Impulse towards the Infinite

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 22:15-33.
We had a couple renewing their vows on their golden wedding anniversary this morning, so the sermon is written with that in mind.

“In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

What do you reckon?  Are you looking forward to your wings and halo?  And would that somehow compensate for being single?

At first blush, this reading might look as if it has quite a low view of marriage; as if it’s fine for something for us to do, you know, to pass the time in this life; but that when this life is over and we go to glory, it won’t really matter any more.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, exactly, although that might take some unpacking.

The first thing to note is that this discussion really isn’t about marriage at all.  The issue here is about what happens after we die, and whether resurrection is really a possibility.  The Sadducees argue that it is not; and they make that argument because, if we see resurrection simply as picking up where we left off, a kind of continuation of this life, there are significant logical problems with that.  So, seeing the logical absurdity of having to choose between several spouses, or other problems of a resurrected life that is just “more of the same,” they reject the possibility.

Jesus’ response is to challenge their limited imagination.  Resurrection – he tells them – isn’t “more of the same,” it’s a radical transformation of our very nature.  Paul put more words around the same idea when he wrote about the resurrected body: “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

I guess what Paul talks about as a “spiritual body” is his way of describing what Jesus means when he says we’ll be like the angels in heaven.

But what does that mean?  To be honest, I don’t know the details; and I suspect it’s something we can’t really understand from this part of our existence.  But it follows that if our bodies undergo radical change, that so will our human relationships.  The cycle of life, with the particular demands of growing and aging, of pair-bonding and parenting, and all of that, will clearly not function in the same way.  I don’t think that means we will lose the potential for meaningful relationships, but trying to describe them in terms of what we know now clearly isn’t going to work.

But – and this is the thing I really want to focus on today – that doesn’t rob our family relationships, or specifically our marriages, of eternal significance.  Human relationships are the context in which we learn, change and grow; and marriages, as the most intimate and enduring (at least ideally) of those relationships give us a particularly intensified opportunity for that change and growth.  They can be a crucible for holiness.

Marriage is an all-embracing experience.  We bring to it all that we are, in giving ourselves to each other, and in turn it is the foundation on which all of our later life experiences are built.

And being married is not, and never has been, a fixed state of happy-ever-after (after 50 years how well I’m sure you know that!).  There are troubled times, times when you’re divided, or there are power struggles, or it seems like you don’t know the way forward.  It’s in facing up to those struggles and learning from them that our own personal growth comes (as well as increasing depth and intimacy in the marriage).

This growth comes about because in all the ups and downs of a marriage, we find ourselves at our best and worst, our most loving and joyful and generous, and our most fearful, vicious and selfish.  If we’re paying attention, the way we treat our spouse and our family holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and sins, and shows us where we still need grace.

I can remember, for example, when my daughter was a newborn, and we were having a rough night, and were up for what felt like the umpteenth time, and she was screaming and I was in tears and nothing was going right, and my poor husband looked at me in lost bewilderment and said, “I didn’t think it would be like this!”  And it took all my strength not to throw something at him – he was lucky I was holding the baby! – and yell, “Well, what did you think it would be like?!”

Love is patient, apparently, and it seems marriage is designed to gradually teach me that!

But even this sort of personal growth, too, while good and healthy, is not an end in itself.  As marriage helps us grow and mature, it also helps become able to form generous and open-hearted relationships with others, beyond the marriage.  This is part of what having children is about, but even for people who never have children, growth in personal maturity turns us outward towards community, secure in ourselves and able to support others without anxiety or feeling threatened.  When two adults commit themselves to life and growth together, their relationship reaches far beyond them to transform and create other relationships; what I’ve seen described as “an energy to embrace newness.”

Ultimately, I’d describe that “energy to embrace newness” as hope.  If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” as the writer of the Hebrews put it, then having the energy to imagine that things might be different, to welcome and even collaborate in that newness, and to be assured that God is at work in that, bringing about what is good and true and just… is one possible end result of being attentive to what marriage can work in us.

Of course all of this takes work.  It takes commitment.  It takes time and making the relationship between the two of you actually a priority.  This is easier in some phases of life than others; and maybe easier after the children have moved out, than when they are little.  The golden years, rather than being about fading or declining (which some people might fear) can be a time of deepening and enrichment, if you’re clear that that’s what you want them to be.

Or, to put that the way Pope Paul VI put it, married love is an impulse towards the Infinite.

Now, I do want to add a disclaimer.  Not everyone is able to marry, not even all those who wish to; and in talking about the potential of marriage in this way, I don’t want to suggest that this crucible of holiness that we find in relationships, isn’t available to single people in different ways.  Intentional and intimate relationships of all kinds can afford us the same opportunities.  But marriage is, for most of us, our most committed, most enduring and most intimate relationship, so it’s worth stopping to reflect on it specifically on an occasion like this.

So if I’d dare to offer you any suggestions, on this special day, it would be to be open to the potential of your marriage; to help each of you continue to grow; to support each of you to be your best selves in the world; and to be a relationship which cultivates hope and openness to what God might be up to.  And may God continue to bless you richly.

Advertisements

Let’s build a megaphone

This is a sermon for the feast of Michael and All Angels.  The Scripture it references is Revelation 12:7-12.

This picture* looks a bit like something out of Tolkien, doesn’t it?  If, like me, you grew up reading The Hobbit long before you ever read the book of Revelation, you could be mistaken for thinking that this sort of imagery belongs to the world of fantasy, not of faith.

Dragons, cosmic war, mythic signs… what are we to make of all of that?

I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.  But on a day when we stop to think about the reality of angels, and what role they might play in the life of faith, to read from Revelation is actually very fitting.

You see, it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is a type of writing which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this genre of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  A parish like this one has something of a head start, perhaps, in being able to come to grips with this; and that’s because apocalyptic writing, in its use of symbols and images to convey deeper truth, is a lot like the language of liturgy. Just as, behind the symbol of shared bread, is the deeper truth of our belonging to one another in the church, just as behind the symbol of lit candles is the truth of the light that Christ brings into our lives, and so on – I could go on for ages – behind all of life, says apocalyptic writing, is deeper truth and deeper meaning.

And if we are unveiling layers of meaning, that implies that things are not entirely as they might seem.  So let’s take a few minutes to look at what John says is really going on behind the veil of everyday life.

So this morning’s reading begins with “And war broke out in heaven…”  This war is timeless.  It began before the creation of the cosmos, and it continues to be one of the deepest truths of our reality, which shapes everything we experience.

Let me pause here and say that I know some of you won’t believe in a literal devil and demons.  That some people see those as powerful imaginative ways to represent our experiences of evil and darkness.  But certainly the New Testament authors did believe in those powers as being wielded by actual evil personalities; and whether we see them as personal or impersonal, we all know that human life is marred with that reality of genuine evil.

Anyway.  So there’s a war; and we’re all caught up in it.  The forces of good vs. the forces of evil; and what we’re given a glimpse of here is that evil is losing.  In fact, evil has lost, and all that remains is something of a cosmic mopping-up operation.

This text, strange as it is, is telling us to hope.  Yes, we experience bad things; evil wreaks havoc; there is oppression and abuse; human beings are hypocrites; and so on.  But what John’s vision showed him is that that’s just the mess that needs cleaning up after the battle’s been won.  It’s not the last word.  It’s not forever.  It’s purely temporary, and the powers of God – here represented by the angels – will throw down what evil remains and creation will be renewed.  Our reading today finishes with “the time is short.”  The time is short!  This soon shall pass!  We might be suffering right now, but we’re on the winning side.

You might have heard some more Pentecostal types of Christians talk about spiritual warfare; and while that can sound quite intimidating, really all that means is recognising the reality of this cosmic war, and deliberately aligning ourselves with the winning side.  In that sense we engage in spiritual warfare every time we meet for worship.  Every time we pray “your kingdom come.”  Every time we choose hope over despair.  We are saying that we recognise the deeper reality of good and evil, and we choose good.

But there’s something else we’re called to do in this mopping-up operation, and it’s hinted at in this reading too.  John heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming… but he didn’t tell us whose voice it was.  Remember that for John, heaven and earth are two interwoven dimensions of the same reality.  What he sees in his vision tells us the deep truths of our lived reality.  So when he says there’s a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, he’s also saying something about the very real fabric of our lives.

Proclaiming is our job.  We’re given this vision, this insight; this peek behind the veil; not just so that we can know what’s going on, but so that we can share that knowledge with others.  We’re given a message of hope, and we’re supposed to make that hope known to everyone who hasn’t heard it yet.  It’s not just one voice in heaven; or more accurately, it’s one voice made up of the many voices who have seen the victory and who cry out to tell all creation that the forces of evil have been thrown down.  That the power of God has won.  That it’s time to rejoice!

It’s grand final weekend.  The secular world has just shown us something of the rejoicing of those who win.  And we’re called to lead the way in that rejoicing, on a cosmic scale!  Michael the archangel might have led the fight; we get to kick off the party.

And this is the thing, really; an angel is, more than anything else, a messenger.  This day where we remember angels, reminds us that actually, we’re all supposed to be messengers.  We’re all supposed to carry with us wherever we go, a message of hope and joy and faith.  Ours is the loud voice resounding through heaven and earth.

Is your megaphone at the ready?

Is that an intimidating question?  If you’re unsure about being that loud voice, remember that you don’t do it alone.  We need to find ways, together, to be messengers of hope and joy and faith.  We need to find ways to make sure that our voice resounds, beyond our doors, down the street, and to all the surrounding area.  That we announce whatever brings hope; whatever lets people know that they can trust that in the end, God wins;  whatever lets people in on the infectious joy of knowing that the time of suffering is short; that’s our job.

So let’s build a megaphone.

*

 

Transfiguration

This is a sermon for the feast of the transfiguration.  The Scripture it references is Mark 9:2-10.

I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

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?

Mark’s account here is brief, but Luke fills in some of the blanks for us, and explains that this is all about 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 both Mark and Luke come back to, again and again, throughout their gospels.

Glory exists the gospels 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 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.

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.

More than that, though, the transfiguration 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 minor 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.  So it really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them another glimpse into deeper understanding of who Jesus was.

In order to make sense of the vision of 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. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. 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. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

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 (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), 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 (if not yet by sight) 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.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness; 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, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

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.  Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them.  Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.  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 Burwood?  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.

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

May we be faithful stewards of it.

Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

Resurrection and renewal

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  To my regular readers, I apologise for the delay in posting; I have had a small break, and it seems, was so exhausted after the Easter services that I didn’t even think to post my sermon on the day!

“This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.”  That’s what I just sang as part of the exsultet, the joyful and victorious proclamation of the resurrection.

It’s because we remember that – that intimate link between Jesus’ resurrection and our own being washed clean in God’s sight – that Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal promises, which we will come to in a moment.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, we were all baptised; we are part of the community of faith, and we are reminded of that as we gather week by week.  Do we really need to go through the process of saying these things again?

But I think that while need might be too strong a word, we can benefit from it.  It is very easy for our focus to drift in the Christian life; to treat church – at least subconsciously – as a social outlet or a bit of a club of the like minded, or even just the place where we come to leave behind the stresses and strains of the rest of life.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Colossians: “so if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  If you have been raised with Christ; this isn’t just an event in the past, which happened to someone else; it’s an intimate part of the life story of each one of us.  Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what we recommit ourselves to this morning.  We seek the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives; that God might be at work in our hearts from today, helping us to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how we might be of service to others.

These are not small things.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good people of all faith positions and none will seek to be good and moral people, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean “not here” just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning; but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Dare we imagine?

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The main service of the day included a baptism.  The Scripture it references is John 11:1-45.

Recently I was talking to the father of a young boy; seven years old or so.  The father was a bit worried because his son had taken an action figure of the Star Wars character, Qui-Gon Jinn, and was calling the figure Jesus and using it to act out various scenarios.  The problem was that Qui-Gon Jesus came complete with light sabre and was, in these imaginative scenarios, acting in a most un-Jesus-like way.  What to make of this?  The dad worried.  Should I stop my son’s play, tell him this is wrong, is it maybe even a sort of blasphemy to have “Jesus” cut down his enemies like a Jedi?

I was (I hope) able to reassure the father that this is very normal.  Children of that age haven’t yet learned to categorise fact and fiction in an adult way; all of the ideas they encounter get mixed up together and engaged imaginatively, and that’s how young children learn and grow.  It’s normal to play with ideas – even about sacred things – as young children, and we do, mostly, eventually grow out of it.

In fact, I have a suspicion that often we train ourselves out of it a little bit too thoroughly.  We need imagination in the life of faith; not that I want to imagine myself striding, robed and light sabre wielding, through all opposition, (satisfying though that might sometimes be); but that if we are to have hope, we have to be able to imagine that things can be different than they are now.  If we are to believe that God is up to something; at work in our lives, in our community, in our wider world, we have to be able to imagine what change might be needed, and how things might be, after that change.

In our gospel reading today we see Martha and Mary struggle with this need for imagination.  Lazarus is dead.  It’s been four days and the reality of that has started to sink in.  Jesus arrives and first Martha, and then Mary also goes to meet him, and each says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  They each have enough sense of who Jesus is at this point to know that things could have been different, but now that Lazarus is dead, their hopes for a resurrection are postponed to the last day.

Jesus’ response is key here; “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says.  I am here, now, present, and you don’t yet see how much that changes the range of things which are possible.  I am the resurrection and the life; and that means that Lazarus can rise today, that life can return to one whose body already stinks.  Throw out the normal rules, ladies, because where Jesus is, they don’t apply.

I wonder how often, in our lives, we do the equivalent of saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, things could have been so much better…” instead of looking around with the eyes of imagination, and seeing how things could still be so much better?

In a few minutes, Oscar’s parents are going to bring him for baptism.  And for them, too, this is an act of a hope-filled imagination.  They have seen that with God, with Jesus, there is potential open to Oscar which is absent if God is not acknowledged.  None of us can know, when a child comes for baptism, what God will do in the life of that child, how he or she will grow, what he or she will become or accomplish.  But we can claim the presence of God in that child’s life, knowing that that presence of God broadens the horizons of life, of spirituality, of hope for that child.

In baptism we claim that the one who raised Lazarus, the one who told Mary and Martha and the assembled mourners that all the usual rules don’t apply to him, will be present and active in Oscar’s life as he grows.  That God will help him to develop a character which expresses love and joy and peace.  That God will work through Oscar to bless those around him, in the uniqueness of Oscar’s particular gifts and strengths.   We claim that for each of us who has gone through the waters of baptism.

In baptism we claim that broadened horizon of hope even beyond this life, trusting that somehow even in eternity we will continue to be in the presence of God.

These are big claims.  It’s quite possible that some of you are listening to me, but thinking that they are not, in fact, very credible claims.  And I can certainly understand why you would think that.

But this brings me back to thinking about the other little boy I started talking about, the one with the action figurine with the light sabre.  Maybe he doesn’t know Jesus’ character so well yet, but he’s got one thing right; it’s a mistake to try to put limitations on what Jesus can and can’t do.  The innocence of a childlike imagination is helping him to avoid the very grown-up traps of preconceived ideas or rigid thinking.

Jesus once said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  It seems to me that one aspect of this is the ability to let go of our own perceptions of what is possible; to suspend disbelief, and to let our imaginations play.

So we come to the font, to baptise Oscar and to remember each our own baptism, and my question to you is, dare we imagine?

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.