Friday, August 28, 2015

Large Souled

These are the sermon notes, for what I said check out the video:

https://youtu.be/Squ8jSFolOQ

This week whilst journeying through the readings I came across the words, large souled. This caught my attention and I decided to explore what it might mean. Sometimes large souled seems to mean pretty much the same as big-hearted – but this did not satisfy me and so I kept up the search.
This led me to the TED talks. These short talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design, push the frontiers of the way we often think. They are not overtly religious, but, as with much of life we can learn things in all sorts of places. The talk that most got my attention was one by artist Phil Hansen.
Phil Hansen went to college to study art. He did a lot of those dot drawings and because of the repetitive movement his hand got tired so he just held the pencil tighter. One day he developed a tremor, and the dots turned into dashes. A neurologist told him he had permanent nerve damage and his dot picture days were over.
That could be the sermon right there – hold on too tight and you will end up hurting yourself. But it isn’t.
Phil Hansen quit for a while, but he still had the art bug. One day he discovered that he could make pictures out of squiggles instead of dots or straight lines and he was off again.
That could be the sermon too – when something is broken in your life, keep looking for where God is opening unexpected doors. But it isn’t.
It is what Phil Hansen learned next that fascinates me. Phil was hard up for a while, whilst he was a student and made do with make-shift art supplies. When he finally got a paying job he rushed out and bought himself a load of new stuff. Went home hoping for creativity to strike, but it didn’t. He had everything he might need, but something about being able to do anything actually trapped him into doing nothing.
He decided to set boundaries for himself. Art for a dollar, art that would be destroyed after he made it, art from the stories people told him on the phone. He turned a prairie of possibilities into a ballpark of imagination. So that is it – right – we need to set boundaries, that is what the sermon is about. Well, not really.
Being large souled seems to have something to do with allowing our creativity, with finding our place but letting our boundaries be in Christ rather than giving in to an endless and futile sea of possibilities.
Then there was Jack Silver. He decided to combine the natural world and electronics. So, he can make a computer keyboard out of a banana, a computer mouse out of a piece of paper and a musical instrument out of ketchup. His company sells kits so that you can do it too.
My first thought was – well, that is fascinating but what use is it. I would buy the kit and make a few vegetable keyboards or fruit musical instruments and be bored. Perhaps it is an artform, I can get that and many artists are using the technology. But then I sat with the idea and began to understand a different sort of purpose.
By making electronics fun and a little zany Jack Silver is opening up a world of possibility. Who knows whether a banana keyboard really has any practical application but it grabs the interest of people who might, one day, find one – or more to the point find all sorts of other things which we have never dreamed of which might change lives.
Jack Silver has a crazy idea – which might not go anywhere in itself, but might lead to other ideas – might engage those who will change the world.
That is being large souled – seeing that even the craziest of ideas might make a difference and being willing to plant a seed and never see the fruit.
The message of Jesus does make a difference in itself. In John’s Gospel today many people walk away from Jesus. I wondered whether they had really sat with the idea, or how many of them might have gone home and thought it through and come back. Just like my having to sit with the banana keyboard idea. That is being large souled, being willing to sit with an idea, to turn it over, to listen to God and reflect upon that listening.
One thing that does not come across in the English translation of John is his own creativity. The Greek is complex but in this passage he jumps between two words for word. One is the common or garden word, the other is logos – which many of you know is how God is described in the first chapter of this Gospel. John both uses and pushes the meaning of the words in order to say, in effect, when you reject what I am saying, you reject the Divine Logos, you reject me as God and Messiah.
This careful use of what he has marks John out amongst the Gospel writers as the one who provides the most complete and yet most challenging picture of Jesus.
This Ephesians reading is a challenge for many. The militaristic images are divisive. But let’s take a step back. The writer is in prison, a Roman prison and is trying to pour out this letter. He is trying to explain what this strength of God might look like in a tangible form and he looks out of his cell and sees a soldier – the shield, the sword, the helmet. He might even have remembered the image of the Greek messenger God Hermes and his winged shoes and he weaves these together in examples which people can understand.
In the Gospel those who leave have small imaginations and cannot break free of their assumptions about the way things are. John carefully weaves the Word which is God and the words Jesus speaks into a unity (he uses different words in the Greek). Abide, he says along with the other three great abides in the Gospel – abide in the vine, abide in the Spirit and abide in love. This weaving of words is a creative outpouring of the Good News of Jesus in a picture of the Godhead which is both complex and beautiful and yet still draws us in as a work in which we must participate.
God’s call is surrounded time and again by creativity. Again and again those called say – I can’t do this and again and again God reminds them that this God who brought light from darkness and day from night can certainly manage to give the bold hearts and strength for the journey. Those who look strong and mighty, who look brave and bold but are not a part of God’s endless creativity in calling are missing the point.
You see, it was not that Phil Hansen did something which should be a pattern for all our lives, it was not the finding new ways, or not holding on too tight, or not giving up no, what makes the story great is that he was brave enough to let go of his assumptions and find his creative soul.
And isn’t that the story of the Bible – that the creative God seeks to dance with His creation. How often do we respond to that call with – sorry I don’t dance instead of asking how we might learn?
This week I was having a conversation about sewing with some folk. One said she could not sew because she had tried to make a jacket once and had given up. A jacket? Really – you start with a jacket? Some would say that shows boldness but, personally, I would say that shows she did not know what she was doing. Start with a pillowcase, or a skirt – start with something with straight lines and without sleeves, facings and buttons holes. Strength is sometimes the ability to say, this is where I am, I need to take it from here.
That is what the writer of the Ephesians asks prayers for – this is where I am, in chains, pray that from these chains I might tell the story of Jesus as I ought. Pray God will bring His creativity here and make me bold. Phil Hansen found his boldness in setting tight boundaries, another TED talker called Jack Silver wired a banana to function as a computer keyboard, he has found his creativity in a bizarre melding of electronics and the natural world – and this is not even explicitly religious creativity.
The front of your bulletin says, Be Bold. You get letters with Be Bold. Before long you will be able to buy mugs and t-shirt and who knows what else with Be Bold on it. But what does it mean to be Bold. I think it means that we start with the idea that we are vessels to be filled with God’s creativity. That we have a story to tell which involves us as part of it.
Even if you do not like the soldier picture, you get what it means –so be creative, how do you say that all strength comes from God and make that real to people. God calls people to crazy and impossible actions. They are not all public, they are not all huge and then some of them are.
Being bold means that every time you are tempted to say “I can’t do that” you might want to say, “Let me pray about that.” The real problem with my friend and the jacket was not only that it was just too hard but that she had no one to help her. Her creativity was stifled both by a lack of skill and the inability to learn that skill.

Time and again the story of God’s people shows that there will be a way even when we can see no way, if we are following the call of God. But boldness is not just about ploughing on through every opposition, boldness is about first of all setting out feet down upon God’s created earth and acknowledging God from whom all strength comes. Abide here, remain in me, says Jesus and with this act of boldness and faith we can trust that God will continue God’s work of creation, even in you and me.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

August 6th

White light, brighter than bright,
Holy might,
Humanity's transfiguration in to divinity,
God touching protected life
Build on this moment
The truth of who and how and where
Not shelters
Not ancient prophets
But Christ's might
Breath and hope

Bright light brighter than bright
Unholy fright
Humanity disfigured in fear and hate
God weeps at precious life
Torn apart in the moment
The truth of how and who and where
Becomes shelters
Ancient rivalries
Not Christ's might
Awesome dispair.

Leave the mountains
Leave the dragons and the knights 
Plough for sword
Pruning hook for spear
If this enlightened God brings any news
It is a change for life
Common humanity
Touched by divinity and sprung
Not to death in human fight
But life in sight
Of heaven's throne.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Bread

When we meet Jesus in the Gospel today he is being pursued by those who witnessed the feeding miracle where he transformed a simple lunch into enough food to feed thousands. The crowd wants more, they want a conjuring trick – or do they? These are people who are mostly hungry. No doubt they would like to see another miracle but might it be more pragmatic than that, perhaps they want another good, square meal.
Jesus tells them that he is the true bread. This, of course, is an offer to end their hunger in a different and enduring way. But what does it mean that Jesus is the bread of the world? We are called to the altar, of course, we receive bread and wine to join into the heavenly banquet. We understand that there is real hunger in the world and that we are called to work together to dismantle unjust structures which perpetuate poverty and systematic inequality.
These two things go together. For some the social justice side of the equation, the actual feeding of the hungry crowd, comes easy. For others the holding close of the bread of heaven and entering ever closer on that journey with Christ is their native language, but we are called to both. It struck me that as I was reading around this passage several folks said we should remember not to get stuck on the spiritual meaning of the Gospel and remember that there is real and pressing hunger in the world. Then one commentator noted, abruptly, that, actually as a Church, we are pretty good at social justice – like the crowd which came to Jesus we understand the physicality of our presence in the world, but like the crowd we often stop there, failing to see Jesus for who He really is.
This week has been a week of contrasts for me. I guess I am taking away from several deaths and conversations about death that that line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption  is just about right,
“Get busy living or get busy dying”. Isn’t that what Jesus is inviting this crowd to today, to get busy living. And isn’t that a challenge for us?
When we talk about bread we think of something which is a staple, something which is good and nutritious, but the simple fact is that most of the bread which we buy in the store is so processed that it is simply filler in our diet. The bread which Jesus would have known was made from coarsely ground flour. It would have been padded with various grains and even pulses. It would have been dense and heavy and flavorsome. It would have needed chewing and would, indeed, have been a meal by itself.
We have turned bread into something else – we add fat and sugar because we have made the bread itself so tasteless. Bread is simply the holder for our peanut butter, our salad or our cheese – it simply provides a case for the rest of our eating, to the point where we are invited on diets which remove all carbs, including bread.
The symbolism of what bread is to us is lost. Water we get, we need that. But bread is an optional extra in many of our lives and when we do eat it we hide it underneath a variety of flavors.
And if we have rendered our food so much less nutritious and rendered it useless without a cupboard full of additions, what does this do to our view of Jesus as bread of the World?
Get on with living, or get on with dying.
If you ever get to walk into, or even by, a bakery which is making fresh bread you know that it is and experience which envelops you and draws you in. You take an extra breath to savor the scent, you might want a taste, buy a loaf. Where we lived before this the grocery store baked bread on the premises. My children loved the French Bread. It came in long paper bags with a tantalizing clear panel on the front. Despite saying we had to pay first I would often get to the register with chunks torn off and it was not unknown for a whole loaf to disappear on the walk home – I had to buy two if I wanted one to serve with dinner. If we took a detour on the walk home from school we could go by the store and Katherine would often choose a half baguette over candy (not always, let’s be real!)
But that is the sort of bread which Jesus is offering us, the bread of a life which we want to tear into. A bread whose warmth we want to hold onto, whose scent we savor. That is so different from the plastic wrapped, don’t squash me bread with which many of us a familiar.
For centuries bread lasted a day. Feeding a family with bread was a daily task. The fire had to be rekindled, the dough assembled and kneeded and the bread baked. As a child my mother still walked to the bakery each day to buy bread for the day – she refused to succumb to, as she called it, “Plastic Bread”. It can all seem a bit romantic, but bread was something which required daily attention, the yeast was a permanent presence in the house, except, of course, during fasts.
It is no accident that during the Highland clearances in Scotland the sign of a household, or community, which had been eradicated was the extinguishing of the fire. Cold, broken houses where no bread could be baked.
Get on with living, or get on with dying.
Do we come to Jesus the Bread of Life as if this is something we cannot wait to dig into, as if this is something to savor, as if there is a journey worth making, work worth doing, as if this is associated with our very life and the warmth of our being? Is coming to Jesus a daily task of necessity and satisfaction?
When Jesus says to the crowd that he is the bread of life he uses the verb to eat but then he switches to the word “chew”. It is not a pleasant sort of word, we would tell our children off for the sort of chewing which Jesus mentions. It is a rough and ready, childlike word. But just like my children in the store tearing pieces off the loaf, children, especially when they are hungry, are not careful eaters, they stuff their mouths and make a mess.
What we do at the altar has to bring all of this to mind – not to make us disgusted but to remind us of our vitality, the urgency of our need and our utter dependence.
Of course we need to work on giving all people their daily bread but fulfilling this basic level of need only begins to offer a full humanity. There are many who are well fed who are poor. What Jesus offers is a real and significant hope, meaning and purpose. It does not come shrink wrapped and it is not full of chemicals which will keep it fresh for weeks – like the manna in the wilderness it is God’s daily provision for us. We cannot make it small or easy and we must get on with living.