St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr

This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-22.

I find the story of St. Agnes quite troubling.  While some of the details are hazy, it seems clear that she was a young woman – maybe twelve or thirteen years old – in a Christian family, while Christianity was still illegal in Rome.  Denounced to the authorities, probably by a young man frustrated at her refusal of marriage, she was subjected to various indignities and eventual martyrdom.

There are lots of aspects of that story that we could explore, but the one which caught my attention was the idea that for Agnes, as for so many of the early martyrs, this was a contest about who was in control.  Who gets to decide what I do, and what happens to my body?  (In particular, who gets to decide with whom I have sex?)

A third-century Roman woman might seem like an unlikely poster girl for bodily autonomy, but you could read Agnes’ absolute refusal to bow to personal or state pressure in that light.  Of course, she was killed for it.

Today’s gospel reading hints at similar tensions in the Christian experience.  “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”  It’s an expression that conveys a great deal of vulnerability.  When the sheep and the wolf eye one another, it’s not usually the sheep who experiences control of the situation.

And yet I have a hunch – formed over many years of pastoral conversations – that we don’t like to think about that very much.  We like to frame our understanding of the world as if we are n control of our lives.

But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control.  God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.

And so we have a tension between taking advantage of the scope we do have, and making the most of it; and accepting the constraints which shape our lives.  The Christian martyrs have heightened that tension in an incredibly pointed way; making choices which showed how brutal and how extreme the forces which control our lives can be.  And in doing so, making the most incredibly powerful challenge to those forces, by saying that they are not ultimately the most important thing.  Some things are worth dying for.

Here’s the thing; Agnes, in her refusal to budge on her commitment to Christ, unmasked the wolfish brutality of her society.  In surrendering even her life to it, she refused to compromise with it in any way; and the extraordinary thing about that is the way her death became a catalyst for change.  Even heartless Pagan Rome, which had seen so many brutal deaths, began to sit up and ask if this was really necessary.  It was a turning point in the persecutions.

But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us.  I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control.  We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place.  We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.

This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way.  Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances i about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency.  (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there).  And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.

And that’s before we even touch on questions of mental illness or other, less tangible, constraints on our lives.

But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to preserve the illusion of being in control, is that it means that the constraints on our lives go unnamed, unacknowledged.  The wolves, if you like, are allowed to stay camouflaged.

How many people don’t talk about poverty, because they are ashamed to admit that they don’t have economic freedom?  How many people don’t talk about addiction, because they are ashamed to admit that a substance or an activity has come to rule their minds?  How many people don’t talk about family situations in which they feel trapped, because they are ashamed to admit that all is not well?

And yet wouldn’t there be a freedom, even a reclaiming of power, if we could collectively look those wolves in the eye and acknowledge them?

And if there is any sin in any of these things, wouldn’t being able to be honest with ourselves about what is going on, be the first step to setting it right?  Or if there is any injustice, any oppression, at work in what we experience, isn’t being able to be honest about that, the first step to being able to challenge it?

What I’m suggesting is that the illusion of being in control of our lives can get in the way of our own best interests.  It can get in the way of our psychological well being.  It can get in the way of our social well being.  It can get in the way of our moral well being.  And it can get in the way of our ability to recognise those things which are wrong, and work to put them right.

If Agnes had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things.  It might not have been, on paper, a bad outcome; and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it.

But by refusing to do that, by looking the wolf in the eye and not flinching, she refused to compromise who she was.  Maybe one of the things she offers us as her legacy, is the courage to accept our own vulnerability, and to take a fearless inventory of the powers which shape our lives, knowing that none of them have the final word.

 

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Steadfast love

We did something a bit different instead of a straight sermon this morning.  I wanted to reflect on the part of Psalm 40:10 which says “I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”

Rather than me spending ten minutes or so telling the congregation why sharing their experiences of God’s love is a good thing to do, I decided to engage in a bit of experiential learning by getting them to share those experiences in the service.  As people spoke, I wrote what they had to say on butcher’s paper, which we placed on the altar for the Great Thanksgiving.  Now, the pieces of paper are on display in the narthex for further reflection and discussion.

Here’s the list of what came out as we talked:

  • Accidents avoided (safety)
  • Answered prayer
  • A place to live (divine providence)
  • Nature (especially birdsong, and sunrises and sunsets)
  • Music and singing
  • A supportive community in the parish
  • Family togetherness
  • Children
  • The joy of loving
  • Dependable presence – an awareness of God – (especially in meditation) – a sense of immanence
  • Strength when feeling low
  • Blessings coming out of life’s difficulties
  • Guidance in understanding
  • Right paths in life (being able to come back after a wrong path)
  • Guidance and blessings
  • Comfort in grief
  • Ongoing forgiveness

By the time we’d got all of that on paper, we were really just getting warmed up!  But I didn’t want to let it go for much longer than a sermon typically would.

But what an awesome God we have, that we should have all these things for which to give thanks and praise together!

Homage

This is a sermon for the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references are is Matthew 2:1-12.

It’s the last finishing touch on the Christmas story; some time after Jesus was born, wise men from the east arrive “to pay him homage.”  Homage is a funny word; we don’t hear it often in everyday life, but here it means something like, the wise men came to pay their respects.

But who were they?  Why did they come?  And what does this last detail of Jesus’ infancy suggest to us for our lives?

Let’s start here.  The wise men weren’t kings, despite all the pop culture references which paint them that way.  The word used to describe them, magos, (from which we get magi) referred to priests of a pagan Persian religion, educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astronomy (which at that time was more what today we would call astrology), and the occult.  They were also widely noted for their honesty and integrity.  Some of the magi were court functionaries of the Parthian Empire, powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.  It’s pretty safe to say that they weren’t in the habit of dropping in on random peasant children in the Roman Empire, their political enemies, with whom they were often at war.

So why come?  It’s hard to be sure exactly what their motivations were.  We know that these men had a role in deciding who would rule their Empire.  We know that their Empire was unstable and that the leadership of it was in dispute at about this time.  We also know that this culture had had contact with Jews in exile for a bit more than five hundred years, and that Persian scholars of religion and history would be aware of Jewish ideas and expectations around a messiah.

Did they come looking for a king, not for the Jews but for themselves?  Were they trying to figure out whether this baby was the real deal, before considering making an offer?  Were the gifts not just a mark of respect, but a down payment intended to encourage Mary and Joseph to think about the life Jesus might have in a foreign court, (not unlike his distant relative, the famous Queen Esther)?  (And then, of course, there’s the matter of the star.  What did these astrologers make of that?)

Lots of questions and no real answers in the text.  And then they exit – not the same way they came – and as far as we know, that is that.  They don’t return, and when Mary and Joseph do go into exile, it’s Egypt and not Persia that they flee to.  Apparently neither the magi, nor the holy family, saw in each other the answer to their particular needs.

But while the magi were in the house, they knelt down and paid Jesus homage.  And that’s the part of the story that I want to reflect on, for what it might say to us.

While the magi were on their knees, peering at the infant before them, trying to work out where he fit in their understanding of the world, there would have been a deeper question pulsing behind it all.  What are we looking for?  What did we come all this way hoping to find?

And it’s the question for all of us who take up religion as anything more than a casual passing fancy.  What are we looking for?  What have we come all this way – through the waters of baptism and into the funny, quirky, infuriating community called the church – hoping to find?

In John’s gospel it’s the first question Jesus asks those who would follow him.  What do you want?

And I think that’s important because it’s what we want – not what we know or what we believe – that will drive the way we actually live.  Look at it this way; even if the magi knew that Jesus was the messiah, the promised one who would bring in God’s reign of justice and righteousness, if that wasn’t what they wanted, Jesus would be useless to them.

And it’s the same for us.  It’s our wants and longings and desires which are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behaviour flow.  Being a follower of Jesus is not so much about what you know or believe – although neither knowledge nor belief are bad – but about learning to want what God wants.  To love what God loves.

Jesus’ invitation to follow him is an invitation to line up our loves and longings with God’s; to learn to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he reigns over all; all of what is meant by what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

 

So in this sense, the centre of the human person is located not in our thinking but in our hearts.  Why?  Because the heart is the engine room of our love, and it’s our loves that drive us toward some ultimate concern.  It’s our desires that define us; in short, we are what we love.

This idea of the core of our identity being about the things we want carries some implications about human nature.  It suggests that to be human is to be dynamic.  To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something.  To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something.

To be human is to have a heart.  You can’t not love.  So the questions isn’t whether you will love something, the question is what you will love.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, put it this way.  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  Why?  Because if people long for the sea, they will willingly build the ship.

And this is what I so often am trying to do when I preach, or when we’re working together to plan the parish’s future.  I try to put in front of you a vision of who God wants us to be, what God wants us to do, that can spark in all of us a longing for the endless immensity, not of the sea, but of the heart of God Himself.  Knowing that if we can catch that vision together, we will willingly do what is necessary to move towards it, out of the dynamic power of our desire to see it accomplished.

The Magi came all the way to visit Jesus because they wanted something; they got down on their knees and offered him precious gifts in hope that he would be a fulfilment of their desires.  And they point us to the importance of attending to our own desires, and our own imaginations and hopes and deepest longings; as these will determine where we will go, and what we will do.

Darts in the dark

I don’t do much children’s ministry at the moment, but when I did, I often struggled with what I might describe as the gap between the ideal and the reality.  That is, I might have a clear vision in my head of what I wanted the children’s programme to be, and what I wanted it to offer to the people participating in it… but often, due as much to circumstances out of my control as anything else, what we actually settled for looked quite different.

Today I was reading a report on perceptions of parenting (the report can be found here and is interesting in its own right).  And one paragraph caught my attention.  It said that

“[Effective parenting] is responsive to a child’s individuality and to changing needs, temperament and maturity. This involves tuning in to a child’s interests, perspective and experiences, and interacting with him or her both to address challenges (discomfort, anxiety, confusion, etc.) and to build on strengths (insights, talents, ambitions, etc.).”

It struck me that of course the same is true of effective discipling of children.  And yet I can tell you exactly why this often does not happen, and that is that we don’t know the children well enough.

Not because we don’t want to, but because for many families, being in church once a month or so is as much as they can or want to manage.  The days when children who came to church, came every week and built genuine relationships with their leaders are gone for all but a very few families, at least in my tradition.

So your typical Sunday school teacher or children’s ministry leader tries to plan and prepare activities or teaching materials which will do all the good things described in the paragraph I quoted, but we do so a) without an adequate relationship with the children concerned, to do it well, and b) often unsure as to which of our various children will be present on any given day.  It’s like playing darts in the dark, and then we wonder why we so often miss the mark.

So here’s my plea; if you want the leaders and teachers in your church to be partners with and resources to you as parents, as you seek to nurture your children in faith, then please actually work with us.  Take church seriously.  Make it a priority.  Support us in building relationships with your family.  Communicate with us about all the things it would be helpful for us to know about your child, (or at least, about when you will and won’t be in church).

We care about your children and want to do the best we possibly can for them, but we can’t do that if we simply don’t know them well enough.

Naming and dominion

This is a sermon for the commemoration of the naming and circumcision of Jesus, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 8 and Luke 2:15-21.

Today we heard the story of Jesus’ being named and circumcised in our gospel reading.  I wonder if you noticed, though, the way that Luke put it?  “He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

In ancient near eastern cultures, and thus in Scripture, names and their meanings are important.  Who gets to name someone or something is about authority or power of some sort over the thing or person named.  The point of Jesus being named by the angel is that no human being exercises that kind of authority or power over Jesus’ life and ministry, but only God himself (with the angel as a mouthpiece).

So I was interested to see that, in some ways, today’s Psalm explores some of the same sorts of ideas, but from a different direction.  The Psalmist is marvelling at the heavens, the moon and stars, the awesomeness of all creation (“the work of God’s fingers”), and in light of the vastness and intricacy and wonder of it all, asks why God cares about us?  Aren’t we pretty insignificant in the scheme of things?

And yet God, the psalmist notes, has crowned us with glory and honour, and given us dominion over the works of his hands; sheep, oxen, beasts of the field, birds of the air, fish of the sea, and whatever unnamed creatures lurk in the deeps.  This points us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the story of Adam naming all the animals; just as the angel announcing Jesus’ name sets Jesus apart as being under the authority of God, the earth and its inhabitants have, in some sense, been delegated to us to govern in accordance with God’s purposes for it all.

So for Christians hearing these two passages this morning, we are being pointed in both cases back to the question of what God’s purposes are.  What are God’s purposes which Jesus came to fulfil?  And what are God’s purposes which God’s people have always been called to participate in,  as we exercise dominion over the earth?

In the Scriptures, we’re given a picture of a God who creates, not just the material world and its inhabitants, but also a human society of community and justice.  This purpose – the creation of a society of community and justice – underlies the whole unfolding story of the covenant with Israel, which in turn opens out to the salvation of the whole world.  This means that when we consider what God has delegated to us, it’s not just about stewarding the material fabric of life but also justice and righteousness; and if righteousness is a word we often don’t really understand, I’d suggest that for the purposes of this discussion we could also just as well say “human flourishing.”

In the mind of any Jew steeped in God’s law, as the psalmist would have been, the “goodness” of the created world is mirrored in the “goodness” of right relationships and behaviour.  The two belong together as part of the seamless whole of God’s creation, and the enjoyment of what we might call “the good life” materially cannot be separated from the worship of God who gave it to us and the ethical treatment of the other human beings who inhabit it alongside us.

What this suggests is that enjoyment of the good things of the world is not ethically neutral, but is bound up with matters to do with relationships with God and our fellow creatures.  If the story of the garden of Eden (before the fall) gives us a picture of innocent enjoyment, it’s because in the garden there is harmony between the man and the woman, between them and the other creatures, and between them and God.  And the harmony is not merely an absence of conflict or competition, but an actual interdependence, a being there for the other.  The humans care for the garden (in a loving partnership of equals), so that it can be productive; the plants bring forth fruit; and God walks amongst them all at the time of the evening breeze.

But we are not in the garden, and the relationship between the moral life and the good things of creation is not so straightforward for us.  Where our dominion was given to us so that we could regulate the security of every family and individual in the human community, living wisely and productively in our environment, when we look around at our reality we see that what we have wrought is, in the big picture, very different.

We live in a world where about one in ten people don’t have enough to eat.  Where about one in eight children don’t receive life-saving vaccinations.  Where about one in twenty people live in a war zone.  Where about one in seven people are not educated enough to be literate.  Where we have exploited our lands, waters and air beyond their tolerance limit, destroying habitats, poisoning what was once teeming with life, and playing havoc with the climate on which so much relies.

Why do I remind you of all that?  Because this morning, as we ponder our dominion over creation, and as we ponder Christ’s dominion over us (after all, it is his name we bear from our baptism), we need to confront the fact that we have not lived in accordance with God’s purposes, at all.  We need to confront the fact that social justice, peace-making, reconciliation, and the safeguarding of creation are not new and trendy ideas, which we can choose to take or leave as we prefer.  They are obligations on us in the Christian life; they are, in fact, part of our very purpose for being here.

What are human beings that God is mindful of us, mortals that God cares for us?  We are supposed to be partners in God’s purposes.  We are supposed to exercise our power for the good of the planet and of human community.  And I put it to you that we in the church do not ask ourselves often enough, as a community, how we are going to do that; today, this week, this month, this year?

As we remember Jesus being given the name God Himself had chosen; as we remember being given the name of Christ, each in our own baptism; as we remember the power we have each been given as the children of Adam, heirs of his dominion over the earth; I put it to you that we need to take these matters to heart, as a core part of our identity and purpose here, if we are to be all that this community is purposed by God to be.

The Lord be with you.