Taking a break.

Friends, those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while, will realise that of late I have not been very good at updating it. I do apologise; with the move to a new parish, there has been increased workload and a shift in priorities, which means blogging has often fallen off the list of things to do.

After considering this carefully, I have decided that, rather than keep pressuring myself to do all the things, it’s better to admit that the blog is not a priority right now. Other things need my time and attention.

I’m not saying that this will be the case indefinitely, but for now, it’s better to give the blog (and myself) a break. In time it might again become useful, and I intend to leave it open, but don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for a while.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing with all of you; the comments and feedback, the thoughts and the wisdom you’ve all shared. I do hope that in a new season there might be space for more of that.

In the meantime, every blessing to all of you!

St. Paul, Apostle and Martyr

To my regular readers, apologies for the long hiatus. Life and work have been busy and overwhelming, and blogging fell off the bottom of my to-do list for a while. I hope I can get back into the swing of things now!

This sermon is for the feast day of St. Paul, Apostle and Martyr. The Scripture it reflects on is Romans 1:18-23.

St. Paul is such a towering figure of early Christianity – the author of much of the New Testament, the founder of churches all around the Mediterranean, and the person whose writing has laid the foundations of centuries of Christian thought to follow – that it’s hard to know where to start in talking about him.

It’s certainly true that, if Paul gave us some of the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, he also gave us some of the most difficult; spurring not only huge theological disagreements but providing much angst about what Paul really meant about women, about sex, about slavery, and so on.  He wasn’t above using stinging rhetoric, to an extent that we can find difficult to take on board.

So where do we start, in trying to come to grips with Paul?  And how might we best receive his legacy today?

It’s because of that question that I chose our reading from Romans for today.  In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes an extended argument that can be difficult to follow, but which boils down to this: our worship sets the direction and the tone for everything else in our lives.  If we get worship right – if we know the true God and worship him rightly – that will be the ordering principle which will then flow into all the other aspects of our lives; cognitive, familial, financial, social, and so on.  On the other hand, if we get worship wrong – if we worship something other than God, or if our worship of God is so badly off-base that we might as well not be worshipping him at all – then everything else in our lives will be off-kilter as well.

And that’s why we end up, by the end of the chapter, with Paul saying that gossip, slander, arrogance, and so on (the sins which tear the fabric of community) deserve death.

That’s pretty strong, right there; we tend to think of gossip as a petty thing, but Paul’s saying here is deserves death?  Yes, he’s saying that because he’s saying, in effect, your mistreatment of your neighbour springs out of your lack of right relationship with God.  And in Paul’s understanding, without that right relationship with God, there is no life.

This seems harsh.  And indeed that first chapter of Romans has famously been used as a “clobber” passage against various groups.

But must it be read as harsh? 

I think there’s a way to read this which helps us, not only see the positive point Paul is trying to make, but also catch a glimpse of the hope, the life and the joy he is trying to communicate to the Romans.

You see, rather than looking at all of our failings as evidence of our brokenness and condemnation (and as a reason for condemning others), I think Paul is trying to point us to the fact that we always have recourse to a remedy.  If we find ourselves being – in his words – foolish, faithless, heartless, or ruthless, we can return to what will set it right; we can come back to God and enter into right relationship with God through worship.

There’s an ancient maxim which sums this up; as we pray, so we believe and live.  Our worship shapes our thinking and behaviour.

Historically, Anglicans have understood this principle; it’s part of why we have authorised forms of worship in our prayer books.  Because we take care to structure our worship in ways which will help us orient our hearts and minds and lives to God, from baptism right through to last rites.

But the other thing about this passage is that Paul can then let concerns about other things – disagreements about doctrine or our moral failings, or whatever – be truly secondary.  Earlier in the letter, he had said: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.  If you have faith, and that faith orients you to God, the power of God for salvation is at work in your life, gradually orienting your whole life properly. 

So all these negative things that Paul condemns, they are not the concern; they are not setting the agenda for our actions.  Indeed he goes on in chapter two to point out that focus on what other people are doing wrong is not just misplaced, it shows that you are not focussed on God.

But our failings are not the point.  Passages like this are not meant to give us a checklist of whom to condemn.  The faith is the point.  The worship is the point.  Everything flows from that and finds its answer in that.  So we can give ourselves to worshipping God, and trust God to be at work in and through us as we do so. 

For Paul, as we can see if we keep reading his letter to the Romans, part of the point he is going to make is that worship and faith are the point, over against the Jewish law.  At a time when the Jewish law, and who must observe it and how it must be observed, put deep fault lines through Christian communities, Paul is trying to put the focus somewhere else.  Not the law but the God we worship are the orienting principle of our lives and communities.

But for any of us who might be tempted to substitute anything else, the message is just as important.  There are some Christians who engage in bibliolatry – a kind of idolatry of the Bible, especially of a “literal” interpretation of particular texts – and make that the litmus test or the central issue of Christian identity.  Or there are others who make it about particular ritual observances, or stances on particular political or social justice issues, or whatever it might be.  But all of those things are subordinate to the fundamental issue of whom we worship.  The rest falls into place around, or underneath that.

I don’t know about you, but I find it fairly liberating to be able to think that we don’t have to have everything in our lives and minds tidy and sorted before we come to worship; but that we can come to worship and trust that the rest will fall into place over time, as God’s grace is at work in us.

So how can we receive St. Paul’s legacy today?  We can take his urging to worship – and to worship well – seriously.  We can seek to be a parish which honours his legacy by providing good, solid, and joy-filled worship to God, which is open and inviting to the community around us.  And we can do so confident that this is the central thing, the most important thing, and that secondary things will naturally fall into place around that.

Ethical maturity

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Hebrews 5:5-14.

It’s always an interesting feeling, when we hear others being rebuked in Scripture, isn’t it?  A bit like overhearing someone else’s argument.  And it leaves us with decisions to make about where we think we fit on the issue under discussion.

Take, for example, today’s line from Hebrews: “We have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.”  Dull in understanding.  Ooh, ouch.  Who likes being called stupid?

But it’s one thing to know that the original recipients of this letter had to take that on board; the question for us is whether we take it on board.  Do we hear it and accuse ourselves, “Yes, I am dull in understanding, I need someone to teach me?”  Or do we hear it and feel superior; “Well, I’m not dull in understanding; I’m doing quite well, thank you very much”?

Those are the two extremes, anyway.  I suspect that most of us are somewhere in the middle.  And despite the negative rhetoric here, I suspect the people who first received this letter were somewhere in the middle, too.  And I say that because the whole point of this part of the letter is about striving for a sort of spiritual perfection, or completion.

Well, none of us is perfect or complete this side of eternity, so it follows that we are all somewhere short of that.  But even though we know we can’t reach perfection in this lifetime, the letter is exhorting us to do our utmost to try.  It’s about commitment to the process of becoming.

Well, that’s what Lent’s all about too, isn’t it?  So it’s a good time to stop and think about that a bit. 

Part of what the author of Hebrews is doing here is painting a word-picture, a vision of realities above and beyond our everyday life, showing the listeners how Christ’s ongoing, active, presence as great high priest in heaven itself has meaning for them and their lives in the here and now.  That is ultimately what all that stuff about Jesus as being like Melchizedek is about; it’s saying that Christ is even now ministering on our behalf before the throne of heaven, and we reap the benefit of that ministry.  What Christ is doing in heaven shapes who we are.

Other New Testament writers tend to focus on Christ in heaven as king; they describe him to us seated on the throne of heaven, and emphasise his sovereign rule over all that exists.  But in Hebrews the focus is on Christ as priest, as the one offering sacrifice on our behalf.  And on that sacrifice as effective in making a real difference in our lives now.  That we are being transformed by what Christ is doing.

This transformation, however, is not abstract, or personal and private.  It is transformation which only takes place and takes effect as we actually live; as we make choices and take action.  We see this reflected in the reading, where the author says that maturity belongs to “those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”

While an encounter with the presence and reality of God – and in this case, the reality of Christ as our high priest – is fundamental to our faith, that experience is only nurtured and bears fruit when it is lived out in concrete behaviour.  In practising distinguishing “good from evil” and working out which good things deserve the investment of our time, energy and talents.

Here maturity is presented to us as an ethical characteristic; the mature person is the supremely ethical person.  We might possibly want to take issue with that, to round it out with other attributes as well, to say that maturity is complex and multi-dimensional; but at the very least this text insists that we can’t leave being ethical out of our account of maturity. 

Which does raise all sorts of questions.  Who decides what ethical maturity looks like, anyway?  In lockdown Daniel and I enjoyed watching the TV series, “The Good Place,” (which, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend), in which the main characters wrestle very explicitly with what it means to be ethical, and different takes on ethics, from Socrates right through to modern philosophers (I promise the TV show is much funnier than that description made it sound).  But even if your life isn’t a sitcom, ethical maturity isn’t as easy as just deciding to do the right thing, or even to do good. 

While I’m not going to suggest that Hebrews gives us all the answers to such a big topic, which has provided so much difficulty to believers for millennia, I do think there are some strands of thought which we can pick out and highlight as worth including in our ethical considerations.

And one of those – although it’s not explicit in our reading today – is the letter’s emphasis on community.  Hebrews sees Jesus as the great high priest for a community of believers, and sees the resulting transformation of those believers as profoundly affecting the character of their community.  The author quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  And further on in the letter, he also tells the people: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  It’s a communal vision, of a shared, rather than an individual, experience of and response to God.

For the author of Hebrews, then, ethical maturity is going to be grounded in, and lived out in, a situation of a group of people committed to one another as a community.  The good news for us is that the parish structure of our church provides us with that community; the challenge is that it then asks of us our commitment to it, and to one another.

So, if you’re feeling that perhaps you’d like to work on your own Christian maturity this Lent (and beyond), or looking to brighten up a dulled spiritual life, the prescription of this letter might be taken as: consider your commitment to your community of faith, and how, within that community, you can contribute to what is good. 

And I suspect there’s something in that for all of us, no matter how mature we are!

A matter of vision

This is a homily for a midweek Eucharist. The Scripture it reflects on is Isaiah 49:8-15.

Imagine, if you will, a school playground.  It doesn’t really matter where or when, because some things seem to be universal; so go ahead and imagine it with details that are familiar to you.

And imagine that among the bustle of children eating and laughing and playing at lunchtime there is someone…. well, different.  Someone who comes from somewhere else; whose looks and accent and lunchbox set her apart as distinctive.

And as she moves through her peers, they push her away with their words; label her a freak; dirty; disgusting; insult her intelligence and make lewd comments about imagined sexual deviancies.

And – this is the crucial bit – as she eventually finds somewhere to sit alone, away from their sight, she blinks back tears, holds her head high and remembers that her foremothers were queens, and dreams of a day when her culture and religion might hold sway over a society where no little girl would ever need cry alone.

All of us can relate to that playground scene in some way.  And it is, I think, very similar to how we might think about the author of today’s passage from Isaiah.  His school playground was one of the large cities of the Babylonian empire, where his people, the Israelites, were living in exile.  As they held to their own language, customs and religion they were generally (a few notable exceptions notwithstanding) excluded from power, opportunity and social respect.  They were conquered, exiled, downtrodden; and while they weren’t quite slaves, they certainly weren’t free to shape their own destinies as they wished.

But like our girl in the schoolyard remembering that she comes from a line of queens, they remembered that their current circumstances didn’t define who they were.  And they dreamed of a day to come when things would be very different; when the ideals of their culture would build a very different sort of society.  One in which no one would experience the oppression of forced exile and all that went with it.

And someone in that exiled community, or perhaps a small group of visionaries together, wrote and edited together this part of the book of Isaiah, and particularly, the texts that have come to be called the “servant songs.”  The servant songs are a cycle of poems about an idealised version of God’s servant, which gathers up the memories, longings and hopes of that community and builds them into a portrait of a champion; someone who was everything good and right and holy; everything that community longed to experience and aspired to be.

And that’s what we heard part of today, in our Isaiah reading, when the prophet says:

In a time of favour I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’

Later, in his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul quoted this passage and then told them, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” 

Now is the time when the servant of God rises and fulfills God’s purposes.  That servant is, of course, Christ, and it is in Christ that we find God’s favour and God’s salvation.

But there’s more.  (You knew there had to be more, didn’t you?)  In the Church – this community which is supposed to embody Christ to the world – that favour and that salvation, that putting to rights of all that is wrong, are supposed to be always, steadfastly, on offer.  The servant songs hold up a picture, one vision of what Christ came to be, and thus what the Church is supposed to be, and invite and challenge us to live up to it.

The call to us is to be that servant.  To live up to the vision Isaiah had of the one who moves mountains to make it possible for others to come to God. 

I wonder – have we even asked ourselves what those obstacles are, that we can consider ways of removing them?  What might we change, if we did?

Unity

This is a sermon for the 24th anniversary of the formation of a united parish (by amalgamation of two existing parishes). The Scripture it reflects on is Ephesians 4:1-6.

Twenty-four years these four centres have been one parish.  That’s quite a reasonable amount of time; to put that in perspective, the year you amalgamated, I was doing year twelve.  And yet it’s one thing to become, administratively and institutionally one entity; it’s another thing to truly live, pray and work in unity.  And to be honest, for every church I’ve ever been in, real, godly unity has been something of a work in progress; a task to be worked at rather than a possession to be held.

It is, perhaps, more challenging work, though, when the history of a place has been complex (as yours has); and when worshipping in different times and places means there is less organic interaction between different groups.  So what I wanted to do this morning was celebrate and give thanks for all the good that comes of being one, united parish; to look forward in hope to a future embraced together; and perhaps, just a little, to think about how we might tackle that work in progress of true unity.

And to do that I wanted to look at the reading we had from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  In Ephesians, Paul writes to the congregation, wanting to help them grasp that the life they should live as Christians, should flow from their identity in Christ.  He begins the letter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world… and because of that, our identity in this life, both our individual identities and our shared identity as Christians, are not just shaped by but profoundly grounded in Christ. 

In Paul’s day the big issue for unity was ethnicity, and in particular, how Jews and non-Jews could live, pray and work together.  That was not a trivial concept in a social setting where so much of Jewish identity was focussed on keeping separate; separate food, separate worship, separate community.  There would also be strong pressure to conform to the Pagan norms of civic loyalty and practice expected for the wellbeing of society (that is, Pagan worship and sacrifices were part of what being a good citizen meant).  The Church would have held within it diverse groups with complex relationships to those Jewish and Pagan identities. And now Paul tells the Ephesians that in Christ those divisions and barriers just don’t matter any more.  It must have been incredibly challenging. 

But – a bit like a parish created by amalgamating existing parishes – in Ephesians Paul writes to a community who are still constructing their shared identity.  There was a sharp pastoral need for diverse groups to acknowledge and focus on what they have in common, rather than what divides them.  So Paul tries to help them think about that, be intentional about the way they do things, when he writes with such an emphasis on unity; and how their identity rests on one Lord, one faith, one baptism; and elsewhere in the letter, one body, one Spirit, one Church.  Difference is no longer a cause of hostility, but a cause for celebration.

And this is about group dynamics.  It’s not, primarily, about individuals, but about how the different groups in the Church see and relate to one another.  Paul’s solution to division and disunity is not to deny or downplay the existence of different groups, but to seek reconciliation, and to be at peace with those differences.  We don’t all have to be the same, to be part of something bigger and worthwhile.

So Paul calls for humility in our dealings with one another.  The kind of humility that does not focus on one group at the expense of others; that does not think – for example – that my centre ought always to be served first, to have the best, or to prosper at the expense of others; but which does ask how the life of my centre might contribute to the mission of the parish as a whole. 

And Paul calls for gentleness; that fruit of the Spirit which means that we have in mind how our actions and words will impact on others.  Elsewhere Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”  In other words, remember to speak and act towards others as if Christ himself were in the room, a witness to the effect of your behaviour.

And Paul calls for patience; another fruit of the Spirit which means we do not hurry to correct or persuade one another but recognise that growth takes time, and that we can confidently hope that God’s presence in our life together will bring about that growth over time. 

These virtues – humility, gentleness, patience – are the bricks with which we can build an ever more unified community; with which we can belong ever more deeply with one another. 

The other essential part of unity, for a parish, at least, is our ability to work together for the sake of mission; in very practical terms, to get things done.  To set goals, and bring our skills, time and experience to the table to achieve those goals, across our different centres.  The reality for us is that no one of our centres is big enough – in terms of numbers of people – to stand alone, or to achieve all that we would wish.  We need each other, and the gifts, personalities and abilities of the people in each place, if we want to make a difference in our local context.  Unity of purpose and action is the only way that we can actually strive to live up to being what the Church is meant to be. 

When I was approached about possibly coming up here to be your priest, the word that everybody – from the bishop on down – used to describe this parish was “potential.”  “Northern Albury has so much potential…” was said over and over again.  And it’s true.  This parish has tremendous potential.  But we can only hope to realise that potential if we truly work together.

The good news that we’re here to proclaim is for us all.  Not one group, one place, one centre more than another, but all of us together.  And that good news, at work in us, transforms us all and builds us up together into something more than the sum of our parts; indeed, into the very body of Christ.

Seeking the good

This is a reflection for a mid-week Eucharist. The Scripture it reflects on is Jeremiah 18:18-20.

In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the prophet is dealing with some community backlash after sharing unpopular messages from God.  That is something of a common problem for prophets!  After all, we never like it when people tell us how we need to change.

But I wanted to point out for you the last part of Jeremiah’s response in our reading today.  He reminds God how often he – Jeremiah – has prayed on behalf of the people, seeking God’s goodness and not God’s anger.  His ministry as a prophet has operated in two directions; towards the people, telling them of God’s judgement; and towards God, pleading for God’s goodness towards the people.

This is not a unique thing for Jeremiah.  We see it again and again through Scripture; from Abraham bargaining with God over how many righteous people would make Sodom worth saving, to Paul’s assurances in his letters to troubled churches that he always holds them in prayer, seeking God’s blessings for them, even as he writes sometimes biting rebukes!

I’ve talked before about how the prophetic ministry is – or should be – part of the Church’s life and mission as well.  But this is a timely reminder of how that’s not only directed towards our community and social context, but ought also to drive us always back to prayer.  Our intercessions – both public and private – are a time when we should, like Jeremiah, be speaking good for the people around us, and seeking to turn away God’s wrath from them.

What does it mean to talk to God in a way which speaks good for our neighbours, our town, our state or country?  What does it mean to come to prayer being real about what’s wrong in the world, but seeking mercy for it?  

Prayer’s a very personal thing, and I’m not going to suggest that there are one-size-fits-all answers to that.  But I am going to suggest that these are things worth thinking about.  We stand before God, not only for ourselves but on behalf of others, even others who sometimes have no idea that we do so, and wouldn’t care if they did.  Let’s take their good as seriously as Jeremiah and the other prophets did in their day.

Some reflections on discipleship.

This is a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Mark 8:31-38.

What do you get out of coming to church?  That might be a dangerous question for me to ask.  I might find out that actually, you don’t get much out of it at all; that you spend half the service mentally making shopping lists and pondering the plot twist in last night’s TV show.

Forgive me, I’m being provocative.  But there’s a point I want to make about what the purpose of coming to church is.  So often, when I talk to couples wanting to have their child baptised, or to get married, who aren’t regular church goers, they’ll tell me that they don’t need to come to church because “I know what I believe.”

And this bothers me a bit, because – while I know what I believe, and I even have a degree in it – I don’t imagine that that means I don’t need to be at church.  Because the church service on Sunday isn’t only, or even mainly, about telling you what to believe, or, even worse, what to think.

It has three main purposes; first, to allow us to connect with and relate to God, as actual persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a set of doctrinal ideas.  Second, to help us integrate what we experience at church into how we think and live.  And third, to build us up as a community who can act together to make a positive difference in the world (what in church jargon we call “mission”).

This goes beyond telling you what to believe, and into the realm of inspiration, of shaping the imagination, of forming a vision and a sense of purpose and commitment to action.  It’s starting with what we believe, and then pushing beyond that, to ask ourselves, so what?  We believe in God, so what?  How will that matter all the other six days when we’re not here, and we’re going about our lives as students and workers and grandparents and doing whatever we do?

This is also, by the way, why things like the architecture of churches matter.  It’s not just about what’s beautiful or appealing; because what we experience while we’re in the building, and how we move through it and relate to one another in it, shape our deep convictions about God, and how we act out those convictions.

This church (St. Mark’s), for example, which was so unusual and modern when it was built, literally gives structure to the idea that we ought to be open and transparent to the community around us; that we should be outward looking, and that we should see our worship as intimately connected with (rather than separated from) the life of the whole created world.  Experiencing worship here was meant to help the worshippers – that is, all of us – form habits of thought shaped by the same convictions.

Anyway.  I could go on for ages about basic liturgical principles, but I’ll resist the temptation.

For now, let me come back around to today’s gospel reading, and in particular, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

We tend to get hung up on the “Satan” bit; it’s so harsh, so confronting, and we cringe as we identify with Peter, at the idea that we might ever be rebuked in similar terms.  But if we focus on that too much, we might miss two other important points in what Jesus says.

Notice the reason Jesus gives for the rebuke: You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.  I wonder what the background to this was; was Peter, over dinner at a disciple’s house or on the road, mulling over all he had experienced with Jesus and dreaming dreams of political and social glory?  Was he looking forward to the day when Jesus’ messiahship would become known, no longer a secret, and there wouldn’t be any more trailing around dusty country roads but perhaps more of a life of city comforts?

We can’t be sure.  But whatever he was thinking about, imagining, it wasn’t God’s picture of what all of this was about.  And out of all of this imagining a wrong-headed, a very human, perhaps ego-driven set of fantasies, as a result of that, came Peter’s rejection of what Jesus actually needed to do.

He’s illustrating the principle I was talking about in terms of worship; what you allow to shape your imagination, what you spend time reflecting on and integrating into your sense of self; that’s ultimately going to shape your behaviour.  So just as worship matters for us because it’s an opportunity to get, if you like, a God-sent reality check, Peter needed a God-sent reality check to remind him that his fantasies were sending him off in the wrong direction.

Worship redirects our attention and sets our mind on divine things… or at least, it’s supposed to.

And notice the other thing Jesus says to Peter: Get behind me.  Often this is read as “get out of my way,” and that wouldn’t be a wrong way to read it.  But I’d push further and say, “behind me” is where a disciple belongs.  A rabbi would walk at the head of a gaggle of disciples who came behind him; observing his conduct, absorbing his teaching, and asking questions as they went.

Jesus isn’t just telling Peter off, he’s also telling him what he needs to do to get it right; get behind me, get back to being my disciple.  Quit daydreaming and pay attention to what I’m showing and telling you.

That’s not a twenty-first century model of discipleship.  Fortunately for us all, perhaps, today discipleship tends to involve much more reading and much less hiking around the countryside.  But the basic principle remains the same; get behind me; put yourself in a position to observe, absorb and integrate the lessons of our master.

So my challenge to you, today, is how do you do that?  Coming to church is good, and I’d encourage it, but I’d also argue that it’s not really sufficient.  Peter and the others followed behind Jesus all day, every day; at the very least it would be normal and healthy Christian practice for us to find some time every day to deliberately put ourselves in mind of divine things (rather than human things), and to “get behind” Jesus as the one who teaches us on the road of life.

How can you get behind Jesus, as his disciple, that little bit more this week?  Small changes in habits are more likely to be sustainable and to become part of your life.  So maybe pick one small thing that would let you do that, and give it a go; and if we each do that, we’ll find we’re much more on the right track – together – than getting lost in human wrong-headedness.  And that would be a very good thing indeed.

With joy and dedication

This is a reflection for a midweek Eucharist, on the feast day of St. Matthias. It was also the occasion of the 58th anniversary of ordination for the priest presiding.

We know so very little about St. Matthias that preaching on his feast day can be something of a challenge!  But the fact that, today, Fr. Bill is celebrating 58 years of ordained ministry, led me to think about today’s sermon in terms of ministry.  There’s no doubt ministry has changed an extraordinary amount since St. Matthias was chosen to be an apostle, (or even since Fr. Bill was ordained!) but some things are a consistent thread through all those changes, and it’s good, from time to time, to reflect on them.

At an ordination, one of the most important parts of the service is called the “exhortation.”  It’s the part where the bishop addresses the person or people to be ordained, and spells out to them, exactly what the church understands they are doing by ordaining someone.  If you want to know what the Anglican church believes and teaches about ministry, reading the exhortations in the ordination services is a really good place to start (and if you’re curious I’ll be happy to show you where to find them).

And in the exhortation at a priest’s ordination, the bishop starts by saying, “Our Lord Jesus Christ summons us all to obedience and discipleship.  In baptism we are called to be a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, to make Christ known in all the world.” 

This sets the ministry of the clergy in an important context.  It is not set apart from the ministry of the whole church.  It is certainly not to carry out ministry on behalf of the rest of the church.  Christ summons us all to obedience and discipleship, and to the work of making Christ known in all the world.  The job of a priest is to enable and equip and encourage the whole people of God to take up their work as a priestly people. 

This is sometimes a challenging reality.  It’s challenging on my side of the equation – as I seek to find the right balance between encouraging and outright arm-twisting – and it’s challenging on your side, also, as so many of you balance lives full of many pressures, and wonder where church fits in that bigger picture.  There’s also the reality that what the church as an institution most demands is not always a neat fit with our own gifts and enthusiasms, and there can be a degree of frustration in balancing maintaining communal practices against what I might describe as spiritual self-actualisation. 

I mention all of this simply to say that when it comes to ministry that is truly shared and fulfilling for the people of a church community, the reality is often a lot more complicated, and less satisfying, than the ideal might suggest. 

But that doesn’t mean we give up!  Further on in that exhortation, the bishop tells the ordinands to “take up your calling with joy and dedication.”  I think that’s really a message for all of us; if Christ summons us all, then all of us ought to take up our calling with joy and dedication.   

So today, as you seek to draw closer to God, where do you feel that summons to deeper obedience and discipleship?  And how will you respond with joy and dedication to that call of God on your life?

Where we find our safety

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Genesis 9:8-17.

One of the great gems of this city (which we’ve discovered so far) is the botanical gardens.  Beautiful, peaceful and great community space, and with what look like really good educational and conservation programmes; really a treasure all around.

The thing is, today, botanical gardens are thought of as scientific places, at least in part; the bigger ones often have labs tucked away for genetic research and selective cultivation and all sorts of arcane botanical activities, with an eye to sustaining diversity and preserving species in the face of climate change, and all that sort of stuff.

But they didn’t start out that way.  Botanical gardens as we know them have two historical roots; the medicinal gardens of monasteries, and the university gardens attached to medical schools; both interested in plants, not for their own sake, but for what they offered human beings for health and wholeness.  As Europeans began to seriously explore other continents, they brought back exotic plants, which found their place particularly in the university gardens, where they were studied, classified, and so on; and the modern science of botany came into its own.

But the point about this is that both of these activities – raising medicinal plants, and collecting exotic ones – were given religious value in the society of their day.  The monastery gardens were seen as a kind of return to Eden; or a looking forward to the end of time, when God has promised us a city where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.  And the university gardens, once they started holding collections of exotic plants, were seen as a kind of recreation of Eden, too; where the many species dispersed over the world by the flood could be reassembled to grow together, as they did in the beginning.

And it was that bit – of reassembling species that had been scattered far and wide by the flood – that got my attention.  Because one of the questions about the flood story is, which way is up?

What I mean by that is, do we see the story of the flood as a continuation of the fall, a bad thing, something which is about alienation from God and which we might want to reverse?  Or do we see the story of the flood as being about restoration of human relationship with God, a good thing which results in blessings for us as human beings?

Both perspectives are possible.  You can look at the story of human beings, from Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden, the murder of Abel, the growing wickedness of humankind, and the eventual wiping out of everything except Noah and his family and living cargo, then the tower of Babel, as one long story of falling further and further away from God.  By the time you get to the people being scattered into different language groups after the tower of Babel, the reader has really got the point: we are so, so, so very fallen.

So when Abraham comes along in the next chapter, and God calls him and makes a covenant with him, Abraham becomes the beginning of a new hope; we see God and human beings – or a specific human being and his family, anyway – moving closer to God for the first time.  And Abraham becomes the wellspring, if you like, of all relationship with God for those to follow.

That’s one way to look at it.  But there are hints of a more complex reality in the text.  Cain and Abel are both born after Eden, and both worship the Lord.  Even after Abel’s murder, Cain is under God’s protection.  Noah and his family found favour with God, even amongst his community’s wickedness.  And – as we heard in today’s passage – after the flood there is a new beginning, of sorts; God promises never again to destroy all flesh in a flood.  There is now a covenant between God and all flesh, of God’s protection; even before Abraham, there’s a bond between God and the people made in God’s image.

What I’m suggesting is that while, on the one hand, we need to take our fallenness seriously; on the other hand, it’s a mistake to focus on that as the only relevant fact about our relationship with God.  The early chapters of Genesis, in their kind of mythic take on what it is to be human, show us a complex picture in which God protects us and reaches out to us, even while acknowledging our fallenness and seeking to overcome it.

This is where I think this reading is relevant for the beginning of Lent, too.  We are fallen; we are sinful; we are dust that has lost its way.  If we don’t admit that, we’re just kidding ourselves.  But on the other hand God cares for us, God reaches out to us, and God seeks new beginnings with us; not as a one-off but on a continual basis.  And if we don’t get that, then we don’t really understand who God is.

“Never again shall I cut off all flesh,” God promises Noah.  We live under the umbrella of divine protection.  Not just Jews or Christians but every human being has that pledge of God’s fidelity, whether they know or understand it, or not.

So what does that mean?  It means we don’t need to be afraid to face up to our failures.  We can look at our fallenness, our sinfulness, our fearfulness and human ugliness without flinching, because we know God sees all of that, and yet does not flinch from loving us.  We know God’s attitude to us; we know that nothing we do can make him love us less.  Not even our worst moments define us as outside God’s love or God’s reach.

This means we don’t have to hide our weaknesses; we don’t have to pretend, to ourselves or to others, to be better than we really are.  We don’t have to mask our true selves. (As an aside, I was amused this week to see a meme from an American pastor, obviously fed up with the angst about mask-wearing in the pandemic; who told his congregation he didn’t know why they had a problem with wearing masks to church, they’d been doing it for years. And I think we all know what he’s talking about). But we don’t have to live with the anxious idea that we are only one bad decision away from being rejected.  We can know that we are safe and secure… which gives us the emotional foundational we need, to do the difficult work of personal growth, repentance and change.

The point of the flood story isn’t about the insoluble puzzle of the boat and the animals; how they all fit, what they all ate, and all of that; we reach the point today, where all flesh receives the promise of God’s protection, the promise of basic safety.

And this is where I think those renaissance gardeners, trying to recreate a garden as it might have been before the flood, had it wrong; to undo the flood would be to undo that promise of safety.  It would put us back into a primeval world where God’s protection against the elemental and chaotic forces of the world was not yet promised; not yet understood.

But we have that promise.  So as we embark on Lent, and try to take this seriously as a season of preparation, a season of penitence, a season of spiritual growth, let’s hold on to that promise of protection, of safety and of care; that covenant bond between us and our creator.  Because if we know that we really are safe, we have what we need to try to deal with some of the primeval, chaotic or dark aspects of our own souls; and to do the painstaking work of becoming who we are created to be.

And that’s a recreation of Eden that is worth striving for.

Prophetic identity

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it reflects on is Isaiah 40:21-31.

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what it means for us, that so many of the books of the Bible are written by, or about, prophets?

The Old Testament gives us Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on; but even the New Testament has prophets and prophecy as a significant recurring theme.  Do we assume that that was just for back then, and that a prophetic identity is not for us?

I think that would be a dangerous assumption.  And while not everyone is a prophet – and I’m certainly not going to claim any particular prophetic gift – individual prophets always functioned in a community who were called to take on a prophetic role in their wider context.

Think about it; the Old Testament prophets encouraged the people of Israel, as God’s people, to live in a way which displayed God’s ways to the world.  And New Testament prophets functioned similarly in the early church.  Even Paul says that prophecy is for the benefit of unbelievers or outsiders.

I would argue that the Church is meant to have a prophetic aspect to its life and character, and what I want to do this morning – prompted by considering our reading from Isaiah – is unpack that idea a little bit.

So what does it mean to be a prophetic church?  If we have a look at the way prophets function in their communities, we see that they are, as one author described them, “radically concrete.”  That is, they talk to a particular group of people, and take on their political, military, economic and religious lives as all being valid areas of concern.  It looks at all those dimensions of our lives – and more – and brings to the forefront of our attention those situations where our hearts and our behaviours need to change.

We can hear Isaiah doing that today, as he asks rhetorical questions – “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?” as part of his strategy of reminding the people of Israel that their current circumstances in exile do not – or should not – define the horizon of their hope.  The powers holding them in exile are as puny and insignificant as grasshoppers compared to God.

This calling to attention those things which need to change is not the easiest part of being the Church.  It seldom makes us friends in powerful places, and it can earn us a great deal of resentment and angst.  More than that, it requires something of an internal tension; on the one hand, being aware – sometimes painfully aware – of present reality and its shortcomings, and on the other hand, being deeply aware of how God wills things to be, and being pulled to work towards God’s will.  This internal tension I have seen described as “living in the gap between vision and reality,” and it’s not always a cosy gap at all. 

In a way, the planning day yesterday was something of an exercise in being conscious of that gap; on the one hand, taking an honest account of how things are now, both in our parish and in our wider community; and on the other hand, listening to God to catch a glimpse of God’s vision for our parish and community.  I’m encouraged that we were able to do that together with goodwill and cooperation, and define some goals for the weeks and months ahead.

Of course, the listening, talking and planning stage is not the whole story.  If we are going to live faithfully to our prophetic calling, we also need to act on what we have received, heard and planned, and I look forward to working with many of you to see some of those visions become concrete reality.

Lliving in the gap – and learning to take meaningful action to bridge the gap – between vision and reality takes particular habits of thought and skills of community.  And we build those habits and skills through our patterns of discipleship.  We can consciously shape the way we function as a community either to be open to a prophetic aspect to our identity, or not; but our discipleship is likely to be far healthier if we do.  We see that represented powerfully in Isaiah’s servant songs, but even in today’s passage we see hints of it, as “those who wait for the Lord” are promised renewed strength and lasting endurance in their way of life.

That it is “those who wait for the Lord” who receive such promises suggests a number of things about this way of being.  First is that we have to know who God is.  Even Jesus went around healing before he taught; experiencing the healing helped people grasp who it was who was speaking to them, and therefore the weight they could put on his words.  And we need to know who God is; who God is for us, and we need to be confident both of God’s power and God’s profound compassion.  When we know those things about God, we can understand the scope of God’s vision for humanity, and approach our own part in it with confidence.  When we understand how God wants to work for our good, and how capable God is of bringing that good about, we can find our part in that good in a coherent and life-giving way.  We can take up our prophetic role and find our prophetic voice.

In our passage from Isaiah today, the people complain of lack of justice; that what is right is hidden and disregarded by God.  But the prophet corrects them, and asks them again, haven’t they known and heard?  Justice is a fundamental attribute of God’s character, and he does not grow weary in it.  (Justice here means more than a kind of legalistic score-keeping, and something more like the trait of using one’s power and ability for good).  That’s the God we know, and worship, and whose reign we proclaim.  And our lives ought – by also using our power and ability for good – ought also to show the world around us that quality of God’s justice.

What I am trying to suggest is this; we read the books of the prophets not only as containing messages from God, but also as holding up for us one ideal, one image, of what a Christian community should be, and how we should relate to the world around us.  A prophetic identity is a part of who we are, and Isaiah models that for us as well as any of the other prophets.

Have you not known?  Was today’s repeated question to Israel, but perhaps it’s a question to us too.  Have we not known who God is, and therefore who we are in relationship with God?  Deep things for us to ponder!