Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Monday, April 28, 2014
The first question God asks of us as human beings is, Where are you?
This is not a question about location –
God is not asking for our Post Code so he can punch it into his Sat Nav and come over –
it is a question about being human –
Where are you, in relation to receiving yourself as gift, as a particular gift with a particular giftedness and given-ness, given to you for you, and for the world? Where are you, in relation to recognising these things about others? Where are you?
The first response of us as human beings is, Hiding – as much from ourselves as from one another and from God.
Hiding because we have become disconnected from our given-ness and giftedness, and, having become exposed to the vastness of possibility that lies open before God, we are overwhelmed, feel inadequate, lost.
And so God moves to help us step out from our hiding place, to find ourselves, the needle in the haystack.
This is expressed in the story of Abraham, the father of those who step out in faith that God might prove trustworthy.
God says, leave your country and your people and your father’s house and go, journey to the country I will show you.
In saying this, God is not saying that Abraham’s country and people and father’s house are bad. They are Abraham’s starting-point. They are the context(s) that has shaped Abraham so far, that have enabled him to respond to God at all. Indeed, his journey is a continuation of the journey he had already set out on with his father and his father’s household. But Abraham must journey beyond what he has known, and the security that it – in negative and positive ways – has given, if he is to inhabit his calling, his particular giftedness and given-ness.
The country into which he will journey is as much internal as external: as much a mapping of Abraham as it is the mapping of a patch of earth. And ultimately, God declares, this ‘land’ will not be possessed by Abraham but by his descendants. The internal land, as much as the external land: for Abraham is the father of faith; and, indeed, who we are called to be is for those who follow after us and not us alone.
It will turn out that the life God calls Abraham to is one of walking with God, in particular in the evenings or at nightfall. Which is in fact the very thing that Adam experienced before the hiding.
Where God asks once more, Where are you? – not because we are hiding but rather because we are journeying together.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
This is a first draft of next Sunday’s sermon. I’m publishing it early because I’d like to initiate a conversation around it, to hear the insights of others, particularly in my local setting, perhaps (not necessarily) around the questions at the end.
We are still in the Season of Easter, the season of getting to grips with what this life-out-of-death means – or rather, the season of life-out-of-death getting a grip on us. Today we find ourselves walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus, walking in the company of two disciples, part of the wider circle beyond the eleven apostles, walking from the highs and lows of recent days back towards the security of the familiar, of home. And as we walk, a fellow-traveller comes alongside us.
That in itself is also familiar. After all, if you are alone it is always safer to travel in proximity to others. Sitting on the Metro, taking in the people sat across from you – but not looking too closely, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable, so as not to attract confrontation. Glance up, and look away again. Slowly, though: too fast and you’ll look shifty. But you can’t help listening in to their conversation; laughing at the puzzling lines…
The man asks, ‘What are you discussing?’ Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? It’s on everybody’s lips.
The man listens. This thing they are discussing, they don’t really seem to understand. It is clear that Jesus is somehow important to them, but how following him relates to their life is harder to work out. They are familiar with certain stories, but the relevance eludes them.
The man listens. Hears them out, until their words run dry. Only then does he speak. And when he does, he shapes their history, their culture, around the person of Jesus. Not pulling out proof texts to argue a point-of-view, but showing how it all comes together in him. And more than that, showing them where they found a place within that story – “opening the scriptures to us,” they would later say; making room for us within his story.
And now it is time to part company. But it is getting late. If we are hungry, and tired, he must be too. As we reach the door to a house, we are invited in. However fragile their beliefs, there is openness here. The man accepts the invitation; and so shall we. Companionship – literally, the sharing of bread around the table. And as the man reaches out to take the bread, his wrists extend from within his sleeves. The pink rawness of newly-healed skin, not yet darkened by the sun.
And in this familiar action, our eyes are opened. The dramatic testimony of others – even women known well to them – was not enough. Neither was the most helpful Bible exposition ever given, even if it was deeply engaging. But in a simple act of hospitality shown towards a stranger, received with gratitude towards God and reciprocal service, a moment of revelation breaks in. Just a moment, mind you; and then he vanished from their sight. But a moment of revelation is all that is needed; is enough to respond to.
They thought that they had arrived at their destination for the night; but in response they get up and set out back to the very place they had walked away from, with new hope. Will we go too?
Some thoughts to ponder:
Are we learning to be a listener? If yes, what has proven helpful in this? Who might we ask, ‘What are you discussing?’
Are we open to change our plans for others? Are we learning to accept invitations? Who is open to us?
What is Jesus showing you? Where have your eyes been opened, perhaps through testimony, or teaching, or studying the Bible, or fellowship with others, or through simple everyday activities given a new light?
What are you going to do in response?
Sunday, April 20, 2014
This morning I want to tell you a story. An old, old story, written in an ancient book. As we open the book, the story begins – with [draw out] a handkerchief.
“Why are you weeping?” the man asks Mary.
Why is Mary weeping? Not because Jesus is dead. She has wept for that for forty hours straight, and, for now at least, her tears have run dry. No, Mary is not weeping because Jesus has died. These fresh tears are because someone has carried his body off, she knows not where.
It reminds me of the time when the Israelites were defeated in battle and the ark of the covenant was carried off by the Philistines…
[draw out a wooden box]
It reminds me of the time when the treasures from the temple and the royal palace in Jerusalem were carried off by the king of Babylon…
[draw out the gold rings]
It reminds me of the time when Jerusalem failed in rebelling against the Babylonians, fell, and the royal court was carried off into exile…
[draw out paper chain of people and then fold them together again]
When something or someone is carried off, it is as if defeat were not enough. As if there is something even worse. As if it were God’s way of saying, “I meant for that to happen. It didn’t just happen: it happened as my passing judgement on my people.” Adding insult to injury.
Most of all, it reminds me of the time when Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers. Reuben goes off, and when he returns, expecting to find Joseph in the pit, he discovers that the boy is no longer there. The other brothers have sold him to passing traders, [draw out play money] who carried him off to Egypt. Reuben is distraught.
Many, many years later, Joseph – now ruling Egypt on behalf of the Pharaoh – is reunited with his brothers, and tells them, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” God took hold of a heartless action…and from it wrought the saving of the Egyptian Empire, and the descendants of Abraham, from famine.
“Why are you weeping?” the man asks Mary. And then, once the reason is out in the open, he speaks her name. And in that moment, Mary knows that yes, God claims Jesus’ death, that it stands as an act of judgement. But that while men meant it for evil (so passing judgement on themselves), God meant it for good (passing a judgement in favour of life, out of death).
Even if the outworking of that plan might still lie years in the future.
A promise, if you will.
Perhaps that is why Easter is not a day, but a season lasting fifty days. Because Day One is full-to-bursting, with panic and adrenalin and trepidation and boldness and belief and failure to understand and despair and joy and trying-to-hold-on-too-tightly-in-case-it-all-falls-apart-again and fear and doubts and failing to recognise Jesus. Since the stone was removed the future is leaking into the present and the breach cannot be plugged. But it will take us fifty days a year, year after year, to learn how to live into this new reality.
[Close the book]
So, why are you weeping?
What hasn’t worked out the way you hoped as you have followed Jesus?
Where has your hope ended in defeat…only for something even worse to follow?
Sooner or later, we all find ourselves weeping with Mary.
But then he speaks our name.
And if the word spoken on Good Friday is, “It is finished!” the word spoken at sunrise on Easter morning is, “I’ve not finished yet…in fact, I’ve only just begun…”
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Why are the disciples’ feet dirty?
Because they have been following Jesus.
Disciples were those who ‘walked in the dust’ thrown up by their rabbi’s feet.
The disciples’ dirty feet are a sign of their being disciples.
Jesus is no longer with us in body. And we wear shoes. But we are called to be disciples who make disciples. So, whose footsteps are you following in, as you follow after Jesus?
And who is following you?
Who are you learning from in the way of faith? (It takes humility to let someone wash your feet.)
And who is learning from you in the way of faith? (It takes humility to wash the feet of others.)
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’
Luke 22:31-34 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.
Luke 22:54-62 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
It is incredibly brave of Peter to walk into the courtyard where Jesus is being tried, and remain there, hidden in plain sight. Repeatedly threatened with exposure, he stands by his story: I am not with the prisoner. As Jesus predicts, and to Peter’s surprise, Peter denies knowing him. But this is not a failure of faith. It has more in common with the man who befriends SS officers in order to secure freedom for Jews.
The Accuser has demanded to sift Peter and the others like wheat, no doubt hoping to scatter each of them into broken pieces. If Jesus has consented to this demand, it is because he knows that sifting wheat scatters only the chaff – the outward shell - and not the grain itself. Not only that, but Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith may not fail – and Jesus’ expectation is that what is asked for in faith will be received.
Peter’s denial of Jesus is not a failure of faith. It is something very different, something the Accuser never thought of. It is the displacement of his ego – that shrill, insecure voice that tells us we are utterly invincible, or utterly worthless. And it is also the displacement of his superego – the voice of our internal parent, or teacher, or policeman, who is forever telling us off for some misdemeanour or disappointing action.
Peter’s faith does not fail him. But his ego is displaced: he might just about manage to hold his nerve three times, but he knows he can’t hold out forever under such pressure. And his superego is displaced too: that voice that tells him that really he deserves imprisonment and death, for having let Jesus down.
As Richard Rohr points out, only prayer – our choice; though in this case, Jesus’ choice; and the choice of the Holy Spirit within us at all times – and suffering – those circumstances where we do not have agency, or control; by definition, not our choice – are together enough to displace the ego and the superego.
When Jesus turns and looks at Peter, he sees…Peter. The husk has been blown away. The grain, freed from the husk, remains, intact. Intact, but newly exposed, vulnerable.
Peter weeps, bitterly. This necessary process, by which Jesus works to achieve the very opposite of what the Accuser intends, is nonetheless a painful one. The husk may have no nutritional value, but it has served to protect the grain until it is ripe. After all, God made the husk as well as the grain within. When we are sifted, we will grieve the loss of the husk, before we can give our true selves for our brothers and sisters.
So when Jesus next meets Peter, on the beach, it is not to restore what has been lost, but to set him off on a new journey…
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
For this series of three Stations along The Way of the Cross I have chosen to deface several Bibles. I recognise that for some this may be emotionally hard to witness, perhaps even offensive; but my hope is that by doing so we might enter into what may be familiar, caught off guard and so open to a transforming encounter with Jesus.
Station Four: Peter denies Jesus
According to tradition, the Gospel According to Mark is Peter’s last will and testament, dictated to Mark in Rome as Peter awaited his execution. In order to explore Peter’s denial of Jesus, I have redacted Mark’s Gospel, blacking out any record of Peter or of any episode by which he might be identified. This in itself erases several others – Peter’s mother-in-law, for example, the only person whose ministry towards Jesus is equated to that of the angels. And because the paper is thin and the marker toxic, several other passages become regrettable collateral damage.
There are two copies: one at the Station itself, where you might like to kneel in turn; and one to pass around for those who are less mobile. As in silence we turn the pages, and find memories we thought we knew lost, we might reflect on how our own inevitable denials impact not only Jesus but those in whose company we have followed him. But as we do so, ponder this:
Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus will build his Church. And so Peter’s story is foundational for the ongoing story of the Church. The Church is that body corporate who, by word and deed, repeatedly and vehemently deny being associated with Christ … and yet it is this same body corporate that is restored and re-commissioned by the risen Jesus, who takes our failings and weaves them into God’s will.
At times we might look at the Church of which we are a part and shake our heads in disbelief that it could speak and act in such a way we think so clearly refuses to stand with Jesus and be counted. And yet it is this very reality – however awkward, however painful to watch, however painful to bear when our ears are opened – that evidences that we are the Church at all.
Only those who have stood by the charcoal fire in the courtyard of denial go on to sit by the charcoal fire on the beach of new beginnings.
Station Five: Jesus judged by Pilate
Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye to it.” (Matthew 27:24). In order to explore Pilate’s dilemma, I have set a Bible, open at this page, in a basin, into which I now pour water.
You are invited to come forward and pour more water into the basin, drenching, drowning the testimony, as we look on. And, whether we step forward and pour or remain seated, we might reflect on those times when we have done the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons. But as we do so, ponder this:
Jesus is judged by Pilate, and his judgement is: ‘this [is a] righteous man.’ Pilate distances himself from the opinions, the underlying anxieties, and the resulting actions of others. He will not share in their headlong pursuits. Indeed, not only will he do the right thing, but he will be seen to do the right thing: others will have to admit that he does not share in their guilt. And yet the irony that in rightly taking a stand against injustice Pilate ensures that he will bear their blame, immortalised within the Creed. Church, do we not face the same dilemma?
Pilate excuses himself in the face of a rising tumult, presented with a multitude. Jesus stilled the wind and waves with a word of true authority; and had compassion on the multitudes, healing their sick, feeding the hungry. Pilate makes sure his hands are clean; Jesus gets his dirty – bloody, if necessary. Yet in John’s Gospel we are shown that Jesus sees this drowning man as exercising power given him by God.
Church, we are Pilate too. For we are chosen, we are sent – out of our depth, beyond our ability to make a difference. Let us openly pour out our inability to prevail. The very place we find we have prevailed nothing, there God has room to work to save.
Station Six: Jesus scourged and crowned with thorns
The base-level Roman punishment for criminals was a scourging, stripped to the waist, tied to a post, and given thirty-nine lashes of a whip of many leather tails, embedded with bone, stones, metal pieces. Designed to rip a back raw, to sap a man’s spirit, to take a long time to recover from – and even then, to leave deep scars as a reminder. In order to explore this excruciating treatment, I invite you to count with me to thirty-nine as I rip through thirty-nine pages of the Gospels. And then in the silence that follows, you might take up a shred of paper and arrange them in a circle on the floor, a crown of thorns.
As we watch, count, gather, weave, we might reflect on those times when we have failed to understand why we have done what we have done, or fought to keep the truth from ourselves. But as we do so, ponder this:
I wonder why Pilate has Jesus scourged? On the one hand, he believes Jesus to be innocent, undeserving of any punishment. On the other, he has already handed Jesus over to be crucified, a punishment far worse than scourging. Perhaps he hopes that the blood loss will satisfy the crowd, or shock them into stepping back from the brink. Perhaps he hopes the blood loss will sufficiently weaken Jesus as to spare him an overly-prolonged agony on the scaffold? Perhaps it is a message to the prisoner he is forced to release: ‘this is but a temporary reprise’? Perhaps it is a show of strength by a man who has just been forced to do something very much against his will – a message to the crowd suggesting that they might think twice before trying this trick again, lest they find themselves in Jesus’ place?
The governor’s soldiers take things further, adding humiliation to punishment. Perhaps they must caricature the prisoner in their own eyes in order to bear what they must do: you have to laugh, or else you’d cry. Perhaps the noblest soldier, in a cauldron of fear, in the heat of the moment – or of enough charged moments - becomes a war criminal? Perhaps they are just following orders. It is a mockery of worship, a self-mockery of being human, created to represent and delight in God.
We are Peter. We are Pilate. We are this band of brothers. And if at times we are hidden from ourselves by darkness, Jesus is nonetheless in our midst, as king. Our falseness does not negate his identity. Of all present, the one who is outwardly bound is most free. And by his wounds, we are healed – if we allow the Wounded One to wound us, to expertly lay our soul bare, in order that we might be made whole. In order that our false self should die, and our true self might rise with him.
Monday, April 14, 2014
A stream of humanity, pouring into Jerusalem. Swelling her narrow streets to bursting point. Travelling from North, South, East, West: Jews, Jewish diaspora, God-fearing Gentiles. Coming to celebrate a time some two millennia before, when God had raised up Moses to lead another stream of humanity out of slavery in Egypt, out to be a people, to be God’s people. Like water in the wilderness following a flash flood, they coursed this way and that, carving channels, forming pools, changing the landscape. And this moment of release comes every spring. So many people. Pick-pocket heaven. Some of them really believe those old stories are true. Some want to believe; believe on their best days, their best moments – which might also be their worst days, their worst moments. Some recognise the stories as foundational for their national identity, if not anything closer to home. Some are there for the party, an escape from the drudgery of everyday life, an adventure with the promise of different rules applying: What happens in Jerusalem stays in Jerusalem. Some are there because it is expected of them, though they’d rather not be. Please take the time to indicate your motive [leaving room for ‘All of the Above Apply’]. And animals, everywhere. Beasts of burden, carrying their loads, resistant in this frightening crowd. Herds and flocks for sacrifice, aware, as herd animals are, that this will not end well for them. Emptying their bowels freely. Emptying their veins; with innocent eyes that ask, why have you betrayed me? Noise. Bustle. Traders calling out. A mother lifting her voice, straining her ears for the cry of her child, swept from her by the crowd. Pilgrims setting up their makeshift camps on the side of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple. At night, the light of fires, and torches; the sound on song, laughter, raucous shouting; the furtive sounds of less-than-tender trysts. So many memories, the kind that tie communities together. Do you remember the time when…? And those here for the first time, writing the first page in a new collection. Religious leaders, enjoying their moment in the spotlight, stressing about logistics, irritable over lack of appreciation; conflicting emotions charging the atmosphere; pressure building in their temples. Soldiers representing an international peace-keeping force standing at the ready, check points at the flash points, reinforcements shipped in from the coast. Delicate diplomacy between the Roman Governor and the local king, who must be allowed to look as if he rules here, but must not be allowed to think he does: a knife-edge, a tight-rope, a conjuring trick, to entertain the crowds, distract and persuade them one way or another. Romans are more comfortable with aqueducts than wadis – and well-experienced at building them, literally and metaphorically. Still they stream in, into the maze, through cracks and in and out of hidden corners of the city, of the mind, the heart, the soul. It is intoxicating, disorienting, cup after cup, drank in comradeship but not without a bitter aftertaste, each moment simultaneously filling and draining – as if anything is possible; as if what takes place is inevitable. Everything moving faster than the human eye; everything slowing, stretched out, suspended in time, frame-by-frame. Can you spot you in the crowd? Now I see me, now I don’t. You don’t? There is still time, room for another. Stream in, to be here.