Love and happiness?

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But tonight, as we gather here almost as family, having shared a meal, with me about to wash your feet – those of you who want it – I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in tonight’s reading.

Jesus tells his disciples this, the night before he goes to the cross.  The example of love that he sets isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this example of love to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this tonight?  Over the next little while this parish will have big decisions to make.  The planning process undertaken by the parish council continues to unfold.  Discussions are being had about the relationship with the neighbouring parish, and how things might best function for both parishes.  The reality is that by the end of the year, I will not be here, and I don’t know who will follow me.

And I am reminding you tonight that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, call everything into question, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.

Tomorrow we will come to the cross, and consider what his commitment to the reign of God cost Jesus, and what our commitment asks of us.  Tonight we have time, a pause, to consider that that cost only has meaning when it is offered in love which truly seeks God’s best for each of us.

Walk with us?

This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Matthew 21:1-11, and Matthew 26:14-27:66.

Each year I find myself thinking that Palm Sunday is the one occasion in the year that the church really “does” irony.  This morning’s tradition, of carrying palms in procession, goes back to the very early church in Jerusalem, who would walk into and through the city gates at the beginning of Holy Week, strengthening their sense of personal connection with the events they were about to remember in worship.

Half a world away, and centuries later, at the beginning of Holy Week, we also come to strengthen our sense of personal connection in worship.  We place ourselves with Jesus before the gates of a city. We place ourselves among the adoring crowds at the triumphal entry, but we don’t share their innocence.  We know, with a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs, that all too soon it will go wrong, and end so utterly badly.

We know that once we have entered we shall be swept up in events that we cannot control and that will bring us to the very edge of what we can bear, as we walk with him to Calvary and the tomb. This week tells us that God is able to change everything about us; our fear, our sin, our guilt, our untruthfulness. But to actually live out that change, to make it concrete and personal, asks so much of all of us that we often shy away from it, using whatever distraction is available; even, sometimes, using religion as a shield between us and the demands of a holy God.

As human beings, we live, metaphorically, at the gates of a city; we each look out from our own personal bubbles into a bigger system of things, what Augustine would have called the “earthly city;” a city where so many innocents suffer, and where all manner of evils are hidden under a cloak of self-justifying, selfish, posturing words. We know that in this earthly city, trying to live by faith, hope and love leaves us looking pretty helpless. And we also know in our hearts that so much of what fuels the horrors in our world is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership, the near-mindless fury that bursts out and brings destruction to so many. We know the urge to defend what can’t be defended because we can’t lose face. We are, by our human nature, citizens of this worldly city.

Yet, that worldly city – that system which puts refugees in concentration camps, which allows systems of slavery to flourish to produce its consumer goods, which spends its wealth on weapons of war rather than investing in human flourishing – that city of which we are citizens is also the place where, if we are willing, God works transformation. Jesus does not steer us away from the bustle of power and commerce, to send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He plunges himself, and us with him, on triumphal procession into the heart of it all; and he tells us that the entry point into the systems of human evil are also the gates of heaven. If we recognise our involvement, our complicity in human systems, and despite that shock of recognition, find the courage and honesty to walk with Jesus into the heart of that system, to the cross and the tomb, the path takes us to unexpected joys, because it is God himself who walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the earthly city, the great city where the Lord was crucified, but also at the entrance to the heavenly city, the city of God.   At the end of this week’s story is the garden of resurrection, where all of our systems of evil are shown for the sham they are.

Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? It will ask a quiet costliness from us.  A succession of small gestures, each of which defies the systems of evil by treating others as valuable; tiny personal admissions that we cannot live forever in isolation, pride or unforgiveness.  It is those actions – everything we do, no matter how small, which acknowledges the worth and dignity of another human being – which will finally bridge the gap between vision and reality, letting us experience God’s heavenly city in the midst of our worldly one.  It’s that insistence on refusing to compromise the regard in which we hold one another, because we have come to see the depth of the regard in which God holds each of us, which will finally bring reconciliation and healing.

It’s worth noting that in the story of Jesus’ arrest, two of his disciples betray him; both Judas and Peter, each in their different ways, betrayed Jesus profoundly.  But only one of them saw the resurrection.  The difference between a Judas and a Peter isn’t in the surrender to temptation; it’s in the openness to see that our worst moments need never be the ones which define us.

Standing here this morning, we can see the possibilities. By faith we know that we can enter with Jesus and walk with him, to and beyond the cross, to the beginnings of new life. But that sick feeling in our stomachs at the fickleness of the crowds reminds us of another set of possibilities; our own potential for cowardice, for self-interest, for weakness.  We know that we could find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with empty and even blood stained hands.

This week, if we enter into it fully, will take us on a guided tour of all of this.  We will see and hear things we don’t want to, and at the end be surprised that apparently, despite it all, God hasn’t given up on us.  The challenge to us is to not let the irony of Palm Sunday turn into cynicism, but to let it help us develop a kind of double vision; one which always sees God’s possibilities overlaid on human realities.

Or we can stay at the gates, at the edge, looking in but unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the resurrection. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again?

As we enter Holy Week, we reaffirm our desire to walk with God, whatever the cost. We pray that God will raise up communities whose vision of this is clear, who look to One who has cleared the way for us. We stand at the gates, and they stand open. Let us walk with Jesus this week, with him to his cross and his resurrection.

Dare we imagine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question everything

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 9:1-41.

Over these Sundays in Lent, as Bruce pointed out to us last week, we have a series of readings which describe different people’s encounters with Jesus; each encounter giving the people involved – and through them, us – a deeper insight into who Jesus is.  But this morning I want to look at the process of arriving at that deeper insight.

I mean, we often call this morning’s gospel reading, the story of the “man born blind,” but until somewhere towards the end of the story he’s a fairly passive figure.  In contrast, the whole encounter is kicked off, if you like, by a question from Jesus’ disciples, and the unfolding drama is an outward spiralling of layers of response to their question.  So is this the story of the man born blind, or part of a bigger story of the disciples and their developing discipleship?

Think how often through the gospels Jesus’ teaching or explanation is prompted by questions from the disciples.  This isn’t just because they’re dim and not getting what’s right in front of their noses; it can also be because they are doing what good disciples do, and questioning their teacher about their experience to learn as much from it as possible.

Think for a moment of the Jews in this reading who claim to be disciples of Moses.  By this they meant something much stronger than simply that they obeyed Moses or kept the Law.  I once had the chance to hear a Rabbi speak about the Jewish approach to Scripture.  He explained that even very ancient Jewish scholarship on Scripture is constructed as a series of questions which the scholar brings to the text and to which the scholar attempts to find answers.  And not necessarily the sorts of questions we might be used to as scholarly, about author, date of composition, social setting, and so forth, but questions about emotions and motivations and matters of the heart, questions about how this text hits our own living concerns.

So for example, this morning’s Old Testament reading began with the Lord asking Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” and the Rabbinic commentaries on this might well spend pages and pages exploring the questions of why Samuel was grieving, what Saul’s kingship had meant to him, and how this might relate to our life of faith now.

So the disciples of Moses, immersed as they were in this kind of questioning, open-ended – even, we might say, creative and imaginative – study of Moses, are willing to open Moses up to questioning in great depth.  That’s what it meant to be a disciple, and that lies behind the mentions of discipleship in this morning’s gospel.

This reading plays out almost as a series of questions and answers, but there’s a great difference in attitude reflected in the different sorts of questions.  There is, on the one hand, the genuine question of Jesus’ disciples; ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ And at least some of the Pharisees were willing to wonder ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And towards the end of the story, when Jesus was talking about the Son of Man, the way the man born blind himself asks,  ‘And who is he, sir?’

On the other hand, there are questions which are not really questions at all.  ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’  ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Not so much questions as expressions of closed-mindedness.  There is here an absolute refusal to recognise that this situation might have anything to teach them.

In this encounter, the questions which come from openness, which allow for the possibility of real learning and growth, are those of disciples or those exploring the idea, maybe on the way to discipleship.  This suggests that a mind open to unexpected insight, and indeed actively seeking understanding, is a fundamental trait of discipleship.

To this questing mindset – and this was reinforced for me by what I heard from the Rabbi about how Jews approach Scripture – study and learning are not ends in themselves, but a form of worship.  To question, to wonder, puts us in a stance of fundamental openness to and humility before the God who is greater than any human understanding.  To worship in this way is to become the fertile ground in which God can grow much that is good for the healing of the nations.

It is when we question that we bring our problems, our struggles, our hurts, to Scripture, to tradition, and to God Himself, forging points of connection.  Without our daring to question, our difficulties and the resources which might speak to them stand separate, static, without any point of contact.  But when we question we throw a bridge across that chasm and claim all the riches of God for our very present trouble.

Discipleship starts where we are, just as it did for the man born blind.  The first step on the path is always at your feet.  But it is in being open to questions and new insights that we are able to move along that path.

When I was working in North Melbourne, I had a particular parishioner I visited several times in hospital. And she reflected with me, in the face of uncertainty about what her future held; that in her words, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”  If we are certain of something we are closed to any possibility of something new breaking in.  The Pharisees in this reading had a very great deal of certainty; about God, about wisdom, about sin.  But in the end they were blind because their certainty closed their eyes to anything new.

So where does that leave us?  As disciples of Christ, each of whom has promised in baptism to love God with our whole mind, I’d suggest that this reading calls each of us to fresh encounters with Jesus.   It shows us that we should not be satisfied with what we already have, but take the initiative in seeking more and deeper wisdom, to bring the deepest longings of our hearts and minds, to bring all of the circumstances of our own lives, into questioning dialogue with Christ, in whatever form we each find effective.

This is how we will grow and become all that God has created us to be; so let’s not neglect the opportunity.

Qualities of relationship

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:20-26.

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

It’s a difficult teaching, this one, and I suspect honoured much more in the breach than in the observance.  If all Christian people really did seek to be reconciled with their brothers and sisters before coming to the altar, our parishes would be much healthier places.

But it struck me, as I was considering this, that we tend to read it very much on an individual level.  I must be reconciled before I come before God.  But we never come to God’s altar just as an individual; we gather here always in community.  We must be reconciled to one another before we come to God.

It struck me that there’s something about who we are when we gather here that is more than the sum of its parts.  We don’t just each of us offer our individual selves, but we offer our community, with its relational qualities and its synergies, as a living sacrifice.

No wonder reconciliation is so important; we wouldn’t want to offer to God a fractured, disordered or agitated body.

Now of course, I wouldn’t dare comment on whether that’s ever true here.  I’m a guest in your life and you’re best placed to reflect on that yourselves.

But I’d encourage you to consider that the quality of our relationships is part of what we bring with us, when we come before God, and to consider whether they need any attention in your own life.

We’re not alone

I wrote this prayer today for a friend of mine who has a child with special needs; but I wanted to share it, because if there’s one thing struggling parents need to know, it’s that we’re not alone!

A mother’s Lenten prayer:

Lord, I know that Lent is traditionally a time
when people seek you in prayer,
in peace and solitude,
in fasting and sincere reflection.

I’m sorry, Lord, that I’m seeking you
in the toy clutter,
in the caffeine-fuelled routine,
and in the turmoil of meltdowns.

I know it doesn’t seem very respectful,
or pious, and I’m sure
some of my elders-and-betters at church,
think this is not how it should be.

But Lord, this is my life.
This is the fabric of my days,
this is where my heart is held,
this is where my hands are full.

All I can do, is lift it all
into your gracious presence;
knowing your goodness,
and ask you to be with me in it

and to hallow it all,
that I may keep a holy Lent,
that my loved ones may know your peace,
and that we may reach the Easter joy

of a new morning
(sanity intact).

Prayer matters

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, given in the ” church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 32.

I want to think a little bit this morning about prayer.  Lent’s a time when we traditionally focus on prayer; and as I said on Wednesday night, that’s a key part of the Christian life because it’s our connection to the love of God, how that love is made real and effective in our lives.

But it’s something many of us struggle with; we get all sorts of ideas in our heads about prayer, what is the “right” way to pray, what kind of prayer will actually get an answer, and so on.  And I think today’s psalm is, in its way, trying to deal with one of the commonest problem ideas about prayer, so I want to see what it can say to us about that.

If we look at verse ten, we see that it says, “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” At first blush this seems to present us with a problem, because it could be read as if it were suggesting that people suffer because they are wicked.

And then that leads us down a nasty rabbit hole of thinking that when we suffer, it must be because we did something wrong, maybe even that we’re being punished, and that all just pushes us further away from God… you can see why it’s a problem!

But I think that actually that’s not the point that the author was making at all.  I think he was trying to say something very different; I think he was trying to say that God hears our prayer.

Looked at from that point of view, the wicked suffer torments not because they are bad, or because they are being punished, but because they do not pray; they have cut themselves off from relationship with God, and whatever good might flow to them from that.  (And that good might not be change in their external circumstances, but change in their own response to those circumstances!)  On the other hand, those who trust in the Lord, says the psalm, are surrounded by steadfast love; not because they have earned or deserve it, but because they ground themselves in relationship with God, and receive the benefits which flow from that.

God hears our prayer; God responds to our prayer; praying makes a difference.

And I think we need to be reminded of that.  Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that God listens to us, especially when we’re going through a rough time.  But the psalmist is trying to remind us that when we pray, God breaks through the chaos of our lives to set us firmly on the ground.  When we pray, God reaches across the gulf of our broken relationship with God to mend that break, to put our hearts and lives and communities back together.

But part of the reason I think some people struggle with this matter of prayer, is that actually, not all of us naturally pray in the same way.  For some of us, the stereotypical idea of prayer as sitting down, eyes closed, and silently speaking to God in our minds leaves us feeling dry and empty.

So part of what I’d encourage you to think about, this Lent, is whether your prayer life is actually working for you.  And if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to experiment or try something new.

Walk the labyrinth.  See what happens if you sit down to draw while you pray.  Sit with one of the questions Jesus asked his disciples, and see what your own answer is.  Gaze at an icon.  Come to Taizé this evening.  The possibilities are endless, and if you’re not sure where to start, maybe ask to borrow a book or two on different ways to pray – I’ve built quite a collection over time – and see whether any of those ideas grab you.

This is important for two reasons.

One is your spiritual life now; your connection with God, your ability to know God’s steadfast love, and to respond with a love of your own.

But the other reason is that our spirituality changes over time.  What works for you at one point in your life may become dry and empty at another time; often when we’re grieving or depressed or anxious or otherwise going through a rough time, the things which sustained us when life was going well, give us no comfort or peace, and we can be left feeling abandoned or wondering just where God is in all of this.

But if, during the better times, we’ve given ourselves permission to experiment a bit – tried some things which are a bit different, even pushed the edges of our comfort zones – then when the old familiar patterns of prayer are leaving us unsatisfied, we have a bit of a tool kit, as it were, of different things which might help us reconnect in a new way.

I know that when Zoë was diagnosed with autism, I went through a period of real grief and I struggled with what that meant, for me, and for us as a family, but also with what it might mean for her relationship with God.  How would I teach a child with a severe speech delay how to pray?

At that time I found a book called “Praying in Color,” which was all about drawing while praying and letting what was on the page be our communication with God.  Not only was it useful for me in thinking about how my creative little girl might find her own way to relate to God, but I found it enormously helpful for myself to experiment; and since then I’ve been exploring and playing with drawing as a regular part of my prayer life, something I’ve found very enriching.

(And it’s not about talent, by the way; I am nobody’s idea of a naturally gifted artist, but when I’m only drawing for myself and God, that doesn’t matter!)

Really my point is this; prayer matters.  It makes a difference.  And so I encourage you, today and this Lent in particular, to take prayer seriously; to think about how to pray, not just doing more of the same old thing, but how you might enrich your relationship with God.  So that the steadfast love and mercy of God might surround us in our life together.