Life Together 1 – Remember the Sabbath . . .

Recently as my health has forced me to rest I have, perhaps unsurprisingly been considering The Sabbath. The Command to rest from our labours one day in seven.
Then as I was reading and studying, out of the blue someone sent me a book about the Sabbath, and then I was listening to a lecture which without my realising focussed on the significance of the Sabbath – so I thought I’d better write a few words about it!! 🙂

One of the odd things I’ve noticed as I’ve been reading is how most if not all contemporary books on the Sabbath take it as read that ‘this is not something which it is possible to do together in the modern world, but we can still find ways to observe some form of Sabbath on our own’. And the more I have thought and pondered and prayed, the more this has disturbed me, for many reasons, but two of particular importance to us as the people of God.

Firstly, the command is put in such a way that ‘doing it together’ is a requirement, and as we read it we see why. ‘You shall not do any work, you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or strangers resident in your town.’  The command is given to those at the top of the pile, those who have power over the lives of others [as indeed the books are 🙂 those who have the money and the leisure for reading . . .]. ‘you are responsible for the rest of others’
The idea that we can do our own private Sabbath as is convenient to us makes the demonic assumption that we are all individuals. Perhaps we wish to shop on our rest day? Someone else has to work so that we can do that. Or drive? Who will be at the fuel stations? All too often our restless rest requires others to be working. It assumes that we are not our brothers keeper – that we have a life of our own . . .
Indeed now as a society we have become ‘secularised’, we have adapted to an economic model which doesn’t allow rest – most especially for those at the bottom of the pile. Recently the Diocese has backed the ‘Living Wage’ Campaign. Well that is a good thing, but a Life without Rest is no life at all. If a person cannot earn a living wage in six days, it is not a living wage. We Sabbath together for the sake of the weak.

Secondly, this command is woven into the very nature of Creation – ‘For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day’. Did you notice that the non human creation is also involved in Sabbath?? ‘your livestock’ In my parish back in England, one local farmer was a Quaker. He never milked his cows on the Sabbath – and they did not suffer for it, indeed one might guess they thrived. They too rested from their labours.
Failure to observe a Sabbath for the Land and the Livestock now faces us with what look like catastrophic consequences as industrialised 7 day a week farming and Climate change look set to rebuke our restlessness. [You can read of such things in the Scripture – of how in sobering terms, the Creation is given its Sabbath. See 2 Chronicles 36 vs 17-21]

Sabbath keeping is not so much dry legalism as a matter of economic and ecological justice – a recognition that our lives are with each other and the Good Earth. This command is given to the people of God, that they might be a Light to the Nations, revealing the One in whom all things hold together, who rested from his labours. Perhaps we would do well to think, talk and pray together about how we might shape our Life Together in this regard?

Unless you become like a little child . . .

Jesus tells us we must become as little children.

This it seems is, beyond love of enemies, our greatest challenge. In a sense it is the beginning of the true walk as a Christian. To experience the world as a child does, is I think to receive the gift of sight that it is to be born again. To see the world unfiltered. And it is our greatest challenge for it requires us to dismantle all the barriers to life our experience of childhood ‘taught us’ to put up.

Life as a child is to experience most fully the violence in which we are immersed but have become so inured to, we fail to see it. As adults when we say the world is a violent place, we see it Elsewhere. In war, in murder, in assault. For many of us, this is a somewhat remote reality, it is coming to us as it were through clouded glass, we hear it as if the noise is muffled.

Not for the child.

The Swiss psychologist Alice Millar, writes I think with tremendous insight into the violence of the world of the child. She tells a story of observing a toddler with her parents and entering into the child’s experience of what to the parents see as harmless, numbed as they are to the violence.
A young child is walking with her parents in a park. A peaceful scene we might think. The adults are eating ice creams and clearly the child would like to as well. She entreats, unable truly to say what she means, noises, cries for the ice cream. One of the adults gives her a lick, but then turns away and continues to walk on, laughing ‘indulgently’ at the child. It is clear to Millar as she watches, the child wants not just a lick, but an ice cream. Perhaps the parents don’t see this, perhaps they do, but they carry on with their walk. The child, utterly defenceless, deploys her only power. She sits down on the path. The parents smile as they look back at this ‘cute’ demonstration, but walk on. Eventually the child is forced into conforming. Their parents are their only security in the world. She gets up and follows. Coerced into conformity.

Try and imagine what it must be like for that child? Perhaps we dare not?

As we grow older, and more powerful we learn other ways, apart from sit-down protest to try and live our unique life, struggling against the continuing desires of those who wish to conform us to their world.

Until eventually we get to a point where we are the adults and others the children

I remember vividly my early years as a High School teacher. School as for so many of my peers had been itself a violent experience and so I’d learned ‘the rules’. Through an amazing encounter with a pupil though I saw into the world of the child, and learnt something of the violence of my own behaviour which I’d at first absorbed but now was displaying. I taught in a tough inner city school and my class were youngsters for whom school was a constant battle. They didn’t meekly conform and fall into the lines of someone else’s narrative of what life was about.

One day, a girl approached me in the classroom, Helen Boland was her name. Of Irish Catholic extraction, she spoke her mind very freely :). ‘Mr Kyte’, she said, ‘you shout a lot’. Perhaps these were the four most important words anyone spoke to me as I learned to teach. They sunk deep. I’d grown up being yelled at by adults, parents and teachers, and now I was exerting my Power. The very violence that had made me terrified as a very small child, then shudder as I got older, then make me fall into silent shame, had now passed into the ordinary. It was how I the powerful person got my way, through violence.

I thanked Helen, and I do so again.

It’s a lesson I carried into parenthood, I’m still learning 23 years on. I ‘suffer’ from a loud voice. I know my own children have felt the force of this, although I’ve tried to keep myself from raising it, it is already too many decibels. A family ‘joke’ was, ‘you’ve never heard dad shout’, until one day I did, to my shame.

Unless you become like little children, you’ll never see the Reality of the world. Its sheer Violence. Experienced by many as the wallpaper of control, raised voices or as one uses their advanced knowledge or ‘power of speech’ to overwhelm the one still incoherent. I could go on. This might sound like hyperbole, but viewed through the truthful lenses of a small child, I wonder. I think that as children we experience this all too well, it’s why Jesus’ offer to us is so terrifying.

‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’

‘Repentance is . . .’ NOT ‘saying sorry’

More and more these past years, I have wrestled with the obvious fact that the lives of Christians and non-Christians are all but indistinguishable.

In part this is no doubt down to the Solipsisitic nature of contemporary life. Rene Descartes has won out and we are our thoughts. Thus faith is just a matter of what we consider to be true.

I was going to say that ‘it hardly needs saying that this is so far away from the Biblical conception of the life lived in the light of God as to constitute something other than Christian life’. Except it does need to be said – for if it were utterly obvious, why are we not concerned about the gulf between the life of faith revealed to us in the pages of Scripture and our own lives??

At this point the answer usually trawled out is – ‘well we are all sinners . . . ‘ Yet again, this is not the picture that the New Testament paints of the people of God, rather that we are New creatures in Christ, the ascriptiion most commonly used is Saints. Yes we do sin, but this is now revealed as a terrible contradiction of who we have been made by the power of the Holy Spirit. So it will not do to say we are sinners, rather we are saints who from time to time grievously act in contradiction to our new nature.

Of course what the old saw about us ‘being sinners’ does is frees us from any sense that we ought to be live differently from those around us. Certainly it leads us to reduce those texts which speak of us being children of light in a dark world to the point of absurdity, where we in effect deny them whilst devising clever theological schemes so that we do not. The idea that to be ‘In Christ’ is be a fundamentally different order of being from those amongst whom we live, including friends and family . . . I need not go on

What is the root of this??

Well put plainly we haven’t repented and thus received the life of Christ. The church requires above all, to use another oft ignored phrase, to be converted.

Of course most of us, if we have ‘come to faith’ later in life may well think – ‘Well I have repented! I said sorry to God. I changed my mind about Him. I acknowledged I was wrong in my thinking about Him. I changed my mind. Therefore I am converted!’

But the picture of repentance, that it is ‘saying sorry’, that it is fundamentally to have a new set of beliefs about spiritual matters – is in itself just plain wrong. As St Paul tells us, sorrow is not repentance – it leads to Repentance. It leads to changes in our behaviour which make it possible for us to receive the Life of Christ.

Put this way, to most of us this will sound very strange – but after much thought these past years, I believe it to be true.

Let us for a moment consider the forerunner, the Elijah, who comes before the LORD to prepare his way – to turn the hearts of the people of God to God. John the Baptist is just that! He is not the Life. We tend to think that John has little to do with us – yet the work he comes to do, must be done in us before we too can receive the life of Christ. Repentance is a precursor to the Life of God. We first have to turn to God, THEN we can receive his life – this new nature that he promises, that sets us apart as that which we are meant to be ‘Light of the world’.

Joseph Ratzinger – later to be Pope Benedict XVI puts it thus : As for the contents of new evangelization, first of all we must keep in mind the inseparability of the Old and the New Testaments. The fundamental content of the Old Testament is summarized in the message by John the Baptist: metanoeìte—Convert! There is no access to Jesus without the Baptist; there is no possibility of reaching Jesus without answering the call of the precursor, rather: Jesus took up the message of John in the synthesis of his own preaching: metanoeìte kaì pisteúete èn tù eùaggelíu

Repentance precedes the Life of Christ. The Baptist comes first preaching repentance – only those who respond to his message are prepared – the way made straight – to receive the Baptism of fire – of Life in Christ.

Of course we may thus so far assent – or we may not – but, we must ask, what is the content of this repentance which John preaches? Here we find no warrant for ‘saying sorry’, for a mere changing of our lives – we are called to change our lives – to bear fruit worthy of repentance. This is no mere change of mind – the Baptist puts this repentance in the clearest possible terms, and it is expressed with regard to our life with our neighbour. [Anthony of Egypt puts it thus ‘Our life and death are with our neighbour’]

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

That is the preparation for the Life that Christ brings – it is the opening of the door of our hearts to the other, to our neighbour. In its essence it is this, to live as humans with humans. When we have much and others go without, we are to supply their need. There is nothing ‘legalistic’ about this, it is not even ‘kindness’ – it should in no way be extraordinary. People starve = you have more than enough to eat. People are naked – You have more than enough clothes to wear. People are lonely – your house is full of the warmth and light of friendship. People are impoverished – you live way beyond the simple necessities of life. Love the other! Feed, clothe, invite them to your house, share your abundance with all and sundry.

There should be nothing extraordinary in this – but there is. If Christians took it upon themselves, merely to respond to the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, that would cause such a stir throughout the world. Who can conceive of such a thing? Yet it is no more than simple care – the basic requirement for being human.

When those simple things are done, the active love of neighbour that sees need and responds out of our wealth, then the door is opened to the ‘one who comes after me’ And without those simple things, our hearts are closed to Christ. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it ‘There is no access to Jesus without the Baptist” Repentance.

The one who lies at the breast of Christ – the beloved disciple to whom the heart of the Good News is revealed puts it thus : How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Love your neighbour, as yourself. Do you look to your own needs? Do so to others.

At the last when Jesus comes he expresses it in the most powerful of terms in the blessings and woes in Luke 6, and in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus.

The gulf between the Rich man and Lazarus could easily have been crossed in life, but that which existed after the death of the rich man could not. We can only wonder at how what we must presume to have been a religious man [he calls Abraham his father] might have not seen to the needs of the man who lay at his gate? As Abraham gently tells him, his brothers have Moses and the prophets – what other warning do they need? If they do not respond to these basic needs of their brothers and sisters, knowing what simple humanity requires, how might we expect them to, even if one rises from the dead?

This gulf is exemplified in the minds of contemporary Christians who reduce faith to a thing of the mind, or indeed ‘the heart’ where that is no more than a code for the emotional life. The question is, is this gulf fixed? Have we heard the call to repentance? Are we even ready to receive the Life that comes from above?

May God grant to us all as we have need, Godly sorrow which leads to Repentance, which opens the door to Life.

 

Generosity

Following a most helpful conversation this morning, through which I developed a far richer appreciation of the background  to the unique ‘Three Tikanga’ structure of the Anglican church here in New Zealand, I was led to think more and more about several things. Partnership, Sharing and ‘Generosity’.

It comes to me that true generosity only begins when we learn what it is to share of ourselves. In the context of most of us, this means, when we are stripped of things and money except that which is essential to our own well-being – the necessary food and clothes and shelter. Then when we share, we are giving of ourselves truly sacrificially.

There are many words we use carelessly, especially those of us who have much, and I am most definitely one of those. We speak of ‘sacrificial’ giving. But such giving is almost always out of our excess, after we have looked to our own ‘needs’, which may include such fripperies as vacations or a new car. Giving out of our abundance is not generosity as biblically understood. Christ comes amongst us divested of everything. It is out of this emptiness of possession he gives All he has, to us and to the Father.  That is Generosity.

The story of the widows mite needs to be read in the light of this ‘divested generosity’ of the Son of God.

‘Only joking . . .’

I have been thinking lately about that quality that we call ‘a sense of humour’.

For some it is thought of in terms of being a national characteristic. Something shared amongst people of a similar outlook.

A friend told me before I came to New Zealand that I would be OK here, for folk would ‘get’ my sense of humour. He went on to say that I wouldn’t go down quite so well in the USA. Indeed when I visited those shores 15 years ago or so, I was alerted to that. Things that I saw as being funny weren’t perceived so as my hosts. Sharing a meal, a place where in my life laughter has found a home, was a very different experience for me.

This isn’t to say that American’s don’t have a sense of humour!!!! [doing my level best to avoid unintentional offence!! 🙂 ]  Like most folk in the Western world, I grew up with US humour streamed into my living room via the TV. I ‘got’ ‘I love Lucy’, ‘Happy Days’, Frasier, and ‘The Simpsons’. I came to appreciate American humour because in some regards I was immersed in it over a period of many years (as you will have realised from the list of programmes (sic! 🙂 ), and learned over a long period to appreciate its particular characteristics and nuances.

Humour to ‘work’ requires relationship. It took me time to learn US humour – my long suffering congregation are gradually learning mine (not ALL humour is shared between Northern England and Southern New Zealand 🙂 ) – and my VERY long suffering family have learned to smile weakly . . .

But what is it for humour to work? It is surely when the joke is Shared – when there is sufficient commonality at how we look at life to see the humourous, for we both stand in a similar position. In other words it requires Love.

Thus the bully uses humour to hurt. As a school teacher I regularly heard the defence, ‘I was only joking, Sir’. Much stand up comedy it seems to me is laced with such a distant approach to its subject. So, recently, many laughs have been harvested in the UK over the death of Margaret Thatcher. In a sense one may well argue, that this is precisely what I have been suggesting is healthy. It was the common experience of those who lived through the years of her premiership that enabled the humour of the various comedians to work. Except of course it was still out of relationship – Mrs T wasn’t there to share in the laughter . . .

The best Comedy, and my favourite comics are those who observe the absurdities of our lives, in other words, those who teach us to laugh at ourselves 🙂

Which brings me to my point – before we learn to laugh with others, we need to know them, and above all we need to be honest with ourselves

Life giving humour comes from the place where we are able to laugh at ourselves, gently and kindly. Like all things that are truly life giving, humour requires us to be at peace with ourselves, which is perhaps the first step to living in peace with others.

This is a lesson I am still learning. The more God reveals to me of myself, the more I have to make a choice, either to despise myself, or to laugh at the absurdity of myself 🙂 If I choose the former path, I will still use humour to wound – but if the latter then I might learn a greater sensitivity to others – and thus discover more occasions where we can laugh together.

One of the interesting thing about scriptures is that laughter is almost entirely portrayed negatively. [Indeed if you put laugh into Oremus Bible browser there is a salutary lesson to be learned from the word in which the letters ‘laugh’ are most commonly found]. And yet this should not surprise us – so much of the Scriptures find people at war with one another and with God (literally or metaphorically). Which can only occasion harsh and derisive laughter.

Laughter is perhaps one of those things which more than most belongs to the End, one of those things which we need a lifetime’s schooling in that it might be life giving. We must Know each other and be utterly safe together, before we can laugh. I know that in my own experience, those with whom I laugh most freely are those whom I have known for many years, and yet it is Still a learning experience.

This experience is renewed each day as we look in the mirror, appreciate God’s humour – and the staggering fact that we are unreservedly loved.

Put another way – learning to be funny is at once uneccessary (look in the mirror 🙂 ), AND a lifelong task.

Holy Saturday

There are times in Priestly ministry when its representative character is thrown into starkest relief. When Black and White lose any overlap. Life and Death is the Clear choice.

Today the church observes Holy Saturday. For many of those who note this day it is a day lacking a story. Jesus is dead. Easter is not yet. But that isn’t the fullest story.

‘He descended to the dead’ we recite in the Creed. But this is no passive slumber. No, today Christ is Harrowing Hell. The One who is The Word, the Alpha and the Omega, taking our last words and trashing them. The Living One is The Last Word.

Last week I was called from the slumber of a day off and bidden to follow Christ into a hell, to proclaim Life in the midst of Death. A young man, 20 years old had died by his own hand, and the church called me to step down into the Hell that this was for his family.

On Maundy Thursday I conducted his funeral – a church packed with young people few if any conversant with Christian faith, facing something that had left them utterly numb, facing Death, nothing else. With no other story.

As I waited outside church for the family I was forcibly struck by the contrast of attire. For all these young folk, Black was the only colour on display, from black dresses for the girls, black ties, and a shed load of sunglasses to hide from the fierce late summer antipodean sun. Despite the ‘modern’ predilection for avoiding death, for ‘celebrating a life’, there was no doubt in these young people’s minds, no hope. This was about Death. It was a funeral.

‘Contrast of attire?’ I was privileged to have as many years The Reverend Christine Clarke as my spiritual director. One of the first 12 women to be ordained priest in the Church of England, I learnt far more about Christian faith and life from her than anyone else over the years, by a substantial margin. The Wisest person I have ever known.
When as a callow seminarian I trained with Christine, I asked about the suitability of her funeral robes, white cassock alb and white stole. She said, ‘what else do we have to offer as Christians but the message of the Resurrection’

I have to say it took me a while to learn this, deep down. Then as a Good Protestant, this was way off my radar. I had learned that it was my job ‘to comfort people but not to give false hope’. ‘How can you proclaim resurrection if they weren’t Christian?’ How can you? How can one proclaim Life in the midst of Death?

But I have come to see that that is precisely what we are to do, to be the church, as a priest to represent the church, to follow in the way of Christ and boldly say ‘No’ to the narratives of death.

And so amidst all the black there I was, in white, the contrast all the sharper in the blazing sun.

Several people have asked me for the sermon I preached and I attach the text.

But I ask you to read it on one condition, that if you do so, you will join with me and the people of the church I am privileged to serve, in praying for the soul of a young man named Ross, and also for his family.

I know that for some of my readers this will be way outside your comfort zone, but this is where Christ bids us go. This is Holy Saturday. Christ Harrows Hell. Let us follow him boldly in prayer, for according to The Last Word even the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

Amen
Today as we gather in this place to remember Ross, to pay our respects, to Grieve and to mourn, to share together in our confusion and pain and loss – we do not do so alone. We are not alone.

We meet in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We gather together as a community of people knowingly or otherwise bearing the image of the God who has created us and given us life, the One who is Community in and of himself, as the Christian faith asserts God is Love. And made as we are in the image of the God who is Love, then our lives are expressions of that Love in which we are made.

Put another way, as the poet John Donne said, ‘not one of us is a Island’, and your presence here today expresses that truth, not one of us is Alone, not one. However much the dark spirit of this present age might whisper to us ‘you have to stand on your own two feet’, ‘you have to be self sufficient’, ‘no one can live your life but you’ the presence of so many here today shows these are lies. If these things were the truth about us, then there would be no-one here today. If these things were true, then there would be no pain, no grief

It is close to impossible to find anything Good to say about the circumstances in which we meet, but perhaps if when we leave this place and go out into the world, we have learnt better to deny that life is about standing on our own two feet. To say ‘No!’ when someone tells us ‘you have to be self sufficient’. To know that leaning on one another bearing one another’s burdens is not an occasional necessity in difficult circumstances, but the very fibre of what it means to be human, that to be alive is to be deeply linked to everyone we meet – to know that we are never alone – to know that we are not self sufficient – to know that we are made to lean on one another – then perhaps Good may yet come out of this

All of our lives are inextricably linked. What is joy if not shared? What is Sorrow if not shared? What is Life if not shared? To be Alive is to be joined one to another, to live in mutual dependence, to need other people, and to be gift to other people – it is the meaning of our lives – that we are created By Love, In Love and For Love. It is the fundamental Truth of our existence – as your presence here today testifies.
And so I say to Ross’s family – you are not alone – you are held in Love. And here briefly I’d like to pay tribute to Ross’s close friends who have not stayed distant but I know have expressed such love and support to Ross’ family these past days – keep it up folks – we will contnue to need each other – it is what our lives are about.

And it is because that is the Truth about us, that our lives are inextricably bound up in each others, that there is so much pain today. Because Love is the foundation of who we are, when that Love is denied, it is as though the world falls apart.

We cannot make sense of what has happened. A young man has taken his own life. Yet Ross was so full of Life – happy, spontaneous, Kind,  the one who gave a running commentary on life and scrapped with his brother in the back of the car on long journeys. None of this makes any sense. He was so alive, he was and Is so joined to so many – his Life was not a life of isolation, no life is. This makes no sense – it is a deep contradiction of Life

None of us know why Ross did what he did – we cannot know and we are not here to judge. Speculation is hopeless and ultimately despairing and we need to turn from that. What has happened has happened, but the very fact that we are all gathered here today is testament that we are refusing to allow this to be the Last word about his life – that it is not the last word about his life. The last word is that Ross Is Loved. And that the pain and the grief and the searing loss we know here today, his family most of all, is a sign of that profound Love. Here on this terrible day, this day that no-one wanted ever to see, in the midst of the darkness and the suffering, the Truth about Ross is revealed in its fulness, He Is Loved. He is Held, He is not Alone, and neither are any of us.

And not even because of who he was, he was loved, he is loved purely because of his very existence. In all the stories that we have heard, in all the words that yet will no doubt be spoken about Ross – no words can in the end describe him, for Love is the meaning of our lives and we cannot express that, we can only know that it is the fundamental truth about each one of us.

We heard a moment or two ago the words of Jesus. To many perhaps these are words we have not heard before. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me’.
In the midst of our Grief and Loss, we hear an invitation. These words of Jesus he speaks to his closest friends the night before he is cruelly put to death. He is telling them, tremendous darkness lies ahead of you – but there is one who holds you in the darkness. Love is the meaning of your life, you are held in Love – Trust in God, trust also in me.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, it is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross for the sake of Love – and Christians live through this each year and we walk on to Easter Sunday, when beyond all human hope, Christ is raised from death. Love has the final Word. He is the Way and the truth and the Life – He is the meaning of our Lives made flesh – He is Love. And Love never fails

We do not have any resources in ourselves to go through these days – No! By the Grace of God who is Love and in whose image we are created, we have resources  amongst ourselves – we have Love for one another –  let us live and lean on that Love.

Amen