Side by side

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.

It’s been a week of high drama.  In kindergartens, schools and Sunday school groups all around the world, there has been passionate longing, terror, envy, open strife and many tears.  Why?

Well, you see, in every nativity play, there are plenty of shepherds (and sometimes sheep), angels with sparkly wings and tinsel halos, a few wise men and Joseph and perhaps an innkeeper… but there’s only one Mary.  And most every girl wants to be good enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough, to be Mary.  Being part of the sparkly angel chorus isn’t really the place for a young girl who just knows she’s meant for the starring role.

(Full disclosure: I was always an angel.  Take that whichever way you’re inclined to believe it)!

Of course, aspiring to be Mary, or like Mary, is not just a problem with nativity plays.  We know that through Christian history, in different ways, Mary has been held up to us as the perfect woman; completely asexual, completely devoted to family, and with a meek and compliant nature that meant God’s designs unfolded within and through her without her needing to actually take initiative or do anything other than say “Here I am.”

And if real women found that an impossible ideal to live up to, well, that’s only because we weren’t as impossibly perfect as Mary was.

I say that, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but meaning the criticism of how Mary has been pliantly fitted into various – usually male – constructions of perfect womanhood, with little regard for who she probably actually was, or even acknowledgement that most of her life story is unrecoverable to us now.

So there’s something very comforting to me about this morning’s gospel reading. Because here we have two very, very different women.  Oh, they’re both clearly presented to us as good women – earlier Elizabeth’s been described to us as righteous and blameless in her way of life – but in every other way they’re contrasts.

Elizabeth is old; Mary is young.  Elizabeth is “barren” after many years of trying for a child; Mary is a pregnant virgin.  Elizabeth can look back on a long life of unfulfilled longing; Mary can look forward to a life of uncertain potential.

And together – between them – these two very different women hold the keys to the future; to God’s future.  Jesus and John the Baptist – the two boys who will be born from them – will need each other.  They will grow and learn together.  Their ministries will overlap, and they will encourage one another for as long as they’re both alive.

I remember being pregnant.  It was terrifying.  On the one hand, you feel total responsibility for the welfare of a little person who is completely dependant on you for everything; and on the other hand, you have almost no control over the things which will shape that child’s life.  Once they’re born and the more they grow, the more concrete that lack of control is; and you have to let your child take their place in the world and their community and hope and pray that disaster won’t strike.

Elizabeth and Mary might have had reason to be a bit less anxious than most; after all, if God had plans for their miracle babies, then presumably God was going to make sure those plans were fulfilled.  But at this moment, all of that is in an unknown future.

These two women have a moment of shared joy and hope before it all begins.  What God’s asking of them at this moment is openness to what God might be about to do; to give themselves, their health, their energy, their intelligence and creativity, to shaping the lives and minds of two boys who would grow to change the world for the better.

But the thing that I find comforting about that, is that it’s the same challenge to both of them.  Mary doesn’t stand alone here as the archetype of perfect womanhood; she stands alongside Elizabeth, and shows us that if God has plans and a place for these two very different women, God might have plans and a place for us too; even when we’re not the same as our heroes (or heroines); even when we don’t feel we measure up to any particular ideal.

This passage shows us very clearly that God works in and through very diverse people; that you don’t have to fit a particular image or be in a particular stage of life (important to remember in this culture which so worships youth); but that provided you come with the right attitude – of openness and willingness to collaborate with God, and the rest of God’s people – you’ve got something to contribute.

And this is so important for parish life.  You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators.  God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined.  Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the key people with particular roles like wardens and parish council – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.

You see, some of you are much wiser than me.  Some have more faith.  Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them.  Some will be better at teaching and explaining things.  Some will be much more encouraging or generous.  And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.

And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.

Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention.  But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  Indispensable.  It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.

Of course, try telling that to the kids in the angelic chorus, dreaming of being stars!

But we need to have a bit more maturity than that.  Mary and Elizabeth stand side by side and support one another as they prepare for a challenging future.  Let’s rather take them as our model, and seek to hold in trust between us the hope, the courage and the joy of what God is up to in our lives together.

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Investing in relationships: Part III

This is the third in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 10:38-42.

I love this morning’s gospel reading.  If ever I need an excuse for neglecting the housework, there it is!  There is something better than housework, and Mary is commended for choosing it.

This domestic disagreement over the division of labour might not, at first blush, seem to have much to with stewardship, which has been our theme for the last couple of weeks; but you might remember that I’ve been talking about stewardship as investing in relationships.  On the first week I talked about our relationships with God, last week I talked about our relationships with each other, and this last week of the series I want to talk about our relationships beyond our parish community; which I’m going to refer to as mission.  Of course we have relationships beyond our parish which are not about mission; relationships with the wider Anglican church and other churches, but today what I’m interested in is our relationships with the people of our community.

We tend to think of “mission” as something we do, generally by sending specially prepared and educated people somewhere else, or sending money to those specially trained people, so that they can convert the people there to our belief and way of life.

But while that’s a kind of expression of mission which got very popular with colonialism and global empires, it’s not what the Church has historically meant by mission at all.  Mission was an activity understood to belong fundamentally to the Trinity; the Father sent the Son, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit were present and active in the world in order to achieve God’s purposes for the flourishing of creation; and that was mission.  In this deeper view, mission is God’s mission; it is God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world, God’s ongoing involvement in and with the world.  It is about God’s intrinsic nature, God’s activity flowing out of that nature, and that is something in which the church is invited to participate.  Our God is a God-for-people; the church responds by attempting to be a church-for-people where it finds itself.

Mission is God’s “yes” to the world; in the sense that the work of the Church is to express the reign of God in justice, peace and human wholeness. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love towards God’s people, since God is a fountain of sending love.

That’s why we exist as a Church; that’s what we’re here for.

So, go back for a moment to Mary and Martha and the housework.  Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, knew what she was here for, what was most important.  But Martha?  Martha was distracted by her many tasks. 

It is so easy for that to happen.  Especially for community groups like small churches.  We get caught up in routines of meetings and reports and rosters and all the rest of it; all the little things that keep everything working smoothly… our many tasks.  And it’s so easy, when we’re distracted by our many tasks, to take our eyes off the ball of what we’re supposed to be doing… which is engaging with our community and context in ways which express the mission of God.

Some of you will be familiar with the 5 marks of mission, which are a statement on mission agreed on by Anglicans at an international level.  They are an attempt to capture what kinds of activities and aims would go to making up this sort of idea of mission, and they are as follows:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

These areas are our equivalent of being Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet; they’re what we’re supposed to be focussed on, and what we’re not supposed to get distracted from.

There’s a lot there, of course, and each needs a lot of unpacking to explore what it might look like in practice; so let me just make some brief remarks on each one.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

In one sense, we proclaim the good news just by existing as the Church.  We point beyond ourselves to our reason for being, in response to our loving God.

(Or to put it another way, I remember one former dean of Melbourne saying that the church exists “to keep the rumour of God alive.”  That people look at us, our buildings, our services, our statements and actions, and are forced to confront at least the possibility that there might be a God).

So one question for us here might be, how do we engage better in public discourse where the good news is so badly needed?

  1. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.

In some ways, I want to amend this one to remove the word “new” and just say, to teach, baptise and nurture believers.  When do any of us stop needing to learn or be nurtured?  I know I haven’t yet!

But this is the point which encourages us to reflect seriously on our study groups and other ways in which we teach and learn; our worship services, quiet days, pastoral care, and other aspects of how we nurture one another.  We might think about intentionally expanding our library and making it more easily available to the public.

On Wednesday night this week I went to a session of the Justice Conference, organised by Tear and other Christian organisations; and the main speaker on that night was focussed on hospitality as radical expression of the reign of God.  How do we enlarge our tables and gather more people around them, to feed them not only with food but with human relationships?  These are important challenges for us.

  1. To respond to human need by loving service.

We’ve done some really good things in this vein this year; packing birthing kits, raising money for local disadvantaged families and for Orange Sky Laundry; as well as our ongoing quiet support of local emergency relief organisations.

More and more I’m aware of high levels of social isolation and loneliness in our local area; our ministry to seniors might well be a good way to begin to do something about that, but perhaps we might also look at what the local council or others are doing, and how we might be involved.

We might also look at the work being done at a diocesan level on the prevention of violence against women; or ask ourselves how the work now being done on disability inclusion might be picked up and worked through in this parish.

  1. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

95 bells for 95 children detained on Nauru; it’s cost us very little, but it’s turned out to be a very effective way to raise awareness of the plight of refugee children, locally and, indeed, nationally.

How else might we be able to challenge our blindness to our own privilege, and begin to provide space for the voices of more oppressed and marginalised groups in our community life?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers but again, I put it before you as a question.

  1. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Here’s where some contact and cooperation with local environmental groups fits within our mission.  It’s also where we might take thought for our energy use, our choice of cleaning chemicals, our use of paper, and so on.  When I had some involvement with the Student Christian Movement, they had a policy that all shared meals were vegetarian, because of the high environmental impact of farming animals for meat.  I wonder what it would be like if we chose to deliberately shift the balance of our shared meals in that direction?

There are, as you can see, options under all of these headings limited only by our creativity, and I spoke a little bit about them this morning really just to prompt some thinking and reflection rather than to present a fully-formed template for mission.

What I do want to stress is that amongst the many tasks of parish life which distract us, mission is what we’re supposed to be about, and the Marks of Mission are a good aid to reflecting on what really matters.  After all, wouldn’t we rather invest in what’s really going to make a difference in our world, rather than stressing about things which, ultimately, are not the point?

Rather than being worried and distracted by many things, let’s make sure that as we plan our life together, we choose the better part.

Investing in relationships: Part II

This is the second in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is 1 Peter 4:7-11.

I want to start this morning with the story of a saint you’ve probably never heard of; St. Tarcisius.  He was a young man – an acolyte or perhaps a deacon, we’re not sure – in the church in Rome in the third century (not long before St. Faith lived, in fact); and he was given the job of taking communion to Christians in prison.  This was particularly significant, because of course, those Christians were in prison for their faith, and many of them were killed; this errand may well have been their last chance to receive communion.

Anyway.  One day as he was doing this, Tarcisius was set upon by a mob who demanded that he hand over the sacrament so they could destroy it.  He refused, and was beaten to death.

Another one of the grim stories of the early Church, I’m afraid.  But what put me in mind of it was the phrase we heard in the reading from 1 Peter today: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God…”

We’re in the second of our three weeks of focussing on stewardship, and here Peter picks out the key thing for us so beautifully; we are stewards, ultimately, not just of our time, talents, and treasure – although each of those things has their place – but of the manifold grace of God.

God makes known to us, and entrusts to us, God’s good desire for the flourishing of all of creation; and makes available to us the means to further that flourishing.  And our giving of our time, talents, and treasure, ought to be oriented to that end.

I said last week that we ought to think of our stewardship as being about investing in relationships, and this is really one dimension of that; the dimension that’s about our own community.  Last week I talked about our relationships with God, and next week I’ll talk about our relationships beyond the parish, but this week I wanted to put the focus on our relationships with each other.

And here Peter has told us what those relationships are meant to be like.  We are each, every single one of us, stewards of the grace of God; and that means that our job is to administer that grace to one another.

Sometimes that happens in very concrete, even ritualised ways; as it does in our services (or indeed, as it did when St. Tarcisius visited the condemned in prison).  But grace is so much bigger than the formal words of forgiveness and blessing, so much bigger than the moments of sacramental presence which we experience once or twice a week in worship.

We administer God’s grace to one another any time our words and actions offer comfort, encouragement, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation.  Any time we let people know that they are not alone.  Any time we identify and affirm the goodness of one another.  Any time we are hospitable, patient, kind, or gentle.  Any time we do anything which helps another person to experience something of God’s good will for them, and God’s power to bring that good will about, we administer grace.

Earlier in this letter Peter had written that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”  It’s the same sort of idea; by proclaiming the mighty acts of the God who calls us out of darkness into light, we become the people chosen to administer grace wherever we go.

As a side note, there’s something important about Peter’s notion of a priesthood here.  There are two very different sorts of ideas in the early church which we talk about as priesthood; there’s the kind of priest that clergy are, and laity are not; and actually, that’s the idea of being an “elder” in the congregation; a person with the wisdom and experience and training to be recognised as a leader and teacher of the community.

But that’s not the kind of priesthood Peter’s talking about here.  This is the kind of priesthood that’s about responsibilities in worship which connect the people with their God.  In the New Testament, this kind of priesthood is only ever used of the whole church; it is never used of one group with a specialised role.  All of us share in and exercise the priestly ministry of prayer and reconciliation.  All of us administer grace to one another.  That’s an inescapable part of what it means to be Christian.

No wonder, then, that Peter goes on to say, “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.”  There’s no such thing as meaningless speech between Christians; every word either builds the other person up, or it doesn’t.  Every action either serves the good of others, or it doesn’t. Peter tells us that our role as stewards of God’s grace means we must be mindful of the impact of what we say and do, because it has enormous significance, now and into eternity.

Having just been through some fairly spirited debate in synod, I’m forced to add that this doesn’t mean we must always agree on everything, or pretend to agree.  But it is profoundly about how we treat one another even when we disagree.  If we can’t disagree, but still uphold the other person’s worth, dignity and value… we have not learned to administer the grace of God.

So what I’m encouraging you to think about, in reflecting on this with you, is what is achieved by what you give.  If you give of your time to do something, who is comforted, encouraged, affirmed by what you give your time to do?  If you give of your money to the parish, what does that money fund, and does it help people to know the grace of God?  (I encourage you, in due course, to actually read the budget papers before the annual meeting; because while I know they can be dry, beyond the numbers are – or at least, we hope there are – real people encountering the grace of God).  And if you put your talents at the service of the parish, do they contribute to this being a community of hospitality, gentleness, and kindness?  Are there things we ought to be thinking about in that regard, that we’re currently overlooking?

Fortunately for us, unlike St. Tarcisius, we are not likely to face martyrdom as we go about our lives administering the incredible, life-changing grace of God.  All the more reason for us then to take seriously that in our words, actions, and in our giving, careful and loving stewardship of that grace ought to be always our aim.

Investing in relationships: Part I

This is the first in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 11:1-13.

Well, it’s everyone’s favourite time of year again.  That point in the cycle of things where the treasurer makes appeals to your generosity, and I’m asked to spend some time reflecting with you on the theology of giving.

I know – because many of you have talked about it with me – that here you’re very familiar with the idea that giving isn’t just about money, but is also about giving of your time and talents, so I’m not going to go over that ground with you again.

Instead, I want to talk a bit about what we’re investing in; what we hope to accomplish by what we give.

And I’m going to suggest to you that fundamentally, we’re investing in relationships.

We give to God of our time, our energy and our money not just because we like having a building or an institution or even a vicar, but because those are things which sustain the Church as a network of relationships; relationships in which we are accepted, loved, cared for, and through which we can accomplish more than any of us could on our own.

And I think about that in three kind of concentric circles.  First – and what I’m mostly going to talk about this week – there’s our relationship with God, which should be at the centre of our life as a Church.  Then – and this will be the focus next week – there are our relationships with each other; what it means to be a functional community.  And finally, there are our relationships beyond our local church community, which, for a convenient shorthand, I’ll call mission.  (Of course mission’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s a helpful way of thinking about it).

So; relationships with God, with each other, and beyond our own community.  And by the very nature of relationships, all of them require an investment from us if they are to work and continue to be healthy relationships.

But for this week, let me share with you a comment from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran theologian.  I saw an interview with her once, where she said her students often ask her what she does to get closer to God.  And she said – with her typical disarming honesty – “Why would I want to get close to God?  Whenever Jesus gets close to me I end up having to love someone I hate, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.”

And it seems to me that that comment so neatly captures our human dilemma, in relationship with God.  We want to be loved, accepted, cared for.  We want to know that our heavenly father’s arms are always open to us.  But at the same time, we’re keenly aware that such an encounter is going to make demands of us, and that we might not like some of them very much.  Maybe it’s safer to stay away.

And so there can be this internal push-and-pull towards and away from God.  This is part of what Jesus is addressing when he says in our gospel reading today: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In other words, we may not like the process of learning to love those we hate, or forgive those who have hurt us, or relinquish having our own way about something, but it’s something God invites us to, ultimately, because it is for our own good.

There is also the all-too-common problem that many of us have an image of God that makes closeness difficult.  Many of us, deep down where we might not even fully recognise it, believe in a harsh God, one who judges our faults, who demands more from us than we can give, and who is more interested in our obedience than our happiness.

Of course you’re not going to want to be close to someone like that.  Who would?  It would be toxic to continually expose yourself to that kind of harshness.

Now, that sort of deap-seated image of God isn’t something that shifts just because a preacher tells you something different.  It takes time; it takes actual encounters with the real God to dismantle the false image.

What I’m going to suggest to you, as we begin this consideration of stewardship, of how we manage all the good things God gives us, is to start by taking an inventory of your relationship with God.  How are you getting on with God, anyway?  What would it take for that to improve?

It might well be that you realise that in fact, there’s something that’s become a block in that relationship.  Maybe you’re angry with God about something.  Maybe you’re not actually on very good speaking terms right now.  And that isn’t, in and of itself, the end of the world; but be honest with yourself about it, and open to how that might change.  And of course, if you’d like to come and talk to me about any of that, my door is always open.

Of course, each of us has our own individual relationship with God, with all its complexities.  But there is a dimension of that which we share, as we come together to worship.  Our liturgy gives us a solid framework for that, but the liturgy isn’t the relationship; it’s an opportunity to work on the relationship.

And while our own personal relationships with God mostly require time from us, our shared prayer life is often where our talents and treasures find their place.  So many people enrich our worship with their talents; whether with words or fabric or music or the hidden but crucial arts of maintenance.  And having vibrant worship which is able to meet our needs, desires and moods does require material investment also.

By focussing on relationships over these three weeks what I’m trying to do is put the question of our giving in human perspective.  It’s not about numbers in a spreadsheet or tasks on a list or keeping the doors open, but about the quality of the connections between us.   And as we keep exploring that theme over the coming weeks, I encourage you to take that seriously in your own reflections.

St. Francis of Assisi

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

What kind of man preaches to the birds?  Was Francis a bit simple, or was he, perhaps, making a point about his frustration with human congregations?

I suspect something a bit more subtle was going on, but to understand what drove the man famous for his affinity with animals and nature, it might help to start with something he wrote.

Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a “Letter to the Faithful,” an attempt, perhaps, to make sure that the people aligned with the movement he had started, had some of his words to hold on to, when he was gone.

And in that letter he told a story.  The story – I’ll paraphrase it for brevity – is about a very wealthy man, a man who has become wealthy through fraud and deception.  This man falls sick, and knows that death is near.  Friends and relatives come and advise the dying man, “Put your affairs in order.” His wife and children, friends and relatives, all pretend to mourn. Looking up from his deathbed, he sees them weeping, and decides to leave all his ill-gotten wealth to these family members.

There and then, they call a priest; he says to the sick man, “Do you want to be absolved from all your sins?”  And the dying man replies, “I do”. “Are you ready then to make restitution as best you can out of your property for all that you have done, all the fraud and deceit you practiced towards your fellow men?” the priest asks him. “No”, he replies. And the priest asks, “Why not?” “Because I have left everything in the hands of my relatives and friends”, is the answer.

So the fraudulent rich man dies without making things right for the people he mistreated, and without being reconciled to God.  And rather than being appreciative of what he left them, his family curse him for not making more for them!  So, Francis concludes the story with the rich man suffering torments in hell, his body being food for worms, and his ungrateful relatives remembering him with bitterness and not love.

It’s not really a cheery story, and it’s a far cry from cuddly animals.  But why did Francis tell it?

It helps us if we understand a little bit about the world he lived in.  Francis lived in a time of great social upheaval; the system that had dominated in previous centuries – of nobles exercising feudal power over peasants who were mostly engaged in agriculture – was giving way to the new power of merchant families who ruled city-states; expanding international trade through Italy’s big port cities made those merchants unbelievably wealthy, and completely disconnected from the poor people outside the gates of those cities.  (If we listen to rhetoric about coastal “elites” and impoverished, neglected rural folk in America today, the comparison in terms of mutual distrust and ideological disconnection is actually striking).

So the economic base was shifting, the old social norms were being brought into question, and more and more, the wealthy were getting wealthier by exploiting the poor.  The story of a young Francis stripping naked in the town square to protest his merchant father’s ill-gotten wealth is famous; but perhaps we don’t always recognise how much that was one example of enormous social division of the time.

Many rural towns already had groups of poor people living communally, sharing everything they had in order that everyone might eat; and because this was, after all, medieval Italy, those communal groups thought of themselves as being a bit like a monastery, and called themselves “penitents.”  But the main thing they were repenting was involvement in an economic system which had utterly failed them.

So when Francis started his order – and by the way, he was ordained a deacon but never a priest, so let that be a reminder not to underestimate deacons or the diaconate! – he naturally drew followers from these communities of penitents, and their movement can be seen as a powerful social protest against exploitative wealthy people feeding a lavish consumerist culture, which left the poorest and most vulnerable out in the cold.

Francis and his brothers – and later the women in their companion order, as well – lived in a way which turned those values on their heads.  Choosing poverty – for they lived by begging – was a way of saying that people and things have a value which can’t be priced on the commercial market.  Treating all of creation as sacred, down to the humblest animal, was a way of saying that God’s creation is good in and of itself; and that the worth of something isn’t measured by what someone will pay for it.

What price would you put on sunshine, anyway?  Or the feel of the breeze on your face?

Francis wrote and talked a lot about penance, but what he seems to have meant by it is mostly a disengagement from attachment to stuff.

This was a more complicated social critique than just wanting to turn back the clock and make Umbria great again.  By the time Francis gathered others around him, he had been observant enough to see that the old feudal system didn’t work all that well, either.  He’d been among the lepers who were outcast even from the rural towns, and been horrified at their callous exclusion from human community.

Instead, for Francis, penance was about treating human beings as sacred, each and every one of us. It was about forming communities which treat each and every person with worth and dignity, and which treat the bonds of relationship between us and every other good thing which God created, as sacred.  For Francis, it’s in rightly honouring every good thing which comes to us from the hand of God, that we know grace; and come to overflow with grace in how we relate to everyone else.

This sacredness inherent in every person and creature, is Francis’ vision of human life as it was meant to be, and as it will be when God’s reign is fulfilled.  The community he formed around him was meant to be a sign pointing a corrupt and lost society towards that vision.

That’s the point of the story in Francis’ Letter to the Faithful.  All the luxuries in the world can’t save you, can’t keep you alive, and can’t help you have relationships worth having.  And I think it’s the point of preaching to the birds, too.  The birds who are our fellow-creatures help us praise God, and point us towards more authentic humanity than anything you can buy.  The letter and the honouring of nature are all parts of an alternative value system, and an alternative vision of human community; one in which people matter for who we are, and not what we have.

And that’s a timeless message which still very much resonates in our own day!

 

The text of the “Letter to the Faithful” can be read here: http://www.traditionalcatholicpriest.com/2014/10/05/letter-to-the-faithful-by-st-francis-of-assisi/

Grounded in love

This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:14-21.

Isn’t it nice when you have one of those moments when you can recognise that you’ve got something right?  A good mark, or positive annual review, or a child saying “I love you,” those moments encourage us and help us keep going.

And if we pay attention to this morning’s reading from Ephesians, we might see one of those moments for this parish.

Here’s what I mean.  Last week, at the parish planning meeting, we spent some time trying to identify a set of core values for the parish; values which could then guide the decisions we make, and how we communicate about who we are.  And our core values came out as being a community of love and care, of deep connections and meaningful relationships.  That’s what came from the stories we shared of what had been truly meaningful experiences for us here.

And then we listen in on Paul’s prayer that the Ephesians may be “rooted and grounded in love,” may comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.  What Paul puts forward here as so important for the Ephesian church; we’ve just identified as being something we already do well, and value doing well.  We identified that we are rooted and grounded in love, and that our knowledge of the love of Christ has shaped our relationships and our life together in deeply profound ways.

That’s us getting something very right.  Let’s acknowledge and celebrate that!  (What do you think about “grounded in love” as a parish motto, I wonder?  Perhaps we could do worse?)

So taking this bit of the letter as an affirmation of who we are, and as an encouragement to keep doing that well, let’s have a deeper look at what Paul has to say.

Notice that Paul starts this prayer section of his letter by saying that “I bow… before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  He’s not just being grandiose – although Paul’s not above a rhetorical flourish – but he’s making an important point.  In a multicultural, cosmopolitan city like Ephesus, where tensions between different cultural groups were not uncommon, Paul points out that God has a fatherly relationship to every human group.  Not just Jews, or gentiles, or Romans, or Greeks, or Persians or whomever else might have been there, but every family in heaven and on earth.

And the point of this is to highlight that God is big.

It might seem obvious, and we forget, sometimes, how important these basic things are.  But Paul’s point is that our God and Father isn’t just the God of our tribe, or our area, or our ancestors.  He’s not just committed to our little group and no one else.  He’s on about the flourishing of all the families of the earth.  His love reaches beyond those who are near, and even beyond those whom we might hope to bring near.

If we’re going to be rooted and grounded in God’s love, the first thing we have to get is just how big, how universal in scope, that love is.  Our hearts are going to have to expand as we play our part in God’s loving plans for the whole world.

Then, after addressing his prayer to this big God, Paul makes his petition; and it is, in effect, that God’s kingdom may come.  That the good future God has planned and prepared, and is propelling us towards, might be brought just that little bit closer, in the life of the church; being made real and concrete in the ordinary stuff of the common life of the little Christian community in Ephesus.

So Paul prays that, according to the riches of God’s glory – the riches which are our birthright through baptism – the church might actually be able to live lives shaped by a vision of that hope; that good future of God.

Now here’s something important that kind of gets lost in English.  All the “you”s and “your”s in this prayer are plural.  This is not a prayer for the strengthening of individuals, but of the community. Let me read you the key sentences put in a way which makes that clear and personalised to us:

“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that the community of this parish may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in the heart of the community through faith, as the community is being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that the community may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that the community may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Our pew sheet reminds us each week that we are “witnesses to the risen Christ in our midst” but this pushes it one step further; the risen Christ needs to be not just in our midst but in the heart of our community and all its doings – not just our liturgies but our conversations, our meetings, our social gatherings and our various outreach activities – and that is how we are rooted and grounded in love.

And it’s together – in community, and in the quality of our relationships – that we have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ; the love of Christ which arises ultimately from the dynamic, over-flowing love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It’s in our relationships with one another that the quality of that love, expressed in deep and loving and mutual relationship, can be known by us in some way, even though it ultimately surpasses any human knowledge.  And it’s in that way that we – as a parish community – may be filled with all the fullness of God.  To be rooted and grounded in love is to be rooted and grounded in relationships which mirror the qualities of God’s relationships; and that quality of relationship is the riches of God’s glory which Paul prays that the Ephesians might have.

It’s layer upon layer of imagery trying somehow to give us some idea of what God is calling us to be.

But as I said at the beginning, we can recognise that in this, at least, we’ve already made a good beginning.  We have a community marked by loving and caring relationships.  Not that we don’t have more growing to do; of course we do.  But we can be encouraged that we’re on the way in growing the way Paul was encouraging the Ephesians to grow.  So let’s be purposeful in continuing in that way!

St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon.  It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove.  Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing.  But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories.  And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.

Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.

Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us.  It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction.  It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with.  And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”

The story begins in darkness, early in the morning.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.

Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation.  She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back.  Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes).  And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.

And she weeps.  Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”  The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.

Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name.  John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him.  In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.

So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated.  She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord.  She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices.  She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.

All of this is well and good.  We too should seek with persistence.  We too should love the light and weep at the darkness.  We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice.  As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.

But wait; there’s more to the story.  The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved.  One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen.  Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.”  And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.

Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus.  Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her.  She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness.  Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.”  He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight.  And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.

The relevance of this is that all three are given their place.  Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter.  Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word.  And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community.  At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.

Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here.  John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach.  Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.

But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle.  He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex.  Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community.  More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!

So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.

By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.

That’s John’s version, anyway.  But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.