On fishing

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Mark 1:14-20.

There’s a story in my family – and you might appreciate this, after the weather we’ve had this week – about the day we arrived in Australia.  Apparently, my parents stepped off the plane in Melbourne, juggling their luggage and me as a toddler, into a day of forty-something-degree summer heat.  And my mum looked up at my dad, and my dad just said, “We can’t go back!”

My parents came here from apartheid-era South Africa.  Mum was a nurse, and after working in emergency during the riots, and some of the injuries she saw, she and dad had decided they needed to raise their family somewhere that would give us – me and my not-yet-born brother – a chance at a better life than they saw as possible where they were.  It wasn’t easy to leave; they lost a lot, financially, and dad had to illegally avoid his annual bout of army service to get out.  By the time they’d made their decisions about where to go, done everything necessary to move, and come here, what dad said was very true; they couldn’t go back.  Come what may, they had to make the best of where they were.

It wasn’t always easy, and it took a very long time for us to feel as if this was where we belonged.  But having gone back for a visit recently, I think my parents felt vindicated that they’d made the right decision; the life my brother and I have as adults here is much better than the life we would likely have had there.

I was thinking about all of this, though, because of the part of the gospel we heard this morning.  Simon and Andrew and James and John are going about their normal lives, fishing and mending their nets, and Jesus comes along and presents them with a decision to make.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  I imagine this moment of the men looking at one another.  What do we do now?  What does this offer really mean?  A decision had to be made, and once made, lived with.  Which way lies the best future?  With the fish or the wandering rabbi?

Well, we know what they did.  The apostles left their families’ fishing businesses, and became the foundation of a new community, a new group where people could belong, based on relationship with Jesus, that wandering rabbi who turned out to be so much more.

This part of their story, though, is important, because it’s part of the story of all Christians.  Those of you who came to the Bible studies we did on Jesus and the Pharisees last year will remember learning about how the earliest Christians were kind of spiritually homeless; if they were Jewish, they got kicked out of the synagogues, and if they were non-Jewish, they’d had to leave the temples of their former deities.  Like the disciples leaving their boats, they’d had to leave what was familiar and make decisions which disconnected them from their communities, and come together to build new communities and places of belonging, at first based in their own homes because they had nowhere else.

That’s the community who first received Mark’s gospel, by the way; who would have been encouraged to realise that when the disciples left their fishing boats, the story had a worthwhile ending.  And who could then imagine that their own struggles and disconnections and so forth might have a worthwhile ending; because the process of disconnecting from what we were, to build new communities of belonging, is part of what has been the Christian experience from earliest times.

The challenge looks and feels a little different for us, I suspect, but it’s still there.  Most of you have grown up as part of Christian communities, and have known belonging here for a long time.  You haven’t had to create Christ-centred community for yourselves, you’ve received it from those who were here before you.  But the challenge we have now is how to create Christ-centred communities of belonging for people who haven’t already found that with us.

I see that challenge in various ways.  I see it in all the research that tells us that millennials want to interact with us online before they’ll ever come through the church door.  I see it in the feedback I get from some of our younger people – the ones we seldom see on Sunday mornings, and increasingly seldom in the evenings as well – that the services we offer them just don’t meet their needs, and that we need to consider different options and perhaps a more modern approach, for them to feel they belong here.

(There’s a whole heap of work to be done on what “modern” actually means in that kind of conversation; but as I look around at this building and remember how shockingly modern it was when it was built, I think it’s a conversation that we can fruitfully have).

A bit like the disciples, it seems to me we are confronted with the need to make a decision; are we prepared to willingly leave behind what’s comfortable and familiar, in order to build a community where people who don’t currently belong here, can find belonging?  And can be nurtured in faith, and grow in Christ?

If we do make those decisions, it’s going to be difficult for us, in some ways.  There will be grief; it’s normal for us to grieve as things change.  We will go through all the grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression.  I’d add in anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence about who we are and what we do.  Actually, even though I’ve only been here six months, it’s been long enough for me to see something of all of those things in our life together already.  Things will change no matter what decisions we make, and all the emotions of grief will come with that.  Making decisions just gives us a choice about what the other side of that grief might look like.

What I’m saying is that the challenge for us is to feel the grief but do it anyway.  To support one another as we build a renewed, inclusive place of belonging for people who are not yet here; a spiritual home for them that might well, for a while, not feel at all like home for us, because it’s not what we had before.

If Simon and Andrew, James and John had refused to leave their boats, there would never have been a church.  If we refuse to leave our preferred habits, there may not be a parish church here when there’s nobody left who likes things the way we do them now.

But I look back on those fishermen who became apostles, and I see a story of hope.  I look back on my own parents, and what they were able to give their family by leaving everything they knew, and I see a story of hope.  I know from the very fabric of my own life, that this kind of sacrifice can pay off.  I look forward to the process of change for us in this parish, and even though it calls for courage and vision and sacrifice, I see a blank page in our story just waiting to have written on it our own story of hope.

We will need to work on building our courage, our resilience for that process.  We will need to be intentional about working through our griefs, and committed to equipping ourselves for what comes next.  The apostles had three years living and working with Jesus; we mustn’t imagine we’ll work through everything we need to in the next few weeks or even months.

But these stories show us that it is possible.  That in following Jesus, in leaving behind what we know to build new communities of faith and belonging, the results can be much greater than we can see now.  The invitation is always to “Follow me.”  The focus is always on people beyond our current group.  What are their needs, their culture, their styles of relationship?  How can we meet them where they are, engage them as they are?  That’s part of what following Jesus means.

We can’t go back.  We can’t even stay the same as we are.  We can only follow Jesus, one step at a time, as best we can manage, into a future only God can fully see.  But we can know the basic shape of that future because we know how God works; and we know that when we follow Jesus, things happen.  People change.  Community is created.  And hope grows.   And we get to be part of all of that.

So shall we go fishing for people?

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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.

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.

 

A matter of trust

This is a sermon for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas).  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 9:2-7.

I’ve often wished that Scripture told us more about the thoughts and motivations of the people in the Christmas story.  What did the shepherds really think when the angels turned up with their good news?  Did they trust what they were told, or set off in search of the child with more than a bit of doubt in their minds as to what they would find?

Trust can be an issue for us, too.  Was Mary really a virgin, or are the gospel writers glossing over a more mundane start to Jesus’ life?  How come Luke and Matthew tell completely different stories about Jesus’ birth, and just what was John on about, anyway?  And is coming to church to be reminded of all of this going to somehow make me a better person, or at least give me something to think about, or is this really just a comforting tradition with which I can soothe my secular anxieties, but which isn’t going to provide real answers to any of life’s questions?

Do I trust Christmas, trust the part of the Christian story celebrated at Christmas?  And if I did trust it, what would that mean for the rest of my life?

The Old Testament reading we had today, from Isaiah, was actually aimed at people with very similar questions.  In a corrupt society, where justice and piety were given lip-service but not much more, and the king was more interested in personal and political gain than his people’s welfare, people wondered what they could possibly trust; and whether their God actually offered them any hope or was a prop to the status quo.

(Some things don’t change so much, it seems).

But in the midst of that situation, Isaiah sets out to systematically build a culture of trust and hope.  He pointed to the things people worshipped which were either powerless or evil and called them out for what they were; worthless and not deserving of our devotion.  He pointed to our tendency to be selfish and egocentric and highlights that all manner of evil comes about when we build a society which treats some people as more important or valuable than others.  And he points to God – the one God who really exists and has any capacity to cut through our human darkness and chaos – and points to that God as a solid foundation for our hopes; the one stable point which we can trust to the depths of our being.

His message today starts with “the people who walked in darkness…”  The darkness is real.  We don’t have to look for to see it.  War, terrorism, refugees in detention, poverty, addiction, abuse… we know these things.  We carry the burden of them in our hearts.  But Isaiah insists that in that darkness a light has shined.  In that darkness there is still hope.  In that darkness, there is still one we can trust.

I doubt that Isaiah really understood who Christ would be.  But when God set aside all the power and dignity of heaven to become human; to become small, vulnerable, and helpless… then Christians looked back on what Isaiah had written and saw how well Isaiah understood the character of that God.  The trustworthiness of that God.  This is how far God would go, to bring light into our darkness.  This is the price God would pay for our hope.  To become part of our human family and, in doing so, to bring the potential for radical transformation of our darkness.

Christ is born; glorify him!  Says one of the most ancient Christian hymns for this time of year.  Glorify him – praise him – because in doing this, he demonstrates more love for us than we can fully understand in a lifetime.  Knowing our own inner darknesses, it’s extraordinarily difficult for us to believe that we are truly and completely loved.  But as you look at the manger and consider what motivated God to exchange the throne of heaven, the seat of power and authority over all of time and everything that exists, to be born in a stable; doubtless a bit grotty and certainly highly undignified; remember that it was love.  Love for each of us.  Love that wanted to create light in darkness and let that light shine, unconquered, as a source of hope and strength and joy for each of us.

It’s a powerfully humbling thought.

If we can trust this, though; if we can take hold of it and let it sink deep into our hearts; let it transform our doubts about our own worth or lovability, this truth can change us.  And as it changes us, it can change the world.

This is where the joy of Christmas comes from.  Not from all the pretty (or tasty!) things the shops are so eager to sell us all, but from the love of God for us so profound, that it holds the potential to bring light to every darkness there is.  Mine, yours, the churches’, Manus Island, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and wherever else that darkness currently holds sway.  What would you do differently tomorrow, if you really trusted that love?

God came in human flesh; so we celebrate with trembling and with joy.  With trembling because of our darkness – our sin, even – and with joy because of the hope we have that that darkness will finally be defeated.  It will not have the last word; the last word belongs to the one who spoke the very first word; “Let there be light.”  And there was light; and it was good.  We who have seen that light can trust that the last word will be just as good.

And so at the manger we can let go of our burdens, as Isaiah urges; the burdens of our sins, our despair, our doubt and our fear.  We know who it is who has come to us.  We know why he came.  And we know that nothing will ever be the same again.

Earlier I asked you, if you really trusted that love, what would you do differently tomorrow?  My own answer is that tomorrow – or at least once all the celebrations are over – the work of Christmas begins.  To live in the light we’ve been given and seek to magnify it for others.  To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, pursue peace, and inspire hope.  Each of us will bring different skills and passions to that work, and it’s something we must realise is a group effort; not to be done on our own but undertaken together.  And we must do it with genuine trust that it’s an extension of what started so long ago with a baby in a manger.

But not just any baby.  A baby we can trust.

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!