Sunday, 19 January 2014

Thinking with the heart, grace and inclusivity

Epiphany 2 (2014) Year A RCL Principal

Come and See

First up, a little thought which I did say to the sermon Circle I wasn’t going to share, but it leads me into what I want to say this Morning too well to keep to myself.  It’s not the pig with three legs joke, but it is about animals…

A man takes his dog to the vet and after an examination the Vet takes him aside and says, I am very sorry but your dog doesn’t have long to go, now, and all we can do is make him comfortable.

The man refuses to believe it and demands a second opinion. So the vet agrees and whistles – from the back room comes a tabby cat which sniffs around the dog lying prone, pokes it and then looks up at the vet, shakes its head and dolefully says ‘meeow’.

Then the vet whistles again and in comes a beautiful Labrador, who proceeds to sniff, and nuzzle, and check out the other dog.  She also looks up, shakes her head and says, “rawwr”

The vet says, I’m so sorry, it’s certain. To which the man says “OK, how much do I owe you?” – “A thousand dollars” replies the vet.  “What???” says the man.  “Well,” responds the vet “my consultation was only a hundred bucks, but with the Cat scan and the lab work….”

So, that extremely tenous link brings me to the snippet of information I really want to start with.  With the increasing ability of CAT (computed tomography) scans to read information about the human body I have been intrigued to discover recently that using various technological aids to map the human body it has been discovered that our internal organs - particularly the gut and the heart - have neurons.  That may seem and odd way to start a sermon (along with the vet thing) but it says something quite important - it is not just our brains that have the ability to think, but our hearts and our gut too! 

It’s something I mentioned last week in our Iona service when we invited you all to enter the river of prayer and faith which is represented by the river running into our font.  Entering the river like we enter the story - not just with our minds, but with our hearts.  We are invited to engage with and encounter the stories of faith on an emotional level - again I pay tribute to our First Nations Brothers and Sisters in being able to feel stories and share stories by heart - by which I don’t mean by memory, but by heart.

I can’t stress enough just how much I feel that emotional engagement is something we as people of faith need to rediscover. In a world where many are unsatisfied by rational argument, where people want not to just explain mystery but experience it, where doctrine is rejected but story is valued - where the Church is seen not as a family of faith, but a club of those who follow certain rules and regulations - into this world we have a story to speak, a spirituality to share and a love to give.

And our heart is underrated - at least in western Christianity.  We have bought into the rational thinking of the enlightenment, we so often prize thinking, even without realising it.

When I brought back the creed into worship there were a number of people who were very pleased about again having something that was part of their experience of worship, part of their history, part of their tradition.  Those who have expressed some concern - despite me trying to reassure us all that this is not an attempt to force us down a route of doctrinal conformity - have done so because they feel that in saying a Creed they are being asked to say things they don’t ‘believe’ in.  It’s an interesting use of the word believe, a very post enlightenment, rationalist use. It’s not a use that the early Church would have recognised, nor one that many of our Christian ancestors would have understood.
To believe is to feel, not just to think! Really? I hear you think.  The word be-lief which is our English translation of Credo in Latin, or pistos in the Greek - is actually to have an alliegance to, it is to trust, to give creedence to, meaning to rely on, to lean on, to ally one’s heart to.

We have tied up our understanding of ‘believing’ to mean ‘intellectual assent to’ - wheras I believe it is better expressed as ‘grasp’ or ‘cling to’ or ‘hold tightly’.  When we recite the creed together we are sharing the story, clinging to something greater than ourselves, being a part of something that stretches back centuries.  I would say that it’s about saying ‘I cling to the mystery’ though I don’t pretend to have intellectually got it all together.  Bishop John Shelby Spong put’s it beautifully (and thank you Sarah for the link to this piece) in a Q & A from 9th January that addresses Creeds:

“I see this creed primarily as a love song that our fourth century ancestors wrote to sing to their understanding of God. I have no problem in joining in the singing of this ancient love song, but it would not occur to me that saying these words in worship somehow committed me to a literalized belief system....”

We are joining in the song.  We are feeling the greater story every time we say these ancient texts together.  Likewise the use of a confession in our worship is not about ME and MY BADNESS, but about taking that invitation as a community to both admit our complicity in a world which turns away from God’s love, and to acknowledge our brokenness and hope for healing, laying them before a loving God who opens herself to us and offers us, again and again, new life, grace, and the embrace of being accepted without strings, without conditions, without reason.

So many of our Scriptural encounters are about how it feels to encounter God, and how it feels to be desolate without God.  In our words from the Servant songs of the second book within the book of Isaiah - probably a later writer who added to the original works of Isaiah of Jerusalem - we have a story of faith.  It’s about that profound sense of being completely known and called by God - twice the writer uses the phrase ‘you knew me in the womb’.  It’s a much misused phrase by those who wish to use it purely in arguments about abortion - the sense it is trying to convey is a sense of purpose and of being deeply and intimately connected to God.

It’s a deeply emotive and moving thought - I don’t know about you but some of the most powerful feelings I have are related to feeling known, and feeling accepted and loved - and my greatest moments of despair come when I feel rejected or when I am not accepted as I am.

And our calling as Christian people involves sharing those feelings, and a sense of honesty about our sadness, our loss, our struggles as well as the joy we find in community and with the love of God.  Our stories contain peaks and troughs, good and bad, despair and hope, laughter and tears.

To see the depths and heights of being human and seeking faith we don’t have to look much further than the Psalms.  And today’s Psalm is, again, sharing deep feelings, and sharing a story of a faith journey, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry... He lifted me out of the mud and mire, out of the pit and set my feet upon a rock.’

Of course we don’t think this is literal language, it is about that sense of being without a foothold, of sinking, of being lost.  And in contrast to this the Psalmist feels deeply grounded, firmly planted in that sense of worth that God gives.  This is what puts the new song in his mouth, this is the cause for celebration - standing firmly as one who is known and loved by God.  And the result of this is to ‘hide God’s law in one’s heart’ - not in the head, not solely in the intellect, but to hold to the truth of God revealed in the heart.  Remember ‘the law’ in the understanding of a faithful Jew was not the words of law, but the sense of being chosen, of serving and obeying God and of being set free to be obedient to a way which was created for the benefit of humankind - the law designed to liberate human beings from harmful values and practise and bring us into a lifegiving relationship with a loving God.

And as we continue this theme - recognising that there is more I could say from Paul’s words to the Corinthians, but recognising too that we only have so much time here this morning, so I will move on to the real place where I think we can gain a perspective today.  Our words from John’s Gospel,  This is what our Sermon Circle spent much of our time talking about yesterday.  There is much to it, and much I could say - and I must confess that most of my thoughts this morning come from this Gospel passage, even though it is the last passage I want to tackle today.  Here we find the key.  And we find the key,  I would say, in three words.

In our reading from the Gospel today we are again invited to encounter Christ again and to find our place in the story.  This story of the first disciples put in a uniquely Johannine way - just as many of the accounts of events in John are markedly different to the other Gospels.  Unlike the Matthew 4, Mark 1 and Luke 5 accounts where there are nets being mended and fishing taking place in this story we have Andrew and A N Other with John the Baptist who have Jesus pointed out to them.  These two are already followers of John the Baptist, we are told, and Andrew goes to fetch his brother Simon, who later became known as Peter, and show him this individual described by John as ‘the lamb of God’.  These disciples ask Jesus ‘where are you staying’ and are given the response ‘come and see.’

And it’s worth considering those few verses carefully.  We have this account which John is keen to firmly root in time, telling us it was about four in the afternoon when this happened, and this question ‘Where are you staying.?’  An odd thing to ask a stranger perhaps, but the author or authors of this Gospel, are another attempt to ground this account.  The Gospel of John wants us to see the reality behind this story -  and the ‘where are you staying?’ is a deliberate echo of the verse we heard just a few weeks back at Christmas from the prologue to John ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’  - that word dwelt is a deliberately resonant one - tabernacled, pitched tent, made home.  It talks of the identification of the divine with humanity not just as a bystander but intimately bound up the story, in the reality of being human.

So the answer to ‘where are you staying’ is, at least in part ‘ right here with you’.  But the openness of the invitation is something that deeply resonates with me - those three words.  “Come and see”.

In those words are an invitation to a world of faith, a shared journey, to love, to joy to a life of colour and texture and depth. A life that is not immune from pain or free from suffering but is one which is still hopeful, one that is graced, life - as Jesus himself describes it in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel - in all it’s fullness.

And I believe - by which I mean I cling to, I give my heart to - in the love which is there in that gracious invitation “Come and see.” That’s the invitation which we as a church are called to give - come and see love in action, come and see faith, come and see mystery, come and see hope, come and see struggle and life, and death, and resurrection, and family, and acceptance and light and darkness and failure, and forgiveness and compassion and trust.  Come and be a part of our journey, come and explore, come and feel, come and share.

It’s not a recruiting campaign.  Because that come and see is not just about getting people through our doors, it’s about us continuing to speak up for justice and to speak out against injustice - here, or on the streets, or in our social action, in our ongoing campaign for full recognition of equal marriage within our wider Church and care for the excluded.  Our speaking out for justice for First Nations and our questioning of the inequality of our society where many cannot afford to eat, or who are abused, or suffering from addictions which consume and control them. Come and see our commitment to radical inclusion lived out.

It’s about taking that invitation with us in our working lives, in our relationships with others, in our homes.  Come and see a God who is among us in love.

It’s about being Christian people - dedicated to one another and to Christ, seeking to live in community, and welcoming all who come to us.   Come and see.  God loves you.  Love one Another. Love yourself.

Amen.  May it be so. Amen and Amen.