Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Midweek Sermon

As these don't tend to get shared elsewhere - here is my midweek thinking for today...

James Hannington Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, and His Companions Martyrs, 1885 — Commemoration

Matthew 10.16–22

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

I’m not sure we should have favourite Bible verses, but today’s Gospel reading contains one of mine!  “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” says Jesus.  Not quite as powerful, perhaps as ‘For God so loved the world” or as resonant and long lasting as the image of a wayward son or a good Samaritans, but still I find it a most profound and helpful verse – and part of a profound and powerful passage.

Christians, especially Anglicans, are often looked at as being somewhat bloodless in their faith.  We are considered by the majority of people to be the acceptable face of religion!  Whether it’s true or not – apart from the odd fundamentalist or religious nut - we are looked on as a relatively mellow and bloodless kind of religion. Here I could get into a long discussion about what happens when people add the name of Christian faith to their campaigns and crusades and the less than illustrious history of the Church – but after a couple of thousand years and the ubiquity of Christendom in the west there’s a certain level of blandness ascribed to Christianity.  In Western Culture at least…

But Jesus doesn’t give us that impression.  No bloodless faith in his world.  His is a faith that is full of passion and compassion, life, love, wisdom and grace. But also a faith that is strong, life changing, risky and dangerous. 

There is an expectation in Jesus’ talking of faith that it is and will be dangerous to stand up for faith.  But there is also an expectation that those of follow the way of Christ will be able to stand. Far from the images of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ we see in today’s lesson a strength in refusing to fight back against persecutors, to speak out without violence for that which is right.  Jesus reassures his hearers that that those who are taken prisoner for their faith will be given words to say and the courage of the Holy Spirit even under persecution.  I am grateful that we don’t suffer being tortured and put to death for our faith, as Bishop Hannington and his companions did and the persecutions we suffer are (relatively) mild in our society – though I know some of you will have experience of the danger of speaking out for faith – but there is still a calling to stand, to share, to change our world with the life of faith no matter what the cost.

And into this Jesus speaks these words – be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

What does that mean, though?

I think it means be canny (as they say in Scotland and the North of England) – listen and learn, take your opportunities where you can, be crafty.  Yet at the same time be honest, and transparent, be people of integrity.  Act, and be, righteous.

We are not called to naivety, or to being treated like doormats. We are called to be strong, and committed and faithful and loving, even when it hurts. We are called to be Christ like in our words and our actions, and even our thinking.

If we are willing to stand up for that which is right, and to share the faith which Christ calls us to – a transforming, disturbing, honest and powerful faith. A faith that calls all to leaving behind dishonesty and abuse, injustice and inequality. Faith that calls to love and serve one another, to know ourselves loved and to act with love towards all.

If we are willing to stand for that faith then we will put ourselves at risky of persecution, marginalisation, condemnation.  Or just of apathy and disregard. But in following Christ we are challenged to live lives which are completely dependent on God, that are different to the lives we would live without God, and that make a difference to the world as much as we allow the Spirit moving in us to make a difference to ourselves.

 May we be, with the Spirit’s help, wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Sermon for an early Eucharist!

Teresa of Avila & John of the Cross

Today is the remembrance of Teresa of Avila, and of St John of the Cross – two 16th Century contemplatives.  We are using the readings and prayer for Teresa, but we keep in mind also her friend and follower John of the Cross.  From the companion to our readings we are told that Teresa of Avila was a Spanish nun of the sixteenth century whose visions of Christ and gifts as a spiritual director have placed her among the greatest of all Christian mystics. She was the only daughter of a minor nobleman and entered the Carmelite convent in her native town of A’vil-a when she was twenty-one. Over the next two decades she endured many illnesses, one of which left her paralyzed, and also a nagging sense that in her prayers and devotions she was doing nothing more than “treading water.” 

Then, in answer to her despair, she began to have visions and hear “interior voices.” The most famous of these experiences, known as “transverberation of the heart,” took place over a number of days in 1559. At her left side Teresa beheld an angel who held a golden spear with a flaming tip, with which he pierced her heart again and again. Teresa later wrote that each time the angel withdrew the spear she was ‘ ‘left completely afire with a great love for God,” and knew that her soul would “never be content with anything less than God.”

Three years later, in obedience to another vision, Teresa left her convent with thirteen other nuns to observe the primitive constitutions of the Carmelite Order in all their strictness. Despite fierce, sometimes violent opposition from the Carmelite establishment, Teresa eventually founded sixteen other Reformed Carmelite houses.

In the midst of her other concerns Teresa also found time to write a number of books, which reflect her holiness, wisdom, and sense of humour; and through them she has become one of the most widely loved saints in the Church, attractive even to those who have not shared

Then of John of the Cross we are told he was the greatest Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, and his writings still nourish modern Christians in their hunger for true experience in the spiritual life. John was born in 1542 and became a Carmelite friar at the age of twenty-one. Four years later he met Teresa of Avila and joined in her reform of the Carmelite Order, serving as confessor to Teresa’s nuns. His prominence in the reform-movement made him a target of intrigues; twice he was abducted and imprisoned. After Teresa’s death he also suffered vindictive treatment at the hands of his own superiors in the Reformed Carmelites, and their harshness contributed to his death in 1591.

Through all his trials John was sustained by an intense mystical love for Jesus Christ. Like Teresa, he experienced the presence of Christ in “intellectual visions.” His reflection upon these experiences issued, first of all, in poetry of extraordinary power and beauty. At the urging of his disciples, he selected a number of his poems and produced  prose commentaries on them, which have become classics of mystical theology. John united the vocation of a theologian with the experience of a mystic, and his writings are the supreme example of theology as the fruit of prayer.

What bound these two together, and the reason we mark both at the same time is this common thread of prayer.  And that prayer is sometimes dangerous, disturbing, powerful, filled with unfilled and fulfilled longings and hopes. Even sometimes filled with visions… And sometimes filled with nothing.

Often when we hear of Elijah’s journey into the wilderness – his fearful flight from king Ahab and the king’s murderous rage.  We focus on the still, small voice at the end of Elijah’s vision but we forget what brought Elijah to this place – the fear, the anxiety, running from his home and from all that was his.  We forget that he needed sustenance for his journey – provided miraculously by the angel in the story. We forget he was so tired he lay down under a tree and slept – then we forget that before he got to the place of the still, small voice he had to pass through ‘the earthquake, wind and fire’.  Considering all that he was going through, that’s a pretty terrifying experience, if you think about it.

Theresa’s vision wasn’t a pleasant one – as we hear it today we are perhaps slightly shocked by the idea that she had her heart pierced by an angel again and again… sometimes called the Dart of longing love… but that on the other side of that vivid vision, experienced over days, came an overwhelming desire to know, to feel, to engage with the presence of God.

From John of the Cross we gain that powerful and painful image of the ‘dark night of the soul’ – an experience he had, and that expresses the feeling that many people have – of a spiritual emptiness even whilst seeking God in prayer and contemplation.  It is the title of a prayer by John, talking of the soul’s journey towards God and the hardships one faces in that spiritual journey.

We often, I think, take prayer for granted – we have words provided for us by our prayer books, and we have the prayers of the people, we have spiritual songs and hymns that give voice to our hopes and longings and fears and triumphs. We have an extensive vocabulary.

But these two mystics teach us that prayer is so much more than that.  Prayer is exposing ourselves to the divine, being vulnerable to God. It is being willing to discipline ourselves in prayer, to being silence, to seeking God in the difficult parts of life, to clinging to the faithfulness of God no matter what is happening to and around us.

Prayer is painful.  To truly journey to the heart of God is not a pleasant experience – because in doing so we confront ourselves, and we touch something greater than we can ever comprehend.  When we are open to God in prayer we take away all other supports and all of the things we rely on to make us comfortable, we are willing to bear the spiritual wilderness and face up to our fears, even to death itself.  In order that we might find our way to resurrection.

We are encouraged to not let our hearts be troubled, to hold fast to the knowledge of Christ’s faithfulness even in that face of death – to cling to the one who is the way of truth and life.  But when we find ourselves stripped before God we might not feel that sense of reassurance that we long for.

That’s where the examples of those through the ages who teach us about God being in the midst of the darkness, the God who is there when we don’t feel she is – the God who is faithful – this is where their examples can bring us encouragement.  To hold on, or as John Bell Scottish writer and member of the Iona Community once said ‘we grasp God, that we may be grasped by God in return’.

These faithful pilgrims, our sister and brother in faith, encourage us to be faithful ourselves in whatever situations we find ourselves.  They encourage us to travel deeper into faith, even when the way seems frightening and desolate. They remind us that God is not easily found in comfort and complacency,  but in struggle and discipline.  They remind us that faith is risky, and that prayer is dangerous.

They remind us that God will sometimes speak through the earthquake, wind and fire with the still small voice of peace.  But that we may have to endure the shaking and fear before our eyes and ears are able to hear the profound stillness of God.

A 12 Step Eucharist Sermon

Preached on October 14th at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria.

Amazing Grace

We live in a society that often seems obsessed with how we look… the clothes we wear, the way our hair looks, or the state of our skin, whether we eat right, exercise, look buff, whatever…  We are obsessed with how things seem, how they look, what impression we give.

But that’s not a new phenomenon, as the reading today indicates.  Jesus condemns those who are obsessed with religious observance at the expense of true devotion – particularly those who actually use their religion to distract from the true intent of their hearts – a desire to be SEEN to be proper, to act in the appropriate way and to get credit for the way they appear.  In the older translations of the Bible later on in this passage Jesus calls these types ‘whitewashed tombs’ – meaning it all looks nice and well cared for on the outside, but you really don’t want to know what’s going on underneath.

But for those of us who know ourselves, who have looking inside ourselves – we often feel the other way around. That we are afraid of what is inside us, or we are ashamed of what happens under the surface – we don’t want people to know what is going on ‘in here’ because we feel so inadequate, or bad – the word we often use in the Church is ‘sinful’.

It is hard to open up – to others, and to God, because we are afraid what they will see,

I don’t know about you, but when I pray about the God who knows all the secrets of our hearts, or when I read about Jesus saying ‘nothing that hidden will remain hidden but all will be brought to light’. When I read in the story of the choosing of King David that though he was the smallest of his family God saw what was inside him ‘for mortals look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart’.  When the Bible talks about God looking within – I get a little bit fearful.  It can cause a certain amount of anxiety.

What if God doesn’t like what God sees? What if I am not worthy, or God takes offence at something I’ve done, or said, or even worse – something I’ve thought?

I would love to be someone, and I hope to be someone from whom goodness overflows from within – as our reading today said.  But I often feel as though I am not.  I worry that all my good works, all the kindness I try to show, all the words I say are just a cover up job for my general feeling of brokenness and the wrong I know I am capable of.

There’s an urban legend that does the rounds every now and then about a University professor who called around a city at random and just says to whoever answers the phone ‘everyone knows, the secret’s out, get away quick’ and that a significant number of people did, in response to that random call, pack up and get out of town.  It’s an urban legend, so I doubt the truth of it, but I do recognise that inside myself, and I am sure inside many of us, there is a feeling that we are perhaps just waiting to get found out. That there is stuff within us that we don’t like, that if people truly knew what we were like, if God truly knew what we are like, we would be rejected.

Well, here’s the secret.

God truly knows what we are like.  And God loves us.

The more I read the Bible, the more I see the stories of our ancestors in all of their imperfections and the horrendous mistakes and the violence that characterised their lives, and the wrong things that they did – the more I see of a God who chooses to use imperfect people, who teaches us to use our mistakes to grow, who does not condemn us, who loves us.

So when Jesus questions the motives of the religious leaders, as he does in today’s reading, I don’t think he does it as a threat, or a condemnation – but as an expression of sadness at how we sometimes don’t let the light into our hearts.  When I realise that God searches my heart, I realise that God doesn’t do so to condemn or judge me, but in order that I might open myself up to love, to hope, to faith. 

The word is Grace.

Grace doesn’t ask us to be worthy. Grace doesn’t demand that we are good before we are loved. Grace doesn’t hold our mistakes or our wrongdoings up before us and say ‘you are bad’.  Grace loves us – as we are, where we are, who we are.

Grace doesn’t call us to be perfect before we know we are loved.

Grace doesn’t demand that we get everything right before we are forgiven.

Grace doesn’t make us pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and do better.  Grace works with us to transform us, to help us, to guide us, to strengthen us, to bless us, to love us.