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Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Homily for Evensong, Candlemas 2011

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Jerusalem is never far from the headlines.
That city, for centuries viewed as the very centre of the world,
if not the whole cosmos,
is no stranger to violence and war.

Jerusalem, that same city,
is the centre of attention in our readings tonight,
as it is for much of Holy Scripture.
Recognised as a sacred focal point,
the hub of the political and religious life of God’s people.

At the heart of Jerusalem, now as then, is the Temple Mount, Zion.
Where Al Aqsa Mosque now stands,
once stood the symbol of Yahweh’s resting place,
the Lord’s dwelling place: where earth and heaven met.

In the Holy of Holies, the very heart of the Temple,
stood that unique space, unlike any other temple in the ancient world,
without image or word,
where God was.

At ancient Israel’s very heart
was this symbol, a metaphor and a reminder,
that this people were to be God-centred,
that the Law and the sacrificial code were pointers towards this:
God incarnate, dwelling in the holy nation.

This, too, was the message of the prophets,
that while lip-service may have been paid to God,
too often it was shallow, empty, and hypocritical.

And if the Temple was to be a constant reminder of God’s presence,
when it was destroyed
once in the 6th Century BC by the Babylonians
and again in 70 AD by the Romans –
this was a clear indication to many of an abandonment of and by God.

Exile, one of the great metaphors of the Old Testament,
was made very real — even for those who were left in the Holy Land —
by the fact that the House of the Lord was in ruins.

Yet out of the despair of exile and the ruins of Jerusalem
comes a voice of hope.
Haggai, in tonight’s first lesson, is given by God a message to proclaim,
that even though the Temple building is no more,
“my spirit abides among you; do not fear”.

More than this, pointing to the soon to be rebuilt Temple,
he is told that
“the latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former”.
And this, on the face of it, was most certainly the case.

The Second Temple was made even more impressive under Herod the Great.
The Temple rebuilding he began and his son completed,
which Jesus is told has been under construction for 46 years,
was considered by many one of the wonders of the ancient world.
It was huge, and spoke volumes not only of God’s glory,
but of Herod’s.

In fact, in Jesus’ time, just after Herod the Great,
even though the Temple was grander and more extravagant than ever,
some within Judaism no longer recognised its legitimacy.
For them, the Temple was merely symbolic and symptomatic
of a social and religious system that was far from God-centred.

The community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example,
was adamant that the Temple rebuilt and enlarged by Herod the Great
was not the one in which God could be properly worshipped.
For them, the building standing in Jerusalem was itself a symbol of exile.
So much so that they abandoned it
and took to the desert in a literal act of exile,
rather than stay and be reminded of an emptiness at their nation’s heart.

So it is that Jesus the adult comes to the Temple,
and in John’s gospel at the very beginning of his ministry.
He is challenged to offer some sign to back up his prophetic action
in chasing out the traders and money-changers at the heart of Israel.

Today we also ponder the meaning
of Jesus’ first visit to the Temple as an infant.
There he was greeted by the prophetic words of Simeon and Anna,
some of which we’ve sung tonight as the Nunc Dimmitis.

Now here is Jesus the adult, himself wearing the mantle of prophet.
His enigmatic response to those who question him
is to speak of himself as the Temple.
And we who come after can see that here is God incarnate.
Here is the Holy of Holies.
In Jesus of Nazareth,
we have an image of God at the centre of being human.
Of God in the very heart and life of an individual,
God’s very self in full humanity,
not encased in stone, but expressed in love and compassion and cost.
St Paul speaks of the human body as a Temple,
while the Church – the community of believers –
is described elsewhere as a temple made of living stones.

The term “Temple”, exactly like our “Church”,
may be conveniently applied to a building,
but it is cannot rightly remain there.

The Temple is only so if God is at its heart
and incarnate in the human community centred upon it.
The Church is a description of community,
not simply the designation of a functional building.

That means that where believers are,
there too must be the presence of God,
and an awareness of that presence.

Clearly, for all the tangible reality of Jerusalem,
the prophets and the gospel bring us to the realisation
that God is not caught up in structures.

God is not solely to be found in certain places
or predictable, ritualised ways of being.
It is far too easy to try to shut God up in a box or a building
or to a certain day
and to get on with doing what we do the rest of the time.

The hard teaching, the living and dying of Christ,
is that this is not how to attend to our relationship with God.

The symbol of the Temple has God at the very centre of the universe,
of the political, the sacred, the social, the economic.

God is not ghettoised, but glorified.

Individuals do not live incongruously, but as complete people.

In the language of the modern rendering of the Nicene Creed,
we can be, like Christ, fully human.
Not simply living, but having life in abundance.
Not without pain and frustration
and all we know is part of the human condition,
but with God.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is to us
a reminder and a symbol
that the Temple is where God is to be found.
You can take it with you.

Or you can leave it to sit as a safe, solid, immovable edifice.

The only problem is that the Temple that is in Jerusalem
or in Maheno, and nowhere else will fall over.
It’s just a matter of time and gravity and wind,
of armies and the movement of tectonic plates.

This feast of the Presentation, this Candlemas,
we are to be light to the world.
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
wherever they may be found.  Amen.

Homily for Candlemas 2011

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2011 at 10:24 pm

This morning we commemorate Candlemas,
the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

The hopes and dreams of the old,
the prophetic figures of Simeon and Anna,
are met in the Christchild,
as his parents come to do
what was customary under the Torah, the Law.
What any Jewish family might do.

Mary and Joseph come to offer the least gift under the Law,
meaning they were of humble means… a couple of birds.

Today, too, the Church traditionally blessed candles
to be used throughout the year.
The “light to lighten the gentiles” is greeted in the Temple,
and we light candles to acknowledge that light.

The light of the Epiphany star,
the light that shines on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

In the US it’s ‘Groundhog Day’,
when, the folk tradition goes,
a rodent will try to glimpse it’s shadow.
If he sees it, here comes the sun…
This seems as likely
as any other means of predicting the weather.

Like many other Feasts that shape the Christian year,
it has a pagan precursor.
The rhythms of the seasons and agricultural life
were part of the worlds of both Jews and Gentiles,
so we should not be surprised
that they shape church seasons too.

In the northern hemisphere,
this is the season when light is returning,
the days becoming longer,
and that ties in perfectly
with the imagery of Simeon’s great song of praise,
the Nunc Dimittis, when he recognises Jesus
as the “light to lighten the Gentiles”.

We too tend to get a second shot at summer.
We might want to claim our own local wisdom
after weeks of overcast and changeable weather,

E huri to mata ki te ra, kei muri nga ata e takaoreore ana
Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.

This is traditionally a time for moving on.
The last gasp of the Christmas story,
and the time for even die-hard Christmas decorators
to pack away the tinsel and take down the tree, the crib.

It is about this time
that we can no longer pretend that holidays go on forever,
as the daily grind claims us for another year.

The Church talks about the weeks that follow
as ‘Sundays in Ordinary Time’.
Jesus’ presentation in the Temple
marks the beginning of ordinary days
for the Holy Family.

Mary is received back into the ‘ordinariness’
of her place in the community, forty days after Jesus’ birth.
The wonder and danger of birth has past,
and everybody has to move on with the Everyday.

Five weeks after Christmas, we do too.

Yet we have a story in the gospel
that tells us of something quite different.
Here at the Temple Jesus is seen by two aged witnesses.
Tired eyes with weary bodies.

Simeon, waiting for his last breath it seems,
and Anna, 84, a widow, and a prophet.
Words of praise & hope & enthusiasm fall from their mouths.
The old can see the new thing God is doing.

The light of their devotion and their faith has not gone out,
and is kindled anew,
as they see in something very ordinary –
another baby presented in the Temple –
the spark of God’s redeeming power.
“My eyes have seen your salvation”.
“A light to lighten the Gentiles”.
What is the new thing God is showing us,
as we return to life as usual?
Where can we coax a candle to new invigorated life
and pass our light to those who need it?

How do we let our tired eyes
sparkle with the Light of Christ?
These are the days, these ordinary days to come,
when discipleship really matters.

And today’s symbol, taken from that image of light,
is the humble candle.

Poet, spiritual writer and Trappist Monk,
Thomas Merton, wrote these words:

Lumen
Ad revelationem gentium.

Look kindly, Jesus, where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his
own life’s candle.

And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied,
among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble,
and consoles our sinful kindred.

It is for this we come,
And, kneeling, each receive one flame:

Ad revelationem gentium.

Our lives, like candles, spell / this simple symbol:
Weep like our bodily life, sweet work of bees,
Sweeten the world, with your slow sacrifice.

And this shall be our praise:
That by our glad expense, our Father’s will
Burned and consumed us for a parable.

Nor burn we now with brown
and smoky flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one,
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.

Homily for 3A after Epiphany

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Every time I drive past Lake Benmore,
I try and pick the spot.
The bank where I had my greatest, my only,
fishing moment.
My first, and second – though not actually landed – trout.
Somewhere on Lake Benmore, I’m told,
the abandoned movie set for Kingdom Come
has Benmore re-imagined as Galilee.
Coincidence?  I’ll let you be the judge…

Fishing is a very apt New Testament analogy:
Jesus famously says this morning:
I will make you ”fishers of men”.
The word play of “fishermen” and “fishers of men”
brings us closer to the original,
than other, less gender-specific renderings.

The gospel we’ve just heard, like last week,
features a story about the two brothers,
Simon Peter and Andrew.
It features two other brothers, James and John.
All of them fishermen.
All of them called to follow Jesus.
Let’s remember these are not men of leisure.
They may be fishing on a lake, but they’re day to day
fishermen, workers who relied on the catch to eat and sell.
Fishing for them was not an optional extra

These were ordinary working people who saw something, heard something in this Jesus
that turned their lives upside down.

In a moment, these first disciples make a choice
about responding to an encounter with God.
And they leave everything behind.

And yet, not everything, for Jesus says to them,
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”,
“fishers of men”.
As if saying that all they have known, all their lives,
will be inherently part
of their sharing in the work of the Kingdom.
As if their lives will be a part of the preaching.

These people, these first disciples, are not called alone
and they are not called to hold their faith tightly,
rather they are to throw it about the place,
like fishermen casting a net.
Who knows what you’ll haul in
with that kind of recklessness?

The call to be fishers of people is a call to evangelism,
to sharing our faith.

We are not talking about recreational fishing here,
long lazy hours as a weekend retreat,
or a summer idyll.
We need to share our faith.
Evangelism is not an optional extra.

What we define as evangelism, might be the issue.
Not many are reached in this age and culture
by preaching on street corners.
By knocking door to door.
Maybe some of us have found our way back to Church
after bad experiences with evangelism.

Jesus told these fishermen
that they would be “fishers of men”.  Fishermen.
As if their lives, their livelihoods, their whole identity
might be the most effective way
of sharing the faith they would discover.
What else do we have?
Ultimately, if you don’t have a pulpit,
most of us have to let our lives do the preaching.
In our daily living and working,
our fishing or visiting or building or interacting.
We’re called to be whole people,
not fillets of faith.

To act and speak and relate to those around us
as our faith would have us act and speak and relate.
In love, in compassion,
in justice, in generosity, in patience.

To preach with our lives.
To claim our faith with integrity,
and from that place, to share it with others.

Such living evangelism,
is seen in a figure of the recent past,
a surprising saintly figure:
Archbishop Oscar Romero,
assassinated by right-wing forces
in a troubled El Salvador almost 31 years ago.

For nearly all his career in the Church,
Romero was a church functionary,
did not raise his voice
or cause problems for the wealthy and the powerful
who had sanctioned his rise.

It was only when one of his Priests was killed,
together with an old man and a little boy,
that a spark was kindled in Archbishop Romero.

That was what in the Greek of the New Testament
is called “metanoia”, a turning around.
What is often translated, as in this morning’s gospel,
as “repentance”.  Turning around.

And it is never too late,
and we are never too “holy”, or too highly placed,
for that.
A new way of seeing, a new way of living.
Almost overnight, Romero realised how his faith
and the place of the Church needed to be reinvigorated,
and to be held continually beside
what would constitute ‘good news’
for the poorest and most vulnerable.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness
—  on them light has shined.

It was a foolhardy, a dangerous thing to do,
to live in tune with the call of the gospel, and to preach it.
Romero knew it would cost him his life.
But he realised that the most powerful thing he could do
as a Christian, was to preach with his own life.

He wrote,
A Christian community is evangelised  in order to evangelize.
A light is lit in order to give light.
A candle is not lit to be put under a bushel, said Christ.
It is lit and put up high in order to give light.
That is what a true community is like.
A community is a group of men and women
who have found the truth in Christ and in his gospel,
and who follow the truth
and join together to follow it more strongly.

The preacher no longer needs to preach,
for there are Christians who preach by their own lives.

Not very many of us, God willing,
are called to give our lives.
And yet, our very lives are what we’re called to give.

Homily for Epiphany 2011

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Famous words, those of TS Eliot from his “Journey of the Magi”.
Matthew’s Gospel alone has this curious story of oriental wise men, magi,
searching for the Christchild.

It stands like a marker at the very beginning of his telling of the Jesus story,
a marker which makes most sense
only when you get to the very, very end.

These magi, this encounter with the pagan, the gentile world,
sets the scene for the movement of the wisdom of God,
that embodied in Jesus of Nazareth,
from the tiny region of Palestine and a single people,
to throughout the world.

Matthew throughout his gospel is calling his Jewish readers to understand
that Jesus is the promised Messiah,
and that in him Israel is called to be what she was always *supposed* to be:
“a light to the nations”.
This is what Isaiah speaks of,
the gentiles drawn to the light of Israel’s witness to God.

Yet for all the prophet’s pleading and goading and prodding and promises,
Israel does not manage to embody that which God has called her to.
It is only in this Jesus who *becomes* the embodiment of Israel,
of all she could and should have been,
that God with humankind is recognised
– this Jesus portrayed by Matthew from the outset as a light to the nations.
An epiphany.
These wise men, these astrologers, these pagans, these Eastern sages
– all that was abhorrent to the Jewish culture of the day,
men from the east, where the land of Exile was –
these representative figures are drawn to the light of Christ,
the star which proclaimed a king in Israel.

This is the opening move in Matthew’s story of epiphany.

Epiphany means revelation. Showing.
The manifestation of divine or ultimate reality.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Folly? These wise men turn up unexpectedly,
gentiles in Jerusalem, at the heart of the Jewish faith,
knowing little or nothing of the Jewish Scriptures,
certainly not knowing about Bethlehem,
the prophetic place where the Messiah was to be born.

The wise men come, to Herod the Great,
celebrated king of the Jews for over three decades,
and innocently ask him where the child is “who has been born king of the Jews”!

At the centre of the Jewish world, in the court of, the very presence of the king,
these nameless pagans have the audacity
to inquire about *another* “king of the Jews.” Folly indeed.
Not really the act of wise men!
Here the brutal kingship of Herod,
who murders the Holy Innocents in and around Bethlehem,
is directly contrast with the kingship of Jesus.
An epiphany, a showing, of how far Rome’s king of the Jews
had moved from the image of one who will “shepherd my people Israel”.

The gifts these pagans set down, that they lay at the feet of the Christchild
are also representative of this epiphany: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold, the ancient, near universal symbol of prestige, of kingship.
Frankincense, symbol of worship, prayer, priesthood.
Both of these gifts are those that Isaiah foretells will be brought by the nations,
represented in the wise men, to the true Israel.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;…

And what of the gift missing from all that Isaiah says the gentiles will bring to Israel?
Gold & frankincense are there, as well as a “multitude of camels”,
which don’t appear in Matthew’s account…
the missing gift is myrrh, the spice associated with embalming.

Myrrh, the pointer towards where this journey will end,
where the ultimate epiphany of what this God is like will happen,
the astounding revelation,
the showing of the God’s glory, the rising light above thick darkness,
the star in deepest night…
this epiphany is not in triumphant dominance over, but in communion with us,
bearing the wounds and the hopes of a broken people –
the shepherd who lays down his life for the flock.

Eliot’s great poem ends with this ambiguity,
this prefiguring of death in birth, of a starting and an ending.
Of an already and a not yet.
And that is where we live, you and I.
The Church cannot live simply in the reverential awe of the wise men
at the feet of the Christchild, for like Eliot’s magi,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Matthew’s Gospel alone has the magi,
standing like a marker at the very beginning of the story.
A marker that makes most sense only when you get to the very, very end.

For Matthew’s gospel ends with the words of the so-called “Great Commission”:
‘go, therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
We are sent out from our worship to our world.

The world we live in, with all its idols and illnesses,
is the world *we* must shed light within,
in the face of the Herods of this world and the hardness of journey.

“We have observed his star at its rising”
and we too have gifts to lay before him.

The beginning and the end of Matthew’s gospel
and of our discipleship is in our doing this.