Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The meaning of flowers?

Flowers in Sydney
Flowers have featured in two of the news stories which I have been reading today. Those above, of course, sit in the main business district in the Australian city of Sydney in memory of the victims of the cafe hostages who lost their lives saving others.

The other flowers, of which there are less pictures, cover coffins in the Pakistani city of Peshawar where the parents of 132 children and nine teachers have buried their dead after Taliban soldiers but through the fence at the back of a school and stormed into an exam hall.

I am appalled by such acts of violence - but I also appalled by the constant vilification of an entire religion because of radical extremists - this gives that minority of extremists a power which they should not have.

Before we disagree on the words of our creeds, we must agree on our humanity and the world cannot endure to see school children used as weapons of war whether it is in Pakistan, Nigeria or anywhere else.

I have been praying all day for the pain that those parents must be feeling and for those who did such a thing that they might, somehow, find another voice within themselves. I continue to pray that all people, no matter where we are, will stand together to say - not our children, and mean, sincerely, no anyone's children, not today and not ever.

Members of the Australian Muslim Community place floral tributes in Sydney

Sunday, December 14, 2014

advent 3

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, but like the fourth Sunday in Lent it is a day when we get to draw breath and look at the season from a slightly different angle. The liturgical color, in places which care about such things, changes from purple or blue, to rose pink. a reflection on the yes of Mary rather than the theme of return from all those mutterings of “no” which so often pass our own lips.

The tone of our readings changes as well. We move from those heavy overtones of the Day of the Lord which have dominated the lectionary, even before Advent started, to a much more pressing theme of what it means to be those who are chosen to serve the living God.

This is no small question to ask and, between them, the readings and canticle come up with a swathe of images. But it is to one central theme which we are drawn today - and that is the theme of justice and restoration.

In one of my previous jobs I had a colleague who would recoil every time I used the word Holy - he claimed that the word had been so overused by people to cover such a huge set of put downs of others that it had lost any instrinsically good meaning. I sometimes have that same sort of mistrust of the word justice because I am not always sure we know what we are talking about when we use the word.

Perhaps we should take a look at these prophetic voices in the Bible and see what they mean by justice. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, starts in the same place as the reading from Isaiah and the proclamation in John’s Gospel and that is with God - these are people who are surrounded, supported and sent from God. Their actions, their yes, their life is a reflection of their deep abiding in the word and dwelling of God and the Holy Spirit.

This might seem so obvious as to go without saying but sometimes we get so bound up in running around after things like headless chickens that we forget to say, simply, Your will be done - as the reading from 1 Thessalonians says, Rejoice in the Lord always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances and I, perhaps,  want to skip over that bit and get onto something easier. To engage in another part of me which requires no stillness. My soul magnifies the Lord, says Mary - not O there is God over there somewhere now let’s get on with something real and interesting - no my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

It is only from this place of engagement and encounter with God that justice can begin to be understood because it is only from this place that the prophet can even begin to say with any sort of honesty and integrity that “ this is not all about me after all”. John says, it isn’t me, look there is the one who you are looking for. It is only from this place that justice can begin to be to look like something which is about everyone and not just about me and my next few steps on the journey.

When we see injustice, unfairness, what are we comparing it to - something which offends us, or something which offends God? You see those are sometimes the same thing but sometimes something which offends God does not offend us because it involves us and it means that we need to allow ourselves to be challenged by a given situation and to change our own behavior or beliefs about the world - this is a very different sort of Gospel, a very different sort of faith than one which sits easily and comfortably at arms length.

When we truly say,  “Your will be done” we open ourselves up to a God who does utterly outrageous things like filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. We find a God who frees captives and who asks us to rejoice in adversity. How does any of this work in the real world? God has to be joking, surely. That was then, this is now. Then there was the Roman empire, now there is a free democracy, surely things are so different, so very different, everyone has a fair shake of the stick.

But there are still mourners and the broken hearted, there are still paths which are far from straight, rough places which have not been made plain. There are still mighty people on thrones and God’s eternal covenant whilst complete and fulfilled in Jesus Christ is not exactly the buzzword conversation on the tongues of the majority of our compatriots. Still we have deep and unfathomable tensions in society, still we have inequalities in income race and gender to mention but a few which far from getting smaller in many areas seem to be becoming more and more apparent. Where is the justice in that?

There is, of course, a place for response. There is a place for response which sees emergency and fixes a gushing wound but that is not justice - justice and restoration is making a world where we gradually remove the jagged edges where people are cutting themselves. That is God’s work, but that is hard work because as you know, when you try to get something sharp out of the way, what can happen? You, yourself, might get cut.

It hurts to get cut and so the temptation is either to learn where the edges are and to stay in a very small and limited world where we cannot possibly ever reach them. This might sound difficult but it is perfectly possible to build a routine around a home and a grocery store and a doctors office and to inject just enough fear into that that any change will become a serious crisis. This is where many people are, shrouded before death in a frightened and reactionary world which has nothing to do with the sort of life which God is calling people to.

Justice, real justice, is neither frightened nor punitive it is about putting things right - it is about restoring us to all that we can be with God. It is about right relationship because in right relationship with God we will want right relationship with each other. When we see through God’s eyes we will not be able to stand to see the other hungry, or captive or to watch corrupt structures of power impose unfair systems on innocent people.

Perhaps my colleague and I both has a reason to be cautious - but in their right usage holiness and justice are both important for us - justice starts with holiness - restoration comes from lives turned wholly over to the Living God.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent 1 Notes

Happy New Year!
The new Church Year begins with a change in the Gospel – after a year of reading from Matthew we switch to the shortest of the Gospels, Mark in what the lectionary (the system of readings which the church uses) calls year B.
Before we look at the text, let’s remind ourselves a little about Mark’s Gospel. It is, as we have said, the shortest of the Gospels at only 16 chapters long – and even the ending is thought by most scholars to have been tagged on at a later date.
It is all duplicated elsewhere as well – it forms the basis for Matthew and Luke and so it shows up in those books but we have it on its own because when it is read through as a book, without their extra bits added in it has its own unique flavour. As we go through the year we will probably notice some of its unique features. If you have time it is always a good idea to sit and read the Gospel from end to end as we begin a new year – that is how they were meant to be read and that is how you will notice their uniqueness.
Mark, of course, does not have the story of the birth of Jesus, we have to go to Matthew and Luke for that, so we will have a slightly slow start in terms of using the Gospel in year B as we have to switch out in a couple of weeks. We start, however, nearer the end of the Gospel – again where we were in Matthew, towards the last days of Jesus – back in that bleak “Day of the Lord” language.
I think I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my email to you all that Advent used to be a much darker affair generally. The themes were death, judgement, heaven and hell. These were common themes, not local ones. With bleak northern winters, one can well imagine monasteries and churches stripped bare and the last remnants of warmer weather disappearing as bleak weather set in.
Although we are not keeping these themes it is worth pondering the Gospel for a moment. There are a few possible things going on here. The Day of the Lord is a Biblical theme which runs throughout the Old Testament. It does, certainly, have themes of judgement because it will shed light on all those things which was happening and so those things which are wrong will be revealed. The Old Testament has two ways of seeing things, right and wrong, there is nothing in between. The Day of the Lord reflects this.
But the idea of Jesus coming is shot through the New Testament – as the books of the Bible were first being written, and Mark is one of the earlier books, we get a sense of urgency and expectation. Jesus would be back soon. The letters to the Thessalonians are full of this, written a few years after the resurrection. In the early letters Paul tells people not even to get married as it is a waste of time and energy, a distraction to the task at hand.
As time goes on, the urgency dissipates. Still, the writers believe Jesus is coming, but there has to be a sense of business as usual mixed in with this sense of coming. But then and now all of this gives way to complacency and that is something quite different. You and I are pretty sure that Jesus is not going to show up any time soon, that we are going to go to sleep in our beds tonight and tomorrow night and we are going to die from whatever kills us but that we are not going to meet our Lord face to face until after we leave this earthly journey.
Anything else would make us crazy right? Anything else would…..well….?
Yesterday I was looking on that Amazon thing they do every year – that discount thing. I have to say there was not much I was interested in. I am not sure whether it has changed, or I have changed, or my kids have grown or what it is. But at 5pm yesterday  you could get, and this is real, pet slipper socks, not kidding, pet slipper socks, well, dog slipper socks. Now, I am sorry if you have the one dog which for some bizarre medical reason needs socks, but I found myself wondering  where we had come to that Amazon was selling not just socks, but slipper socks for dogs. Come Lord Jesus!
Complacency is just about the worst thing which could afflict us and it is killing the Church. We think we can drive around it first gear and we wonder why we cannot keep up. If the fear of God in the form the Day of the Lord does not do any good then perhaps the love of God in the form of imagining Jesus walking in right now and saying “OK, you’re done, tell me what you’ve been doing for me,” will work for you. What would you say? What would you eagerly blurt out? Forget fire and brimstone – just imagine Jesus being all eager and willing and wanting to know what you’ve been up to with all those gifts and imagination and wonder and heart that He gave you and……well……..
The end of the Gospel is about keeping awake. We tend to think about keeping awake as involving caffeine and artificiality but that is not at all what the Gospel writer has in mind. This does not mean set out on some gruelling 8 hour car journey which your body was never designed for and fuel yourself with Starbucks Grandes every 2 hours along the way. This means something so different, something so natural, but something which we have to remind ourselves to do, something which we have to learn to do and that is to pay attention, too stay awake, to watch for and with Jesus.
Evelyn Underhill was an English mystic and writer. If you looked at the list of books which we suggested you will see that mine was an advent book of readings from her – it started on Thursday which was perfect – exactly what  I needed – this is a quote from yesterday –
“Now the living out of the spiritual life, the inner life of the Christian, the secret correspondence of his (or her) soul with God, is from one point of view a great business……..for it is no mere addition to Christianity, but its very essence, the source of its vitality and power. From another it is a journey, a bit by bit progress, over roads that are often difficult, and in weather that is often pretty bad……..”
But this sort of keeping awake, this sort of disciplined approach and constant attention to God, the souls constant journeying with God is something which we are all called to. Even if we are those who express our spirituality through doing, we must pay attention to our being in Christ and if we are those who are good at being we must pay attention as the Holy Spirit prompts us into doing.
But this is a conversation, and eternal conversation.
Would you be surprised if Jesus walked into the back of the Church or would you simply say – oh there you are – lets continue the journey? You see that is the difference.
In this season of waiting, in this season where we know that the veil between heaven and earth is rubbed thin in incarnation we are invited into that place between. We are invited into that place where heaven and earth are held together.