Feast of The Presentation 2018
The Lord shall come to his Temple
“I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
Today we celebrate The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Hidden from the gaze of the world, the infant Jesus is brought as the law prescribed to the Temple for the purification of Mary. Bringing with them two turtle doves, as Leviticus 12:8 ‘If she cannot afford a lamb, she shall take two turtle-doves . . .’ Of course we leap to readily to the assumption that Mary cannot afford a lamb, or maybe she does bring a lamb, or indeed the Lamb . . .
Temple worship – temple ritual and rites – it all sounds very strange to our ears, after all, we’ve moved beyond rites of purification for women after childbirth – blood is just that, blood . . . Yet if we are to recapture a Christian imagination we need as I said a couple of weeks back to get rid of the word ‘just’ from our vocabulary . . . To See where we are is to have the eyes of our heart enlightened, our Imaginative world illuminated by the Truth of our existence. Blood is not just blood, the Temple is not just a religious building in Jerusalem two millennia ago. And we’re not alone in needing our imaginations opened – even Mary and Joseph marvel at the words of Simeon and Anna the prophetess – in a sense they also do not know where they are, or who indeed is this child
Over my holiday I was reading the latest essays of Wendell Berry – the farmer, poet, essayist and novelist. Having read him for some years now, I was very aware of the how his essay writing, always excellent had developed a deep maturity as he comes towards the end of his life. He writes about our relationship with the Land, with Place, with Earth and Soil – and much of his energy has been taken up writing about the despoliation of the world brought about Modern Agriculture. He reflects upon several generations of farming by his family, of how the land bears the scars even from the days of the first settlers in his native Kentucky – before the machines came – revealing a lack of sensitivity to the Creation – and with our readings in mind and pondering Berry’s writings I couldn’t help but be drawn to almost the closing words of his finest novel.
This beautiful work is the life story of a man named Jayber Crow, told in his own words, and a story richly woven together with Nature, Place, People and very very beautifully textured. It is the story of a small town barber, woven into which is the story of a secret love – of Jayber’s love for Mattie Keith, someone he watches grow up in the township, and marry Troy Chatham.
Chatham looks at the land he inherits from Mattie’s father as ‘Resource’ – he wonders how to make more money from the land – a typically modern preoccupation. As in this Rational Scientific age we’ve stopped asking the question, ‘What Is the Land?’ We now only ask – what can I use it for. . . so he gives up on the uneconomic mules and borrows money to buy tractors,. These of course he is assured will make him a better farmer. He fells the old stands of trees which are in his way as he goes for a monoculture farming. On hills and slopes that cannot bear it. Pretty much as we imagine human beings are, he treats the Land also as Tabula Rasa, a Blank slate on which to write his own story. So All the boundaries come down, and all the woods are torn up, All except for one small wood. The best of the woods, which Mattie’s father has left to her, The Nest Egg.
Troy like so many small famers caught up in the bewildering abstract world of ‘scientific farming’ and ‘high finance’ gradually ruins all the land, until all that is left is The Nest Egg.
And then Mattie falls terribly ill, she goes to hospital where it is clear that she will die. Whilst she lies in her hospital bed, in one last desperate throw of the dice Troy sells this beautiful wood to timber men to pay off some of his debts . . . but Mattie gets to hear
At the End, Jayber goes to visit her in hospital where she is slipping away. Emaciated and wired up to the machines of Modern medicine – she senses him come into the room and tells him what he already knows “Jayber, Oh, he’s cutting the woods”, and then “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
And one cannot hear those words from a good Christian writer without hearing the familiar words of Simeon “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . .” But as the words of Jesus ask us, ‘do we know what makes for our peace?’
Another book I read was the simple and beautiful ‘I heard the Owl call my name” The story of an Anglican priest living with and amongst the Inuit in Western Canada – reading that I was haunted by the constant reminder of the Deep Sadness in the eyes of the people, as they saw all that they held dear, most especially their place within the Creation, as like so many before them they too were ripped up like trees, moved out of [sic] the land by well meaning people – all in the name of progress
Well you may ask – what on earth has any of that to do with the Feast of the Presentation? With Jesus coming as a child to the temple?
And you would not be alone. Curiously amongst the several versions of the Lectionary for this Sunday our Lectionary is unique in telling us that the Psalm set is Psalm 24, but ‘just’ verses 7-10. These verses about Lift up your head you gates, lift them high. If we were paying attention we’d note that we used the whole Psalm. but surely its just these 7 verses which are about the Lord coming to the Temple – the rest is about Creation. ‘The Earth is The LORD’S and all they that dwell therein, for it is He who has established it upon the seas, and set it firm upon the rivers of the Deep . . .’
The compilers of our lectionary would have us separate out the Creation and The Temple . . . As I have said before Temples are placed in The Temple. The Genesis account of the Creation with its seven days matches the ordering of the tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple in its sevenfold structure
You cannot separate them out . . . but we have. Temple and Creation. For example how often do we hear words like ‘Well now we must get out into the real world to do the Real Work of The Kingdom . . . what exactly have we been doing here? What holds the universe together? Our efforts? Or our prayers? Does Praying actually in some True sense ‘Do’ something?
the idea that Worship is like going to the petrol station for a fill up . . . Do we realise, do we See what we are doing when we are here? I have spoken from time to time about the movement in Space which takes place in the liturgy. Is it ‘just’ a model? ‘Just’ bread and wine? ‘Just’ words? Are those amongst whom we sit ‘just’ other parishioners? What is human being anyway?? Who are we? What are we? Where are we?
And that disconnection from a sense of the Vital livingness of Worship is mirrored in our lack of Seeing where we are beyond these walls. The Creation. Do we Realise Where we are?? I think that those Native Indians with their deep sad eyes Knew and Saw precisely where they were? Mattie Keith Saw. “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
To give s simple example, our rabbit sees better 🙂 I agonise I must admit over having a rabbit in a hutch(and yes I know, the Wrights let theirs run around everywhere 🙂 We are experimenting a little with free rabbit movements but where we come from there are foxes 🙂 ) Yet, here is the think, it is meticulously careful with its space – it doesn’t foul it all . . . It knows where it is, and it takes care of it and the rabbit droppings are located in a very small space.
Question? If we really Understand that we live in and are part of the Creation, the The Earth is The LORD’s, how can we possibly take it to the brink of complete destruction . . .
Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
He Sees – as he looks At The LORD coming to his Temple.
This Creation is The Temple of The LORD – as the prophet says ‘The LORD, whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple . . . but who may abide the day of His coming, and who may stand when he appears . . .
Worship Matters, The Creation Matters – but as woven together – for The Earth is The Lord’s and everything in it
It is all His
As we ponder His Coming to His Temple, we may well ask, have we Cared, have we tilled and kept? Or have we been Casual?
Jayber Crow, his life woven into the land lies down in the soil in a clearing – he became one with the [Creation] but was anything but at peace – ‘I heard the motors speeding along the roads, and [along] the rivers, the tractors in the fields, the airplanes in the sky, and always, always that chainsaw in the woods. I heard the big trees tearing and breaking their way to the ground, and the thump of little creatures run over on the road . . .
This is the World of Faith – to SEE – it is no easy antidote to the World, it is to Know its truth and our place in it . . . and it is also to See our Salvation in Christ who as the Centre of Creation gives light to all who ask. True Faith is Woven into the fabric of Creation – for Creation is God’s and cannot be known or lived in apart from God
Let us pray that the King of Glory may come in
Let us pray that we Know the things that truly make for our peace
The Fullness of the Glory and Wonder of the Mystery . . .
So, Ella and Brett are married . . . In ancient lore, the newly wed couple leave the reception in a car from which hangs a sign saying ‘Just Married’, but as anyone with any experience will tell you you are never ‘Just’ Married – Marriage is far far more than a mechanical human agreement and contract – it is ‘a Mystery’ That is it is something which we can name, but the depths of we can only point towards – as if you saw the entire universe in a moment and everyone asked you – ‘What did you see . . .
In the same way as you are never ‘just’ married, and as I said a few weeks back, you never ‘just’ pray. Books on ‘how to pray’ as if it were a simple mechanical act strip Prayer of its ‘Mystery’ its depth, its very Life.
Our World would have us do this – I remember in my High School Biology class being told that if you added together everything that a human being was made of in terms of your chemical composition, you could be sold for about $2 . . . depending on the global price for minerals prevailing at the time . . . Defining things as ‘just’ this or that or the other, stripping them of their Mystery kills them. As the Romantic poet William Wordsworth noticed, ‘we murder to dissect’ . . . and I would say that The Modern World is an act of murder which would leave even Herod looking like a kindly grandfatherly figure in its reducing the World and the Human to ‘just’ this or that or the other . . .
The Ancients were very very wise to and alert to the danger of this ‘just’ness. They warned against ‘mere appearances’ that to live by mere appearances was to be enslaved. We of course live in an age imprisoned by appearances – Plato speaks of those imprisoned by gazing eternally upon images of images, appearances of appearances . . . He could have been prophesying the smart phone on which we gaze unceasingly at images of images . . .
And it is all too easy as Modern people to take The Christmas Story and package it in ways that lead to such imprisonment by the Gaoler ‘Just’ . . .
I always prefer to listen to the beginning of John’s gospel and at midnight, not only because his words take us beyond words, and it is in the dark and so we are on the edge of things seen and unseen . . . I prefer that than to listen to Luke on Christmas morning, when the sun is up and the story is comfortably familiar . . . For our imaginations I think have been captivated by endless images – endless nativities and children in tea towels, and the story is so far from this . . .
We often make the error of ‘simplifying’ things for children as if they had no sense of Wonder as if perhaps their Vision was less developed than ours . . . So the nativity is demystified to a children’s tail, or demystified by simplistic readings of the text
We would prefer to paddle in muddy shallows than take the risk of getting lost in the Wonder and Immensity – Yet even a little acquaintance with the times of Jesus quickly lead us into the rip tides of Mystery. Aslan is Good, but He is Not Safe . . .
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Any Jewish reader of these words is cast not into a world of Irish linen wrapped around children’s heads but into an Ocean.
The First Born Son – the Great High Priest of the Temple of God – the manger – or was it Jerusalem??? The word in Hebrew for manger, ‘ebus is almost the same as the old name for Jerusalem, j’ebus. Wrapped in cloths – the First born Son of God is clothed in garments of glory – ‘there was no room in the inn – ‘There was no Logos in the hidden place . . .’
The Christmas Story takes place in the ‘hidden place’ away from prying eyes. Kataluma, the word we translate inn and so have endless children saying ‘no room!’ sounds like ta’aluma, the Holy of Holies . . . in an age of terror, when to be a follower of Jesus would lead to your being ostracised and thrown out and possibly killed, the Gospel Authors carefully cover their tracks but leave enough signs for those who know. Better to have careless folk speaking about ‘Jesus being born into the arms of a cosy middle class family,’ beyond the kataluma, than the Great High Priest coming to the Holy of Holies, or the Garden of Eden indeed, in an animal feedtrough.
The Christmas Story is no call to sentimental childish play, nor a call to ‘social justice’ for there was no room for Jesus in the inn . . . no the Great High Priest of God comes forth and is clothed in garments of glory, not in the holy of holies in Jerusalem, but in a manger overlooked by Ox and Ass for as the prophet had foretold, Jerusalem does not know its ruler, but the ox knows its owner and the donkey its masters crib . . .
The Story is not what it appears to be, and we are caught up in something much much bigger than ourselves, something illimitably glorious, and on occasion, when we are not caught up in ‘mere appearances’ if we can look up from the lifeless ‘just’ness of things, if we dare get out of the mud pools – the Power and The Glory may for a moment ‘transport’ us, not away from here, but to here – away from ‘mere appearances’, from the world of ‘just’ this or ‘just’ that to world Transfigured by The Fullness of the Wonder of the Mystery. To live as new born children of God is to be caught up in this
And so to the Epiphany – the Unveiling, the Oh My! – the breathtaking as the magi come from Arabia – bearing gifts. I must admit, that final verse of ‘We three Kings’ Always Catches me – Glorious now, Behold him Arise, King And God and Sacrifice. It is one of those moments in worship in which one becomes tuned, resonates with Transfigured Reality
Matthew brings us into this world through the story of Herod, the magi and the Star. A story Rich in more than ‘just’ – for the Ancients, nothing was ‘just’ this or that. The idea that one might speak of the stars as ‘just’ balls of gas in the sky, was as foolish to them as reducing the human to a bag of chemicals – it was to kill the world off, when in truth everything around them said the world was full of Life!! Except there is always that which seeks to destroy life to rob it of Wonder and Glory, to demystify. So the star is not just a star – it points beyond itself. Probably a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a rare and Wonderful cosmological event – lying as seen from Jerusalem over Bethlehem, and in the tradition the Sign that many hoped for, not least because of Herod, of whom one commentator wrote ‘a man of great barbarity to all men equally and a slave to his passions’ – he pronounced that his three sons would succeed him and then had them all executed before he died – early Christian tradition associated him with Wormwood, the star that fell from heaven spreading bitterness and making bitter he waters, in the Book of Revelation. Although there is no historic evidence of the slaughter of all those under two years of age in Bethlehem, this is certainly in keeping with a man who had many of the priests of the Temple killed for their prophecies of a star and the end of his reign . . . in and around the time of the birth of Jesus
Matthew pulls us into a world in which we are not in control, Vivid, at times terrifying – a time in which the heavenly bodies were signs, portents and also announcers of Great Hope.
So the wise men come to Jerusalem, where of course they should perhaps have been looking for a manger . . . and finally to Bethlehem where they laid before him three gifts – Gold Frankincense and Myrrh – much has been made of these gifts, but again old traditions linked them to The Garden of Eden. Pre-Christian stories told of Adam pleading with the angels to take the perfumed oil from the garden that he might continue to offer worship to God. Christian texts tell of Adam being buried by Seth his son along with the Gold and the Frankincense and Myrrh, having been brought them by the three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael . . . and Coptic Christians to this day depict the three magi bearing gifts as having wings . . . so the Archangels present the gifts to the Second Adam, the one who is in Himself the New Creation, Restoring the True Dwelling place of God . . .
“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
So, what is the moral of the story? What can we take away and use? . . . In a real sense nothing. If the world is ‘just this’ or ‘just that’ or ‘just the other’ then it is less than it is – we judge it by appearances and put it to our uses. it is ‘just’ resources, dead matter – as are we, something for us to make something with and of . . .
The Epiphany is The Unveiling, that the Wold is not ‘just’ anything — It is The Manifestation of the mystery hidden from the beginning of Time – in the truest sense Mystery for it is at once True and beyond our Comprehension, beyond our Grasp to use as we will.
It is not so much something to ponder . . . .and then ‘set out to live differently’, it is something to be caught up in, carried away by, transformed and transfigured by.
Here is the Centre of the Creation – its Source, its embodiment, in Wonder, in Glory – the very Mystery of Christ Himself.
Behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice, let us dare to be caught up with the magi angels in the Worship of Christ . . . then perhaps God Himself will Do something with us . . .
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
‘Eyes to See, Ears to Hear – Where and When we Are’
The other day, I was sat under the St John’s Oak, when I was joined by a male blackbird. He danced around on the lawn and continually chirruped – it took me several minutes for me to work out that he was talking to me 🙂
Now I realise that rumours of my insanity abound, but . . . when I was in England in June, I spent a day deep in the Devon woods learning about the five bird languages, the five different songs each bird has. The Blackbird’s chirrup, to which I was listening, and watching as his ruff bobbed up and down, was his ‘Contact’ call. That is the song the bird uses to establish if there are any of its own around.
Well the blackbird – looking at me with his beady eye – hopped closer and closer, until working out what he was doing, I replied. He didn’t recognise my feeble attempt at its contact call – and turned to the characteristic ‘Alarm’ Language as first he flew off, but then other birds in the vicinity, warned by his panic scattered, and for a few moments the air was thick with these alarm calls spreading as far as the ear could hear.
If you start to learn bird languages – Almost always, the first you would know would be the alarm language, for we pay little attention to the birds, far far less than they pay to us. Thus as we begin to learn to listen, we are still insensitive to your place in the scheme of things – we don’t know how to behave amongst birds and by default they are terrified of us. Bird watching may be a hobby for a few, but even then most of the time we pay them no heed, getting on with what we deludedly call ‘our own lives’, as if our lives had nothing to do with theirs. So we don’t live amongst them with gentleness and sensitivity – and they Flee! For we have no Sense of Where we are – of how We fit into Creation . . .
This is must be said is a particularly Modern failing – our Culture has very little or noo sense of our place in the scheme of things, how to live within the Creation. We may be able to give a detached ‘scientific account of it, but we do not Sense it, we do not truly Know it.
We have so much power, moreso in this age than in any other, and have used that power to separate ourselves from the wider Creation. Thus we live as an increasingly angry bull in a shop of the most delicate china. We have exacerbated this, even amongst ourselves, by dismantling so many structures and ways of living together, a sort of scorched earth policy for human existence. And all this is made worse as we have become almost an entirely Urban species, in practise if not always in location. Our sphere of the senses all but entirely taken up with human artefacts – only seeing ourselves reflected back to ourselves. At every turn a humanly constructed environment, disconnected from The Creation, living in increasingly angry echo chamber of anti social-media. Place in Creation? – its for the birds . . . And so we are ‘homeless’
Unlike the Birds We have little or no sense of our Place in the scheme of things. Of who we are, of where we are in Place and in Time . . . Where are we? What Time is it?
Yet our Mother the Church in her Wisdom gives us a Place and a Time. And the Time is the beginning of our Year, Advent. This Time I given for Slowness. It is the beginning of the Year – we are called to Awaken – a time for Waking to Awareness – a time for Contemplation. This is the beginning of the Church Year and we should, despite every temptation not to, take time to Wake up to where and When we are, that we might Sense Where and When we are.
And indeed we Can do this. We have been given the capacity to See, to Hear, to Read the signs of the times. Jesus would not ask us to do something which he had not empowered us to do.
Last week you may remember our brother St Paul spoke to us of his prayer; that a spirit of wisdom and revelation be given us as we come to know the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory [Eph 1:17-18] Coming to know God in Jesus Christ is the key to Seeing, to Hearing, the Key to all Knowledge and All Understanding. Knowing God in Jesus we have made Known to us who we are and where we are. Apart from knowing Him, this knowledge is hidden from us. He is the Door which allows in the light of the knowledge of all things in heaven and earth
And so as Paul opens his first letter to the Church in Corinth he does so with a reminder of our Capacity for Understanding Where and Who we are.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When we speak of reading the signs of the times – like a home owner who commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch – as Jesus says he has already told us all these things – Paul says we have been given the necessary gifts to discern as we spend time in prayer before God, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened. If these words of Jesus sound strange to our ears, perhaps it is because our spiritual senses and gifts have atrophied, as we have ignored the sense of our place in the scheme of things. And the Times . .
Of which there are strong echoes of our times in the words of Jesus
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
Words which speak powerfully of disorder on the Cosmic Level – affecting Everything. And what do we see around us but the collapse of the created order, and with it, woven through it, for we do have a place whether we recognize it or no, the collapse of social orders and structures. And, yet insulated by our Modern lives, Do we Truly see? After all, if we cannot walk down the drive of the Church – if indeed we do walk anywhere! – and Know our place in it within the Creation, how our lives relate and impact on all living things even at the most basic level of our relationship with the local birdlife, then how do we think we can read the signs of the times?
Note how Jesus so often uses the wider created order as a metaphor – consider: the lilies; the mustard seed; weeds and wheat; indeed even the humble sparrow – to whom I will return. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
For too long perhaps we have now lost sense of how the spiritual and the material participate in each other – this is of course the heart of our faith, that heaven and Earth are woven together in Christ Jesus – this weaving together is ‘the message of Christmas’ for which Advent is our time of preparation. Losing that sense we think Jesus is engaged in a simple metaphor, as if there were no connection except in our minds – whereas for his listeners, they had a far deeper appreciation of that woven togetherness – that the Creation told a story of Spiritual significance – for it is the Temple of the living God, the Home of God, from which in a sense he has gone away for a time . . .
Finding our place in Creation is finding our place where the material and Spiritual are woven together, inseparable . . . it is to find our Home
So disconnected are we, that I wonder what Jesus might be saying to us, to get us to Wake Up!
As he said to Nicodemus, If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? If we do not know our place within the material order of things, and it is woven into the spiritual order in Christ, how can we know our place in the Spiritual order??
Well, briefly let’s try – and in our imagination sit a few yards away, under the oak. And thereof we have eyes to see – we see several things.
It is strained – the building of the Rest home dropped the water table – and it is out of place, an English oak growing in alien soil, the weather too warm and dry for it – see the black fungus which decks its twigs – read the signs. We Moderns think little of place and how vital it is to health and move things around, yet everything that was given in Creation was given in a place – it thrives in its native soil – even Vicars :-). None of us are the same wherever we are – where we are is so important in the story of who we are. As humans we cannot just ‘go where we like when we like’ without doing harm to our very existence. We need roots because we need water. The roots of the Oak are wounded and yet it bleeds sap through its leaves at an alarming rate – it cannot keep on at this speed – What does it speak to us?? Out of place and hurried – a ‘metaphor’ for our Modern world – Accelerated we live in a culture of faster and harder and More . . . like the oak we will not see out our full span of years at this rate.
and perhaps for Now, for Advent? Are we Slow, Do we Know where we are?
Advent is a Gift given to us – a season in which we might yet step back, to pray, to watch to pray for the renewal of the Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation, of knowledge and understanding.
We cannot do this without Seeing the Creation, not purely as Scenery and Views, but Knowing ourselves to be woven into it – our place in it – What it Really is, and who we Really are – like the prodigal – consider, come to our senses. Use the Eyes to See and Ears to hear we have been given – heaven and Earth woven together. Advent is preparation for The Feast of the Incarnation – the woven-ness of all things – if we do not See in Advent, how will we See Christmas?
The Creation – It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch – we get so so tied up with the ‘how’ of Creation – Creationists vs Evolutionists, that we completely miss the point. What Has God made?
A place, The Place God chooses to make a Home for Himself – The Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us . . . and leaves us to watch over it
I close with that doorkeeper, on the watch.
Consider the birds of the air . . . If you are at all attentive to the birds, you will know the Sentinel bird which keeps watch here. No it is not the mighty eagle of St John the Evangelist – it is the humble sparrow who nests in the adjacent beech and from the early hours, sits on the corner of the roof of our house. His call is a contact call and also what we might call background song – the humble sparrow hasn’t a wide vocal range 🙂 but that call is nearly incessant, indeed if you pay too close attention to it it can drive you nearly mad 🙂 He is the Sentinel. He watched the whole patch. Usually he is the first to see a cat. He is often the first to spread the alarm call as his cheep quickens and gets a little higher ion pitch. He knows his place. He is alert to what is going on around him . . . He reads the sign of the times . . . and others around him pay attention. We are Called by Jesus to be watchkeepers on God’s House, His home
Jesus says we are worth more than many sparrows. This advent, let us not be too proud to learn from Him [Let the reader understand]
Sermon for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A 2017
‘Good Lord deliver us’
‘And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But anyone who endures to the end will be saved.’ Matthew 24:12-13
Last week we briefly considered ‘Ontology’ – the question of ‘What Is’, of ‘What we mean when we say ‘Existence’’. And for getting into the heart of the matter, I think that you could do far worse than talk to a farmer. Of course, coming from a farming family myself I may be biased, but Farmers are very connected to the Earth – they are grounded, we might say ‘humble’. They know far better than most modern people how dependent they are on a hundred and one factors which we pay little attention to – and know it not purely academically, they know it, because they live in it. They have a deep appreciation of Existence.
I remember well how the farmers in my old parish back in England spoke a great deal about climate change for it was affecting their rhythms and patterns of work, and I remember one particular conversation with a farmer who expressed to me his deep concern about Modern folk. That they had never lived through periods of food shortages. That as a society the folk memory of famine and want had been all but erased – for whom food shortage ‘was a thing of the past’, ‘something that happened to other people’. For not since the second war had folk experienced what it was for Everyone to know that food was short. My farmer friend thought this bode ill, that we had for too long lost sight of the importance of food security and agriculture to our daily lives, of our dependence upon the Good Earth, for history taught that famine was an ever returning aspect of the cycle . . .
In one of my churches we had a piece of furniture which was once common – The Litany Desk. On it lay a prayer book open at The Great Litany, a series of prayers with the repeated petition, ‘Good Lord deliver us . . .’ From amongst other things, ‘plague and famine and want . . . ‘
The idea that we might as a congregation pray weekly for deliverance from plague and famine and want, that we should be continually looking to God to preserve us from these things was something that in the eyes of my farmer friend and church member, something we had lost touch with – As Henry reminded me from Scripture – ‘we live in the seven years of plenty, but there are always seven of famine round the corner . . .’
Yet prayers about deliverance from plague and famine and indeed much more – seem to us to be ‘culturally irrelevant’. Would we give ourselves to pray the litany, three times a week? I must confess that in my own cultural blinkers, I removed the desk . . .
And what then of the Psalms? The prayer book of the Church as we know, but do we Know it? How much do they touch our lives , as we perceive them . . .
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonour who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’ turn back because of their shame.
Do such prayers apply to us? We who have everything we need . . . One of the hallmarks of our age and culture seems to be its easy self sufficiency. Written deep into the myth of these Islands is ‘we enjoy the good life’ I remember a few years back reading a piece in the Star asking why the entrepreneurial spirit amongst Kiwis was not as strong was in other cultures and the response was – because here you don’t have to put in too much effort for the three Bs – BMW, Boat and Bach – or if you’re from a different class, Barbie, Beer and Bach . . . The good life – sit back with a glass of chilled Savvie blanc and watch the sunset . . . And say to your soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
And in so many ways the sun is setting – certainly over the Church which is rapidly dying in these parts? Perhaps because we have no sense of our Roots, of our Earthiness – of our Dustiness – of where Life truly comes from? Of our sheer dependence on everyone and everything that surrounds us
. . . and under all, in all through all and coming to us if we did but see, the Deep wellsprings of the Life of God who in Christ sustains everything – Christ – sustains everything . . .
No one is crying out – ‘Why have you abandoned us??’ No one seems to be praying, ‘From a collapsing Church – Good Lord deliver us’. How strong is, not our doctrine or our idea of our mutual dependence on one another and God, how Strong is our Sensation, that embodied perception that Knows that the myth of Independence is a Shallow and deadly lie, that in truth it is God who is Life, who sustains our lives moment by moment. How is this Perception lived out amongst us?
Independence tells us we can do it for ourselves, that we have ‘our own lives’ and that is how we experience life in the modern world if we have a modest income. This becomes the narrative of our existence, and even the church acts as if it is more or less independent of God
Last week we pondered Jesus’ beatitudes, His startling accounting of those who were blessed. Of how his words were Emphatic – Blessed are the meek – for THEY shall inherit the Earth . . . Blessed are the poor, meek, mourning, hungry, persecuted – THEY shall inherit.
What marks out the Blessed in Jesus terms? Those who are in need, in necessity – those who do cry out day and night to the LORD, Good Lord deliver us – those who knew their dependence on kindness of others and the goodness of God, not as dry doctrine, but embodied fact – Blessed are those who know the truth of their existence . . . Blessed are those . . .
‘who cry out to God day and night will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
Blessed are the un-noticed – Blessed are those who are looking for God’s coming to them . . .
Blessed are those who long for his appearing, for they will not be careless with the oil – they will be prepared – they will be ready. The parable of the wise and foolish differentiates between those who are attentive, those who know their need and their insufficiency, and those who have become careless, who consider their life is their own.
Jesus having preached several parables against the Pharisees, now warns his disciples. Your Master, your Rabbi is going on a journey – things are being put into your hands – there is a very stern warning in the verses before our parable which puts it into context – Jesus talking to his disciples says
Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.
But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(As one writer wryly asks – ‘which we may ask is worse, to be cut into pieces or to be assigned a place with the hypocrites . . . 🙂 )
So we have the wise slave who attends to his masters business, who is attentive to his coming, who knows his Life is tied up with his masters, who is caught up in that Love from the Lord, and too the Lord, which is the heart of mutual existence – and the wicked slave who gets distracted, separated out. The wise bridesmaids who are ready with their oil, and the foolish who haven’t given any thought to preparations, for what would they Need??
This parable with its stern closure – ‘I do not know you’ and the previous warning to the disciples take us back to that Sermon on the Mount which begins with the beatitudes of the needy, and takes us to its closure – its ending – the wise and the foolish.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
Distracted from the small works of mercy, by grandiose schemes and plans – unknown to the one who comes in smallness and humility
Then the parable of the Wise and foolish – those who hear the words of Jesus, are attentive to his word, and act on them – the Wise who build their house on the rock of the words of The Other . . . and those who don’t – those who don’t act on the words of Jesus and build their house where they see fit . . . Which house will stand in the day of the Lord’s appearing?
It is a story about an approaching storm – The Day of the Lord as spoken of by the prophet Amos. Amos the uncultured shepherd prophet, who throughout cries out words of warning to the comfortable
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
Caught up in mutual independence in our neediness and love; or Independent, thinking ourselves to have a life of our own, not anchored to anything or anyone?
I must say I Love his turn of phrase – ‘as if someone fled from a lion only to be met by a bear!’ but its message is sober and clear
The closing verses of the Psalm place us – place us within the Reality of our Life before God, who Is our Life and give us a rejoicing Hope, and Orientation towards the One who comes to us in the Name of the Lord
Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, ‘God is great!’
But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!
A storm is coming – Good Lord, deliver us!
Jesus said ‘Truly, Truly I say to you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood, you have no life in you’
A catchy sermon title is always helpful 🙂 I have a friend with whom I meet up all too infrequently, and when we do get together we have a common lament ‘Why is no one interested in Ontology or Metaphysics?’ because without Ontology or metaphysics, you don’t know which way is up! . . . Metaphysics, of which Ontology is a subsection, is concerned with the Question of ‘What is?’ Or to put it a little more helpfully, what is the true nature of Reality. Our conversations are usually held over large cups of coffee, but I am sure that if we are granted enough years we may well graduate to Whisky and pipes 🙂
Of course this revelation might be met either with complete incomprehension – ‘What has that go to do with anything??’ To which the answer is it has Everything to do with Everything! Or, ‘Well I’m glad someone is thinking about these things, but the rest of us just get on with it!!’ To which the only reasonable response is – What is the It with which you are getting on?’
For it must be said, if the underlying story of our existence by which we live by is wrong, then we are in trouble – and if the Western World is anything to go by, then it might be safe to assume that we have the wrong story, or The Wrong Metaphysic . . . Certainly we seem to inhabit a World which is not conducive to Life. Modern Culture is wiping out Life on Earth at a rate that were it a LOT slower we might call Alarming. Somehow the Modern Western Culture doesn’t fit ‘within The Great Scheme of Things . . . and as for the Life of the Church, it would seem that the Western World is similarly Ill disposed to the Church – some form of decline pretty much everywhere you look. The collapse of the Created Order, and the Collapse of the Church . . .
Of course, someone might say, well at least here in the West we are free to worship without fear . . . yet we must ask whether this is truly a hopeful sign? If a Culture that is destroying everything is happy to let us do what we want in this reagard, then perhaps we actually believe the same story. Perhaps we have the same Metaphysic, or ‘we’re just like all the rest’ . . .
. . . which brings us to today on which we celebrate ‘All Saints’ . . . and to be a Saint is to have a very different metaphysic, to live out of a very different story, a story which I suggest leaves us at odds with the culture in which we find ourselves . . .
Saints – Moreover the problem of being a Saint in the Modern World – And we might find ourselves on familiar ground here. Back on the ‘on the one hand, but then on the other’ ground’ The Church and the Real World, Clergy and Lay people, God and Caesar . . . Saints on one hand and then on the other, we run of the mill Christians . . . Except that isn’t true . . .
The word Saint in Greek is Hagioi – it is the direct translation of the word ‘Holy’ in the Hebrew קםש — Set apart for God.
As we heard in Leviticus last week ‘Be Holy for I am Holy’ – as Peter tells us ‘Be Holy for I am Holy’. This ‘Holy’ is not primarily a ‘moral’ word, rather it is a Metaphysical Word – it is to do with Existence – it is a form of Existence – Yet we have a problem with the word Holy which in our culture has a ‘moral’ feel to it – in Te Reo, Tapu gets closer, but then we have to translate it and when we translate any word aside from words about objects, we always mistranslate – so we might call it ‘Sacred’. But none of these really do, words that are so shaped by our World –
As Always Jesus expresses it this ‘holiness’, in HIs Being, and his Speech
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;
for [your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
If we go into the depths of what it means to be a Saint, one of the Holy, it is this, it is to be a Child of God. Note how Jesus expresses our action – Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good . . . This living out of the Life of The Father is the Christian Metaphysic, and is beautifully revealed in the heart of prayer, when we say The Lord’s Prayer
I was asked recently, why do I use the words ‘As our Saviour Christ has both commanded and taught us, we are bold to say’ as an invitation to pray the Lord’s Prayer. (Words which come from the prayer book of the Episcopal Church of the US) Why? Because surely it is more than a little bold to pray in such a way as to Assume a relationship, that we have been born of God? ‘Born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God’
What is more we pray out of that assumption. Forgive us as we have forgiven, ‘We have lived as your children , reflecting the Divine Image in the World, Loving our enemies, forgiving all and sundry – therefore we make a claim on you, the One from whom our Life comes, the one who is the source of the forgiveness with which we have forgiven.
To live out of the Life of the Father, in imitation of the One whom we Love with all our heart and soul and mind. Jesus is of course the First amongst the brethren, the One who only does what he sees the Father doing – His gaze is on the Father and as we set our Gaze of God in Jesus. Being Holy, Being a Saint is the same as Being a Child of God. It is knowing Life from God – it is having a different form of existence in the World
An old Saint of the church died a year or so ago. To this day I don’t know her name, but someone who was with her when she died told me a beautiful story which I think speaks to this and indeed to the whole question of Metaphysics, what we are, and why Christian metaphysics is incompatible with the story the World tells about itself, insofar as it has a story.
Shortly before she died in hospital, which itself tells us much of the World’s story, a doctor on his rounds who hadn’t met her dropped in. Making small talk . . . for without a better metaphysic what Are you going to talk about? . . . he asked her ‘Where are you from?’ And without a moments hesitation our Sister replied ‘From God’ . . .
In our Baptism, we are identified with Jesus, marked as His People, and we are granted the Gift of the Divine Life – the Life from above. This life is unlike other life in the world, although it is the source of all life in the World.
The early Christians were not seen in modern terms as ‘one religion amongst many’ Those are terms set by the Modern world with its categories and boxes, trying to manipulate things to fit in with its story. No, they were seen as a separate Race, a new humanity and such language fills the Scriptures of Course – as St Paul says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, S/he is a New Creation’ a New Creature – through the Life of God in Her, she is a foretaste of the Once and future Kingdom of God
And if we still don’t get it, this Different Metaphysic, then what of the words of Jesus? Do they speak to us of the world around us?
Blessed are the poor, the poor in Spirit, the mourners, the meek, the pure in heart, those hungering and thirsting, the persecuted for the name of Jesus . . . They are the Blessed.
Certainly we cannot see the world as Modern people and find the words of Jesus are anything but madness . . . they are incompatible with the Modern World . . . The Meek inherit the Earth? No, the Powerful, the strong etc etc It is no surprise that the words Jesus are continually being twisted and reinterpreted for in the Modern World they are Irrelevant . . . you won’t get far in the Way of the World if you take Jesus at his word. How are you going to get on in school, in your career, in getting a good standard of living etc etc with this blessed life?? Taking Jesus at his word, Jesus who Manifests This Life, finds us living out of a very different Metaphysic, a different Existence
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, that he had come from God, and was going back to God got up from the table, took off his robe and wrapped a towel round his waste. You see if You are not the Source of your own existence, if you don’t have to prove yourself, make a name for yourself, ‘get on in the World’ – then you do not have to secure your existence in the World – you don’t have to make it fit, you don’t have to make it relevant, you can just let it Be.
The story of the Modern World is that you are responsible for Your Life – You create our own life. As one writer puts it, it is hardy surprising their is such an epidemic of depression faced with the Command to Be Yourself . . . But if your life is not your own but comes as Gift from The Father, and what is more it will return to the Father, then that struggle falls away. We are Free with Jesus to be the poor in Spirit one, the mourning, meek, pure of heart one, the hungering and thirsting one . . . The Blessed One. Free to be Saints –
Whatever story the world has of those who are blessed it isn’t the Jesus story – indeed the two stories are incompatible. The story of the modern world is epitomised by the Skip which was on the lawn last week. We who are no more than a collection of atoms, mysteriously living, for we have no story about what Life itself is, beyond a chilled white wine and a nice view. . . dig dead matter out of the ground, exert our will on it, make it into something, sell it to someone, who eventually puts it in a skip and it goes back into a whole in the ground. Insofar as there is a dominant story about what it is to be human, it is veering towards a similar disposability of dead things.
It is a story moving from non existence to non existence, a story From death to death
Jesus said ‘Truly, Truly I say to you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood, you have no life in you’
We are her to remember who we are – to remember our story as Christians
Our story – the story of the Saints, the Story of The Children of God is from Life to Life – from God, To God, The Divine Life – and shedding Light and life abroad . . .
Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity
The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 2017
‘Look to the Rock’
Jesus and The Church
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Jesus Christ and his body the Church is the joining place of heaven and Earth. It is the link between the life of God the Creator and His Creation. It is the Sacrament of Sacraments, it is the Door of the Water of Life flowing into the Creation, and it is Obscure. It does not readily yield itself to human gaze or enquiry. Frankly if we are looking for a likely people on whom to rest our hopes, then the people of God down through the ages do not leap off the pages of history as likely candidates – and if we are looking for a likely Saviour, then Jesus of Nazareth – an obscure Jewish Rabbi of sorts, although he hardly fits the bill even within the Jewish Rabbinic tradition, who lived two thousand years ago in a remote corner of the then ‘global’ Roman empire, whom we are told died on a cross and some crazies assert rose from the dead – well put like that He seems the unlikeliest of Saviours.
No wonder that Paul speaks of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and Him Crucified as ‘foolishness to the Greeks’. Looking for a sophisticated message about the true meaning of your life? Nothing to see here . . . at least for the Sophists . . .
What is more, given all that, it is perhaps no surprise that the church speaks less and less of Jesus Christ, Son of God. It is easier and more in the keeping with the vague spiritual notions of an age which has lost its way to go on at length about ‘The Mystery of God’ – not that the chrsitian Tradition has ever been in denial about the mystery of God, but has insisted to the embarrassment even of those called to proclaim this faith, on Jesus of Nazareth as the only entry point into the Mystery of the existence of God – and the Door for the Life of God to be manifested in the world . . . albeit in obscurity. For facing the Crucifed One all our images of God as we would wish Him to be lie shattered and in ruins.
The notion of God as the one made in our image, shoring up our insecurities by triumphantly improving the world, in tune with the spirit of our age finds no referent in Christ and him crucified. It is easier by far to posit Jesus as a teacher of Wisdom, as yet another guru of The Human Potential Movement, telling us how fabulous we are if we only knew it – if only he had associated with the right people . . . If only God picked his representatives better it would be plain and obvious . . . if only God didn’t join himself to an obscure people as the vehicle of his Redemption . . .
Of course flesh and blood cannot reveal to Peter the truth about Jesus – who would have guessed?
And as her God is obscure and hidden so too are the people of God, although rather like the Wizard of Oz we like to puff ourselves up
Have Important Meetings
Build mighty cathedrals
But God in his mercy brings us low once more – directs our attention to the Rock
Look to the Rock! The prophet cries out ‘Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you’
Look to the rock from which you were hewn!! Abraham??
Abraham and Sarah? We remember that Sarah laughed at God’s promise. God makes promises which we laugh at, and we join Sarah in her laughter – We forget that Abraham laughed first. Abraham couldn’t see the Salvation of God, it took many years journeying before he began to learn to believe
Isaac, Son of laughter is the fruit of a man and woman who laughed at God’s promises. The first fruit of that promise – which grew into the people of God . . . who continued not to get it. Who are far from a picture of steadfast maturity in faith
Look to the rock from which you were hewn . . .
We do our children no good when we feed their imaginations with stories of ‘the heroes of faith’; airbrushed characters who subtly suggest to us that our salvation lies within ourselves, and that if we only pulled our socks up and generally tidied ourselves up, we could save the world
And Peter . . . The Rock . . . and now it is we who are laughing. Peter, the Rock???
Of course those revisionists of the history of the people of God get round Peter’s failings – his betrayal. His speech at Pentecost is the straw at which we clutch – suggesting to us that being a spiritual superhero is on the cards . . .
Again we airbrush the history
We conveniently forget if we ever knew, that years down the road, in Galatia, Peter is at it again, saving his own skin. Siding with those who think this whole Christianity business is a matter of what we do, of correct religious observances – not to do with God
‘Guilty by association’ we say – the God who associates himself with such as these, He cannot be The God . . . so we remodel. We move the Jew, Jesus away from the Centre and thus His Body The Church also. Lord knows we have more than enough reasons to do that . . . I mean, what can you say about a supposed Saviour who would hang around in such company??
Look to the Rock . . . Look To Abraham, and Sarah in their unbelief, Look to Peter in his cowardice, Abraham in his deception, Peter in his Arrogant presumption, Peter in his deceit, Abraham in his trying to do God’s work for Him, and what about the Church, do we not all have many reasons to reject the centrality of this body in the purposes of God . . .
The point is this – simply put the people of God down through the ages are, well they are sinners . . . because God in Jesus Christ doesn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners in need of repentance. Given that we believe in One who hung out with those at whom the world looked in askance, why do we suggest he has now changed? That he would now disassociate himself from those the world mocks?
Flight from the God who makes himself know to us in the obscurity of God’s sinful failing, lying and deceiving people – people who occasionally have flashes of brilliance, whom hear the word of God and speak it, but often are asleep to this Great Salvation – Flight from such a God who makes himself known in the obscurity of Jesus – is a flight from the reality of our human condition making us prey to ‘other gospels’ – disembodied gospels out there – if we don’t have to deal with the supremely messy people of God and their obscure Saviour hanging dead on a Roman Cross . . .
Trying to speak of God apart from the messy and often shameful history of God’s people, and apart from the scandalous particularity of our faith – that God was in Christ Jesus, Reconciling the World to himself in a tortured twisted and broken body upon a Roman Cross, for the sake of a bunch of sinners – is to disconnect God from our Life – it is to break the Sacramental connection by which God takes hold of us – it is in and through this mess and obscurity that God takes hold of us and loves us and blesses us, and finally heals us from our Sin. It is the Way of the blessing of God
Look to the Rock! Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many
Look to Peter and how in the presence of Jesus the Truth flows from the Father into the World You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
Finally look to Jesus, the Christ, this broken Messiah, the Rock which Moses in his anger struck in the Wilderness, and that Rock was Christ – we look to Jesus the Rock for He associates with us – we sinners
The Rock on whom we feed in a sip of wine and a scrap of bread
Nothing to look at – obscure. Like his people once more in this age, nothing about Him that we might desire him – our Life – His Life in our hands at this table he has set for us
The one in whom our Father in heaven has made known to us – the Christ, The Son of the living God. The One in Whom heaven and Earth are joined in and through his body – His Church. And therein is not only our hope but the Hope of the whole world, foolish as it may well seem