Darkness

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday.  It is not a direct commentary on Scripture, but references the themes in John 13.

There are different kinds of darkness.

There’s the darkness of nothingness into which light came, when creation burst into existence.

There’s the darkness of blindness; when the light exists but we can’t see it.

There’s the darkness of confusion and incomprehension.

There’s the darkness of evil, of hatred, of violation and desecration.

There’s the darkness of death.

There’s the darkness of grief.

There’s the darkness of despair.

And there’s the darkness that is the absence of God, who is somehow, in Godself, Light beyond all our understanding.

Today and tomorrow, through words and symbols and liturgy, we will encounter something of all of these kinds of darkness, and we well might find ourselves in touch with our own inner darkness, as well; the places in our psyche which we seldom subject to scrutiny, but in which lurk some of our deepest fears and hurts and shames.

This is not necessarily bad, but it can feel threatening, and we can be afraid of being overwhelmed by our own emotions or reactions.

The liturgies of these days give us, if you like, a container for those emotions and reactions; and are designed to give us a safe space to have these encounters.  We bracket the descent into darkness with moments of light; on this side of events, with supportive community and caring human touch, expressed in communion and foot washing; and on the other side of the grave, with the bursting new light and sound and joy of the resurrection, at the Easter vigil.

We visit the darkness not to linger in it, but to invite the light of God to penetrate it ever more deeply.  John’s gospel tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.  It does not overcome – conquer – us, either; because we belong to the light.

Just as it did in the very first moment of creation, new light, new experiences of God in love and joy and so forth, can literally re-create us; transforming our darknesses into something far more wholesome and making us radiant in our very selves.

That’s part of the point of worship, actually.

Worship in general – and the services for today through to Sunday in particular – prod the limits of our comfort zones, making us aware of darkness and also summoning the light to overcome every instance of darkness.  In this community and its dynamics of love, we all, as disciples, are drawn into the life of heaven; into that realm of light, truth, love, and beauty which is the dwelling-place God.

All we have to do is be open in participating, and see what God will do; what light God will bring to each of us.

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Witnesses

This is a reflection for Wednesday of Holy Week.  The Scripture it references is Hebrews 12:1-3.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, says the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews.  And then because they go on to talk about running the race of faith, the image we can often get is as if we’re in a stadium, and all the saints who went before us are in the stands, watching our progress and – we dare to hope – cheering us on.

Except if we think about it like that, we’re missing something.  This reading comes at the end of a great list of people of faith; and the point about them being witnesses is not that they’re watching and witnessing what we’re doing, but that they were witnesses to God’s faithfulness.  That they lived their lives in ways which testified that what God said about God, and us, and the relationship between us, was true and could be relied on.

And their example in doing that, is supposed to inspire us to do the same; to really grasp what God offers us and then express that through our lives.

This week is part of our chance to do that.  Over Thursday, Friday and then Sunday, we get to participate in remembering the key moments in Jesus’ life, and embedding them more deeply and fully into our own lives.

That’s not just a trite saying; I remember talking once to a psychologist who told me that she saw more new patients just after Easter than any other time of the year; because going through everything that happened to Jesus would stir things up in people, and they would decide that it was time to start making positive changes in their own lives as a result.

I’m not necessarily aiming for our own reactions to be quite so dramatic.  But these services do matter; they do offer us a unique experience for worship and connection with God.  And so – if we’re hoping to join the great cloud of witnesses – I encourage you to make the most of them.

Chosen

This is a reflection for Tuesday of Holy Week.  The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

Not many of you were wise, or powerful, or noble, Paul wrote to the Corinthians.  And yet God called you anyway.

What Paul wrote here is part of a much longer argument he’s making about the importance of unity.  Stick together and look after one another; don’t get carried away with this or that supposed leader who claims to be wise or powerful or noble, and in doing so causes conflict and divisions in the church, because you know that these things aren’t the point.

But the way that Paul argues that this isn’t the point is interesting.  He says that even though most of us weren’t anything special at all, God chose us anyway.  And God works through us anyway.

So we don’t need people who make claims to particular status, because we have all we need in each other, in the community of people God has chosen to work through.

So often I talk to people when they’re doubting their worth; when they don’t know whether they’ve achieved anything of value or if their lives amount to any worthwhile legacy.  They’ve forgotten, if they’re Christian, what Paul is trying to say here; they’re enough for who they are, because who they are is chosen by God.

It would be a mistake, this week, to think that we go through all the events of Jesus’ suffering and death as if what we’re supposed to feel about them is overwhelming guilt or a sense of worthlessness for who we are as human beings.

We’re limited, yes; we sin, yes; the landscape of our relationships is always somewhat broken, yes; but the truth shown to us in what Christ chose to do for us, is that God chose us anyway.

So we can let go of the anxiety of trying to prove our worth, because God proved it in going to the cross.  We were, quite literally, worth dying for.

Free from that anxiety, then, the question becomes: what will we decide is worth living for?

Extravagant love

This is a reflection for Monday of Holy Week.  The Scripture it references is John 12:1-11.

Mary of Bethany must have loved Jesus very much.

I don’t say that because she poured out her expensive perfume for him, although that was definitely an extravagant thing to do.  I say that because the gift she gave him was understanding and support.

Jesus’ other disciples still didn’t get it; they were in denial, or confused, and definitely not on board with what Jesus had told them must happen this week.  He’d been very clear with them, but – as they say – there are none so deaf, as those who will not hear.

But Mary had been listening.  She understood what was coming.  And in doing this thing explicitly to point to Jesus’ death and burial, she gave him her silent but vivid assent to what was about to happen.

She believed in him.  And she let him know that she believed in him, and that as he went forward, there would be at least one person who understood that this was necessary, and would not abandon him, but would be looking for what God would do in and through what would happen.

After all, she’d seen her own brother, Lazarus, raised; the idea that Jesus could also be raised would not have been such a stretch after that!

It takes love, though, to pay such close attention, to really understand another person’s heart and motivations, to be willing to pour our own selves out in costly support for another.

And on this first day of holy week, it seems to me that that’s the thing to hold onto; the example of Mary’s love.  Do we love Jesus that much?  Are we willing to give our assent to what Jesus purposes, for ourselves and our world, in the same way?  With the same willingness to respond with costly extravagance?

What would it take for us to follow her example?

Controlling delusions

This is a sermon for Palm Sunday.  It reflects on the events narrated in Mark’s gospel from the beginning of chapter 11 to the end of chapter 15.

I was speaking to someone this week who told me that Palm Sunday was always her favourite service of the year, even as a very young child.  She pointed out that it was the one day when the people around Jesus really responded to him as they should, as we all should; that the procession with palms and the praising crowds are an image of what we should be, what will be at the end of time, and an encouragement to persevere and to hope.

I must admit I’ve never been able to feel quite the same way; I always remember, with a slightly sick feeling in my stomach, how so soon after, the crowds in the same streets were calling for Jesus to be crucified.  The praise on Palm Sunday rings pretty hollow, and reminds me of human fickleness, weakness, and selfishness; how quickly we’ll turn on someone when it suits us.

What gets someone from “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Crucify him!”?  We know a lot about what Jesus said and did in that week in Jerusalem, but what was going on in the hearts and minds of “the crowds” who gathered around him at either end of it?  Or were they even the same people at all?

Here’s what I can make out about “the crowd” during that week, as recorded in Mark’s gospel.

The day after the triumphal entry, Jesus upset the marketplace in the temple, driving out those who were selling and buying, and overturning the tables of the money changers.  And – according to St. Mark – “the crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

The day after that, Jesus was challenged by the chief priests about what authority he had to do these things; and when Jesus turned their question back on them, Mark says that “they were afraid of the crowd.”  Why were the chief priests afraid of the crowd?  (We’ll come back to that).

Jesus taught in the temple, answering questions from Pharisees about taxes, from Sadducees about resurrection, and from scribes about legal matters; and the “large crowd was listening to him with delight.”

And then there’s a break, for the crowds, at least.  The chief priests plot, Jesus celebrates Passover with the disciples, and goes to the garden at Gethsemane… and the crowds don’t come back until it’s time to arrest him.  And this time it’s a crowd specifically “from the chief priests” – not so much a spontaneous gathering as one with organisers, and presumably paymasters, behind it.  And even when the crowds gather before Pilate to shout for Barabbas and for Jesus’ crucifixion, Mark says that “the chief priests stirred up the crowd.”

So we see “the crowd” go from palm branches and praise, to being spellbound by Jesus’ teaching, to listening to Jesus with delight.  But the chief priests were afraid of the crowd, and organised them and stirred them up, manipulating them to turn on Jesus.

Fear.  Fear of Jesus, and the challenge he represented to the status quo.  Fear of the crowd, of their emotional needs, of their willingness to be led, of what they might do if it was anything other than what the chief priests told them to do.  Gosh, politics hasn’t changed much in two millennia.

So, what happened to the crowd?  They were, I think, caught between two competing visions of what it would take to “make Israel great again.”  Jesus’ take on the reign of God, with its radical realignment of priorities and community; or the chief priests’ vision of a society profoundly shaped by Torah, centreing on the temple, where the very living God dwelt in the midst of his people.  These two visions had a lot in common, but in the end, they were incompatible; if you wanted to respond to either of them wholeheartedly, that implied rejecting the other, at least to some degree.

And I think it was that rejection that the chief priests feared.  That the people would abandon the temple, with its worship services and economic significance, would abandon the priests and their sacrificial system, would abandon some of what made the Jews distinctively Jewish and helped them survive under successive brutal foreign regimes.

All to follow a wandering rabbi who’d be here today, and gone tomorrow, and whose dreams of a kingdom transcending this world would turn out to lead nowhere at all; at least, that’s how the chief priests saw it.

Better for the crowds to see that sooner rather than later; better for them to realise where their hopes truly lay.  Better for them to stick close to where we know God has been, as the most likely indicator of where God will be with us in the future.

They couldn’t know, of course, what would happen.  We can’t really blame them for their ignorance, for not foreseeing the resurrection.  Perhaps we can’t even blame them for their fear.

But there are two things we can – if not blame them for – certainly take as object lessons for ourselves.

One is that they missed the point.  Their vision of what God meant to them, what God meant their people to be, how they should respond, was so off true it led them to incite murder.

And the other is about control.  They thought they could bring their vision about, if only they could control events tightly enough.  Control the loose cannon of a rabbi called Jesus.  Control the Roman response.  Control the crowds who surged through the streets.  Somehow, if they could make all these people do what they wanted… the story might have a happy ending.

It doesn’t work like that, though.  Their manipulations didn’t end the way they wanted, for anybody; not for Jesus, not for the crowds – who saw their temple destroyed and their people expelled from the city only a generation later – and not even for Judas, who got his thirty pieces of silver, but couldn’t live with them.

The object lessons for us is that we have to be so careful what visions we daydream up for ourselves, for our families and churches.  We have to keep coming back again and again to the most basic things we know about God, and making sure that whatever we imagine we might be, become or do, is completely in keeping with those things.  In keeping with perfect love; in keeping with profound peace; in keeping with the patience and gentleness Jesus so perfectly modelled for us.

Because if we don’t – if we let ourselves run away with fantasies fuelled by fear, by the desire for power or dominance, if we give in to the impulse to control and to force and to manipulate – this morning’s gospel shows us just how ugly the end of that path is.

It’s going to be a long week.  We will have many opportunities to reflect together on these events and what they mean for us, (and I encourage you to take full advantage of them).  But if we start the week here – knowing our own human tendency to buy into misguided visions of what God is up to, and knowing our human tendency to grasp for control, and from that recognition, deciding to be open to whatever vision God might give us, and whatever God might do in and for and through us, when we let God be in control – we might well find the week surprises us with what it brings.

At least, I pray that it might be so.

Turning the tables

This is a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it references is John 2:13-22.

If anyone ever asks you, “What would Jesus do?” remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.

That’s how the joke goes, anyway.  But this story is Jesus at his most violent – at least, as far as the gospels show us – and it can be hard to understand what this is about.

We need to hold in mind two different layers to the story.  The first layer is what Jesus was on about when he did this; his desire – his zeal – for people to be freely able to worship God, without obstacle or distraction.  For people to know God, and to have the kind of encounter with the living God which has the power to transform lives and whole communities.  We might have less cause to pick up a whip (generally speaking), but that passion for people finding their identity and human wholeness in God ought to be ours, as well.

The second layer of the story has to do with why John included this account in his gospel.  By the time John was writing, the Jewish temple had been destroyed by the Romans.  Jews – and Christians, who were emerging as a distinct group – were going through something of an identity crisis, because the temple had stood – literally and figuratively – at the centre of their worshipping lives.  And John’s gospel presents Jesus as the answer to that loss; the replacement to the torn-down temple and its failed system of sacrifices and services.

That’s the significance of that bit of dialogue where Jesus talks about raising the temple in three days, and John points out that the temple is his body.  For John’s community, Jesus now stands at the centre of their worshipping lives.  Jesus is the focus of worship.  Jesus is God Himself, dwelling among us.  Jesus is the light of all people, where once the lampstand stood in the temple representing the light of God for all nations.

And so on.

In John’s gospel, Jesus disrupts the temple marketplace right at the beginning of his ministry; he’s called the first disciples, turned water into wine, and this is what he does next.  It sets up, right from the beginning of the story, John’s claim that Jesus has both replaced and surpassed the temple.  Something greater than the temple is here.  So in the telling of this part of the story, Jesus has both re-claimed the temple for its intended purpose -that of worship which is an encounter with unadulterated glory – but has also claimed its significance as his own.

Remember, back at the beginning of John’s gospel, John tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”?  Except the word he uses isn’t the usual word for “lived;” it’s a word that literally means “pitched his tent.”  God himself pitched his tent – as a human person – and lived among us.  It’s a nice image but it’s much more than that; it’s supposed to remind us of the tent that Moses had made, when the people of Israel first left Egypt; the tent that was the kind of proto-temple, the tent where God’s glory was revealed on earth.  And now Jesus is himself in some sense, John tells us, a living tent.  And God’s glory is revealed on earth in and through Jesus.  The glory of God – the power and presence of God – is available to us in relationship to Jesus, and not in any building or its rituals.

You might remember after this, also, Jesus has the encounter with the woman at the well; and she asks him which is the right mountain on which to worship.  And he points her away from either of the mountains – with their associated temples – and to himself as the focus of true worship.

John is making a bold claim amidst the many conflicts around worship which swirled around him.  True worship centres on Jesus.  True worshippers know this, and worship Jesus in spirit and in truth.

The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…

Are we paying attention yet?

Jesus’ glory – the power and the presence of God, made real and tangible to us in the flesh of a human person – ties so much of John’s gospel together.  From the incarnation to the cross, the gospel glows with that power and that presence.

How else would Jesus have dared challenge the religious and economic temple-market system, boldly declaring that this is “my father’s house”?  Not our father’s – not here; in John’s gospel God is only our father after the resurrection – but my father’s, the one to whom I stand in unique relationship; a relationship which gives me the right to oppose those who are doing the wrong thing.  Or at least, that’s the claim; and John goes on to tell us that many believed in his name.

So here’s what we’re meant to take from this; Jesus is sent into the world by the Father, and part of what he had to accomplish was to reveal what it really means to worship.  What it means to recognise the glory – the power and the presence – of God, and respond with total devotion.  To refuse half-heartedness, lukewarmness, compromise or divided loyalties, but to have a genuine zeal which comes from knowing our own identity to be most truly established as worshippers of the only being in the universe who deserves to be called worthy.

Or to put it another way, to recognise the praise of God as the heartbeat of our life.

All of this rich and complex set of ideas asks us to re-examine what we do in our own worship.  Is Jesus really at the centre?  Do we come here to put everything else lower in our priorities, than encountering the power and the presence of God?  Are we open to what that might do to us, in us, through us?

As attractive as the idea is, that this gospel story gives us licence to have a full-blown tantrum in righteous indignation, I think that’s kind of missing the point.  The point is about the call to absolute single-minded, full-hearted, totally devoted worship of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Anything less is unworthy, John says.  Anything less is not real worship at all, and may well find itself being treated with the same contempt as the money-changers.

That’s a sobering idea to ponder.

But maybe we ought to take it seriously, as one of the challenges Jesus offers us this Lent.  After all, we still have the opportunity, now, to put right anything in our hearts or lives that needs putting right.

And that window of opportunity is part of God’s gracious goodness to us.  So let’s not take it for granted.

St. Chad

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent, for the feast day of St. Chad.

“Neither impressed nor depressed by the church.”  As I was reading up on St. Chad this week – because I didn’t know much about him, really – I came across that description, and I liked it very much.  The story goes that Chad was elected and consecrated a bishop, which he took up willingly and in which he worked hard.  Later, his election and consecration were declared invalid, and he surrendered his episcopacy willingly and went back to his monastery.

It takes a certain stability of personality not to be upset at being messed around like that, but it seems Chad was content that – despite his ordination and consecrated life – the church wasn’t the bedrock of his identity. He could serve God as a bishop or not, in the monastery or out of it.

I’ll admit I don’t think I have that quality.  I do, too easily, get caught up in politics and power games, because I’m looking for approval or trying to please people.

But reading about Chad gave me the hope that I might also reach the level of maturity where I’m neither impressed nor depressed by the church, where I can work within it without tying my emotional welfare to it.  Where my focus is on the fruits of the kingdom, and not on using it as a crutch to my own insecurity.

I suspect that the key to growing in that maturity is love; not just my love for God or others, but also God’s love for me, willingness to help me in my weakness, and to work things together for our good.

Those are things to hold on to, when the human nature of the church tempts me to either be impressed or depressed!