Sermon for Second Sunday before Lent OT7 YrC 2019
‘The Goal of Christian Existence’
Three weeks ago, we heard ‘God does nothing because he needs to. There is no deficiency in God. He is complete in and of himself. He needs nothing, there is nothing he has to do. There is nothing you can give to him, nothing he needs from you or I.’ Thus God is radically Free. God does nothing because he has to – nor does he do anything because he needs to – and what is more he does nothing because he chooses to . . .
Put simply, God purely does God. His Being, His Existence and what he does are one and the same.
‘Why does God love?’ we might ask, as if he needed a reason, but this is to seek to understand God in our terms, in the way we like to go about things. Sovereignly deciding whom we will and will not love, or indeed ‘choosing to love’.
This is the deeper import of Jesus words to us ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?’
Jesus’ words point us to the inadequacy of our language ‘If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.’ And we say, but that is what ‘lending’ means! After all, this or that or the other is mine! You can’t go lending with no expectation of receiving in return!
We look always for a return.
We learn from the world around us that if we love others we might receive love in return – if we do good to others, also, and if we lend of course we will get paid back . . . and so we restrict ourselves to those circumstances where nothing flows out from us
We might hear these words of Jesus and think that we might Choose to do otherwise . . . but that is not the nature of God. We might choose to give without seeking a return. We might choose to love those who hate . . . Again we retain our sovereignty – it is about Our Life and what we choose to do with it . . . but God does not Choose to Love – God Is Love.
Jesus says ‘he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked’ – it is not his choice, it is His nature . . .
The idea that ‘there must be something in it for us’ is woven deeply into our hearts and minds as it is ‘the way of the world’. We imagine for example that if we behave in a certain way, we shall ‘go to heaven’. Or indeed ‘believe in a certain way’ . . . It is down we think to our choice – we retain control . . .
So when I ask a group of young people ‘What is the point of being a Christian, they all respond along the lines of ‘well I get this of that or the other out of it . . .’ – ‘Knowing that there is someone there for me’ is an answer I commonly hear and indeed it is an underlying account of how we often think of Christian life. So we might say ‘I don’t know how people cope who don’t have a faith’ How prevalent are such thoughts – except of course that a very substantial number of folk indeed seem to get on perfectly well without a faith.
Of course, in an age where we know less and less that there are people there for us – our lives more disconnected by the day, fewer deep acquaintances etc. etc. The Knowledge of God, Knowing God is a huge consolation – but this is not the point, or better the goal of being Christian. Indeed it might even help if we got rid of such a way of speaking about the matter. For our faith is not fundamentally a set of beliefs, or ideas – it is a form of existence in the world – it is nothing less than the very life of God in us.
Over the last few weeks we have considered first how ‘those who discover that there is nothing better to do than to follow Jesus, are the ones who discover that there is nothing better to do than follow Jesus’ Indeed it is a Life the like of which we can only begin to know as we leave our lives behind, and follow him, who Is Life. Jesus is not about fixing our lives, he is about giving us a new life. Only those who in the world’s terms do not have much of a life find it easy to accept a replacement life. Blessed are you who are poor . . . but woe to you who have the life you want . . . how can we receive the life of God if we are comforted by the life we have?
The word for comfort, is the same root word for The Comforter – the Holy Spirit! So it is the desolate poor who on the day of Pentecost with ‘nothing better to do than to pray’ receive the paraclete – the Comforter. – the Holy Spirit – the very Life and Being of God
We need to remember here that the image is not a blanket 🙂 Rather it is the one who strengthens – enlivens. Brings to Life and action. The poor receive the Life of God – the Kingdom of heaven.
(I’ll return briefly to last week’s sermon in a moment for it raised a not unexpected question for some folk about the poor and the rich. )
It is only when we recognise this that we begin to make any sense at all of Jesus’ teaching – indeed Jesus makes it quite clear, but perhaps we are so taken aback that we do not hear his explanation.
‘Love your enemies . . . that is do good to those who hate you’
‘bless those who curse you . . . that is, pray for those who abuse you.’
‘If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Now, one brief caveat – although I am very wary of giving caveats as we will try anything and everything to rationalise away the simple teaching of Jesus in this regard – but regarding turning the other cheek, I do not think for a moment that what Jesus envisages here is where someone is trapped in an abusive relationship. Jesus himself walks through a crowd threatening to kill him. What is in view here is someone who in their weakness is fully in command of themselves – who are truly themselves in a most extraordinary way.
We must remember that Jesus is not speaking here of a moral code, a set of behaviours! They may be understood as such by someone who observes them, but Jesus does not die to make bad people good, to give them a new ‘way of life’, a new code to live by – Jesus dies to make dead people live. Not merely a life beyond death – rather a new life now
Jesus tells us ‘But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.
This is the goal of Christian Life – that we become children of God. What does John say in the prologue to his gospel? ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ This is what that elusive phrase ‘born again means – that we are reborn with the very life of God – and we thought that the talk of loving those who hate you, giving to everyone who begs of you’ was challenging!
This is how God Is! It is His very being! God is we might say pure act – He is Love – Love is his essence, as much as we are flesh and blood.
So God gives and gives and gives his very Life – which is revealed to us in His Son given to us and for us. The Son proceeds from the Father and so to the Spirit – the Life of God – just pouring out. And so God is utterly free. He has no code by which he lives, he doesn’t think ‘i must keep the 10 commandments’
Those who live in that way are not free. For they are confronted by choice, they must make judgements, their lives are lives of careful calculation and to quote Henry Thoreau, quiet desperation. No one who has to choose – who has choice is at all free. For they have as it were come to themselves.
Are we free? Jesus says ‘Give to everyone who asks of you . . .’ if our hearts and minds rapidly fill with a thousand qualifications then we are not yet children of God – our life is not yet the life that comes from God. We do not know in the words of St Paul ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’
I was asked regarding ‘Blessed are you poor . . . Woe to you who are rich’ “How poor is poor, how rich is rich?’ And of course if this is a matter of calculation these things matter to us – but there is no calculation in God. No desiring something in return for his love and kindness – it is his very self.
We might better say, if we simply give freely and gladly to all who ask of us, without a moments thought or consideration, if we love without discrimination, – if we do it because of who we have become – then our poverty or riches in terms the world judge is immaterial! We are becoming what we were created to be, children of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Not calculating whether to love, not even choosing, indeed having made the final choice – to relinquish our choice and thus know true freedom
May we, with Jesus, only do what we see our beloved Father doing. May we know His Life in and amongst us
Sermon for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Evensong YrC 2019
Things that enslave take us away from home
One of my earliest memories of parish ministry involved a difficult situation regarding a request for a baptism. The circumstances are now certainly immaterial, but what stuck with me was the words of the father of the child – ‘everything I do, I am doing for my children’.
He was referring to the seemingly endless hours he spent working, away from home. It is perhaps as Martin Luther put it, we sacrifice our children to our gods, or perhaps our idols. those things which ensnare us. Perhaps in the depths of our story, a story of our being alienated from home – we discover that we lose home because we want. . . we know not what . . . somehow ‘it is out there’ We leave home chasing a dream ‘to be like gods, and discover the world of ‘work’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread The work of Home is one that we have forgotten
Working away from Home is in many regards a powerful expression of our Modern lostness. Indeed it would perhaps not be putting it too strongly to say that ‘homelessness’ is our contemporary condition. We too readily assume that owning a house is the same as ‘being at home’. I think it not too much to contend that unless we give ourselves to the work of home making, we are all lost in every sense of the word.
This condition of our leaving home in pursuit of a delusion – is powerfully evoked in the words of Wendell Berry. Berry, for those who do not know him, and I recently heard him referred to as ‘the most important writer no-one seems to know about’ is a farmer. From his farm in rural Kentucky he looks out at the world – and writes of our modern condition. Not least on the relationship between work and Home.
Amongst his many insightful comments, Berry says that that he is unaware of any man who considered himself to be liberated because he had to leave home to find work . . . leaving home is not a good thing.
Some folk don’t have the choice, indeed much of the history of the human race is that of people being displaced – leaving home to find . . . yet Home is where we belong. The Story of God’s people is a story calling them to home, from Abraham on, and yet they are constantly lured away, not finding home beneath their feet
And I suggest that we have lost our sense of home. Certainly it is hard to think that any rational being would treat their home as we have treated the earth . . . whilst we chase after . . . what? Berry in his poem ‘The Timbered choir’ calls ‘it’ ‘the objective’ – what follows are extracts from a longer piece.
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
. . .
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, . . .
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
Looking for ‘the objective’ ‘which they did not yet perceive in the far distance, having never known where they were going, having never known where they came from . an idea, an idol . . . our hearts set on . . .
The story of GOd’s people is exactly this – of chasing after idols – and the consequence is they find themselves far from home. Enslaved in Egypt, and as we heard tonight exiled from the land . . . perhaps the perversity of our age is that we have grown so accustomed to our exile from the land? When in England I worked closely with a drug rehab centre – those most resistant to change, even thought they looked their plight full in the face were the insitutionalised, those who had spent so login prison it had become their safe place, from which they durst not emerge . . . our idols enslave, not just the drug users
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, . . .
And in leaving home, we discover a horrifying truth – the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. Home now must be found in a different way
The parable of the Prodigal is this story writ small, into the story of the son who leaves home for the sake of ‘the objective’, yet ‘comes to his senses’ and sets off to discover that which he had sought was to be found in the place he had left.
The ‘solution’ is to Know God – to be known by God. St Paul as he writes to the Galatians is utterly distraught. They had it all, yet have now abandoned home in the pursuit of idols. He points out that before coming to faith in Christ Jesus, they were ‘enslaved to those things that by nature are not gods. Now however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again . . .? He goes on to speak to them of those people who only wish to use them for their own purposes, ‘They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them’ those who sought to manipulate the world to their ends, to ‘the objective’ become once more enslaved, become themselves manipulated . . . a simple contemporary example would be ‘The Screen’ to use a word which covers a wider area of devices which we thought served us, but to which we have become enslaved and distorted, not least for whilst we are in our houses, we are still at work – away from Home.
Ultimately, as Berry says quoting one of E.M. Forster’s characters, ‘it all turns on affection’. Our homelessness is the fruit of distorted Love. We do not know where we are, for we do not properly Love where we are.
Finally the Truth of our Lives is found in ourLife in God. To find our Home in Him, to Love him in all and through all and above all, is to be Home
Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 2018
Is there Good News for the rich?
Some years ago – actually more than I care to remember, the then bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard produced a book entitled which caused no little stir amongst the comfortable Anglicans of England. It’s title was ‘Bias to the Poor’, and the Bishop writing from the context of one of the most impoverished cities in the country, suggested that this was indeed the case – that God was biased towards the poor. Well not long after the Bishop of the more typically leafy Oxford Diocese, Richard Harries produced a book which gives us the theme for this week. ‘Is there a gospel for the rich?’
Is there a Gospel for the Rich? Is God biased towards the poor? Well – it must be said if God is biased towards the Poor, it is not in the sense that we assume it ought to be – that is God does not seem as it were to set the system so that the poor a ‘leg up’ so to speak, and then can enjoy the comforts of the rich.
Indeed, the comforts of the rich are called into question . . .
For of course I am rather dodging the pointedness of the question of our theme, ‘Is there Good news for the Rich?’
If there is a shift in the Old and New Testaments, it seems not to lie in that hoary old distinction between the God of the Old Testament who is vengeful and judging, and the God of the New who is warm and loving and generally an indulgent elderly relative. No. A, if not the big difference is regarding material wealth – for whilst if you ignore the New Testament you can make a reasonable if not watertight case for the acquisition of wealth as a sign of God’s blessing (provided of course you avoid the prophets . . .) – there is Nothing to give such comfort in the New.
Nothing – Not a jot . . . James the brother of Jesus howls in protest against the infant church which is treating the rich with special deference, after all he says, it’s the rich who are hauling you into court! ‘Howl you rich he says, howl . . . and it gets worse when we come to the words of Jesus
It is odd, or perhaps it isn’t. The words of Jesus are the most ignored in the entirety of scripture – without a doubt, and perhaps in no greater sense than regarding wealth and money. I recall seeing a live interview on stage with a ‘disgraced’ TV evangelist – it is almost superfluous to use the adjective . . . in which said former TV evangelist who shall remain nameless was speaking of what he learnt from his time in prison for fraud and tax evasion.
He said, ‘I had a red letter bible with me in prison’ – that is one with the words of Jesus in red – ‘I had never realised how much Jesus said about the danger of wealth . . .’ and here was a man who read the bible . . . in order to ply his trade . . . funny what we don’t see.
And still I’m avoiding those words myself . . . the words of the Gospel . . . the words of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”
As I said last week – the encounter with Jesus is not one which confirms us in our comfortable view of the world. Blessed are you who are poor . . . Really??? Blessed are you poor?? Because I am going to change things so that you get the same as everyone else?? Perhaps that is how we might want to interpret Jesus’ words today, that He said, Blessed are you Poor, so we need to make sure that those Poor people are blessed . . . Except he didn’t say ‘Blessed will you be when finally human beings get their act together . . . indeed wasn’t it Jesus who said, ‘The Poor you will always have with you?? Blessed are you who Are poor
Of course we could and perhaps do prefer to listen to Matthew – ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit . . .’ Ah that’s better – how convenient – how we love to separate our the material and the spiritual . . . as if they were two different realms – but even if we do we have a problem . . . if Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, he also says the poor are blessed . . . not a message to be met with anything but incredulity. Who could take this seriously??? Really . . . come on Jesus . . . probably Luke just missed out the ‘in spirit bit’ . . . except he doesn’t stop there – Blessed are you who who are hungry now, Blessed are you who weep now . . . Blessed are you who are persecuted,
But still . . . I avoid the Gospel for the Rich – . . . ’Woe to you who are rich . . .’ Jesus really does seem to mean it. His words about the blessedness of the poor make no sense to us who are well off . . . His words to us are like a bucket of freezing cold water thrown over us, ‘If you are rich, you are in trouble . . . wake up!
Of all the words of Jesus which the church has desperately tried to avoid over two thousand years, these are the ones we’ve been most creative with. Indeed one writer suggests that ‘the Reformation, . . . —whatever else it may have been—was a movement toward a form of Christianity well suited to the needs of the emerging middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion’
Like politicians who won’t tell hard truths to the electorate, to ensure they keep their jobs. Who don’t tell us ‘climate change means we are going to have to entirely change the way we live, we are told – we will figure something out so you don’t have to change . . . and the days get warmer – so too the church all too often has sought to water down the terrible warning in the words of Jesus
And I think that it is those words ‘material security’ which hold the key to our predicament – and if we say we believe in Jesus, then we must also believe that we Are in a predicament.
Blessed are you who are poor, and hungry. The kingdom of heaven is yours – Woe to you who are wealthy and well fed . . . Jesus’s words do not leave any wriggle room – and we are on the sharp end.
Last week you may remember I finished with this thought – ‘what if it is only those who have nothing better to do than to follow Jesus, are the one’s who really discover that there is nothing better to do than to follow Jesus’ – The nothings, the nobodies. Those with little or no say over their lives . . . so nobody were they that leaving their nets, and everything they had seemed like a good idea when Jesus came to call them to follow him.
As we know when he calls others who have riches, a solid career, and family and this and that and the other, they don’t follow.
I wonder how those disciples felt leaving everything behind. . . what did they have? Nothing!
And Jesus lifted his eyes towards his disciples and said ‘Blessed are you who are poor . . .’ well they were certainly that. ‘Blessed are you who are hungry . . .’ I guess that they may well have been that also ‘Blessed are you when you are persecuted and railed for my sake . . .’ well that was still perhaps to come, but it would . . .
They were going to find their life with Jesus – those who had left everything to follow him, as Peter was fond of reminding Jesus 🙂 They had nothing, and then Jesus was crucified – they lost even Him, except for a season in which he taught them, then he left them, and like Simeon and Anna – On the Day of Pentecost, they are utterly destitute – yet giving themselves to prayer they receive the Holy Spirit – they receive, the Kingdom of God, the very life of God – were filled with it, because they had no comfort, no comforter . . .
But you who are full now. . . well you’re full . . . how can you receive anything. Your wealth has cut you off from the Life of God. Unlike the disciples you are not vulnerable – you have no space no time, you have so much else that you think it is better to do . . . you have life on your own terms . . . the life you have made for yourself.
‘Woe to you who are rich for you have received your comfort. . . . The word Jesus uses is ‘paraklesin’ . . . it is the root word he uses to describe the Holy Spirit – the paraclete – the comforter.
You have received the life the comfort you sought . . . the Life of the Kingdom, the Holy Spirit? . . . no those things which moths consume and rust destroys
What of this Good News for the Rich? Is there any?? Well of course yes there is, BUT it is a bit difficult. You see the nobodies followed Jesus at the drop of a net, so to speak, but . . . They obeyed his word and set off to follow Him . . . you see that’s all it takes, taking Jesus at his word . . . Good News for the Rich – The words of Jesus – Jesus himself is the Good News.
Give to everyone who asks of you . . .
Again we hedge and hum and her and haw . . . we come up with a million and one justifications . . . Bishop’s even write books about economic systems and capitalism and lose us in a web of abstraction to get us off the hook . . . but only at the cost of ignoring Jesus
We like to say ‘my wealth has no hook in me . . . ‘ and then Jesus says – ‘give to everyone who asks of you . . .’ Everyone – the deserving, the undeserving – we shall come back to this next week
Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say . . . Ah well, we are saved by faith not works . . . so you believe me?
Is there Good News for the Rich? Well not on the terms we’d like to have . . . but yes there is, in the same way there is the Good News for the poor. Jesus offers us life. The question is, are our hands empty to receive it?
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
‘if there’s nothing better to do’
(Last few words missing)
The devil, they say, makes work for idle hands . . . proof were it needed of where cell phones come from 🙂 Of course children of the Protestant work ethic that we are, we tend to think that this means that if you are idle, you’ll easily get caught up in something you shouldn’t be doing, so ‘get busy!’ – but that assumes that we know what we should be doing . . . and that we haven’t just mindlessly and complacently taken on board the stories The World, and its Prince tell us . . .
You see, you could put it another way. What if there was a point to your idleness – that seeing someone watching or waiting, the Devil suggested ‘Here! Look at this! Do that! . . .’ The Devil making work for those hands that were meant to be open and ready to serve – that is is you were waiting for someone or something, you knew not what.
If you were busy, because ‘someone’ gave you ‘something better to do’, then when who or what you were waiting for came along, you would miss out. And what of those others who would miss out because you ‘had something better to do’?
I think about this a lot to do with those good people of St John’s, the ambulance people that is 🙂 I hope that all the time some if not all of them are idle, because if they are all busy, and I need them . . .
Perhaps . . . what if, more mischief is done in the world by those who are busy and ‘important’ . . . and that the truly important things that must be done are not being done, because everyone is too busy with their own stuff? Everyone has found ‘something better to do’
The World is full of stories of ‘the things you could be doing’ The Devil will happily make work for idle hands. It is difficult to look at the world around us and come to the conclusion that everyone is busy doing that which is truly the best – that perhaps we might all find something better, true better to be doing
Last week we considered two people, Simeon and Anna – very old – ‘just’ praying, ‘just’ waiting. They weren’t the movers and shakers of society as it was understood . . . of course that doesn’t mean that it was correctly understood . . . but they were waiting – at rest, Old Simeon, sufficiently at rest that the Holy Spirit could rest on Him, the Life of God could find a home in this man at rest, and similarly Anna – a widow for 84 years, into her hundreds, and she’d had nothing better to do than to pray and fast in that time, oh, and speak God’s word. For she was a prophetess.
Of course we might say, ‘well, they were old, so there was nothing better for them to do . . .’ but they’d been doing this for years. ‘Just’ watching, ‘just’ waiting, ‘just’ praying. And so both of them, people whose lives made no discernible impact on The World as we so readily think of it, were ready when God’s King came, for they had nothing better to do . . .
God’s people were waiting – they were waiting for God’s King. But most of them had in the meantime found better things to do . . . it was only Simeon and Anna, these two elderly people with ‘nothing better to do’, who saw Jesus coming to the Temple, who saw the completion of God’s Work – who Saw the Kingdom of God.
So too the disciples.
If as a Christian you’ve never been given serious pause regarding those who followed Jesus, you haven’t been paying much attention. They are as one writer called them ‘Christ’s Rabble’ A tax collector – that is a national traitor. A religious zealot, and a bunch of fishermen . . . oh, yes, and the women . . . people whom the people of the day didn’t take at all seriously. After all, they came from Galilee, which was itself pretty much beyond the pale. The boondocks, out in the styx, out where the ignorant people live . . .
A little Geography lesson. In the South, you had Jerusalem in Judea – this was the happening place – those was the Wellington and Auckland of New Zealand. This was where the people who really mattered lived and worked. The Important people.
Then North of Judea and Jerusalem, was Samaria, which was full of those terrible people, the Samaritans, and then away up to the North was rural Galilee. The people of the land, the humble poor, just scraping a living, nobodies, or indeed ‘a rabble’
When Jesus goes looking for followers he returns to his home country, Galilee, where the nobodies live, and he calls people to follow him. People with nothing better to do. People whom the world looked at askance and thought of no use to their grand projects – so people not caught up with the story about the life they are going to make for themselves, people just trying to get by.
And the fishermen are doing just that. When Jesus finds them they’re mending their nets. They’ve fished all night and caught nothing. They have nothing to do. No fish to sort or sell. Nothing. Just, well put their boat out for this wandering preacher . . . who suggests that they let down their nets, in the middle of the day when the fish would be swimming deeper down in the lake beyond the nets, ridiculous idea, but the have nothing better to do . . . and suddenly their nets are full of fish and the boats are on the point of sinking . . .
But it’s just these nobodies, with nothing better to do who see the miracle. Of course we might also point out, that like with changing the water into wine, its only those who have nothing better to do who see what has happened – who see the miracle – the little children. The ones who haven’t learnt that ‘they have better things to be doing’
[The little children whose parents haven’t filled their days with activity so that they’re not idle, so they have no space to wonder, so they have no space to wait and watch and follow Jesus.
As parents about the worst thing we can do if we want our children to follow Jesus is to fill their days with activity . . . of course, if they did follow Jesus, who knows what they might do. I think of several young women of my acquaintance who gave up good degrees, good careers etc etc to go where Jesus led . . .] I think it is fair to say that it’s hard if perhaps not impossible for the busy and important to enter the Kingdom of God, yet we all too readily direct our children in this direction.
I know far far far too many adult Christians who tragically tell me how well their children are doing in their careers, and then wonder why they are not following Jesus . . . because of course they have something which in their eyes is better to do . . . such is the challenge of Jesus to the way we see the world. As the God of Israel says, my ways are not your ways, and my thoughts not your thoughts. We should be most wary of those stories about what life is about which are so prevalent, especially when Jesus starkly contradicts them. As we journey on with Luke, we shall come up against these stories over and over again
Simon Peter is struck to the core – ‘get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’ I am a nothing in your eyes. And Jesus tells him, you’re just the sort of person I’m looking for. One who hasn’t got such a high opinion of himself, one who hasn’t got lots of plans for all the things they have to do. One who doesn’t fondly imagine he is God’s gift to the world, something we as Christians are often trained to think of ourselves as. ‘I am a sinful man’ – how can I be of use in the Kingdom. Yet it is Peter who can receive God’s gift to the World, Jesus. This is why we come with empty hands . . . not to be God’s gift to the world, but to receiver it.
If we just follow every distraction, every bright and shining thing, and the Devil has put the gadget for that in your hands – we will never know what it is you are really here for . . . All we can do is join Peter in his astonishment that Jesus would have anything to do with someone like us . . .
Jesus finds his followers amongst those with nothing better to do . . . what if its only those who have nothing better to do than follow Jesus, discover that there is nothing better to do than to follow Jesus . . .?
Peter, James and John and the rest of Christ’s rabble – They had nothing better to do, and discovered that in truth there really was nothing better to do – may Christ give us the grace so also to lay down our nets
Feast of the Presentation Yr C, 2019
‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple’
God does nothing because he needs to. There is no deficiency in God. He is complete in and of himself. He needs nothing, there is nothing he has to do. There is nothing you can give to him, nothing he needs from you or I. He scolds Israel saying ‘I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds. For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. ’
As our Psalm this morning reminds us – The Earth is the Lord’s and all they that dwell therein.
Perhaps the single way in which we are most unlike God is simply that this is not true of us, or at least that is the story we are told. There are many things that we really must be doing. And if we can’t think of any, then the World will offer them. From the ‘friends’ who tell us, ‘you must really see this play, or read that book’, to the absurd, no I correct myself ‘obscene’ idea of bucket lists. ’50 things you must, places you must go before you die’. All of this of course quietly or noisily feeding the monster of consumer capitalism that is destroying the earth – but more perniciously feeding our sense of incompleteness.
Except that we are not born with that sense. It’s a story we tell ourselves, or are told. The children in the garden are in every sense complete. They live in perfect harmony with God, who walks with them in the cool of the day. The Snake disturbs the story by telling them, ‘your lives aren’t complete until you . . .’ and so we have learnt, from the Snake, that our lives are not complete. And so, ‘if we have the money’ – and of course this is a game for people who have money, which is why we have so much credit, for if you don’t have the money, you can’t play the game – we set out to make a life for ourselves – a complete life, because of course our lives aren’t complete. And then in a bizarre religious twist try to place it before God – the finished work of our own personal project, the life we make for ourselves, because of course we were incomplete to start with . . . it is very troubling to recount the myriad forms of so called Christian folk wisdom which start with this presumption, that our lives are incomplete.
When we live with this story we start to look around, at lives that by our standards are more complete that ours, which feed the deadly thoughts of envy, or lives that by our standards are less complete than ours, which feed the deadly thoughts of pride. We begin to look at children purely in terms of ‘their potential’ and our lives are completely stressed out lest we fail to do our duty as parents to make sure our children become complete . . . because at some level we believe that they are not . . . or put another way, they are less than fully human. The idea of ‘less than fully human’ is not the preserve of racists and the like; it is part of the story we all tell, and insofar as we thing there are things we all must do, is the truth we tell about all humanity, by and large subconsciously.
And in such a world, simple communion with God, is seen as a luxury, because after all we have the job of our life project to complete. ‘Can’t hang around here too long Lord – things I must be doing because of course you realise that you didn’t give me a complete life . . .’ Prayer become a means to ‘the greater end’ of ‘my life’, not an end – or better The End, the goal, the Purpose of our lives. And as there seem to be so many much more effective ways that prayer to fill up the gaps in our personal life scrap books, it disappears.
A couple of weeks ago, folk from churches all over Dunedin met with Bishop Steven, to talk together about ‘the future’ of the church here. Such conversations trouble me greatly, they are always far to abstract and end up with the people at the top telling those at the bottom that for the greater good of all, their church will have to close . . . it’s the World’s story – for the sake for he whole, your wood is being bought up, your land taken away, your children ‘educated’ etc. etc., because someone high up is anxious and fears we are all incomplete . . . as if two or three gathering together in the name of Jesus wasn’t enough . . .
But one thing struck me, a comment towards the end of Bishop Steven’s after listening to a catalogue of ‘all the great things we were doing’, ‘I noticed that no one mentioned prayer . . .’
All of which begs a couple of questions . . . firstly what on earth is The Feast of the Presentation all about? How will it help me, how will it add to my understanding, how will it help me complete my life? And Secondly what on earth were Anna and Simeon doing?? Two old people, who have spent their entire lives ‘just’ waiting on God
Well simply, they Saw, they Understood, that the point was actually waiting on God for the Completion of His Story.
First – I want to clear up a ridiculous story that some folk are keen to tell – that is that Jesus was a comfortably middle class child – just like us 🙂 A story put about it must be said by comfortably off middle class people – First, in the time of Jesus, and indeed all thorough history until the late middle ages, there was no such thing as the middle class. Yes, Joseph was a carpenter, but he would have ground out a living in that trade working for whoever would give him work was all other workers did. Second we know because the offering they Mary and Joseph make according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’, the offering for those who couldn’t afford a lamb . . . (Of course they were offering the lamb, but that’s another story . . . )
So, they come to the Temple and there encounter Simeon, and Anna. Anna had been married for seven years, she has been a widow for 84, given the custom of the time, she was like Mary probably betrothed in her early teens, so she was as the scripture says ‘advanced in days, a great many’ . . . over a hundred years old – and how did she spend this time? not leaving the Temple night or day with fasting a praying . . .
And behold! A man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, eagerly awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
The Holy Spirit rested on Him. It is a telling phrase – here is someone who lives without anxiety – he is not hither and thither, his life caught up in a thousand distractions – perhaps he sense there is nothing in particular he lacks? That he Must be busy doing? It is hard for the Holy Spirit to rest on one who is not at rest . . .
And he communes with God – for It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. This was to be a gift to him – there was nothing he had to do to attain it, just sit still, be at rest, Wait.
And so ‘in the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple’ I love that phrase – his life is the life of the Spirit, how complete can you get! The Spirit brings him to this place. Is it not Life in the Spirit to which we are directed by God’s word? Not the anxious life of the flesh which is never satisfied which is never complete
And his words are words of Completion – how appropriate that they are the last words spoken at the funeral of Saints – Lord now wettest thou thy servant depart in peace – according to thy word for Yes! As you said mine eyes have seen thy salvation!’ And he speaks prophetic words to Mary – speaking of the child as a ‘Sign’. The Child is a Sign – there is no sense that ‘this child has work to do’ There is a completeness in Christ as a Child. Simeon has seen Christ – he has seen it all – He is complete – for he has seen the completion which God brings. And he has seen it, for he is one who is at rest watching and waiting for God – for God’s Salvation. He’s not interested in the project of his life – he is only interested in God, watching and waiting for Him . . . As Jesus will say later in the gospel – ‘One thing is necessary’
This is the Completion of the Work of God – The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple. The Completion of the Work of God – he placed the man in the garden. and it was very good. The Child in the Temple – A little child will lead them . . . a child – complete in and of himself, not anxious to make a life for himself, a child who knows he is the child of his father in heaven, and in this is completion and fullness. The final act of Creation is the placing of the True Human, complete in the Garden. And Simeon sees this – his waiting has led to his fulfilment. His life is Complete
Why does Simeon See? Because he is at rest – Why does Anna know this is the One, because she is constantly communing with God . . . and Bishops Steven noticed that no one mentioned prayer . . . Yet, a week last Thursday, the bishop came to his church and together we ten of us, sat and prayed in this place
May this place continue to be a house of prayer; may we ourselves be at rest; may the Holy Spirit thus find a resting place upon us as the Dove found solid ground in the flood; may we know our completion in Christ – and so be set free from the fear of death, from the fear of lives unfulfilled, from the fear of not attaining potential – may we become as Christ teaches ‘as little children’, not knowing any lack, because our Life is in the Father, the One Complete in and of Himself
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Sermon for Advent 2
Year C 2018
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Phil 1:6
Back in the middle ages, a certain set of changes in how people thought about things began to emerge from the prevalent views – largely known as ‘The classical period’. What is most significant for we who live in the Modern world was the rise of the significance of The Individual.
At the same time, the significance of communities – of shared life and existence began to wane, slowly at first, but gradually accelerating. The experience of Life as something richly shared became more and more something only experienced within first family, then nuclear family to the point where relational language disappears. I was in conversation on Friday with someone discussing the increasing prevalence of children calling their parents and other family adults by their first names . . . although there are aspects of this which might be considered a positive, if you have a very negative view of family structures, one aspect of it which we found disturbing was the absence of the language of relationship. Fewer and fewer people used relational language.
In traditional societies it is still common to use extended language to describe relational links – so for example ‘my mother’s brother’s daughter’, as opposed to the Western ‘Cousin’, a word which speaks of relationship but lacks depth.
With the rise of the individual also came the gradual erosion of the significance of the Church. The idea that to be baptised was to be brought into a community, the significance of which took up but also transcended any merely human relationships . . . increasingly took a back seat. Church increasingly became a place to which you came often to be alone. The idea that the people amongst whom you sat Sunday by Sunday were people with whom you shared in a most profound way, Life, indeed Life in all its fullness, evaporated. And the idea that broken relationships between members of the church were remotely significant was dissipated . . .
And so to our readings today
For the wilderness announcement of John, son of Zechariah, is an announcement not to individuals but to a people. The people of God. For too long they had lived as if they were not a people – the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl, yet there was no sharing in life – the announcement of the Gospel is an announcement first of all to the people of God.
The Salvation of our God is something which comes to life amongst a people and it is not an easy work.
The prophet Malachi uses the language of ‘fullers soap’ – the highly caustic soap which was used to wash cloth – to bleach it – to make it Clean and white after it has been woven – again he speaks of the refining of Gold and Silver which could only be accomplished by fire – and the goal of this work? To ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.’
The message is plain and clear – the people of God need straightening out . . . but why? That the glory of the Lord might be revealed, to prepare a highway for our God . . . or as Jesus puts it – ‘by this shall all people know that you are my disciples – that you love one another as I have loved you, that is with the love that the Father has loved me’
It is without doubt the witness of the Scriptures to the Christian Life, that to encounter the Church is to encounter Christ himself. So St Paul as he writes to the churches, almost without exception give thanks for their shared life and its witness as the body of Christ in the world. One of the key exceptions to this is his first letter to the Corinthians where after his customary greeting he as it were draws back and goes on to challenge them saying ‘I hear that there are divisions amongst you’. Splits and schisms, intentional breaking in the Church are literally breaking up the Body of Christ, yet in the age of the individual, such language seems odd
One of Paul’s most commonly used words is Koinonia – that is Communion, or we sometimes have it translated ‘fellowship’, or today very weakly ‘sharing’. In our epistle St Paul speaks of the Koinonia in the gospel – it is a powerful phrase. We express something of this Koinonia in our liturgy. In sharing the Peace we declare – ‘We are the body of Christ, in one spirit we were baptised into one body’, and we share one bread, and all drink from one cup’
I’ll conclude with a brief reflection on what has happened to our faith over this last millennia – and it could be summed up in the words of a bishop who told me that he would have no problem ordaining someone who considered that the Resurrection of Jesus was a ‘purely spiritual matter’, that the body of Jesus lay still in the tomb.
Such thinking is commonplace – but especially in the age of the Individual – so we no longer talk in any meaningful terms of ‘The faith of the Church’.
But there are two significant, indeed fundamental problems with such a statement, not to mention the act of ordaining someone into the church who denies its Creeds, wherein we, the Church, affirm ‘the resurrection of the Body’.
First, to affirm the resurrection of Jesus as ‘purely spiritual’ simply that it suggests that The Incarnation never happened. That Spiritual and material are inseparably woven together in Jesus Christ, that you can separate out the spiritual Jesus from his material being – and as many in the church today push it even further to deny his very Koinonia in the Life of God as the Second person of the Trinity made flesh – has become the unthinking way of the world. To separate the spiritual an the physical in this way is to deny the possibility of the work of God in the material creation, indeed even in ourselves.
But secondly, in the Separation of matter and spirit you separate the Church from Christ, who is woven into us by his Spirit, we deny our Koinonia in His Life. We end up denying that The Church Is the Body of Christ in the World, and consequently that we have any shared existence, for He is our life.
This is of course convenient belief. It is easier to stand outside of the Body of Christ, not to have to go through the process of coming to birth in this body, of having to change how we live out our common life, to give priority to this shared life. It is so easy to take the Individualist line and to participate in Church as it is convenient – for genuinely sharing in life, in having to learn to love the unlovely and as the unlovely learning to be loved in return – is a hard work. It is like fullers soap, it is like a refining fire, it is like the levelling of mountains and the filling in of valleys, it is to have our crookedness straightened and our roughness ground away as if under a sandstone. And these people amongst whom we sit this morning are the soap and the fire and the sandstone
This purification, this setting straight, is the business of being the Body of Christ – that ‘the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ and that the glory of the LORD will be revealed.
Later this morning we shall have our annual Advent Pageant
During it we shall use this prayer
Let us pray
O Christ, the Master Carpenter
Who, at the last, through wood and nails,
Purchased our whole salvation.
Wield well Your tools in the workshop of Your world,
So that we, who come rough-hewn to Your bench
May here be fashioned to a truer beauty of Your hand.
We ask it for Your own Name’s sake.