Pentecost 18 – Awaiting the Resurrection of the people of God

Pentecost 2018
Ezekiel 37
Acts 2

Awaiting The Resurrection of the people of God

At Easter, reflecting on the experience of the women at the tomb who ‘fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ we were reminded that the Resurrection of Jesus dismantles, shatters and devastates all our ways of understanding the world in which we believe we live. But we should be very careful of merely reflecting, of pondering and wondering, of casual day dreaming . . . before we, getting on with our lives, before getting back to what we have become accustomed to calling ‘the real world’, and move onto the next thing. Of course we are quick to dismiss the Resurrection of Jesus, to infantilize it into a vague wish for the future and ‘a better world’ for it calls into question nothing less than our very existence
Rather we need to sit with it, to Wait on this Word of life which was from the beginning – to ask, ‘what does this mean?’ – to allow it to do its work in us. This isn’t our work – it is God’s work and we must allow that space, or ignore the Resurrection, to our eternal loss. And we have been commanded to this waiting.

Last week we considered the Lord’s command to us, to Wait! To Wait for the promise of the Father – to stay put, until we were clothed with power from on high and in the Church Year we see what happens when we are thus obedient to the LORD – the Day of Pentecost – a Day equally marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment

‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.

Only the most casual amongst us would pretend that we understand what this means . . . indeed if we dare face the Truth, we find ourselves not amongst the disciple community, but in and amongst the crowds. Even we who unthinkingly bear the name of Christ find this beyond our Knowledge . . .

We are in the crowds who see this disciple community, declaring the mighty acts of God, each of us hearing it without any need of translation, and with the crowd we ask ’What does this mean?’

Perhaps the greatest distortion of the Christian message is to transform it into something about ‘what happens when we die’. In a sense it is, but not in the sense we have comfortably taken into our lives. Treating out faith as a pass for a nice future ‘after this life’ causes us to dismiss it entirely – it is literally a ‘grave’ deception.

If we truly seek an answer to the question ‘what does this mean’? We must go with the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and allow the Risen Christ to ‘open [our] minds to understand the scriptures’. We by baptism the people of God, have been given the Scriptures that we might know what this means. How quick we are to turn to anything except the Scriptures to come us with an explanation for ‘these things that have happened’ Perhaps we find the question all but impossible to answer from the Scriptures, for they like these things that have happened are alien to ‘life in the real world’

Of course if we are to turn to the Scriptures, we must of course first recognise who we are, the people of God, baptised into His name. That apart form Him we can do nothing, that apart from what he reveals we know nothing. That the Scriptures are not just ‘another source of wisdom we can dwell on,’ but that they are God’s gift, they are our very life support. For the answer to the question, ‘what does this mean?’ is found in the Scriptures, over and over again.

We might say, well Peter explains from the prophet Joel . . . as we have heard so many times, and become accustomed to it, yet not questioned why this Pentecost outpouring is so alien to ‘our own lives’ – so perhaps another Scripture might wake us once more. And here we come to our OT reading from Ezekiel. ‘What does this mean’?
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ Before we respond from either naive acquaintance ‘Yes of Course!, or from the cave of ‘life in the real world’ ‘no’ – we ought to pause – If the strangeness of Easter and Pentecost has taught us anything, at the very least it ought to teach us humility in the face of existence – so perhaps in humility we may respond with the Son of Man – ‘O Lord God, you know.’

Why the dry bones? What are they? Who are they? ‘Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

We are cut off completely. We have been captivated, enthralled, literally been enslaved by the lives we have made for ourselves, lives which can only wither for their source is in themselves. They are not trees by streams drawing life from beyond them. Indeed perhaps in this age unlike no other we have lost sense of life beyond us which we may draw upon

Who are they? As we have pondered often, what do we see of the church in these days? Would we not also cry out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

It is of note that this reading is used in the Easter dawn vigil – as we wait on the resurrection of Jesus ‘early on the first day of the week’, for it concerns mot the resurrection f an individual, but that of a whole people . . . what is the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the King of God’s people the Jews, if it is not the Resurrection of the whole people?

They lie in the dust of death, through ‘ignorance and unbelief’ – choosing ‘life on their own terms’ they have not listened to the voice of the one who addresses them from heaven, that Life, and so they are dead. Dead in trespasses and sin.

‘But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive – together with Christ’

The disciples Wait – because they know they are dead in trespasses and sin. Dry bones do not live of their own accord – they must Wait!

There is a clue to this in what we have come to call Jesus’ restoration of Peter. Actually it is better to call it Jesus confronting Peter with his sin. Why is Peter distressed because jesus asked him the third times ‘do you love me?’ because Jesus is confronting him with his sin. Peter wants to forget, wants to think that it never happened, that he really can do it on his own, if only he is given a second chance. Jesus reveals to him that he cannot. It is the Word of Jesus to Peter – so he has nothing but the command of Jesus to rest on now, to Wait till Life comes ‘from above’, till he is norm again. That Life is the source of the tongues of flame, of the proclamation of the mighty acts of God, and of Peter’s boldness in preaching, in answering the question ‘what does this mean?’ because he himself has known what it is to be raised from the Dead. He has been there, and the Lord has lifted him up

This is the meaning of these things – the disciple community, knowing themselves to have no hope apart from Christ, knowing themselves to be dead in trespasses and sin, began the journey of obedience, Waiting for the promise of the Father, and God made them alive – together with Christ. Easter and Pentecost are one. Jesus the Obedient one is raised to life in triumph, so to his people – those who show themselves to be his people by Waiting on him

Here is the dilemma we face. A problem created by the Church year – which is a gift, but can be a hindrance. For if we are not careful, we will just move on, in part we will listen to the voice which sees the Apostles clothes in power and subtly suggests, ‘move along, nothing to see here. this is nothing to do with you . . .’

But if we are the people of God, then it is EVERYTHING to do with us.

Maybe it is precisely because this Day of Pentecost is such a day marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment,  demolishing our impoverished way of understanding, that we move so swiftly on . . .

May we be a people who WAIT. Wait like Lazarus for that voice that calls us from beyond ourselves and our the live we have made for ourselves, that calls us out of the illusion we have come to call ‘The Real World’, which is never more than our vain imaginings . . May we be a people who Know that apart from that Word we can do nothing. May we like Peter Know our condition and wait for the voice until it summons us forth until it Raises us.

The Voice of Jesus to Lazarus is also the voice of Jesus to all those called by His name in this day. A Loud Voice crying out to us from beyond the grave, the sleep of death which is the life we have made for ourselves, summoning us to something beyond our understanding, a world where Christ is all and is in all.

Amen

Faith, in the World of machines

Unless chaos breaks into our existence, it is all but impossible to conceive of the degree of control we assume we have over our lives. So many dimensions of our Modern existence – dominated as it is by machines – give us the illusory sense of all but total control, to the point where those one or two things which we seem unable to control, often in the arena of personal relationships, assume a dimension which consumes our waking hours, and troubles our dreams.

For the myth we live with is that our lives are what we make of them. Not only do we assume we have the capacity to choose and to choose well, it is possible to have ‘the life we’ve always dreamed of’, and indeed that nothing or no one ought stand in our way as we strive towards the realisation of Our Dream.

We are lulled into this first by our extraordinary monetary wealth. ( From time to time I ponder the difference between my own extraordinarily wealthy existence and that even of my parents, a mere 50 years ago. Of how my father who had for the times a reasonably paid job, wondered about whether he ought to spend a few pennies on the evening newspaper. Of our first car that was so broken that it nearly brought my own life to a premature end – I could go on) Money comes with the false promise of control. After all we use it to buy things without let or hindrance. It gives us a large degree of mastery which we may well internalise as a sense of control over our very existence. I get what I pay for. And then again we work and live with machines which by and large do what we ask them to do – we have even developed this to the level of machines which we verbally command; ‘Alexa . . .!’.

And then we have the machines – which are dependable to an extraordinary degree, witnessed by the stories of their infrequent failures. Aeroplanes fly millions and millions of miles without falling from the sky, ‘the blue screen of death’ is now a very rare visitor to our on demand, on screen our existence.

Of course few of us have everything we truly want. Relationships break up, people get very ill – perhaps we ourselves, our bodies age, friends die unexpectedly, and so we howl ‘It isn’t meant to be like this!! and demand our own version of the cosmic ‘Alexa’ comes to our rescue to put our lives back on the tracks we have decided to follow. Of course this cosmic servant may only be our ideological opponents, but someone or something ‘should get this sorted’

Any sense of not being in control is to a large degree foreign to us, so regal have we become in so much of our existence, surrounding ourselves with uncosciously selected friends who tell us how right we are to want what we want, and to rail when we do not have it. ‘Leaves on the line’ of our lives MUST be cleared – ‘how could we allow such things to happen in the C21′ – the world of machines’

This world is a world in which faith is all but erased. Back in the C18 folk used to talk of ‘the god of the gaps’ – and in those days there was rampant TB, life expectancy was about half of what it is today, death in childbirth was a tragic commonplace, there was no ‘safety net’. Now the gaps are comparatively speaking microscopically small. We live in the bubble of life on our own terms, and God has all but departed the scene except as a theological problem when life does not deliver on time and in accordance with the agreed Terms and Conditions. And Gratitude?

 

The Idea that things aren’t meant to work out in the way our small imaginations had supposed, is offensive to us ‘This must never happen to you!’, precisely because, conditioned by existence in the world of wealth and machines, we assume that we are in charge of our own destiny. And it is quite possible that the LORD says to us ‘so be it’, and we are given over to our desires in a world stripped of Grace, not recognising that we are not our own . . .

I was drawn to think this through the realisation that I live with this illusion myself. That it is at times all but impossible to hear the voice which says, ‘one thing you lack . . . let go of that which around which you have shaped your own life story, and follow me’. ‘Follow me into places and circumstances you cannot even dream of for they do not dwell in your own unenlightened imagination ‘lit’ only by the feeble flame of your own fires, the things you tell yourself you know’

But our sense of control, our terror of not being in control nails us to an ever narrowing mountain ledge over what seems to us to be a chasm of bottomless darkness, terrified of losing our grip, as our hands tire and weaken . . .

Jesus offers us a Life that is Alien to us. It is a Life that is not our own. It is a Life that we can scarce imagine. We are terrified of it, for our lives are too small in its Majestic Scope, and our eyes are unaccustomed to its Light. It is a Life of which we are not the Author, and over which we have no control, for their is no compulsion in Love . . .

Waiting – Trees of Righteousness. Easter 7 (Ascension)

Sermon for Ascension Sunday (Easter 7) 2018
Psalm 1
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

‘Good things Come . . .’

“Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”] Acts 4:4

Just this week I learned that those who control global investments of money use data downloaded from Spotify, the music streaming service to predict with uncanny precision what will happen in the money, markets. The question ‘are people going to buy things or not?’ can be answered with great accuracy, by looking at their choice of music.
When you add to this Facebook’s apparently true claim to know its users better than they know themselves, and thus their ability to control the behaviours of its users, and experiment they themselves carried out, it is worth asking the question which occupies philosophers in these days, ‘is there really anything such as free will?’ If human beings are so predictable using powerful computer algorithms, is it not the case that we are all just caught up in a machine in which we are highly manipulable and dependable cogs. It is frankly a terrifying thought, yet the Modern World is founded on such a set of assumptions, not least that the human is no more than a biological machine. And the problem with machines is that they are without Hope in any meaningful sense. What will be is what is encoded and laid down . . . where does our help come from? Where might anything New break in to change this story?

The Church is meant to be that place. God in Christ has broken into our world to reveal a Newness of which we would never have conceived. The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead, betokens this Life of God breaking into our existence as something beyond our way of understanding, and today as we look back not only to Easter and the Ascension of Jesus into the heavens, but look forward to Pentecost is time for not only considering the Nature of this Life, as we have been doing, but also how this Life is so transmitted in the world that we might be set free from the machine life we seem inexorably to be drawn into.

What is it that might be a lifeline, bringing in Life from outside of the machine? Or is it purely a closed system? Of course it is hard to answer that if we only use the language of the machine, of closed systems and our way of speaking about the World is so Modern as to offer few clues, but perhaps our Psalm, written from the non-machine age might speak to us of how Life comes to us from outside the machine, Life which may yet preserve Life in the World and call forth a Newness to a ‘tired and weary world’ And again we are in the world of trees 🙂

Blessed is the man
who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
So the Psalm speaks of one who is Rooted in something – namely the Life of God – mediated through His Word, written and of course Lived in Christ Jesus

We might say as St Augustine suggests, their restless hearts have found their Rest in God
And they are Still, at Rest –

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,

Trees as we have been considering these past weeks are like ikons – they speak to us if we will hear, and in this case it is their fixedness which is drawn to attention – for unlike the wicked man, who is ‘like chaff that the wind drives away.’ – The Righteous man is ‘planted’ – fixed – rooted in streams of life giving water and thus

‘yields his fruit – – – in due season’

A tree, I suspect is not anxious about the future. It knows that planted by good streams, its fruit will come. It is Content – we might say, it is ‘at rest’. It is most unmachine like, not least because it doesn’t appear to be doing anything, rather it is Still. Perhaps this is why the Machine world is so at war with ‘the living world’?

It is that stillness, that restedness, that rootedness which makes all the difference. Human existence is impossible if everything is permanently on the move, as in a machine, perpetual change is literally, Radically disorienting. For something to be radically disoriented – it has to be ‘taken up by the roots’, it is rootless. Radical means just this – of the root. (It is a word which has come to mean the exact opposite of its root meaning.
To be radical nowadays is to be disconnected from time and space, from tradition, from human shared existence, it is to be isolated and cut off but we cannot live like this. Modern people with their disdain for what has gone before are cut off at the roots, they are radical in the modern sense, not the true sense.)

In the same way that trees and plants, rooted in the ground stabilise the soil and allow growth, and when they are uprooted the very soil of existence washes away – so too human society falls to pieces without those who are fixed place. If there is no-one stable, then everything is reduced to chaos. The Righteous, the Rooted ones, ‘preserve the city in peace’

We find this in the simplest ways. Children growing up without the stability of family life more often than not end up living lives of chaos. The Stability of the Mother and the Father, the Home is good soil in which the child may grow and acquire Virtue, Character, and all those things which we seem to have forgotten are important. These things are the necessary stability around which magical things may happen, the fixed points.

Today we remember the Ascension of Jesus, on the Sunday between His Ascension and Pentecost, and Jesus commands his disciples ‘not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”. So we are in a period of waiting, but at the least, it has to be said that a society whose default state is rapid perpetual movement is not very productive of those whom might wait with a degree of contentment, at the worst, it destroys our capacity for waiting – for waiting on God.

I saw this on a committee I sat on some years ago now. every half an hour a bell rang and for two minutes we were to ‘wait’ on God. But my experience of it was that it was like being in a Formula 1 pit lane, a drive through penalty, or a tyre change. When the bell rang again, we were off! Conversation carried on as if everyone present had been fixed on that thing they were about to say, hadn’t the bell interrupted us. It wasn’t waiting, it was merely pausing. For Waiting itself has also changed its meaning, to Pausing. ‘Wait for the lights to change’ In other words, the emphasis on Go, not Wait. For wait is to attend upon to pay attention to. It is a way of existence, to be a Waiter . . . And to be a Waiter is to purely be attentive on the One whom you serve. Stood, Watching. As John Milton puts it ‘they also serve, who only stand and wait’ – yet the machine world has little time for such Wisdom, not least because it is the servant of time, driven on and on,

But We are in a period of waiting, and we have been here before. The Easter season is bookended by two seasons of waiting. One is short, one longer, but the first sets the tone for the second. The first is the time between 3pm God Friday, and early on the first day of the week – Holy Saturday if you will. This Waiting reveals the true character of waiting as Christians, waiting on God. The waiting day is the Sabbath. It is a day as it were out of time. A Day to Rest. To Be righteous, to be like that tree . . . but under the old dispensation it was of course ‘just one day in the week’, it pointed towards something which was yet to come, and even in those days many chafed at The Sabbath, at having to stop. The bell rang, the sun went down, and everything had to stop . . . yet the prophets denounced those ‘who could not wait for the Sabbath to be over’ the ‘wicked’ who wanted to ‘get on with things’ buying and selling etc. etc. The Sabbath got in the way. So too the women are up and ready at daybreak to come to the tomb. They’ve paused as it were, but not waiting, having not believed the word that Jesus had spoken that on the thirst day he would be raised. Having not believed, they hadn’t waited

Easter Morning reveals the true nature of Waiting as opposed to Pausing. Waiting is not Pausing. Waiting is Watching and praying, Waiting ‘on the LORD’, to See what He will do. So Holy Saturday reveals what it is to Wait on God . . . For the Resurrection of Jesus is something which comes to pass entirely from God. It is Life come from God. But as such it sets the pattern for this second season of Waiting, and Waiting on the Lord in general
So Jesus having spent forty days, appearing to and being with his disciples, before he is taken form their sight commands them to Wait. “[Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” Waiting now has a different character from before. Not least in that it is no longer tied to The Sabbath. It isn’t ‘a day off the stuff that really matters’ any longer and should not be confused with it. Rather it is a new way of being in the World, in the New Creation which God in Christ has revealed, it is the way of The Waiter, the Servant who is also the friend. Ten days as it happens, but that is of no consequence. The command is to Wait, for as The LORD has done a new thing in Raising Christ from the Dead, now the disciples know that, their life being in Him, they Wait on Him and for Him.

John tells the story rather differently. He has the incident of the disciples gone back to their fishing. Without Jesus, although he had been raised, and without Him they fish all night and catch nothing, with him, they catch fish, one of every kind. Waiting for the Presence of the Spirit of Christ is revealed as fundamental. ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing’ Abide in me as I abide in you – rest in me, live in me, Wait on me, attend to me . . . and you will bear much fruit, in due season.

So the disciples Wait, in Jerusalem, ‘for the promise of the Father’ – ten whole days. We might ask, why didn’t they rush out into the market place and tell everyone as soon as Jesus had been taken from their sight? Simply because they knew that their Life was at his command, they waited on Him, they’d learned to wait, Holy Saturday when they’d had no choice taught them what happened when you waited. Now they waited joyfully in obedience, for they knew that Good things came from the father of Lights, when they waited on him.

Joyfully, prayerfully waiting . . .

I wonder if this attitude marks the Modern Church? I wonder if it marks us? Joyful, prayerful. Confident that ‘in due season’ our waiting will bear fruit. Or are we captive to the machine?

What could the disciples have done to bring about ‘The Resurrection’? Set up a working group perhaps?
What could they have done to speed the outpouring of The Holy Spirit? Establish a project!

What could they do to bring Life, to add a single day to their allotted span? There must be a way to fix the biological machine . . .

What in truth could they do to effect any of these things? Nothing

Except Wait – meditate on God’s word, delight in it. Enjoy his fellowship at table as he fed them with bread and wine. Love one another from the heart. Lay down their lives for one another, in confidence and trust. In Hope founded on the Resurrection of Christ – the deep Living Water from which we live and love. And in so doing be those trees planted by streams, whose roots spread and bind and hold things together until the day of the Lord’s appearing, for which we wait in the Hope to which we were called, through the ‘immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’

To wait is to be people of a Hope born of the Resurrection. People in tune with Being itself, knowing who they are, and from where their life comes. Living beings in the age of machines. Unpredictable for this life comes not from any source which the Modern world Knows

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give to us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we wait upon him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which all those who wait on him are called . . . and who knows how much life may be thus preserved

Amen

Easter 6 – Becoming Compost – A Society of Friends

Sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B, 2018

1 John 5:1-6
John 15: 9-17

‘Becoming Compost – A Society of Friends’
[On Disappearing]

Looking at the title of today’s sermon, you may well be asking “are we to hear more on the virtues of Burial as opposed to Cremation . . . or then again “perhaps we shall be thinking about The Quakers or ‘Society of Friends’ as they are otherwise known”?

Well the answer is neither – although the allusion to the Quakers is interesting given their commitment to Pacifism, for the words of Jesus which I wish us to listen to this morning are often found in public places, carved in stone. I am of course referring to their use on War memorials.

Jesus said ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his life for his friends’ – although the fact that these are the words of Jesus are not in my experience also engraved on the memorials . . . yet perhaps there is a significant connection? Perhaps, rather like Pontius Pilate declaring ‘Behold The Man!’ those who carved those words did not realise fully how significant they were??

Jesus said ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his life for his friends’

No one here I expect knows anything about Fred and Sid Jee. Fred and Sid were brothers who lived and worked in the South West of England in the early part of the C20. In 1915 (we think), they signed up and were put into the Somerset Yeomanry, with whom they served throughout the rest of the First World War. Many years later Fred would say that they only survived because they looked out for one another – frequently hauling the other out of the quicksand of the Hole of Hell that was Western Europe. We know Fred and Sid’s story, because Fred was Sarah’s maternal grandfather.

They were rural men of the South West. Up in the North of England though the story was very different. There the working classes from whom the infantry and the rest were drawn, lived and worked in far greater density, in the northern towns and cities of England. It was not uncommon in the early days of the war for hundreds to go off together to sign up, from their place of work – The dark Satanic mills – but for all that places of deep shared existence. It was as if the hardships of life presented the opportunity for deeper forms of living together. Having worked 5 and a half days, they’d leave for the pub and then the local football ground. Shared life, together and so when it came to joining up, it was not at all unusual for them to do so together, and they were formed into the so called ‘Pals’ Regiments. The Leeds Pals, the Bradford Pals, Accrington Pals, Salford Pals . . . these names continue to haunt for as they lived and worked together, they also died together in their hundreds of thousands. The records of the Somme alone make for the hardest of reading with sometimes as many as 90 out of every hundred men, seriously wounded or killed in the space of a few days. Pals. Friends, Living together and dying together

Although the war memorials would say, for God, King and Country, that wasn’t the experience of these men once the realities of war hit home. They looked after one another, they fought and died for the sake of each other. As is often mentioned, there was a loss of the sense of the self for the sake of the whole – a sense which is continued to this day wherever people are sent into war . . . the difference being now that such people often do not come from any form of shared ‘life together’ beforehand.

The Pals – this Society of friends had already experienced Life as a shared enterprise. Even in the soul destroying factories, there was a sense of mutual shared life, and responsibility. When you used the word ‘We’, you knew who you were talking about . . . At a deep level, you experienced life as a place where you relied on and needed others. Pushed to its deepest, Fred and Sid also Knew that they needed one another, because that was what they experienced. It was the form of Knowledge of which I spoke last week – participatory Knowledge, growing up as brothers. They hadn’t been taught it as an abstract principle – it was Real.

Wind forward to the present . . . Needing one another is not something that we so experience, certainly outside of extremis situations. Modern Life suggests to us that we are individuals, that the very goal of life is not to have to rely on others. Think of how often elderly folk say ‘I don’t want to be a burden’, of how the poor find it hard to ask for help, indeed that they do need to ask for help is understood as a failing on their part – not as a symptom of a deeper malaise

From time to time we may come across people whom we say ‘have a need to be needed’. This we say is a psychological flaw. “It is a pathology, this ‘need to be needed’”. But is it? Or is it rather that we are created to live in mutual dependency and now that life is so very easy for so many, and Independence is the goal, this need to be needed is, if you will, the loose wires left over from lives of mutual interdepence. For Why might people have a ‘need to be needed’ if it were not that each of us in truth need other people. That to be human is, to use the words of St Paul, to ‘bear one another’s burdens’

The ‘need to be needed’ is what is left over when we live with the experience of not needing anyone else. Like a hanging nail – It is pathologised and we try and ‘heal’ people of this psychological throwback to ‘something in their past’. Trying to ‘heal’ people of a need to be needed is no more nor less than making them even less human that the modern world has already done, trying through psychotherapy to ‘fix’ something in their past, not recognising that it is the past of us all, and that we have perhaps abandoned that which made us most human, Shared Existence and Life.
It is of course like all Modern Stories, a story told by those who ‘have got it all together’ and tell others that they are unwell. It is a story told by those who have forgotten what it is to need others because the fortune of life has educated them in being Self Made – and we think that this is Normal, Well, Whole. Whereas it is a life that like an acorn which does not go into the soil, becomes hard and cracked and rots. Life alone.
Jesus said, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single seed’ The Greek is simpler – ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone’, or ‘it lives alone’, and so too, as we now realise, it dies alone, or of aloneness. Loneliness – all that is left when we no longer need one another – now kills us in our millions . . .

But the Gospel is of Life! Discovered in laying down our lives so that our lives are shared with one another, for it is in that Life Together that the Holy Spirit dwells

We see this shared life in the accounts of the early church, and again today in the account of the household of Cornelius. An account which flies in the face of the understanding of Christian Life, which after all is meant to be the Life of Jesus and therefore The Human Life, being something which we can know apart from others. Rather it is a life that is amongst the people of God. So although the account begins with telling us that Cornelius himself was ‘a god fearer’, who regularly prayed and gave alms, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard!
Peter doesn’t then wade in to test the truth of the faith of each individual present. No, he baptises the whole lot! (It is only in a world where we have lost sight of life as shared existence as more than simply something we know about, only in a world in which we Experience life first as individuals, that we might erroneously think ‘you have to come to your own personal faith’) Interestingly it is not unusual to hear of modern missionaries going to ‘convert the heathen’ and being faced off by a tribal chief who says, ‘no! You baptise all of us or none of us’ (see ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ Donovan) We ‘who have got it together’ have come to view our lives as independent. We’ve lost sight of our mutual dependence, we might say of Life itself. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Church withers and dies in such a context where we are taught to be individuals, and flourishes in contexts where people have to depend on the help of others, given and received – for the Life of the Church Must be shared, or it dies. Can you have a Church of individuals??

This is perhaps the greatest challenge that the Church faces, that of Shared Existence. Needing one another in an age when that is seen as a pathology, as weakness, as a failing of education or more.

I said that those mills were soul destroying. The Age of the machine has done much to destroy our humanity and with it, the Creation which depends of our loving service. Not least it has done this by reducing Churches to a collection of functions, and our Needs to anything apart from the very life of God shared amongst us.
‘We need a treasurer’, ‘we need someone to run the fair’, ‘we need a Vicar’, ‘we need someone to do the flowers and pray the prayers and operate the projector’ . . . but these needs are wants, not Needs – what we Need is each other. We need Life together. For it only in our shared existence and life insofar as it exists that Christ is manifested. ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples . . .’ ‘by your fine worship?’ ‘by your website?’ ‘by your well ordered accounts?’ [ and here as I write the sermon I have to fight with the temptation to say ‘of course we need all these things as well . . .!! Because we don’t . . .] Any Church can exist without any of these and fully manifest the Life of God. You can have them all and run like . . . well run like a machine, and be aliens to the Life that is from above. How is the Life of God revealed amongst us? In that we love one another as Christ has loved us, in that we lay down our lives to discover the Life that is from above. But this is so very very hard for us who have been trained by The World in so many subtle ways to be Individuals. It goes against the way that we are taught by the World. It goes against the driving force of wider society. It goes against the wider life of the Church which has become so institutionalised that it cannot obey Jesus without a law, a rule, a standing order or motion.

The only way to know it, to begin to lay down your life is, dare I say it in a mechanised world, to ‘waste time’, to drop our personal agendas, to give up on the story of ‘our life’. Yet what else can we do? If the Life that we share comes from the bread and wine, the Life of Christ given to us. Every Sunday. If he pours out his Life for us – how can we not let go of ‘our own (individual) lives’ and set out to discover life with one another in him

Or, to put it another way to become compost. To fall into the ground and die. Thus we truly become a Society of Friends.

We come back to the Cross. We planted our acorns . . . let us lay down our lives for one another. For this in truth is what it is to love one another. Let us learn to need one another, to learn to depend on one another, in real ways – it is of course very very hard. It is the way of the Cross. Which is the Way of Life.

Amen

Healthy Churches – attending to the Roots

Healthy Churches – attending to the roots
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

North Island – Kauri
Majestic
Silence and Awe
Sharing in Being

But there was a deeply troubling side – Die back
And from something no-one looking up at the tree would notice – the Roots
these majestic trees were dying, from the roots

The oldest – Tane Mahuta – Biosecurity measures, to protect the roots

About 2000 years old?

Which makes me think of the Church . . .

Shortly GSTHW will gather in Hamilton, to discuss . . . anything except the health of the Church – or the Roots of the Church – the parishes, and our Life in Christ. But this is nothing new.

I clearly did something very very wrong in a previous existence for I have sat through somewhere in the region of 70 Synods – And a consistent feature of all of them has been a) their machine like quality, and b) their failure to pay any attention to the roots of the Church. We’ve been so in awe of the Tree, of its manifold branches – its structures and committees and initiatives, and strategies – so in awe of what we have done, that we have paid no attention to the root, or the source of life.

At a simple level, as I have said before this is reflected in the inattention to the life of the parishes. As I told Synod here in Dunedin last year, we shrank numerically by 15% in 2017, but no one seemed to think this worth our attention. For the first time in the history of this Diocese there less than 100,000 attendances at church in a calendar year and the fall away was dramatic . . .

So today’s readings offer us a Gift, a gift that is constantly offered to us, that of Life

Both our Epistle and our Gospel today direct us to our roots, to the true nature of the Church and the Christian, and direct us to Health, to Life

To return for a moment to The Kauri. We had a bit of a Kauri day, for we drove on from Tane MAhuta, to a Kauri grove, where we found possibly an older tree – certainly a fatter one 🙂 Te MAtua Ngahere – Father of the Forest – a breathtaking 54 feet in girth

On the way to visit the Father I stopped for a brief moment by another Kauri – perhaps a ‘mere’ 800 or so years old, based on my observations of the ancient trees and their ages. The boardwalk in going over the roots afforded the one opportunity of the day to place a hand against the trunk of this being . . . and there I spent a few moments Knowing that together we shared in what the theologians call, the First Grace – that of existence, of being, by virtue of being Created. We shared this. It is a perception that it is hard for us to appreciate in our Modern World. I can think about myself. I can thing about the Tree, I can think about the way we are both ‘living things’, I might make some tenuous connection in my mind – but to press my hand against the trunk and to Know Shared existence . . . this is a different type of Knowing. A Knowing that The West has long ago abandoned.

It is a Knowing that has little or nothing to do with mental assent, it is a sharing in Life. it has a strong parallel in Marriage, in which a man Knows his Wife, and in that Knowing the fruit of Children springs forth. It is the Knowing which our beloved patron John speaks when he says ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Which bring us to the Second Grace, the Second Gift – that of Redemption, or better perhaps, Theosis – through the Risen Jesus sharing in the very Life of God. Not merely the Life of Creation, but to come to Know within us the Life of the Father. To Know God. A Knowledge which brings forth the Fruit of Divine Love. Not as it were to ‘know about God’, as an idea, or to ‘know about Love’ as an idea – but to Know God and Know Love as His Life in and through us

As we hear the words of John, about Knowing, we need this radically Participative way of Knowing in the foreground – two become One in Marriage and in the fruit of marriage, the One flesh of the Child, so ‘we abide in Him, and He in Us’ and Bear Fruit in the World. This is to Know Him. So The Bridegroom abides in the Bride, Christ in His Church, to Bear fruit for the glory of God

It is we might truly say ‘natural’, in the sense we use the word. It flows naturally as water flows naturally from its source to the ocean. For it is the Divine Life which we See within the persons of the Trinity, every flowing from its Source, back to its Source

It is this simple – bluntly so – ‘If we Know God, we love one another.’ ‘If we don’t love one another, we do not Know God’ So Jesus speaks of this deeply participative Knowledge ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit’ It is in sharing in the Life of God , Knowing the Life of God in Jesus the Risen One, that we bear fruit to eternal Life

But in the same ‘natural’ way, cut off from the Source of this Life – the Life ceases to flow. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ Like so much dead wood that no longer has the life flowing through it, wood that has lost connection with the Root.

John goes on in his letter – ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ If you do not love, you are not connected to God – to the Source, to the root. John goes on to make it quite clear that this Love is not something we summon up alone from within ourselves, it has a source, a Root ‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.’ The Initiative is Always God’s – He is the Source of this Eternal Life and Love – ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ The Initiative, the Source, the root is God’s Love for us – that we might Share in that Life and Love.

So the absence of Love, is the Absence of God. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Hatred of a fellow Christian, is failure to recognise the shared Life – it is to say No to our being together Children of the Same Heavenly Father. Hatred of another baptised person is always a sign that we have become cut off from our roots.

Of late I have seen a tendency to speak more and more of the ‘God loves me’, rather than ‘I love God’. This is not unimportant, for all too often it masks, or fails to mask despising other Christians. ‘Those dreadful people, but I am secure in the love god has for me . . .’ well it is quite simple and plain that if we have hatred for our fellow Christians, we are cut off from the Love of God – we are in a prison of our own resentment, often Self satisfied, not troubled by the fact that we cannot abide certain people.
John is having nothing to do with this ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ To Hate and yet to claim to know the love of God is an oxymoronic way of behaviour. Such love is finally only the pitiful love of self, cut off from the source

So finally back to Health, and healthy Churches. I am the Vine and you are the branches says Jesus – to rework the imagery slightly ‘I am the Root of your Life’. Rather like Martha who is distracted by many things, the Church has lost Sight of Her Life, The Bridegroom. She is unlike Mary, not devoted to Him. Mary chooses the One necessary thing – devotion to Jesus the Christ, who is the Source of all Life and Love.

It is not natural for Churches to wither and die, however accustomed we have become to it. For the Bridegroom comes to the Bride, to woo her and to bear fruit to eternal Life.

If the Church is withering and dying it is only possibly for one reason, that we have stopped paying attention to our Roots, to the Fundamental Source of our Life and being, that is our Risen Lord.

So it is that when we attend to The Word made flesh, together wether we are physically together or not, Listening to Him in Scripture – wooing us, ‘I am your Life’ – ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ – ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’

Towards the end of Jesus great prayer he utters these words

‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’

Eternal Life is to Know God, intimately in and through Jesus, The Vine. It is to know his correction, his pruning, his cutting off all that is dead in us, that we might bear much fruit. It is to grow more and more in the way of Love which flows from the very throne room of God. It is to Live because he Lives – it is to Know His Life amongst us

Where this Love, where this Life is Known, The Church flourishes. Let us attend to the Living Word, the True Vine, present amongst us, in Word and Sacrament, and in the Love we have for one another