10,000 views

Today, I note that I have had a total of 10,000 views of my blog.  For a blog I started for my own interest, and haven’t really promoted, that seems a fair number over the last couple of years.

I can see where some of those viewers have come from, in terms of other places on the web, but it seemed like a good time to pause and ask some questions about you, my readers.

If you’re visiting my blog, how have you found it?  What interests you about it?

What would you like to read more of?  And what do you dislike about what you’ve read?

If there’s anything about this blog that’s disappointed me it’s that relatively few of the posts attract much comment, so I’d be really grateful to hear from you all.

Two ways

This is the text of a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Psalm 1.

“Happy are they who refuse the way of evil…” The psalm this morning wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.

If that seems troubling to you – that we might be encouraged to see the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong, and to overlook the complexity of human reality – then today I want to encourage you to get beneath the surface of that a little bit and examine the implications of this kind of thinking.

This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.

There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.

So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.

You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.

This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit, without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.

No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.

There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.

So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.

I wonder what it might be like to consider your own ethical questions – your own moments in which you are confronted with real choices – and to make your choice in trust that if your heart follows the heart of God well enough, even your very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through your integrity?

It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world.   And in this, if we choose it, may our joy be made complete.

The Lord be with you.

Getting botanical

This is the text of a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 15:1-8.

One of my small regrets – I have very few – about going into ministry is that I get very little opportunity to draw on my background in science. So I’m really pleased to be preaching this morning, because this reading gives me the opportunity to get a little bit botanical, as I reflect with you about the life of plants, and what it might mean to live as part of a vine.

Jesus said, “I am the vine.”  He also said, “You are the branches.  Abide” – that is, remain – “in me.”  That picture of Jesus as the vine made me think about how plants live and grow; what role in the life of the plant the different parts of the vine have, and what it might mean for us to be a branch of the grapevine.

It also made me think about how we remain in him.  Christ is risen and ascended.  While I don’t want, in any way, to imply that we don’t each have a personal relationship with Jesus, we participate most fully in that relationship by being part of the community of believers, part of what Paul tells us is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ; we affirm it week by week; and we need to understand that in that sense, this community is the vine.

But let us take a few minutes to consider the life of a grapevine, and how it functions and stays healthy – starting at the bottom.

The roots of a plant are often not obvious or even visible at a casual glance, and yet as anyone who’s done some weeding will remember, they can be surprisingly big and resilient.  If the body of Christ is the vine, then it follows that he is at the roots of our faith.  And roots do a couple of really important things for a plant.  One is that they draw water and nutrients up from the ground to the rest of the plant – to the branches.

Here we have, I think, no very surprising ideas about Christ.  Earlier in John’s gospel, he promised the woman at the well springs of living water, gushing up to eternal life.  And he taught the crowds who followed him that he is the bread of life.  Water and nourishment – in abundance – are to be found in Christ.  Remaining in him, then, as branches of the vine will mean that we look to him for that nourishment.  That is serious encouragement to us to consider our lives of prayer and reading, and how we nourish our spiritual lives.

The other thing that roots are really important for, and this function they share also with the trunk or main stem, is support, structure and balance.  Without this part of the vine, it would be prostrate on the ground, sort of the plant equivalent of a jellyfish.  Not really able to grow or live well.  And it occurs to me that we each need these supports in our lives of faith as well – unless we are happy to be the spiritual equivalent of jellyfish!  Developing some discipline, and allowing ourselves to be accountable to others in the church, gives us some structure when life is confusing and overwhelming.  Carrying one another’s burdens, caring, and being willing to share our own gifts and stories helps to provide the support and balance that a healthy community needs.  These are things which we cannot experience if we try to live a life of faith on our own.

But what then of the branches?  I think there are two things to say about us as branches.  One is that we are the growing edges of the vine.  It is the very tips of the branches which stretch out to new areas. And I would suggest that one of the things we should look for in ourselves, as healthy branches, is whether we are being stretched and reaching out.  This stretching can be in the interior life, in the stretching of our personal response to God.  And also, at the same time, this stretching means paying attention to the people around us, and looking for the ways to build connections with them.

The other key thing about branches is energy production.  It’s in the leaves – on the branches – that the plant produces all the energy that it needs to survive and thrive.  Without wanting to bore you all to tears with the chemical details, the water drawn up from the roots, with the help of the energy of light, goes into making the sugar that every cell in the plant needs.  I think it is very helpful to recognise that something vital happens in us when the light of God in our lives, and the nourishment he provides us, meet.  There is energy for us, there is something which keeps each of us going, keeps the church going, keeps the kingdom of God real and manifest in this world, in this meeting of elements, in us.  That is, none of it would be realised without us.

Which brings us, finally, to the fruit.  It is the energy produced in the leaves which is needed for a plant to produce fruit.  The fruits of the plant are its reproductive bodies; they hold the seeds of new life.  And again, a bit like the growing edges of the branches, this is true for us both in our interior lives – we remember the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace and so on – but also in the new life that comes about as new people are drawn into and become part of this community, this vine which ultimately is Christ.  This is another thing that simply can’t happen in the church without us functioning as we should.

But what, you might ask – and it’s an important question – what about that bit about pruning, withering and burning?  That doesn’t sound so positive.  It sounds somehow like punishment for failing to reach a high enough production level.  But look carefully at what Jesus says.  His comments about the branches which whither and are burnt come after his instruction to “Abide in me.”

If we remain in him, we will remain healthy, able to bear fruit, able to be the people we are created and called to be.  If we remove ourselves from him, if we deprive ourselves of all that the vine offers – the water, the support, and so on – we should not be surprised to find that we are dried out, lifeless, fruitless, and not able to continue.  I suspect that Jesus is simply pointing out the obvious; a branch away from the vine dies, and there its possibilities end.

I hope that by now, you’re starting to see some of the potential that we have as a branch.  In this community, joined to Christ by our baptism, joined to him in his death and resurrection, the new life we celebrated not so long ago at Easter invigorates us, filling us with possibility, even to the smallest growing bud.  Nourished, watered, given structure and support, able to be a people of dynamism and growth, able to produce fruit, in Christ we abide indeed.  Alleluia!

An examen for our times

Last week I spent three days at a conference as part of the diocese’s programme of post-ordination training.  One of the presenters worked with us on “spiritual patterns for the long haul.”  What I like about her teaching method is that she doesn’t just tell you about the theory of a way of praying, but gives you the opportunity to try it.

Amongst the many other things offered to us in this time, I was particularly taken with a creative and fresh approach to the examen.  There are many forms of examen, but traditionally the main point is to review the day (or a recent period of time), in the presence of God.  Such a review then leads you to repentance or to thanksgiving or some other form of response to God.

So how do you teach someone who might never have encountered this kind of prayer before?  Apparently, you remind them that as God is always with you, God is with you right now.  And you invite them to imagine that God is posting on God’s celestial Facebook page, a picture of the two of you together at this time, and you imagine what it is that God would say along with that picture.

It’s surprisingly effective.  There’s something very immediate about this imaginative engagement with reviewing your self which gets beneath the surface of daily life to the heart of things.

But – here’s the catch – it’s not a technique I think I’ll use very often.  For me, who has a particular horror of being publicly shamed, even the idea that God might express God’s disappointment or concern in that sort of public format is very distressing.  Like everything, this technique will be wonderful for some people, and other people will be better to move on and find another approach.

But I have to admire the creativity and the effectiveness.  I wonder what other ancient traditions of prayer might have new life breathed into them with a bit of similar lateral thinking?

Resurrection

One of the great joys of my working week is that there is a group of ministers of local churches who meet together each Tuesday, to read through the Scripture texts set for the coming Sunday, and reflect together on their meaning, as part of our sermon preparation.  Our sharing often goes beyond the boundaries of the texts themselves as we wrestle with the issues faced by our congregations and our society, and support one another in our common work.

This week, as we considered the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, we touched also on the fact that the centennial ANZAC day is not far away, and already there is much propaganda from many points of view cluttering our social discourse.  In that context, one of my colleagues remembered this poem and shared it with the rest of us.  Its author, Hermann Hagedorn, had seen action in the trenches of the first world war, and sought to reflect on that experience in the light of his Christian faith.  It is, I think, an extraordinarily beautiful vision, and so I felt moved to share it here with a wider audience.  I would be fascinated to read how others find it!

Resurrection, by Hermann Hagedorn 

Not long did we lie on the torn, red field of pain.

We fell, we lay, we slumbered, we took rest,

With the wild nerves quiet at last, and the vexed brain

Cleared of the wingèd nightmares, and the breast

Freed of the heavy dreams of hearts afar.                                                     5

We rose at last under the morning star.

We rose, and greeted our brothers, and welcomed our foes.

We rose; like the wheat when the wind is over, we rose.

With shouts we rose, with gasps and incredulous cries,

With bursts of singing, and silence, and awestruck eyes,                              10

With broken laughter, half tears, we rose from the sod,

With welling tears and with glad lips, whispering, “God.”

Like babes, refreshed from sleep, like children, we rose,

Brimming with deep content, from our dreamless repose.

And, “What do you call it?” asked one. “I thought I was dead.”                     15

“You are,” cried another. “We’re all of us dead and flat.”

“I’m alive as a cricket. There’s something wrong with your head.”

They stretched their limbs and argued it out where they sat.

And over the wide field friend and foe

Spoke of small things, remembering not old woe                                          20

Of war and hunger, hatred and fierce words.

They sat and listened to the brooks and birds,

And watched the starlight perish in pale flame,

Wondering what God would look like when He came.

What we have heard

This is the text of a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 20:19-31.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That’s what Thomas said when the other disciples said they had seen the risen Lord.   It was, I think, strange of him to say; Thomas was with Jesus and the others when Lazarus was raised. He already knew, from personal experience, that raising from the dead was a possibility; so if it was a reality for Lazarus, why hesitate at accepting it for Jesus?

Perhaps he was by nature a pessimist (as someone who has also been accused of pessimism, I might prefer to call it realism). On the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus announced that he was going to Bethany, it was Thomas who encouraged the disciples to accompany Jesus; “that we may die with him.” Was he the sort of person who protected himself from disappointment by imagining the worst possible outcome in a given situation?

What I find interesting is that despite Jesus’ invitation, the text does not say that Thomas actually touched the risen Jesus. In the end, when he saw Jesus and heard him respond to his struggles, that was enough for Thomas to say, “My Lord and my God!”

I’d suggest that the sharing of this little exchange between Jesus and Thomas is designed to throw a light back on the experience of ordinary believers who would hear and read this gospel. All through the story up until now, Thomas has been following Jesus faithfully, if not fully understanding what is happening; here he sees clearly for the first time.

So what does that have to say to us? Faith is not, in this way of narrating it, something static but rather dynamic, having the potential for growth and change. There is faith based on signs and faith that needs none; faith which is shallow and faith which is deep, faith faltering and faith growing. Faith is not, in this gospel, only a decision made once for a lifetime, but a commitment made anew in every decision.

Faith is, then, a process. But to be really Christian faith it must be a process – however haphazard – towards a truer understanding of Christ, and of God’s grace. It’s not enough just to be on a journey; one must eventually arrive at the proper destination, and be able to echo Thomas in saying, “my Lord and my God.”

What Thomas is being invited to believe in – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and Jesus’ renewed relationship with his friends. Thomas’ failure is not in misunderstanding the nature of resurrection but in requiring a special, individual assurance of it: he wants a proof other than the testimony of the group of believers. But beyond the first moments of encounter, lost in history, it is through the Church that the world comes to belief, not by an ongoing series of special events.

This all suggests to me that faith needs ongoing input. We need one another in this process; because if we forsake one another, it is possible to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that go with him. We cannot tell in advance what light will break forth from God during a particular conversation or worship encounter. We cannot know when a friend will offer a word of wisdom; when the preacher will say something particularly helpful; when the music will be more uplifting than we expected; when the Eucharist will be celebrated in a way in which we finally find healing and forgiveness for some sin or sorrow that has been plaguing us for ages.

When Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he was not encouraging blind faith. He offers himself up to us for scrutiny; not physically as he did for Thomas, but through the Scriptures and the liturgy and through the lives of believers. This part of the gospel puts forward the idea that a persuasive presentation of the story of Jesus can change people’s lives for the better, even provide them with eternal life if they accept the truth in the story. John does not call us to an unreflective faith, but rather one that is led to worship after a good hard look at the life and works of Jesus, and after one has actually encountered this risen Lord.

This gospel bids us to put Jesus to the test, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is a call that many have heeded, and it helped them immeasurably. Jesus Christ is our total foundation, for he is our Lord and our God, whether we recognize him as such or not.

Of course, Jesus also said “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” He calls us to be a people sent out as agents just as he was, and sent to perform the same kind of ministry, offering forgiveness of sin and eternal life through Jesus the way. In the ordination service, priests are exhorted to take up this calling with joy and dedication; but I feel that it’s a very great pity that we don’t put the same words into the service of baptism, because that calling belongs to us all, as a community of the whole, not only to particular people within it.

We all – each of us – receive the Holy Spirit, just as the early disciples did when Jesus breathed on them. This is what makes it possible for us to be the body of Christ, a community of those who take up the work that is still not yet complete. The crucial task for us is conveying – in all the ways available to us, in word, in sacrament, in music and art, in quiet care for one another – the heart of the good news about the risen Jesus, about forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And so I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, this Easter season, to take up this calling with joy and dedication.

The Lord be with you.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This is the text of a sermon for Easter morning, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 20:1-18.

Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?

We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?

I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?

For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.

Why does it matter – you might well ask – why the Magdalene wept? It matters because she’s not the only one to weep.  Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.

We bring all of this history with us to the drama of Easter. If Friday was a time for remembering our guilts, our shames and our doubts, perhaps the door of the empty tomb is the time for remembering our frailties, our vulnerabilities, our fears of failure and of worthlessness.

But this is all a bit morbid for Easter morning, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if I stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.

And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of worthlessness, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name.   Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.

Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Easter story on board as part of our story, our identity, is – says Rowan Williams – an indispensable part of our relationship with God. He puts it thus: “Like a growing thing beneath the earth, we protest at the darkness and push blindly up in search of light, truth, home – the place, the relation where we are not lost, where we can live from deep roots in assurance. Mary goes blindly back to the tomb, and finds her self, her home, her name… Mary is not dead because Jesus is not dead… and her continuing life will have to do with the daily refusal to accept that loss and oppression can simply be lived with or shrugged off. Growth is in the passionate constancy of returning to what seems a grave… to the dim recollection of a possibility of love, in the hope of hearing one’s name spoken out of the emptiness… If we answer that call, and find our story given back to us, our name and our memory, that story turns the corner into life and promise, and, most importantly, “calling” in the fuller sense. We are given a task to do, given a gift to give. Mary is bidden not to touch or hold or cling to the recovered Lord, but to go to her brothers and tell them that she has seen the Lord.”*

The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world. Here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.

This is a calling, my brothers and sisters, at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But here we are, in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be. Let’s not miss the moment.

*The section marked as a quote is taken from a passage in Rowan Williams’ book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, (which I heartily recommend).  I have taken the liberty of changing some of the words to fit better within a spoken delivery without, I hope, doing violence to his meaning.