Proper 8(A) – 28 June 2020

Reflections for St Margaret Newlands

Genesis 22:1-18

Matthew 10:37-42

ot-sacrifice-of-isaac

The readings set for this Sunday are challenging.   Our Old Testament lesson gives us the story of Abraham’s binding, and near sacrifice, of Isaac, often read by Christians as a precursor of God’s giving his son to the cross.  The reading from Matthew looks quite innocuous if you only read the second half (from verse 40), as the SEC lectionary suggests, but if you read the whole passage, from verse 37, then it too becomes difficult, suggesting that family ties are not as important as following Jesus.  What are we to make of these passages?

The story of the binding of Isaac, the so-called Akedah, is one of the most commentated passages in the Bible.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all find this story in their scriptures.  Ellen Clark-King talks about its “larger than life, and darker than death, story-line,”[1] and I can very much identify with that description.  She asks: “An abusive father, a vulnerable son, an absent mother, and a God who orchestrates horrors – how are we to make theological or emotional sense of this? Where can we find meaning in the middle of this mess?”[2]  Her response is to think about the cultural setting:

The concept of sacrificing a child to achieve a ‘greater’ good, such as divine favour, would not have been an alien one to the original hearers of this tale. They may have been more moved by the fact that Abraham was giving up his only hope at a legitimate line of descendants than by the cruelty to Isaac. (Don’t forget that Abraham had just exiled his other older son, Ishmael, along with the child’s mother, Hagar.) The shock of the story originally lay in its ending rather than in its beginning – in the fact that the sacrifice was stopped rather than in the fact that it was asked for in the first place.[3]

Clark-King therefore reads the story as a transformation in the theology of the Old Testament.  In it, she suggests “we move … from an understanding of God as one who demands human sacrifice as proof of devotion to an understanding of God as the one who stays the knife from killing.”[4]

This is an attractive interpretation, but it sits uneasily with the difficulties presented by this story in our own context and in the Christian tradition. Clark-King suggests that for us, in our own context, “the shock is in [the story’s] opening – that God could demand such a sacrifice of Abraham, and hold Isaac’s life as worth nothing compared to the proof of Abraham’s faith.”[5]  Russell Barr asks: “What kind of disordered, deranged man is this, about to murder his own child? And what kind of disordered, deranged God would ask it of him?”[6] Barr connects the shocking demand made of Abraham with the crucifixion, but also with the expectations of discipleship:

Abraham is asked to choose.  God does not simply ask for good behaviour, that we live honest, moral and law-abiding lives. He asks for much more. God demands that Abraham surrenders himself willingly and completely, trusting all that he is and has, including his son, that which he holds as dearest and most precious.
Are you willing to do that, to venture all, to risk all?
Isn’t this what God did at Calvary?[7]

These questions resonate with Jesus’s words at the beginning of the gospel reading:  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  The demands of discipleship are here presented as challenging, rigorous; not only the risking of all but the actual giving up of all.

To our ears this radicality may sound not only rigorous but also potentially warped, or even abusive. While I was pondering these readings, I came across an account of a man named Chris Flanders who joined a local yoga class which turned out to be a recruiting ground for a cult.  He writes:

The tipping point was when I was told I should leave behind my “unconscious family” (my parents), as my “spiritual family” (the organisation) was more important. One master hadn’t spoken to his parents for five years. It was tough, he told me, but said that saving the world was far more important. I know he believed he was doing the right thing.[8]

Others who have joined sects and cults have reported similar experiences.  And it is also clear that one of the signs of an abusive relationship is often that someone has “stopped spending time with friends and family.”[9]  Is such a radical break with family and friends a healthy aspect of discipleship?

Morevoer, the consequences of such a break can be far-reaching.  In a moving retelling of the story of the binding of Isaac, written from Sarah’s point of view, Sara Maitland depicts what happened at Moriah as toxic, not only for the relationship between Abraham and Isaac but also for that between Abraham and Sarah:

[Sarah] does not know what happened between Abraham and Isaac in the land of Moriah.  She does not speak to Abraham any more and she knows that Isaac will never tell her. … Abraham came back from the land of Moriah smug, contented, smooth and sleek. Isaac came back from the land of Moriah like a wild animal, bound but not tamed. For months afterwards he would wake in the night screaming and his mother, in the women’s tent, would hear her boy child sobbing and could not go to him, comfort hm, hold him. There was a look in his eyes still, evasive, distant, the look of a man who uses pride to cover betrayal.[10]

For Maitland, simply the fact that Abraham showed himself ready to do what God required of him had an horrific impact on his wife, on his son.  It was, in Maitland’s account, a betrayal which also destroyed Isaac’s future, because Abraham’s actions destroyed Isaac’s future ability to trust others.  Altogether we seem this week to be confronted with two passages which may lead us wondering what our faith could be requiring of us.

Clark-King sees the underlying transformation of the depiction of God in this passage as key to finding a way out of this dilemma:

we see a God who opens Godself to vulnerability and finitude, who takes death into the heart of the divine being, out of love for erring, vulnerable humanity. A God who does not consider any human life to be expendable and puts particular value on the most vulnerable, especially children.[11]

Accordingly, she sees the death of the Son not as a betrayal but as choice: “the Son, an equal person within the Godhead, chose the vulnerability of the incarnation.”[12]  William C. Placher, citing Thomas Aquinas, agrees:

it is surely important that Christ is not the passive victim of suffering for the sake of keeping things as they are but one who actively accepts suffering for the sake of transforming the world. “It is indeed a wicked and cruel act,” Aquinas wrote, “to hand over an innocent man to torment and death against his will. Yet God the Father did not so deliver up Christ, but inspired him with the will to suffer for us.” Christ is not a scapegoat, dragged to the Temple for sacrifice, but a volunteer in the battle against evil.[13]

The aspect of choice is key for Placher.  Indeed, some patristic traditions (not that explored by Maitland) see Isaac as a willing sacrifice as in this way as a true precursor of Christ.[14]

Not only choice is key, but also the underlying cause of suffering.  Placher argues that in the world, “there is still suffering, and we celebrate it—but not because the suffering is a good; rather, because it is the agent of the transformation of the world.”[15] He recognises “the protests of feminist theologians and others that women and other oppressed groups have been called too often by the Christian faith to endure suffering,”[16] for instance women who have been told that it is their duty to endure abusive relationships.  However, he worries that Christianity has become too comfortable:  “as I look at our typical congregations, I think one could also make a contrary case: that we have created the kind of comfortable ‘Christendom’ Kierkegaard decried and often do not ask enough by way of suffering.”[17]

Placher finds that there is a “crucial difference” between “whether we urge the endurance of suffering that perpetuates injustice, or the acceptance of suffering in the service of justice, peace, and liberation.”[18]  He here cites bell hooks, who makes “a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as a site of resistance—as location of radical openness and possibility.”[19]  This seems to me also to be the difference between the demands of the call to discipleship, which may be radical, taking us to difficult places, including into conflict with our family and friends, but which will always call us to be attentive to the needs of the world, and the demands of the kind of cult described by Chris Flanders , or the kind of abusive relationship which focuses only on the one, abusive partner. Discipleship calls us to participate in God’s mission in the world. It might put us at odds with our families and friends; it might cause us suffering, but it will not close in on itself as an end in itself.  Clark-King sees the story of the binding of Isaac as challenging us to consider our own behaviour:

None of us who are in our right minds would dream of sacrificing our children to prove our faith, but very many of us allow children in the third world to sacrifice their childhoods in the sweat shops that produce our cheap clothes. Most of us would speak strongly against any military action of aggression towards those who disagree with us on matters of faith, but are still able to turn a blind eye towards practices of torture that we believe protect our own security.[20]

Those blind eyes are what we need to beware of.

A hymn by Kathy Galloway sums up what I am trying to get at.  We should expect our faith to take us to difficult places, and places which might be disturbing and set relationships into quetion. But this is not about giving up on our families and friends for the sake of doing so.  Rather it is about recognising that having an awareness of the wider needs of the world, and being called to respond to that, can take us – and those we love – to some difficult places.

Do not retreat into your private world,
That place of safety, sheltered from the storm,
Where you may tend your garden, seek your soul
And rest with loved ones where the fire burns warm.

To tend a garden is a precious thing,
But dearer still the one where all may roam,
The weeds of poison, poverty and war,
Demand your care, who call the earth your home.

To seek your soul it is a precious thing,
But you will never find it on your own,
Only among the clamour, threat and pain,
Of other people’s need will love be known.

To rest with loved ones is a precious thing,
But peace of mind exacts a higher cost,
Your children will not rest and play in quiet,
While they hear the crying of the lost.

Do not retreat into your private world,
There are more ways than firesides to keep warm;
There is no shelter from the rage of life,
So meet its eye, and dance within the storm.[21]

 

[1]  Ellen Clark-King, “26th June: Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14,” The Expository Times 122 (2011), 396-398, at 396.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Ibid., 397.

[5]  Ibid., 396.

[6]  Russell Barr, “29th June: Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1–14,” The Expository Times 119 (2008), 400-401, at 401.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   See https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jun/26/experience-my-yoga-class-turned-out-to-be-a-cult.

[9]   See https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/.

[10]   Sara Maitland, “Sacrifice,” in Angel and Me: Short Stories for Holy Week (London: Mowbray 1995), 30.

[11]  Clark-King, “Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14, 397.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  William C. Placher, “Christ Takes Our Place: Rethinking Atonement,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 53 (1999), 5-20 at 16; citing Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3a.47.3 ad 1.

[14]  See, for instance, https://themotherofgod.wordpress.com/the-sacrifice-of-isaac/ (also the source of the icon).

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Ibid.

[17]  Ibid.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Ibid., citing bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End, 1990), 153.

[20]  Clark-King, “Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14, 397.

[21]  Kathy Galloway, in Janet Morley (ed.), Bread of Tomorrow (London: SPCK/Christian Aid 1992), 65

Proper 6 (A) – 14 June 2020

Reflections for St Margaret Newlands

Genesis 18.1-15 or Exodus 19.2-8a
Romans 5.1-8
Matthew 9.35-10.8(9-23)

SoThatYouMayKnowTheHope

“So that you may know the hope” Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayer Book
online at: https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Chapter 5 of Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with this promise of what it means to live in the love of God.  Reading it I was struck anew by the promise implicit in Paul’s chain of reasoning about how we get from suffering to hope: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” In our present circumstances, that chain seems deeply desirable but not entirely a part of my current experience.  It is easy to feel hopeless at present, but Paul is here urging that we should not, and indeed that we must not.

Reflecting on this passage I looked at a number of translations to try to understand better the range of experiences and the sense of development Paul is describing.  The version above is from the NRSV.  In the Authorised Version, Paul asserts that “tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.”  The New Living Translation affirms: “problems and trials… help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.” And The Inclusive Bible offers “affliction produces perseverance; and perseverance proven character; and character hope.” It is clear from all these translations that Paul was seeking to who the Romans how suffering, affliction, tribulation, problems and trials, that is the challenges with which life confronts us, could strengthen them in their faith.  Living through these challenges, he says, will endue us with endurance, perseverance, and patience.  That matures our experience and builds our character.  We may recognise and resonate with these steps, especially the first three, which seem in many ways intuitive.  Tribulations do teach us endurance and help to strengthen us.  However, that final step, the one that gets us to hope, doesn’t always seem to follow.

The apparently counter-intuitive nature of this Pauline promise of hope is something that commentators on this passage have also observed.  The New Testament theologian Kathy Ehrensperger points out (drawing on the work of J. Ross Wagner) that Paul’s message of hope was spoken into exactly this sense of disconnect in his own times. Paul is drawing on a prophetic tradition “in which hope against hope continued to be formulated in situations which for many Jews in Palestine, and partly also in the Diaspora of the empire, were completely devastating.”[1]  The Old Testament prophets, and now Paul, were proclaiming hope in their situation “despite so much evidence that seemed to point clearly to the contrary.”[2]  Holly Hearon, an American New Testament scholar, reflects on the devastating situations in our contemporary context into which this passage may be speaking:

It is the gut-wrenching “why?” of parents whose children have been gunned down in schools. It is the anguished “how long?” of those whose unemployment checks ran out long ago. It is the persistent “when?” of those who have been waiting too many years for justice to be done.[3]

And yet, Hearon suggests, into these situations can speak “the burning hope that God’s justice will prevail despite all signs to the contrary.”[4]

It is worth reflecting here on what we might mean by hope.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions.  The first is hope as “expectation of something desired; desire combined with expectation.”  This might be hope for the fulfilment of promises or prophesies, “whether in the near or in a more distant future.”[5]  This reminds us that hope is not always a belief that change of transformation can happen now; hope helps us to look beyond the now to a different future.

Another of the OED definitions is “A person or thing that gives hope or promise for the future.” In his letter to the Romans Paul proclaims that Christ has fulfilled precisely this kind of hope:  “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (5:6,8).  Holly Hearon comments of Rom 5:8 that “The word ‘prove’ can sound legalistic: for example, proving a case in a court of law, or winning a point in a debate.”  She notes, however, that the word Paul uses here (sunistēmi) “belongs to a different semantic field that has at its root the idea of bringing things together.”  What Paul is pointing to here is “God’s overwhelming desire to restore the relationship between creation and the Creator”, revealed through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.[6]  Hope helps us to see that there might be another narrative, another way of telling the story.

The OED also defines hope as a “feeling of trust or confidence.”  Although this meaning is obsolete in modern English, it is closest to what Strong’s lexicon gives for the Greek elpida: “hope, expectation, trust, confidence.” Understanding hope as trust, or confidence, seems to me to shed real light on Paul’s understanding of hope. The context of this passage at the beginning of Romans 5 is Paul’s affirmation that justification – our being “reckoned-as-righteous”,[7] our being “made right in God’s sight”[8] – comes to us through faith, and this is all about being able to trust God.  For L. Ann Jervis Paul’s assertion that “believers are in a place of peace with God ([Romans] 5:1), … means that they are in a location where they have access to grace (5:2)—they are now close to God: ‘reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (5:10).”[9]  Faith is the experience of having a trusting relationship to God, as Martin Luther realised when reflecting on Paul’s account of justification in Romans.[10] It is this new relationship of being close to God that Paul describes elsewhere in Romans as “being ‘in Christ Jesus’ (8:1) and ‘in the Spirit’ (8:9).”[11] This trusting relationship with God means, as Judy Hirst writes, that “As Christians we believe that there is a point to life; that things are more then they seem.”[12]  We “begin to see with the eye of faith that in all situations there can be a path that leads to a new and greater life.”[13]

Hope understood as trust is a reminder that hope is not optimism: it is something deeper and steadier, rooted in a sense that God is with us wherever and however we are, despite everything. Jan Richardson writes:

Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.[14]

This sense that hope draws us into Christ’s work to make a more whole world now also resonated with Romans 5. L. Ann Jervis argues that Paul wants to show how “the reality of God’s way of life,” is made available to believers through Christ and the Spirit,[15] and that this is “not an occasional or necessarily ecstatic or extraordinary experience,” but “a stable way of life for believers.”[16]  It is also, argues Kathy Ehrenberger, profoundly relational: Paul is clear that the grace he had received was not “a personal favour which he could enjoy for himself,” but rather caught up with his call to proclaim the gospel to the gentiles.[17]  Grace and apostolic calling or discipleship are inextricably entangled: “to communicate who and what [Christ] is, the life must be lived,” as Rowan Williams puts it.[18]  But this does not imply that God abandons us when we feel that we fall short.  Rowan Williams reflects that “Christ’s human life is open to the divine at every moment; it is not that God the Word deigns to take up residence in those parts of our lives that we consider important or successful or exceptional.”[19]  Life in Christ, life in the Spirit, is “a life that values every dimension of experience, including the routine, the repetitive and prosaic,”[20] and we might add, the difficult, the distressing and the challenging: suffering, affliction, tribulation, problems and trials.

The progression from trouble to hope (or indeed to perseverance or patience, or to character) may still not be easy.  The final stanza of one of George Herbert’s four poems entitled “Affliction” highlights his own struggles to accede to what God seems to require of him:

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.[21]

Janet Morley describes this as “a brilliant summary of the options open to the afflicted Christian soul”: acceptance, rebellion, and (my own interpretation) feeling cut off from – or cast off by – God.[22]

Let me end with yet another translation of Paul’s progression from trouble to hope, found in The Message:  “troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”  Hope understood as being alert to whatever God will do next in our lives.  Perhaps that is the best translation yet.

Amen

 

[1]  Kathy Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power: Communication and Interaction in the Early Christ-Movement (London: Bloomsbury 2007), 94; summarising J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of Good News: Isaiah and Paul ‘In Concert’ in the Letter to the Romans (Leiden: Brill 2002).

[2]  Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, 94-95.

[3]  Holly Hearon, “Between Text and Sermon: Romans 5:6–11,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69 (2015), 347-349, at 347.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, 95.

[6]  Hearon, “Romans 5:6–11,” 348.

[7]  Nick King, The Bible, Romans 5:1.

[8]  The Inclusive Bible, Romans 5:1.

[9]  L. Ann Jervis, “The Spirit Brings Christ’s Life to Life,” in: Jerry L. Sumney (ed.), Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 137-156, at 141.

[10]  See for instance Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, Luther’s Works 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1972), 36.

[11]  Jervis, “The Spirit Brings Christ’s Life to Life,” 141.

[12]  Judy Hirst, A Kind of Sleepwalking … and waking up to life (London: DLT 2014), 64.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Jan Richardson, “So That You May Know the Hope,” The Painted Prayer Book (online at: https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/).

[15]  Jervis, “The Spirit Brings Christ’s Life to Life,” 142.

[16]  Ibid, 143.

[17]  Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, 88.

[18]  Rowan Williams, The Way of St Benedict (London: Bloomsbury Continuum 2020), 49.

[19]  Ibid., 48.

[20]  Ibid.

[21]  George Herbert, “Affliction,” in: Janet Morley, Love Set You Going: Poems of the Heart (London: SPCK 2019), 134.

[22]  Morley, Love Set You Going, 136.

Ascension – 20 May 2020

Sermon at the online Ascension Day service for the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Glasgow South region

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

Some years ago I published a book of “Reflections for Ash Wednesday to Pentecost”, a book for Lent and the Easter season.  (It has always seemed a bit odd to me that Lent books stop at the end of Holy Week, without continuing to the resurrection, the resurrection appearances, the Ascension and Pentecost.)

If you love something - cover

I called the book “If you love something…” based on the saying “If you love something let it go.  If it comes back to you it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was.”

If you love

It seemed to me than, and it seems to me now, that this saying says something very profound about what happens to us, and what happens to the disciples, as we move through Lent, Passiontide and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost.  But it also says something very profound about our experiences of life, and about our discipleship.

Lent, Passiontide and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost took the disciples, and take us through a cycle of letting go and receiving, of giving up in order to be given anew.  With the disciples, we come to know Jesus, the man, the companion, his words, his miraculous touch.  With them we rejoice as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

360px-Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti

But then, with them, we must let go of ideas of kingship and revolution and watch Jesus our Christ die in horrible agony on the cross.

170414+Image+3+-+Cimabue+Crucifix

And yet it is in and through the letting go of Jesus in his passion that the meeting with the resurrected Christ becomes possible.

2018-0408-pascha

It is that terrible loss and the haunting absence in the tomb which make possible the encounter with the risen Christ in the garden, on the road, in our lives.

Letting go of Jesus whom we love is necessary, for only then can Christ return to us.  This is the central movement of the Passion and the Resurrection.  This is not the end of the story. Today we celebrate the Ascension, and with the disciples we find ourselves once again having to let go: this time of the risen Christ who was Jesus, different and yet the same.

ascension-icon-small

After the Ascension, the disciples withdraw, as they did after the crucifixion, to another room.

20120513144615!Icon-Pentecost

There they are given the gift of Holy Spirit, that exhilarating gift of fire and rushing wind—that still small voice—which we celebrate at Pentecost.

Pentecost

But that gift too could only come to the disciples because they let go of the new way they had come to experience God in the Risen Christ:  let go of this experience of God—in order to receive the presence of God in a different way, in the Holy Spirit.

This experience of letting go and receiving through Lent and the Easter season also reminds us very clearly that the cycle of letting go and receiving is never a ‘going back’.  The crucified Christ does not return to the disciples as he was before—he is not Jesus, their companion of the road—but is different.  The resurrected Christ is not always immediately recognisable.

Noli me Tangere Fra Angelico

He is glorious, but also wounded and scarred.  He is the same, yet he has changed. The people to whom he appears have also changed.  They have been through the terror and the horror of Good Friday.  Christ has died in agony on the cross before their eyes.  Just as Christ bears the marks of that suffering on his risen body, so too the disciples carry on their souls the marks of the terrible, lonely pain they have witnessed, of their grief and loss.

window090307_02

This process of letting go of God, of Christ and of finding ourselves again in God’s presence in a different way is not only the central message of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, of  the reality of our faith and indeed of our whole lives.  It is the movement of repentance and new life to which we are called through our baptism.  In our life of faith, it will not always be as dramatic as the passion and the resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost.

ascension

We find ourselves entering into it every time we find ourselves tripping over our expectations of how things should be, of having to give up something that – or someone whom – we have cherished.  Perhaps this might help us to make sense of the strangeness of our lives at present, in which we have had to let go of so much that was normal and precious to us. Letting go in order to receive is not giving up, but is about learning to see differently, to let go of how we wanted things to be, to be open to how things are.

letting go

Ascension reminds us particularly that there can be a transcendence to our experiences of loss.  That they can act as bridges between earth and heaven.  That they teach us something about God, and about the person God wants each of us to be. Lao Tzu says (apparently), “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”  There is a chant by John Bell which says something similar: “Take, O take me as I am; Summon out what I shall be; Set your seal upon my heart, And live in me.”  Ascension invites us to be summoned out, as Christ was summoned out, and to be drawn to be at God’s right hand, as he was drawn to be at God’s right hand.

final take

Creator and ruler of all,
open our hearts that the King of glory may enter,
and bring us rejoicing to your holy mountain,
where you live and reign, now and for ever.  Amen

 

 

Easter 5 (A) – 10 May 2020

Reflections for the 5th Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after VE Day

Acts 7:55-60 
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

On Friday, we marked the 75th anniversary of the declaration of Victory in Europe on 8 May 1945. VE Day.  I was meant to be doing two things over the course of this weekend: the first, from Thursday to Saturday, was an ecumenical meeting in Augsburg, Germany, working on a proposal for full communion between the (American) Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  The second was preaching at Birmingham Cathedral on Sunday morning at their service to mark VE Day.  The coming together of those two events on this weekend seemed to me remarkably apt, and an important perspective on why for me VE Day is not about patriotism and nationalism.  Placing VE Day in the context of our ecumenical relationships forces us to look beyond our own viewpoint and remember how the end of war and the coming of peace had impact, not just for Britain, not just for the Allies, but for the whole of Europe, or even the whole world.  VE Day was the end of the war in Europe, but also the beginning of a project to build a better world, to build a peaceful Europe, to wage peace and not war.  That perspective is one of the reasons why for me Brexit seems such a backwards step:  the European Union grew out of the post war vision of a united Europe.

But the designation VE day also reminds us that while 8 May signalled the capitulation of Germany and the end of the war in Europe, it was by no means the end of the Second World War.  In May 1945, my maternal grandfather was in the Far East as a chaplain with the RAF.  VE Day was not the end of the war for him or the troops to whom he ministered or for any of the many who were stationed or interned or enslaved in forced work camps.  That came with Victory in Japan – VJ Day – on 15 August 1945.  And that came only after the dropping of two atomic bombs which began the nuclear age.  Together, VE Day in May 1945 and VJ Day in August 1945 ended the war and brought about peace, and that is indeed something to celebrate. Looking back, however, we realise that it was a complex peace.  Seventy-five years later the political uncertainties of the world in which we live are a constant reminder that peace is something that we have to seek, to work at – to wage.

What does the church have to say to such an anniversary?  How can today’s readings speak to us on this anniversary weekend of VE Day?  Our reading from Acts describes the death of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which we mark every year on the day after Christmas.  Stephen was arrested for speaking words of wisdom and truth inspired by the Spirit, which were accused of being “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 7: 10-11). He died for maintaining his convictions in the face of hostility. He was not at all diplomatic about it, saying to his accusers: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7:51).  Stephen’s story might stand for us for the heroism of those who went to war believing that they were fighting a cause that must be defended. But if we read it that way, we must remember that that was true of some at least of those who fought on both sides.  And we must remember also that for many who fought it was not true at all.  They did not go to war for a vision but because they were called up, sent into the front line, doing their duty and not proclaiming a vision. Many of them died for that, as Stephen did.  However, Stephen’s story does speak to us of the need to maintain convictions in the face of hostility and of the consequences of doing so.  It is, for me at least, a reminder that such convictions can take us into a place where we have to suffer or even die for them.  Peaceful prophetic actions can stir up violent resistance.  It is a small step from that recognition to the realisation that if there are things worth fighting for, there are also things that are worth fighting against. There is no question in my mind that the horrors of National Socialist ideology and the reign of terror which it imposed, with its persecution, internment and murder of Jews, of Jehovah’s Witnesses, of homosexual people, of those with physical disability or mental illness, and of anyone who spoke out in opposition did constitute something that was worth fighting against.  But in saying that, we need to remember what that means we were fighting for: justice, free speech, the rule of law, what are now – post Second World War, and shaped by its experience – known as human rights, which ultimately means the recognition that all people are created in the image of God.

This brings us to our second reading, from the first letter of Peter, and particularly to what might be seen as the letter’s central assertion:  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”  This is a vision of nationhood which is not narrowly nationalistic.  We are called, 1 Peter tells us, to recognise our shared identity as Christians, as those called to proclaim to love of God for the world, and God’s wondrous acts in the world.  Just as Stephen proclaimed God’s wisdom and truth, so too should we, but we should realise and understand that we do so together, not simply as individuals.  This vision of a national identity that transcends individual nations is one reason why we think of the church as catholic, as pertaining to all, but also as bringing all together.  That vision lies at the root of an ecumenical understanding of what it is to be Christian as well as at the root of a gospel understanding of what it is to be Christian.  It is no accident that the ecumenical movement has been deeply shaped by both war and the processes of peace.  The Meissen Agreement arose out of the peace movement in the 1980s.  The World Council of Churches was established after the Second World War.  It drew on the ecumenical impulse which shaped the interwar period,  when the budding ecumenical initiatives which had begun emerging before the First World War were deepened and given new impetus by the experience of dislocation and disintegration during the war.  These interwar ecumenical impulses were fuelled by the sense amongst churchmen (and they were mostly men at that time) that the First World War represented in part a failure on the part of the churches.

When the Lambeth Conference met in 1920, it took as its theme “fellowship,” and the Lambeth Appeal of 1920 (the centenary of which we mark this year) asserts – even proclaims – that “God wills fellowship.”  This is not a fellowship of uniformity, but a fellowship in which the riches of individual traditions are recognised, affirmed, and shared:  “It is through a rich diversity of life and devotion that the unity of the whole fellowship will be fulfilled.”  The holy nation, the royal priesthood celebrates what we bring to it as individuals, as churches, as nations and nationalities.  But we benefit from, and are enriched by, what others have to offer.  This is the vision of John the Divine:  “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). Truly, as Jesus promises in John’s gospel, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” Or “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” as the Authorised Version puts it.  These mansions, these dwelling places are not silos or ghettos, not pitted against each other.  They come together, complementing each other to complete the father’s house.

That is why for me the falling together this weekend of our marking of VE Day with an ecumenical meeting was so important.  In this time of COVID-19, our ecumenical group met, not for a three-day residential meeting, but for a short preparatory video conference.  Bishop Mark Eddington, of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches reminded us that while some are celebrating a military victory (or, indeed, marking a military defeat, and the fall of a terrible and terrifying regime), Christians have only one victory to celebrate: the victory of Christ over death, the glorification of the Father in the Son, as the Gospel of John also reminds us.  We come to God as our rock and our fortress, as a certain hope in times of trouble, as the source of strength to withstand whatever enemies and persecutors we may enocounter, to stand against injustice, to stand for the recognition that people are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated as such.

And so we give thanks today for all who gave their lives for peace in Europe.  And we give thanks, let us commit ourselves to work for the vision of a peace which is not narrowly national, but recognises that the “chosen race”, the “royal priesthood”, the “holy nation, God’s own people” is made up of all who are created in the image of God.

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
… Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
… My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.  (from Psalm 31)

 

Easter 4 (A) – 3 May 2020

Reflections for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday

the good shepherd

Acts 2.42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2.19-25
John 10.1-10

 

In her book Landmarks, also published under the title The Inner Compass, Margaret Silf remembers a walk she took one day along the Trent and Mersey canal.  She came to a lock and spent some time watching the canal boats pass through it, marvelling at how the still, peaceful water could take on the power to raise those boats.  But she also reflected on the experience of being in the lock, in words which may resonate with our current experience of living in lockdown:

I realised that I myself feel rather like a narrow boat in the lock chamber with the lock gates firmly closed on me.  … the lock chamber seems to be all there is. … It often feels as though I am here in a deep dark prison, facing brick walls on every side, and with no way out that my mind can guess at or imagine. This is a pointless and daunting place to be. If I think about my condition at all, I start to examine every brick or stone in that lock chamber, as if it were the whole arena of my being, in the hope that a minute examination of its walls might reveal some meaning in it or some way of dealing with it.[1]

However, as Margaret Silf points out, the process of examining the lock walls is “ultimately … futile”:

The lock chamber makes no sense at all unless you know about the canal. Without the canal, the boat is truly just a prisoner in a pointless place.  But when the reality of the canal is felt and embraced, then the transformation happens. Then the lock chamber is seen to be the place … where God’s grace might be flowing in to raise me to the place where I must be.[2]

That is, there is a canal that has brought us to this particular lock – this place of lockdown – and “which will, in some mysterious way, take [us] further.”[3]  We cannot see that at present, but the conviction that this may help us to bear the current situation, and may help us to see it as a space into which God’s grace can flow, filling the lock to take us to the place where we are meant to be. Or perhaps we are experiencing our lives at present as a place out of which something is flowing, as an emptying lock.  That emptying also taking us somewhere: a lock as it empties moves the boat down into the dank claustrophobia of the lock chamber so that the lock gates can open onto the next stretch of canal.  Change can come about through emptying as well as filling.

To recognise that there must be a wider perspective is not to romanticise the situation.  The lock is still damp, dark, and sometimes claustrophobic.  The pain of Good Friday is put into perspective by the transforming joy of Easter Sunday, but pain it remains.  Sheila Cassidy writes: “Stripping, whether by violence, illness or bereavement” – and we might add, or by the exigencies of lockdown – “is a messy business.  We look at the heroes, the brave survivors and are deceived by their outer serenity. Ignorant of their tears and rage, we forget that there is no shortcut to freedom.”[4]  Sheila Cassidy quotes T. S. Eliot:

                                                In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.[5]

The question which ultimately always faces us all, but currently brought into high relief by our present circumstances, is this:  how do we come through?  How can we be not broken by the times when there is no ecstasy, by experiences which are characterised rather by ignorance and dispossession?

The author of 1 Peter writes, “For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”  Later he will write: “Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”[6]  Nick King writes that 1 Peter is written “to Christians who (like Christians ever since) are enduring suffering, and they need to find some landmarks in the storm.”[7]  For Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter draws a “parallelism between Christ’s past and the Christians’ present,” which is suffering, “and Christ’s present and the Christians’ future,” which is resurrection hope.[8]  That is, Christians “should both expect and desire to share Christ’s experiences,” which means that in times of suffering, we can and should know “that Christ has been there before us” (an idea which Nick King finds, and I agree with him, “undeniably helpful”).[9]  For the author of 1 Peter the way to endure the pain of suffering and to enter into Christ’s present resurrected reality is, as Nick King’s translation has it, to “become ardent for what is good,” to “have an eager love for one another, because ‘love covers a multitude of sins’.”[10]

The new Christians in the book of Acts also find a way together in love. In the time after Pentecost, as this new community was finding its way of being, which must have been a period of disorientation, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  We are not able to break bread together at the moment except in our own homes. Praying may also seem hard.  We may be feeling isolated from God as well as from other people. This resonates with what Rowan Williams has described as the “ray of darkness”: “If you want God, you must be prepared to let go of all, absolutely all, emotional satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. … If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your ‘religious’ world shattered.”[11] Lockdown has in many ways brought a shattering of our religious world, and we may well find, as Rowan Williams writes, that “This brings on a kind of vertigo; it may make me a stranger to my self, to everything that I have ever taken for granted.”[12]  William Johnston describes such experiences as times “of death and resurrection”: “The framework that upheld one’s life collapses leaving one adrift on a sea of insecurity. But in the midst of this turmoil comes a call … One is called to something new.”[13]

For Ivan Mann this call encourages us to enter into “the depth of pain and love” and allow it to become “the place of insight, growth and transformation.”[14] He warns that “in finding a breakthrough we may experience a seeming breakdown.”[15] That sense of disorientation and isolation does not mean that God is absent.  Psalm 23 speaks into this experience, with its promise of hope and help in times of distress and trouble:  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.”  We may find more familiar the words of the Authorized Version:  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  Psalm 23 affirms that even in times of darkness and isolation, we are not alone.  God is with us and God will comfort us. Remember too the original meaning of “comfort”: it derives from “con forte”, with strength.  God will be with us; God will give us strength.

Psalm 23 reminds us also that however daunting, challenging or uncomfortable they may seem, these are “right paths” which we follow for “his name’s sake.” And Sheila Cassidy believes that even when we feel trapped, isolated and inadequate, we are still able to respond to God’s call: “We are all frail, earthen vessels who may, should the potter choose, be fashioned in his image and for his own mysterious purposes. He chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness. … All we have to do is remember that his love is better than life itself and say YES.”[16]

All this is to say that Christ’s promise, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” speaks to us here and now, even in the restrictions and disorientation of lockdown.  To affirm this is not to discount or ignore what we are going through: it does not mean that we do not feel the pain of these challenging times, and particularly the pain of those who are suffering, those have died, and those who are bereaved.  In all of this, through all this, Christ is with us:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.

[1]   Margaret Silf, Inner Compass: An Invitation to an Ignatian Spirituality (Chicago: Loyola 1999), 55.

[2]   Ibid., 55-56.

[3]   Ibid., 55.

[4]   Sheila Cassidy, The Good Friday People (London: DLT 1991), 91.

[5]   T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,“ Four Quartets.

[6]   1 Peter 3:13.

[7]   The Bible, translated by Nick King (Stowmarket: Kevin Mayhew 2013), 2335.

[8]   Christoph Stenschke, “Review of Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter (1996),” Scottish Journal of Theology 51 (1998), 384-386, at 385.

[9]   The Bible, translated by Nick King, 2334, 2335.

[10]   1 Peter 3:13, 4:8.

[11]   Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (London: DLT 1994), 97.

[12]   Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement:  Sermons and Addresses, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1994, p. 119.

[13]   William Johnston, Being in Love (London: Fount 1988), 89.

[14]   Ivan Mann, Breathing I Pray (London: DLT 2005), 129.

[15]   Ibid., 131.

[16]   Cassidy, Good Friday People, 188.

Prayers during the Easter Vigil

Prayers during the Easter Vigil, Rumours of Hope

(https://www.rumoursofhope.co.uk/)

 

I

Loving God, bring your light and restoring presence to the dark places in our lives. Bring your hope to hearts that feel defeated. Bring your love and compassion to those in pain. Open our eyes to see you at work, and give us your light. In Jesus’ name. Amen.[1]

rumours of hope 1

 

II

God of compassion, be close to those who are ill, afraid or in isolation.
In their loneliness, be their consolation; in their anxiety, be their hope;
in their darkness, be their light;
through him who suffered alone on the cross, but reigns with you in glory,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[2]

rumours of hope 2

 

III

O gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate upon you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[3]

rumours of hope 3

 

IV

Be with us, Lord, in all our prayers, and direct our way toward the attainment of salvation, that among the changes and chances of this mortal life, we may always be defended by your gracious help, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[4]

rumours of hope 4

 

V

Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful, and lift up all who are brought low; that we may rejoice in your comfort, knowing that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.[5]

rumours of hope 5

 

VI

I am giving you worship with all my life,
I am giving you obedience with all my power,
I am giving you praise with all my strength,
I am giving you honour with all my speech.
I am giving you love with all my heart,
I am giving you affection with all my sense,
I am giving you my being with all my mind,
I am giving you my soul, O most high and holy God.
Praise to the Father, Praise to the Son,
Praise to the Spirit, the Three in One. Amen.[6]

rumours of hope 6

VII

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[7]

rumours of hope 7

 

VIII

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen.[8]

rumours of hope 8

 

IX

Eternal God, we confess to you our sinfulness. You made the world a paradise, but we have turned our lands into places of tears and unhappiness. People are fighting each other, race against race. The holocaust of chauvinism sweeps through countries devouring humanity terrorising us into submission. Liberating One, free us from all bondage so that our faith in you will make us free to create with courage a new world and new societies. Amen.[9]

rumours of hope 9

 

X

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[10]

rumours of hope 10

 

XI

May God bless you with a restless discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.[11]

rumours of hope 11

 

XII

We are not people of fear: we are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed: we are people of generosity.
We are your people, God, giving and loving, wherever we are, whatever it costs, for as long as it takes, wherever you call us. Amen.[12]

rumours of hope 12

XIII

O God who is greater than the most powerful forces in this world,
enable us to be still and know that You are God.
O Lord who answers out of the whirlwind of everyday life,
breathe in us Your Holy Spirit to strengthen, comfort,
and guide us in the midst of the storm.
O still, small voice, speak to us this hour
that we might become makers of Your peace
in our homes, in our communities, in our world.
We pray all this in the name of the One who calmed the raging sea. Amen.[13]

rumours of hope 13

 

XIV

Eternal Giver of life and light, this holy night shines with the radiance of the risen Christ. Renew your Church with the Spirit given to us in baptism, that we may worship you in sincerity and truth, and shine as a light in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.[14]

rumours of hope 14

 

XV

God of glory,
by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope;
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[15]

rumours of hope 15.1

 

 

 

 

[1]  Based on https://hellohope.com/blog/prayer-light.

[2]  From https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[3]   A prayer of St Benedict, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[4]   From https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[5]   A prayer from Common Worship, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[6]   Adapted from Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica (1900), included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[7]   From https://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/prayer-index/justice-prayers.

[8]   From St Patrick’s Breastplate, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[9]   A prayer for renewal from Sri Lanka, https://www.uspg.org.uk/pray/.

[10]  Collect for Evening Prayer.

[11]  From https://aheartforjustice.com/2010/10/07/a-franciscan-blessing-may-god-bless-you-with-discomfort-anger-tears-and-foolishness/.

[12]  Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference, included in https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-parishes/coronavirus-covid-19-liturgy-and-prayer.

[13]  From http://www.myredeemerlives.com/prayers.html (found via https://cmbs.mennonitebrethren.ca/worship_resources/elijah-and-the-still-small-voice/).

[14]  Scottish Episcopal Church, Collect for the Easter Vigil, https://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/Collects-2015.pdf.

[15]  Church of England, Collect for Easter Sunday, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/times-and-seasons/easter-liturgy.

Tuesday in Holy Week – 7 April 2020

Isaiah 49.1-7

Psalm 71.1-14

1 Corinthians 1.18-31

John 12.20-36

There is a wonderful richness to the readings set for this Tuesday of Holy Week in this third week of lock-down.  Paul writes to the church at Corinth about the cross: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  This resonates for me with the voices of those who say that lockdown is all a waste of time, and the voices of those who say that it is serving the purpose of lowering the numbers of those taken ill and particularly those who need intensive care.  Some around us are saying this is foolishness.  I prefer to believe – to hope – that what we are doing is important and meaningful.  Paul wants to look beyond human wisdom and human quarrels to see the deep truth that we mark each Holy Week:  “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  The arrest, trial and execution of Jesus, which by human standards look like abject failure, point beyond to the wisdom and power of God.  For Paul this is a turning of things on their heads:  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  We are in the midst of a situation that does just that:  turns our normal expectations, our normal measures of reality on their heads.  What will come of all this?  At present we cannot know.  But we can hope.

It may not feel much like that.  Isaiah writes of a sense of futility: “I said, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.’”  Do we feel that as the relationships and proprieties which generally shape our lives slip away?  And yet, Isaiah can still say, “surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” Psalm 71 reminds us that God offers hope and refuge in difficult times:

In you, O Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.

In this time of disorientation, a time in which many of our normal routines and normal places of safety may no longer be available to us, perhaps we can experience God in a new way as the place where our cause is rooted, as the rock upon which our lives are built, and a fortress within which we can take shelter.  As other certainties slide away, it may be easier to feel ourselves rooted in God.

John’s gospel reminds us that times of trial and times of suffering can be transformative.  And John’s gospel shows us Jesus reflecting on this theme.  Transformation, he says, will come about through death, through being broken:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Is this our time of falling into the earth and dying?  If so, perhaps we can see this Holy Week, this time of lockdown, the necessary precursor for a time of growth and flourishing.  We hear God’s promise through Jesus: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  And his call to us to “become children of light.”

A prayer by John Rayner (https://gracecathedral.org/prayers-difficult-times/):

When evil darkens our world, give us light. When despair numbs our souls, give us hope. When we stumble and fall, lift us up. When doubts assail us, give us faith. When nothing seems sure, give us trust. When ideals fade, give us vision. When we lose our way, be our guide! That we may find serenity in Your presence, and purpose in doing Your will.

 

Image: detail from purple stole (designed and created by Annabel O’Docherty)

Lent 5 (A) – 29 March 2020

a reflection written for St Margaret Newlands

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm 130

Romans 8: 6-11

John 11: 1-45

Today is Passion Sunday.  Next week it will be Palm Sunday.  Today is also our second Sunday with no church services and our first Sunday in Covid-19 lock-down.  Many of us may be feeling isolated, pent up, disorientated.  Meanwhile, Lent is moving us steadily towards the challenges and the depths of Holy Week, towards our time of thinking about the passion – the suffering – of Christ. This is a strange and unsettling time and it seems both highly appropriate and a bit overwhelming that the liturgical calendar is heading towards the contemplation of Christ’s suffering and death, just as we hear the growing numbers of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and, even harder, the numbers of people who have died.  So many lives have been affected.  And in this situation of death and life under what for us are unprecedented restrictions, we are presented with the passages set for today, which speak hope into times of darkness and life into times of death.

One thing that struck me on reading these passages in our current situation is how much closer death and dying were to earlier generations. Times of darkness, illness and death are not new, but these days we here in the west and the north have little experience of pandemics and plague and perhaps we are no longer used to dealing with this kind of crisis collectively.  That was different in the past, when Catherine of Siena and her companions cared for the sick and dying in the midst of the Black Death, or when Luther and Melanchthon mentioned in their correspondence that Wittenberg University had been closed on account of plague and the students and professors dispersed. Even a century ago, isolation hospitals, fever hospitals, quarantine periods and other measures to contain infectious illness would have been a part of familiar life, something that people were used to.  We are privileged to live in a world in which most of us are pretty healthy most of the time (alhough our current situation has brought home to me just how little it takes, statistically speaking, to merit a huge disruption to all our lives, and some of our livelihoods). But suddenly, everything feels precarious.

Where is God in all this?  Today’s readings affirm that God is with us in all of this, and they remind us too that there will be a new beginning after this present crisis.

Our passage from Ezekiel takes us into the valley of the dry bones. Reading the text anew, I find myself wondering what disaster of battle or plague had caused them to be lying there, these unburied bones?  The image resonates strongly for me with the pictures we have seen of the dead lying unburied in Italy, in France, because capacity, and coffins are not there to bury them.  It resonates for me also with the ruins of the hopes and plans and things to do that I and so many of us had over the coming weeks and months.  Lives cut short and plans abandoned.  “Can these bones live?”  God asks Ezekiel.  Ezekiel replies: “God, only you know the answer to that question.”  And God breathes life into the bones.  The utter dried up hopelessness is given a new beginning.

Our gospel reading takes us to the home of Martha and Mary as they mourn the death of their brother Lazarus.  He has died and been buried, and Jesus did not come in time. And so the sisters, their family and their friends mourn their brother, son, cousin, nephew, friend, Lazarus.  This story resonates with the grief of all those who have lost a relative or friend to covid-19, with all those who wait anxiously to hear news of those who have been infected or are ill, with all who are living with the pain and suffering caused by other illnesses.  It resonates also with the bereft feeling that comes with being shut out of our churches, deprived of the rhythms of worship, of school and work, the patterns of our days.  And Jesus calls Lazarus back to life.  Those who are grieving are given a new perspective.

These are not cheap promises.  Our valley may remain full of dry bones for a while and our brothers and sisters, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers may remain in the tomb. Nonetheless what we have here is a promise of two things that are central to this liturgical season.  One is the theology of Good Friday: that Christ is with us at all times, even when he and we are hanging on the cross.   Christ shares this dark time with us. That is the promise of Good Friday and it is something to come back to again and again in this challenging time.  And the other is the certain resurrection hope of Easter, that is promised to us even when we cannot quite understand it, which is kept alive in what Margaret Adam describes in her book Our Only Hope as “friendship in Christ … local, neighborhood, workplace, small-scale friendship that does not change when circumstances change, when prospects look dim, and when life as we know it is changing.”[1]

Today, on Passion Sunday, we enter into a Passiontide which this year may extend beyond its liturgical season and the feast of Easter. This Passiontide is likely to confront us particularly starkly with the reality of suffering, death and despair.  It is important that in the midst of fear and death we also hold onto the promise of the Easter that is surely coming.  We will keep Easter this year, when we get there, in whatever way we can, as a reminder that this too will pass.  We will keep Easter this year in the confidence that the hope we proclaim is, as Margaret Adam writes, “not limited by the circumstances of a broken and limited world.”[2]  Julian of Norwich, whose visions began after she nearly died, perhaps of the plague, wrote that God spoke to her in her own time of crisis, saying:  “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”[3]  We will live through this long Passiontide with a “theological hope undaunted by disaster.”[4] We will keep Easter in the conviction that the time is coming when Jesus will speak to us too (to use the words of Janet H. Hunt): “Come out of your losses, your fears, your despairs, your unsettled griefs.  Come out of your too long winters and your weeks full of too much suffering.  Come out now.  For we are not done with this world yet, Jesus seems to be saying, and it surely is not done with us. Come out and live!”[5]

[1]   Margaret Adam, Our Only Hope (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock 2013), p. 222.

[2]   Adam, Our Only Hope, p. 12.

[3]  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 13th revelation, chapter 27; online at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52958/52958-h/52958-h.htm.

[4]   Adam, Our Only Hope, p. 222.

[5]  Janet H. Hunt, “Looking for Crocuses” (30 Marc 2014); online at http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2014/03/looking-for-crocuses.html.

Lent 2 (A) – 8 March 2020

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Genesis 12: 1-4a
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17
John 3: 1-17

It is truly amazing – and an indication of my sporadic preaching pattern – that after twenty years of preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, there are still Sundays, and therefore sets of readings, that I have never preached on.  And this is one of them.  The story of Nicodemus, one of my favourite stories from John’s gospel, which I have often read with students to think about John’s understanding of baptism.  For both Paul and John, baptism is about new life.  But for Paul, baptism’s new life comes about by passing through death.  Paul’s writings about baptism are full of tomb imagery.  John in contrast asks us to think about baptism in terms of rebirth:  new life through being reborn.  John’s understanding of baptism is rooted in womb imagery.

How are we to understand that?  This story of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus suggests that one answer to that is “not too literally.”

Jesus says to Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. … The wind – that is, the Spirit – blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

One thing that is clear from this cryptic exchange is that being born from above, being born of the Spirit is not a literal being born again.  Something else is going on here.

In a reflection on this passage, the Methodist theologian Alyce McKenzie tells the story of an encounter she had whilst sitting in a waiting room, waiting for new tyres to be put on her car:

I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, “How to supercharge your metabolism.” I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. … Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: “How to be born again” and I heard a man’s voice ask, “Wouldn’t you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?”

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid-40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, “Well, have you?”

 I said, “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.” At that the man shook his head as if to say “Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How hard is that?” He took his tract back and moved on.[1]

“I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike. … I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.”  That sounds like a pretty good answer to me, for it reminds us that this is not something that happens once and is over, but a journey we find ourselves on. A journey that shapes and changes us, which draws out who we truly are in God’s eyes.  Which takes us to places and situations that we did not expect, For “the Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

That is not to say that there are not moments of choice along the way.  For Robert Cornwall the contrasts between darkness and light are important in this story:

That Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night is a reflection of John’s desire to contrast light and darkness.  Nicodemus is a religious leader – a person who wants to believe, but he remains in darkness.  The question is: will he leave the darkness for the light?  According to Jesus, we will be judged on whether we embrace the one who is the light.  Those who live in darkness, do evil.  Those who emerge into the light – who embrace the light of God – will do what is good.[2]

In this reading of the Nicodemus story, to be born again is to be transformed: “The old has passed and the new has come.” But again, I think we are not to think of this as instantaneous, but rather as a process of transformation.

Notice how in the passage from Genesis, Abram and Sarai go on a long journey, and even when they come to the place the God tells them is the promised land they build an altar, but don’t stop and settle: they travel further.  Paul in this passage from the letter to the Romans emphasises that it is Abraham’s faith and not his works, his keeping of the law that saves him. The faith of Abram and Sarai gives them the ability, the trust to follow God into the unknown, to let God into his life, to go with God to unexpected places.

Like Cornwall, Alyce McKenzie understands the process of being born again as a trasformation:

Being born from above is letting the Holy Spirit do what God wants done at the depths of our life.  According to the Gospel of John, that is a gradual journey from night to day, from darkness to light. It is a daily pilgrimage from belief as reciting a creed to belief as opening the door to our soul and letting Jesus in. It’s a daily process of flipping the card on our door that says to God “Please do not disturb” to “please come in and help us clean our room.”[3]

This is something of what Judy Hirst is talking about when she writes about “waking up to life”:  Our choice, she says,

is between a life which is closed down to change, defended, narrow and me-centred (with the likelihood that this will mostly not be impossibly painful) or a life which is able to take the risk of change, which is open, generous and compassionate, which will bring a vast increase in delight, but also pain and hurt. … To have life abundantly is Jesus’s invitation to us: live, don’t sleepwalk through life.[4]

In the thought for the week printed on the service sheet, Bede Griffiths says something similar of his experience of being born again:

God had brought me to my knees and made me acknowledge my own nothingness, and out of that knowledge I had been reborn. I was no longer the centre of my life and therefore I could see God in everything.[5]

Seeing God in everything.  Recognising God in everything.

Being born again is about entering into a process of transformation, and it is also an experience which takes us into the encounter with the world as it actually is.  Not only we are transformed, but also the people, the world around us.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Amen

 

[1]   See https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2011/03/nicodemuss-non-decision-alyce-mckenzie-03-14-2011.

[2]   See http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/03/yes-i-am-born-again-lectionary.html.

[3]  See: https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2011/03/nicodemuss-non-decision-alyce-mckenzie-03-14-2011.aspx?p=2.

[4]  Judy  Hirst, A kind of sleepwalking … and waking up to life (London 2014), 106.

[5]   Bede Griffiths, The Golden String: An Autobiography (London 1979, 107-108.

Epiphany 5 (A) – 9 February 2020

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Isaiah 58: 1-9a
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12
Matthew 5: 13-20

“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world.”

Yes: you!  You and me and all of us.  Each of us is the one who gives the world its flavour, who brings light to the world. And that, today’s readings remind us, is important.  That is true worship of God.  That is what living righteousness means; that is what it means to live righteously.

The last section of the gospel seems to suggest that living righteousness might mean keeping a set of rules.  But read together with the first part of the gospel and the Old Testament lesion from Isaiah, I think what we are being invited to do is to reflect on the deeper meaning of our worship and our prayer and on how that worship and prayer relate to our lived lives.  There are two parts to that reflection.  The first is to think about how we pray, how we worship: here on Sunday mornings, or elsewhere, or on Sunday evenings, or during the week; to discover and recognise and affirm the spiritual disciplines of our lives.  Isaiah talks about this in terms of fasting, but prayer and worship can take many forms, and we may want to stop and ponder on what they are for us.

The second aspect of our reflection concerns how these disciplines to connect with the rest of our lives. Isaiah warns that too often they may not: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”  You fast, you pray, you worship, and it makes no difference, is the implication of what Isaiah is saying here. You pray to God, but you cheat people, or quarrel with one another (the implication that these rows are over things that don’t matter).  This for Isaiah is not true worship, for true worship will spill over to affect the lives of other people.  Rather, God has given him a vision for a true fast:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

“Then,” says Isaiah, “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”  I think this is what Jesus has in mind too when he says ““You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.”  You – I – we – are the ones who can make a difference, who can be God, be Christ to the world.  We can reflect on that too:  David Lose suggests “starting a ‘Salt & Light Log.’ … Start asking people to collect examples of where God has worked through them to help someone else.”[1]  Reflect on how God uses us, often in quite unexpected ways.

The danger of starting a log is that our being salt and light becomes a form of works righteousness, that we are tempted into a mentality of totting up our good works in the hope if we do enough we will be saved. I don’t think this is what Jesus is talking about. Being salt, being light is an attitude of mind rather than a shopping list.  Jan L. Richardson reflects on what she calls “[Jesus’s habit of going into places of lack. Again and again we see Jesus hanging out with people who live and struggle amid the daily wildernesses of body and soul.”[2]  We are told – in today’s reading from Isaiah, in Matthew 25, in so many places in the Old Testament – to feed the hungry, provide drink to the thirsty, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger.  As Richardson points out, “Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of freedom. Christ chooses those places, inhabits these spaces, waits for us to show up.”[3]  To show up, to be in that space and hang out with people, is to enter into relationship.  In a prayer written in response to today’s reading, Sarah Brown puts it this way:

God, help us to use your Spirit
to seek out relationships
with those that seem different,
those that seem vulnerable and at risk.
Keep us seeking
until there is no other that separates us
keep us seeking until names are what we know
and not groups of people
– the weak, the sick, the poor.[4]

“Keep seeking until names are what we know, not groups of people…”  This is not about catalogues but about being, or becoming, friends and companions.  This is about being on the road together together.

That journey may be about calling out injustice.  I have this week been reading Rowan Williams’ book Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way. One of the figures he reflects on is William Wilberforce, and he focuses particularly on the way that Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery sought to counter a system which Wilberforce understood not only to be abhorrent and cruel to the slaves, but to “enact and perpetuate in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God’s purpose for humanity.”[5]  Wilberforce wanted to change the laws because the laws were damaging not only to the slaves but to the proclamation of the gospel in society. The point, as Williams reflects in his piece on Michael Ramsey, is that “it is only in the service offered to the world by disinterested love that the action of God becomes manifest.”[6]  If you are a Harry Potter fan then you will know that ultimately this is how J. K. Rowling has Harry Potter conquer the evil that is Voldemort:  through disinterested love that is not afraid to sacrifice itself; through love that loves without wanting to gain something for itself.[7]

This  can be hard and we may not feel equipped for it.  But remember that the apostle Paul did not feel equipped, as he writes to the Corinthians: “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). Nearly two thousand years later, we are still reading his letter.  Sarah Brown’s prayer begins

It is hard to admit that we are hungry
that at times we are hopeless
and maybe even today, we are struggling inside
as we utter the words “Fine,” and “Good, thanks.”
Crack us open, Lord, break out the truth within us…
For we are all weak and sick and poor
and we need You to transform our lives
that we might become a light to Your world.[8]

If we are feeling that way – a bit vulnerable ourselves – it may be comforting to be reminded that being salt and light is not always about being heroic, or being out there in the world campaigning. Our being salt and light may just be – may profoundly be – about attitude.   Some of you may know the book Pollyanna, published in 1913. If you do, you might remember the story of Pollyanna’s encounter with the Revd Paul Ford, who is struggling over what to do about the divisions and factions in his congregation. He is planning to preach a sermon of woe and condemnation, calling the people out, but then he meets Pollyanna who reminds him about what her father, also a minister, had called the “rejoicing texts”: the eight hundred biblical texts that call us to rejoice and be glad in the Lord. Paul Ford goes back to his study to write his sermon and finds a magazine article:

What men and women need is encouragement. …  Instead of always harping on a man’s faults, tell him of his virtues. … The influence of a beautiful, helpful, hopeful character is contagious, and may revolutionize a whole town…. People radiate what is in their minds and in their hearts. If a man feels kindly and obliging, his neighbors will feel that way, too, before long. But if he scolds and scowls and criticizes—his neighbors will return scowl for scowl, and add interest![9]

Attitude matters. There is a story about a portress who greets strangers at a city gate.  A man arrives and asks what the place is like.  She asks, “What was it like where you came from?” And the man says: “It was dreadful; everyone was always carping at one another, bickering and arguing.”  “It will be just the same here,” the portress tells him.  A little later another man arrives and asks the portress, “What is this place like?”  She replies, “What was it like where you came from?”  “Oh wonderful!” comes the response, “Such kind people always caring for each other and looking out for one another.” “You will find it is just the same here,” says the portress.[10]

Of course, that is not always how it works out, but there is a sound principle here which is summed up in Dorothy Law Nolte’s poem, “Children learn what they live”.  Here are some extracts:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn;
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight;
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty;
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence;
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience;
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation;
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love;
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity;
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness:
If children live with fairness, they learn justice;
If children live with love around them, they learn to give love to the world.[11]

If people live with tolerance, acceptance, sharing, honesty, fairness, love, this is what they will give to the world.  And actually, that pretty much brings us back to the Ten Commandments,

May we be salt and light!

Amen

[1] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1543.

[2]  Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer (Nashville 2010), 143.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Sarah Brown, Weekly Worship for 9 February 2020; online at. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/62342/9-February-5-Sunday-after-Epiphany.pdf.

[5]   Rowan Williams, Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way (London 2019), 85.

[6]   Ibid., 116.

[7]   This is the underlying message of the series, and particularly of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London 2007). See especially in that novel the encounter between Harry and Dumbledore and their discussion of Vodemort’s inability to kill harry (pp. 565-579).

[8]  Sarah Brown, Weekly Worship for 9 February 2020; online at. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/62342/9-February-5-Sunday-after-Epiphany.pdf.

[9]  Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna (1913), chapter 22; online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1450/1450-h/1450-h.htm#link2HCH0005.

[10]   Adapted from “At the City Gates,” in: Margaret Silf, One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World (Lion: Oxford 2003), 124-125.

[11]  See http://www.empowermentresources.com/info2/childrenlearn-long_version.html.