Tuesday, October 31, 2006

And companions on the way

Ruth 1:1-8; Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-15, Mark 12:13-17, 28-34 Readings for Sunday 5th November, Pentecost 22 (Proper 31)

I always find this season both encouraging and challenging
As the year draws towards its close
we move in the Church's year from thinking about day to day life
to the fulfillment of the promises of God's kingdom.
In the Church of England this season is called Kingdom Time
It is, I think, a good name.
In my mind it begins around the end of October
with the feast of St Simon and St Jude (28th October)
So far as we know they are two of the apostles listed in the Gospels
but we know very little about them.
Jude is traditionally called "The Obscure" meaning that whoever he is we don't actually have any detail.
[Indeed that's why Thomas Hardy reminds us in his dark novel of failed ambition and thwarted hope which is entitled Jude the Obscure(full text here) of a man who fails to make it because he is unknown, unrecognised, unappreciated...he is indeed Obscure]

This feast is a prelude to the great feast day that we encounter on November 1st....All Saints Day...and which is followed the day after by All Soul's Day, when the dead are commemorated
We are here in a world which transcends the grave
what the Apostle's Creed calls the communion of saints
This is heady stuff! Too much for some!

But we may be prompted to ask what this is all about
Isn't it just religious mumbo-jumbo?
Of course it could be, that may indeed be the point.
If we get to the guts of it
the saints point us to how faith might be lived with authenticity and integrity
We are constantly tempted to whitewash the saints (like any heroes) and romanticise them.
Indeed we do this to Jesus!
But as we begin to scratch their stories we soon realise that their lives are anything but pristine.
Let me just reflect briefly on three saints.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arguably the most influential Christian thinker of the 21st century.
His call to radical discipleship and to see the gospel as the challenge to freely decide to follow Christ in every aspect of life is now almost taken for granted.
It does not seem too radical, and yet for Bonhoeffer
his life was lived with a total commitment
to community, to prayer and to human action.
This latter ultimatley saw him caught up in the anti-Nazi resistance movement in Germany, he laid his life on the line by being one of those who sought to assassinate Hitler.
This cost him his life, he was arrested and ultimately imprisoned. Executed only weeks before the war ended
we see in his life
the Cost of Discipleship ( a title of one of his books) played out in reality in his own life.
Such a saint sets us before us the reality of Christian life,
of the possibility of being faithful in life to all that Christ sets before us.
Mother Teresa too, that amazing little Eastern European nun who ended up in India looking after the poorest of the poor
she did it because she felt called to do Something Beautiful for God (a book about her made popular by Malcolm Muggeridge in the 70s)
She too set before the world the possibility of being faithful
not just in word but in deed.
Francis catches the popular imagination for the same reason
Although an incurable idealist, he was a fundamental pragmatist
selling everything he worked to care for poor people
and those who no one else loved
He witnesses to the fact that it is possible to be faithful to Christ
in life, in word and in deed

Do you hear the call of the saints? The reality of the call to be faithful.
How is God calling you to practise your sainthood in your life?
What one thing can you do to be a saint this will be loving, it will be faithful, it will be possible. So do it!

And things that go bump in the night

The greatest thing about Halloween this year is that the youngest Clark is saying when kids come knocking for trick or treat tonight (Does anyone in Australia understand how Trick or Treat works?) ...any way she is saying that we should not give them anything and say "We don't believe in Halloween, it's against our religion!"
I feel so efficient as an indoctrinator!
I don't think we should be so cruel. The oldest child says she thinks Trick or Treat will be BIG this year. This is probably divined from the MSN grapevine (anyone over 50 don't even try to understand what MSN might be about).
Any way I am thinking we will have saint cards available and a lolly or too.
As I understand it it is not so unChristian a feast.
Particularly since I am Rector of a Church with a very traditional dedication of All Hallows.
Some people make the mistake of thinking that is about Halloween. But Hallows is an old English word for Saints, so we could equally well be titled All Saints.
Halloween is a contraction of Hallows Even, or the Eve (day before) All Hallows Day (Nov 1st). Naturally as we think about the glory of heaven on All Hallows (All Saints) Day we also think the day before of the other side of the coin...and so the ghosties and ghoulies and four legged beasties and things that go bump in the night get to capture our imagination.
But as blessed youngest S of Blackwood would have you know... we don't believe in this.... it's not that we don't believe in the dark world so much, as we don't believe it exists with the sort of forces and powers that the movies and imaginations gone wild would have us imagine. In fact quite the reverse orthodox Christianity believes that when Jesus died he defeated all that sort of evil.
We need to believe this I think.
One of my colleagues once said to me, these things have the power we give them. The unfortunate thing about horror as a genre is it tells a lie about how powerful these things are, and gives them power they do not have.
So any kids who come will get a nice saint picture....and a lolly too

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Resting from labour

Readings for All Saints. Celebrated on 1st November or a Sunday round that time. Isaiah 25:6-9; Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44

When we talk about the dead we often use the language of rest and sleep.
"Asleep in Christ", "Rest in peace" and so on...
One of my former parishioners once said to me at someone's funeral
"The last thing I would want is eternal rest"
I can't help but agree, it sounds rather boring
Cautious speculation
We need to be cautious about speculating about what life for the dead is like
although we have some, even many, references in the Bible to life after death
many of them are highly poetic are filled with imagery
which we need to remember
and be cautious about taking literally what is meant to inspire the imagination.
If we think about the use of images
we use them precisely because we want to think more expansively
rather than less
the images seek to engage us at a deeper level
than a mere literalism might so do.
When we look at a crowd, for example,
and talk about a "sea of faces"
this is much more evocative
than simply saying 2000 people, or lots of faces.
The use of the image "sea"
conjures all sorts of feeling and emotions for us.
The sense that there is a vastness, it has a sameness about it from moment to moment,
yet it is also infinitle variable.
It can be placid and calm, or raging and exciting..,.and so we might go on
The image opens up doors that otherwise remain shut.
The question of truth
There is sometimes the suggestion that anything less than the narrowly literalist
is not exactly "true"
This is not the case if you think about it.
The image in essence opens up areas that would otherwise be firmly closed

......more coming

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Mystery and intrigue

Readings for Sunday 22nd October 2006, Pentecost 20, (Proper 29) Job 38:1-24; Psalm 104:1-26; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:32-45. These readings can be read progressively through the week to prepare you for Sunday

Is the "mystery of suffering" revealed this week? (See Job 38)
I don't pretend that the "answer" that the book of Job gives to the purpose, cause and meaning of suffering
is ultimately satisfying.
It does however point us to an ultimate reality or two!
We do not comprehend everything.
We live under the misapprehension
that everything is ultimately knowable.
If only we can get enough information
or if we can gain enough experience
then we will utimately arrive at the answer.
The story of Job suggests to us that this is not entirely true.
We will never understand the mystery of God
how he creates, renews, restores
The best we can hope for is, like some sort of calculus,
to draw close to the absolute limit of our understanding
but we never reach the complete finality.
Entering into the mystery
The gospel passage though gives us another way in
To James and John who quite miss the point of what life with Christ might be like
and seem to think that it is about some sort of power play
Jesus says "Can you be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?"
When this question is asked they glibly say "Of course!"
But one must wonder if they would have spoken so boldly on Good Friday
or 20 or more years later.
What Jesus is reminding us in this passage is that there is a cost involved
and we might say we understand the mystery of life
as we engage with it.
It is necessary to enter into the mystery
it is not an idea
it is an experience.
It is not a series of theologies
it is relationship.
Thisis evident to me when mistering to those at great points of difficulty
like grief, or relationship breakdown
or depression
I am sometimes led to say that this sort of experience
is an extraordinary pportunity as well as an enormous difficulty.
Quite often people affirm this insight after the event.
It is, after all, another way of stating the mystery of the cross.
If we are to look at how God operates then we should turn to the powerful events of our faith
We will be brought to the point
where our life might be extinguished
and we can choose to encounter this
as Jesus does
and in so doing
we pass through it and are transformed
or we can play religious, theological, or philosophical games about God
when we are actually being called to encounter the reality of God.

Where is Jesus calling you to respond to challenge and the Cross?
What are the practical demands that this places on my life?
Pray for the courage to accept this challenge.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The two-edged sword

Job 23:1-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Readings for Sunday 15th October 2006, Pentecost 19, Proper 28

There is much that we would ask God if we had the opportunity
more of that shortly....
We are not terribly familiar with swords in practice
so when we read about the two edged sword
we need to understand that it is a highly toned weapon.
It cuts going in and it cuts coming out.
It pierces and and it disects.
It set out to do what it says.
The writer to the Hebrews likens the active of word of God to such a weapon.
It achieves what it sets out to do.
In short God will do for us everything that God promises to do.
If you begin to recite all the promises that you remember...and they are many
Some of mine are:
  • Come to me and I will give you rest
  • I will make all things new
  • I am with you always, even to the end of the age
  • Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord's
  • I will send my Comforter, the Holy Spirit to be with you
  • In the valley of the shadow of death I am with you, my rod and staff protect you
  • .......and so I could go on, you can think of your own
If we allow them t0 these words cut us to the very core]
they do what they sety out achieve.
Sometimes this is surprising,
we don't always know
what we are asking for.
Like Job, the realisation that God is acting
and acting powerfully,
can be terrifying
St Ignatius Loyola tells us that
most of us have no idea what God will do for us
if only we would let him.
When we, however tentatively, permit God to act
(remember God will not overpower us...see last week)
then God can and will move effectively to achieve what he promises.

There is an example in this Gospel reading we have this week (Mark 10:17-29)
the man comes seeking eternal life.
He is intelligent and religious, and he can ask and answer the right questions.
He is seduced by Jesus's clarity of thought:
What else must I do?
So Jesus tells him...Young man, for you the attachment to material goods gets in your way,
He knows he has heard the right answer
and he doesn't like it.
Even Jesus's disciples are shocked.

What about me? It isn't fair!
What question do I really want to ask Jesus?
I actually want to encourage you to ask it.
More than that I want you to try and listen to the answer.
This is not always easy
We don't easily receive what we don't like to hear.
Are you concerned about why you can't love better?
Do you wonder why those who you want to love seem distant and remote?
Why is my life so boring?
Why can't I make sense of what is happening?
What is your question?
like the young man
the questions seem innocent and easy enough
but if we really want to hear word of God
then expect the two edged sword.

We don't need to fear.
But it may not,
and indeed probably won't
be easy.

This week
Take a little time
to reflect on what you would ask Jesus if he were with you.
The remember that He is!
Do you want to have the conversation?
In the quietness
speak gently with him,
and listen to what he says
and how he speaks.
We need not fear.
It won't be easy
but it will be good.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The sense of failure

Reading for Sunday 8th October: The 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27) Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16. Plenty of good readings for each day!

Most of us at times are overwhelmed by the sense of things going wrong in our lives.
The readings for this week tap into some of the most common and obvious tragedies
that ordinary human beings face
Job, a man of legendary faith, has to deal with sickness in his own life and tragedy in his family.
The letter to the Hebrews is written to a church which feels itself in great danger
and constantly under threat of persecution
The Gospel opens up the question of what divorce might mean in people's lives
and in reminding us about the great treasure that small children are
this week we are faced with the awfulness of a man who "executed" some inncocents
in their classroom (here...nasty stuff don't read if you find this upsets you)

Where is God in all this? Is the all powerful God not really in control?
The traditional, but not necessarily satisfying, answer
is that much evil is due to our own wilfulness
and it is wrong and innacurate (even though tempting) to lay it at the feet of God.
God did not cause that maniac to shoot those young girls,
but why did God permit it?
Perhaps God did not permit it either!
God does not stand in the way of our wilfulness.
To do so would be to cause individuals to become little more than robots.
But we are more dynamically and powerfully created than that,
this is because above all else
we are created to love.
In order to be able to love
we have to be able to choose to do it.
Love that is not freely chosen
is not love,
it may be blackmail, or bribery
or selfish seeking of advantage
but it is not love.
To love requires that we give ourselves unconditionally.
We cannot love and say.....
I will love you if you love me
We cannot say
I will love you as long as things are going along OK
To give any meaning to love at all
means that we give and do not count the cost.

This is hard stuff
at times we find that we will fail
which is why in our system of belief
there needs to be scope for forgiveness and repentance.
We will sometimes get it wrong,
we will sometimes be betrayed.
We will sometimes be the betrayer.

As with all these things
we see in the life of Jesus
love demonstrated dramatically.
And we see there persecution and failure.
We see the need for forgiveness
and the need to start again.

This week
As we reflect on our human relationships:
where are we called to give this unconditional love?
Do we hold ourselves back? Is there a way we can be more open, more vulnerable?
Are there aspects of failure and wilfulness in our loving relationships
that we need to seek forgiveness for
are there places where the strategy is repentance
we might interpret that as meaning
waying up the failure of the past
and looking for a small way to begin again?

I do not suggest that this is easy,
or without cost.
It is indeed, very costly?
In seeing our failure to love
the question is not so much
why are we and others so bad at this
but will we keep on trying to love unconditionally