theunfamiliarname

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

Homily for SS John and James

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2010 at 11:48 am

None of us, I’m sure,
ever makes deals with God.

None of us says quietly to ourselves,
“I’ll do that, but I expect this in return”,
or “If you do this one little thing, then I’ll know you really love me”.

There’s a certain serpent-like subtlety
that sometimes sneaks into our inner conversation with our Creator.

Not so with the Zebedee family, mum and the two boys.
This is not a subtle family.

They put their cards right on the table
and mum, being a good mother,
looking out for her boys,
wants to reserve the best seats in the coming Kingdom,
for her James and John…
after all, where would the world be without motherly ambition,
and a little political patronage?

Not subtle.  And it ran in the family.
Not for nothing were James and John called by Jesus the “Sons of Thunder”.
I think of them, for any cricket fans, a little like the Geoff Boycotts of the Bible,
or possibly for rugby fans, closer to home, the Andy Haydens…
always willing to call a spade a spade,
however one-eyed or off-mark.

Two of Jesus closest disciples, his friends, this James and John,
for all their obviousity.  Perhaps because of it.
There’s no subtlety at work here.

What there is, is a profound misapprehension of what Jesus’ mission is about.
James and John are keen for the Palm Sunday glory,
with the crowds and the honour and the smiting of enemies under one’s feet…
They have not yet understood that this is not a Messiah in the political sense.
And, while their faith and eagerness to follow Jesus is laudable,
they are making promises it will prove impossible to keep.

Promises which presage their witness as martyrs,
but not until they, like all the disciples, desert Jesus in his hour of need.

The whole story is really a very human reflection on discipleship.
Caught up in the power and prestige of an earthly expectation,
James and John are quick to claim their loyalty to Christ
and to look for their reward,
a reward in terms of power and prestige.
Yet we know that when the price of their calling becomes apparent,
when the error of their expectation is brought home,
they will – like all the others – run away.

There is a lesson they and we are being taught.
James and John are with Jesus in the glory of the mountaintop,
Jesus’ Transfiguration,
James and John are in the Garden where Jesus weeps in anguish
before he is betrayed.

In reality, the two disciples most eager to share in Jesus’ glory,
who claim they can indeed drink the same cup as their Lord,
these two will flee with all the others when Jesus is arrested.

In reality, at his right and his left hands on the cross
will be two criminals.

The reaction of the other disciples in our gospel today, too,
is a very human one.  They are angry,
and angry beyond exasperation at the sheer gumption of the approach,
… afraid that they might themselves lose something
if the brothers’ request is granted.
Out of this situation, Jesus teaches something
about his ministry and about ours;  about his kingship
and about the way that those who would be his disciples need to follow.
“Whoever”, Jesus says, “would be great among you, must be your servant.”

This is a teaching at odds with our age.
It goes against everything that society, business and politics seems to tell us.
Those who have power in this world are not by right great in the eyes of God.
True greatness is measured in terms of our service.
Not just to the Church, but to the people we meet every day.
To those we do not want to be with, let alone serve.

This Social Services Sunday we hold this central teaching
and we affirm it.
And we note the cost inherent in the call to discipleship,
which is a call to justice and costly witness:
for James and John, witness to the gospel meant martyrdom.
Suffering and service beyond any sense of themselves, or at least their selfishness.

This is at the heart of our calling.
To be a servant means to be at the disposal of others,
to not put a price on our time or our attention,
to be responsive to the needs of those around us.
To give and not to count the cost.
To try to help meet the real needs of those that God gives to us to minister to:
needs that are spiritual, needs that are physical, needs that are for justice.

As we pray this day for our social service agencies,
let us look around us at this servant-community,
small and beautiful, and more powerful than we know.

This gospel treasure we have in clay jars – fragile and stodgy –
waits to be opened and given away in our loving service.
Today… and all our days.  Amen.

Homily for Ordinary Sunday 16C

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I came across a book the other day titled:
“Don’t just do something, stand there!”

It rather put me in mind of our well-known gospel today.
Are you a Mary or a Martha?  A doer or a thinker?  A speaker or a listener?

As we’ve been discovering at our recent Bible studies,
there sometimes rather more going than meets the eye.
Our engagement with Scripture requires us to sit a while sometimes
to get the full richness of the Word.

Jesus’ visit to Bethany is a story about busyness.
And that should not be lost in a world that likes, that needs us to be busy.
Buy, work, chatter, buy, drive, rush, buy is the way of our world.
Don’t stop, the subtext might seem to be,
because if you do, you might notice a certain emptiness to your existence.

We need time to be still,  time to be quiet, time out.
All people need a place in time to get in touch with their spirituality.
And that place is probably not in front of the telly.

We need to give ourselves permission to take time out,
and not to then clutter up that space with noise or distraction.

Think before you reach for that remote control, or that book –
with the exception of your Bible or prayerbook –
or whatever it is that stops you thinking deep, profound, unsettling, godly thoughts.

For this is a story about hospitalityWelcoming a guest, welcoming our Lord.

It‘s difficult when someone else comes into our house, our life, our space
enters our sphere of activity.
We need to make room.  It takes work to welcome a guest, another person,
whether for an afternoon or a lifetime.
We can probably all relate to Martha’s exasperation with her sister,
as she’s working hard to demonstrate
how much she honours her guest, this Jesus.
Who wouldn’t, who hasn’t
felt a bit miffed when someone isn’t pulling their weight when you’re on display?

But let’s look more deeply at the story.
Both Mary and Martha are actually cast in powerful and remarkable roles.

Martha is the host – it’s her home.
There are, in that culture, clearly no men in her family – or none present.
She is the head of her family.
A unusual arrangement for the time,
and it’s not entirely socially seemly for Jesus to accept her invitation.

Mary, pushing the envelope even further,
is portrayed in the role of classic disciple, at the teacher’s feet.
This is profoundly counter-cultural stuff, no question.
Women were simply not supposed to sit at the feet of a Rabbi.
Popular sayings of the time indicate
that it’s better to teach your daughter the oldest profession,
than to teach her Torah, the Law, the word.

One of the reminders we have this Bible Sunday, is that God’s Word
is for all people – it can and will speak to us, if we find time to listen.

Martha, though, in her desire for it all to be perfect,
to be right, to be generous and well-presented,
she is not actually present to the guest she has invited.
More than that, she wants to take Mary away from him too,
to try and keep the pattern the same at her place,
where she is on display, until Jesus gently deflates her self-importance as host.
And that is perhaps the greatest point to grasp:
that God makes us guests, not the other way round.

The story from Genesis, of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality
also has a twist in the tail.

Abraham invites the mysterious strangers, somehow understood to be God,
into his space, and does everything he can for them.
He is the epitome of hospitable service: shade, water, bread, meat, all the extras,
he stands and waits while they eat, ready to attend to their need…

But ultimately it’s not a story about what a good host Abraham was.
This is about the gift, the promise Abraham is given,
about God’s hospitality, God’s generosity, in the gift of a child.
The story is about what happened when Sarah and Abraham discovered that,
delightfully, this encounter was not on their terms or under their expectations.

Paul’s writing to the Colossians, incorporating a hymn of the very earliest Church
speaks about the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus, reconciling & bringing us close.

Today’s Psalm reminds us we are invited ourselves as guests
into the presence of the God who calls us to holiness.
Ultimately, we are invited into God’s generosity, not vice versa.

When we welcome God into our homes, under our tent, when we are attentive
to the guest and do not expect that the visit is on our terms,
then we are open to what God will give to us, and speak to us, and stir in us.

Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, is open to receive what has come to her in Jesus:
the wisdom and generosity, the very hospitality of God.

At the Eucharist, at this Table, Jesus is host.
How do we make space and time to let that ruminate with us?
May we take that thought away with us, to those places where we are Martha
and we are Mary this week.

Homily for Ordinary Sunday 15C

In Uncategorized on July 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm

The parable of the Good Samaritan
is one of the best known of Jesus’ teaching stories.

What the hearer is supposed to understand from it
is so clear, so accessible:
we are neighbours to those who are in need,
and we should express the love that is in us through service to those people.
That is second only to our love of and loyalty to God.

Everybody “gets” that.

There’s a biblical studies metaphor that views Scripture as an onion.
Peal off one layer, and there’s something else underneath.
And the parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example.

A little bit of awareness gives the story more “oomph”.

Let’s begin with the term that’s entered popular speech:
a ‘good Samaritan’.
For the Jewish audience of Jesus’ parable, there was no such thing.
The term is an oxymoron.
Jews and Samaritans did not get on.
They hated each other.
Samaritans were seen as the half-caste legacy of Assyrian conquest,
or in their own history as a rival political, priestly and religious entity.
The “Good Samaritan” is, to all intents and purposes,
the enemy of the man who lies wounded on the road.

The analogy today would be between uncompromising Israelis and Palestinians.

So, a little more meaning as we peal the onion.
There’s a clue as to other elements in play
when we note that it is a lawyer who prompts the parable,
asking: “who is my neighbour?”.

Another detail we might notice in is the description
that the wounded man was half dead.

The argument is about Torah, the Law, over and against compassion.
The Law says one thing, and the spirit of the Law says another.

Levites and Priests, the ministers in the Temple at Jerusalem,
needed to keep themselves ritually pure.
Any contact with a corpse would put them out of action for weeks,
unable to do their duty because of the “unclean” status of dead bodies.

The Levite and the Priest are all too well aware of this body
on the other side of the road,
and it is not that they are necessarily without care or compassion.
What we have here is the conflict between duty and compassion,
between being single-minded, keeping safe and keeping things simple
and the messy, complicated, risky world of getting involved.

The Priest and the Levite are right on the money
in terms of part ‘a’ of the summary of the Law:
love the Lord your God with all your heart…, .
They know their duty, and they know that by even getting close enough
to investigate a body that might well be a corpse – even if they don’t touch it –
will compromise their role.

Technically, they’re in the clear under the letter of Old Testament writings,
having made the judgement call that their responsibility,
their first priority is to the worship of God in the Temple.

And yet Jesus’ parable clearly shows that the spirit of the Torah, the law,
is absent from their actions.
How can you walk by someone so in need of your compassion?
It is a matter of perspective.
The Levite and the Priest do not, first and foremost, see a person in need,
they see a threat,
a threat to their holiness and function.
They look, even at another person,
and see themselves and what affects them.
How often are we guilty of that myopia?

This is not rocket science: Deuteronomy tells us that the Word of God, the law,
“is in your mouth and in your heart”
We generally know when we are in tune with God.
Knowing what to do is actually not that hard
– having the courage to cope with the complexities of getting involved –
that is when we start to make excuses.

The law of love, of servant simplicity, overrules all our complications.
Things do get messy, yes,
but choosing what is right is actually very straightforward:
we either do or we don’t.
We either care or we don’t.
We see need, or we see bother, effort or fear.

The law of love is simple:           “love your neighbour as yourself”.
And if we need any clarification about who that might be,
if a question comes to your mind, “could this be my neighbour”,
the answer is most certainly “yes”.

Homily for Ordinary Sunday 14C

In Uncategorized on July 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire
… The angel Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Words that echo the imagery Jesus uses in this morning’s gospel:
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”

Dramatic stuff, if a little hard to get our heads around in the modern world,
but from time to time we are confronted in the biblical writings
with these elements of a belief system and cosmic hierarchy
which sounds a little incredulous to our sophisticated ears.

But it seems that part of the mission disciples are called to,
out in the harvest field of the world,
is to confront some unattractive, inhospitable, not-of-God stuff.
There’re told to enter optimistically the villages they come to,
but to shake off the dust of communities who will not receive them.

More than that, “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” says Jesus.

Yet armed with nothing more than Jesus’ instruction, their faith
and their openness to recognising and preaching and enacting
that God’s Kingdom is near,
little, vulnerable, timid lambs are amazed at what they can stand up to:
The seventy returned with joy, saying,
“Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Which brings us back to that opening, jarring chord,
about Satan falling from heaven.

I don’t know what you make of Satan, or the demonic.
Quite probably you think the world we inhabit
is not highly stocked in the demons department.

But, as I suggested to you a couple of weeks ago, you’d be wrong.
Let’s stand back from our cartoon images of little figures with pitchforks.
Let’s look at this biblical language acknowledging evil
as mythic: meaningful, powerful, and ultimately true.
Maybe not literally true, like a science textbook,
but true like a poem or evocative image.

And so I’m telling you that we, like the first disciples,
live in a world full of demons.
Powers and non-human entities
over which we seem to have no authority, no control.
Frightening, amorphous, seemingly untouchable.

Some are governments, some companies, huge impersonal corporations,
sometimes acting in inhuman, immoral, indefensible ways.

Some are addictions, from substance to sleaze,
to our throw-away world, addicted to oil and exploiting beyond all sustenance.
To pollution, to the idols of the shopping mall.

Some are irrational hatreds and wars and abuses
that cannot be easily reasoned away,
as if human beings act with a mass-mind in ways individuals would never dare.
Think of Nuremberg in the late 1930s.

Demons are those forces we feel we cannot control, cannot understand.
Things impersonal, non-human, oppressive and dark.

These are “supernatural” in the literal meaning of the word:  “beyond nature”,
“things that cannot be explained according to the natural laws”.
At some level they are against all sense and logic and learning.

Yet the unarmed, unshod, unfinanced disciple
is pitted, empowered to take Jesus’ good news
from the safety of the Teacher’s feet into the midst of such demons.
To challenge them, and to cast them out.

To journey through the rich harvest-field of what can and will be
when the world truly has a sense that the “Kingdom of God has come near”.

As lambs among wolves we are sent,
to confront also those more subtle demons,
the voices that whisper that we are not enough.
Not smart enough, not pretty enough,
not rich enough, not able enough…

Look, you are sent, with more power than you know,
and in the name of the one who transcends all power,
… and disciples are sent out in each other’s company.
We do not do this alone.

And perhaps that helps us keep grounded.

Lambs in the midst of wolves know they need to stick together.
And that they need a shepherd.  A good shepherd.

Jesus sends disciples out in every age to preach the good news that God is near,
and God’s intention for humanity, God’s Kingdom,
demands justice and our fearless willingness to become workers,
labourers, doers, hands-on and active,
out in the real world, the harvest field,
where people are longing – both literally and figuratively – to be fed.

The TAB’s odds on the lambs vs. wolves
may seem pretty long.
But God, you may have noticed,
has a habit of surprising the pundits.