Comings and goings

This is a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 55:1-9.

I wonder where you each find God?  It might sound like a silly or an obvious question, but I don’t mean it to be.  I’ve heard all sorts of answers over the years; from people who find God in the beauty of music, or in nature, or even in the exertions at the gym.

For myself, while I need quiet times without distraction, where I most find God in a way which is dynamic and energising for me is in other people; especially when I can see other people connect with something which is life-giving for them, whether that’s growing in understanding, or doing something they love, or discovering gifts they never knew they had.  Maybe that’s why I do what I do, because this work gives me the privilege of witnessing lots of those moments of other people connecting with something which transcends the ordinariness of life.

However… the reason I’m pondering where we find God, this morning, is because of the reading we heard from Isaiah, and his repeated appeal to the people of Israel to come to God, to have their thirst quenched and their deepest hungers satisfied.  And if we’re going to heed that timeless plea, and come to God, then we need to have some idea of what coming to God looks like, for each of us!

Let me start with the basic and obvious and say that the Christian tradition offers us some reliable resources in that regard.  In prayer, in Scripture, in baptism and communion, in the community of believers, we have experiences in which God has promised to be present to us; promises which the church has tested thoroughly over two millennia and found to be reliable.  So all of those things are good, and I don’t want to sound as if I am discounting them in any way.

But…  (you knew there had to be a but, didn’t you?)… there’s a danger in stopping there.  Two dangers, actually.  The first is the danger of thinking that these are the only ways in which we might connect with God, overlooking the presence of God in all of life, and depriving ourselves of potentially important aspects of our own spiritual development.

The second is the danger of thinking that people who don’t use these things, who are not part of the church, are somehow completely cut off from God.  And, by extension, assuming that the rest of what Isaiah meant in his appeal to “come” was, “Come and be just like me.  Pray how I pray, understand Scripture the way I understand it, and be in church as often as I am, and then you too will be a real Christian.”

I’m sure when I put it that way, you can see the problem with that kind of thinking.  It limits God, shrinks Him down to being just as narrow and small-minded as me.  Maybe we need to be reminded of the way the reading ends; with God saying that “my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

So what are some other ways in which we might come to God?

One important one is in caring for others.  Remember how Jesus taught elsewhere that whatever we do for the least of the children of God, we do for him.  It’s sometimes helpful to take that teaching and apply it in very practical ways.  One of my favourite books, The Nun’s Story, describes how a nursing nun in Belgium taught her nursing students to use that teaching: “All for Jesus.  Say it, my dear students, every time you are called upon for what seems an impossible task.  Then you can do anything with serenity.  Say it for the bedpans you carry, for the old incontinents you bathe, for the foul dressings you change.  This is no beggar’s body picked up in the street.  This is the body of Christ, and this suppurating sore is one of His wounds…”  To their giggling amazement, the students found that it worked; to see the grosser aspects of nursing as caring directly for Christ gave them depths of compassion they didn’t know they were capable of.

Few of us are nurses, but all of us can find ways to come close to Christ by caring for others.

Another way to seek to come to God is to look for the places and the ways that God is at work outside the church, and seek to be involved with them.  We know that although we live in a secular society, there is enormous interest in spiritual matters, and a genuine hunger for real depth.  We can engage with the world with ears pricked for the signs that God’s spirit is stirring people to seek Him, and be ready to offer map and compass in people’s quest for more to life than the mundane.

We can also look at the movements for social justice and for care of the environment as signs that the Holy Spirit is at work even in the most unexpected places, pushing people towards the justice and mercy which are at the depths of God’s own heart.  We can seek to be involved in those movements, attending events, reading and keeping informed, supporting as we can.

Ivan Illich was a Roman Catholic priest and social critic.  He was once asked what is the most effective way to change society.  Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform?  He gave a careful answer.  Neither.  If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.  As Christians we hold in trust one of the most powerful “alternative stories” in history; but are we telling it to our politicians, to our business leaders, to our academics?  Or have we – even on a subconscious level – bought into the idea that it’s a myth, a fairy tale, something that’s nice for us to hold onto but powerless outside these walls?  History says it’s more than that.

Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit is at work out there, beyond the church, actively stirring up the longing for a better tomorrow.  The invitation to us is whether we’re going to come to the party or not?

So, almost paradoxically, coming to God might look for us a bit like coming and going.  We come to church to find God in sacraments and in Scriptures, but we also go out to find God in other human beings, in social and political movements.  And in that way, we discover that God is not nearly as limited as we are often tempted to think.

There’s a challenge there for us to do that coming and going in ways which are consistent, which hang together and have integrity.  We don’t want to become double-minded, one sort of person in one context and another sort somewhere else.  Rather we need to weave together the different elements of finding God so that (for example) our commitment to social justice is thoroughly Biblical, and our reading of the Bible is thoroughly just.  It takes work on our part to get to that point.

But if, like me, you’re not satisfied with the way things are, and are hungry for a day when we’re much closer to the vision Isaiah and the other prophets hold out to us, then I think we need to do that work, and to take it seriously.  And then we really will find ourselves close to God.

 

 

 

Transfiguration

This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 9:28-36.

Well.  The gospel story we heard this morning is, according to a lecturer of mine, “one of the most neglected in the New Testament” – at least, in the Christian West.  Protestant churches have more or less ignored it as a puzzling anecdote.  In contrast, Eastern Orthodox churches have seen the story of the transfiguration as a key moment, one which helps us to make sense of the gospel, of God, and also of our lives as Christians.  And its coming up as the reading for today lets us pause and rediscover why that is, and what it might have to say to us.

How we understand the story really hinges on what precisely it is that we think happened on that mountain.  The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah.  But what do those things mean?

The clue comes in the repeated mention of glory.  Moses and Elijah appeared in glory; the disciples saw Jesus’ glory.  A quick Google search tells me that today, glory is a word mostly used about sport, and war; both contexts in which it is closely associated with winning; with coming out on top and triumphing over competitors or enemies.  God, who is without peer, has neither competitor nor enemy who is any threat to him; and he exists in a state of eternal glory, which is something which Luke comes back to again and again throughout his gospel.

Glory exists in Luke when people praise God, and when they experience the nearness of heaven (think of the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, and how “the glory of the Lord shone around them”).  Glory is what we recognize as the power and the presence of God, both in its utterly holy otherness, and its intimate nearness to human life.

And that reality – the power and the presence of God – is what the disciples recognized on the mountain.  So this tells us two key things; first of all, it tells us again who Jesus is.  The power and presence of God shines out of the depths of his very flesh, reminding us that he is God, who, although he has chosen to humble himself and take on flesh, is not limited by it in the way that we are.

Here I might make a brief comment about why we have this reading today.  In Luke’s gospel, this part of the story is the turning point; before this, Jesus has been wandering, preaching and healing as he travels through the land.  But after this encounter on the mountain, he turns towards Jerusalem and begins to make the last journey to his death.  Notice that Moses and Elijah were talking to him about his coming departure – in the Greek, his “exodus,” with all the redemptive overtones that carries – in Jerusalem.

And our readings will follow him as he does so; from now until Easter, the gospel readings set for Sundays will take us, with Jesus, towards his death.  So it’s not accidental that here, before his suffering and execution, Jesus is strengthened by the affirmation of who he really is and what he will accomplish.  And his disciples, too – although they don’t understand yet – have a glimpse into the bigger picture which will make sense to them later, after the resurrection.  In the language and understanding of faith of the time, the events on the mountain claim an unmistakable divine identity for Jesus, which lays the foundation for understanding the events of his suffering and death.  That’s the first key thing which this reading tells us.

The second key thing this reading tells us looks beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the future.  The glory which shone out of Jesus on the mountain is the glory which we will most fully know in God’s future; in the banquet at the end of time, and the establishment of perfect peace and harmony.  The glory of Jesus on the mountain is a peek behind the veil of time, a foretaste of the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, human beings will cease their destruction, and all of creation will flourish in peace and beauty.  Remember the promise in Revelation that at that time, we will no longer need sun or moon, because the glory of God is the light of the new creation – and it is that same perfect and holy light which shone from Jesus’ face on the mountain.

So the light and the glory of the transfiguration aren’t just descriptive details of the event on the mountain, but really they are the event.  They are a down payment on a future where God’s salvation will triumph definitively over evil and suffering, where God’s glory will be – as Paul put it – “all in all.”

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope.  For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation.  Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present.  He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.

In order to understand the vision of restoration and hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God.  It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration; a hope made real and concrete in human life lived to its full potential, with the worth and dignity of each person recognized and celebrated.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship, that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us.  When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands.  These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here.  The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope.  We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

So, since we have as our hope a vision of perfect peace and human flourishing, that commits us to work for these things; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, and outwards towards the whole of humanity.

Martin Luther King, Jr., told the story of how, during his struggle for justice, he was strengthened by God’s promises – by his vision of this hope.  One night he woke up to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his front porch with the fuse still smouldering.  The next morning, during his sermon, he told his congregation: “I am not afraid of anybody this morning…If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”

What would it take, my brothers and sisters, for us to be convinced that we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land, and it’s going to be here, in our local area?  What would it take for us to live with that absolute rock-solid certainty, so that we would persevere, unafraid, certain of what God is up to in our midst?  Perhaps, until we reach that point, we will need to keep coming back to the transfiguration and let it speak to us of the hope and glory of God.

Not about me

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 4:1-15.

Power is a very tricky thing.  It’s neither good nor bad, it just is; part of how the universe works, like gravity or the speed of light.  Part of the architecture of existence.

But we get ourselves into all manner of trouble with it, partly because having power means we’re able to make choices… and we don’t always make good ones.  And partly because – unlike watching something fall due to gravity – power isn’t always obvious in the way it plays out, and so we get ourselves confused or even deceived about what is really going on in the way power is used.

My absolute favourite personal example of this was when I was going through the series of interviews which happen when the diocese is deciding whether or not to ordain someone.  One of the questions I was asked was, what difference would it make to me, to be ordained?  And what difference did I think it would make to other people, the people amongst whom I ministered, for me to be ordained?

My answer was that being an ordained person – wearing the clerical collar, having the title “Reverend,” embodying in some sense the authority of the church – meant that you had more power than if you were just a private person.  That people responded to you differently and that you had the potential, if careless, to do far more damage than if you were just speaking as yourself.  That you had more responsibility and needed to take more care.

The panel interviewing me found this a surprising answer; one of them, a priest, told me that he very often felt very powerless, rather than powerful.

I had difficulty keeping a straight face.  Here we were, in an interview which might well decide my entire future, and the outcome of the six years I had just invested in study; this man’s recommendation might make the difference between me being ordained and trying to work out what my “plan B” was going to be.  And he was telling me he felt powerless.

Something was out of kilter in that conversation, and I don’t think it was my answer to the question!

Today’s gospel reading is all about power too.  Who has it, and how it should be used.  “If you are the Son of God…” “If you will worship me…” are flung at the man in the desert, testing; just how much power do you have, Jesus?  And what are you going to do with it?

Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, described Jesus as setting us an example of “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”  And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

Jesus gave us this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  And it is the failure to meet this standard; any instance in which we see that people are being neglected, held in contempt, or hated, that we are able to recognize what the gospel describes here as “the devil.”  This is how the early church understood the real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities and nations.

But we see that even here, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus set himself to stand for a different set of values.  Values which reject personal satisfaction which comes at the expense of human flourishing.  Which reject prestige as an end in itself.  Which reject entitlement in favour of service.

If you could sum up all of Jesus’ responses to the temptations in one line, it might be, “It’s not about me.”  The key to Jesus’ approach is that there’s something more important, for him.  A bigger vision to hold on to.

And here’s where it gets interesting for us.  None of us are likely to be offered all the kingdoms of the world (although I do have those fantasies!)  But all of us, every day, have choices to make.  Moments when we have to choose between pleasing ourselves, and taking on Jesus’ “it’s not about me” approach; you might even call it his spirituality.

We might not think of ourselves as very powerful, but every time we take an action, offer an opinion, form a recommendation or make a decision, we are exercising our power.  We can do those things in formal ways, but more often we do them informally; in our social relationships with others.  And each time we do any of those things, we make choices about whether to prioritise our own selves, our desires and pleasures, or a bigger picture.

Christ embodies for us an example of someone completely committed to a bigger picture; he calls us forward into that hope for liberation, compassion and love which God presents anew in each moment.  We gather intentionally as a human community that has committed itself to be the manifestation of Christ’s spirit in the world.  That is our entire reason for being.  It’s why we’re here.

So – because it is Lent, the season for hard questions – here are two questions that I have, considering all of that.  The first is, in our progress towards being that community of justice and care, where do we get stuck?

I don’t have complete answers.  I’d love to hear what you think about it.  I did notice, when I read over the parish profile I was given before I came, how often it stressed the importance of “strong leadership,” and I wondered whether perhaps that had been something where people had felt a lack.  I wonder what “strong leadership” means to you, and what you’d like to see from the vicar – and to a lesser extent, from me – in that regard.  We could have some very fruitful conversations about that.

And my second question is, do we have clear, specific goals?  Do we think of this as being a community which can set goals and accomplish them?  Or do we think of it as a group of mostly like-minded people who enjoy gathering socially and worshipping in a familiar style?  Because while there’s nothing wrong with gathering socially and worshipping in a familiar style, that is not, in and of itself, of service to the bigger picture that Jesus was on about.  It is not an example of his “it’s not about me” approach to life.  We need to be more than that, if we’re going to really be the church as it’s meant to be.  Dare I suggest, we need to claim our power, to become conscious of it, and strategic in using it; not to let our blindness to our own power destroy our creativity and vitality.

There is an old prayer which asks God for the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people.  Perhaps that might not be a bad prayer for us, this Lent; as long as we are prepared to consider that our church might be such an unexpected place, and we might be the unexpected people!

Tangling with temptation

For some time now, I’ve been fascinated with the examples of Zentangle art forms I’ve seen around.  While incredibly intricate, they’re simple enough to be done by almost anyone, anywhere.  And while they were developed as a form of secular mindfulness meditation (despite the “Zen” tag, to my knowledge they have no formal link to any religious practice), I’ve wondered whether the practice could be adapted as a specifically Christian form of meditation (perhaps integrating some of the principles of Sybil MacBeth’s work on Praying in Color).

So, since my discipline this Lent was to be working on developing my creative and intuitive responses to God (rather than analytical and intellectual, which have been my stronger side for a long time), I decided to attempt something of the sort.

This is my first attempt; a meditation on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.  I make no claim that it has significant artistic merit, (or indeed technical precision; I last took an art class when I was thirteen, and have neglected those skills since), but I definitely found that taking the time to reflect on the Scripture, choose and develop the patterns and the relationships between them, and make wider connections of meaning, was something I found helped me to better engage with the Scripture at depth and come to new insight (both into the Scripture and my own response to it).

I could tell you about all the things that came to mind while I was drawing, but that might take the fun out of it.  What do you see, and what does it evoke for you?

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Dust

This is a sermon for Ash Wednesday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 6:1-21.

I suspect that, in some ways, Lent used to be easier centuries ago.  When there were clear rules about fasting – what you could and couldn’t eat on which days – and tithing and the obligation to be in church.  While observing the rules might have been onerous, as long as you did so, you could be pretty comfortable that you were doing Lent “right.”

We have a more difficult path to navigate.  We have no rules, but lots of options.  Will you fast?  Will you give extra to charity?  Will you pray more?  And if you do so, how will you decide how to structure that, and how much is enough?  It’s not easy or straight forward.

The temptation for me is to see Lent as a kind of a time for self-improvement.  So we fast in Lent?  Ok… let me structure a good weight-loss diet, and follow that, and that way I can fast and lose weight all at the same time.  Win-win!

But to do that would be to miss the point.  Because – as the gospel reading reminds us – we don’t do these things for external rewards (not even the reward of dropping a dress size).  This is supposed to be a time of re-focussing on our relationship with God.  And all the other things are only worth doing, to the extent that they help us deepen that relationship.

What that looks like for each of us will be different.  Which is why, when you look at the little leaflet outlining the things planned for Lent and Easter in our two parishes, the vicar and I have gone to a great deal of effort to put together a very diverse programme.  We don’t for a second imagine that anyone will want to do everything; but we hope that whether it’s a quiet afternoon or a social justice walk or a study group, there will be something for everyone.  So I do recommend having a careful and prayerful read of the leaflet and considering which of those things might be helpful to you.

And there are other things not in the booklet too.  The gospel reading talked about prayer and fasting and giving money; all of those things can have their place.  And let me say, too, that it’s perfectly okay if you sort of think you might quite like to try praying more, or fasting, but you don’t really know where to start or how to do it.  We aren’t born knowing these things instinctively; but if you’d like help to think about them maybe talk to me, or some other wise and Godly person who can help you think through how to use those things, and what might be nurturing for you.  And I might mention too, that while it’s never been compulsory for Anglicans, we do also have as part of our tradition the possibility of private confession; so if there’s some sense of sin that is bothering you, that’s also something about which we can have a conversation.  Not that I expect it of anyone, but I think it’s worth knowing that like all of these other things, it’s an option that’s open to each of us.

So there’s a rich range of options for this time of focus on deepening relationship with God.

But having said all of that, I want to think for a few minutes about that relationship – between each of us and God – and how we approach it.

In a short while, we are going to begin our Lenten observances with the invitation to receive the sign of ashes; and in doing so we will each be told to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And I think this is helpful to us in framing that question of relationship with God.

Because it reminds us, right here at the beginning of Lent, that our relationship with God – although it is loving, and gracious and I hope generally a positive and nurturing one for each of us – our relationship with God is profoundly unequal.  God is the sovereign of the universe; the creator of everything that is.  Everything in existence depends on His sustaining will.  And we are God’s creatures; the product of his imagination and will and we each exist only because it is God’s gift to us to do so.

I have a favourite reflection on this, very slightly adapted from one written by Hildegard of Bingen.

The reflection says:

Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne.
Around Him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory,
bearing the banners of the king with great honour.
Then it pleased the king to raise a small dust mote from the ground,
and he commanded it to fly.
The mote flew,
not because of anything in itself,
but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I, a mote on the breath of God.

I particularly like this reflection because I think it captures something of what it means to be a created being in the presence of the creator, but also does not humiliate us.  We may be dust, but we are dust borne along on the breath of God; lifted up with purpose, and not without our own beauty.

So as we begin Lent, these are the questions I’m going to try to consider; as a human being, how do I respond to the mind and the heart of God, who made me who I am?  How do I understand the purpose God has for me, and how can I live that out more faithfully?  And how can I more deeply appreciate the beauty and wisdom of creation, and celebrate that in ways which reflect that to the world around me?

These aren’t small questions.  They will take me a lifetime – and then some – to really work through.  But I hope that they are questions which will help me – and maybe you – stay focussed, keep a holy Lent, and come to Easter with a deeper appreciation and love.