Tuesday, October 28, 2014

porch sitting

As the weather cools you might be given to a spot of porch sitting (just at the point at which our northern neighbors are watching their leaves turn and contemplating shutting up their porches for the winter). There is something quite magical about the cooler air and even if you are not sitting on the porch taking note of the change of weather as you step out to the car or take out the trash is a good reminder that times and seasons keep moving around us.

The poet,  Christopher Smart, wrote a poem about his cat, Jeoffry, in the 18th century which began, thus:

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.”

Benjamin Britten put this to music in his “Rejoice in the Lamb” (watch here  - the poem is at 4:44)

Britten’s work is at time a little esoteric but it does seek to remind us, like Smart’s poem and changing seasons of an adoration which goes beyond words. A reality of divine imagination which exceeds our expectation and conquers our fear – if only we will pause long enough to notice the twining cat, breathe the cool air and listen to the whispers of God’s voice in the autumn mist.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

August 10th Proper 14

The story of Jesus walking on the water is, like the Feeding of the 5,000 last week, one of those stories where it is very easy to get caught up in the “how did He do that”. That can be good conversation to have but this morning I am much more interested in the question of “Why did he do that?”
This is a slightly strange story but when we get to Peter it makes a lot more sense. The disciples are in a boat in a storm. It is night and the storms could be violent. The last thing they expect to see is someone out on the water, least of all someone walking out on the water. They are naturally scared stupid, but Jesus reaches out to reassure them.
The next piece of the story is pure Peter – jump first and think about it later. “Let me have a go!” he says to Jesus. Only Peter would go from being scared of a ghost to thinking that it might be a good idea to get out of a boat on a stormy sea and start walking. But this is exactly what he does and it is not long before his fear and doubt catch up with him and he starts to wonder what on earth he is doing and begins to sink.
This is a great parable for the Christian life and this is almost certainly why Matthew has included it. This idea that we want, so desperately, to follow Jesus wherever he leads, and we jump in with both feet and then find ourselves wondering what we have done? Well partly. Peter has an impulsive nature and many of us do not – the real key to the story is not the jumping in headlong but the fear and doubt which soon become a part of the journey.
Doubt and fear are normal responses. They pop up all over the place, the first day  of school or a new job, the hospital waiting room, watching the news. We second guess ourselves, or we wonder whether we are good enough. We look at the world a feel a sense of hopelessness as disaster after disaster opens up in front of us. We doubt our ability to do anything, we are afraid of what will come next and we  begin to give up hope that God has anything very much to do with anything.
In other words we begin to sink. If you have done lifeguard training you know that the worst sort of person to approach is one who is drowning and panicked. I remember being told that I should try to find something heavy to knock them out with or wait until the passed out. We were taught lifeguarding at school and I spent the next few weeks somewhat hoping that my annoying brother would need rescuing so I would have an excuse to knock him out.
Well let’s go back to the beginning of that. First of all there is nothing wrong with doubt, in fact I suspect that if we never doubt we won’t really be able to grow very much. Doubt happens when we are pushed out of our comfort zone and we begin to look at our beliefs and ourselves in the light of new information. Fear often comes along hand in hand. We do not like being on our back foot, we feel off balance and uncertain and we are not sure where this is going, fear is natural.
But somewhere in this consumer culture of ours we have got it into our heads as a society that we should live a grinning commercial of a life and if we are not grinning from ear to ear, if we are fearful or doubtful or lost or sinking it is only because we have not bought the right product or taken the right pill. Sometimes there is some truth in that, sometimes,  of course, but  there really is no way to insulate ourselves from every piece of negativity and we are not failing if we are doubting of fearful.
Well let me try the story again. The disciples were in the boat on the lake. They had seen on the radar that a storm might come in but it looked like it would miss so they decided to go anyway. They had a good supply of food and a rescue dinghy, which was nearly as big as their boat, but it gave them options. The coastguard had their crossing plan on the computer and they all had waterproofs and the super-duper new life jackets which Andrew had found in the marine supply store. The storm kicked up pretty badly and they were scared silly when they thought they had seen a ghost,  but then it turned out to be Jesus walking on the water. Peter, of course, Peter thought he would have a go and asked Thomas if he had a cell phone signal so they could get a picture up on Facebook right away – that would get views, really he was just checking that they could call the 911 if they needed to…….
Do you see what I mean? Peter jumped out in full trust of Jesus, yes his own doubts and fears got the better of him but there was nothing else between him and the Lord on that stormy sea. When he began to sink he did not have the reassurance of a lifejacket or the knowledge that Thomas was calling the coast guard  - his only hope was to reach out and trust that Jesus would pull him out of there.  He did not go into that situation with a lot of reserve plans,  that made him self-reliant, he jumped in with both feet to a situation which made him totally dependent and totally vulnerable.
Sometimes in a world where there are arguments that we don’t understand between people we don’t know we look for answers and the answers which assuage our doubt and fear the quickest are often the simplistic ones which base themselves on the idea that in everything someone is wrong and someone is right. We make life jackets and rescue boats to save us from our own fear  and doubt out of these thoughts.
What makes those arguments palatable is the fact that, sometimes, it is true that someone or a group of people are wrong or stupid of even evil so we convince ourselves in all sorts of situations that the people across the world or across the street are “those people out there” – we become angry at them and distant from them but we do not doubt who we are any more neither are we afraid of such inferior people. That sort of life jacket, that sort of reassurance it damaging.
Sometimes we just want to feel safe and in control, we do not want to go off walking on water when we can stay in a boat. But if we give into that need to simply stay away from things, to choose a lowest common denominator kind of understanding of the world, to label people and, worse, demonize them – then we are impoverishing ourselves and everyone else.
If Peter had not jumped out of the boat he would have been fine, he would have been drier possibly, Jesus would have come to them, the storm would have died down and they would have carried on with their day. But if Peter had not jumped out of the boat he would not have been enriched by that experience of grappling with his own doubt and fear and finding that there was rescue as he sunk under the water. He had not learned his lesson either, because when it came to the doubt and fear of the courtyard he gave into it again and this time sunk into a pit of untruth which resulted in enormous grief at his own denial.
The real question is whether any of us dare to get out of the boat and simply trust. Whether we dare to leave our carefully woven life jacket of assumptions in the boat and trust ourselves to the safety of Jesus, do we dare to let that walk on the water challenge our assumptions about where our safety truly lies and do we dare to live in the possibility of sinking into inhospitable water and being totally vulnerable. It is a big ask. That is what makes Peter so great, he jumps in feet first with the big ask and then messes things up spectacularly later on.
In Acts Peter is still struggling to learn that there are different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things. But he has that base experience of knowing that he has to have faith in Jesus – faith will not save him from the discomfort of life, but it will be allow him to live into the discomfort of those moments which are difficult and listen not to his own doubt, but to reach for the hand which will guide him out of the water.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sermon Aug 3rd Proper 13

The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is so well known that we barely need to tell it to know what we are talking about. In fact, if I stood up and said just that the Gospel is the feeding of the five thousand and nothing else we might have had some conversation  around now, was that five loaves or five fish, was it seven baskets or twelve and what was the exact number he fed.
This is because there are two feeding stories. Both of them turn up in Matthew and Mark but the other Gospels only have one. People have read all sorts of things into the different numbers and into explanations of why the stories turn up twice. Whatever the hidden meaning, it is obvious that with limited space the writers of Matthew and Mark both felt that these stories were important enough to bear repetition.
The feeding of the 5,000 reaches back into the history of Israel – the theme of hunger and being fed in a deserted place would have reminded people of the Exodus, of God’s provision in the desert. But they would also propel a Christian reader forward to the remembering and anticipating the Eucharist – this taking, blessing, breaking, sharing action which results in satisfaction beyond expectation.
It is interesting to note that the people themselves are not moaning and complaining about being hungry – the disciples note that it is late and their response is purely practical – we need to get them out of here. Jesus response is different – no, he says, we have everything that they need here. And that seems impossible, there is so little food, but in a spontaneous miracle of generosity Jesus transforms the paucity of the moment into abundance which exceeds.
That difference between the practical care of the world, the making sure that responsibility does not fall on them, of the disciples, and the generosity and self-giving which Jesus adopts as he feeds all of those people is a mark of the kingdom.
God’s generosity is not a little thing. It is not something which can be hidden in corners, or contained in boxes or, even, kept safely inside the walls of the Church. God’s generosity invades our lives – just as the generosity of Jesus invaded the lives of those people that day two thousand years ago, and left them amazed and contented and fed.
There is a tory told of a farmyard. In the farmyard lived a rat. Of course he kept himself to himself most of the time and especially he tired not to be seen by the farmer. But one day he got spotted and he heard the farmer tell his wife that they must get a rat trap. A day or two later the dreaded trap turned up and the rat felt he must warn the other animals of the change.
He went and found the chicken and the pig  and the cow and he said to them,
“We must be careful, the farmer has a rat trap, it will change things for us.”
The chicken and the pig and the cow laughed,
“That trap is for  you little rat, he will put it where you run at night, it will catch you unaware. You are unwelcome here, we belong.”
The rat was upset at this but he knew there was nothing he could do to help such stubborn animals. That night, the rat was woken from a dream by a loud snap. Some poor creature had wandered into the trap. The next morning the farmer’s wife came out to the trap and lo and behold a large snake had his tail caught. She tried to take the snake out of the trap, but he was angry and he bit her. She became very sick.
Now, the farmer love his wife and he knew that chicken broth was good for sick people, so he went out into the farmyard and killed the chicken. As time went on, it seemed like his wife might be getting a little stronger, his neighbors said, she must eat meat. So he went into the farmyard and killed the pig.
Unfortunately the rally was temporary and the farmer’s wife  soon fell into a coma and then died. She was well loved in the community and many people were coming to the funeral. The farmer know he would need to feed them all. As he was going out to slaughter the cow, he noticed the rat trap sitting by the door of the barn, he was angry that it had caused the death of his wife and tossed it into the trash.
The rat looked on.
The first time I read this story I didn’t think much of it but actually it is a good story. Jesus takes something insignificant, probably from someone insignificant, a child, and tranforms it. This is against the wisdom of the world. Generosity starts in odd places and has effects which we cannot predict.
But more to the point, generosity is something which is open to all of us and affects all of us. Jesus offers both literal and spiritual feeding to these people. We do not know who they are, but with 5,000 men, and adding women and children – so perhaps 15-20,000 people – we can assume that there were people from all sorts of walks of life. But in that moment, in that place, they are equal in their impoverishment, it is the end of the day and they are all tired and hungry. They are, if you like, all in this together. By feeding them himself Jesus makes this impoverishment into a wealth, but again, it is an equal wealth. The rich did not get to go to the villages and buy expensive food whilst the poor remained hungry. They are all well fed, abundantly fed, and there is plenty to spare.
Whoever we are in Church today, we come to the table, to the heavenly banquet, to this Eucharist as those who are impoverished, as those who are hungry, as those who need food….and we are fed equally. Ponder that, that this altar equals us, makes us more human, defines who we really are in Christ. This altar represents generosity, and giving and feeding. Generosity which is guaranteed but also generosity which is spontaneous in response to our needs.
We take this bread, bless and break this bread, share this bread and return. But return how? Return to our own places, to our own assumptions or are we changed by this generous abundance of God, are we challenged to consider out inter-connectedness, our reality as those who are all hungry and all fed.
How do we go from here, as those who receive generosity, as those to whom God gives, just because, just because God does not turn us away when we seem to be a problem, when we seem to have needs which are too big for others to bear. How do we go from here as those who watch and wait for God to give us good food. Can we go from here and bear hunger?