Thursday, March 23, 2023

How long?

 

This afternoon, I’ve been reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome. Beard jumps in with Cicero’s denouncement of Catiline before the senate in 63BCE. In passing, she notes that “the modern word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means ‘whitened’ and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns, to impress the voters.” (p. 32)

Beard writes,

“It did not take long for the opening words of Cicero’s speech given on 8 November (the First Catilinarian) to become one of the best known and instantly recognisable quotes of the Roman world: ‘Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ (‘How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?’) (p. 41)

In the short-term, Cicero has his finest hour, but it is not without backlash.

I am struck by the account of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9) where Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white (Mark goes so far as to claim whiter than any human process could make them) and which is immediately followed by Jesus declaring, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”—the Latin translation of Matthew’s and Luke’s version uses the form ‘quousque’—before exorcising a demon, a hostile and foreign element.

These Gospels were written circulating within the Roman empire (even if Matthew is traditionally considered to be primarily addressed to an audience of Jewish background). I think it likely that Jesus is here intentionally playing on Cicero’s famous phrase (among other references). I am also intrigued by how the early Christian community in Rome, and those who may have been interested in finding out more about this sect, may have been struck by these passages. In contrast to Cicero, who has the alleged conspirators put to death without trial, is Jesus a Catiline figure—the Roman writer Sallust had already put a version of Cicero’s words into Catiline’s mouth, ‘Quae quo usque tandem patiemini, o fortissimi viri?’ ‘How long will you go on putting up with this, my braves?’—and hence revolutionary?

 

Friday, March 17, 2023

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Dust and friendship

 

‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and remain faithful to Christ.’

Picture in your mind’s eye a room, with closed curtains or louvered blinds, a shaft of light breaking through, motes of dust suspended in the air, revealed to be dancing.

Dust is largely made up of tiny flakes of shed skin. Recently I bought a new pair of boots. They will be comfortable, but they take a little breaking-in, especially around the top of the boot where the leather chaffs against my leg, scrubbing, sloughing off skin that falls down onto the side of my boot. Bending to tie the laces, I notice this light dust on the darker leather.

Jesus would send his disciples ahead of him, to every village he intended to go to, to seek out lodgings on the way. He told them what to do if they found a welcome. And what to do if they did not: shake the dust off their feet as a testimony (witness, evidence, proof) against the people of that village.

Except that in both Mark’s account and Luke’s, the ‘against’ is supplied by context. Mark writes eis (to, into, about, against, among) martyrion autois (Mark 6:11). Luke writes eis martyrion ep’ (on, upon) autous (Luke 9:5) and kai ton koniorton ton kollēthenta hemin ek tēs poleōs hymōn eis tous podas apomassometha hymin: even the dust that has cleaved-us-together us from-within your city to the feet we wipe off you (Luke 10:11).

Given the context, it is entirely right to translate this wiping off the dust as a response to the absence of welcome. But because the negative must be supplied by context; because the words can be translated positively in a different context; and because Jesus hints at dust as a sign of cleaving together in friendship—the same thought behind ‘therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh, Genesis 2:24—we can surely imagine this action symbolising all partings. That an action that is a sign of judgement in one context might be a sign of blessing in another.

When we spend time in fellowship together, sharing our lives with one another, breaking bread, we inevitably build up forensic evidence that witnesses to our relationship: my dust cleaves to you, and your dust to me. And when the time comes to move on, from one place of welcome to the next, we might do so wiping against one another (in my own culture, that might be a handshake, or a hug, unlikely the rubbing of feet against each other) and blessing one another: though we are apart, may my dust that still clings to you and your dust that still clings to me bear witness; though we are apart, for a while, we are not forgotten to each other: may God bless you and keep you, until we meet again.

As I prepare to go off on a three-month sabbatical, I am thinking about the dust that clings.

 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Suffering

 

There is so much suffering to be found in the readings set for Evening Prayer this Sunday before Lent, 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Matthew 17:9-23. In the first, Elisha is weighed down by the knowledge that his master, Elijah, will be taken from him this day. Elisha had walked away from his family inheritance to become the great prophet’s apprentice, to be with him and learn from him, and now the Lord God was about to take Elijah from the face of the earth. As they make one last visit to the prophetic communities Elijah has mentored, those present take Elisha aside and enquire as to whether he is aware of what is about to take place. This must surely add to his burden: do the prophets see him only as Elijah’s servant, and not a prophet like them? His parting request to Elijah is that he be recognised as his heir, his successor. Yet, the company of prophets is also suffering, not only the loss of their mentor too, but also wanting to make everything better for Elisha, and knowing that they cannot, that there is nothing they can do to prevent this parting from happening.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus is approached by a father who is in distress over his son. The father describes him as a lunatic, who falls into fire or water with abandon. He had asked Jesus’ disciples to cure him, but they had not been able to do so. Jesus is distressed by the situation. The boy is not a lunatic, but afflicted by a demon (my English translation has the father claim he has epilepsy, with the unfortunate result that some see epilepsy as demonic). There is, to my knowledge, no cure for lunacy, but there is deliverance from oppression. This boy has suffered torment at the malicious hands of a demon, an angel who has rebelled against God and wars against the children God delights in. His suffering is multiplied by misunderstanding; and under this misunderstanding the father and the disciples also suffer their inability to take hold of the situation, to relieve everyone’s distress. Jesus, alone, stands on the promise of God through the prophet Isaiah, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ (Isaiah 43:2). He calls this mountain, this encounter with the living God, into his present valley of the shadow of death.

But in this same passage, Jesus speaks both of John the Baptist, who had been executed on a whim, and of his own impending torturous execution, and hope of being raised to life three days later. God does not shield us from all suffering (though I suspect that we are, indeed, shielded from some) but takes our suffering to himself in Jesus, that, ultimately, it may be transformed. That, ultimately, all that hurts or harms us will be utterly consumed in the fire of Love, until all that remains is a perfectly safe vulnerability, where we are seen, known, and loved, and see, know and love in return.

 

Transfiguration

 

One of my favourite Gospel passages for preaching from is Matthew 17.1-9,

‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

‘As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’’

Note what Jesus does, the action words: he took…he led…he touched.

The Greek word translated ‘took’ is paralambanó, to take or receive from. Jesus receives Peter, James and John.

The Greek word translated ‘led’ is anapheró, to offer up as a sacrifice. Jesus carries his friends and presents them to his heavenly Father.

The Greek word translated ‘touched’ is haptomai, to lay hold of and, by touching, to change or modify. This is the power of touch: think of a fearful animal calmed by a vet, or a distressed child held by a loving adult.

The pattern we see here in this passage is the pattern we rehearse Sunday by Sunday in the eucharist.

On a table near the door, sits the ciborium containing the wafers for Communion. There is, approximately, one for everyone. This is part of the gifts of the people, a symbolic representation of our offering ourselves to Jesus and being received by him. At a certain point, the mid-point of the service, the ciborium is carried up the nave to the altar, along with the flagon of wine, and the (financial) collection plate. We then pray over these, the person who presides taking the bread in their hands and asking the Holy Spirit to do something transformative, that this bread may be for us the body of Jesus. That we might encounter Jesus here. Neither the bread nor the one who consumes it are changed in their substance; yet both are transfigured, such that the true body of Christ in the Father’s glory is revealed. When the one administering Communion places a wafer on the outstretched palm of the communicant, saying, ‘the body of Christ,’ they speak to a mystery that encompasses unleavened bread and recognises Christ in one another, the giver who is now receiving back and the receiver who is now giving away. This is Mystery, not to be laid bare by the understanding of the mind, but entered ever more fully into, heart and soul and mind and bodily strength.

Peter wants to prolong the moment, the ecstatic experience. But Jesus intends to receive and lead them back down the mountain, and give them for the healing of the world. For its transfiguration, the revealing of God’s glory in the human. Ultimately, he is heading to Jerusalem, and to torturous death, and resurrection. Immediately, he is going to bring peace to an anxious father and his troubled son. But his friends have been overcome by fear at hearing the voice of the living God address them from the luminous cloud, and so pre-eminently Jesus declares, Do not be afraid. Only then does he send them out.

Christ is our peace, the one who reconciles us to God. The one who receives us, lifts us up, transforms our lives by his touch, and sends us out into the world to love and serve him.

 

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

In the beginning

 

This coming Sunday we return to Genesis chapter 1, the opening and foundational chapter of the whole library we call the Bible. If this were merely a pre-scientific explanation for how the world came into being, then we would be right to consign it to history. But in fact, it is an inspired account of how the world is, and what it is to be a human within it, and it has much more in common with neuroscience than with nineteenth-century scientific enquiry.

The human brain has evolved, under God’s hand, to only be able to consciously focus on one or two things at the same time. The unconscious brain is doing many things, to keep you alive; but the conscious brain can focus on only one, or two, things at once. Add a third, or fourth, fifth, sixth thing, and it can’t handle it. You can, in the short-term, though at cost; and in the long-term, those costs have long-lasting impact on our capacity to retain and integrate information, to nurture wisdom. Some will laugh, and say, that may be true for a male brain, and a wealthy, white male brain at that; women can’t afford to focus on only two things at once; women multitask. But in fact, the human brain can only consciously focus on one or two things at the same time. (This is why the best way to dominate people is to push them into trying to consciously focus on multiple things at the same time, for an extended period.)

Genesis 1 invites us to focus on one, or two, things only. There is so much going on, and not being overwhelmed by detail demanding our attention, we can let our imagination roam, can make connections we might never have noticed before. The story tells us something simple, something of essence, that God did, in successive aeons of time; and, from time to time, that it was good.

The story asks us to take our time, reflecting on this. To consider, and to enter, the dance of light and dark, day and night. The way in which light ebbs and flows like a tide, with its seasonal high- and low- water mark. To welcome the gift of this, and how it affects our bodies, and not ride roughshod over ourselves. Did you know that as it starts to grow dark, our brains release a burst of alertness? This was useful when we were hunter-gatherers, a cue to return home to safety before nightfall. It is still useful, if you live in a warzone, or in one of the many refugee camps for displaced persons around the world. But if you live in the relative safety of your own home, in a modern city, sitting all evening in front of your television and turning it off to go to bed, the drop in light will prompt your brain to release a burst of vigilance just as you need to relax into sleep…

In careful succession, the story asks us to attend to what it means to be human in the world. We do this best in community, and at a slow pace.

 

Unlearn, repent

 

Spurred by experience, both first-hand personal, and as parent, and as a priest and a pastor, I have an interest in neurodiversity and in trauma. I note that in these circles of shared lived experience, people speak of the attitudes, behaviours, and expectations they are unlearning. Here’s just one example, shared on social media by @ReachOutRecovery:

 


Things I’m Unlearning:

Societal standards of beauty and diet culture

Seeking external validation over self-assurance

Distracting from hard feelings instead of processing them

Making myself smaller to fit into social situations

Pretending like I’m fine instead of asking for support

Ignoring my own boundaries to please other people

Believing my self-worth depends on my productivity

Sacrificing my voice/beliefs to avoid conflict

Not celebrating my accomplishments because “others have better ones”

 

The biblical word for unlearning is repentance. And it would seem that repentance is an idea that is experiencing a renaissance, is understood—by another name—as of vital importance. The Church has much to offer her, not least grace—room, and power, to unlearn, that is from within but is external in its source, a gift to us, from others and ultimately from God—and forgiveness—the freedom to begin over again each time we return to the old patterns we long to unlearn. But the Church must offer our lived experience not as experts who Know Better but as those who also know what it is to be held captive by society and who long for deliverance and for a new society.

As a straight, white male, with a post-graduate education, painfully aware that I have privilege within a culture lacking in justice and mercy; and as a follower of Jesus, attentive to the call to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him; and aware of the call upon Christians to prefer each other over ourselves; I have learnt patterns of behaviour that have conformed myself to the expectations of others, in unhealthy ways. That go beyond preferring others to not voicing my own beliefs. Rather than laying my life down for others (the greatest expression of love), withholding my life (and, thus, my ability to love others authentically). Trying—and inevitably failing—to be what other people want me to be, instead of who God has made me to be, including through the redeeming of trauma.

Things I need to unlearn, or repent of, include:

Saying ‘yes,’ or ‘that’s fine,’ to people when I should say e.g. ‘I can’t do that, for these reasons; I can offer you this instead.’

Keeping quiet instead of naming my truth, not as the Definitive word that carries more weight than yours, but as a piece of the jigsaw that is missing until I share it, a part of the body denied to the body, disabling you as well as me.

Using anger as a weapon to wound people with words, rather than a prompt to identify and address injustice.

Being both too undisciplined (I eat too much white bread, and sugar) and too harsh (exercising without pleasure, rather than resting so the pleasure might return) with my body.

Finishing other people’s sentences, rather than listening to the end, and then some before responding. (An introvert attempting to process extrovertly among extraverts.)

There are, I am sure, other things I need to unlearn, or repent of. And these are not because I am a bad person; they are because I am a person, and unlearning and learning are life skills, for life.

What are you unlearning? What has helped you?

 

Church

 

The Church is the family of those who recognise Jesus as the one sent by God to save his people, wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. The Church, then, was not born at Pentecost, but when John the Baptist leapt in recognition when he and his cousin Jesus were still carried in their mothers’ wombs. In the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, the God-bearer (theotokos) and the Church-bearer (matriarch of the Church). With two expectant women, and a moment most would consider inconceivable. This is where the Church begins. It is still how local churches often begin.

 

Sunday, February 05, 2023

The salt of the earth

 

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.’

Matthew 5:13

Why is salt salty? Salt is salty because it is the nature of salt to be salty. Moreover, as Christians, we would say that it is the nature of salt to be salty because God made it so, because God willed it so.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And when all was ready, God scooped a handful of earth; shaped it between inquisitive, purposeful fingers; breathed Life into it: and so, humankind was born. In the fullness of time, God chose to become one of us, in Jesus: the air of the heavens making itself at home in the earth of the earth.

And Jesus said, to those who followed him, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ Now, there are two kinds of salt: there is sea salt, produced by evaporation; and there is rock salt, produced by mining. And you, Jesus said, are salt of the earth, rock salt. Salt found hidden in the ground.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?’

For my young-adult children’s generation, ‘salty’ means getting upset with someone for no good reason. Salty, not in the sense of adding seasoning that brings out flavour, but in the sense of overwhelming other flavours. Too much salt, rather than too little. Of late, I am aware of becoming ‘salty’ rather than salt-like. It is a good indication that I need to take some time out, to come away with Jesus from the many, insatiable demands on my time.

When very young children find themselves overwhelmed, we say that they are beside themselves. That is, there is a gap between who they are and where they are. They need time out, not sent away on their own as a punishment, but simply waiting in the near presence of a loving parent, until they come back to themselves. As adults, we learn other ‘coping mechanisms,’ some of which can be quite unhealthy, but we still find ourselves, at times, overwhelmed.

In conversation with my bishop and my archdeacon, I have very graciously been given the opportunity to bring a sabbatical, planned for 2024, forward a year. I will now be taking a sabbatical, for three months, from the start of March. Other people will come alongside to carry my responsibilities, so that I might have an extended opportunity to return to myself, to my true self, which is hidden in Christ Jesus. To journey into the unseen places, to mine salt from the wounds of Christ, that my salty-ness might be laid to rest in the ground, and my saltiness might be resurrected.

And though not everyone gets a sabbatical, and not everyone needs one at this present time, we all need to make time to return to ourselves by returning to our true source.

 

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Repent

 

One of Jesus’ habitual practices is to send his friends ahead of him, to wherever he is going. We see this on the last day before he is killed, when he sends two of his friends ahead to prepare the Passover meal he will share with his disciples. We see it earlier in the Gospels, when he sends first the Twelve and then a much larger group of his followers to go before him to all the places he was heading to, to prepare the community for his arrival. In Mark 6:7-13 we read, ‘So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.’

To repent means to turn around. It can refer to turning away from something, or turning towards something. Specifically, to turning from sin—the habitual patterns and practices of our words, thoughts and actions that are poisonous to us, and others—and turning to Christ. What I love about Jesus’ friends going ahead of him to a place and proclaiming that the people they find there should repent, is the image of them saying, ‘Look, back down the road we have arrived on: see, Jesus is coming!’

Sometimes, the repentance we need is to turn back to ourselves. We are surely all familiar with the image of a small child having a tantrum. They do so, not because they are being naughty, but because they are overwhelmed. We say, they are beside themselves. That’s an odd, but incredibly perceptive, phrase. And it doesn’t only apply to toddlers. Whenever we are overwhelmed, by anxiety, or grief, we may find ourselves beside ourselves, at a lesser or greater distance, needing to turn back to ourselves. To our true self, a beloved child of God.

And the image that comes to mind is of Jesus coming to meet us, to sit with us, to say, ‘My child. That is A Lot. I’m so very sorry.’ Not offering us platitudes, as so many do when they are beside themselves with worry about what to say, or be. No ‘Cheer up. It might never happen!’—so often, the thing that has overwhelmed us has already happened, and cannot be undone. No attempt to fix our problem for us. Simply his effective Prescence, as Comforter and Healer.

Sometimes, we need someone, one of Jesus’ friends, who will put their arm around our shoulder, gently help us turn around, and say, ‘Look! Here He comes!’

And sometimes, secure in the knowledge of that love, we get to be the friends who, in joyful expectation, get to proclaim, Repent!

 

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Feast of the Epiphany 2023

 

I preached off-the-cuff today, without a written sermon. But here are some notes written up after the event…

 

Friday, January 06, 2023

Epiphany, part 3

 

[iii] a myrrh-mur, rising

Lectionary readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

I don’t know what darkness you are journeying through today. Some of you have let me in enough to give me a glimpse, but I cannot experience your darkness as you experience it; nor you, mine. I do know that some of the darkness, at least, is holy. Bereavement, grief, is holy. I know, also, that there is darkness in your life that is the culmination of the sin of the world, that awareness that the days we are living in are lacking in justice and mercy; and I am reminded, again, that this present darkness is passing away. Until it does, stand still, breathe deep and slowly, and watch the dawn. Allow your heart to thrill and rejoice, for Jesus is the omega and the alpha, the End, and the new Beginning.

I don’t know what darkness you will journey through in the year ahead, but I know that Jesus is the brightness of your dawn. And I sense that he would have me offer to anoint you with myrrh [oil of Chrism], for, with the Magi, traditionally known as kings, all those who kneel before the Christ-child in adoration are anointed kings and queens, crowned with the glory of the Lord. Living promises of the dawn that is breaking.

 

Epiphany, part 2

 

[ii] if I may be frank(incense) with you

Lectionary readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

Our reading from Isaiah speaks of thick darkness and of dawning glory, and with it the promise, ‘Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ – a promise experienced by the Magi when they reached the goal of their longing, and ‘they were overwhelmed with joy.’ Isaiah cries out ‘Rise! Shine! Become light, participating in the glory of Yahweh. Though, to rise, the magi must first fall on their knees in adoration. And before that, they must journey through darkness, deep and thick, the darkness where God dwells, hidden from sight, requiring of us that we walk by faith. The thick darkness belongs to God as much as the glorious sunrise.

In this Season of Epiphany, a surprising revelation, we are invited once again to journey with the Magi, through the dark. That is, we are already on a journey through the dark, and we are invited to attend to it, to enter it more fully, to name it for what it is. To give a name, also, to the end of our searching. Every person you have ever met or will ever meet is searching in the dark. And, ultimately, whether they know it or not, whether they can name it or not, what they are searching for is God-with-us, in the human face of Jesus. God, come to us, as a baby, vulnerable, dependent on us. The light of his countenance overwhelms grown men, powerful men of means. Herod did not dare gaze upon the child.

What, then, of the darkness we travel through? The darkness within which God is simultaneously hidden from us and revealed to us? The Magi observe the night sky and discern meaning there, story that makes sense of the world. We journey through the darkness of our learning, our experience, of all that has become so familiar to our community that we no longer see it at all. The darkness is to us what water is to fish. But the Magi also appear in Jerusalem, having come so far on the strength of what they already know, knowing that they still haven’t found what they’re looking for, knowing that others might be able to help them, even if they don’t yet know that the very person whom they are asking will betray their trust. We must journey through the darkness of the very limits of our learning, our experience, from independence, through interdependence, to utter dependence on others, just like the infant Christ. Unless we journey through the darkness, until we are willing to do so, we will never find what we were searching for all along.

Looking through the darkness of history, through the centuries, by faith, Isaiah sees a multitude of camels bringing gold and frankincense, and in the clearer light of dawn Matthew is able also to see myrrh. An opening of treasure-chests. An opening of the life we have been given, to reveal before God what lies within: the seam of gold mined from the earth, metaphor for wisdom; the sap of a tree, its lifeblood surrendered in prayer; oil of anointing, kings and queens, and the dead. Wisdom, discovered in the dark, hard won by hard labour. The life of prayer, also learnt in the dark, its treasure surrendered to the one who has experienced the dark night of the soul, the awareness of God’s presence that comes only after awareness of God’s absence. The glory of being part of the people of God, the family of Jesus, dawn-bearers in a world longing for light.

 

Epiphany, part 1

 

[i] this is gold

Lectionary readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

Tou de Iēsou gennēthentos en Bēthleem tēs Ioudaias en hēmerais Hērōdou tou basileōs idou magoi apo anatolōn paregennonto eis Hierosolyma

Now Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea, in [the] days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from [the] east arrived in Jerusalem, (Matthew 2:1)

I don’t often offer you whole sentences in Greek, but there is a striking contrast here that is lost in our English translation: between ‘en hēmerais Hērōdou, in [the] days of Herod,’ and ‘magoi apo anatolōn, Magi from the east.’ Herod’s reign is described as the period from sunrise to sunset. That is, a rising to power, a period of brilliant glory, and a fading to a passing. The Magi are described as arriving from the rising of the sun, from the dawn, the light of a new day. The point is clear, certainly to Herod if not to us: Herod’s days are passing, a new day is dawning, its light already breaking the eastern horizon. Herod will fight it tooth and nail, but you cannot hold back the dawn.

Most English churches lie East-West. I live in a vicarage that lies East-West alongside such a church. In these days at the beginning of a new year, I stand on the half-landing and watch the sun rise over our neighbours’ homes. The sky passing from night into day, from darkest blues through electric blue, purple, vivid pink, gold, silver, palest baby blue. I stand, very still, breathe slowly and deeply, welcome the day.