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

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Year B 2018

Matthew 6:1-21

Treasures in the hidden place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying No – Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018

Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018

2 Kings 5:1-14

1 Cor 9:24-27

Mark 1:40-45

‘The Hidden Kingdom – True Authority’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Sermon for Evensong – Lent 3 – Year A 2017

Sermon for Evensong – Lent 3 – Year A 2017

Joshua 1:1-9
Eph 6:10-20

The Subversion of the Gospel in the Modern World

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

In our Lent studies, aside from Father Stephen’s book which explores the Orthodox way of seeing things – we have been considering the Contrast between Christian Existence, or profoundly human existence, and the nature of existence in ‘Modern’ Culture. As we explored a few days ago, one of the deeply troubling aspects of this culture is that it has no explicit account of ‘what it means to be human’. If as a culture we cannot begin to give an answer to that then to use the words of St Paul we open a door wide for ‘the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’. To give an example which I have recently stumbled over; Elon Musk the owner and ‘visionary’ behind Tesla Corporation tells us that ‘we must as human beings merge with the machine if we are to have any future’ (and please be aware that the almost universal use of cell phones is a considerable step in that direction) Why must we merge with machines if we are to have any future? Because as Mr Musk tells us – his corporation is developing Alternative Intelligence, self driving cars which will put millions of people out of work . . .

Note the loss of the human implicit in all of this – if I can put it more clearly  – a small child says ‘look mummy, I’m smashing up my lovely toys and I won’t have any toys when I’m finished . . .’ Elon, if what you are doing is going to put millions out of work, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it?? We see here a picture of the human as an irresponsible agent swept along by the tides of technological determinism – like any revolutionary impelled by a vision of the future and leaving chaos in its wake.

One of the deep characteristics of the ‘Modern’ culture is its deep and growing enslavement to the Left Brain  – a place which is comfortable with abstract thought and has difficulty engaging with what is – a profoundly antisocial perspective – inhuman we may well say. That all too readily ‘takes things literally’ for it is absorbed with the power of words to describe and define reality – despite their final inability to get anywhere near to the truth of things, which of course also means we live in an age of anger, the Left brain response to this inability. Put another way the Modern culture is one of angry literalists, of various hues, but literalists all the same.

This of course affects us deeply in the Church – all of us even at best are about 95% Modern and 5% Christian in terms of what informs our day to day existence – statistics and numerical measurement are of course also part of the Left Brain dominant philosophy 🙂 So in every issue we end up fighting with one another over, and getting angry about – we are confronted by our mirror image – a group of literalists. Which is why the arguments are so unutterably tedious. For to use Mark Twain’s aphorism, Progressives and Conservatives, or Right and Left, or Evangelicals and Liberals – pick your own preferred Left Brain simplistic duality, the Left brain can’t cope with mess and needs to put everyone in a category – give them a label – We are two nations divided by a common tongue – that is we all speak and operate as Modernists.

To wit our texts this evening – and of course texts are the domain of the ‘literally’ minded. Herein we find two texts ‘about conflict’. In the text from the Tanakh, The LORD tells Joshua to be ‘strong and very courageous’ ‘for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.’ So here is God commanding Joshua before of course we know he goes into the promised land and commits Genocide – a literal reading and so we dismiss this. Or St Paul who goes on at length about putting our armour on . . . ‘all this militaristic imagery . . .’ so the literalist who says the problem is people taking the text literally, dismisses the text because of its ‘literal’ meaning.

Or as Father Stephen puts it in his book ‘‘Scripture becomes lost in a constant battle between opposing camps of literalists—those who believe literal history negates the Bible and those who believe the Bible is literal history’ Or in this case – those who don’t like the literal interpretation of the Scriptures they find. it is odd that those who dismiss fundamentalists are applying the same literal outlook on the scriptures which they thereby dismiss. One way and another, we are all pretty much fundamentalists now

And this tendency is further strengthened by the Modern perspective of The Observer, who looks out at the world to put their interpretation upon it – again Left Brain work. For Modern existence is one of profound individualism and isolationism. We live often alone, or in very small groups – we don’t have to change our way of life to suit others, for we live in self contained boxes, we may have the privilege of ‘doing the job we always wanted to do’ – rather than slave in sugar fields or electronics factories or indeed far worse, merely to keep body and souls together, and of course as I have said before we live in profound disconnection from the impact of our actions upon the wider world. We live in a profound isolation from all that is – Just like Elon Musk. The idea that I am the centre of existence is reinforced by our separation from those who might make our lives difficult. And SO as separated observers of life we look out at the things of the world and see all the problems and think that we can fix them. Now this is a profound Inversion, or subversion of the Christian tradition which taught that We were the ones who needed to change, that the world was changed as people through patience and discipline were themselves changed into the image and likeness of God.

We didn’t look out at say Donald Trump and go ‘image of God?? Seriously??? We need to get rid of him!! Instead we discovered that to use a turn of phrase ‘there was a bit of Donald Trump inside all of us’ and that the best thing we might perhaps do is to deal with that first.

As Jesus teaches us – ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ The Modern person is profoundly a Judge. We are all asked ‘what is your opinion about this or that or the other – as if it was a thing of ‘Great Consequence’  – you might even get on the TV ‘giving your opinion.’ and so we are obsessed with Opinion polls which ‘tell us what we think’ – and are in the end a way to the mob for they cause those who are in a minority to conform to the majority and finally unleash yet more violence in the name of Justice, or Freedom Liberty and Equality – those bastions of the French Revolution – utterly abstract and thus inhuman constructs  – the realm of the Left Brain 🙂

Jesus goes on – For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the [TINY} speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the [ENORMOUS] log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

I’ll come back to the last clause in a moment. Firstly to note that the work of co-operating with God in our own healing is a far greater work than that of ‘fixing’ my neighbour. So as St Paul says we need significant armoury – for example to be alert to our profound susceptibility to self deception. Of course if we are busy looking out at the world making our judgements of this or that person or this or that situation we are distracted from the fundamental deceits of our own heart which are fueling our Sense of Righteous Injustice, or worse our Anger. If you are angry with your brother – you will be liable to the counsel, says ?? Jesus. It is a HARD work, and it is not about flesh and blood , its not about ‘those people out there’ – it is about to use Paul’s language again
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
It is only when we begin to treat with seriousness our own deep rooted sinful tendency that we begin to realise the scale of the battle – that there is a land which must be taken and the conflict to take it will require us to be strong and very courageous because it is looking the truth of our inner lives clearly in the eye’ Put another way you cannot heal another whom you hate.

But if we seek first the Kingdom – if we face up to and with God;s grace begin the long slow journey to our own healing, then that makes a HUGE difference to how we live in the world. ‘You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’ to See clearly is to Perceive – the discern beyond the ‘literal’ to Behold – to Know things in their truth and in relationship with all people and all things created.

Just the other evening a crowd of us gathered at Holy Name to listen to Shane Claybourne. His is a name with which you may well not be familiar. He is famous as a Social Justice activist in the United States – but that is a most unhelpful label . . .

He too was a literalist in some regards – one of THAT sort – brought up the ‘the deep south’. But when he went to college in Philadelphia he noted something was perhaps amiss. For local homeless people, largely women with children had en masse taken over a derelict Catholic church and the Archdiocese wanted them out!! So he and some fellow students along with quite a few others went to support the homeless – for they saw there was something Wrong going on. Well one thing led to another, he and his friends phoned up Mother Theresa to ask if they could work with her for a time in Calcutta – she said come!! They said ‘but where will we sleep? What will we eat and Mother replied over the phone, God provides for the birds of the air – Come he will even provide for you’ 🙂

After that they went to live in one of the most poverty stricken areas of Philadelphia – to form community and to live amongst the poor – and they FOUND community – they found these people whom they had thought they were going to help were teaching them so much. The community is beautified – people are working together to grow their own food. The homeless are being homed and fed . . . Shane has gone to jail once – for feeding homeless people – and at present he is waiting another day in court for being involved in a protest on the steps of the supreme court with a huge banner which said ‘End Executions’

Shane it seems to me is a great example of the deep truth of the parable of splinters and logs. As I listened – what struck me more than anything was his complete lack of rancour about things – there was no ‘righteous’ anger about ‘what’s wrong in the world’  this is why I think the label social activist is so unhelpful – for these are usually deeply angry people — indeed much of what he said was stories against himself about his weaknesses and failings. He was constantly laughing, at himself 🙂 Here wasn’t a typical Modern person fighting for getting things right – he can SEE things aren’t good – but because he is very aware of the logs in his own eyes there was tremendous humility – and not a hint of Anger. Here I thought was a man on the way to healing who was becoming a healer . . .

As we closed he led us in a series of prayer meditations and one was on the fruit of the Spirit – which is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, goodness and self control.

And it struck me how alternative these are to the Modern world and it ways – which can only bring healing through the violence of war or armed struggle or anger or  . . . I mentioned the French Revolution which was for ‘Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood’ and stopped at nothing to get there

The Life of Jesus was springing up in that young man. He knew and was realistic about the powers that held the lives of others, because he knew them within himself – he knows that you cannot be part of any solution unless you recognise that you  are just as much part of the problem – that you too need a healing from sin and its power. That is the Real conflict – the one closest to home, the one inner hearts – but literalists of any bent cannot see this. May God give us grace to see where the real problems lie

Making Space in Lent

One of Father Thomas Hopko’s maxims for Life in Christ, is ‘Do nothing for someone else that they could or should do for themselves’. In our world of individualism this sounds like a recipe for ignoring other people, but it is not. It is rather a check on our own ‘self importance’ – which is such that we all too readily fill any vacant space, fill any silence, obliterate any sense that We are not the centre of the universe. This ‘itching’ to live other people’s lives for them, this inability to stay within our own space is a sign of the deep seated anxiety which besets our age.

The Modern world is one which we have created for ourselves and thus if we do not keep ‘hard at it’, ‘beavering away’ (although that is to be unfair to beavers which only make one lodge for themselves), Working to ‘keep things going’, then everything would fall apart.

Having eradicated God from our consciousness we believe utterly in our own self importance, for that is all that is left, and so the stronger amongst us fill the space and take over the lives of the weaker (As Nietzsche amongst others predicted of a world stripped bare of the Worship of the living God).

We see this in the famous 80:20 rule. 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. We (the 20 percent) mutter about those who ‘do not pull their weight’ but we are ‘whining compulsive ‘Marthas’’ overspilling our bounds. Less than gentle we take from others the small tasks given for them and them alone to do, and then complain that they should come and help us!

Our lives are actually quite small. Not many of us are more than 2m tall, or weigh more than 90 kilos . . . or so. This is the space that is given to us – but we have lost sense of the givenness of our boundedness – and thus many are deprived of life – either around us for we have spilled into their space or in the wider world, for in our anxiety driven consumption we have stolen their space from them.

It is hard to look out at the world and believe that really ‘we all need to work harder, to do more’, as the ‘natural world’ falls apart around us under the stress of our unboundedness.

Jesus is ‘gentle and humble in heart’. Put another way, he is very small. [We have a tendency to dwell on God’s Greatness, but He is at the same time humble beyond our imagining – the mightiest mountain has the very deepest roots]
Gentleness and humility do not fill other peoples’ space. So we could follow his example and learn to be small, learn to be our selves. Perhaps meditate upon the nature of Love as expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 – do you See how self-effacing Love is . . . ?

Yet in another way we ARE vast beyond imagination. As St Paul reminds us ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’. Lenten disciplines call us to small acts – to live with an open hand to all who ask for alms; restrain our bodily appetites – Come to our own space; and therein to pray. A world filled with compulsive work is prayerless. We are too busy to pray, to tired with ‘keeping it all going’. Of course we have little need of prayer for we are all ‘doing it for our selves’ keeping the world we have made in our own image going . . .
Yet we have all the space we need in which to pray, for if the Holy Spirit still dwells within us, if we have not driven the humble one from our lives with our own self importance, then the space for prayer within us, these Temples of our bodies, is infinitely large.

When we begin to see the illusory nature of what we call the Modern world and Behold the world as it truly is, as God’s, we realise that we do not need to overspill our lives, indeed that that is a grasping blasphemy, for in Truth All is Gift.
We can come back to our senses. We can leave others to the small work that is theirs as we do the small work which is ours. We need only be still, and Christ in us will do the rest . . . which of course brings us back to where we began . . .

Lent Forty days without . . . Day 4

In the previous post, we began to set the scene for Lent, reflecting on how in an historical blink of an eye ‘Wants’ had multiplied, and almost unregarded, so had needs. The pronouncement of the Wayside pulpit, ‘Wants are many, Real needs are few’ . . . whilst in a sense self evidently true, sounds less obvious when we consider our contemporary existence.

Just a couple of simple examples will suffice. Consider the internet. How often is it assumed that one has a connection to it, and email address, perhaps our banking is ‘done online’ as is the assumption here in New Zealand where I live. School curricula are set upon the understanding that pupils not only have internet access in the home, but a [necessarily expensive] device with which they can access it whilst at school. Someone who does not have these things is understood to be ‘deprived’.

Unusually, my family has no television – again, but perhaps less so since the internet multiplied our media choices, this is considered a deprivation. We get pitying looks from time to time 🙂 I am asked ‘did you see . . .’ quite often . . . and my college principal at seminary told us we should be watching soap operas otherwise we wouldn’t be able to connect to the everyday lives of our people . . . You Must keep up to date, you Must be connected . . . wants become needs and multiply over and over

As society becomes ever more technologically demanding, our existence is increasingly dependent upon our connections into the systems we have set up. In an age which shouts ‘Freedom’, ironically we have become ever more chained to a pseudo physical necessity . . . there is more and more and more that we ‘cannot do without’, (and that before we pay even the slightest attention to siren voices of a host without number, who would sell us their wares. We find ourselves unable to do without more and more, which inability leaves us open to yet more voices calling to us regarding that which we ‘cannot do without’

Thus Lent is reduced as I suggested, to no more that depriving ourselves of those things which would seem to our forebears like unimaginable luxuries, and of course telling the world via Facebook how we are suffering from our withdrawals . . . We construct ‘Freedom’ through greater and greater complexity, and are caught in a web of our own designing

In Starkest contrast, as Equatorial noonday Sun to darkest Arctic Night, the Wilderness, the place of nothing, of emptiness, above all of Simplicity and thus the arena of our truest apprehension of God and thus ourselves, seems not only terrifyingly strange, but repellent even . . . It is as if at some level we have constructed OUR world deliberately to hide from God. Buried ourselves, called for the mountains to fall upon us. As if, we had deliberately grown a maze in which we could hide, thinking like a child, if I can see no-one, I cannot be seen. As if God might get lost in it . . . indeed if we might ourselves get lost . . .

Lent – Forty days without . . . Day 1

Day 1

‘Going without . . .’ is a phrase understood in our culture as a sign of ‘deprivation’, which, it is hard to deny, goes against the spirit of our age. Many years ago I remember passing one of those wayside pulpits – a notice board with a ‘thought for the week’ plastered upon it. It said ‘Wants are many. Real needs are few’ Its truth struck me even as a young boy and has remained with me, yet looking back over forty years, comparing my life now, even with life in the early 1970s – one cannot help but reflect that ‘Wants’ have vastly multiplied, and many have become ‘needs’.

This Lent I am unhooking from at least one of those ‘Wants’ become ‘needs’, that is my connection to the internet, a daily check of email and this occasional blog apart, and all forms of technology which have accrued over the intervening years. So for example, books will be for me made out of paper, and sermons hand written. The season of Lent is a time of preparation – a time of discernment. “How are things with my soul?”, is a question which Lent invites us to ponder . . . but to do that requires deprivation. The sated soul cannot know its own condition, buried under the excess we have come to call ‘enough’.

Last year during Lent, I restricted my eating. Not I hasten to add, to the point where I found myself tired or even remotely suffered, but through various practices, ate simply enough and no more. The Fourth Sunday of Lent is a day of easement of Lenten practise, and as it is in England, Mothering Sunday, we feasted. I ate and drank no more than was usual prior to the Fast – a ‘decent’ sized roast dinner, some apple pie for desert, and shared a bottle of wine with my wife. I paid for this excess over the next 36 hours, and it taught me a severe lesson. That to which I had become accustomed was, under circumstances of ‘enoughness’ more than that with which my body could cope. Buried under food, I had lost sensitivity to my condition, to the point that what I had thought a ‘reasonable meal’ made me quite ill.

As ‘going without’ is a state to be pitied in this day and age, so too ‘enough’ is a concept we struggle with, insensitive as we have become to our condition. ‘Deprivation’ in Lent usually goes no further than cutting back on those things which we once saw as luxuries and very occasional treats which have become part and parcel of our everyday consumption. ‘Chocolate anyone?’ It might seem a rather bleak prospect having ‘just’ enough.

How we are shaped in living whilst naively imagine we are choosing how to live our lives . . .

In Lent we remember Jesus driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, away even from his own culture’s ‘enough’, to a place of what appears as utter deprivation, yet it is not. All he has is sold to buy the field.

Buried under what we call ‘life’, and perhaps more deeply buried than ever before in our age, is Life.  As St Luke records, ‘Jesus returned [from the wilderness] in the power of the Spirit  . . .’

Lent 2 – Year B ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth – Yeah Right!’

Sermon for Lent 2 – Year B
Sunday March 1st 2015

Mark 8:31-38

The meek shall inherit the Earth
Yeah, Right!

Fundamentals

A couple of years ago I had a dream. It was so striking that I wrote it down in my journal. In it I was in a canoe paddling up a stream. The stream, as streams do, became narrower and the water shallower, therefore the effort of paddling became greater until I grounded. Of course the obvious thing was to turn the canoe round, but the stream was too narrow

It must be said, when I ponder that dream and its meaning for me, the contemporary church also hoves into view. The stream getting narrower and shallower, perhaps a metaphor for falling numbers? And trying harder and harder . . . perhaps we need to get our bearings. To remind ourselves of one or two fundamentals . . .

1. God is not relevant to our lives

I have pondered often and long about why so many of us are at the very least hesitant about ‘sharing our faith with others’ – and the answer that came to me in the early hours of one morning this week was that we imagine the conversation in our head – a little like this.

I’m a Christian
I’m not
My faith makes a real positive difference to my life
Really? What? We have been friends for a long time. Your life and my life – they are pretty similar – indeed in many respects you might say I have a better life than you, no?
Well, yes, errm – I see what you are saying, err but I have a profound peace in my heart
Yes. Good. I’m happy for you. I find a walk on the beach does that for me. Isn’t it lovely 🙂

So how are the grandchildren doing then . . .

When I say ‘God is not relevant to our lives’ I mean it. But what do I mean by ‘our lives’. I mean the lives we determine for ourselves. The life which is all about our life story – the story which people may tell of us after we die, of career and home and children and hobbies etc. etc. The lives into which we try to fit God rather like a new kitchen accessory – a Unique selling point in a house, or in this case a life

We have grown up in a culture which springs from Christendom – a world where ‘everyone was a Christian’ – God was in his heaven ‘watching over it all’, and all was well with the world. ‘God’ in this scheme was there to sort out the difficulties of our lives. Like a kindly chaplain, or a Spiritual plumber, or indeed a kindly parking attendant who found us that parking space we really needed or otherwise we’d be so stressed at that important meeting with the bank to discuss our mortgage . . . God is ‘there to look after us’. But of course, for our friend with whom we are in conversation, they pretty much manage to get along very well thank you very much without any of that, and also they have spare time on a Sunday to use as they wish . . . and of course should life’s circumstances become difficult then perhaps we don’t really need this church stuff anyway because God is there looking after us, or perhaps he isn’t and actually it doesn’t seem to really make any difference . . . after all there are lots of helpful guides to having a better life – some are religious, some aren’t . . .

2. Our lives are not relevant to God

Sorry if we find this thought troubling, but they’re really not. God does not spend every moment of his waking hours figuring out how to get our lives sorted out so that we can have the life we always dreamed of . . . indeed we may have noticed that 🙂 And vice versa, there is nothing we can do to ‘help God’. On the one hand the dominant expression of faith is that ‘god is up there somewhere looking over us’, and on the other, the Church seems obsessed in what Margaret of Sienna calls ‘solicitudo religioso pro Deo’ To translate roughly, ‘a blasphemous anxiety to be doing God’s work for him’. Whatever, ‘God’ is largely absent from the proceedings
Like in the canoe dream – people paddling harder and harder as the stream narrows and the water shallows. The church is busier than ever, getting the message out, endless committees, initiatives etc.etc.etc. ‘God’ becomes an ever vague shadow, out there, somewhere, perhaps??

Last week I concluded that we would do well from time to time, not to put ourselves in the disciples’ position, as they observe Jesus healing people, but rather to place ourselves in the position of those who are healed, in other words, In Jesus direct line of sight.
Well, let’s do that this week and where is Jesus looking, oh yes he’s looking at his disciples. He is telling them, quite openly that he ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’

And we all know Peter’s response – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Now let’s just pause at this moment. Immediately before our gospel reading, Peter has declared that which God has revealed to him, not what he has figured out for himself, what God has revealed to him, That Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one, The King of Israel . . .

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him?????!!!!!!

3. The problem is ‘Our Lives’ . . .

Jesus words seem like madness to Peter – but it is Peter who has the problem . . . turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus tells Peter ‘You don’t get it! You don’t have a clue! You are the One trying to destroy my work . . . and we, like Peter have So much confidence that we do get it . . . but as I said, we cannot give a coherent account of what IT is to those amongst whom we live

The problem is ‘Our Lives’. When we listen to what Jesus says, it seems utter madness, we are there with Peter. Jesus says ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ – and we rebuke him saying, that’s a nice sentiment Jesus, but actually its the hard work and fine accounting skills, its our genius that will get us what we want . . . and the moth and rust will corrupt and if we store it all in vaults after our deaths, the thieves will break in and steal.

I was in a church meeting a long way from here earlier this week, where the wheels of power were turning. We were planning and proposing. And someone gave a very lengthy account of a significant event in the life of the church and credited one person with all the credit and said how much we owed them by way of thanks, and no one batted an eyelid . . .
No one – myself included – said, ‘Let us pause and offer profound thanks to God without whom Nothing is possible. It was as if God didn’t even exist.’ We’d pulled it all together.

We modern westerners are So in control of Our Lives – and thus the way we run them is in direct opposition to the way of Jesus – Jesus who says ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth’; ‘do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth’, ‘unless you become like a little child’ How could a child even begin to run the church as we do??? Jesus who says For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

4. Jesus response to the problem of ‘Our Lives’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

As I was painfully reminded this last week by a friend, we miss the horror of what Jesus is saying here. The Cross has become a pretty item of jewelry – or we talk about it is terms of the sufferings that are common to all human kind, broken relationships, illness – ‘We all have our cross to bear’ we sigh. Jesus speaks to the whole people of God, who symbolised by Peter have their minds set on human things and faces them with something horrific. No one there, none of the readers of Mark’s gospel in the first 300 years will have not seen, in all likelihood Many Crosses, not hanging round people’s necks, but with people hanging on them. ‘You really don’t want to go there’, but Jesus says this is the Way.

Pontius Pilate wanting to let people know where the real power lay, didn’t always bother with wood, bit of a waste, he would nail people to the walls of Jerusalem. Everyone knew the horror of it and had seen how literally excruciating was the death of the Crucified, over hours in unendurable agony. The utter destruction of a Life – indeed bodies were left there to be devoured by wild animals and birds.  So horrifying that people could not bear to speak of it or write about it. Truly A Satanic tool.

Jesus takes Our Lives to the Cross, and we are called to follow him. Indeed this is the meaning of our Baptism – not some folk rite, so that we are in on this Chaplain God and can expect his services. Christendom neatly sidestepped the Cross and delivered up a faith of the irrelevant God, placing the human and our lives back in the centre of things. But our Lives are only the centre of things if w are In Christ, the Crucified One. We are baptised into his death so that He might be Our Life, Our All in All. As St Paul puts it in Colossians, ‘For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’  Our baptism is the End of Our Life. The end of Our agendas, the end of Our plans. The life we now live we live by faith in the Son of God. For truly Christian life to begin, Our Lives must end. He must become Our Life. The Risen one

And So we come here, we confess our Sins, that once more we have lived for ourselves and not for Him who loves us, We feed on his word which is Life giving Like honey on our lips, we respond in words irrelevant to the World, the Creed, and in his infinite Grace and Mercy, he feeds us with His Very Life.
Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever