it profiteth a man nothing that he gain the whole world . . .’ for as surely as the false gains accrue, so the loss becomes eternal . . . Oscar Wilde in a fairly old book, if not old by Lewis’ standards spoke about Dorian Grey, a metaphor I think for life at 40000 feet, where all in lovely whilst the picture in the attic decays. Our Modern disconnected life requires so much energy it is costing the literal lives of so many many others – spiritual writers who glibly assert ‘civilization converges upon a new evolutionary leap’ – miss this entirely – the state of Creation is the ruined picture in our collective attic, but here and there people fall off the plane – the plane goes down – lives seemingly fall apart, and then and there in the ruins we discover the True Life

 

Jesus calls us to follow him, into the centre of existence – the Cross, the place of apparent ruin which has become for us Wisdom from God – where all thing are reconciled to God – it is a call into Life in its fullest expression and that cannot but for now encompass darkness as well as light. Put another way, suffering is part of what it is to be fully human. Whilst we cannot go seek it – some in the early church had to be dissuaded from seeking martyrdom – we do need to wake up to how our contemporary culture has disconnected us from our essential human experience, and in humility acknowledge the profound lostness of the Modern condition.
Yet it is not a journey which we are called to undertake alone – it is one in companionship with one another and our Lord as we encourage and strengthen one another. Before we can begin the journey home, the plane must land – we all need to come down to earth – and follow Christ Jesus who shows us in Truth that Life is found on the ground.

Come to Me – the invitation to be with Jesus – OT Yr A 2017

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-end

“And he chose twelve, that they might be with him . . .” Mark 3:14

Being with Jesus Is the Christian Life – it Is Christian life. Through Baptism we respond to His call to be with Him, He is our food in Scripture and Eucharist, we are with Him as our teacher that at the last we might be with Him. Being with Jesus is the beginning, the middle and the end of our faith.

Yet we tend to think of ‘being with Jesus’ as purely the End – as something for afterwards – not for ‘the time of this mortal life’, as the old prayer book it. In the time of this mortal life we tend to think almost exclusively in terms of ‘Jesus being with us’. And of course it is true, He is with us according to his promise, now and to the end of the age, but he is with us because we are with him. His coming to be with us, as at the first with the disciples, was that they might be with Him. And the two are not the same. If we think of being with Jesus in terms of His being with us, then where we go, he goes. But this is not the life of discipleship, it is not the Christian life. That Life is to go where he goes. To seek Him that we might be with Him, to only want to be where he is. ‘The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ We do not know where Jesus is going, but we know that we want to be with him, so where he goes, we go also [cf John 14]
Jesus comes to us, that we might be with Him, alongside Him, as his disciples, learning from Him. In Eugene Peterson’s memorable paraphrase, to ‘learn the rhythms of unforced grace’, that way of Life that is Rest.

But the problem is this, that our lives are so fixed. It is far easier we think, more convenient to us and our lives that he is with us and goes where we go. Our schedules after all are full of ‘Important things’ . . . all these things we have to do, that we must do, that we should and ought to do . . . we find it hard to think of any life but our own and so the idea of leaving our life that we might be with him seems ridiculous, and so we may stay fixed and stuck.

“To what will I compare this generation.” John comes, the forerunner, preparing the way of the Lord. He seems harsh and austere – playing his dirge – we don’t mourn our sins and those things which keep us from their Kingdom he announces. He comes neither eating nor drinking and – not given to fasting and repentance we say he has a demon. ‘Lighten up, John!’.

Then comes the king, Full of that Life which repentance prepares us for. Jesus comes playing a flute, but Our life is a series business, no time for dancing, we can’t leave our nets – all that feasting – Who has time for partying with the world the way it is?? Neither hot or cold – Lukewarm

Jesus calls us to Life in its fulness, to be with Him, to Go with Him, to Learn from Him and perhaps to our ears it is too much. Dante in the Divine Comedy says that those who enter purgatory need to rest for they are too weak as yet to enter the fulness of God’s presence . . . and so, the world carries on in the way it always has and we search around looking for the culprits . . .

On the evening of June 3rd, I was in London. Walking with Rose and Andy, in the lowering sun on the millennium bridge, the footbridge which crosses the Thames in London from the Tate Modern to St Paul’s Cathedral, it was a `Beautiful’ evening. It was warm, crowds of people were just enjoying the view, having a relaxed time.
The following morning I returned to St Paul’s the 8am Eucharist – but now the mood was far from relaxed. About 90 minutes after we’d been on the Millennium bridge, just a couple of hundred yards away some men had driven into the crowd in a van and leapt out with knives. Before they were finally shot dead by armed police, they had killed eight people, several of them visitors – who knows, perhaps people we’d been walking with earlier. ‘Ah!! Goes the media and we join in – there are the culprits . . . if only we deal with people like that! but what is the Gospel of Jesus for ‘people like that’
Well at the eucharist, The Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison, who had once been my spiritual director, answered that question. Speaking to a congregation made up in large part of visitors, he reminded us of all that we were gathered on a site where Christian worship had taken place for 1400 years. It had seen famine, plague, fire, it had been bombed by the Luftwaffe. And yet it still stood as testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He then made reference to an earlier attack, in Egypt, where 24 Christian pilgrims, men women and children on their way to a monastery were taken off their bus at gunpoint, called to renounce their faith and shot when they refused. In response the European Bishop of the Coptic Church had written a letter in which he said he had often addressed his words to those who were the victims of such atrocities, and their widows and bereaved families, but he said, and I quote ‘This time however, I feel a need to address those who perpetrate these crimes.

You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.

You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, Who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.’ ‘You are loved by me and millions like me, because we believe in transformation’

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the transformation of the world – a different story for a world given over to death and despair. Life and Hope in the Name of Jesus. But that story only takes root and becomes visible in the world as people let go of their stories and go to be with Jesus. People who have gone to be with Jesus bear a witness to this different Story, the Truth of our existence.

We look out at the world, seeing it needs to change, it’s as plain as the nose on your face – but do we recognise that if the world is to change, we cannot stay the same. If there is no community which bears witness to this other life, perhaps it is no surprise the world doubts that there is any alternative? Perhaps this is why when John announces the coming King and calls us to prepare ourselves and change, and when the king comes – we are curiously unmoved. Jesus is close to incredulous. He goes on, “ Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! If my miracles and been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they’d have repented in a flash! And as for you Capernaum – did you not see anything??? I tell you that Sodom, yes even Sodom would have had a change of heart if it had seen what you saw”

The Call to change comes first not to those far away, not to those who are strangers to the message – it comes to a people who should know, God’s people. This generation, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum . . . God’s people – ‘He came to those who were his own and his own knew him not . . .’ God’s people did not recognise their King, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey . . .

Unbelief. Well not all of them. These things were hidden in the gracious will of the Father from the wise and intelligent and were revealed to to infants – to those whom the Father chooses to reveal the Son. There were some who went to be with Him, but to be frank they weren’t much to look at in the eyes of the world. Like their bedraggled King, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of donkey, they didn’t look out of place.

At the heart of the rejection of the Christian message in the early days two things stood out and in different ways continue to stand out making it unique

A dead Jew on a cross wasn’t sophisticated or intelligent enough for the Greeks and was an abomination to the Jews. It didn’t fit in with the way people saw the world . . .

And secondly, no one believed that human hearts could be changed. ‘ We need new laws!’ ‘Society must be changed!’ but human hearts??
The gospel proclaimed the ultimate miracle, the transformation of the human heart . . . and let’s be clear, we have trouble believing it ourselves. After all, who felt the deep truth of the words of the Coptic Bishop?? You people, who killed innocent men women and yes, children, you are loved . . . and we say this because we believe in transformation. Perhaps it is no wonder the world laughs

Well I told the first part of this story on Wednesday at the Eucharist and promised I’d conclude it today, so for those who have been patiently waiting, here was the end to David’s sermon. ‘We as Christians believe in the transformation of the human heart. We gather today in a building dedicated to St Paul, the first great evangelist of the Church, who spread the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ across so much of the then known world. St Paul let us not forget first comes to our attention because he gives assent to the murder of the first Christians and is converted on his way to Damascus, ‘still breathing out threats and murder . . .’ St Paul is a murderer who is transformed – by being with Jesus. It is how we are all changed, by accepting the invitation to be with Jesus – close with Jesus. Taking his yoke and learning from him

Come to me . . . all you who are weary and heavy laden . . . worn down by the effort of trying to live what you call your own life, weary of that internal conflict which Paul knew so well ‘So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ . . . Hear the words of Jesus – Come to me and I will give you rest. Learn from me. To learn Jesus is to learn Rest. It is to move from the exhausting business of trying to have life on our own terms, trying to fix the world – to simple obedience to him, learnt as we accept the gift of His yoke. it would be a familiar picture to Jesus first hearers. The young untrained ox, yoked to the older experienced one. So that the young one might learn from their elder brother.
Yoked to the one who only does what he sees the Father doing – it is a rather intimate picture. Imagine yourself as that young ox, joined to the Older one – you smell it, you feel its warmth, you hear its breath, perhaps even breathing it in yourself as you sense its strength, the yoke transmits its movements, from time to time you feel the yoke as you are still learning, but the affection grows and the rhythms of unforced grace are slowly learned. You grow to love the Yoke of obedience for you Love the one who has yoked himself to you. This is what it is like to be with Jesus, profound intimacy, learning from Him, day by day and being transformed into his likeness, feeling Him, knowing Him.

This intimacy of friendship, made possible through the Cross where God was reconciling the world to himself – the World which kills Him, the World which kills His people. In the flesh of Jesus, God takes that awkward sinful flesh with which Paul is so familiar, which seems determined to go the hateful and wrong way, and transforms it into the body and blood of the One who only does what he sees the Father doing. From the chaotic shapeless Stress and Strain and Hurt and Pain, to the rhythms of unforced grace.

John in his gospel, the one who lies close to Jesus at supper, hearing his breath and the beat of his heart puts it like this ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ He has called us His friends – he makes us his friends and invites us to be with Him

Take my yoke – learn from me – for I am gentle and lowly of heart – and you will find rest for your souls – and the world will see its true King. Amen