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Saturday, 17 September 2022

desperation rulz ok?

SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

And St Martin’s, Duntroon

TWENTY FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (September 18th) 2022

 

 

 READINGS:

 

Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1

Psalm 79: 1-9

1 Timothy 2: 1-7

Luke 16: 1-13

 

Well here’s a thing. Every three years this little slice of Jesus-teaching comes up in our lectionary. It is one slice that can generate a few furrowed brows. It is, as my gospel conversationalists admitted during the week, a slice that has many of us choosing the Old Testament or epistle reading to preach on instead. Actually I looked back through my records and found that this Sunday three years ago I was preaching at All Saints’ Gladstone, and I did in fact preach on this difficult Jesus story. I spoke about the prickliness of some of the bearers of Christ truth, I talked about Greta Thunberg and mentioned Joan of Arc, Rosa Park, Malala Yousufzai, Rachel Carson, reminding myself and the parishioners there that God and God in Christ chooses unexpected people and unexpected stories to bear divine gospel truth.

Then I put that sermon away, because I have pledged never to preach sermons from the past. The world has changed too much, I have changed, and you are not All Saints’, Gladstone. But the point remains, God turns up in unexpected places and forms, and perhaps Greta Thunberg and Rachel Carson in particular are even more our prophets for today than they were three years ago.

But I won’t go back there, to that sermon. As Christ followers in the late first quarter of the 21st century we are – or should be – painfully aware not only of the vulnerability of our planet, but of the history of the church. For at least 1700 years our flawed human institution has revealed at least a tendency to produce from this Jesus moment not an icon of living for the benefits of others, but of learning simply from the corruption of the corrupt steward. That is not the takeaway of this passage. It is a sad thing if we allow ourselves to be better known for corruption and even predation than for the love that we can sing so glibly about when we sing that song “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Will they? Our track record isn’t all that good.

So what do we have here? I suspect we have a glimpse of Jesus’ divine sense of humour. I suspect strangely we glimpse a hint of the value of social capital. Perhaps Jesus knew the saying of his philosophical forebear, Plato, when the ancient Greek observed that necessity is the mother of invention. The steward of this Jesus story is crippled by the sheer desperation of his circumstances. But he is smart enough to realise that he can reach out and touch the lives of others to their benefit. Who knows what were the complex motivations of a Greta Thunberg, a Joan of Arc, Rosa Park, Malala Yousufzai, Rachel Carson? Is there such a thing as pure altruism? Is Greta Thunberg somewhere in her angsty adolescent and ADHD driven worldview motivated by something other than pure altruism, pure love for her planet and its species? Who knows? Who knows if even a Rachel Carson wasn’t driven by something other than pure determination to save the planet that in the 1960s was slipping into the horrors of a silent spring brought about by the DDT that Carson spoke out against?

In the last ten days we have seen a powerful example of social capital, as much of the world, and not just the English speaking world or British Commonwealth, has mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth of course hardly needed to purchase any social capital but we have seen that she gained it anyway by the sheer integrity of the 70 years in which she did her job.

Certainly I am not suggesting that Queen Elizabeth was corrupt. That was the specuiality of the steward of our Jesus story. Im not sure that I want to allow the word corrupt to dwell in the same sentence as our former monarch’s name. Ill let it rest there for illustration purposes only. But what we have seen in her life and death, and what we have seen in the lives and proclamations of those other prickly prophets that I mentioned in my All Saints’ Gladstone sermon three years ago, was the ability to bring benefit to the lives of others. It is, too, that that Jesus leads us in this strange and slightly comic parable. It is in the end an expansion of that other great parable that Luke alone records, the parable of the Good Samaritan. For in each of these stories a boundary is crossed, lives are touched, transformed even, and the love and resurrection hope that dwells in Jesus Christ is proclaimed.

Hopefully in a less corrupt way, and almost certainly in a less profound way than all the famous people I have mentioned, we too are called in our own small way to reach through the boundaries of silence and nonchalance and touch and warm the lives of those around us.

 

Saturday, 10 September 2022

Thoughts Following the Death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

 

SERMON/REFLECTION GIVEN AT St JOHN’S, WAIKOUAITI

TWENTY FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (September 21st) 2022

(Sunday following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

 

 READINGS:

 

Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28

Psalm 14

1 Timothy 1: 12-17

Luke 15: 1- 10

 

I am however ignoring the readings for this week

 

For all of us this is a week that will remain implanted in our memories. I operate usually with a hard and fast rule of not diverting attention from at least a sample of the lectionary readings on a Sunday. But flexibility too is a rule, and just occasionally current events overtake normality. Let me say too that I speak as a ridiculous combination of socialist and monarchist, which makes about as much sense as anything else that hall marks our strange dash from go to whoa.

“A life well lived.” “A lifelong promise kept.” “One of the most inspirational women this world will ever know.” These are the sorts of phrases that we have heard over and again, and justifiably so, these last 72 hours or so. Today we are conscious with citizens of all the countries that we call Common-wealth that a life has passed through ours, no matter how remotely, and that our lives have been the better for it.

For most of us in this place, whatever Queen Elizabeth represented, she alone has represented it. She has been the embodiment of dignity, devotion, and unwavering integrity, even through the darkest and shakiest days of her long reign.

As the Queen has become increasingly frail in the months since she farewelled the husband that she clearly loved we have known that this moment would inevitably come. If I may digress with a personal tale for a moment, some of you will know but I am the possessor of a 100 year old mother. I'm not sure that “possessor” is the technical term, but it will have to do. Throughout her life, since the dark days of World War Two, when the Princess Elizabeth, alongside her father, sought to inspire the confidence and hope of her people in Britain and to a less direct degree throughout the Commonwealth, my mother has looked to Elizabeth with admiration, even one might say “devotion.” The queen I should add was four years her junior, but there was no doubt that the older subject was inspired by the younger inspiration.

With some apprehension I checked on Friday morning to see if my mother, who I contact twice weekly by Zoom, was aware that her inspiration had died. “Well, of course,” said Mrs 100, “What do you expect? She was 96 you know.”

But that aside, and if we return at least loosely to the subject of gospel, if not our gospel or other readings for the day, one of the essential ingredients of the incarnation of God in Christ, God in Jesus the Christ, is the absolute correlation between the command, or what we call Word of God, and the outcome of that command, that Word. Be healed, says Jesus, and a person is healed. Be reconciled, and humanity is reconciled to its Creator.

In the events of the last few days, we have seen the closure of a life which has exemplified, I would dare to say almost to the maximum possible within those confines of being human but not divine, a life that has exemplified that same absolute integrity. If we dug beneath the surface of many of the words spoken these past three days or so they would point to Queen Elizabeth’s life as one spent to the greatest degree humanly possible in the embodiment of integrity.

I think one of the reasons we as a people are so deeply moved by the death of Queen Elizabeth is because, however much we knew it was coming, we were not ready for the closure of a life that so completely connected word and action, promise and implementation. We knew this end was coming, particularly since we saw a suddenly frail old woman, masked and in mourning clothes, lamenting the death of her eccentric but clearly beloved husband. In that moment not so very long ago we were reminded in a different way that royalty are deeply human.

To reflect in this way, and I might add so inadequately, on the life and death of Queen Elizabeth is not in any way to suggest that she was perfect. Were she to sit with us I’m sure she would be the first to assure us that she had many flaws. There was much criticism levelled at her at the time of the death of that noble-tragic figure, that human figure, the Princess of Wales. The Firm seemed for a while to be irreparably damaged, yet a phoenix rose from the ashes, and in the years since we have seen a new model of inspiration arise despite the flaws and the humanness of the principle actors.

Her Majesty would demur if she were to hear much of the praise that has been directed her way these past three days (though she may have approved the warm thoughts of Paddington Bear). I want to say now, in the context of liturgy, only that it seems to me she has thrown herself wilfully, constantly on the mercies of God, the strengthening, uplifting mercies of God, as she has sought to be a person living for others. She had some private life but woefully little, and she knew that would be the case from the moment at such a tender age when she promised to live in the service of her people.

In living out that promise she has modelled the central ingredients of faith, ensuring that she served God and her people not in her own strength but in the strength that God gave her. She sought to change with the changing world, if sometimes reluctantly, while retaining the essentials of her role. She threw herself again and again on the strength and the mercy of the God she knew was primarily her Master. She drew attention away from herself to the needs of her people, seeking always that help of God. Our lives are, thank God, the richer for it.

As it happens, I believe at least one part of her legacy is that our lives will be richer not only because she has in some strange way passed through them, but because she has formed and nurtured, sometimes in cauldrons of struggle, an heir in King Charles III who will continue to serve, to lead, and to inspire all who care to look his way.

So for now we simply give thanks for an inspirational life that is closed, a life of immeasurable integrity, that has passed through our lives, and for which our lives are all the richer. For now we can be deeply grateful for all the inspiration that Queen Elizabeth has been.

“May ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’” said King Charles to his late mother in his first King’s Speech yesterday. To which I would add those beautiful words from the last rites, “May your portion this day be in peace, and your dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen.

Saturday, 3 September 2022

on the road again

 

SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

TWENTY SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 28th) 2022

 

 READINGS:

 

Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14: 25-33

 

 

As you may be aware, Luke constructed a large section of his Jesus story around a loose travelogue. It begins towards the end of Luke 9, at verse 51, and more or less ends with that pivotal scene when he weeps over the city that, as a Jew, he loves beyond words.

That aspect of Luke’s story is not unlike many of the heroic sagas and moral tales of Luke’s time, and Luke would have been thoroughly aware of that. Naturally he believed that his is a tale not of entertainment but of life and death – in we might say an eternal context. Jesus will weep over the city he loves, enter it, be crucified there, and then the story will not end.

Although there’s also a sense in which the story bifurcates, splits in two. The Acts narrative goes on to tell of the work of the spirit in taking Jesus and his gospel to the ends of the earth and perhaps of time. We could say there is a hidden parallel narrative – and that takes us into the story of the risen, ascended Christ, together with the expectation that he will in some way return again to wind up human and cosmic history, and declare all things finished and all things made new.

In that eternal framework, for want of a better phrase, Luke tells us that the upside down vision that Mary had, and of which she sang at the time of the Annunciation, is finally fulfilled. Mary told us that the poor will be exalted and the mighty torn down, and, to borrow the words of a much later woman, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. But I’m getting ahead of Luke’s story.

More of that another time, perhaps. But in the midst of Luke’s travelogue this week we have Jesus using powerful, provocative, almost offensive words to overthrow at least symbolically the very basis of almost every society. Love me. Hate all else.

Jesus is not giving us here, a basis for fratricide or matricide or any other cide or form of family murder. He is using hyperbole, dramatic exaggeration, forcefully to drive home his point.

Eleventh century saint, Anselm of Canterbury, devised an argument for the existence of God. That argument needn’t detain us here, Though it has kept philosophers entertained for centuries, as they either approve or disprove of it. But Anselm gave us the wonderful phrase “That than which no greater can be conceived.” Or, as I used to say to primary school religion classes, “the biggest thing in your life.” Fishing? Rugby? Money, sex, power, love, horses, sunsets? Your mother, your father? the list goes on endlessly and meaninglessly, as Jesus hints provocatively.

For in a vastly different context Jesus is using a similar tool to that of Anselm. What is the biggest most precious thing in our lives? Parents, children, loved ones? They should be pretty big factors in our lives. Shrink them, says Jesus. It's a big ask.

He goes on to speak of instruments of death, the cross. He puts following him into the context of love that is greater than life, greater than the love of life itself. It’s a very very intentional decision, the decision to follow Jesus.

When I left Darwin some years ago, I drove, not for the first time, across that great red continent. As I pulled out of our driveway onto the main highway south, my GPS announced “For 1375 kilometres go straight on.” At the end of 1375 kilometres the electronic voice announced “At the roundabout take the second exit.” After taking that exit in Alice Springs she announced, “For 1234 kilometres continue straight on.”

It had a feeling of resolution even in an age of air conditioned comfort, as I let out the clutch and headed south. Yet that is minuscule compared to the risky journey that Jesus of Nazareth calls us to. On the other hand, he does give us an eternity of help along the way.

Saturday, 27 August 2022

on celestial nosh-ups

 


SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and St Alban’s, Kurow

TWENTY SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 28th) 2022

 

 READINGS:

 

Jeremiah 2: 4-13

Psalm 81:10-16

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

 

It’s a strange thing about preaching, week after week, as I have the immeasurable privilege of doing, that too often we find ourselves accentuating the negative.

I think of the many sermons I have delivered or heard that emphasise the too little, the degree to which for example we fall short – that phrase from Paul’s letters to the Galatians – fall short of the glory, the expectations, the holiness of God.  And we do. But since that is a given – after all that is the meaning of “all” – let’s park it somewhere else.

Because every now and again if not in the underfelt to every scene of his teachings, we find Jesus simply saying, admittedly in first century terminology, “get over it.”

I mean, he means it in the nicest possible way. You may recall there is a saying that has become popular in recent years, when people are feeling sorry for themselves, “Go to Bunnings (or, least this be seen as free advertising, to Mitre 10), buy some timber, build a bridge, and get over it.”

But what if we find in the parable today not words of condemnation because we are arrogant and claim the best seats for ourselves, but, addressed to us, the instruction to move up higher, because we have wallowed for too long in the belief that we are miserable, unworthy, privileged and a shopping list of other adjectives that remind us that we are all together just what we probably know we are, not quite good enough to hang out with the likes of God.

In other words, what if we find that it is you and me, despite all our failings, to whom Jesus addresses those words, “Come, my friend, sit with me.” I suspect most of us would look over our shoulder to see who he’s really talking to. But there is no one there. The gentle beckoning of our host is to us. “Come, my friend, sit with me.”

Or, if I may return for a moment to my shopping expedition, what if we find that we have no need to go to the local hardware, because it is in fact Jesus who says, “Come on my friend, I’ve been to Bunnings or Mitre 10 – wherever – and bought some timber, built a bridge, and I’ve even carried you over it.”

Like the tenth leper who remembers to pop back and say “ta” to Jesus when he was cleansed with nine of his mates, it is probably a nice thing if we remember to say “ta” to God. But that’s what we’re doing. That’s Eucharist. A sophisticated way of saying, “Ta, God.” For lots. And what a privilege it is. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or fancy, or anything more than a genuine feeling of gratitude for giving us access to the creator of all that is, has been, will be, even though sometimes the journey has its wobbles. Sometimes bad ones. But: hope. 

Because Luke carefully situates this story between a scene in which a man with oedema is healed and a story in which the undeserving on the highways and byways are brought in from the streets to share a fancy nosh up in a flash house. Yes we might from time to time be reminded that we consuming more than our share of the earth’s resources, and be encouraged to do a little better, but that’s not the end of the story. 

In the first century world oedema or dropsy automatically symbolised greed. As it happens we see something similar in our own century with the sad prevalence of body shaming in various forms. But let’s not dwell on the negative. The first century had no better science then to believe that oedema was a sign of indulgence. Yet even then, Jesus, limiting himself to the worldview of his incarnation, simply reached out and transformed the man’s life. He had a habit of doing that, for the deserving and the undeserving alike. God is like that. The sun shines on the just and the unjust alike.

And in the parable that follows our passage we will find that a whole lot of not necessarily glamorous people are invited to the heavenly hoopla. It is kind of comforting, really.

The two banquet stories tell us that the undeserving, the not good enough, you and I have an invitation to sit at the banquet of Christ. It seems to me pretty good news, good enough to encourage me along the journey. Beyound comprehension, sure, but a lot of things are (build a bridge).

Our task is just to let it be, to say over and again, yes Lord, I believe. Or even yes Lord I kind of believe, or even yes Lord I wish I could believe but I don’t really get it and it’s nice to think some people do. There’ll be a lot of people surprised to find themselves enjoying what scholars call the eschatological banquet, but what I prefer to call the heavenly nosh up. If we imagine that by meeting a whole heap of prerequisites we have earned our place in God’s love, then we have a bit of re-thinking to do.

Even that’s not a fatal flaw. God is patient. In the meantime though it’s great if we can simply open ourselves up to the mad zaniness of a God who creates the heavens and the earth and you and me and loves us recklessly even to the extent of incarnation and crucifixion and inviting the outsiders to the party. If we can recall the mad zaniness of the one who invites the broken and undeserving, even us, to encounter mad irrepressible joy of relationship with God then giving thanks and joining the party is a pretty good response.

 

Saturday, 20 August 2022

becoming fully alive (with help)

SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and St Martin’s, Duntroon

TWENTY FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 21st) 2022

 

 READINGS:

 

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

Hebrews 12: 18-29

Luke 13: 10-17

 

It was a fascinating adventure in the Gospel Conversation this past week, as I navigated a path between an emphasis on the demonic world of Satan and his minions and the personal and sociological dimensions of the encounter between Jesus and a horrendously crippled woman.

Let us not forget that for eighteen years this woman – unnamed as so many women are in the patriarchal world of the first century – has seen very little but the ground in front of her. The sheer physical pain, and emotional and psychological humiliation of her life is beyond words. Jesus, moved as he is so often in his ministry – moved to compassion, moved to the very viscera of his being, initiates a healing that is physical, spiritual, psychological, and even in a sense sociological.

Would that we could do likewise. I think of figures like the incomparable Fred Hollows – atheist yes dare I say it bearer of Christ – who likewise transformed lives, releasing them from physical, psychological, and spiritual demons. There are demons in society far removed from the stereotypical realm of beasties under the bed emphasised by so many in Christian circles. To say this is not to deny the existence of that which is beyond our post-Enlightenment and sometimes arrogant worldview, but nor is it to focus on the sensational and inexplicable that is dramatically over emphasised by some.

The woman of this story is never given a name. She is one of the massive majority of humankind, the majority of which are women, who slipped through history unmentioned or unnamed. Yet we glimpse both her suffering and her redemption, I say again, physical, spiritual, all-dimensional, as we hear this Jesus story. Jesus initiates heaven for this woman.

Jesus is a little less visible in our world than he was for the three brief years of his public ministry in first century Palestine. We, however inadequate, are called to be his voice and hands and feet. Dare we even ask how we might touch lives in our community? I might add that whenever I say this in a sermon I am almost inevitably spun into an encounter with someone in need.

I often fail, fleeing from their need. I remember with shame to this day the time I tiptoed past a person sleeping in the cold on the doorstep of my church. I tiptoed past him in the dark, frightened perhaps by his form in the shadows, but I later relented. I made a cup of tea and would have given it to him, but he was gone. I had let him down, and I had let God down. The demons of the world at least for a time maintained the upper hand in his existence. As it happens there is a happy end to the story of his life so far but I can in no way claim credit for helping him on the path to restoration. For me the lesson remains that I walked by on the other side.

Jesus in our vignette today, this glimpse of his ministry, becomes the Good Samaritan that I for one so often have not become.

In the end it is too rare that I or perhaps we serve successfully as the voice or hands or feet of Jesus Christ. Yet we can but ask that sometimes – just sometimes – we may touch a life with Christlove. We will never be a Fred Hollows, that atheist Christ-bearer, or a Desmond Tutu, that Christian Christ-bearer, but we can but ask that our lives may touch and transform the life of another human being this day, this week, this lifetime. I suspect you and I won't change the world, and God knows it needs changing, but we may be for some person the touch of the love of God, if we ask God to let us so be.

 “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” said Irenaeus in the second century. May we touch lives so that those lives may become signs of the glory of God. And may we likewise be touched.

Amen.

 


Saturday, 13 August 2022

the scream of a rose?

 

SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and St Alban’s Kurow

TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 14th) 2022

 

READINGS:

 

Isaiah 5: 1-7

Psalm 80: 1-3, 8-18

Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2

Luke 12: 49-56

 

 

I’ve probably not confessed to you previously that I count myself, and know some who would agree with my counting, among the word’s most neurotic people.

Nor have I, I suspect mentioned either to you or as far as I know to any other congregation in nearly 40 years of preaching that I was, like many young boys of my generation, a fan of James Bond. I went along the terribly English trajectory, from Famous Five to Biggles to Bond – and on to Alistair McLean. Then, mercifully I finally grew up and became a student of literature, including the post-colonial writings that were (rightly) most scathing about my childhood fodder. And Salman Rushdie too, God be with him. But perhaps it was Fleming’s Bond that did me the most psychological damage. I refer not to 007’s dreadfully chauvinistic and utilitarian attitudes to women, but to a traumatic scene in Moonraker.

Let me explain.

I don’t want to be sexist but I’m going to be, accidentally of course, for those of you who grew up without the reading advantages of a Y-Chromosome, reading perhaps Anne of Green Gables or whatever. Let me introduce you to Gala Brand, probably the only Bond Girl to escape his toxic masculinity (see, I am writing in the 2020s). Ms Brand resists, escapes Bond’s narcissistic overtures. But I’m not going to read the escape passage in a sermon. It’s online!

So no … here's Bond and Brand presumably having together sipped a tequila on the rocks, shaken not stirred. Gala apparently picks something called a bee orchid, ophrys apifera, the British orchid that famously imitates a lady bee and traps a Mr Bee. A honey trap with a difference.

“You wouldn’t do that if you knew that flowers scream when they are picked,” said Bond.

Gala looked at him. “What do you mean?” she asked, suspecting a joke.

“Didn’t you know?” He smiled at her reaction. “There’s an Indian called Professor Bhose, who’s written a treatise on the nervous system of flowers. He measured their reaction to pain. He even recorded the scream of a rose being picked. It must be one of the most heartrending sounds in the world. I heard something like it as you picked that flower.”

Ever since reading that passage when I was about 12 I have been traumatised at the thought of picking of cutting flowers. Ask Anne!

Fleming’s scene was actually based on the research of a nineteenth century Indian botanist, but that need not detain us. My story – and hopefully soon if not already the link to our Jesus scene will be apparent – is all about me. For now.

I loathe picking flowers.


But it is a fine thing to have a wife. Ever so patiently Anne has set about rewriting my clearly tortured psyche. She has not even charged therapist fees – just mandated that occasionally I overcome my phobia and reach with secateurs for a rose.

Unlike James Bond I so far have never heard a scream.

None of which is my point. Because this is a Jesus story, not about me after all. For centuries, long before Ian Fleming, we have read too many Jesus-sayings with the scream of a rose reverberating in our spiritual ears. For too long we have heard the scenes about branches cut off and thrown into the fire as if we were hearing about Fleming’s mythical rose.

An angry God. Not the God revealed on the cross and in the life of Jesus, the God of Jesus Christ who in him reaches out to bring hope to the disadvantaged, the mourning, the bereaved and the suffering.

So not the scream of the rose, as it is picked or the branch and cast into the fires. Are the fires the Jesus message? Or should we hear instead the relief of the plant, relief as the dead weight of decaying branches is taken from its metaphorical shoulders and cast aside?

Fire in the hands of story-teller Luke is far more often about purging – from which word, incidentally, we get “purgatory – and refining than about some eternal torture. Later  we will see flames of Pentecostal empowerment. Friendly flames. God’s flames.  

So what if we realise that the branches cast into the fire are no more than the toenails that we trim and sweep with relief into a rubbish bin? What if we realize that the fires of most of the images used by Jesus are not the punitive fires of eternal torment, a pretty useless form of punishment as no good comes of it for anyone. No: isntead the purging, cleansing fires of divine love, of healing, of restoration to the full and eternal potential with which you and I and all human beings were breathed into existence in the first place?

When Jesus wishes the fires were already kindled, he does so not out of some sneering malice, but because Jesus, the embodiment of divine love, longs for the final and eternal healing. He longs for the moment when all of us, and all who we love and pray for, and all from whom we are divided by our faith-decisions, yes, but sometimes by less virtuous elements too, have been relieved of the burdens and the scar tissues of our lives, and are eternally reunited in the inextinguishable blaze of divine love and glory.

 

Friday, 5 August 2022

no chicken, no ostrich

 

SERMON PREACHED AT St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (August 7th) 2022

 

 READINGS:

 

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20

Psalm 50: 1-8, 22-23

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Luke 12: 32-40

 

 (WITH APOLOGIES FOR THE 20+ TYPOS IN THE FIRST POSTING OF THIS!)

If I could underscore a key takeaway from our gospel reading it would be the opening words of this section of the addresses from Jesus. “My friends, do not be afraid.” There are though a couple of problems in saying this. One is that humankind cannot bear very much reality. Psychologists remind us of the degree to which we block out of the consciousness dimensions of our existence thoughts that are too overbearing … philosophers in fact will often speak of angst.

How do I understand angst? It is in reality no more than a German word meaning “anxiety,” that same root word that has been peppered through our Jesus sayings for the last several weeks. My friends, says Jesus, do not be anxious. And yet surely it's utterly human to be so. For the many of us who have children and grandchildren, what sort of a world are we leaving behind? And while every generation has doubtless voiced this question there are for our generation some particularly severe indicators. My weekly mantra of rising tides, plastic sludge, shaky economics, and as French author Céline once almost put it, the cancer that is climbing through our – and he named a vulnerable part of the human body – even now.

So yeah, we could be anxious. But the anxiety that leads us to act like possums in the headlights is on the whole pretty useless. Frozen between fight and flight is utterly unproductive. And as fight and flight are probably equally impossible we are left frozen unless we receive outside help. For some that will be the motivational push of friends around us sharing a common concern, a common anxiety, and generating enough corporate energy to begin to bite the bullet. For us it can be that, but it can also be that unseen power, that dynamism of the one we might call the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Pentecost. Probably we should hope that it is a both/and. The both of the Spirit of Jesus and the and of the motivational friendship of those with whom we mix our lives operate in tandem to help us address the future. And in that teamwork maybe there is something a bit like fight, fight the destructive forces at work on our planet, fight the larceny, the theft of a future for our children and our grandchildren. Most of us, it is true, prefer to be lovers than fighters, but perhaps when we realised that the future is dire, we may feel the winds of God’s spirit filling us with new energy, new gospel energy.

That though is only half the story. The second problem in encountering this reading in 2022 is that we are probably not particularly anxious. We are better at blocking out anxiety then my last few statements would indicate. We have blotted thoughts of global implosion out of our consciousness altogether, except perhaps when some feisty floats a few crazy ideas. We tend not to think that we could be hit by a meteorite at any moment. We tend not to think that we are like goldfish in a blender. We put those thoughts aside because to harbour them is to invite stress levels that are unsustainable. Nevertheless the rates of depression and even suicide in our society suggest that the voices of gloom do break through our protection mechanisms from time to time. In whatever form anxiety takes there are ways, metaphorical or literal, in which we recognise that the Alpine fault might shift immanently, even if we off and immediately replace that thought with the comfort that in geological terms “immediate” can be a comfortingly long time.

If “immediate” is a rather flexible formula, then life is much better if we're not Chicken Licken. The sky probably won't fall on our head, as we subconsciously tell ourselves. Although occasionally the niggling voice of insurance companies whisper to us that no this property can't be insured any longer, or no, the current rate you or I are paying for insurance is simply unsustainable in the face of risk assessment. In that case perhaps Chicken Licken is more realistic than the infamous ostrich with its head buried deeply in the sand.

And no, ostriches don't do that.

But that's a digression. Or is it? Anne and I have often owned chickens whose fight or flight response is that glorious one of squatting carefully down on the ground, hoping that the swooping hawk won't see them. It is a forlorn hope, certainly for chickens, but even for ostriches when faced with a careering and hungry lioness. Even flight is better than squat.

But where does this Jesus saying about fright, about flight, about frozenness leave us? There are, it seems to me, one or two keys to take from this teaching of Jesus. In the first place Jesus does mandate readiness. The disaster readiness advocates are correct, for every household needs supplies for the onset of a crisis. In faith too we need supplies: supplies of grace as it were, supplies of those elements that Paul calls “fruit of the Spirit.” These are gained only by immersion in the disciplines of faith. if the master comes, suggests Jesus, we must be marked by love, the costly love born of discipline, by joy, the deep joy of knowing God in all circumstances, by kindness, by patience. To radiate these is not an accident but the results of deep spirit-work. Yet we can enlist the aid of the Spirit to nurture these fruit within us, by prayer, by exposure to scripture, by learning, as Paul put it, to give thanks in all circumstances. By these disciplines we can be transformed, sometimes with some little pain along the way, into the likeness of Christ.

But in the second place, though, while we can never be nonchalant about our faith and about the temporary nature, the fragile thread, of our existence and all humanity’s existence, we must not despair either. For in this Jesus-parable is an impossible note of grace. The abiding image of God in this parable is not of a punitive master, but, if we can generate some degree of readiness, of a master who does what most gods do not do. He kneels, as the Ghanaian hymn puts it, at the feet of his friends. No self-respecting God of the first century would do such a thing.

On the other hand no self-respecting God of any century would permit him or her self to be crucified.

Would they?