Cracked cisterns?

This is a sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 2:4-13.

“My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”

If you wanted to sum up the book of Jeremiah – and it’s a long book – in one sentence, that would probably be a good choice.  Jeremiah spends much of his fifty-two chapters basically finding as many different ways as possible of saying the same thing; when it comes to God, you’ve ignored the real deal, and gone for the cheap knock-off version instead.

We see it several times just in this morning’s reading; “they went far from me, and went after worthless things;” “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

It seems that in Jeremiah’s day, it had become common to pay lip service to the God of Israel, maybe even keep some of the outward forms of his worship, but not to let it go any further than that.  Not to let it be a matter of the heart, or of personal or communal life which was in any real way different from their pagan neighbours.

It’s a very human way to be, really.  On some level we might know or suspect that the God-stuff might be important, but it’s very easy to be busy, earning a living, raising children, minding grandchildren, building friendships and contributing to the community… and there often isn’t a great deal of the day, the week or the month left over for things which might be important, but seldom strike us as urgent.

So it might be worth taking Jeremiah’s invitation to stop and reflect.  Do we ever do this?

What might it look like, in the Christian life, if we went to cracked cisterns instead of the fountain of living water?

Let me make some suggestions, not because I particularly think they apply to anyone here, but just as food for thought for all of us.

Wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of prayer being an experience of the depths of God’s own life in us, it became just a reciting of words?

Some of you will know that every so often I get asked to preside at the Eucharist for the Community of the Holy Name*.  Presiding there is absolutely unique in my experience, because walking into that chapel full of nuns is to walk into a room filled with intense prayer.  Those are women who know what it is to get serious with God, and who have honed that habit by daily practice over many many years.  The silence is buzzing and you can feel the quiet hum of the Spirit at work.

Now, we aren’t a community of nuns and I’m not saying I expect being in church to be like that for us.  But since we’re taking Jeremiah seriously for a moment, this morning, let me give you this question to think about: is your prayer life a fountain of living water, for you and for those around you?

And wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of holding out a vision of human flourishing before God which included everyone – the poorest, the most disabled, the least educated – and committing ourselves to working to make that vision a reality, we instead lived comfortably with inequality, injustice and corruption?

Last week I attended a conference on disability and spirituality.  As I listened to the various speakers or engaged in informal conversation, one thing came through again and again; the church needs to change.  Whether it was people with mobility issues, or intellectual disabilities, or people who were deaf or had autism or whatever other disability, it seemed that everyone there had a story of how the church had failed to include them, and failed to meet their needs.  The amazing thing was that these people were able to see that this was the church’s failure, and not reflective of God’s attitude, and so they were speaking up to try to make the churches accountable.  Their challenge to those of us without disabilities was, have you thought about my needs?  Is your church able to accommodate me?  Will I be welcome if I come?

Let me tell you that I think we – by which I mean the Anglican diocese of Melbourne – still have a long way to go in answering that challenge.

So there is another hard question to ponder:  Is our standard of hospitality a fountain of living water to all who might seek to come?

And wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of being an experience of genuine thanksgiving, the Eucharist became simply something we ate?

The word Eucharist itself means “thanksgiving,” and when we come to this table and give thanks, we connect our experience – all the different things that have happened in each of our lives this week – we connect all of that with the reality of God.  When we say thank you to God, we connect our own lives with God as the one who gives us everything good.  We say that what has happened to us somehow comes to us as the gift of God.  And even when things are not good and we have had a rough week, and we come and give thanks, we are saying that even in the dark times God continues to give, and we continue to acknowledge that generous presence in our lives.

And that means that, even in the dark times, we can start to look differently at the world around us.  If in every part of life, God is still at work, with all that comes to us being his gracious gift, then in every object we see and handle, in every situation we encounter, God the giver is present, behind and beyond what we can see and hear and touch.  And that allows us to see everything as being outlined, as it were, with divine potential; what has God given us this thing for?  What is God going to do with it?

So here is another question for us to consider:  Does our giving thanks shape the way we see the world, so that we can recognise all things as good gifts from God?

I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting my point (or maybe it’s Jeremiah’s point).  We can come to church week by week, engage on a surface level, have a cup of tea and some chat, and go home without these things having made any actual difference.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Our deliberate, thoughtful, prayerful encounters with God offer us the opportunity for so much more, for transformed hearts, transformed lives and a transformed community.  We just have to choose; to look for the real thing, and not to be satisfied with the shabby counterfeit.

 

*The Community of the Holy Name is a local Anglican religious community for women, of which I am a formal associate.

 

 

Tradition for humankind

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in both the “church up the road,” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 13:10-17.

Who would have thought that an action like this would spark such an argument?  Healing a woman so that she can stand up straight and is not crippled, after many years… that seems like pretty obviously a good thing, doesn’t it?  So why does it end up sparking such a bitter dispute, with Jesus even accusing the leader of the synagogue of being a hypocrite?

I think it’s all about the interplay of tradition and identity.  Jewish identity is so tightly bound up with Jewish tradition that to challenge one is to challenge the other; and really, in our own way, Christians are just the same.  It’s the living fabric of our traditions which clothes us in our distinctive identity.

But that tradition doesn’t come to us as an integrated whole, of a piece as if handed down from heaven (so to speak).  It comes to us as a whole range of different strands, from different times, different cultures, different sources; and at various times parts of tradition have been challenged, re-interpreted, dare I say reformed; and somehow all of that comes to us, and from it we weave together the Christian faith in a way which is authentic as the Anglican Christians in and around these suburbs.

Does that seem abstract?  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When we pray the great thanksgiving, the prayer before we take communion, that prayer is in a structure called “Berakah;” its form goes back to the Jewish thanksgiving prayers over meals.  It is, if you like, an ancient form of grace.  That form of prayer, being familiar as it was to many in the early church, became the model for prayers at communion, and we have records of very early liturgies in ancient Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac and so forth, in which the structures and the responses are very similar to what we use today.

But they haven’t come to us in a straight line.  The earliest English liturgies were a radical departure from what had gone before, as the English reformers sought to remove English practice from what they saw as corrupt Roman Catholic theology and practices; and those of you who remember worshipping regularly with the Book of Common Prayer will remember how different its overall vibe was.  It was only in the twentieth century that Anglicans in many places, with better access to ancient sources and a desire for more options, returned to those ancient forms of prayer, translated them into English, adapted them, and gave us the range of prayers we have today.

One of the things I love about presiding at the Eucharist – or indeed participating while someone else is presiding – is the sense of these words giving us roots which go back millennia in the living church, and yet coming out now in ways which are about life and growth and joy for us, here, now.  (And of course I need not tell you that for many Christians, the most radical change we have made is the fact that in many churches today you will find a woman leading those prayers).

So even when we are using the same or very similar words, our experience of praying these prayers, in another language, with all the baggage of another culture, is very different to what the experience of the very earliest Christians would have been.

Why am I making such a point of this?  Because this is one way of showing you how tradition works.  We inherit something, we adapt it, we make use of it not exactly as it always was but in ways which make sense and work for us, and in turn we hand that on to the next generation of believers.

But… you knew there had to be a but, didn’t you?  We can’t just do anything we like with it.  Whatever we do has to be coherent with the core truths of Christianity and faithful to our relationship with Jesus as Lord.

And that – to come back to the reading – is why Jesus is calling the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite.  Because although there were many Jewish strands of thought bound up in keeping the Sabbath, the way that the synagogue leader was interpreting them wasn’t faithful to the core truths of Judaism and its covenant with the Lord, (at least, as Jesus saw it).

Because it is clear from the gospels that Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Sabbath as a concept.  As a rabbi steeped in the Jewish Scriptures he would have known about and upheld what those Scriptures had to say about the Sabbath, and its importance in Jewish life.  But his issue is with the way this is worked out in his community’s priorities.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus is recorded as having said that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We could just as easily adapt that saying, and I put it to you that tradition was made for humankind, and not humankind for tradition.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Tradition is important.  It is the living memory of the community of faith, how we know who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.  But just as we cannot live in memory, nor can we allow tradition to become something which stops us from being the face and hands and feet of Jesus in this time and place.  The meaning of the memories needs to be worked out, carried forward, and given new expression, so that we don’t become just as hypocritical as the synagogue leader in this story.

So when we look at our traditions, and whether they ought to be kept as they are, adapted, or discarded, this portion of the gospel gives us something of a yardstick for our thinking.  Jesus defended his healing of the woman as being part of the true meaning of Sabbath; in turn, we can look at aspects of our tradition and ask, “Are they life giving?  Do they express the love of God for each of God’s children?  Do they bring joy?  Or are they actively working against those things?”  Or – and this is so often the case!  – are they not doing any real harm, but not actively resourcing our spiritual lives, either; a sort of ecclesiastical clutter which just gets in the way of what really matters?

And when we’ve worked out the answers to those questions, what action can we then take to bring the deeper meaning of these things into sharper focus for all of us, so that we, too, like the crowds in the gospel, can rejoice at all the wonderful things God is doing in our midst?

 

Of interior wounds

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just come back from retreat.  While I was there, I found this Examen of an Interior Wound, which struck me as quite possibly the most helpful such prayer I have found over the years.  (It comes from the book, Reimagining the Ignatian Examen, by Mark Thibodeaux).  So here I share it with you, along with the author’s remarks:

“If you and I  are honest, at any given moment we can probably identify a wound or two within us.  A wound is some emotional hurt in my heart, psyche or soul caused by something painful that has happened.  Maybe you were insulted by someone.  You felt rejected.  You were fired from your job.  You were unappreciated.  This examen leads us to pray about these wounds.

Quickly read through the whole thing before beginning this examen.  Note that it is a particularly challenging one.  If you’re not in the right space for it, then you might want to pass over this one until a day comes when you are ready for it.

  1.  I begin in my usual way.*
  2. I spend a few moments in gratitude, thanking God for one or two of the blessings, big and small, that I’ve received today.
  3. I ask God to show me a wound in my heart at this moment.  This wound causes me to feel hurt, frightened, angry, resentful, or remorseful.  I allow God to take me to that difficult place in my soul.  Perhaps I find myself painfully – but also prayerfully – remembering the moments that have created this wound.  I courageously sit in the midst of this difficult moment.  Perhaps I ask Jesus to hold my hand as I prayerfully relive the worst parts.
  4. I ask God to show me the strongest emotion I have at this very moment as I rehash this painful experience.  I speak aloud to God about how I am feeling.  I say, “God, I am furious (or sad, or grief-stricken, or confused).”  I sit with God and with these feelings for a moment.
  5. I ask God to show me how this wound might become worse, growing in size or becoming infected.  If I were to allow this wound to lead me away from faith, hope, and love, what might that look like?  Concretely, in what ways might this wound tempt me to behave poorly?  I ask God to help me prevent this from happening.  If I need a particular grace to help me guard against this poor behaviour, I ask for that grace from God right now.
  6. I sit in the silence for just a moment, giving God a chance to do whatever God wants with me right now.  Perhaps, in this quiet moment, God will just place his warm fatherly hand on my head.  Perhaps God will say something to me.  Perhaps we’ll just sit together in the silence.  It’s okay if God seems to be saying and doing nothing at all.  I trust that he will heal this wound in his own time and his own way.
  7. I prayerfully daydream for just a moment, imagining a day when I am no longer feeling wounded about this.  What would that be like?  What might be my attitudes, perspectives, thoughts, feelings, words and actions if I were truly a recovered soul?  What grace would I need to begin to heal?  I ask God for that grace right now.
  8. I ask God to show me how he might make good come out of this hurtful thing.  How can this wound make me stronger?  More loving?  More humble?  More spiritually mature?  How can I become a more effective disciple of God’s love through this wound?  I ask God to make good use of this wound; to use this experience of mine for his greater glory.
  9. If I feel called to do so, I make some concrete resolution to be a person of faith, hope, and love, in the midst of this painful reality in my life.  I trust that God will be there with me through it all.
  10. I end in my usual way.*

 

*A note on beginning and ending in “my usual way.”  The author of this book pointed out that we all enter into prayer in different ways; some might repeat a favourite verse, some might choose silence, or light a candle, or make the sign of the cross, or have a preferred place, and so on.  He did not want to prescribe how this should be done, only make it clear that whatever each person does to begin and end a time of prayer should be observed here.

 

Thirst

I’ve just come back from a two-day retreat, which had the theme: Through the cracks, the light gets in.  (The blurb ran like this:  While society tells us that our cracks are a sign of weakness and imperfection, our faith story actually tells us something quite different. Come along and make some space to look at the cracks in your own life, ponder them and the possibility of God’s healing and transforming presence in the midst of our humanity).

As is so often the way with these things, there were a couple of things which I have brought away from that time which spoke to me powerfully when I encountered them, and which I suspect might be very useful to return to and reflect on over time, and so I’m going to share them with you in this post and the next.

The first thing was a story told by the 13th century Muslim mystic and poet, Rumi.  Although his stories are very much of his own tradition, this one seemed to me to have enormous potential for connection with the Christian understanding as well.  The translation I was offered runs thus:

The Thirsty Man Who Threw Bricks

On the bank of a stream stood a high wall, and on top of the wall sat a sad, thirsty man.  The wall prevented him from reaching the river, and he was desperately thirsty, like a fish.

Without warning, he suddenly threw a brick into the water, and the sound of the splash reached his ears like words spoken by a sweet and delicious friend, making him drunk as though it was wine instead of water.  So touched was he by these sounds that he began tearing the bricks from the wall, but then the water started to complain about having a brick thrown at it.

The thirsty man told the water, “I have two reasons for not stopping my destruction of the wall; the first is the sound of the water.

The sound is like an angel’s trump,
a sound that brings back life.
Or like the noise of a thundering spring,
from which the garden grows its flowers,
and other wondrous things.
Or for the poor, the days of alms,
or freedom from a gaol.
It’s like the breath of God Himself,
a gift to every sinner.
Or like the scent of grace that strikes upon the soul.

And the other advantage I get from tearing off the bricks from this wall is that with every brick I get nearer to the running water.  With each brick I remove, the wall gets lower.

My destruction of the wall is remedy enough,
to bring me in union with the water.
The splitting of the bond is true to my prayers,
bringing me to God, in just the way that He
has told me to draw near.
So long as this wall remains lofty and proud
it stays an obstacle to my bowing head.
I cannot gain deliverance from the body of earth
till I prostrate myself on the Water of Life.
The greater the thirst atop this wall,
the quicker the bricks must be ripped.
The more love for the sound of water,
the greater tearing of the bonds before it.
Drunk is he that hears the rush,
while he that fails hears only the splash.”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

So many questions for reflection are raised here.  About the thirst of our souls; my thirst, your thirst, the thirsts of the church and of the world.  What are they, and how can they be met?

(Perhaps this story would have struck me less if I had not, before I found it, been reflecting on Psalm 69:21, which says that “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”)

And about the walls, where and what they are, and what it might look like to tear them down.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts, too!

Patterns and habits

This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Hosea 1:2-10, which refers to events recorded in 2 Kings 9 and 10.

Well, last week we looked at the psalm and some of the words there which had to do with God’s judgement, and this week, quite by chance, we have a reading from Hosea which also deals with judgement, from a slightly different point of view.  And it seemed to me to be a good opportunity – having had the chance last week to say some things about what we don’t do with judgement – to this week have a look at how passages like this might make a positive contribution to how we understand our faith.

And with that in mind, I particularly wanted to look at the name of Hosea’s first son, and what God is indicating in his instructions to the prophet.

So the Lord said to Hosea, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.  On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”

Now this refers back to events recorded in the second book of Kings, and it took me a bit of digging around to feel that I really understood what God (through Hosea) was on about here, but I think the line of logic goes a bit like this.

In Kings, the story goes that Jehu, a commander of the army, was appointed by the prophet Elisha as king over Israel, and given the task of punishing the household of the wicked king Ahab and his wife, Jezebel.  So Jehu went on to slaughter the current king (Ahab’s son), Jezebel, (Ahab’s widow), and all seventy of Ahab’s children, his leaders, close friends, and priests.  And Jehu ascended the throne.

So far, it’s a little confusing.  After all, Jehu was brutal, but it was apparently a brutality God encouraged him to.  So why is Hosea so upset about it, quite a long time later?

It turns out that whatever pious justification Jehu might have had for his actions, what followed after him was a plotline worthy of Game of Thrones, with a line of kings who, one after the other, were assassinated; Shallum killed Zechariah for the throne, Menahem killed Shallum, Pekah killed Pekahiah, and so on… and each succeeding king was brutal; the records in Kings mention cities being sacked, pregnant women being ripped open, oppressive taxes, and so on.

The leaders of Israel, the royalty and the commanders of the armies who fought over the throne, had no prophets telling them to do this (at least in the records we have).  They had no justification for their behaviour.  They were out for power and wealth, and were happy to have it at any cost.

So then we get down to Hosea’s day, and by this time this civil war and assassination have become a way of life.  The current king had assassinated the previous king in his rise to power.  The land had no stability, no peace, no confidence in its leaders, no safety.

And this is the context in which Hosea – at the Lord’s instruction – names his firstborn son “Jezreel,” harking back to that first rebellion and assassination of a king, and the beginning of a pattern that the Lord here makes clear he finds unacceptable; indeed, a pattern that the Lord intends to break.  The name “Jezreel” stands as a warning for that judgement.

Hosea’s rhetoric and his symbolic actions (in taking a prostitute for a wife, and so on), are designed to remind the people that the behaviour that has become normal to them, is in fact not consistent with who God would have them be; not consistent with their best and deepest and truest selves as the people of God.  They had forgotten about God’s faithful love and instead borrowed standards and behaviours from the cultures around them, allowing those cultures to shape who they were in devastating ways.

And this is, I think, where the message of Hosea can become a useful prompt for reflection for us today.

Because while we have the great good fortune – although we might sometimes doubt it – of living in a fairly stable democracy, we always have the challenge of whether our behaviours and attitudes are really being formed by what we know of God’s character, or by whichever way the wind is blowing in the culture around us.

Because if we really understand God’s character, that understanding can be for us hope, confidence and motivation.  If we really understand God’s faithfulness, for example, we can read God’s promises of a blessed future and find there a sustaining vision which will give us the energy to make the changes in our own lives, which will help us to more live more faithfully in line with that vision.

If we really understand God’s faithfulness, we will reject any lack of faithfulness in our own hearts; any lack of commitment to this community – or the wider church – as the cradle of the future.  If we really understand God’s faithfulness, the church cannot be the arena in which we gratify our own egos or pursue our own agendas, instead becoming what St. John called “co-workers with the truth.”

“Co-workers with the truth” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  Could we adopt it as a motto of sorts, do you think?

Or if we really understand God’s justice, we will look at the world with eyes always ready to see when power is out of balance, and to lift the burdens of the oppressed.  Let me tell you that we are not good at this; we only need to look at what the church does to those who have been abused by clergy, in terms of processes and trials and psychological assessments and all of that, to know that even within our own institution we have not yet begun to really know or live out justice, even in what seems like the most basic and obvious of cases.  We have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves agents of justice with any integrity.

And it’s worth asking ourselves, even at the parish level, what can be done about that.

Or if we really understood God’s mercy, we would look at the world with eyes always quick to search out suffering in others, and willing to do whatever we can to make a difference.  This can seem overwhelming because we know that none of us has the resources to change the world on our own; but each of us is one part of a social and community network which can draw on enormous resources to respond to human need.  And yet so often we are not even conscious of where those connections are.

I’ve talked about faithfulness, justice, and mercy, and we could keep going indefinitely, reflecting on the various character attributes of God; but mercifully for you, perhaps, this sermon is probably long enough.  But you take my point; in God’s character, said Hosea, we find those virtues which ought to shape our own hearts and way of life.  That’s Hosea’s antidote to a country torn apart by ambition and war; and it’s a timeless prescription for those of us who live as part of a community of faith, in a wider social context which does not know God.

 

 

 

 

 

Of hope and healing

This is a sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 52, which refers to events recorded in 1 Samuel 21 and 22.

I wonder, as we read the psalm this morning, which side of the dialogue you identified with more?

Is that a strange question?  Should I assume that we all wake up bright and cheery in the morning and burst out of bed like a green olive tree?  (I hate to tell you, but that’s really not me…)

But the thing is, I’ve been around churches long enough to know that some of us come here, when we gather, not feeling joyful and full of beans, but perhaps relating more to the images of being broken and uprooted.

And so when I saw these images side by side for this morning I wanted to have a look at them and think about what they do mean, and, more importantly perhaps, some of what they definitely don’t mean.

Bear with me, because the first thing I have to point out is that being broken down, in this psalm, is about judgement.  “God will break you down for ever…” and so forth.  But that does not mean – I really can’t say this strongly enough – that does not mean that all human brokenness is about judgement.  People who experience brokenness because of illness, or trauma, or abuse, or grief, or any other of life’s circumstances, are not there because God is punishing them or judging them; not because of their sin or inadequacy or worthlessness.  The last thing people who are suffering need is to be blamed for their own circumstances.

I need to say that so strongly because I know that so often even very well meaning Christians give out that impression, or say thoughtless things along those lines.  And not only are those messages profoundly damaging, but they get in the way of what passages like this can helpfully say to us.

In the psalm, David was venting about a man whose actions, as they’re recorded for us in Scripture, were pretty evil.  He destroyed a whole town, men, women, children and animals, including eighty-five faithful priests of God.  But the mistake we all too often make is to then take these words – and other words like them – and assume that therefore, wherever there is suffering, it must be a consequence of wrongdoing.

Of course it’s an attractive illusion.  If I can convince myself that someone else is suffering because of something that is her fault, then I can reassure myself that since, I, naturally, am not guilty of the same things, I am safe from the same judgement.

But when we think in this way, we lose sight of those other important Scriptures – like Job and Ecclesiastes – which remind us that life is never that neat and simple.  That bad things do happen for no apparent reason.  With that ambiguity in mind, then, we can ponder the idea that our relationship with suffering isn’t certain or clearly defined, but rather one in which we have to think about and discern the meaning of our life and experiences on an individual basis.  It’s harder work, yes, but perhaps more honest than trying to shove everything into one category of understanding.

There are some important things about the idea of God’s judgement which we do need to hold on to.  We do need to recognise that God wants us to be “good,” (although what that means is beyond the scope of this sermon).  We do need to recognise that we can do things which are wrong, or evil or stupid, and which can cause suffering.  Cause and effect is a pretty basic principle of the universe.  We do need to recognise that when we get it wrong, God does want to reach into that situation, to judge what is wrong, to break apart any hold that evil has on us, and to realign and reset us in a new position (just as sometimes a bone needs to be broken again before it can be set in the right way for proper healing).

That’s important stuff.  I don’t want to sound like I’m not actually taking judgement seriously, because I do.  But what I want to put in front of you most strongly today is the idea that when we encounter someone who is suffering, and we tell them that it is their fault in some way, we are putting a meaning to their situation which may not be true, and which will almost certainly not be helpful.  Telling someone else that God has caused their suffering directly as punishment is seldom going to help them in finding the beginnings of a healthier relationship with God (and don’t we all need a healthier relationship with God?)

Because just like a doctor who breaks a bone to reset it, we should never see God’s judgement as being separate from loving concern.  There are deep, deep lies that our world tells us; lies that God does not love us, that God will not love us unless we are perfect, or at least doing our very level best to be perfect.

Except that’s not what Christ’s life and death show us, is it?  Christ didn’t come to a world of perfect human beings.  He didn’t even choose perfect disciples.  He certainly doesn’t have perfect clergy today.  But he loved us enough to seek to set us right anyway.  All the tyrants he encountered, the disciple who denied him and the disciple who betrayed him, and each of us… his love, and his merciful willingness to set us right, don’t depend on how good we are first.  And praise God for that!

So what do we do with this?  The task, as I see it, is first to be honest.  To name our pains correctly and listen with an open mind when others do the same.  To discern the structures, the practices and even the ideas about God which push us away from our own well being; away from the house of God, as the psalmist put it.  And when we encounter suffering, looking for what can be set right, rather than where we can assign blame.

At the end of the day, a psalm like this one can’t present us with neat answers, good guys and bad guys, black and white, because our own experience of life tells us that that isn’t the truth – or at least the whole truth – of our own situations.  Instead the psalm can only open up questions which invite us to explore our own reality more deeply.

The thing about refusing to respond to other people’s brokenness with blame, is that it creates room for us to hope instead.  It’s in the context of human brokenness that Scripture has given us some of the most powerful symbols of hope in the Christian imagination; the leaven that raises the whole lump; the faithful remnant; the suffering servant; the new growth on the tree.  These symbols invite us to hope, even when we encounter brokenness.

And hope means more than just wishing that things will turn out alright, in the end.  It means grasping a vision of what could be, and making a personal decision about the part we mean to play in it.  One English theologian put it like this: ‘There is dissonance in the universe, but if I strike the right note it becomes harmony and reconciliation – and though they may kill me for it they cannot spoil that harmony.’

They killed Christ for it, of course; but they did not break the harmony that he brought.  It’s up to us to keep the song of hope and healing going.

On being worthy

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:1-15.

“If the house is worthy…”

In giving his instructions to his disciples as they set out on their mission, Jesus tells them to find a worthy household as their base of operations in each town.  And he has some pretty harsh words for houses or towns that are not worthy!

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what makes a worthy household – or whether your household is worthy?

If you asked my mother, she might say something about housekeeping standards (according to her, I fail dismally), but I rather suspect something else might be going on.

The word here that means “worthy” comes from the marketplace; it’s the word for something which is substantial enough to tip the balance in a scale.  It means something that has weight or gravitas.  We might go so far as to say that Jesus is talking here about a household which is serious.

It suggests that a “worthy” household – a substantial or serious household – is somehow more likely to be a place where the gospel is well received, and people are likely to respond to God.  Which says to me that it’s not about social worth or substance; it’s not about money or having a McMansion, but about the hearts and attitudes of the people who live there.

Do we cultivate a heart which is serious about what is good?  A mind which is well-equipped to take on substantial teaching?  An attitude which is truly worthy of what Jesus puts in front of us?

Questions I leave for you to ponder.