The Other Half of Christmas – Ascension Sunday, 28 June 2017
Everyone loves Christmas. It’s the presents time when we remember the baby Jesus.
Well, believe it or not, today, the feast of the Ascension, is the other half. It all has to do with how we understand Jesus living as one of us, what we call the incarnation.
Now, Christmas seems reasonably easy. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. But consider what this simple thing means. It means that God is born as human: that God has chosen to limit Godself and live in the confines of being a human being, with all its restrictions of time and space, and all its discomforts.
We say that Jesus became human in all things but sin. By this we mean that God became one of us, God choose to become human, and took on all our problems and joys, except he did not sin. The birth in Bethlehem is God accepting our humanity.
Now, Ascension is the completion of this task. Ascension is when Our Lord, as we put it, goes back into heaven. It’s easy to be distracted by some vision of a supernatural elevator to a higher plane, but that’s not what is intended. Heaven, earth and hell are not some sort of fancy tiered cake. By heaven we mean the full presence of God in a way that is hidden from us living in the world. By hell we mean the reverse, a place where God is completely absent. By entering into heaven Our Lord re-enters his full communion with the Father and the holy Sprit, but also takes the humanity of his life with him.
Christmas is God entering our lives: Ascension is God accepting our humanity totally.
This means that Our Lord Jesus has joined us into a new intimacy with God. We will always find space with God. Heaven is being with Jesus. In Jesus, we find our future and present hope, to life fully in the love of God.
Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead to destroy the boundaries that hemmed us in as animals. By taking us into God in his Ascension Our Lord Jesus resolves the contradictions of human life. It is a feast that shows us that heaven and earth, possession and sacrifice, peace and weariness are not in contradiction: we see all of this in Jesus, and he takes this all into himself. It is not enough that our existence is entirely and sincerely turned to heaven, then to earth and then again to heaven. Our going to heaven must be gradually completed, in a way such that our living on earth reveals that of heaven. Our living on earth gradually arises in prayer of desire, and this prayer of desire is found in adoration. It is not enough for our lives to be entirely and sincerely peace, then struggle and then peace again: our peace must be like the strength that we have accumulated for our effort, and the effort like a spiral of peace.
There are three things we can contemplate this week from the Ascension. The first is that Our Lord gave his disciples memories. They remembered what he taught them and how he had been with them and how he was now with them in heaven. Memories for a Christian are important. We need those good memories when the hard times come. We need the memories of the presence of God, those special moments of conversion and love, those quiet moments here in front of the blessed Sacrament. Memories are important as we live as Christians in the world.
The second thing to remember is that Our Lord prayers for us. He goes into heaven telling the disciples that he will pray for us and in the Great Discourse before he is arrested he also tells them that and that he prays for us here. We are never without the constant prayer of Our Lord.
The last thing is that Jesus told his disciples to go into the world in mission. We do mission best by living lives of faith. Not all of us will be martyred on the way to the monastery as in Egypt this week, but we are called to live lives that show our faith. We go into the world, as Jesus commands, and the world may be anywhere or just the washing of dishes over the kitchen sink, but wherever the world is we are to live lives of mission showing that faith is real.
Memories to feed us, Our Lord praying for us and to live lives of mission: three things we can take away today as we contemplate this bookend to Christmas. Our Lord was born as one of us in Bethlehem, and today he takes us into himself and heaven.
If You Love Me and Keep My Commandments – Easter 6, 21st May, 2017
Jesus never stopped talking, in case you were wondering.
I’m saying that, because we hear the Gospel in bits, and we forget that these passages we are listening to over Easter, are from John, what we call the Farewell Discourse, when Our Lord, on the Maundy Thursday, the evening when he was arrested, tells his disciples the thigs they need to know as he prepares them for his death.
The theme is love, as it appears from the beginning, “if you love me,“ and the conclusion “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them “ of today’s Gospel. The disciples, terrified by the real possibility that the Master dies, are comforted by Jesus who opens their hearts calling them “friends“ and not ”servants,“ giving them the Eucharist and opening a new way: that of the love given to the world through the Cross. His Cross is the concrete revelation of God who loves to the full gift of self, and a sign of God’s unlimited presence in the world. On the Cross Christ does not fail but brings to the full the manifestation of his immense love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Jesus teaches to his disciples that his donated love is the strength that allows not to be locked into a limited past, but to be opened to a future perceived as the space of their loyalty to him in a community and in the world. Only the disciple who accepts the reality of Jesus’ death can open up to a new relationship with the Crucified-Risen: the true “following” begins with Easter, an event that returns Jesus to the believer in a new way.
The Cross is not the end, but the beginning of a new path, and of a relationship with Jesus Christ that has become indestructible. With his death and resurrection he opens the “Way” leading to the “Truth” of the experience of God who is the “Life” in full.
On the evening of the first Maundy Thursday, the frightened apostles are consoled by Our Lord who, in addition to proclaiming his love, tells them “I will not leave you orphans.” That evening, Jesus seemed concerned not so much for himself as for his friends who would know the depth of their weakness, the great pain of abandonment, and would look for something to comfort them. Jesus himself would be consoled by the presence of an Angel during his agony in Gethsemane, at the time when the desire to escape the crucifixion will seem to have been born in him too. “Father, if possible, keep away from me this cup, but not mine, but thy will be done.”
Even today Jesus repeats to us: “I will not leave you orphans.” These words were, are and will always be a certainty for us who follow him, yesterday, today and always. He said these words at the most difficult time of his earthly existence and, almost becoming a voice of our fear of being abandoned by everyone, to the point of crying from the cross: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” The Risen Christ tells us that the One who loves is the home of the beloved: God brings him into his heart as his life. We have always been in God, who loves us with eternal love. If we love Our Lord, he is in us as we are in him.
“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” The words of this verse are repeated almost as a refrain in the later verses. This is not an injunction (you must comply) but a revelation of goodness: “if “you love, you will enter a new world. Everything begins with the conjunction “if”, a word filled with delicacy and respect: if you love me. “If”: a starting point so humble, so free, so confident that it helps us to understand that to observe the commandments of Our Lord is not to obey to an external law, but to live like him in love. We are moved to carry on the task of bringing to the world the love of God made flesh.
If we love Our Lord, he lives in our thoughts, actions and words and changes them. By doing so, we live his good, beautiful, and happy life. If we love Jesus and observe his commandment of love, we not only do not injure, betray, steal, escape and kill, but we help, receive and bless.
If it is true that today’s theme is love, as I said at the beginning but it is equally true that the dominant ideas are two. The first is that the most appropriate criterion for verifying the reality of love for Christ is the obedience to his will, that is, the concrete observance of the commandments, which in Saint John are reduced to the commandment of fraternal love. The second one is that the practice of love is the place where Jesus reveals himself.
Love is so that, when we love someone, the person is in our heart and in our mind and becomes the rule of our life. We know what he or she thinks, what he or she does, and we do what he or she does because we too love what he or she does: love is not only a feeling, it concerns all our being. When we love someone, we know we love, we want to do good for that person, and it inspires us to do things for that person.
Love is a communion in the deeper being, it is a union of intelligence, will, and action that makes us like Christ, the Son of God, with the same intelligence, with the same will, with the same actions.
In addition to the conjunction “if”, I would like to draw attention to the possessive pronoun “my.” Our Lord says “my” commandments. It is as if to say: the Commandments are mine not because prescribed by me, but because they make clear who I am and your future. They summarize me and my whole life. If you love me, you will live like me and with me.
If we love Our Lord by observing his commandments, he lives in us and changes our thoughts, our actions, our words into thoughts, actions and words of good. Then we participate to his freedom, his peace and to the joy of his living in love.
But remember, Jesus does not stop talking. Learning about the love of Our Lord is a conversation that never ends, we have to listen and listen again. Love is the never-ending conversation we have with God that challenges us and grows us as we struggle like the frightened disciples did in that room so long, long ago, as Our Lord prepared them for his death. Let’s not stop listening.
Difficult Widows: Easter 5, 14 May, 2017
When you look at the New Testament the positon of Luke and Acts is unique. Luke wrote a Gospel and then the Acts: yet they are part of one story. During Eastertide, we tend to have a lot of readings from Acts as we explore the development of the early Church. Today has one such passage in our first reading.
The first thing I would like to say about this passage of Acts 6 is that it really does not make sense as it is now. Instead of the translation we have used today from the I would like to read another version, the Word English version: It goes:
1Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service. 2The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. 3Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the service of the word.”
They then select the seven.
The problem is we have had no idea till this time that there was some sort of distribution of food was going on, and it is never mentioned again. What also is this waiting on tables that is mentioned? Why were the widows being neglected? To make the background seem even odder, the seven who are selected, such as Stephen, then go onto preach to people and have nothing to do with table waiting.
The problem is that we don’t know what the daily service actually means. The editors of the version we use in our readings presume that it means some food, because of the mention of a table. But other commentators think it could have been a Christian service of worship with food, which we know did exist. This would then make sense of why Stephen then goes into evangelism and preaching straight away. But in what way were these widows being neglected? Because they were women? Because they were Hellenists? Because they were widows? Because they were not being invited to lead?
The reason why I am exploring this is that at times Scripture is not easy to understand because we lack so much of the cultural references that belong to it. But at times an interpretation becomes a foundation text, and this text has been used for the start of the orders of deacons and even the reason why women can talk in business meetings for those interested in headship arguments. But that’s another story. It can carry a lot of baggage. But when a passage does not make sense to you straight away when you hear it, don’t be afraid, often we are not sure ourselves.
One fascinating part of this passage is the way that it introduces the first sense of discord in the Church. Before that we heard that the Church held everything in common, but now we are introduced to some sort of Church dissention. Luke has a special treatment of widows. We meet widows like Anna in the Temple with the baby Jesus, the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, the healing of the son of the Widow of Nain, and now we meet these Hellenist widows. Widows in the Old Testament had a special relationship with God, they were one of the minority groups who were often victimised and who God specially looked after as a result. Luke also shows this special treatment of widows and points to this status with the Widow of Nain and the Widow with the Unjust Judge.
So the way the Twelve deal with this crisis is interesting. They don’t come out of it very well. Instead of seeing it as a means of service to the widows they step back and wash their hands by appointing the seven to deal with them. They claim a superiority of preaching over menial things like serving. It’s not in the pattern of Our Lord, the servant king at all. Jesus would come and heal the needy, and John even remembers him washing the feet of his disciples to emphasise the need for servanthood. The Twelve here are a long way from this message. But we are only up to Acts 6.
We then go forward to the next collection of widows in Acts, which is Acts 9. Here Peter is at Joppa, in the house of one deceased Tabitha. We are given two names for her, she is also known as Dorcas, which seems to indicate that Tabitha is also a Hellenist. We meet here the distressed widows who show to Peter the garments Tabitha has made with them. Tabitha seems to be the leader of some sort of sewing collective, and her death may mean the ruin of the widows. Peter this time listens to these widows and restores Tabitha to life, and by extension, restores the widow’s support group. This time Peter helps the widows. After this he then gets the vision about how Christ is for the Gentiles as well and visits the house of the Cornelius the centurion.
Now also remember that Luke is writing in Greek for Greek readers: in other word for Hellenists.
What Luke seems to be exploring in Acts is that the early church, with the Twelve and later with Paul, had to learn what it meant to be followers of Christ. There was a continual tension to divide into those who wanted to only observe the Law and those who were Gentiles. There was also a continual tension as to what it meant to lead the Church and how the leaders had to continually learn. Luke shows this by the story today when the twelve just get it wrong what leadership means and ignore their duty to the widows. It would take a lot longer to learn the message of Jesus was to all people and that it also meant service.
Ministry as Christians is something that we all share. Ministry is also something we all must continually learn. It means service, ad it means that we will be continually challenged as to how that service works out. Luke presents the early Church not as a perfect group who always got it right, but rather as a group who continually had to learn what it meant to be leaders, and to learn from groups who were often on the fringe, like the widows today. Luke is not interested in showing us a perfect Church: Luke is interested in showing us a Church which learns what it means to follow Our Lord. In the same way we too are continually challenged as to how to learn to be Christians. It may not be here at Church. It may be even from those we expect the least. But if the great and mighty Twelve had to continually learn, we can expect nothing less for ourselves.
Good Friday – Truth – 14 April, 2017
What is truth?
This is the question that Pilate asks Jesus. No answer is given to this question, it hangs in the air. Jesus had already told Pilate, that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Pilate hears the voice, but cannot find the truth. Instead he asks the question and departs, leaving the question to us.
So what is truth? Pilate, perhaps, was not interested in the answer. He knew power. Power was of Rome, power as of men, who held Judea in its grasp. Power which made Roman authority and law. That was truth. Through power peace would come – the fear of the sword and the justice of the Romans would enforce civilisation. The Pax Romanum was a reality – from Egypt to England one law ruled. But was it truth?
Our Lord talks of those belonging to the truth. He had taught and healed, trying to show the signs that would lead people to a deeper understanding of what he was doing. He had shunned the title Messiah, filled as it was with so many expectations of power and supremacy. The expectations of Messiah-ship with its kingship of the world was not the truth he was trying to show. So instead he used Son of Man, and taught about servanthood, the need to serve as the basis of authority.
Yet here he was now, before Pilate.
We know the story. We heard how Pilate offered the crowd a choice, Barabbas or Jesus, but the crowd choose Barabbas, so the Lord of Life is condemned to death. We know, because we believe that he was the Son of God that he could have had come down from the cross at any time: he who made the world and the whole universe could have escaped the pain of one small mortal yet choose, embraced, the cross with all its torture instead.
This was truth.
Let us consider a short history of truth. The ancient Greeks talked about true types, of which the world was just an imperfect copy, a theme taken up in Hebrews where the writer talks about the true sanctuary of heaven, of which a type or copy was made on earth. Things were shadows of the truth. We handled that quite well, and for centuries we held things were true or not, and evidence was not an issue. Then in the Age of Enlightenment, we started to divide truth: into values, which needed only belief, and facts, which needed a proof. Then rationalism placed facts on a higher level than values, as they could be proved, and finally in post modernism we started to talk about truths rather than truth: your truth, your values are just as legitimate as my truth, my values. Truth has a long history.
Yet Pilate’s question remains, what is truth?
Truth is when God dies on the cross for us. God is prepared to die to show love, to show forgiveness, and to offer this as a new path to each and every person. To die so as to show life to each of us. You cannot be a Christian until you contemplate the reality of the Cross. The pain and suffering. Have a look at the great crucifix at the back of the church. See his face, touch his feet as you go out. This is the reality behind the shadow, the true value of life. This is God showing to each of us that no matter how isolated, how cruel, how painful we find life, God walks this way before us to give us hope. You can say it is the archetype of all our life’s journeys, you can say it is the ultimate value in life, you can say it is your own individual truth for your beliefs – but as nail drives through flesh and death enters God, it is done in love for you.
For truth in the end is love.
Tourist or Participant – Palm Sunday, 9th April, 2017
About 381 a well-off lady from Spain called Egeria did a three-year trip to the other side to the Mediterranean. She was a Christian, with enough cash and time to take a trip of a lifetime. She had a ball. She had side trips to see Sinai, as well as sites in what is now Syria to see the family tombs of Abraham’s brother Haran as well as the tomb of Job even.
She wrote a nice travelogue when she returned for some other ladies, and parts were all about what happened in Jerusalem during her time there.
The 380s were a boom time for wealthy Roman Christians to visit the Holy Land. Christianity was now well established religion of the Empire, and the barbarians were not yet troublesome. So the local authorities started to upgrade the tourist attractiveness of their sites.
The problem with Jerusalem was that it had been comprehensively destroyed by the Romans a few centuries before. The Temple was gone as were most of the other places mentioned in the Gospel. But thanks to an influx of imperial cash by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena in 326 new churches were built. So we had the building of the church of the Sepulchre, which has just been restored, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is still being restored, and quite a few other sites. All these buildings date back to Helena’s tour of the Holy Land. She too was an interesting lady who made it good when her son became Emperor. I’m rather glad we have the Greek church up the road dedicated to her.
Getting back to Egeria though. The bishop at Jerusalem, Cyril, had a great idea of re-creating the events of Holy Week. So on the Sunday before Easter the Christians went to the Mount of Olives and walked into the city carrying palms. Egeria took part in all these events and thought this was wonderful, and when she got back to Spain she wrote an account of her travels, modestly called the Itinerary of Egeria, for her lady friends.
Never underestimate the power of the women in the church. Within a century churches all throughout Europe were copying what Egeria had said. Especially as the tourism travel collapsed in the next fifty years owing to the barbarian invasions, so very few people could go to Jerusalem.
So why were these liturgies so popular?
Often when we come to church we just do the same routine week in week out. We sit in the same pew each week and sit and stand and do the same routine. That’s important in many ways, to let the liturgy seep into our bones, to let familiar prayers become second nature so when we are in need we know what to pray and do. But we lose the drama, the sense that this is what actually took place. Some scholars even suspect that Mark originally wrote his gospel as a play, designed to be played in public to convert. That’s a fascinating thought as to how they doubled up on the minor characters, but that’s another story.
Now when they recreated the events of the last week of Jesus’s life a few things had to be simplified. Sadly, one thing that was lost for Palm Sunday was the parody element – the same week that Jesus entered Jerusalem on his donkey Pilate would have entered from the other direction on a horse with all his guards, and Jesus is obviously sending Pilate up by his mock entrance on a donkey. But the liturgies of this week are making everyone re-enter into the life of those last days.
Notice also that we take the role of the crowd today by joining in the procession of palms. On Thursday we will take the role of the disciples when we have our feet washed. But the crowd is an important role for us to take today.
The reason is because of the second gospel of today, the passion gospel. The crowd that enters Jerusalem with Jesus will abandon him.
We take the place of the fickle crowds. Those crowds that have the fun of waving palms about will be the same crowds that call for his death in a few days’ time on Good Friday.
Palm Sunday and all the services of Holy Week invite us to question where are we in all this. Are we tourists like the crowd, just going from one spectacle to another? Or are we participants, are we touched by the emotions of Holy Week? Are we Peter, Mary, Judas, Pilate or whoever in these days? As we listen to the unfolding events of the next days, we are invited to become each character, we are invited to identify with the sins and failings of each, so we can experience the forgiveness and love of Our Lord.
Egeria was the classic tourist in many ways: wealthy enough for a long holiday. Yet what she wrote showed that the events touched her deeply enough that it inspired the creation of local versions of what she had seen. Within a few hundred years all of Western Europe was making each church a little Jerusalem, with Palm Processions (even in colder countries where no palm would ever grow!) Maundy Thursday last suppers and the rest of the recreation of these days.
It is important for us to be able to sink into the worship of our church with its accustomed words and liturgies. But we also need to let the drama and reality of the events reach us too. Every Holy Week we need to be part of the crowd calling out Hosanna one day and crucify a few days later. We need to walk the way to Calvary to see the bitter death of Jesus for each of us. We cannot be tourists this week: we have to live in the drama and tragedy of each day if we are to find the joy of the resurrection.
That’s what happened to Egeria. I wonder if she was a first class bore when she got home, telling everyone over and over again about her trip away. She probably drove her local priest batty with suggestions on how to improve his liturgy. But she had been touched by the recreation of Our Lord’s last days and that touch made her write her travels up which inspired others to do the same. Which is why we are doing it here today some 1700 years later. Unless we too find the drama and take part in what happens this week, then
Trust and Hope – Lent 5, 2 April, 2017
These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can reach to the very core of our lives. We’ve had the woman by the well, the bland man healed and today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.
So it makes good sense to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, of which only get a snippet today, and to listen to Jesus command, “Lazarus, come out” and to wonder what all that means, and whether it matters.
We Christians have some very distinctive, and some very special, things to say about death: about both real, physical death and about the other deaths, the little deaths, the endings and changes and losses that we seem constantly to be experiencing. In fact, we say much the same thing about both types of death. What that is can be found in both Ezekiel and John.
The valley of dry bones, that Ezekiel is looking at and talking to, is Israel. It’s a great passage but we miss the exiting part in the interests of brevity and just get the conclusion today. The great nation God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with a few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they’re blaming for their problems. And there are a few people left in Judah that the Babylonians figured weren’t worth the effort to haul away. That was it. Israel was dead. The nation and faith was so defeated and scattered. Ezekiel knew that, the Babylonians knew that, everybody knew that. Death ruled Israel when Ezekiel preached, and death ruled supreme.
So with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead: very dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Maybe Jesus could have helped if he’d arrived earlier, but not now. Death ruled over Lazarus.
So, Ezekiel looked over the valley of dry bones, and Jesus looked at the stone in front of the cave where his friend’s body lay. When we Christians are at our best, we look at death with the eyes of Ezekiel, and of Jesus; and we see what they saw.
They first thing they saw was the reality, the force, the sheer power of death. Ezekiel was struck mute and ended up babbling about how dry the bones were. And Jesus was shaken; he was deeply troubled; he wept. There is nothing light-hearted or glib here. Death is the final word creation has to say to us.
We all want to avoid death. Death is very real and it’s very powerful, and if we don’t say this first, then we’re not telling the truth. Jesus, Our Lord, joins in that grief with his own tears. The tears of Jesus sanctify every tear, and his deeply troubled spirit makes holy our own grief, pain and fear in the face of death.
There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.
When Ezekiel looked at those dry bones, and when Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, they didn’t see death naturally blossoming into new life: they didn’t see butterflies coming out of cocoons, or birds popping out of eggs. If Ezekiel had kept his mouth shut those bones would have stayed dry. If Jesus had not called, Lazarus would have stayed in that tomb. There is nothing natural about anything stronger than death.
All of this is the first thing Ezekiel and Jesus saw; and it’s the first thing we see. Death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that, and they saw something more.
What Ezekiel saw, and what Jesus saw, was that God was Lord, Lord even over the dead. God was Lord even over a dead Israel: and so God, and God alone, could call Israel back, and give it new life, and new direction. The wonderful part of this story is not that some dry bones could move: the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped, and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.
So with Lazarus. The real point to this story is not that Lazarus come back. Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed dead. So that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries: it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news, that’s what we Christians see that the world does not see.
We see that the word of God, and the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest, and the worst, that the world has to offer.
At the same time, notice that these stories give us absolutely no information about the mystery of death itself. Nor do they promise that everything will be all right as we deal with the dying.
Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and go on some first-century chat show talking about tunnels and bright lights and four day’s worth of even-nearer-than- near-death experiences. There’s none of that.
What’s more, John’s Gospel tells us that Lazarus’ life got quite a bit messier: less pleasant and more complicated; after this miracle. He really didn’t live happily ever after, not as we count such things.
And Israel never again became what it used to be or what it wanted to be. The dry bones formed into something very different, something less powerful, and less successful, but truer to its mission, than Israel had wanted, and hoped and prayed for. The promise of new life is not a promise that we are in charge and that we will get what we want. The promise is better than that.
The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead, even of death itself. And that what he says, goes. That’s what we Christians see. Alas, we can see no farther: we can see no more. But we can see that far. We want details, we want guarantees, and we want some power and some control in all of this. We want to know what it’s like. But we don’t get any of that, not in the face of physical death, not in the midst of the other deaths, the little deaths.
Instead, in the face of all the deaths that make up our lives, we are told first that death is stronger than we are and that we have no knowledge about and no power over death. And then we are told that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all: Lord of life and of death.
So we must choose. Whatever deaths are before us, we must choose.
We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. That choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the reality of death: death in whatever form: is a call to trust.
We see what the world sees, and yet we see more. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.
Based on a sermon by Fr James Liggett of Texas.
Completing Creation – Lent 4 26 March 2017.
In the beginning, a long, long time ago in mythic history, God created the heavens and the earth, and all that it contained. God made all this, in six cosmic days of creation, days that danced to the creative power and work of God as all things came into being. Then God rested on the seventh day, when the creation was finished, and gave the seventh day as a witness to all people to rest also, as part of the symbolism of the beauty of creation at rest and completion.
Then God made a Garden at Eden, a Garden that contained the beauty of the earth, and in that garden he placed our mythic ancestors, Adam and Eve, to work and rejoice in the beauty of what has been made. Yet evil entered into their hearts, and they sinned and were expelled from Eden, and would toil in labour in wilder places, while the gates of Eden were shut and guarded against their return.
Yet people were still faithful to God amidst the sins of the word. While they laboured, they also found God sought them out, and a covenant was made with the Chosen People to follow God and to keep God’s ways. As they laboured in the world, as they dug the soil of hardness, they also rested on the seventh day as a sign of faithfulness to the promises of God, and a sign of God’s completion in resting on that seventh day.
Then Our Lord comes, and sees a man, blind from birth. The disciples start a discussion, in a passage omitted from what we heard today, about the nature of sin – who had sinned – the man, his parents or who? But Our Lord tells them that this man’s blindness is nothing to do with his sinfulness but to show the glory of God. Then Our Lord, God-made-flesh, does something terribly basic. He spits on the ground and makes mud. The dirt that we till with our labour is made fruitful by the spit of the God-man, and placed on this blind man’s eyes, and he is commanded to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, and he sees.
It was the Sabbath.
Now it was not an accident that the healing was done on the Sabbath, the day when all the Chosen People should rest to imitate the rest of God and the completion of the creation. Our Lord was not being absent-minded. Our Lord could have come back at another time. Our Lord could have commanded the man to be healed the next day – imagine it – go and wash your eyes tomorrow and you will be healed. Why this whole thing with mud as well?
Now the Pharisees were well aware that this healing was nothing normal. They could see that this was a work of power, a work that was undoubtedly good, like the works of God who created the heavens and the earth and said it was good. Yet they knew that if it were from God, it should obey God’s plan, and God had rested on the Sabbath and commanded that all should rest. Therefore they could see the conundrum here. If this were from God, then the command to rest could be broken, which meant that creation was not complete and it was continuing. God rested when all was complete – if God did not rest then creation was not complete. That is why they are trying to find an alternative reason – the man, maybe, was not really blind. But they learn that he was, and that Jesus had worked not only a miracle on the Sabbath, but had done it not just by words, which were not a breach, but had made the work of mud, that elemental thing that reminds us of Eden and cration so long ago, to make the point – this was work.
Our Good Lord is placing two challenges before the people of God, in his witness and to their authorities of the Pharisees: that he is empowered of God in that he can heal, and that their understanding of God and the completeness of creation is wrong. By healing, he claims the power of God, equal to a prophet as of old. That challenges the people to also accept what he says, to follow him. But the second is more dangerous: he challenges their understanding of the completeness of God’s work here. Earlier in John we hear Jesus say, after he heals an invalid on the Sabbath, that: “My Father is working up until the present, and I also work” (John 5:17).
The observance of the Sabbath meant not only loyalty to God, but also a statement that God’s creation was complete. It was also a standard – you obeyed God by resting or disobeyed God by working: you believe God and keep it, or you don’t believe in God and work. It is a purity code. But Our Lord told the disciples, that the blindness of the man was to show the works of God. Jesus heals and works on this day. By doing this he is saying that God continues to work, that creation is not yet in its fulfilment. It also means that the breach in purity between the pure and impure is broken. Sinners may be members of the Kingdom of God.
It’s probably easier to deal with the notion that God has made everything and it is complete. Then you only have to blame other people for messing it up. But if you follow the idea that God is still working, then you start to realise that you are going to be also responsible for part of that work. You see, faith in God and Jesus is not about working out who has sinned and who has not. Faith is about opening oneself to the power of God to take part in the continuing unfinished work of creation: a creation that we could hope to be better that what we inherited, a creation that is blessed by God and is good. That means we can’t avoid what we are meant to be doing. We have to get in the dirt and do a little bit of work too, like our Lord. We have to remember that Lent is a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving so we can become closer to the people God wants us to be. Lent is that time when we look at ourselves, and try and be better people. There is always room for that.
The Big Surprise – Lent 3 A, 19 March 2017.
The story we just heard about Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar is a story full of surprises.
The first surprise is that the conversation happens at all. The barriers to it are great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian.
The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. Both still exist of course, but the Samaritans these days are a tiny, tiny group. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. Why they separated so decisively is lost in time. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. So it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.
There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.
Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. The nameless one is a Samaritan, and a woman. She is also someone rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and hauling it home. This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for a chat, for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She is a misfit.
It is a surprise, therefore, that this conversation ever happens. But the conversation itself contains more than one surprise.
It’s a surprise that Jesus promises living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant.
Jesus and the woman meet beside an ancient well that’s more than 100 feet deep and seven feet wide in the old scale. It’s ow built over by a churh, the last of a long line, but that’s another story. At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a tap in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more, and who can blame her? But what Jesus promises is a source of life in her heart, so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately.
It’s a surprise that Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. These details remain unclear to us, but apparently she has had a painful and unhappy time. She’s had five husbands. Did the marriages end through death, or divorce, or desertion? Were they truly marriages, or something else? Why is her current husband not truly her husband? We don’t have answers to these questions, and perhaps we do not need to have them. Yet we recognize that this woman feels alone and exiles herself from her neighbours. Is this woman just a scapegoat of her community?: divorced from one man to another so her social status sinks each time till she is isolated and alone.
The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. The man must be a prophet.
And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Where is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer depend on location, but will be a matter of spirit and truth.
The conversation ends with one more surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says he is that messiah. Jesus thus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is marginal three times over: She is a Samaritan, a woman and an exile among her own kind. We do not even know her name, yet Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret, the truth of who he is.
The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end. The woman leaves her water jar there at the well. It is valuable, yet it is heavy, and she wants to be unencumbered as she runs back into the city.
There in Sychar, she tells the people to come and see Jesus. “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the Messiah?” Now this point is fascinating. Because by telling the town everything she had done Jesus was also laying bare what the town had done to her. How its attitudes had made her go from one man to another. Under the Law a man could only marry three times. Women, of course are not mentioned. By telling her story Jesus was also laying bare how others had scapegoated her. Thus by telling everything she had done Jesus is also laying bare the story of the town and how it made this woman a victim. Now the town could have just turned against her, but instead they listen and learn. That’s another surprise.
Soon a crowd follows her out to the well. This crowd is so large that Jesus compares it to a field ready to be harvested. These people have accepted the woman’s testimony, and they are coming to Jesus. They have accepted also their role in the woman’s story.
We often ignore people with lesser status, sometimes we don’t even notice what we are doing. I’ve seen it happen to people in wheel-chairs, that others will talk to the person pushing the chair as if the one in the chair isn’t there. It happens a lot to children – I’ve done it myself – that we address the adult with them on a matter that more directly involves them. There are so many ways everyday in which we treat others as lesser, and we ourselves are treated as such. There are also insidious and massive ways in which such treatment as lessers is institutionalised around skin colour, ethnic heritage, gender, physical ability, sexual preference, and so on. And so our world continues to be thirsty for the unconditional love of a heavenly parent who shows no preferential treatment, sending the Son to die as one cast out and raising him as the source of living water of that unconditional love and forgiveness. The woman at the well, and her fellow citizens of Sychar, received a foretaste of that living water for poured out for all in the cross. (Remember that John is the only evangelist who has a soldier pierce Jesus’s side for a gush of water.)
This woman, this unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus, and an effective one. True, she may be a woman of questionable character, or at least she has had plenty of experience with the rough edges of life.
True, her understanding of Jesus is far from complete.
Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience. She speaks of what she knows.
Her focus is on Jesus, not on herself.
And not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can witness to him.
If Jesus has spoken to us, accepted us, led us to see ourselves differently, then we can bear witness to others, even as she did.
We don’t need to have our life together in every way. We don’t need to know all there is to know. What we can do is tell others our experience, and leave the results to God.
Whether becoming the centre of attention is what we want or what we fear, that is not the issue; that is not the purpose.
We can help people to look, not at us, but over our shoulder at Jesus, who stands close behind us. Remember those icons of Mary – where Mary always points to Jesus?
Then soon enough they will forget about our witness, and say, along with those people from Sychar, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
God surprises us in many ways, but none is more surprising than our opportunity to witness to Christ based on our own experience.
Based partly on a sermon by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer.
Transfiguration – Lent 2A, 11 March, 2017.
Last week we started Lent with the story of the temptation in the wilderness, the struggle of Jesus with the Devil. That story has an almost mythic character in it – how does God and Devil really relate. Today we move from a confrontation with the forces of evil that start Lent to the glory of the Transfiguration in the Gospel today, which traditionally took place on Mount Tabor.
Now what is seen is clear: Jesus in glory, with Moses and Elijah. What it means, and why it appeared, is what we need to ponder.
So why are Moses and Elijah the ones who appear on Mount Tabor? After all, surely it would have been enough for Jesus just to become dazzling white. Moses is seen traditionally as the giver of the law, Elijah as the great prophets. So what we see here is the traditional Scriptures, the Law and the prophets. Jesus is seen with the Old Scriptures, who talk to him directly. The transfiguration is a vision of one of Matthew’s favourite lines: that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets.
The response to this vision is interesting. We have only Peter’s immediate one: to hold it, to make dwellings. Dwellings here has the sense of tabernacles, which has the connotation of the great Tabernacle, that which the Ark was housed in, in its movements to the Promised Land. Peter is seeing here and confessing to a sense of divinity. Some commentators see it as the attempt of Peter to hold onto a vision, it is Peter’s attempt to hold to what is passing. Yet Peter is not rebuked for his comment. We only have the voice, the divine voice as in his baptism, stating that this is the Son with whom God is well pleased. The wish of Peter is a recognition that here is a vision that matches the travelling in the wilderness, of the bringing of the People of Israel to the Promised Land.
One question about this vision is why Jesus took those with him. He had the twelve, yet he only takes Peter, James and John. These three seem to be an inner group within the twelve, who re-occur several times together. The most significant time again is when he goes into the Garden of Gethsemane on the evening of his betrayal. Once again he takes these three aside as he goes into the time of great agony in his prayer. Our Lord is giving these three in particular insights about who he is that they will understand after his resurrection.
Think about how they will see these incidents later: the transfiguration on the mountain at Tabor; the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; the presence of our Lord after his resurrection. They will understand that within one person was God and human, God as in being seen in a light beyond the world, and human as in the agony in the garden. Both extremes are there, both are held together and make sense because Jesus rises from the dead, showing his divinity yet holding his humanity.
The transfiguration passage from the Gospel is there for a reason during this start of Lent. Lent is the time when, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we deepen our commitment to the way of the Cross. By that we share in the suffering of Christ as he takes on all our sins and faults. This is the hard realisation of our failures and how little we do devote ourselves to the great love of God. Now that sounds depressing. But against this we have the fierce joy of the resurrection, that we know Christ rises, we know Christ loves us, we know Christ offers this new life to us all. The transfiguration is the balance as we walk the way of the cross, it is a foreshadowing of his glory that we take with us into the hard struggle of Lent. We all have our Gethsemanes – we all need our Tabors at those times.
There is another point to be made about the Transfiguration: where Jesus leads we will follow, if we have faith. The importance of the transfiguration, how Jesus is seen, is that it is a breaking through of God’s kingdom, the first fruits of his life, the first touch of what this all means. It is the heavenly breaking into the earthly. It is the teaching that we are not to be taken in by the worldly perceptions, not to see each other and ourselves as the world wants to see us. The moment of the transfiguration is the lesson to us that what we aim at, what we desire is nothing less than the kingdom of God. We are learning here for the sake of the kingdom. We are to deal with each other and ourselves as children of glory, each precious, each a vessel of glory. Furthermore in the moment of the glory comes another enlightenment – we know people for who they are. What I mean by this is that Moses and Elijah don’t have to be introduced – the disciples knew who they were without introductions. The transfiguration that comes to us at the end will also be like that: we will know everyone truly, those who have helped and those who ave hindered. I think that is important, because so much of our lives are influenced by people we little know or appreciate, but it will be made clear at the end of time.
Lent is the time when we must look closely at ourselves and our lives. It is not easy, as we are addicted to comfort and self-comfort means being soft with oneself. But a life in Christ means becoming more Christ life, and that does mean dying to the ways of the self, the petty ways that stop us committing ourselves more deeply to Christ. Yet the paradox is that the more we give up for Christ, the more Christ will give us. For instead of our indulgent sins we will find the joy of Christ that is far more than we can ever imagine.
Desire – Lent 1A, 5th March, 2017.
Let’s start with that Serpent today instead of the Gospel. The story of the serpent from Genesis is one of the great stories of the Old Testament. It’s a great story, and has its origins with many other similar stores dating back to the dawn of civilization in the area around the great rivers of the Middle East.
The man and woman begin the story keeping by the desire of God to place the tiny limit on their desiring of staying away from only one tree. In a state of trusting innocence, it never occurs to them to see that one tree as a problem, in a garden full of so many trees that are pleasing to the sight. But through the envious eyes of the crafty serpent, they begin to see that tree anew.
Once they begin down the road of seeing the world through a creature’s envious eyes, rather than through God’s loving eyes, their eyes are opened to right and wrong. Whereas they previously looked at the good things of creation as simply pleasing to the sight, that sight is now mixed with the envy and seductiveness that causes them to see their own nakedness differently.
There is the phrase “loss of innocence.” When we talk of “loss of innocence” regarding children, we often speak of growing self-awareness. Actually, we have probably misnamed this phenomenon. It is more like other-awareness than self-awareness. So-called self-awareness is an ability to look at ourselves as if we were another person to ourselves. It is essentially being able to look at ourselves through the eyes of others. As we mature and lose our innocence, we become increasingly aware of how others see us – as having a big nose, or frizzy hair, as being unattractive or attractive in various ways. These are the many messages we receive about ourselves regarding how others perceive us. That’s why it’s “other-awareness.”
The story of Genesis is relating a similar schema of “losing innocence.” When the man and woman only see themselves through God’s loving eyes, their nakedness is not an issue. But the crafty serpent introduces them to looking through the eyes of other creatures, and all the envy, seductiveness, and rivalry that goes along with such seeing, such desiring. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of other creatures, we notice our nakedness. It’s other-awareness. We, too, are now exposed to be objects of desire for one another, mixed in with our rivalries. We lose our innocence.
Interestingly, the word in the Hebrew, “crafty,” arum, and “naked”, arummim, are in the same word group and might be intended as a pun. The eyes of the man and woman were opened, and so they saw their nakedness. But how much is this related to having their eyes opened at the same time to the kind of crafty, seductiveness of the serpent? It is the serpent who first tells them about having their eyes opened in desiring the fruit. Then, having so desired the fruit through the eyes of another, the man and woman find that having their eyes opened also means looking at themselves differently. The craftiness of the serpent (arum) awakens them to looking at objects of desire through the eyes of others, which then leads to looking at themselves as naked (arummim).
Now there is another important word going on here. The word for “desire” in this story form Genesis and for “covet” in the Ten Commandments of Exodus are actually the same word in Hebrew, nehmad. Also, nehmad is used in Gen. 2:9 to say that the trees of the garden, in general, were pleasing to the sight. There is an important link here.
Think of the Ten Commandments. Commandments six, seven, eight, and nine are both simple and brief. They prohibit the most serious acts of violence in the order of their seriousness:
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object: in place of prohibiting an act it forbids a desire.
You shall not covet the house of your neighbour. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbour, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him. (Exod. 20:17)
Without being actually wrong the modern translations lead readers down a false trail. The verb “covet” suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for hardened sinners. But the Hebrew term translated as “covet” means just simply “desire.” This is the word that designates the desire of Eve for the prohibited fruit, the desire leading to the original sin. The notion that the Ten Commandments devotes its supreme commandment, the longest of all, to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely. The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings — in other words, simply desire as such. It’s the desire we picked up in the Garden of Eden that continues to bedevil us today.
Also note in the story that with the beginning of desire comes the beginning of the blame game. In his answer to God’s query, Adam blames everything on Eve; he has been repeating this accusation ever since, in the teeth of a Biblical text that, far from condoning his cowardly avoidance of responsibility, obviously regards it as a continuation and aggravation of the original sin. There is no biblical reason for singling out Eve as the main culprit. From the beginning, Adam has tried to transform a minor point into the total message of the story. He does this in order to elude the truth of his desire. What we inherited from him is both the desire, and the appetite for scapegoating that goes with it. Blame someone else. Interestingly, some commentators have noted that Shakespeare’s tendency, especially in the later dramas, to reveal this scapegoating of women. They suggest that, “Woman is the preferred vehicle of truth in Shakespeare.” But that’s another story.
I want to suggest that the heart of the story of the Temptation in the Garden of Eden is the introduction of desire that will distort our relationships. Once we have done that then we start to read the Temptation in the Wilderness of Jesus by the Devil. It’s all about using desire to pervert. But the sinlessness of Our Lord is that not that he just refuses the desire, not by strength of his will, but by another stronger desire, the desire to do his Father’s will.
Now this is where we can start to talk about Lent. Lent is a time when we start moving from the desires that control us by following a stronger love, the love of God. We are called to prayer, fasting and almsgiving in Lent. These are ways of confronting our desires of wasting time, stuffing ourselves and being greedy. They are powerful desires we do because we all do it as part of a wealthy culture. We desire what everyone else does. But we can overcome these desires, and all desires, when we want what God desires. Temptation can only be overcome in the end by letting God in and finding that desire stronger. That’s the purpose of Lent. Make space for God.
So remember the Serpent today. It gives us the wrong desire, the desire to have what we don’t need. It’s that desire that Jesus faces in the Wilderness. It’s that desire we have to face in Lent. The desire to own, control, and exclude God. It’s a good goal in Lent to learn to be aware of how desire rules us and who we can learn to let it go.