Thursday, January 10, 2013
A sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21, 22
To be human is to tell stories. And why do we tell stories? Not as momentary escapes from our lives, but in order to teach us how to live.
At the moment, there are three big films showing in cinemas:
Lincoln is based on the historical person of Abraham Lincoln;
Les Miserables is a fictional tale set against an historical backdrop, revolutionary France;
The Hobbit (part 1: An Unexpected Journey) is pure fiction, drawing on northern European mythology;
three different kinds of story, but with common threads.
Lincoln deals with the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, before he was assassinated. It focuses on his efforts to secure the passing of the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery, before the Civil War comes to an end. This was by no means guaranteed, as others believed that priority must be given to ending the war, whereas Lincoln believed that unless the issue of slavery was settled first, all could be lost. In many ways, the work of those final months was what Lincoln’s whole life up to that point had been preparing him for.
Les Mis follows the misadventures of Jean Valjean, and others, caught up in the struggle between law and grace, injustice and freedom, violence and peace. It is often described as a story of redemption, painted on a huge canvas, in novel, musical and now cinematic form.
The Hobbit tells of the adventures of the unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins, a home-loving hobbit drawn into a classic quest by his friend Gandalf, overcoming dangers and disagreements, and eventually returning home...to discover that neither home nor hero are quite as they were before. It is worth remembering that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, and its sequel The Lord of the Rings, in the build-up to, course of, and aftermath of the Second World War, when ordinary men and women needed to go on just such a journey.
We tell stories, and the stories tell us the same thing over and over: life is made up of two main parts, each with their own concerns and tasks.
The first part of life is concerned with creating a structure that will enable us to live life. This is where we are equipped by education, where some are gifted inherited security, where we form friendships and alliances, where some marry and create a new family.
The second part of life – which may be far shorter – is concerned with actually living the life we were, uniquely, made for: that no one else can live in our place.
The dilemma is this: we need a strong structure in order to face the later challenges, but the more comfortable it is, the less likely we are to step out into the unknown. That is why we must be forced – as Abraham Lincoln was by the impending end of the Civil War – or even tricked – as Bilbo is tricked by Gandalf; as Jean Valjean is tricked by the Bishop of Digne – into such a journey of discovery.
To be honest, whether oppressed by poverty and war or wealth and comfort, the concerns of the first part of life are as much as most people engage with. In our society, the mid-life crisis, which is meant to be an invitation to step out of the first half of life into the second, is seen as an opportunity to go back and re-do the first half, to re-invent ourselves instead of discover our true identity.
John the Baptist spoke about one who would separate the wheat from the chaff, storing the wheat in barns and burning the chaff in fire. We are mistaken to believe that this is a separating out of bad from good. Chaff surrounds the grain, and protects it, but has no nutritional benefit. The chaff must be removed – by the difficult process of winnowing. Then the grain is revealed. The chaff is burnt. The grain, of course, will be crushed and kneaded into dough and also put on the fire, to be turned into bread. This is not a story about judgement, but about the process by which our hidden identity is first revealed and then transformed into something else.
I love this passage, the first seven verses of Isaiah 43. Listen to how they begin: the Lord created you, O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel. Listen how they end: in sons and daughters, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. First created; then formed. First created as Jacob; then formed into Israel. This is a process of redemption. It is a difficult and dangerous process, but one through which God promises to be with us and save us: because of his love for us, we are invited not to be afraid.
Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, one of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. You can read his story in Genesis 25-50. He wrestled with his brother Esau in the womb. When Rebekah asked God why, he told her “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” Esau was born first, with Jacob grasping his heel: and so he was called ‘he grasps the heel’ or ‘he deceives’...and he lives up to his name, first cheating Esau out of his birthright, then deceiving his father Isaac in order to receive the blessing that should have been Esau’s, before running for his life. On his journey, God meets him in a dream, and reveals to Jacob his determined purpose, to be with him and bring him back home and bless all peoples through his descendents.
But Jacob is alone, not yet ready to move into the second-half of life. He goes to his uncle Laban, and each tries to get the upper hand over the other by deceit, until Jacob must run away again. By now he has a large family, by four women, sons who will become the fathers of tribes. Jacob runs, with angry Laban behind him and Esau – last seen very angry – in front of him.
God comes to him again by night, and this time they wrestle, all night long. Wrestle, as Jacob has done his whole life, until, unable to overpower him, God...cheats, dislocating Jacob’s hip. And as the dawn breaks, Jacob is given a new name by God: Israel, the one who struggles with God; the one who wrestles and will not let go until God blesses him. He will still be known as Jacob – indeed, he is taken up into the name by which God reveals himself, as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – but he now limps into fruitfulness, out of the life he had known and into the long and difficult process by which God brought together all the division Jacob had created, starting with reconciliation with Esau, ending with his sons reconciled before Joseph’s Egyptian throne...
God takes what he has created – Jacob – and forms his creation – into Israel – through waters and fire, through winnowing, gathering, burning; the process of redemption, not discarding and starting over again but taking what is, and transforming it into what waits hidden within: to reveal our true identity, and fulfil our true purpose.
Jesus enters into the water of the river Jordan. He knows that he must leave the security of his home, his family, his trade, and step out on a journey that will lead to his death. He will return from death: the same, and yet not the same: having fulfilled the purpose for which he was given to live among us. But the journey lies ahead of him, exactly what will transpire unknown. To begin, he needs to hear the voice of God:
“I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you...when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned...you are precious and honoured in my sight, and...I love you...Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring you children from the east...the west...the north...the south...everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
That includes you, and me. Created and formed. You see, being created is only half of the story. We need to be formed. It is a perilous process, one which many of us will avoid at all costs. That is not what God wants for you. Do not be afraid.
We are in the season of Epiphany, of learning to see signs of God being at work in the world, involved in our lives. What is the epiphany for you, today?
Perhaps, in the place of force or trickery, it is the revelation that you need to stop resisting and step out from the familiar into the unknown, trusting your steps to the one who loves you and calls you by name?
Perhaps, facing waters or fire, in the disorientation of winnowing and burning, it is the revelation that God is with you, that you are precious to him?
Without epiphanies, our lives remain a mystery to us: comfort a velvet prison cell, disruption unintelligible. Our lives may never be portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, but we have been cast in the greatest story ever told...
Saturday, January 05, 2013
January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember the Magi who journeyed to find the infant Jesus – Matthew’s account suggests that he would have been around two years old by the time they arrived; hence a little distance from the shepherds who visited Jesus when he was hours old. If the shepherds represent Jesus’ own people, and also the marginalised, the presence of the Magi broadens the significance of the incarnation, to include the gentiles and also those with privilege: first the Jews, but then all; first the marginalised, but then all.
The Gospel account tells us very little about the Magi. We don’t know their names, where they came from, how many there were; we know they brought three kinds of gift – gold, incense, myrrh – but we don’t know in what volume. Their cameo has intrigued people’s imaginations for centuries, has become a gift-box in which to carry our own gifts to Jesus, and down the years many stories have been told, building into traditional or familiar doors through which we might enter-into the story ourselves.
Within European tradition, the Magi became three figures (working backward from three gifts), and were given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. No-one believes that these were their actual names; but then very often ‘famous’ people are ascribed nick-names and stories by others looking back – consider the myth of Honest Abe that grew from Abraham Lincoln – and there are also hints that God holds a name for us – our real name – in heaven.
Within European tradition, on the Feast of Epiphany Christians write C + M + B + the year (in this case, 2013), in chalk, on the door of their home. This code has a double-meaning. It stands for Caspar and Melchior and Balthasar, but also for Christus mansionem benedicat, or May Christ bless this home (the ‘+’ also doubles for ‘plus’ and for the cross). And until the chalk fades or is washed off, it is a daily reminder to seek and to dwell in and to share the blessings of Christ: his peace, his joy, his love, his provision, his companionship, his comfort, his generosity, his hospitality...
Thursday, January 03, 2013
A new leg is about to be run, the evening of 5 January being the hand-over box between Christmas and Epiphany. I have written about Epiphany – short poems, longer reflections – in past years, with a link on the sidebar to the right or via ‘Worship’ on the page menu along the top of this blog.
An epiphany can be described as a moment of revelation, of what was unclear coming into sharp(er) focus. I suggest that the reason we need an epiphany of God with us is not because God is so distant, but because God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
When I kiss my wife, my children, my parents, my friends, there is a moment when they become too close to see. A kiss is an act of trust – and when we have a crisis of trust, those who mean to kiss bump noses instead. (That is why betrayal by a kiss is so charged.) When we kiss in greeting, we may close our eyes momentarily, as a reflex action, because the image is out of focus. When we kiss more intimately, we may close our eyes intentionally because we are abandoning ourselves to trust, and that trust is pleasurable. But after the kiss, we step back, and then we can study our friend or beloved, look into their eyes and acknowledge them as precious gift.
God is so close as to be hidden from us, even as we are, for the most part, hidden from ourselves. Where is God in our joy? Where is God in our grief? Where is God in the mundane routines of our lives?
In a previous Epiphany, I observed that in the Bible, those who have an epiphany of God are either searching (the Magi, Simeon, Anna, all in stories associated with Epiphany) or are running away (Jacob, Moses, Jonah; perhaps Paul on the road to Damascus is searching and running away at the same time). Where is God in our hiding from God, in our running from God, in our habitual attempts to assert independence from God which are called sin?
The Season of Epiphany is an annual invitation to step back and so allow God to come into focus, to learn how to see God – and then to step forward again, in trust.
The classic image of Epiphany is of the Magi following the bright star (possibly an alignment of planets), trying to interpret its significance. It is perhaps a mistake to believe that they travelled (only) by night, but they would have used darkness to navigate their route. And their attempts – which are honoured by God – have unintended consequences of darkness for people they had never met.
The particular darkness in our hearts conceals/contains a particular revelation of God, and monastic tradition advises that we do not seek to be rid of our besetting sins until we have first learnt from them. Or, indeed, perhaps those sins against us we are called to forgive, and can let go of fully only once we have experienced an epiphany of God in those places.
Jacob is a sleight-of-hand deceiver, which is to long after certainty. And God is in that very place, meeting him first in two places at once (how can he appear to be at both the top and the bottom of the ladder simultaneously?) and later as a slippery, cheating wrestler, so that, having experienced his epiphany Jacob is set free to trust and to be trusting – to the extent that even when Jacob is himself deceived, God’s faithfulness is made manifest.
Moses is tormented by the need to be significant. He has gone from being a tall tree to being a thorn bush, desert scrub, condemned by the gods to be endlessly burnt but never consumed, in punishment for killing one of their slaves. And God is there, so that having experienced his epiphany Moses is set free to be a man known as the friend of God – not striven for, just free to allow God to come into focus.
Jonah is swallowed-up by purity, acutely aware that he is surrounded by impure people. And God is in that place, so that when he has experienced his epiphany Jonah is set free from anally-retentive obsession into a dirty dedication to God that embraces a Jew in the mess of the belly of a big fish – seaweed and vomit – and Gentiles in the mess of sackcloth and ashes.
Like Cain before him, Paul’s murderous anger betrays his fear of being rejected by God. And God is in that very place, so that having experienced an epiphany of Christ, Paul is set free into a radical inclusivity: Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, all are welcomed by God.
As we step from 2012 into 2013, with the cultural pressure to detoxify, we also step from Christmas into Epiphany. I wonder what epiphany awaits us, not to purge but to transform, not to make us more acceptable to God but to enable us to see the One who has already met us – in Christmas – with a kiss...?
Wednesday, January 02, 2013
Here is the next instalment in what I am writing – this paper on discipling prophets. (I think there will now be a much longer gap until the next paper in the series.)
One of the things that is hinted at throughout, but which I don’t explicitly state (and perhaps need to in a revision) is this reason why we need prophetic intelligence:
We live in a society where certain voices – both for and against religious faith – are insisting that only the literal form of ‘truth’ (and, in fact, only a particular kind of literal: what is measurable) is ‘real’ truth, or at least it is the highest form of truth. This ought to be patently nonsense to anyone who has ever read a novel or been moved by music – but sadly is not – and what is most ridiculous of all about it is that it renders everything produced by humanity prior to the Modern Era as untrue. What is literally true is true, of course: but it is the lowest and most empty form of truth, not the pinnacle. This is why we need the storyteller, the songwriter, the artist, to help us to explore the significance of the life we have learnt to measure but failed to interpret, to the extent that we can create for ourselves anything we want but fail to share with our brothers and sisters...