Fat in the day of slaughter . . . Evensong

Evensong
Genesis 41
Luke 16:1-9

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. . . You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. Jas 5:1,5

One of the first things someone coming to these shores to live notes is how expensive food is here. And what is more food prices are going up. I know that this is probably a heresy to say so, but I think that that might be a good thing. Anything which disturbs our comfortable slumbers and wakes us up to the world in which we really live

Slumbers are of course the place where sometimes dreams intrude and thinking of the price of food will lead us to Pharaoh and other players, not least those who have ‘fattened their hearts on a day of slaughter’ – those whom James says must now ‘weep and howl’. And I trust that if nothing else that quotation woke us up at least a little?

A local farmer in one of my parishes told me how troubled he was that so very few people nowadays had ever known what it was to live in genuine want and shortage of food . . . he knew history and scripture well enough. The story of Pharaoh was one not unfamiliar to one who lived with the daily vagaries of the weather let alone climate collapse as the director of each days work, or his daily life . . .

Pharaoh’s dreams, were not just dreams – they were an awakening to reality. For so very long people lived knowing that there were times of feast and times of famine.
Our culture has for a season broken these natural cycles by our technology. Technology of course always separates us from reality and changes our perspective on it, but we have lost any awareness of this as our lives have become so divorced from The World of The Real. The cycle will kick in again, one way or another, and the longer we put it off the harder will be the fall . . .

Pharaoh’s dreams reveal a deep underlying anxiety – how do I cling on to what I have in a world of uncertainty. And as the collapse of the climate inexorably quickens, til we begin to feel its hot breath even on us which live divorced from the Real World – such dreams are being given fresh impetus to this day.
The nightmare of the Pharaohs of the modern world. A recent conference of what we have come to call plutocrats, people of immense wealth, was given over to consideration of how they would survive the coming famine, or to put it in their terms, ‘the inevitable collapse of civilisation which climate change is already bringing about’. One of their key questions was ‘where is best to go and hole up? Alaska, or New Zealand?’ As you may be aware several such people have already opted to make our country their bolt hole, some investing large sums in secure underground shelters. Another question, interestingly was ‘how do I keep my personal guards loyal?’ Options such as fitting them with electric necklaces were explored. After all, if things collapse, who can you trust in the world we have created for ourselves?

It is a dark irony that in the world we have created, friends and family are barely visible in comparison to previous socially rich ages. Who do you count on in a world of individuals? If the only thing you have is wealth and no tribe??
The Pater familias who had risen to ascendency through prowess in battle, like for example David -Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands as the crowds shouted – no wonder David took over at the top.
Yet in a world of individuals separated out by their money, we discover that it hasn’t the power with which we had invested it, especially when the so ‘economy, so-called, collapses. Family ties, blood, runs deep and so powerful local chiefs did not need to worry quite so much about those they pay to protect them turning on them. ‘How will we stop our personal army turning on us? the wealthy ask
The age of the individual has ushered in an age when the fabric of existence is shattered – who can I trust? This is in so many many ways a dystopian vision. James once more ‘you who say ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money . . . weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.’

Pharaoh’s disturbing dreams – visions of skeletal livestock – led him to a programme of self protection. We miss in our following the Joseph narrative what it is that Pharaoh with the help of Joseph does – that is accumulate everything to himself. During the fat years he exacts a tax from all the people of Egypt – and during the thin years he sells the grain he has accumulated back to the people – until they have nothing left to give him but their bodies. He has grown fat in the age of slaughter – he has enslaved his people – he is an absolute ruler . . . and this will come back to bite him, as it all come back to bite all those who live for themselves.

There is the irony that the plutocrats have no friends to rely on – but speak of chaining their security personnel like dogs with electric collars. This Pharaoh at least went to his gold encrusted tomb ‘in peace’ Later Pharaoh’s reaped the harvest of God’s judgement against them as we go on to read in Exodus . . .

What judgement we may well asked will soon be reaped on those who have accumulated in the day of slaughter. Think of how difficult for example it is to buy a house now if you are young? I wonder at the piles of money accumulated by the St John’s college trust board – the wealthiest theological faculty outside of Harvard – in excess of $500 million. A huge percentage of this accumulated off the back of the housing market – a ghastly monster which tips people into forms of effective slavery and wrecks family life . . . Have we not ourselves as the Anglican Church grown fat in the day of slaughter?

A year or so ago our Synod passed a motion calling on ‘those in power to do all they could to alleviate poverty.’ I suggested that perhaps we could do much with that $500 million. Oddly enough, or perhaps wearily predictably no one thought this a good idea. The poor are someone else’s problem.
We worry about the collapse of the church – but consider the mission impact of Christians actually emptying themselves for the sake of the poor? Ah well . . .

On a wider stage The Creation has paid a terrible price but our lives have been ones of unimaginable ease and comfort . . . we have had cheap food for an historically unimaginably long period – we are accustomed to it – but the Creation has collapsed as a result. Intensive farming which we live off the back of, before we go criticising the farmers, has all but ruined soil, water, plant and insect life. And some have grown fat in the day of slaughter. If we have been paying attention these past few years you will no doubt have heard of ‘disaster capitalism’ – wherever something terrible happens, there is money to be made – she even suggesting that countries have been deliberately destabilised in order that a few can make a quick billion. Brexit anyone? The vultures are readying themselves to feed of the carcass. But we are living now with disaster capitalism on the biggest stage. This is not the collapse of nation states, it is the collapse of the entire creation.

One think I have in common with The plutocrats, apart form coming to live here, is that I also have taken a close interest in the numerous indicators of the coming Judgement. I wonder if perhaps their underground bunkers are a manifestation of those calling for the mountains to fall on them . . .

———

What is the gospel in all of this? Well I have to admit to taking once more a slight liberty with the readings for there are words of Jesus which speak directly to this, which I chose for tonight.

As we read this morning ‘Mary has chosen the one thing necessary, and it will not be taken away from her’. The One thing as we heard was that she listened to the words of Jesus, which are Spirit and Life. The irony I pointed out was that whoever people fall to arguing over this story of Martha and Mary which are about listening to the words of Spirit and Life which fall from His lips, they always ignore the words of Jesus . . .

The reading from Luke we have heard this evening is to our ears a perplexing tale. We who have been brought up to accept ‘economic realities’ in terms of abstractions like business ethics etc are confused by Jesus using the action of someone who defrauds his boss to save his own skin. But then our idea of economics has nothing to do with God’s.
Economics literally is ‘the law of the household’ – put another way, it is how we live together, sharing in life together. it is little surprise that in the age of the individual, it has become the abstract idolatrous monster to which we must all bow down at any cost. China’s GDP falls and the world is terrified – our gods are crumbling. So to hear the words of Jesus, we need to understand that His words are Light and Life – not the latest prognostications of the economists and bankers and politicians and plutocrats.

Jesus it must be said says things that are not music to our ears – he has no time for money – which is essentially a technology of abstraction separating people from people. So he is unconcerned about financial ‘justice’ per se – as we shall hear in a few weeks time as we continue to read this gospel on Sunday mornings. Rather he is in the business of making friends. Use unrighteous mammon to make friends for yourselves, so that when the Day dawns . . .

Job says If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the orphan has not eaten from it—
for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father,
and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow—
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
or a poor person without covering,
whose loins have not blessed me,
and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep;
if I have raised my hand against the orphan,
because I saw I had supporters at the gate;
then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder,
and let my arm be broken from its socket.
For I was in terror of calamity from God,
and I could not have faced his majesty.

If we hoard, like the Pharaohs we will rot with your wealth, but if we live with an open hand to those around us, we will find yourselves welcomed into many homes when things fall apart. Making friends is a lengthy task – may God grant us in his mercy time for this work of Life

And if anyone things these words not fit for the delicate ears of evensong, let us not forget the song of our mother Mary – ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away . . .

Perhaps we ought to give thought once more to that $500 million stashed away under St John’s college?

Martha and Mary . . . sigh. Trinity 5 Year C, 2019

Sermon for Trinity 5 – Year C 2019

Colossians 1:15-23
Luke 10: 38-42

Are we good listeners?

Many years ago, I was asked a rather left field question at an interview. ‘What would you say if Jesus walked into the room?’ I must admit I was not however taken aback – the question had been asked of every candidate and my interview was after lunch – I had the advantage of the incredulity of my fellow interviewees at the question to prepare an answer. Ironically, I didn’t want the job. Even more ironically, I got it and in some respects it prepared me for my life as a priest.

What do we do in the presence of Jesus?

Today’s gospel recounts the familiar tale of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home in Bethany, yet ending up on the end of a gentle rebuke. I must admit ever since I preached on this text three years ago – I have wondered about this encounter.
For last time it became clear to me that every time I had preached on it, which might be as many as 8 times over the years, someone pushed back at what I said. Occasionally I do get a ‘I’m not sure’ type of response to what I’ve said, but with this gospel reading it is every time

A few nights ago – I was having trouble sleeping – I listened to a podcast which turned out to be focussed on these words of Scripture. Not for the first time I heard it told as a tussle as it were between the life of Action, embodied by Martha, and that of Contemplation, as embodied by Mary. It’s fair to say that rather like last weekends cricket it was a close call with neither side deserving to lose, but the podcaster received pushback, exactly the same as I receive every time I preach on this.
This response is summed up in the words of one of my former church wardens, a dear soul who would shake her head each time and say ‘we can’t all be Marys, Eric’

Three years ago I was actually sent a lengthy paper on why Martha gets a raw deal . . . but . . . but . . . what if the incident has nothing to do with that . . . nothing to do with ‘the active vs the contemplative life’? Being vs doing?

I must admit than in suggesting this, I am going against pretty much all of the commentary on this text through 2000 years! But . . .
Certainly I could argue that we could do with lots more Marys. Is the world collapsing around us because no one is working? Because there are far too many people sat around contemplating? Is the problem with Donald Trump that he’s sat quietly in the Oval office meditating? Is the problem with his opponents that they’re doing the same? Is Brexit the result of too much contemplation? Are the shops and airwaves empty and the economy collapsing because we have all been overtaken by a tsunami of mindfulness? I think not. So I could make a very good argument for contemplation over action . . . but what if this incident has little if anything to do with that?

What seemed to get missed on the podcast, which worked the Action vs Contemplation angle as well as I’ve heard it worked; what gets missed in every response I’ve ever had, are the words of Jesus . . . which is more than ironic, it’s genuinely tragic. And I can’t help but wonder why we don’t listen to what Jesus says, and what are the consequences

Let’s consider the story again.

Martha is of course the one who welcomes Jesus into the house. Martha had a sister called Mary who, seated at the feet of Jesus [by the way note that this is how the healed demoniac is found, in the position of the disciple] – Mary ‘listened to what Jesus was saying’.

Note that as it happens Jesus has no issue with Martha. Martha has chosen her work. Mary has chosen hers. Yet, this won’t do for Martha.
‘Martha who was distracted by all her serving,’ comes and try to use Jesus for her own ends. Jesus is speaking, but she’s uninterested in Jesus except as one who will serve her will – She rebukes him “Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister left me all alone to serve?’ Apparently not. Indeed as we shall see again in a few weeks Jesus seems remarkably uninterested in all the things we can get very worked up about – our notions of justice and fairness. A man comes to him and says ‘tell my brother to share the inheritance with me’ – and we’re all with him, and Jesus isn’t interested in deed he tells the man not to be greedy, even though all he wants is what we would call his fair share. Is Jesus bothered because Mary is not helping Martha? Apparently not.

‘Tell her therefore that she should help me’.’Speak Jesus! put the world right the way I think it should be! Sort those people out! Again another theme which will come up – those who think they have a hold over others calling on God to send them to help. It was the Rich man in Hades calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to come and serve him . . .

I can’t help also thinking of the parable of the Prodigal here. We are not told, but I suspect that Mary is the younger of the two. Only because as an elder sibling I recognise myself in Martha 🙂 Thinking she’s in charge of her little sister.
She certainly acts in such a way towards her, albeit trying to manipulate Jesus. Her complaint has more than a faint echo of the complaint of the elder brother ‘All these years I have slaved away for you . . .’ ‘Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister has left me all alone to serve?’

It is at this point that we as it were get to the nub of it all – Jesus’ words. And perhaps there is something here which we so need to hear, that it is not at all a bad thing that we come back to it every third year in the lectionary cycle – for perhaps we haven’t heard it – or better, we haven’t heard the words of Jesus . . .

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

What is The One Thing Necessary? What is the One thing which Mary has chosen?

Again let us pause and step back.

We miss what is going on so often. As I have said there are echoes of this story throughout Luke’s gospel, and if we have paid attention to the gospel so far, we should see threads coming together here.

What is the occasion? We are assuming that Martha is dealing with food here. I’ve never heard it suggested otherwise – yet just recently Jesus has fed 5000 people! Does Martha not know? Jesus will says ‘do not concern yourself with what you will eat . . . your father knows you need all these things . . .’ Those are his words
Jesus is in the house and he is speaking. Martha – do you remember the feeding of the 5000??? Why are you so stressed about the food???

Well that might help us be a bit more relaxed about getting a meal ready. [again an echo of when Jesus is teaching the disciples about the yeast of the pharisees and they take it as a rebuke for forgetting the bread. Jesus asks them to remember how he fed them in the wilderness . . .]

Then having fed the 5000 Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter and James and John and a voice from heaven says ‘This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him’

This is the very command of God – Listen to Jesus. One thing is necessary. What is Mary doing?

Mary has chosen the better part . . . She is listening to Jesus.

Man does not live by bread alone, Martha, but by every word that proceeds for the mouth of God. Here are words coming from the mouth of God! Jesus is speaking.
How ironic that we miss what he says. ‘Oh it’s all about the active vs the contemplative life!’ Jesus says nothing about that. What is the One thing necessary – what is the better part that Mary has chosen? – she is doing the will of God – listening to Jesus!’
When we start a conversation about the active Martha vs the contemplative Mary – not words that come into scripture at all (!!) we ignore the words of Jesus.

Jesus says ‘My words are Spirit and they are Life – the flesh avails nothing!’ But do we take him at his word? Do you know the deep sustaining life that comes from the words of jesus? Have you had your heart and soul and mind and strength set on fire by the words of Jesus? When Jesus rebukes . . . the devil! . . . he says ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds fro the mouth of God!’ D owe know the deep satisfaction and Life that comes to us through the Word of Jesus?

Jesus is our Life – His Words are Spirit and Life. Unless we think we have moved beyond this, above all, we need to listen to Jesus – not least because as Jesus says ‘there is only one thing necessary.’

As Jesus says in exasperation at one point – ‘why do you call me Lord Lord and do not do what I say? Did you not hear? this deafness to the words of jesus, exhibited in a failure to understand this incident is at the heart of our fallen condition

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land– not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.
Amos 8:11 . . . Jesus is speaking – do we hear? Do we even want to hear?

Jesus ask yourself, what would the world look like if everyone heard Jesus?
What would your life look like? What would this church look like?

Do we recognise the Life flowing from His mouth?

Trinity 3 – Inconsequential?

Sermon for Trinity 3

Isaiah 66:10-16
Luke 11:1-20

‘Inconsequential Life? Inconsequential God’

‘The Earth is the Lord’s and all they that dwell therein’ Ps 24:1

Just the other evening I was conversing with Sam about football, and of course the off-side law, because it is impossible to talk about football without taking about off-side . . . when he switched sports on me and asked if I remembered the England try, late in the last game against the All Blacks, which was turned down for off-side?
Eventually I dug it up from the foggy mire of my memory – and then was regaled with a deep irony. The season previous England had played italy, and Italy had used a loophole in the offside law to stifle England’s attacking game. After the match, the England coach Eddie Jones complained bitterly to the powers that be, and the law was changed. If it hadn’t been changed, the England try against the All Blacks would have stood.
Things come back to bite us – Life has consequences – but all too often we live in ignorance of them – they are hidden from our eyes.

Sarah and I come to serve here at St John’s – consequence, we have children and grandchildren separated by 12,000 miles . . . consequences – unforeseen, often unwanted when they manifest themselves. Each and every action of our lives bears weight beyond imagining – often the small things we do regularly without thought have greater significance.

One consequence Sarah and I have had to face is of course long haul air travel – with all its problems and then last week by the city council declare a Climate Emergency. Long haul air travel – still advertised as glamorous and ‘jet setting’, but in an age of Climate Emergency? Consequences . . . coming home to roost.
We still await the consequences of this high profile declaration. The call goes out ‘do something!’, but what if the council does things we don’t like?? What if we can’t live the lives we wanted to live?

I must admit that hearing of this declaration of an emergency I half expected to awake to find troops on the streets and police going around with loud hailers telling us what emergency measures were being brought in. But life went on as usual . . . Here’s my suggestion for what it’s worth.
Only cars with initial letters in the first half of the alphabet may be driven on odd numbered days, and only those with letters from N and after on even numbered days . . . Admittedly that slightly benefits the A-M crowd – by seven days a year – wait for the howls of protest!
One of the basic principles of liberal democracy , one of the foundations of how we have become happily accustomed to live , is that individuals should be free to live life as they see fit, especially to do what they want with their property – thank you John Locke.
Telling people they can and cannot do what they want with their cars!!! Cars which epitomise our Individual status, and lives. Go where I want when I want! It is an erosion of freedom! That is why I think that declarations of climate emergencies don’t get very far. We are so very used to our historically unprecedented individual liberties – and cars as I have said before, epitomise that freedom. Care free Freedom, Life without consequences – except of course that ain’t so.

Freedom – Life without boundaries – life without consequences. But Life without consequences is literally an inconsequential life. Which leads to the creation of ‘an inconsequential god’ . . .
After all, if we want lives of absolute freedom to live as we want, then it helps if we make a god in our image who does no more than smile benignly on, a god who is inconsequential. And it’s hard to attend to our own culture and suggest that God is of any consequence to us.

Those parts of scripture which suggest that our lives are matters of deep moral seriousness – that the Judgement of God is a Reality we might wish to strike from the record, and make ourselves a more inconsequential god.

Considering the Climate emergency, we may well wish to strike out Revelation 11

‘The nations raged, but your wrath has come, the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.’

God’s judgement on those who destroy the earth . . . or is it of no consequence?

It seems that both on the Left and the Right Christians live in a world of no consequences. There are those who say ‘it’s all going to burn up, but we are going to heaven’, who seem to me to be rather like a clergy person who confronted with the announcement of the judgement of God on the destruction of the Creation seemed to say, ‘but it doesn’t matter. God loves you’

In both cases there are no consequences – no consequences because ‘you’re a Christian and so will go to heaven’ or no consequences because ‘God loves everyone and all this talk of judgement is so yesterday . . .’ With such a lack of consequence – it is perhaps not surprising that few take Christian faith seriously. Why should they? It’s so inconsequential . . .

Both our Old Testament reading and Gospel today have been doctored to be less consequential, but I’ve taken the liberty of adding the missing portions. So you may well have been somewhat startled to hear those closing words of the reading from Isaiah . . . and then of course Jesus himself

Luke’s gospel, after the stories of Jesus’ birth move on to John the Baptist – the one ‘preparing the way of the Lord. Who calls people to repent for the Kingdom is at hand – to change their way of living – ‘you have two coats. your neighbour has no coat – give your neighbour your coat’. ‘You have food, your neighbour has no food, share your food’ for the Kingdom is at hand!
But isn’t my coat mine to do with as I wish? . . . Surely this is all up to the individual? . . . but the time for prevarication has run its course

The Kingdom has come in the person of Jesus. As John has prepared the way, now the King’s heralds go out. Have the people to whom they go responded to John’s words? Have they taken them to heart? Will the disciples who go out into the world without any sustenance, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” – will they who go in need be given shelter and food, as the Kingdom requires, or will they be sent away hungry . . . The consequences of their hearing or not hearing the warning of the Baptist are being worked out in real time, for Good . . and ill

Where they are welcomed and fed, Life breaks out. “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’ Healing comes with Kingdom sharing. It is perhaps to surprising that in an age when we all have ‘our own’ of this that and the other, we see so little in the way of Healings . . .

Yet not all have responded to John’s call to ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord “ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

Consequence??

Well if we’d heard the gospel today as it was shortened, we’d merely have thought, well that’s a shame . . . but God loves you anyway 🙂

But that isn’t Jesus’ response.

I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. Sodom, byword for evil and lack of hospitality will get off lightly compared to those towns which reject the disciples
Jesus says – ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.

A life wherein we demand absolute freedom free from consequences is finally an inconsequential life. To declare the kingdom of God as ‘something nice to think about, but hey if you don’t fancy it, that’s ok’ Is to declare an inconsequential life, and of course, an inconsequential God. A God who doesn’t care, who just wrings his hands, and wishes the world was different . . .

But what of the consequences of our lives?

You and I, the baptised – the disciples of Jesus? How consequential are our lives?
Jesus says this ‘‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’ That is the significance of the baptised person. Our Life is in Him – He is our Life.
Our words are to be no more and no less than the oracles of God, and announce the presence of the King of the Kingdom. Jesus himself. If someone welcomes your message and the announcement of the King, they are welcoming the King. If they do not they are rejecting Him.

Perhaps this is why we are so slow to do such things . . . perhaps it is too much. We would hope for quieter lives, lives of less significance, lives of less consequence? But such a wish, such a desire is in vain. We are who we are – the body of Christ in the World. And that is not inconsequential . . .

Trinity 2 ‘Devoted – Your Salvation is not about you!’

Sermon for Trinity 2, Year C 2019

Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51-62

‘Devoted – Your Salvation is not about You!’

Let the dead bury their own! You follow me!
St Matthew 8:22

I’ve always been a little puzzled by big celebrations of wedding anniversaries. Given that people are marriage is, ’til death do us part’, it seems to be a bit odd to congratulate two people for neither of them dying!
Of course to quote Bob Dylan, ‘things have changed’, and one is regularly met with astonishment should one say one has been married for over 30 years. In a sense this is because in a relationship thin world, we have come to invest so very much in finding ‘one’s souls mate’. Expectations regarding marriage are sky high as revealed in the extravagant wedding ceremonies and celbrations, where once people often did little more than turn up before a priest or at the registry office, or jump over a stick.

Ordination services too, it must be said, are extravagant affairs, where once all that happened was that a bishop laid hands on another – and the Spirit did the rest, now . . . And, in parallel with modern marriage, I think that it is beyond dispute that we have in a world where the church seems to be struggling, to invest far too much expectation in the ordained.
I remember one of my tutors expressing his unease at the implicit liturgy of ordination at a local Cathedral where the Ordination service began to the doors being flung open to reveal as he put it ‘the white robed saviours of the church’.
Those inflated ideals are all too often unexamined by the ordained who hold public services of worship celebrating the anniversary of their ordination, be it 25 years, 40 years, or in that first case, 60 years. This I have found very troubling – for it seems to re-emphasise a deep and troubling pattern within the church, that of 2 track faith. Those who were ordinary christians and those who were totally devoted. A little like the cult status that grew up around the Saints in the late middle ages. Why no special services for 90 years a baptised follower of Jesus?
And what is more it creates a comfortable division – so the idea of clergy as ‘professionals’, or people ‘doing their job’, finds a well prepared soil.

The notion of a two track Christian life is anathema. That there is a High Road and a Low Road, not to Scotland but to the heart of God, is a detestable idea. Yet it runs deep. The idea of being devoted to the service of God, given over to God is one which one finds in writing about ordained ministry, but not baptism . . .

Yet, as I will say this until they bury me, “what counts is our baptism”. Baptism is about the totality of our being. It is the total work which cannot be added to. And any understanding of ordained ministry which however unintentionally suggests otherwise, is to be shunned. In Baptism we are totally consecrated to, devoted to the Living God.
(It always struck me as a little odd that those who had concerns over the baptism of infants often had their children ‘dedicated’ – in the background was the offering of Samuel to live with Eli the priest. I never found any of these dedicated babies being left behind, dedicated as they were to God. it was most muddle headed)

No. No one Christian is more baptised than another – we become in the words of St Paul ‘living Sacrifices’. Not, that is sacrifices that got away with just donating a leg or a hand and so are still living, but Sacrifices who having died, Live! Again St Paul, ‘as dying, yet behold we live!’ Priests are called amongst the community of the church to teach this, to bear witness to this, the faith of Christ’s body in it’s totality, the Church, that we might live it out together as ‘a Kingdom of Priests’. To be a visible reminder us that we are a people, a body of Christ – given over in love and service to Him, This is Our Life. And thus, this is our Salvation. Devoted to God.

But what does it mean ‘to be devoted to’ in this regard?

I remember the same college lecturer working through with us to find a suitable metaphor for the priesthood, and his words have stuck with me – they are first in the line at the Coliseum. First in the line – OK maybe they get a certain benefit, the starving lions are likely to make much swifter work of the first meal of the week 🙂 but not that priests ‘go in place of’ . . . they lead the way that all must follow . . . there is One Lord, One faith, One church, One Baptism . . . One Way of Jesus.

We might speak of our Salvation of ‘the assurance of ‘going to be with Jesus’, or the assurance that ‘Jesus is with me’, but that is not the picture revealed in the gospels – which turn it on his head, to wit – Salvation is to go with Him. We might say ‘so and so has gone to be with Jesus’, but that is the language of those outside the Church. For going to be with Jesus is at once our death – you have been crucified with Christ as St Paul puts it – I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. He becomes our Life as the Church. If the Church has any Life at all, it is the Life of the crucified and Risen One.

Which brings us to our gospel reading today – and seemingly two Jesus’s. One who rebukes James and John (not the Evangleist by the way, that’s another John . . . but another time) – the kind Jesus, and then the Jesus who tells thos who’d follow him to leave the dead to bury their own .  . Will the real Jesus stand up?

The clue is in the fire . . . Jesus reveals to his disciples that the fire must come down not on the hapless Samaritans, but on them! Certainly hearing his words, sears and scorches

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Are we going to be with Jesus?

To another Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Jesus does not die to make bad people good. No, he dies that in Him the dead may live!
‘Let the dead bury their own!’ What do you have to do with the culture of death? You are for Life! Jesus command to follow is a call to Life – don’t return to the place and ways of death – as the angels ask the bemused disciples ‘what are you doing looking for the living amongst the dead?’

Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

To be with Jesus is to identify with Him as our life – which is to be devoted to God . . . to be living sacrifices

Jesus is at one and the same time God giving his life to human beings, AND the human giving his life to God. As we are devoted to God, we become God’s gift to the world. This is Salvation, and Salvation is not for your own sake.
Jesus is devoted to God his Father – it is his total self giving we call to remembrance – we awaken to afresh Sunday by Sunday. His Body and Blood, Bread and wine are offered to God, and God comes upon them by the Holy Spirit and they become His Life given to us. Every Sunday we are at the Cross, we are at the empty tomb, we are at Pentecost – that Life might flow from us. The fruit of the Holy Spirit. We put aside our life that we might be temples of HIs Life flowing from us. This is what it is to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit. One where a life is laid down, and a life flows out in response.

To return briefly to the Coliseum – our forebears in the faith knew this well. As St Ignatius – an early Chrstian was on his way to his death, he urged people not to prevent it – that he ‘might become pure bread ground in the teeth of the wild animals’ As Life, blood and water flows from Jesus’ side, so Life flows from those who witness to Jesus in Life and Death.

There are many stories of Salvation, but this one is unlike any other. Some of them pass as Christian. become a Christian and you will go to heaven when you die!’ It’s subtly, all about you. Many modern churches act as therapists for troubles souls in these days . . . and of course the idea that God loves you . . . whilst there are grains of truth in all of these things, they are not the essence of Salvation – which is Life poured out for the sake the world. We enter into the work of Jesus by laying down our lives in all respects – together, all the baptised, priests and people.

And a suitable metaphor is that of fire – as the sacrifices were consumed by fire, so the fire of God is at work in devotion to God. Living Sacrifices consumed by the Fire [as incidentally Luke will go on to recount in the account of Pentecost . . .]

Just recently I came across these words which speak of this devotion in the way of Jesus

At the very first moment you decide to turn to God, your heart begins to be warmed by the action of the Holy Spirit. [hopefully we have all known something of this] Your heart is kindled with the divine flame that will transform you. This flame will consume you completely, and will melt everything of a fallen nature within you. Once this flame of divine love has been actualized within your heart, do nothing that would allow it to be extinguished. Cooperate with the Fire of God, and let it completely consume you. [That is Devotion]

In Christ Jesus, together with Him, as His Body, we offer ourselves to the refining fire of God, until God resides completely within and amongst us – and His Life flows out for the Salvation of the entire Cosmos

So our writer concludes : Put all your effort into this spiritual transformation that is beginning in your heart. Let nothing else take centre stage over this action by God that is meant to save you, and make you complete. From a little flame, this fire will burn in your heart, and nothing of your fallen nature will be able to withstand it. This flame will transform your whole being, for the action of the Holy Spirit will take you into God’s Kingdom, which resides within you.

As one of the elders of the church said – if you will, you can become all flame. That is our calling, our path, our Way. This is the Life of Jesus. Becoming a sacrifice for the sake of the whole world

Amen

Clothed and in his right mind – Trinity 1 Year C 2019

Sermon for Trinity 1 – Year C – 2019

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

‘Clothed and in his right mind’

‘And this is the judgement: that the light has come into the world,

and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were wicked’ John 3:19

Whatever it is we encounter when we encounter the Life of Jesus, it is most definitely not business as usual. Our gospel today recounts the second of two consecutive incidents in which this life is manifested. Jesus has suggested to his disciples that they cross the lake, during which a great storm kicks up, which he orders to be quiet, and it is quiet, and the disciples are afraid – more afraid than they were of the storm.

Upon reaching shore, Jesus is confronted by the demon possessed man. Luke’s description is itself terrifying – this is not a bedtime story for small children!

As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

In the same way that we find the disciples more afraid of Jesus calming the storm than of the storm, we find a similar response to Jesus’ work.
The populace of the region when they came to Jesus, found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

As we explored during the season of Easter, the Life of Jesus, Resurrection Life, Life of the Ages of Ages explodes our categories regarding ‘business as usual’ – or ‘everyday life’. We considered how we needed to find new words to begin to speak of such things – like Tolkien’s word ‘Eucatastrophe’ – the Good Catastrophe. We can see the eucatastrophic breaking in here – something which calls to us and invites us to Goodness, Life itself. It calls from beyond because we are held captive by the safety of the known, ’business as usual’.

What do I mean by that?

Well let me ask a question . . . what is the opposite of a disease?

There is perhaps no word in our language which is, which does the opposite of a disease. What does a disease do? It takes that which we call ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ and reduces it – makes us less well, less healthy . . . But what is our word for that which takes what we call healthy, normal, usual, wellness and improves on it??

Disease, change and decay is part of the story of ‘business as usual’ of course. At best we hope to stave off decline and ill health . . . but that there might be something which surpasses this human ideal of staying well as the world knows it – is an alien concept to us . . .

Somehow we are concerned to stave off that which is not Good – disease – but to genuinely welcome the Good? Famously here of course we might remember our brother Jack Philips and his admonition to his grandchildren when in true Kiwi fashion they told him they were ‘good’, replied, ‘you’re not good, you are well!’ But what is wellness? Is it no more than the absence of disease??

We try in many ways to stave off the ill – H&S for example – or keeping fit – or 101 other things we ought to be doing . . . but these are all examples of keeping change and decay at bay. And there are many many more examples of this which operate in far subtler ways.
Consider for example our habit of demonising others . . . what are we doing? Separating ourselves from others – casting the illness onto them . . . We can call it ‘virtue signalling’, but at root it is a way of confirming our sense of ‘being in the right’ by damning others. Demonising them

We live in an era when it might be said ‘through the agency of the internet, demonisation has gone viral . . .’ Interesting that we use a word to do with disease to explain the rapid spread of something ‘going viral’ a ‘pandemic’ . . . We have no alternative Good word

James the brother of Jesus chides us – ‘The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell . . . no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.’

Well James is writing before the internet – before Facebook and Twitter – where ‘good’ people go to town demonising those made in the likeness of God – we seem to need to have ‘enemies’ whom it is socially acceptable to damn . . . Donald Trump anyone?
How many ‘good people’ do you and I know who regularly take to the ethereal internet to damn others? Individuals and groups? And then this or group demonises back, and to use James terrifying phrase, the circle of nature is set on fire . . . by hell itself.

And in our culture this is ‘business as usual’. It is socially acceptable to demonise . . . Respectable members of society, the church even, Lord have mercy, damning left right and centre and no one considers this evil . . . ? ‘Business as usual’
I wonder how much of our discourse – of our conversation with others about ‘the pressing matters of the age’ reveal us to be full of Life and Light and how many reveal our lives to be merely the purveyors of socially acceptable demonisation?

Where do demons come from? They seem to wander around until they find a home. They seem in my experience to find a home in and between people, people who in the world’s eyes are good and respectable people, who then force them onto others.
I have never come across of acute demonic activity which wasn’t tied up with human relationships. That which is means to be light and Life and Love – is infested with darkness and death and hate. So we try to deal with the disease and come up with the demonised . . .
He dwells in the place of the dead, amongst the tombs – far from home – rejected even by his family familial rejection is a common aspect of this. ‘The black sheep of the family’ anyone? And then Jesus comes and brings one back from the dead. The Demonised is sat, clothed and in his right mind. This clearly is not simply about simply restoring someone to society – for it is the society which is complicit in the demons within the man. Rather Jesus performs what is a powerful evocation of the harrowing of Hell. Brings back a man from the place of the dead.

And the people do not see that his healing calls them to their own healing, would they had it. They are still living in fear. Terrifying Goodness has broken out and they can’t stand it. Life, business as usual is revealed as something which happens in the shadows – the Light of Life is too bright – and they asked Jesus the Light to depart from them.

It is not uncommon to hear people argue that Jesus’ healings etc. are contrary to the natural order. They offend for example against Science . . . of course we might ask what is a science that has no place for Goodness beyond goodness? Yet their real disturbance goes much much deeper than that, pressing down into the deep reality of our very existence . . . shocking and terrifying Goodness. Revealing to us the utter brokenness of what we call ‘the natural order, ‘business as usual’
He Manifests Health beyond health. Salvation beyond Safety. The formerly demon possessed man is as it were at peace. As Jesus had stilled the storm on the lake, so the agonising storms within the man have been calmed. He is Saved. Profoundly healed, inside and out. And this is not business as usual . . .

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. To use Marks phrase. The man is free to return home – internally and externally healed. Not least in the area of his relationships. He leaves the people who need a demon possessed man in order to maintain ‘business as usual’ and goes out to proclaim the mighty acts of God

Clothed and in his right mind. The presence of the man resonates with the presence of Jesus. In our epistle St Paul says As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ

Clothed with Christ – in our right minds – the eye of our heart – we are to be clothed and in our right minds. Sitting at the feet of Jesus (by the way this is where Mary is in the story of Martha and Mary) . . . this is our vocation as children of the resurrection – to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, to have nothing to do with ‘business as usual’.
At peace with one another and within ourselves. Clothed with Christ. Such lives stand out – and are light in the World, full as they are of the light of the World, but they may not be welcomed, for they remind the world that it’s end is not business as usual

You may even, indeed I hope you do, form time to time recognise this. You make a simple offer to someone – something which speaks of the reality that is the life of Christ within you. But it is too much for the person – and it is refused. ‘I couldn’t possibly’ . . .

To accept the gift would call the person into a Life beyond life as they have known it. It is too much. And a chasm of separation opens up between you and the person. The Life in you has been too challenging

Whatever else the Christian Life is, it is not ‘business as usual’. It is the Life of God

Amen

Trinity Sunday – Evensong – Great is the Mystery of Faith

Sermon for Evensong
Trinity Sunday 2019

Exodus 3:1-15
John 3:1-17

The Mystery of our faith

As the Modern age has progressed one can to a certain extent map a reduction in the explicit consciousness of God in our human affairs. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work ‘A Secular Age’ asks the question “Why, was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in say, 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” [check quote]

In our consciousness it is probably very fair to say that Man has grown larger and God smaller. For those who follow Jesus, it is becoming almost an embarrassment to speak of The Fear of the Lord. The sense that God is beyond our capacity, in greatness and splendour . . . has receded. We have perhaps reduced God to our own image, in our consciousness – perhaps this was why Freud was so quick to assume that god was merely some ego projection, for the God he encountered in Modern Christians was so human sized – as the human grew . . . so we are told we live in ‘the age of the Anthropocene. The Human stamp is stamped everywhere – human consciousness invades every moment of our day . . .

I speak of consciousness for in part Taylor’s question is a question not so much of belief, but of how we are aware of ourselves and the world around us. We live with forms of certainty – granted in small part by science and technology, couples with what we call ‘the power of human reason’, yet, it seems we are rapidly accelerating into a world where we realise how little we know.
As the Creation falls apart around us – I suspect we are becoming more and more conscious of a reality far greater than we had been led to believe in. That the human brain and intellect so powerfully advertised as of a complexity and power far far beyond that of super computers – turns out on the grand scale of things to be not much more advanced or indeed useful than an abacus in terms of its ability to discern the Truth of Existence.

Of course this huge and I suggest anxiety driven emphasis on Reason etc. has had a powerful impact on our faith where all too many either abandon faith or retreat to the ‘certainties’ of ‘what the bible says’. Biblical fundamentalists are the mirror image of the Dawkins of this world – being imbued with the same ratioreductionist [un]conscious approach to faith. We can see everything – nothing is hidden from our unseeing eye – perhaps we have in our own imagining become like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings?
This anxiety driven certainty creates a consciousness which has little time for mystery – perhaps this is why we are so obsessed with Safety – a flight from our inability to rationally calculate everything that might conceivably happen in a world which something somewhere suggests to us might Not be as it seems. If we increasingly limit the possibilities open to us, through for example highly developed H&S policies, then we might conceivably keep Reality from breaking in.

So too mystery and faith. My training incumbent, a thoughtful evangelical has an almost visceral response to the word ‘mystery’ and would endlessly quote Colossians 1:25-27 “I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” There! He would say “the mystery is revealed -there is no mystery . . . however he didn’t than qualify it with other words of St Paul, namely “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” And of course most of Reality is in truth mysterious

Well today is of course one of the days of great mystery in the church calendar – Trinity Sunday – the day when many right thinking, or perhaps rationalist clergy decided to take a holiday and allow someone else to have the benefit of their pulpit! God as Three in One. As the cover of our font reminds us The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit – yet the Father and the Son and the Spirit are One God . . .

And no doubt here and there people are being subjected to images of God as a clover leaf etc. Trying to make it visible . . .

And of course the hyper rational age loves the visible – where mystery is done away with. We live in the age of the image – or as the French philosopher Guy Debord calls ‘the society of the spectacle’ I’m not here going to engage with Debord’s thesis but he certainly points us towards a society where our gaze is captivated by that which we see on a screen – and of course if we see it, it must be The Truth. No mystery in what we see is there, after all?

Most tragically perhaps we might apprehend this in the deluge of pornography which is freely available. The cultural critic Naomi Wolf writes on on how this deluge has changed people. On the one hand she speaks with evident envy of a female friend who converted to Orthodox Judaism, and went about with a headscarf. When asked by Wolf why she did this, she responded, ‘my hair is for my husband’. Wolf noted a new incredible erotic charge and energy about her friend, where the sexual had become ‘mysterious’ shrouded, hidden, and thus more vividly alive – Real perhaps?
Her musings closed with a young man who was speaking about the effects of porn on himself and his friends When asked by Wolf about the mystery of sex, responded thus “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

It is perhaps here that we see the root of the familiarity of the erotic with the deeply Spiritual. Both engage us in a deeper knowing. A knowing which cannot be rationalised, a knowing which is beyond Reason, yet somehow far more sure. A knowing perhaps which is truly Personal and hoas to do with the depths of our hearts and our Loves.
Jesus says – ‘now this is eternal life, that they might Know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ Knowledge of The Mystery takes us into the place of the powerfully personal – into the very depth of our being.

Jesus tells us ‘when you pray, go into your inner room and close the door. There, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your father who sees in secret will reward you’ Here of course the contrast is wth those for whom – its all out there! Those who stand on street corners to pray, that they might be seen by men

And so we come to our two texts for this evening – both of which take us beyond the place of the simply rational – although we must apply our minds, if only to draw us into the mystery of our faith.

Moses alone in the desert – the place of the encounter with the depths of who you are – reminiscent of the old teaching of the church fathers, ‘stay in your cell and it will teach you anything’ It is when we close our eyes to the easy lies of the visual – when the world around us is devoid of fascination, that the vast interior spaces open up. So the wilderness – the desert.

’Nothing to see here’ yet here Moses encounters the bush ablaze yet not burning – and draws aside – it is not a thing of direct vision. It is off to one side, pretty much as this Life which comes to us from God does not apprehend us in the three dimensions with which we are so familiar but comes at us if you like perpendicular to time and space

Who are you he asks? And the answer ‘I Am what I am, I will be what I will be’ An answer that is no answer at all . . . Certainly an answer which places us in a position where we cannot use God for our own purposes, for He does not allow us to touch Him, to lay hold on Him – to Close the story so that we can simply move on – rather we are called to move towards, deeper into the unseen, yet ever near.

And again – Jesus words leave Nicodemus drowning in incomprehension – You must be born again . . .what does this mean? Of course a faith which seeks to abandon mystery must make of this a simple formula. Repent of your sins, believe in Jesus and you will be born again – but with Nicodemus we MUST ask – but what does this mean? To repent is to reorient the eye of the heart . . . it is to turn our forgotten organ of perception, something perhaps akin to our intuition towards God, to Light, to fire, to a burning bush. It is to behold!
As I have been at pains to point out over the years, our English language often does not serve us well, in this case particularly with respect to Seeing. In Greek we have two verbs, one we might say is to see with the eye, as I see you and you I. Yet that that sense is one of the most readily deceived.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate

In our looking, we miss the Big picture -the relatedness of the apple to the provision and command of God.

The second verb is translated in older translations, Behold. This is the verb Jesus uses when he speaks with Nicodemus. Unless a man is born again he shall not Behold the Kingdom of God. Behold the Lamb of God says John the Baptist – when to the eye, all there is is a wandering dusty rabbi from Nazareth of all places! Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world . . . surely in part our loss of God consciousness is our reduction of the second person of the Trinity to simply that Nazarene. The divinity of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is largely ignored – and with it tragedy of tragedies, our own destiny shrinks

What is it to be ‘born again’? Perhaps it is to become the vessel of that uncreated Light – Wisdom – over which we have no hold – Uncreated Light . . .

One of the old fathers of the desert asked his disciples – what does the following verse mean? One after another each gave his answer – until he came to the last disciple, who answered ‘I do not know’. The Abba said ‘you have answered truthfully’

Such hiddenness, such uncertainty, such mystery is so frustrating to we Moderns, but if we are to find our way back, perhaps it is the place to start

How is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do not know

Amen