Cracked cisterns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Advertisements

Tradition for humankind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Of interior wounds

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Thirst

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

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

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

The Thirsty Man Who Threw Bricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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