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Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Homily for Christmas 1C

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2009 at 12:41 am

Have you ever been lost?
As a child, do you remember that fright
as you turn around and realise that the comforting presence behind you
isn’t Mum or Dad at all, but a stranger, …or worse still, is emptiness?

As a parent or child-minder, have you ‘lost’ a little person in your care?
With a mixture of anxiety and anger wondered where they are,
how you’d let them slip away,
why they haven’t met you again where and when you’d agreed?

Here we are on the Sunday after Christmas,
and I wonder whether we’re being challenged not to ‘lose’
the child that was entrusted to us on Monday.
Not to ‘lose’ the wonder,
not to ‘lose’ the life-changing implications of the Incarnation.

Not to lose the plot perhaps,
because we are asked to do some mental time travelling by the lectionary.
Here we are in the days before the Epiphany,
when the wise men from the East turn up in the crib scene,
suddenly propelled forward in Luke’s Gospel to Jesus, aged twelve.

Think of it as a ‘flash forward’ in cinematic terms,
and perhaps we understand why we see this, here and now.
The baby of Bethlehem, now at bar-mitzvah age, on the cusp of maturity,
teaching the teachers in the Temple.

There’s a connection between Luke’s stable story and this Temple story.
In fact, the first thing Jesus’ parents do after his birth in Luke’s account
– after his circumcision according to the Law –
is to go up to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple.

That story ends the whole Christmas-Epiphany season
when we celebrate Candlemas at the beginning of February.
So we are today, “out of order”.

But with a story which resonates, backwards and forwards.

Jesus is lost, or so his parents think.
For three days.
That little detail shouldn’t be lost on us.
And the journey to Jerusalem is for Passover.
Luke’s Gospel has, quite early on, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”,
and we have that prefigured here.
This story, like so many in Scripture, has levels of meaning,

The story itself seems quite straightforward:
the family travel to Jerusalem for Passover.
You may have seen in the news that we are in the season of the Hajj,
the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that attracts millions.
The same was true of Judaism and Passover.
Jerusalem is full,
whole communities band together to travel in caravans there and back.

Jesus comes with his family,
but stays behind in the Temple, the heart of the Jewish world.
There are so many people travelling back to Nazareth,
Mary and Joseph assume Jesus is with the mass of other children.
Eventually, though, they realise he’s not with them.
Panic.
He’s twelve, he’s responsible, where can he be? What’s happened?

Mary and Joseph leave the caravan and return,
looking for where on the way Jesus could be.
Eventually they retrace their steps, every one of them more anxious,
to the Temple,
and there is Jesus caught up in a world of his own,
seemingly oblivious to his parents’ hysteria.
“Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Is this some sort of strange act of near-teenage rebellion?
Some claiming of identity, self-determination?
All those years after the stable and angels and shepherds,
so many questions still surround this child, as he grows towards adulthood.

Mary, we are told, “treasured all these things in her heart” –
words we heard similarly in Luke’s Gospel at the stable
after the shepherds tell of the angels’ message.

We flash back to that stable scene.
The anxiety and exhilaration of the birth.
The relief that, just for this moment, everything is OK.

That’s the story on the surface.

The encounter that immediately precedes today’s story in Luke
is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple,
has, remember, the old man Simeon saying to Mary
“a sword will pierce your own soul too”, prefiguring his death and her grief.

A really good Christmas carol has at least a hint of Easter about it.

Jesus is lost to his parents for three days.
In Jerusalem.
At Passover.

This is a story that the first Christians would have told and understood
in light of Jesus’ crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Their sense of being lost without him.
Their fear and anger and anxiety.
Their finding again he whom had seemed lost.
Luke’s account of the encounter at the tomb has initially
only an emptiness, the body lost.
And then a journey, on the road to Emmaus, a realisation, recognition.
A return to Jerusalem,
where the disciples gathered together meet the Risen Christ.

Mary “treasured all these things in her heart”.
Looking towards next weekend, and the Feast of the Epiphany,
I share with you a carol by Bruce Blunt, Bethlehem Down.

‘When He is King we will give him the Kings’ gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes’, said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

When He is King they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep Him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

We travel this season
with the wonderful child-like images of the stable-scene,
and we may rest there, for now.
But the greatest revelation of God in Christ Jesus is in death,
even moreso than birth.

When we encounter – and in the Eucharist we enter again into –
the self-giving love of God which is more powerful than every kind of death.
The light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
The light which is the life of all people.

In the name of God…

Homily for Christmas Day 2009

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 12:42 am

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

The words of English poet U.A. Fanthorpe.  Her title, BC:AD.

There is that sense of the epic, the colossal,
about those opening words of John’s Gospel.
And rightly so.
He sums up in short order the whole of universal history,
and  announces that something new has taken place.
There is absolute continuity with the Word who was in the beginning,
that Word which was God,
but there is also a line drawn under this moment in human history
when and because the Word became flesh and lived among us.

And why would God do such a thing?
Why such complexity, such vulnerability, such recklessness?
John gives us the response:
To all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
born … of God.
In short it is that simple:
God has become fully and profoundly one with us,
so that we might become one with God.

Earth and heaven, time and eternity,
met in a moment and forevermore, the Incarnation.

We know the story well,
how Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem
because the Romans are having a census,
wanting to tax that bit more effectively,
Caesar Augustus is calling all the Roman world to be numbered.
In short, Rome is thinking big.

While God, at that pivotal point in history,
for all its epic quality,
is thinking small.

As small and as particular as we can cope with –
a new, tiny life,
soft and fragile and beautiful and open to the pain and perfume of the world.
Those tiny fingers that instinctively grasp a mothers’,
those beautiful feet “of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation.”

Good news uttered in a weak newborn cry.

A three year old girl lies down on her tummy,
peering into the home nativity scene
she says with some delight: “God’s my size!”

There is something there we need to recapture.
This is God not encountered in the abstract,
the big thoughts and words,
but in the undeniable reality of a needing, loving, demanding child.

US Catholic Social Activist Dorothy Day wrote,
“It is not love in the abstract that counts.
Men have loved a cause as they have loved a woman.
They have loved the brotherhood, the workers, the poor, the oppressed
– but they have not loved [humanity]; they have not loved the least of these. They have not loved “personally.”   It is hard to love.”

It is easy and quite tempting to be thinking big.
When perhaps the message of the Christchild
is that it’s the thinking small that counts.
Small thoughts, real thoughts, lead to real actions, real relationships.

We can all pray for world peace, an end to global warming,
the completeness of the Kingdom of God,
but the epic hope will come to nothing
if our actions and our words and our loving
does not make it real, make it tangible, make it alive.
If we do not notice
the smallness, the uniqueness,
the beauty of the God who comes so near to us
that our very being is embraced.

Think small, think specific:
thinking lovingly and intentionally about how we relate on a human level
and where that might take on a larger life of its own,
perhaps that is the greatest gift
we might share with one another this Christmas.

It is perhaps not so very hard to love a small child,
but we are confronted – perhaps most explicitly at Epiphany
when the wise men brings their gifts of great symbol –
that this baby does not stay a child.
God does not come among us to be wrapped up in cotton wool, or in tinsel:
the risk of being born
is the risk of embracing suffering, loneliness, the wounded,
and ultimately death.

God gives completely,
and we are invited to receive God completely.
To be so changed that be can look with God’s eyes upon this new day,
to choose to reach out in and to need.

We are invited to ourselves be born anew this Christmas,
to become more like the God who comes to us in Jesus.
More generous, more vulnerable, more completely giving of ourselves,
but above all, more loving, not of life’s abstractions,
but of those that God has given us to love.
That small group of the world’s people we encounter,
and the multitudes we affect in our small everyday decisions.

This holy day, and the days ahead, let us discover the revelation
that “God is my size”.
That allows the Incarnation to speak fully into our small reality.

This Christmas think small.
Small is beautiful.

O Jesus of the Poor

In Hymns on December 15, 2009 at 6:40 am

O Jesus of the poor,
you took our poverty to make all rich,
sin and suffering wore,
our naked need to fill.
O Lord Jesus Christ
of the empty hands.
Just this do you ask me for:
to live your justice’s will.

O Jesus of the weak.
Hands of the healer stretched and scarred and bruised,
which rebuked the sleek
and summoned the unseen.
O Lord Jesus Christ,
light come to the blind.
Give me sight and strength to seek
the suffering you redeem.

O Jesus of the pained,
holding your children when they turn away.
Comfort unconstrained
by fear of your embrace.
O Lord Jesus Christ,
garland for my ash.
Your touch: paradise regained;
forgiveness in your face.

O Jesus of the lost,
knowing us in complete abandonment,
desolation’s cost,
to carry exiles home.
O Lord Jesus Christ,
dawn when darkness reigns.
Whose feet death’s deep river crossed
to make me fully known.

O Victor over death,
limbs that were wounded now proclaim your power!
Hands that breaking, blessed,
now hold love’s deathless joy!
O Lord Jesus Christ,
sun of this poor soul:
in you may I live and rest
in endless love’s employ!

Preparing for Advent 4C

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2009 at 1:34 am

The child of Elizabeth leaped for joy within her…
From an early age, Luke has Jesus and John bound together,
here, even through Elizabeth and Mary.

Here we have the two, yet-to-be-born, together.
And on Mary’s lips we have this extraordinary song of praise –

The Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

At once utterly radical,
and yet absolutely consistently the Old Testament promises restated.

Almost as if this song of justice and praise and joy
is the child within Mary responding to the child within Elizabeth.

Early Christians spoke of their experience of God coming as but the birth pangs:
that the drama and pain and beauty of birth was still to come.

Advent, the season, of course has us intentionally waiting
not only for Bethlehem,
but for the fullness of God’s justice and judgement –
the Kingdom, and Christ’s return and ultimate Lordship.

How are we placed to welcome this vision of God?
How are we placed to welcome this birth of God’s promise in us?

The Annunciation (Advent 4)

In Uncategorized on December 13, 2009 at 10:19 pm
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you;
blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb,
Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you.

Preparing for Advent 3C

In Uncategorized on December 6, 2009 at 9:36 am

The Forerunner

In the Eastern traditions of Christianity, the Orthodox Churches,
John the Baptist is often described as the Forerunner.
The theological equivalent to the opening act,
the figure who warms up the audience for the main attraction.

And there’s certainly something of the theatrical about John.
He harangues his audience, preaches, teaches,
symbolically has them drench themselves in the Jordan river,
the sign of entry to the Promised Land…,
he cajoles those who come to him, blurring threat with promise.
Unquenchable fire and all that.

John’s is a message of change.  A message of repentance.

John the Baptist is well aware of the complex web of motivations
and expectations that bring people to him,
looking to discover repentance, as if it were another country.

As if it were, in a very real sense, the Promised Land.
John is baptising – let us not forget –
at the Jordan, the River that marks the end of exile,
the end of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness,
and the entry to the land of milk and honey.

The call to repentance is, in the Greek original, literally a call to turn around.
This is not some disembodied guilt trip,
but an invitation to reorient ourselves towards God
and towards what we know to be right.
Basic things – to share, to not exploit or extort, to be satisfied with what is enough.
John tells his hearers that these things are far more central to the call of God
than any pedigree of faith.
The call to repentance is inherently the call towards justice.

John speaks, too, about unquenchable fire,
the destination for those not worthy of the coming kingdom.
It seems to have gone down well with his audience.
It’s sometimes what a people under pressure want to hear.
But God has a way of subverting our expectations.

The Messiah long promised
was not the fiery prophet of the desert,
although he was every bit as prophetic as his opening act, the Forerunner.

I suspect even John’s expectations where not entirely on track.
For the Christ was to image God’s compassion as well as God’s justice.
God’s mercy as well as God’s judgement.

Repentance is not simply about going through the motions.
Most of us don’t even have the motions at our disposal.
We don’t have the ritual or symbol or language often right at our disposal
needed to heal broken relationships.

Instead, we in the church are offered the gift of Advent.
A time to be intentional about choosing which way we are facing.
How we are living and relating to others.

Repentance has more to it than saying sorry.
Has very little to do with guilt or shame.

It is about turning around.
An intentional change in the way we are in the world and with others.

Repentance is about restoration and real change.
About a return from exile from our true selves.
There is still time this Advent to turn.

Preparing for Advent 2C

In Uncategorized on December 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Far out in the uncharted backwaters
of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy
lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles
is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet
whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive
that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this:
most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time.
Many solutions were suggested for this problem,
but most of these were largely concerned
with the movements of small green pieces of paper,
which is odd because on the whole
it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained;
lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable,
even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion
that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place.
And some said that even the trees had been a bad move,
and that no-one should ever have left the oceans.

So observed Douglas Adams,
whose solution is for large spacecraft to turn up
and knock through a hyperspace bypass,
happily obliterating the earth and all it’s problems.

Which is where we meet Isaiah again, in the form of John the Baptist
and his significant roadworks plans.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…

In other words, John the Baptist has a vision, recaptured from the prophet Isaiah,
of some pretty substantial changes.
Isaiah’s vision is about creating a road for the returning exiles,
and in that a highway upon which the coming King, the Lord,
may be welcomed.

John’s appropriation of this vision is far broader again.
The coming King, the Lord, tells his hearers,
requires some pretty substantial changes all round.

Because, exile still exists.
People are not happy,
nor, probably, are small coloured pieces of paper.

John speaks to his hearers about how we might prepare the way of the Lord.
And he will tell us next week,
the thinly veiled metaphor of lowering mountains and filling valleys
is exactly what the comfortable, what wealthy people fear.
Social justice.  Equality.  Opportunity.  Dignity.  Enough for all.

A return from exile for everyone, both rich and poor.
As if perhaps both the rich and the poor
are kept from being who God calls us all to be.
As if being rich is as much a place of exile as being poor.
I wonder if we understand the dimensions of John the Baptist’s call?

What it might take for all of us to return from exile,
to feel like we’ve returned home, and things could be like they’re supposed to be?

Let us ponder that this Advent.
Where have we got to?
Personally, as a Church, as a nation, as a world?
And how does that compare to where we know we should be?

Exile is a very powerful metaphor.
Return from Exile is another classic Advent theme.

God, what would it be like, to be home?
That place where we belong, and we feel safe,
and we know that we can be nothing other than we are?
What would that be like?

How is it different to who and what and where we are right now?

And, like so many things,
the beginning of the journey
is in acknowledging that there’s a road we need to travel.
Advent is about naming that journey,
in a world that would have us celebrate Christmas
just as soon as we’ve spent enough.

We have the gift of this season, this purple-coloured penitential season,
to be self-indulgent in a good way,
to examine the exiled parts of ourselves, and of our community.
To notice what we actually want and need,
to notice those around us, to notice God.
The road we are looking for in Advent is our pathway home,
but it is never a road we travel alone:
God is looking for a highway, where many may travel.
And so we are called,
rightly and more profoundly than the advertising fraternity understand,
to generosity and giving at this season.
Drawn, not to the tinsel, but to the trampled-over,
not just to jingle bells, but to true justice.

To a place where poverty and obscene wealth
are both renounced and redeemed.

Where God’s people, all people,
walk the road of return with their Saviour.

This Advent,
we are invited to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’?

At this season, we’re called to give
– not just because “it’s what you do” in a seasonal sense –
but in a way that makes us different.
That catches us up.
That is ‘sacrificial’ in a sense that has nothing to do with how much we spend.

In ‘preparing the way of the Lord’
we are preparing ourselves.
We are making ourselves ready and more a reflection of the world, the reality,
God demands.