Becoming one spirit

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1st Corinthians 6:12-20.

I had to make a decision this week.  I’ve signed up to one of the local gyms, and a couple of times a week I try to get to one of their group classes.  (It’s nice to have goals about being healthier and fitter, isn’t it?)  Anyway.  So I turned up to the class I usually go to, to discover that they’ve cancelled that class and replaced it with yoga.  And so the helpful staff member I spoke to suggested I stay for yoga.

I must have seemed less than enthusiastic about that, and he seemed surprised that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, so I had to explain.  I can’t do yoga for religious reasons.  I can’t, as a Christian, participate in what is fundamentally a Hindu worship practice, even if it has become the darling of the “spiritual but not religious” wellbeing movement.

Anyway, the point about that is not really to carry on about yoga, but to illustrate the idea that sometimes, saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to something else.

That’s part of what Paul was talking about in our reading from Corinthians today.  For him, the issue wasn’t yoga but prostitution; but his argument about why you can’t run around having a good time with prostitutes is that you can’t “become one” with something that’s incompatible with God, at the same time as “becoming one” with God.  Because “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

The thing about this “becoming one spirit” with God, though, is that it helps us to understand what salvation really means.  Salvation is an immense gift, but sometimes we’re tempted to think of it only in terms of what happens after we die (getting into heaven, or at least, staying out of hell).  But what Paul is trying to get across here is that salvation isn’t just about that; it’s a fundamental re-shaping of our lives now, so that our lives become a participation in the life of God.

Last week we thought a bit about baptism and what it means for us, this sacramental reality of dying and rising with Christ.  And I say sacramental because I want to say something stronger than “symbolic;” we know that people don’t physically die in the font, as if I were to drown them, but something real is happening in them nonetheless.  Their story and Christ’s story, their life and Christ’s life, are being joined together in a way that can never fully be separated.  They are beginning to participate in the life of God; they are becoming one spirit with God.

The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, Paul said in today’s reading; and elsewhere he refers to our bodies as “weapons of righteousness;” a weapon is wielded with a purpose, and the implication of Paul’s words is that God wields – or at least sends – us into the world with a purpose, too; one that shouldn’t be undermined by getting involved in things incompatible with that purpose.

This all means that becoming one spirit with God – participating in God’s very life – is ultimately about action.  About being in the world, doing the things God would have us do.

As this is what it means to be Christian, then we can’t say that Christian belief or faith is just a matter of assenting to the Creed (without crossing your fingers), or even trusting God’s goodness.  It has to be more than that; a taking up or embrace of our whole being into God’s being in such a radical way that we consistently act as living extensions of God in our world.  That’s what it means that we have died and yet have been raised to new life; it is a new life; the life of God, with its priorities and loves and joys.

In his other letter to the Corinthians (well, the other one that we still have, anyway), Paul puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Participating in God’s new creation – becoming one spirit with God – means our transformation; and in different places in his letters Paul talks about how that transformation means we become the glory and the righteousness and the justice of God; ultimately we become the image of God; the image of God that we were originally created to be, before sin and the fall meant our alienation and disfiguration from that image.  So we become like Christ – the perfect image of the invisible God – by participating in the life of Christ.

And here’s the thing: all of this points us towards mission.  To be transformed into the image of God revealed in Christ; to participate in God’s new creation and to become God’s righteousness; to discern and do God’s will; to present our bodies to God as a temple for the Holy Spirit, and as weapons to be wielded for his purposes; all of these things mean that we are meant to be in service to what God is up to in the world.

Becoming one spirit with God means that God’s purposes become our purposes, and God’s priorities become our priorities.  God’s mission becomes our mission.  Those of us who believe the gospel and are baptised enter into a life of participation in God’s mission, along with all the other people who have also entered into that life.

That means that our salvation, our renewal in Christ is not the point; it’s not an end in itself.  It’s part of a much broader and deeper divine agenda; to bring together a body of people who participate in the new creation, doing God’s will in the world.

And let me push this just a little bit further; this is for all Christians.  Not just for the clergy or the particularly educated or gifted.  But each Christian person, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, participates in the new creation; and carries out a living witness to the gospel.  This is what it means to be part of the church; every single person has a part to play in the mission of God.

Do you know what your part is, today?  Do you feel equipped for it?  If not, what do you need in the way of equipping?  (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way.  My role in this mission is to see to it that you are equipped; so if you see that your knowledge or skill or confidence is lacking in some way, tell me; and together we’ll find a way to work on that).

But to come back around to the prostitutes – or the yoga – this is why Paul says “no.”  Not because it’s a matter of being a puritanical killjoy, but because it’s incompatible with the mission.  To exploit a woman’s body for pleasure does nothing to recognise or honour her as an image of God, or to encourage her towards becoming a co-worker with you in God’s purposes for our world.  To worship another god – even at a distance – detracts from my ability to participate fully in God’s life, God’s purposes and God’s mission.

“Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  It is a process of becoming; we grow into it over time.  But what I wonder now, is where do we need to grow into it some more, here in this parish, in order for us to live that out most fully?  What needs to happen for us to move another step closer to being one spirit with the Lord?  I leave that with you to reflect on.

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Book review: Dangerous Prayer

This is a review of the book Dangerous Prayer: Discovering a Missional Spirituality in the Lord’s Prayer by Darren Cronshaw (2017, Paternoster: Milton Keynes).

Dangerous?  Why?

Because it comes with risk.  It invites God – all-sovereign and entirely unpredictable – into our human lives.  It shapes our hearts and minds to be more like those of God, in the process stripping us of our delusions, our disordered attachments, and our excuses.  And in this way it fits us to be part of the mission of God to our broken world.

That, at least, is Darren Cronshaw’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.  He is someone who lives a life in mission (as a Baptist pastor and missiologist), and here he brings the fruit of his reflection on his work and his prayer (two sides of the same coin) to share with the wider Church.

Dangerous Prayer opens with Leunig’s prayer, “God help us to change.  To change ourselves and to change our world.  To know the need for it.  To deal with the pain of it.  To feel the joy of it.  To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.  The art of gentle revolution.  Amen.”  And Dangerous Prayer aims to equip us to do just that; to be provoked to change, ourselves and the world.  To open our eyes to the necessity of change.  To inspire us to transcend the grief of it.  And to have a hope which points us firmly to joy, even while experiencing a work in progress.

Working through the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, Cronshaw invites us to look at it with fresh eyes; to see the implications of this prayer for how we understand God’s character and mission, and our place within that mission.  The chapter on “The Subversive Justice of ‘Your kingdom come,’“ in particular, offers an inspiring vision of transformation.

He quotes Buechner: “ ‘Thy kingdom come…on earth’ is what we are saying.  And if that were suddenly to happen, what then?  What would stand and what would fall?  Who would be welcome and who would be thrown the Hell out?  Which if any of our most precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark, and which would turn out to be phony as three-dollar bills?…To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

The only reason we can invite the tiger out of the cage is because we can trust its purpose; its mission.  We can trust the intention of the power that we ask be unleashed on the world; a purpose and intention that has the good of all creation in view.  This vision of cosmic good is being furthered by the reign of God, or as Cronshaw (not a monarchist) would have it, the dream of God, which we are invited to dream (and work for) with God.

“This is no longer the Lord’s Prayer,” Cronshaw writes.  “They were Jesus’ words, but he handed them over to his disciples, and the prayer became ‘the disciples’ prayer.’ But it has become ‘your prayer’ as Jesus’ body and the church prays it.  It is also ‘the missional prayer’ to pray in radical ways that change our world.”  Liturgists might wish that Cronshaw had expanded on his work to consider the missional implications of the Lord’s Prayer in its liturgical contexts, but perhaps that work can be taken up by another author.

The value of this book is as an integrative work; the insights presented are largely not original to Cronshaw, but rather, drawing heavily on a wide variety of sources – from personal anecdotes, theological works, and pop culture – he presents a clear and consistent take on what the Lord’s Prayer is and does (or at least could be and do, if we pray it with that intention).  In that sense, the work feels very authentic; its plea for a “missional spirituality” is heartfelt and clearly the result of many years of praying, working and reading with particular driving questions in mind.

The book is easy to read, and the discussion questions at the end of each chapter are particularly helpful.  This would be good material for a study group, perhaps as a way of introducing these concepts about mission to a congregation for the first time through a familiar approach; a prayer already well-known and well-loved.  For those who already have a well-established foundation in understanding mission, the extensive references and bibliography invite deeper exploration of particular concepts.

All wisdom’s children

This is a sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:1-12.

“Wise men from the east” came to show their respect and reverence for the child Jesus.

Wisdom’s a funny thing.  We tend to think of it as being a bit elusive; a bit difficult to pin down.  A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades devoted to spiritual practices.  (Just think of those two great icons of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda and the Dalai Lama).

This was the sort of wise man who came to visit Jesus.  The word used to describe them, magos, referred to priests of the Zoroastrian (Persian) religion; educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astrology, and the occult.  They were widely noted for their honesty and integrity.  These men were powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.

And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for people like these; that is, for other people.  As long as there are holy men on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.

But the problem with this, for us, is that in Christianity, wisdom is an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is a problem.  Each of us has our own life to work through.

But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Christian terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship.  Put very simply, what we mean by “wisdom” is the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it.  And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.

It is, however, a big topic; too big for one morning.  So today I want to focus on just one aspect of wisdom, and what it means for us.

And I want to pick up on what Paul said in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, where he described the wisdom of God as having “rich variety.”  I take this to mean that, if wisdom is doing what God wants us to do, and there is “rich variety” of wisdom, this means that God doesn’t want us to be all the same.  I am me, and each of you is an individual person, and we are created to be different in our relationships with God.

I think Jesus brought this out very clearly when people criticised him and his cousin, John the Baptist, for being different; as if this meant that somehow one or the other (or perhaps both!) of them had to be wrong.  But instead Jesus answered that wisdom is vindicated by all her children.  It was okay for John the Baptist and Jesus to be different, because each was doing what God wanted, in his own unique way.

And this is part of what it means the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known.  And that has several implications for us.  It means first that I can allow others to be different to me.  It doesn’t make me wrong, it doesn’t make someone else wrong, if in genuine good conscience and sincere attempts to please God we end up doing different things.  It means that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known.

It also works on the level of team ministry.  One thing I miss, in this parish, compared to others, is that I’m the only priest in active ministry here; I don’t have another ordained person to bring different  perspectives, experiences or – indeed – wisdom to what we do and how we teach.  It does strike me, though, that we have some very capable and wise lay people; and one of the things I want to explore in the future is the possibility of equipping and licensing some people here to be lay preachers.  That would be part of the rich variety of the wisdom of God being made known in this place.

I also hope, in a year or two, to be ready to offer this parish again as a placement for a student preparing for ordination.  At this stage I’m still settling in and we have a lot of work to do together on future planning; but once that’s under way, it would be good for us to share in the rich variety of the wider church in having a student here, and good for a student to have their experience of the rich variety of the church enriched by being in a parish which is – in my experience – somewhat unique, at least in Melbourne.

This principle is also important on a slightly bigger scale.  The Anglican church in Melbourne is very diverse, and sometimes that brings with it tension and conflict over areas where different traditions and spiritualities collide.  But the fact that we have those different traditions and spiritualities is a good thing!  As we seek to reach out to the broader community around us, the more we are able to offer the fullest possible range of the rich variety of the Anglican church, the more likely it is that different people are going to find something in our worship and teaching worth exploring.  Denying the wisdom of God in those who differ from us isn’t just petty, it borders on blasphemy.

And, on an even bigger scale again, this is important ecumenically.  The full breadth of the Church – from the Copts and the Orthodox on one extreme to the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other; each contributes something to the rich variety of the wisdom of God.  I might not want to be a Copt or a Quaker, I might even have areas in which I am critical of them, but if I think I have nothing to learn from their differences, I am limiting the wisdom of God.  And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Recently I’ve been doing some reading on the close link between our worship and our mission as a church.  Our worship has many different components; it includes praise, acknowledging our own wrongs and committing to change, thoughtful reflection, asking God to intervene in the brokenness of the world, and so on.  Our worship itself reflects the rich variety of the wisdom of God.  And the author I was reading posed some sharp questions.  What does our worship do in us?  If we find ourselves in communities of worship week after week, has it made a difference in our lives?  Has it changed us?  Has it made us see the world differently?  Has all our worship had any lasting transformative effect, or does worship comfort us in ways that are misleading?  Does our worship actually extend beyond an hour or so on Sunday morning, to be part of the fabric of our thinking and acting day by day?

The author I was reading was not, at that point, explicitly considering the question of diversity in the Christian life, but it seems to me that making room for expressing that diversity is one way to work towards ensuring that our worship is all that it should be.

So what do we do with that?  We celebrate diversity in the Christian life.  We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others.  We welcome people with different backgrounds, life experiences, and personalities to be part of our community.  We look to actively include diversity in our various ministries, and we work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past.  That’s how we are going to get the most benefit from the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and be most well equipped to make it known to the world around us, inviting them, like the wise men of long ago, to meet with Jesus with respect and reverence.

 

Power

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:46-55.

We began this sermon with an interactive exercise; I read out a series of statements and asked people to place themselves on a line indicating how strongly they agreed or disagreed.  This was designed to stimulate people’s thinking on the themes of the reading, and so I suggest that you also read the statements and reflect on your agreement or disagreement before reading the homily.

Statements for agree-disagree spectrum:

  • Not having power makes us vulnerable
  • Power is something other people give you
  • Knowledge is power
  • Power changes people
  • Power is about control
  • Words have power
  • Having power means being able to do what I want
  • I create my own power
  • Power gives us the opportunity to be our best
  • Sharing power makes us more effective
  • Believing in God makes us more powerful

Well, hopefully that made you think a little bit.  It’s interesting to see how we interpret things differently, isn’t it?

But if you’re wondering why we’ve done this today, let me say just a little bit to flesh things out.

You’ll remember that over Advent I’ve been preaching each week on the Psalm, as a series on “songs for the journey.”  Except this week we have, not a psalm strictly speaking, but a song from Luke’s gospel; Mary’s song while she was pregnant with Jesus.  Well, that’s a song for a journey, isn’t it?!

But while there are lots of things we could draw out of it, what struck me this time round was how much it gives us a theology of power.  In it God shows strength, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.  It has a lot to say about power, and about the relationship between God and people who have power, and between God and people who don’t have power, and – by implication at least – between the people who have power and those who don’t.

It puts forward what Rowan Williams described as “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”

And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, held by God or in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the God who is all-powerful judges the powerful people on this earth.

It’s worth remembering this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  What does that say – to the “powers that be” in church and society, and even all of us too – about how we understand and use the power we have, power which, in Christian terms, is only ever held by us on loan from God?

It occurs to me, too, that many of our churches’ worst failures have come about when we have not recognised our own power in relation to the powerlessness of others; when we have not realised our own potential, whether by action or by inaction, to do harm.  And if you’ve been following the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean there.

Power doesn’t exist for its own sake.  Becoming more powerful – whether that’s measured in wealth or education or social position or in any other way – is never an end in itself for someone whose heart is in pilgrimage towards God.  I’m not saying power is bad; I’m saying it’s a tool, a means to an end; and that as we go on our journeys of faith, we need to check, from time to time, that we haven’t made power the destination rather than fuel for the journey.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…” Mary sang.  For our lives to magnify the Lord, we need to make sure that our use of power is a focussing of God’s use of power; that we pay attention to the lowly and the hungry, and marshal our resources – because let’s not kid ourselves, by world standards the resources we have at our fingertips are extraordinary – to do what God would do for them.

This final song for the journey, this Advent, might be our most challenging, because I think it asks us to examine ourselves honestly and take account of our own power and how we use it, or refuse to.  But perhaps as we go through that process of taking account, we may well find our hearts moving much closer to God than they were when we began.

 

Ascent into joy

This is a sermon for the third Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 126.

If you’ve been paying attention over the last couple of weeks, you’ll remember that through Advent I’m preaching on the psalms, and thinking of it as a series on “songs for the journey.” In many ways we’ve been thinking about journey as a metaphor, the process of purposeful change, or of growth or indeed aging.  But this morning’s psalm we have a song that was for a literal journey.

There are fifteen psalms which have the subtitle “song of ascents” – ascent as in, going up – and which seem to have had their origins as songs people sang on their way to Jerusalem; and this is one of those psalms.  When the Jewish temple was still standing, there were three festivals a year where people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to gather together and worship in the temple; and as they met and journeyed together on the road, they sang.

What I find interesting about this “song for the journey” is the way it falls naturally into two halves; the first half looks back at what God did in the past, and what that meant to the people then.  The second half looks forward to what God will do in the future, and what that will mean to the people who receive it.

There’s something for us, there, about how we balance the pull of past and future in our own considerations.  On the one hand, we don’t live in the past, or enshrine any particular moment in the past as the gold standard against which everything is measured.  On the other hand, we don’t disregard the past; we draw from it truths about God’s identity and our own identity which give us confidence and direction as we face the future.

This also says something about the value of studying history, in the Christian life; it’s not something we do for its own sake, but in order to equip ourselves with wisdom for the future.

Anyway; so as the people were walking or perhaps riding beasts of burden towards Jerusalem, they were singing this psalm, and looking back on who God had been for them, and forward to what they were hoping.  And what do we see?

Looking back, their remembrance was around what God had done for them.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”  This is looking back at the end of the exile.  You might remember – but a quick refresher for anyone who would find a historical landmark or two helpful here – that after the glory days of Israel under David and Solomon, eventually the country was defeated in war, the temple was torn down, and many of the people were taken into exile.  Some time later, the Persian king Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to their land, to rebuild their temple and resume worshipping their God there; and you can read about that process in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

But the thing to note here is that this psalm doesn’t recount all of that.  It’s interested in the broad outline of what happened; “the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion;” but doesn’t go into detail about exactly what happened where and when.  And that’s what makes this psalm a useful one for pilgrimage later, because it becomes less about historical specifics and lets people relate it to whatever is happening in their own lives and circumstances.  It takes the idea that God is a God of restoration, and makes that a general principle to hold onto, wherever we go.

You might remember that two weeks ago, when we started Advent, the psalm we looked at was all about the cry for God to “restore us;” now we have a group of pilgrims remembering when God has done exactly that.  This illustrates that the journey of faith is one which has ups and downs; it’s not all on one level, but we experience highs and lows, times when it’s easy and it seems this whole faith thing is a success, and times when it’s hard and we wonder if we’re ever actually going to get anywhere worthwhile.  Even just recognising that, can help us to persevere, because during the lower times, it gives us the perspective to recognise that this is only a phase and in time it will give way to something different.

And it’s helpful, too, that we remember this on this Sunday, when we’ve lit the candle for joy on the Advent wreath.  When God restores us, the psalm tells us, we experience joy; our mouths are filled with laughter and shouts of joy.  Joy is the natural human response to the relief of our sufferings and the fulfilment of our hopes.

But I think St. Paul would remind us that joy – at least for a Christian – is also more than a natural human response to our circumstances, even when those circumstances include God’s restoration.  It’s also a fruit of the Spirit; something that grows in us as we increasingly become more and more conformed to God’s purpose for us.

When we ask ourselves where the joy is on our particular journey, then, we need to look for two things; we need to be able to recognise what God is doing in and around us, and we need to be able to be pleased by what God is doing.

Sometimes that is hard.  Sometimes, when we’re confused or we don’t like the way the world is changing around us, we can be tempted to claim that God’s not in any of that; that God is absent from this process of change.  That’s dangerous; it’s dangerous because it robs us of our joy, and it’s dangerous because it encourages us to retreat from change and become ossified or even dead, rather than having to learn to recognise that God is doing something new, and that that might even make demands of us.

And sometimes, when we don’t like what God is doing; when God asks us to do something new, even when we don’t want to, or whatever; we can quench our own joy by refusing to work with God; refusing to be a living expression of God’s love, preferring our own pride.

At least, I’ve met that temptation on occasion, and I suspect I’m not the only person to have done so!

But this psalm couples these two things – God’s action on our behalf, and our joy in response – and says they belong together.  God is present and active and we can look forward to what God will do, and because of that, we can know laughter and joy and a sense of security and abundance.

This week’s song for the journey is a plea that God would fill us with joy, and highlights for us that our joy rests on recognising what God is doing for us.  And as we get close to Christmas, I encourage you to hold on to that!

Righteousness is our guide

This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 85.

Last week I began a series of sermons for Advent, each week preaching on the psalm, which I am thinking of as a series on “songs for the journey.”  I suggested that we are, each of us, on our own individual pilgrimage in life; and that we as a community are also on a pilgrimage; not just towards Christmas (although that is coming scarily fast!), but in engaging in a process of change which will take us towards being who and what God calls us to be.

And I raised the question of what sustains us on those journeys; what helps us to know who we are, and what motivates us to keep going.  And I suggested that our cultural resources – including, especially in church, our songs – can be an important source of hope and joy for us.

So it’s worth pausing to see what the psalms have to offer us.

So today’s psalm, as it’s given to us in the prayer book, finishes by saying that “righteousness shall go before [the Lord], and tread the path before his feet.”  But I actually prefer the translation that we’re singing at 10am today, which puts it this way: “truth and justice are our guides.”  I think that’s much more helpful; it explains to us what righteousness is doing in walking ahead of the Lord, and, by implication, ahead of us as we follow as well.  Righteousness is there to guide us on our journey.

Is it encouraging, to think that we have a guide, and we don’t have to work it all out for ourselves?  I found that a bit comforting, myself.

I think I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “righteousness” – or doing what is right – isn’t just about playing within the rules (however we understand them).  It has a sense of relational loyalty and faithfulness; of giving of yourself to the full in your relationships.  Your relationship first with God, of course, but also those around you.  It’s a very warm term, not one to be read as forensic or legalistic.

So our guide on our journey – our pilgrimage – is our sense of righteousness; of loyalty and faithfulness and full-heartedness in our relationships, with God and others.

I think that’s often difficult for us, actually.  Divided loyalties have always been a human problem, but I think they’ve become even more acute in the complexity of modern life.  Just in the last week, I’ve had conversations with people about the divided loyalties we experience in parenting, and the competing demands on us in trying to be “good parents.”  (If anyone has a magic formula for perfect parenting, I’d certainly appreciate hearing it!)

Or the particular tension that new technology has brought into our working lives; now that we can all be instantly contacted, and our work can be done anywhere we have mobile phone reception, the boundaries which once helped keep working patterns healthy are slipping, and instead, those of us who are still working constantly have to negotiate our divided loyalties to our work, and everything else in our lives.  (A point which I make while writing my sermon on my day off, because this week there was more work than there were working hours to do it in).  And I know I’m not alone in finding that balance point difficult.

So if righteousness is our guide on this journey of faith, and righteousness is about our loyalty and faithfulness in our relationships, and our relationships are pulling us every which way… is it any wonder we sometimes feel like we don’t know which way is up?

What do we do with that?

I suspect that part of the answer is to stop, regularly, and re-assess our relationships and the demands being made of us in those relationships.  Sometimes, the most righteous word in our vocabulary might be “no.”  “No, I’m sorry, I can’t take that on.”  “No, I won’t be able to make it.”  “No, that doesn’t work for me.”

We often feel guilty for saying no.  Many of us have taken on board the message that we’re supposed to help others, we’re supposed to please others, and we’re supposed to be “nice,” and saying no – politely, of course, but firmly – can feel like we’re not doing that.  In some families, saying no is seen as being unloving.

But I’d challenge that sense of guilt.  A well-deployed “no” is actually not a betrayal, but a protection of our loyalties.  I might say “no” to extra things so that I can say “yes” to time spent with my husband.  “No” to busy work so that I can say “yes” to prayer.  “No” to taking up a new hobby so… you get the idea.  In a world where it’s easy to feel like our lives are a constant act of juggling confetti, the only way the important loyalties will get their due will be if we vigilantly guard them.

Start with your primary, biggest loyalties and work outward from there.  What would it look like to give your relationship with God everything it needs?  Would you need to find time every day?  Where would that time come from?  What else might need to be put aside?

What would it look like to give your marriage everything it needs?  And so on.  But if you start from the centre and work outwards, then you’re not going to end up treating things which mean less to you as if they’re actually the most important thing.

Maybe, part of our process of pilgrimage is working out what the most important things to us are, and being willing to let go of others; or at least, let others take a diminished role in our lives.  A kind of spiritual de-cluttering, as it were.

Before we moved house in July, I – ah – encouraged my husband in a process of fairly ruthless de-cluttering of our house, because I definitely didn’t want to be packing, moving, and unpacking, anything that wasn’t of any value in our lives.  I think he found that a bit stressful, at times, but by the time we got to unpacking the last box, I think he did see the value in what I was trying to do!

If we’re a church on the move, on pilgrimage to where God is calling us, maybe it would help us not to carry stuff that isn’t of any value to us, either.  Although I can’t decide for us all what’s of value, and what isn’t.  That’s something we need to work on together.

Anyway.  That’s what it seems to me our “song for the journey” offers us this week; righteousness – right loyalties – as our guide to what we do and how we do it.  If last week our request was that God “restore us,” this week it’s that God “guide us.”  And that’s a good thing for us to carry into the week ahead!

Songs for the journey

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 80.

 

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood. 

That’s George Herbert’s poem, Prayer.  In it, he piles image on top of image to try to give an impression of all that prayer can be, might be, if we would give ourselves to it without reserve.  (I don’t understand all of the images, either; what does he mean by saying that prayer is “the land of spices”?  Does he mean we might discover both the bite of chilli and the sweetness of vanilla?)

But I did catch the mention of the “heart in pilgrimage;” the heart on a journey to some sacred place.  And perhaps because I’ve been thinking about change, which is a process of getting from here to there (wherever there is), and – at least in the church – change ought to be a pilgrimage of sorts, that image of prayer as “the heart in pilgrimage” seemed like it was worth spending some time on.

So between now and Christmas, I’ve decided to preach on the psalm each week.  And I’m thinking of that as a sermon series on “songs for the journey.”  I think that might help us to think about what we’re doing, on a number of levels.

Because of course, the idea of “being on a journey” can describe different things.  On one level, we’re journeying towards Christmas; with all the things – sacred and secular – which go into making Christmas special.  On another level, each of us is on the long journey of a lifetime, with its various seasons and themes.

There are other journeys too.  Every time we meet for worship, that’s a journey, of sorts; we’re supposed to walk out the church door not quite the same as we came in, having encountered God and one another in a way which will change our lives in some way.  And the psalms themselves are each a journey; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end; and the habit of praying them is supposed to move us along with the words so that we’re not unchanged.

So, many journeys; some long, some short, some individual and some shared; but all having this point of connection as we come together Sunday by Sunday for worship.  And all, hopefully, finding themselves as some expression of pilgrimage; all seeking something sacred.

And when we think about what sustains us on those journeys, what helps us to know who we are, gives us our ethical frameworks, and so on… a lot of that comes from the fabric of our culture.  From the stories we tell, the books we read, what we watch on TV, and – at least in church, still – the songs we sing together.

(I always try to remember that people will be humming a hymn from Sunday during the week, long after you’ve forgotten anything I said in the sermon.  Singing engages much more of the brain that just speaking and listening, and it helps embed things much more deeply in us).

And as part of all of this, we have the psalms; with all their requests, complaints and praises; all the breadth of human experience which they bring into our worship, and which help us to recognise and give voice to where we are in our various and shared pilgrimages.

And this morning, the repeated cry of the psalm is for God to “restore us.” To fix us; even, perhaps, to make us new.  There’s a cry from a heart in pilgrimage; journeying towards a sacred place of healing and wholeness, and praying that God would help us find it.

That’s what Christmas should be, of course; a sacred moment of healing and wholeness; but it isn’t that for everyone.  Domestic violence shelters get more calls close to Christmas time than other times of the year.  The strain of poverty is more keenly felt, as our society goes into its annual consumerist orgy.  And grief is sharp as people remember the faces who are missing from the family gatherings.  That’s part of why, a few days before Christmas, we’ll have a quiet service of evening prayer for people finding Christmas difficult; it doesn’t matter why it’s difficult, but even just being able to come, and be, without being expected to be all jolly and merry, can be a sacred encounter for people who are doing it tough.

The cry for God to “restore us” works at other levels too.  Every week we begin our worship with the prayer that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts;” that whatever baggage we’ve picked up through the week, that’s weighed us down or distorted our love of God or one another, that we’d be relieved of that and, once again, be restored to love and worship as we ought.  That’s not trivial; it’s an important part of what Herbert called the “plummet sounding heav’n and earth;” taking soundings of what’s really going on in our hearts, and straightening what’s turned crooked.

Paul wrote about this pilgrimage of the heart, this journey towards the sacred, using a different image when he said that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Well, bringing something to birth is also a journey of many months, and yet Paul seems to think that we’re at the interesting end of that; with ourselves and all creation gripped in labour pains which are soon going to bring to birth restoration of God’s good creation.

We might come back to that idea at Christmas.  But for now, here is the question for our hearts in pilgrimage, this week: what is it in our lives – in your life – that needs restoring?  What would make you feel, tomorrow, that God’s face is shining on you just a little brighter than it is today?  What do you dare hope for?

Don’t be shy to bring those things to God in prayer.  The psalmist wasn’t, and Paul wasn’t, and even Herbert the poet wasn’t; and we shouldn’t be either.  “Restore us” can definitely be a song for the journey, even as we look forward to what is coming.