Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Confession

Most of us know what it feels like to step out of the shower and feel nice and clean. We might not notice it so much if we are in a world where daily showers are the norm - but we certainly notice it when we have been working outside, or exercising and we feel grimey - "That's better!" we might say to ourselves as we step into a dry towel and wonder what we will get up to next.
What we will get up to next will almost certainly involve some element of dirt - especially if we are living with other people. The cup of tea creates a tea bag which needs to go in the bin, the children have created a stack of dirty dishes in the past ten minutes (since you left for the shower), the dog has got into the recycling and there is soggy cardboard on the floor - you get it.
Sacramental confession, to me, is like that shower after a long slogging day in the fields. I pick up grime and dirt - much of it because I am stubborn, or lazy or simply human. I was brought up in a tradition which valued this sacrament, not as something which I should "save" for when I had done something heinous, but as a regular and routine part of life - a good clean up now and then.
Sin is an unpopular word, of course, but it is just a cover word for all those things which we do which damage our relationship with God, which cause us to walk at a distance from Christ and which distort that image of Divine Beauty which we all carry. We all sin, as sure as we breathe. We can analyze why, we can claim it is not our fault, or not fair, or that it is just too miserable to think about. It does not make it any less real.
Of course a lot of damage has been done by folk who want us to wallow in our guilt and feel bad about ourselves (often so they can feel better about themselves!). That is not what this is about. As a Church we confess our sins corporately almost every week in Church - the language is familiar and powerful. But the idea of confession to a priest has become reserved in many people's minds for some sort of red letter sins - which, of course, usually includes sex.
I am not saying that everyone should avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance - the Episcopal Church and Church of England always say that "all can, none must, some should." Rather, that whilst Sacramental Confession can, indeed, be used at times when people are in crisis because of extraordinary behavior - its main and routine use is much more mundane (and boring for the Confessor) - that is, because it requires a solid and thorough self-examination it is a good way of getting a really good shower. It is a discipline which I wish more people would take up - there is nothing like repeating the same sins time after time - out loud, to make you realize that you have things to work on and to realize, in the words of absolution, God's absolute and unquestioning love and extreme patience.
Despite the best efforts of Christian tradition to grade our sins according to their eternal consequences the simple fact is that the devastation of any action which separates us from the love of God in Christ is real and that is enough. We do not need a better or worse - that is for the legal system. The Church is in the business of reconciliation and not judgement.
I wish that more folk would avail themselves of the opportunity for individual confession as a spiritual discipline - it can be really helpful - not because corporate confession is not good enough but because it is a powerful gift forcing us to look at ourselves before God in all our vulnerability and weakness and then experience a powerful gush of clean as we are assured of forgiveness and mercy. To me, it is not miserable at all, but affirming and life promoting.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lent 5



The story of Lazarus has Jesus appearing to behave a little oddly, to put it mildly. He is told of Lazarus’ illness yet does not do anything like going to Bethany for two days. This behavior seems strange at the least and possibly downright callous. We are not sure why Jesus did this – Tom Wright suggests he needed to spend the time preparing to go to Bethany  - perhaps this is true, but even so, it is a little bizarre.
We assume though, that when Jesus finally heads out to Bethany, he knows what he is going to do and he knows what the result will be. Thomas also seems to understand the ramifications of this journey and its outcome – perhaps Wright is correct and Jesus was just taking a deep, two day long breath, before heading out on this final leg of his earthly journey.
It is tempting to make this a sentimental time for Jesus but there are very real currents, agonizingly real pains, which permeate the story. The Jews are, by now, furious. John’s Gospel has been all about timing, so when Jesus goes to Bethany, to this explosive miracle, it is in God’s time. I think it is safe to assume that Jesus has a pretty good idea about what will happen, about what he will do and about the path that this will set him on.
Into an emotionally charged situation comes an emotionally charged Jesus. It is not enough to say that he weeps solely because his friends are upset or because Lazarus is dead – whilst he empathizes with human tragedy he knows he will bring healing – rather he weeps with the whole human condition. It cannot be far from his mind that this set of friends and disciples will soon shed tears of grief again as he himself lays bound in a tomb.
Jesus mourns this, but I think he also mourns the fracture which exists between Creator and Created – not, I want to believe, in some sort of self-pitying, see what I have to do now, sense but in the grief of longing which God experiences for us and in the grief of absence which we too often experience as we wander to and fro lost in our own story.
Lazarus offers a break in that story – a foretaste of the life which Jesus brings. There is no hint that Lazarus did not go on to die a normal, human death along with all those who watched Jesus that day. Eternal life is for eternity but the message is clear in John, that old way of scarcity and death is over and eternal life begins now. This realized eschatology as it is called (the end in the present time) is usually seen as a Lukan motif as Luke juxtaposes the Kingdom of Heaven in the Kingdom of Today. But John has this theme of abundant life in Christ. Water which flows in great supply, bread which will not run out, fruitful grape vines. By the time Jesus gets to the Last Supper he is showing in action what this abundance means, an upside down world of service but or service which is experienced in and lived out in fellowship with God – God in Trinity, God in Community.
We don’t know why Lazarus, why not the other hundreds of people who had been put in graves that week. We don’t know how it worked, the mechanics of raising the dead. But God who creates can always re-create, reform atoms and molecules. The fact that God does not points to a truth of which we are aware but unable to articulate about a darkness which inhabits creation.
Jesus is light to that darkness. It is an interesting record of the saints that although many of them faced great trouble, great darkness, they were not immune, the way they survived intact was simply that it meant less and less to them as compared to Jesus great light.
This is the story of abundance. We live so much in lives of scarcity. We have real emotional, physical, financial, spiritual drains on us but too often we find ourselves allowing this pull in every direction as normal. Well we are all busy – we say. Really? Are we? Or are we just indulging ourselves in too much complexity out of some sense that that complex rushed-ness validates us?
Too often people who are getting on in years say apologetically that they “cannot do much” any more. I usually give the answer that they can pray. This might sound glib and far too easy but spending time with God is a gift not only to the one who gets to do it but to the whole Church community. The level of frustration which we thrust upon ourselves when we become unable to do the things which we think are necessary ( and usually are not) is completely incapacitating.
There is a story which my husband likes to tell of two men who are in a contest to cut through enormous tree trunks with an axe. One man chops and chops all day without ceasing. The other man chops for a while, stops, and chops again. The second man wins, not only because he forces himself to rest, but because he uses those periods of rest to sharpen his axe.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a pause in the usual. It is a point to draw breath, where we see who Jesus really is and gaze for a moment into the sorrow which that brings to his heart. It is sorrow, not just for those who will condemn him, not just for those who will mourn him but for us also –and perhaps in our frantic and frenzied world for us in all our busy-ness when we would as soon run by the Cross – oh just another crucifixion, just another week, just another Friday – as stop and enter into the promise which it offers us.
That promise is life – perhaps that is why Jesus waited – to show that life is not cheap, not easily formed or held or given . I do not think God plays with us, tests us out, tries to see what we will do – God reaches out into the ordinary, even into ordinary death, and transforms it.
A life of snatched moments and caught breaths is a life of scarcity and there is good psychological data to back up the fact that we cannot think straight in scarcity – let alone pray straight. Our souls, our spirits, our deepest insides, that bit which hears God even when the rest of us is doing our level best to keep moving at breakneck pace, those inmost parts of us need the abundance of eternal life, of water which never dries out, of fruitfulness which comes from the true vine, of bread  which feeds more that will ever gather.
When we force ourselves into the scarcity of the quick fix, of perpetual motion, we starve ourselves of who we really are, we cut ourselves off from community and from the God who brings life from death, even death which seems incontrovertible.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The man born blind. Lent 4

Self-identity is important to all of us in this day and age. Our identity is marked in many different ways - I am sure many of you have done an exercise along the lines of labeling who you are - so you might be mother, daughter, sister, employer, retiree, friend, All of us can come up with a long list of identifiers.
There is a trend on Facebook at the moment for identity seeking quizzes  - which Star Trek Captain are, which medieval profession would you have followed, which character out of Downton or Hunger Games or Harry Potter are you. It is all innocent fun - well except that your information is more often than not being captured by the quiz to construct and accurate computer model of your likes and dislikes in order to market to you more effectively. So identity is also a commodity in our society, in many ways we choose our identity by the car we drive or the places we buy clothes. We are very bound up in who we are.
The man in the Gospel today begins the story as a blind beggar - to those in his town who see him daily that is his identity. John's Gospel always works on lots of levels and whilst these stories during Lent are striking moments of encounter between Jesus and these characters - Nicodemus, the woman at the well, this blind man and next week Lazarus - the texts go deeper than simply a nice story. They offer not only a moment of redefinition and finding identity in the life of each person but also offer clues to who Jesus really is.
John's Gospel is probably, it is fair to say, the most deliberately theological of the Gospels. We assume it was written later and therefore John could, very reasonably, have reused the same material we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke and elaborated on it. He does not and whilst some of the stories are certainly the same they are often used with a much more deliberate purpose and even in a different order to the other three, Synoptic, Gospels.
One of the structural pieces of John's Gospel is that he frames around Jesus  "I am" sayings, Jesus is bread, shepherd, light, resurrection and life etc. This story serves to illustrate one of these - that Jesus is light - but John explores in it what this might mean and especially what it means in the life of this man and in his changed identity.
The other thing that is worth noting is that the opposition to Jesus is becoming more and more intense at this stage in the Gospel. More questions are being asked and things are becoming tense - a tension which comes to it peak in Chapter 11 after Jesus raises Lazarus - not to spoil next weeks Gospel story but this is what finally tips the authorities over the edge and sets Jesus on a path towards the Cross from which he will not turn back.
We know by now in the Gospel that Jesus has effected miracles, we understand that the possibility of God breaking into the ordinary run of humanity has become very real. We understand that this man who is restored to sight goes from being the blind beggar to...well to what does he go.
The reaction of his neighbors is incredulity - they are chattering amongst themselves about whether this is him or not and be careful at this point - do not assume that the undercurrents would not have been apparent to the man who was healed - he had been blind not stupid - he has a choice. The crowd is not sure whether this man who can see really is the same person, he can, as the man healed in Mark's Gospel, keep it quiet, claim to know nothing of Jesus or he can do what he does
"It is me," he says and in the Greek we immediately tumble into the Garden of Gethsemane where there are soldiers and frightened disciples and they ask for Jesus and he too makes a decision,
"Who is Jesus of Nazareth," the soldiers ask.
"It is me," answers Jesus.
It is me. And where does this man now find his identity? In the simple phrase, "Lord I believe." The man has a new identity. His relationships have  all changed -with his community, with his family, with everyone he meets, certainly with the authorities. He is the one whom Jesus has rediscovered and healed, he is the one who Jesus has called and who now boldly states- I believe and this is the basis, this belief in Jesus, for his new identity.
But in that new identity he is immediately identified with the suffering Christ, even though he is on the side of light, even though the rift between those in light and darkness is becoming ever greater in the Gospel, yet still this man is boldly and bravely stepping into his new life, into his new identity.
What does this say for us?
Well, it is tempting to candy coat it so that the pieces of identity which the marketers so hotly pursue in us still mean something central – but if this man is our pattern then they probably don’t. Our identity is not found in our posessions and neither is it found in our weakness – the man who was healed was not a different person he was simply given possibility – the possibility of life in abundance. But he started that life from a new and daring place as a follower of Jesus.
If we are called to say – I am the one, I am she, I am he. If we are called to say “I believe” then we are called to do so from a place of eternal value – a place where we are already identified as those whom God loves, where we are called to live into that love in every facet of our lives. Of course, on this journey ,it is vital to learn how to be who we are- to learn to use what God has made us to the best of our ability.
There was a Bishop called Polycarp in the very early days of the Church. He was arrested for being a Christian and when he was asked at his trial who he was he said, “I am a Christian”. Polycarp was martyred but isn’t that a strange answer to the question. He did not say his name or where he was from, he did not mention that he was a Bishop of who his parents were because his primary and overriding identity, his primary and overriding relationship was in Christ. I am a Christian.
Our primary and overriding relationship cannot be with what we can purchase, our identity cannot even be found wholly in another person – although, of course, other people often make us better at being who we are in a positive way. Our primary identity is in Christ and that is a challenge to accept in a world which tells us that we are in control.