Jacob wrestling with the angel – Trinity 18

Image result for delacroix jacob wrestling with the angel analysis

If you leave the Jardin de Luxembourg  and head down the Rue to Bonaparte  about half way along one reaches the Place St. Sulpice with its bustling market and inevitable pavement cafes.  Entering the early 18th century church of St.Sulpice and turning right into a large side chapel brings you face to face with Eugene Delacroix’s vast mural of Jacob wresting with an angel.  In some ways it’s a typical Delacroix picture , on a big scale and clearly in the Romantic tradition.  Tree trucks and foliage frame the figures of Jacob and the angel.  The angel with big black wings lifts the struggling figure of Jacob by the thigh

 

Its a powerful image of Jacob’s tenacious faith, of God’s all powerful love and of the grace and blessing of God.

 

Jacob wrestles all night with an unnamed opponent often depicted as an angel.  Jacob as Abraham’s grandson stands at the beginnings of the story of the relationship between God and his people.  But Jacob is no pious do-gooder – in fact quite the opposite, Jacob is a grabber, a twister and a double crosser all in the name of God.  Look at the story of his birth, look at his stealing of his brothers birthright.

 

But when Jacob is left alone having sent his two wives, his two maids and his eleven children ahead of him, when Jacob is left alone he is brought face to face with the reality of a God who will not and cannot be tricked by Jacob’s double crossing.  As one commentator puts it:  “Jacob had until this moment been a grabber.  Now in wrestling with the angel he accepts that life cannot be grabbed.  The angel brings home to him the limits of his world, as it were, the reality of the world of others”.

 

Jacob’s encounter with the angel is not a happy ever after story  – Jacob is wounded by the encounter, he will from now on always walk with a limp.  And the end of the encounter does not mark the beginning of a period of prosperity and success for Jacob but the long decline into old age, pain and sadness over the enmity between his sons and twenty one years of grieving for his favourite son Joseph who he thought had been killed by wild animals.  Why so much heartache after meeting an angel of God?

 

In many ways we could say that the answer is one we know already from the reality of our own journeying with Christ.  Our encounter with Christ today has some similarities with Jacob’s encounter with the angel.  Because Christ, like the angel, sees us for who we really are and loves us as we are, because God in Christ locked himself into a struggle with humanity that was as much about the blessing of humanity as it was about a confrontation over wrong-doing.  And like Jacob we always come away not with a sense of our own personal wholeness, an individualistic integrity but rather, limping, aware that we have engaged with a reality, bigger, more open than ourselves, a reality that makes us keenly aware of our own dependence, our reliance on the fragmentary relationships we have built for ourselves.  As for Jacob, so for us, meeting God is not so much about happiness as about the pain of dislocation.

 

Jacob, like the woman in this mornings gospel reading, is tenacious, he won’t let go until he has what he wants.

 

It seems to me that this is a little of what prayer might be about.  It is true that Jacob in his wrestling with the angel discovers that life is not just about grabbing, but nevertheless, it is his unwillingness to let go that gains him the blessing.  We have lost some of this grabbing tenaciousness.  There is a passivity to much contemporary spirituality– making us believe that prayer is always about us, about becoming more balanced, calm and spiritual people.  But as we all know prayer does not stop us cursing the cat, losing our tempers or being deeply irritated by our nearest and dearest – and neither does it bring us instant happiness.  Prayer is not a spiritual workout for the soul, it is merely about being creatures aware of our need for God, groping our way back to the reality of God, a reality we thought we could avoid through our own search for personal gratification.

 

If our prayerful persistence is rewarded then maybe one day, like Jacob, we will find ourselves locked body to body with the angel of the Lord and cry with Jacob “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved”.  Amen.

Harvest Thanksgiving 2019

 

On Friday we celebrated the feast of St Francis and I was reminded of the story of Giles who wanted to found a religious community at Bartlemas just after the first world war.  He was set on Bartlemas but at the last moment the Duke of Marlborough offered him Hilfield in Dorset and thus, eventually the Anglican Franciscans were born.  Giles vision was to grow vegetables, there was after the war some enthusiasm for a return to the land to grow food locally.  In reality Giles and his companions quickly discovered that the soil was hard and digging was difficult – not everyone wanted to do the work to grow their own food.

 

Despite living in Est Oxford where the allotment is alive and well, it is still true today that many of us are not particularly connected to the land.  In recent years the climate change agenda and groups like extinction rebellion have forced us to look again at how we treat the land and how we understand the human species in relation to the land.

 

Increasingly we are realising that we need a return to the land, not as some kind of conservative, Amish community simplicity – although that might work – but recognising at all sorts of levels our connections and involvement in the land.  Recognising the way we hugely exploit the planet and its creatures for our own selfish consumption.

So that brings us to today and our celebration of Harvest.  Maybe nobody here has literally ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land but increasingly we feel the desire to be authentic, to be connected, to understand about our food and where it comes from and what our consumption of it might mean for the ecosystem as a whole.

 

On Friday we had a short Meditation in the churchyard, thinking a bit about Michaelmas which in the old farming traditions was connected with the final threshing of the grain, the separating the wheat from the chaff, the burning of the chaff and the collecting of the good seed.

We spent some time in prayer looking at what was still thriving but also looking at what was dying and decaying and thinking what is it in our lives that we need to separate out and leave behind – outmoded ways of thinking about the planet, about consumption, our negative emotions and behaviour.

The meditation reminded me of our hunger for authenticity and for connection.  At the heart of this desire for connection is the incarnation itself.  God doesn’t remain distant, but he comes to live among us as one of us. And this church with its statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary focuses our hearts and minds on God’s coming among us.  We don’t have a huge statue of Mary ‘because we think  we might be Anglo-Catholic’ but because the Incarnation is at the heart of our faith.  We too want to understand ourselves as getting down and dirty – as among and of creation rather than above it or in charge of it, but we struggle to see how we can do this.

So this Harvesttime I want to leave you with three thoughts:

SOIL

Harvest is about a thanksgiving for the abundance of creation but how can we authentically enter into thanksgiving when we live as part of a society which is nervous of the hard graft involved in getting our hands dirty?  This isn’t just an invitation to weekend gardening -although I could do with that – its an invitation to think about soil, about what we grow in it, about the things we buy which are grown in it.  And behind that is a bigger question about how we as the little people can make sense of the bigger picture of sustainable or rather unsustainable farming and agriculture.  How can we live in closer and gentler relationship to the earth?

 

FLOUR

From flour we get bread and many of us may have had the opportunity to bake bread.  In today’s Gospel Jesus says we should work for the food that endures for eternal life.  The bread that we share at this table also needs to be connected, grounded in our own spiritual lives.  We need to consider how we are fed at this table for eternal life: that’s about our worship – even down to simple or rather prosaic things like choice of hymns, the way we sing the psalm, the way we learn more about our life with Jesus, the way we pray.  If we are not being fed here then everything else in our lives can be out of kilter.  I want to reach out and ask people here to talk to me more about the shape of the Liturgy (that’s the worship literally it means the work of the people), the things which touch us in the place of the heart and the things which are not working for us.  Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’ but we need to be able to discover that truth, and to embrace it for ourselves in this place.  So lets begin a conversation about that

 

AMAZING SQUASH

And I want to finish with this amazing squash which Bedford gave to me.  It is Beautiful.  In all our yearning for authenticity and connection, for engagement which feels tangible.  We mustn’t let go of beauty and mystery – this squash is both beautiful and mysterious to me!  Harvest is the naked joy, the shock of the gift of God, the harvest abundance mirrors the abundance of God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ.

 

Sometimes things can feel fragile here and the future can feel uncertain.  Harvest thanksgiving needs to be more than ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ if it is going to be true for us and authentic for us.  We need courage to risk living for God even in the midst of vulnerability and change.  Harvest thanksgiving says to us – look at this, look at this beauty, this variety, this plenty. May your thanksgiving be also a stepping out in faith, for a faith which is connected, which feels authentic which is deeply aware of the crisis we face as a species and is hungry for real change which is economic, social, political and most of all spiritual.  A real hunger for the food that endures for eternal life.  Amen.

Michaelmas 2019 – with Baptism

 

In Book 6 of Milton’s Paradise Lost Raphael tells us the story of how Michael and Gabriel are sent forth to do battle against Satan.  We hear how:

The sword of Michael from the armoury of God was given him tempered so that neither keen nor solid might resist that edge.

The fighting is fierce until:

Dawning from heaven: forth rushed with whirlwind sound

The chariot of paternal Deity,

Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn…

The Messiah arrives to put an end to the fighting in an Ezekiel-style vision of God arriving on a chariot.

 

Milton interprets the war in heaven that we heard about in our first reading from Revelation as a kind of civil war.  It is the richness but also the ambiguity of Milton’s great poem which have made it so long lasting.  It was Blake who said Milton was ‘Of the devils party without knowing it’.

When I think of our present-day political situation then it can feel like Milton’s reflections on the Civil war are quite pertinent.

 

Today we come together to celebrate the Eucharist – a shared meal –  but also to celebrate the Baptism of Rosa and you might wonder why a lovely baby like Rosa should have to hear about War in Heaven on her baptism day.  Well one answer is that she is getting Baptised at Michaelmas but the other is that this battle, in a spiritual sense, continues in all human lives and communities and it is Baptism which invites us to be at peace and to be with God.

For Christians Christ’s incarnation, God becoming human, and his death and resurrection are THE revelation of who God is to us.  A God in solidarity with suffering humanity who offers us hope.

 

I love the line from the former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins who writes ‘I find I’m believing more and more about less and less: God is, as God is in Jesus, so there is hope’.

 

Baptism is the way by which we come to be part of the community which wants to live this story. Baptism is, if you like, the Messiah’s chariot coming down from heaven to say I can see that life’s battles are hard but today I claim you for love and for justice.

In today’s Gospel Nathaniel asks Jesus ‘Where did you come to know me? And he is surprised that Jesus had already seen him under the fig tree.  But Jesus responds:  ‘Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Baptism, anyone’s baptism, is an invitation to broaden our vision.  Its not a naming ceremony, it’s the beginning of a journey to discover who we are in God.

In Parliament this week there was an argument about the way the murdered MP Jo Cox’s name was used.  Her husband wrote: The best way to honour Jo is for all of us (no matter our views) to stand up for what we believe in, passionately and with determination. But never to demonise the other side and always hold onto what we have in common.

I believe that Baptism is such an invitation – stand up for what we believe in, passionately but never demonise the other side and hold onto what we have in common.

Solzhenitsyn famously wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes right through every human heart”.

Baptism claims us for good in Jesus.  So that in our many battles we can know that there is hope.  And that one day, Like Nathaniel we too will see that vision of heaven opened.

 

Because although discord, disagreement and division continue in the country and in the Church and in our own hearts, and although it can sometimes feel like it really is a kind of civil war, Baptism  claims us as an Easter people, a people who are seeking to live a new life nurtured by love, a life which dares to look into the face of those we disagree with and to see the face of Christ.  Amen.

Creation Sunday

One of the things I really have to focus on at Tai Chi on a Thursday is balance.  I wonder what the value is of standing on one leg in the middle of our Church and trying to stay upright by the use of my arms.  Often times I stumble and feel a bit silly as one of the younger members of the group.

The thing about balance is that it is not just about the ability of my aging body to be upright on one leg, its about balance as a key principle of living and relating.

You may have seen the video about the 14 wolves that were re-introduced to Yellowstone national park in 1995.  No one quite knew what was going to happen, but it set off a kind of chain reaction of connections:  the wolves hunted deer, the deer decreased or stayed away from certain areas, plants grew, shrubs grew, grasses grew.  Berries and bugs of all kind returned to these areas and this in turn led to the return of a whole new population of birds and insects.  The beaver, who had been absent for many years returned and otters.  The wolves killed Coyotes so the rabbits came back, the bald eagle was once again seen in the park.

But there were other changes too.  The increase in plant life meant the river banks stabilised, erosion decreased and pools began to form near the rivers.  So not just new animals but a change in the physical geography because of these 14 wolves.

This is a well known video but the key point for me is that everything is connected, and it feels as if, right now, we are rediscovering or remembering that truth.  Everything is connected.

One of the things about indigenous peoples and forest peoples is that they understand themselves as a legitimate part of creation, of the Natural world but, they live in reciprocal relationship to all that exist in the forest.  Some forest people call the forest their father or mother because they say, the forest gives them all they need, unconditionally.

This is a great thing for us to hear because it shows us that creation can teach us about God – about the unconditional love he offers to each of us.

In our culture it can feel like we are groping towards some of these truths but we are not really there yet.  Climate crisis is coming, in fact in many ways it is already here but we are slow to grasp the enormity of what we are facing.  On Thursday night I was anxious about writing an email to Beatrice’s school to say she wouldn’t be at school in the morning because she was going on an extinction rebellion demonstration.  But when I woke up in the morning the first thing on the news was that there were to be 5000 demonstrations across 150 countries about climate emergency.  This IS the threat so why aren’t we acting?

 

Although it has been largely discredited,  people in our culture are still reading Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene – it is a corrupt and corrosive philosophy with selfishness as a founding principle.  The truth is there is an energy flow through all creation – light – plants – animals but the ways in which we are part of that energy flow, the ways in which we collaborate and inter connect to live community in the midst of that energy flow are myriad.

 

Running through all our readings today is the contrast between God and money.  When I was young I loved the book of Amos for these passionate condemnations of the wealthy – hear this you who trample on the needy, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.  And that was part of a youthful passion for a faith which righted wrongs, which proclaimed equality – you cannot serve God and wealth.  Those early passions held a desire to do something about the unfairness of the world.  But today’s Gospel really does invite us to something new, something different and something passionate.  You cannot serve God and wealth.

The New York Times recently quoted a poll in France which described rising environmentalism as possibly the “new matrix” underlying the nation’s cultural identity, replacing Catholicism.  But the Church is forever being told that there is a new thing on the way replacing all of that old fashioned God stuff.

 

If we are in the business of finding the spiritual ground of all being we can safely leave behind those who want to create or dismiss a cultural construct of God.  What is the Christian mission?  Well its not to make another tribe – although we have been good at trying to do that.  In the story of Adam and Eve we are reminded that when we don’t trust God, then we reject God, but the price for this rejection will be the death of the planet.  What God reveals to us in Jesus is that her mission is to reconcile the world to herself.  Not just part of creation but All of it.

Locked in the story of Adam and Eve is both the delight of creation and the turning away from it, the desire to be in charge rather than the desire to be connected.  Some of the best artists have made some amazing pictures of the expulsion from Eden – it is, if you like, the image of our disconnection.

 

Pope Francis, who has been a breath of fresh air for me produced the amazing Laudato si in 2015.  The title comes from St Francis canticle of the creatures quoted on the front of the service sheet.  In it Pope Francis writes:

 

“I want to point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected…the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology… the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle”

 

It is, I think part of the Charism of this Parish/Church to speak into the shared conversations about climate change and ecology.  Look at the churchyard- it is in our blood.

The word Ecology comes from the Greek Oikos meaning house.  Here in the church we need to expand the walls of our house or at least to see our radical interconnectedness with all that is.  Sometimes our own church community can feel fragile but our fragility is not something to be avoided or put up with.  Its is a powerful reminder of the fragility we share with all creatures on the planet – it is a standing alongside all that struggles, all that is excluded, all that sits on the margins.  Being in this place of fragility can help us build connections which we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.  It’s a Jesus place.

God desires that we share more deeply in her joy in creation.  Sometimes that sharing can feel like we are giving things up, leaving behind things which give us pleasure.  But seek the deeper joy.  Because like Adam and Eve we hold somewhere in our hearts the vision of Eden which seems so distant from us now.

We are only on earth for a short time and the earth cries out to us in this moment.  It is a call for humility, a call for radical vision, for prayer and action but most of all it’s a call to see, to see that we are dependent,  interconnected with the whole web of energy, with all of life on the planet.  Its an energy that God who created the world through Christ might more properly call joy or delight.  A delight in which we are all invited to share. Amen.

 

Sermon for Trinity 9

Engraved on the headstone of the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown are the words:

‘Carve the runes then be content with silence’.

It’s fitting epitaph for a poet who spent his life struggling with the mystical, magical and ritual quality of words and who memorably referred to the task of the poet as ‘the interrogation of silence’.

The 20th century Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed we talked all too glibly of redemption and regeneration when the life of the Christian community seems to manifest a radical unawareness of what such words actually mean.

Certainly today’s Gospel seems to suggest that there is more to the Christian life than being good and getting on with people.  Its rather a cluster of hard sayings – ‘I come to bring fire, Do you think I have come to bring peace – no I tell you but rather division’

Both George Mackay Brown and Bonhoeffer seem to suggest that we need to be careful about rushing into definitions and easy answers.  That we need to take a step back.  We can’t grasp everything about the Christian life immediately.  Division and discord is part of life.

Christ’s teaching will inevitably provoke dissension – and this passage from Luke reflects the often bitter divisions between people that Jesus’ teaching created.  Families really were divided by their acceptance or rejection of Jesus.

We too struggle to understand the message of this passionate prophet, we struggle to read the signs of God’s Kingdom in our own world.

Living the Christian life is often confusing and we sometimes wonder why we carry on when it can seem divisive or just not relevant to many people anymore.  But the Christian life invites us to carry on with the business of interpretation, of trying to see the path that God is leading us on.

This Gospel passage is a difficult one and we struggle to interpret it. And looking round at our world – at the aftermath of war in the Middle East and new international tensions and here in Oxford those relying on foodbanks or sleeping in shelters, how can we, to borrow a phrase from another writer– turn ‘tragedy into pregnancy’?  How can we give voice to hope in the midst of so much despair?  Christian  life is maybe about the task of teaching each other to be still, to be attentive, to learn to acquire the courage to be quiet’.

This isn’t an invitation to stay out of politics or to hideaway – far from it – but it is about being still in order that we can better open our eyes and see the tragedy of the world around us.  How can we make ourselves sufficiently still, sufficiently quiet to see and hear the suffering of refugees, of immigrants, of the bereaved and the sick?

In a famous summary of his teachings the Buddha once said:

‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or mine’.

It’s a line that bears much reflection and for me its one that is lived out in the life of Christ, who comes to earth as a tiny child and lives a life of self giving which results in his death on the cross.  It’s a death Jesus refers to in this passage when he talks about the baptism which he is to undergo in Jerusalem.

 

To explore the possibility of living beyond ego is surely to begin to explore something of the vastness of the Cosmic Christ, a Christ consciousness which gives voice to a reality beyond our ego.

Gorge Mackay Brown whose headstone inscription we began with once wrote:

I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone.  All is gathered into the web of creation…’

Lord help us to glimpse the inter-connectedness of all things, the active power of compassionate love and the possibility of our own transformation in the midst of so much division and pain. But to discover it we must go on a journey into darkness, stillness and silence – and have the courage to keep our eyes open.  Amen.

 

The Transfiguration: Glory meeting human brokenness

I had to take the HOME (Fresh Expression of Church) service at St Albans last week and the theme was carnival.  So, although it was a bit awkward we all were invited to get up and dance while the speakers blasted out ‘Dancing in the streets’.  Later we got into groups for a discussion and I was talking about carnival being transgressive, about carnival breaking the normal rules of how we live so that we see life differently – but the person who was with me didn’t like my use of the word transgressive because he wanted carnival to be an out of the ordinary experience which then finished and we could return to our normal lives with fresh vision.

 

In a way we were both right. Our argument is true of a lot of aspects of how we live.  We want experiences which change us, which transform us but we are rightly weary of experiences or actions which could be seen as destructive or just disruptive of our everyday lives.

Things which are outside of the everyday excite us and give us a new way of seeing the world but they also scare us and put our security at risk.

Our fears about being too conformist and therefore missing new opportunities are just the other side of the coin from being too radical and therefore missing the everyday and the ordinary.

 

This week on Wednesday we will meet together for the Eucharist and during that service we will be marked on our foreheads with ash in the sign of the cross.  The dust reminding us that we are dust – implicated in the world’s mess but also in the shape of a cross because God comes to us to save us.

 

Remember you are dust – frightening words when you think about them, but they affirm something which is essentially true.  Ash Wednesday brings us back to humility because through it we recognise the huge abyss that exists between our contingent existence here on earth and the uncreated eternity of God.

Luke’s Gospel has several transgressive moments if you like, moments when we are asked to step outside the everyday and see something extraordinary.  In Luke’s account of the Baptism of Christ in chapter 3 we hear a voice saying: ’you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased’ and at the conclusion to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus the risen Christ says to them: ‘was it not necessary that the messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory’.

 

The transfiguration itself is such a moment, when we see something which turns the world upside down.  In the first part of Luke’s Gospel the disciples have already seen a Jesus who serves the poor and the persecuted, a Jesus whose will ultimately die for our sakes.  This is not a normal or an everyday model of how to be.

All of us feel that generally we fall short of this vision of how to live. I don’t think I am just speaking for myself when I say that at several points in my life I have felt that I have turned a corner, reached a level of understanding, matured sufficiently to see the bigger picture, become a more open, loving and generous human being only to discover in some chance encounter that I am the same useless, good for nothing, angry or cynical person I always was.  How rage or jealousy can take us in the blink of an eye to a place we thought we had left forever. It has taken me a good few years to realise that when I see the old Phil Ritchie appearing again – angry or cynical or disenchanted I don’t have to run in the other direction.  Christ comes not to heal not only the part of us we put on show but to bring healing to our whole persons.

We love to hope that real change is possible through our own efforts.  John of the cross writes:

Many make great resolutions and plans, but they are not humble, and have no distrust of themselves, the more resolutions they make, the further they fall, and the more annoyed they become.  They do not have the patience to wait till God gives them what they seek when he so desires…

‘Our healing cannot be engineered, it must come, like night, from God’ (Iain Matthew).  We cannot save ourselves so we must begin by making peace with our poverty.  Making peace with the fact that we are broken – that it is God who holds us and brings us healing.

The transfiguration, Jesus Christ shinning dazzling white and Elijah and Moses talking to him – ‘appearing in Glory’ as Luke tells us.  This is the vision we must hold onto as we tumble into Lent.  Erik Varden in his amazing book ‘The shattering of loneliness’ writes:

“I make peace with my poverty.  I resolve to dwell within it.  I accept that,, for all my desire to live, I shall die; that I am dust with a nostalgia for glory.  I am taught to let glory, by grace, lay claim to my being even now, to make it resonant with the music of eternity”

Not all of us, Like Erik, have a calling to the religious life but we are called, no less intensely to recognise our wound as our need for God and our healing as coming from elsewhere.  In the transfiguration we see the vision, we recognise that there is somewhere to which we are called, an incomprehensible vision of love, but it is God in Jesus who will take us there.  Dust you are and unto dust you shall return.  Repent and believe the Gospel. Amen.

 

 

God is Love: Sermon for Lent One

Someone once said to Fr Benson, ‘I suppose your object in founding the Society of St John the Evangelist was to train clergymen who join you for the work of Mission’, ‘No’ replied Fr. Benson ‘I do not think the object of our association in a Religious community is to equip us to go out as missionaries.  We do not come into our community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves’.

We often forget that conversion is not something in the past or in the future – although it could be both – but most importantly it is now.

In today’s Gospel Jesus goes out into the desert wilderness for forty days – and we too have entered the 40 days of Lent during which we are going to follow together with the Society of St John the Evangelist in their prayer guide ‘Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John’.  The short daily quotes from John’s Gospel and epistles are wonderful but ideally you need to watch the videos that the brothers have recorded, one a day each lasting about three and a half minutes.  If you don’t have access to a computer, then we will be playing a selection of the videos at our meeting on Tuesday evenings in Lent.  But I want to give you a flavour of the first week of talks now, as well as saying a bit about today’s Gospel.

 

The theme for this first week of Lent from the ‘Meeting Jesus’ course is ‘God is Love’.  But I want to just begin for a moment with this theme of the desert.  It might be helpful to think about what we are doing with Lent by thinking briefly about the desert.  To be in the desert can mean to be in a place where all the superfluous things are stripped away, a place of erosion, of crumbling, a place of vulnerability.  And may be if we are gong to enter the place of prayer we need to begin here.  Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him’ – so Beasts (the frightening, disturbing things are with us in this place) but also angels – the things that care for and nurture us.

 

Two key words might be exposure and enclosure.  In the desert we are exposed to the reality of our vulnerability, our brokenness but we are also enclosed in the knowledge that we are loved – the voice form Heaven says to Jesus ‘you are my son the beloved’.

The desert is a place of truth and honesty, its not a place for pretence – ‘the desert strips you bare’ says Jerome.  Two things we will need with us during out time on the desert: discernment (so we don’t fall into the extremes of rigid obedience or slack carelessness) and singleness of heart, the desire to know purity of heart, to know God.

 

Now even as I say these things I realise how ridiculous they are for me at least – I want to watch ‘Take me out’ rather than say compline, I wouldn’t know obedience if it hit me between the eyes but I am a gold medallist at carelessness.  But as I speak I realise that again, I lack discernment when I fall too easily into judging myself, into saying, prayer, the religious life is not really for me because I’m not good enough.

So lets begin Lent in the wilderness with these twin guides discernment and singleness of heart.   One of the brothers little talks begin with a reflection on  1 John 4.16 – those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.

Apparently, Johns Gospel and Epistles use the word abide 63 times – but what does it mean?  And as we enter Lent do we want to abide, or would we rather run away?

The first talk asks us to recollect a bit about ourselves, our birth, our families, those we love – about how we have been helped or hurt, encouraged or discouraged – about the good and the bad.  This is our story, and it is the story through which we must read the light and life of God’s love.

 

God is love and that love is unconditional.  Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that God loves us. As Brother Curtis comments:

“We cannot imagine that God could or would love us, given the circumstances of our life. We’re not disciplined enough, focused enough, generous enough, forgiving enough, compassionate enough.  We’ve got our list of rejections because we find those rejecting qualities inadmissible and unacceptable. We presume that God is blocked out.  And yet, I think it’s exactly the opposite: that God will reach through to us in the best of times and God will also reach through to us in the worst of times. And the invitation is not to run away but to stay where we are, which is where God is going to come to meet us, where God’s light and life and love for us will be mediated.”

So the invitation on this first Sunday of Lent is not to run away but just to stay where God’s love, life and light will come to meet us.

And that ‘just staying’ is part of the thing.  There is nothing to earn, God’s love is a given reality.  And you don’t even have to feel it – When I went on a course about Spiritual Direction my essays kept coming back saying stop saying ‘We’, say ‘I’ a bit more, and I just wanted to say ‘Back off – I’ll do my own stuff, I don’t need you’.  But this wasn’t so much self-reliance, as fear about what other people might discover about me, about who the real Phil Ritchie was.

And one of the things I hid behind was a kind of English distain for emotional wallowing.  And I still have that – moving too easily from earnestness to careless laughter.  But one of the great lessons of the desert, of the spiritual life is that God isn’t just how you feel at any given moment.  Be in touch with your feelings but remember God’s love is present through all the scales of our emotions from the bottom B flat through to the top C.

In this first week of Lent our only task is to stay and to open ourselves up to the God of Love.  How can we begin to know ourselves as beloved children of God?  Let’s ask God to give us the gift of a knowledge of that love for ourselves.

Let me finish with some words – a kind of prayer – from Brother David from day 5 of this weeks talks:

Lord, grant us memories of those times when our fears have been dispelled by the perfect love that casts out fear, by the remembrance of God which has come to us either in our life of prayer or in our relationships with others and we might also bring our present fears before the Father as Jesus brought his fear so that that perfect love which is God, God’s presence, may be imparted to us that we too may glorify God’s name today in ways great and small in ways particular to us…

 

As we enter the desert of Lent together may our hearts know something of the exposure, the vulnerability of the desert experience but also the enclosure of the kindness of the angels.

And the invitation is to join us on this Lenten Journey with the SSJE Brothers, to be brave enough to write your thoughts in the booklet, to pray and to be honest.  That, as Father Benson suggested, we might feel the desire to be converted ourselves, discovering that we have not achieved spiritual heights but rather fallen into a love which was always there, waiting for us to arrive.  Amen.

Mark 1.21-28: Male authority/Queer Jesus

 

Lets face it this is a passage which has essentially two themes; the over whelming authority of the man Jesus and his exorcism of an evil spirit.  Male authority?  The healing of mental illness through exorcism?  Maybe we should just give up now!

The first thing that strikes you is that Mark is desperate to show that everyone was amazed by Jesus’ authority but reading this in England in 2018 it is difficult to be impressed by a man showing authority and status.

 

It feels like we are going through a time of great change in our understanding of authority, of status, of hierarchy.  When I was little I knew that across the world they celebrated Australia day and I felt in a comforting kind of a way that this might be a nod towards the British Empire and my own country and monarchy.  But when I opened the paper on Saturday I discover that 60,000 marched through Melbourne calling it ‘Invasion Day’ and that the protests were joined by a huge group of ‘Queer Activists’ making parallels between LBGT oppression and the oppression of the indigenous population by the British. It turns out, unsurprisingly that not everyone celebrates the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip.

I do understand and affirm this rage – I am not one of the new Right trendies who think this is Political correctness gone mad, but I still feel a little bit in transition from one world to another.  As if narratives of what it means to be human are being newly created and I am a bit behind the curve.

I was delighted by the rage about how woman have been treated in Westminster over the years, delighted that the behaviour at the so called ‘Presidents Club Dinner’ last week was condemned.  But I also got that sense of being a new place where things that had been accepted where now being condemned.  I think its because I remember living and sharing in a culture which joked about or spoke disparagingly about women or individuals who were LBGT.  A kind of uneasy feeling that I had been part of the problem, that I was still in transition to this new place.

 

This new world which we are now inhabiting tells a new story about equality and inclusivity but it is a story which can make us cynical of people who seem to represent any kind of authority or status or hierarchy.  I really don’t think it is enough for us to say ‘Hey kids, look at Jesus he was really cool, always standing with the outsider and the marginalised, he supported women and if he’d known he would have loved LGBT folk too’.

 

No, the whole thing about amazement at Jesus’ authority leaves me cold.  But what does excite me, because it runs counter to this tired ‘Jesus as a sandal wearing good guy’ narrative is the spiritual nature of this story, the supernatural element.  Did you notice how Jesus doesn’t talk to the man who is ill he talks to the spirits?  And when the spirits say ‘I know who you are, you are the Holy one of God’, Jesus rebukes him saying ‘Be silent and come out of him’.

Jesus calls for silence, a silence which is partly about rebuking God’s enemies, but also the first strike in the spiritual battle which is ever present in Mark.  The whole notion of spiritual battle is can make us feel uneasy, but ‘spiritual battle’ can be a way of describing the engagement with hidden and negative powers both in ourselves and in the community which need to be overcome.  This is not me saying that we all start having to be obsessed by the spiritual as some hidden realm that we as Christians have special access to.  What I mean is that there is more to life than we see, that realty is bigger than we can perceive, that we need humility in the face of a world we don’t fully understand.

But the silence is also the beginning of another huge theme in Mark, that of Messianic secrecy.  That Jesus in Mark’s Gospel wants to keep secret who he is, that he is God’s son.

What is exciting about Jesus rebuking the spirit with the command to be Silent is that it is about Jesus maintaining the mystery surrounding his identity.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel there is a demand for silence alongside a total failure of everyone around Jesus to understand what is being said.

It seems to me that the great changes taking place in our society today.  The huge changes in relation to the status and respect for women – something that I as the father of three women am eternally grateful for.  The huge changes in relation to LBBT rights – again something that I am grateful for as so many of those who I dearly love are part of that community.  But also the moving on from the division between ‘Identity politics’ and so called ‘real economic’ politics – the fact that now we see the link between development economics and questions of gender, race and sexuality.

So looking again at this passage and seeing my initial disappointment that this was Mark’s story about people being amazed at his authority and status – something that didn’t seem so amazing or exciting to me – Now, I read it and see something different.  I see a Jesus who places himself as the heart of a narrative about the mystery of his identity and invites me to enter into a conversation about the mystery of my identity.  An invitation that begins with a questioning of old authorities, even a silencing of old authorities in the face of the new, the alien, the divine.

At evening prayer this week we had that verse from the letter to the Colossians which always confuses me, where Paul says: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church”.  It confuses me because it seems to suggest that I have to kind of ‘top up’ Christs sufferings with some of my own.  But what the verse really means is that we are all ‘In Christ’, that is, in the suffering and pain of being human we are with Christ.  Being Christian is not about avoiding pain and suffering but rather about sharing in it with Christ.

We share too in the mystery of identity, of what it might mean to be human, to be part of the changing narratives of how we relate to and love each other.  About how we can, despite our many failings, our many past and present prejudices and past and present wounds and dysfunctionalism, still be seeking to be made whole both as individuals and as the community of the Church.

Maybe all of us need to start by being silent, that we might better enter an examination of ourselves as people called to participate in the divine life, a life where status finally gives way to a unity and an inclusivity which is beyond our present imagining.  Amen.

 

Sermon: The Wedding at Cana

Last week Robert and the ministry team gave me a wonderful painting for my birthday and on the back, was written some words from the Benedictine Tradition: ‘Why have you come?’  Which you might think are strange words, I mean I work here!  In the Benedictine tradition when anyone comes to join the religious community they are not given an easy time, in fact Benedict’s rule states that they should be kept outside for 4 or 5 days to see if they persevere with their knocking on the door.

Its good to hear that religious communities want to ask some difficult questions of people who want to join.  But it is also common for individuals themselves to be reluctant to respond to a sense of vocation.  Often people discerning their vocation to the priesthood say, ‘I was reluctant, but God had other plans’ and traditionally in some parts of the Church those who are asked to be Bishops decline at first as a sign of their humility.

One begins to wonder how anyone ever gets to do anything in the church with on the one hand people saying that they are reluctant and on the other hand the Church asking, ‘Why have you come?’

In the Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples go to a wedding – and they go because they have been invited.  The story begins with the words’ ‘On the third day’ which could mean exactly that but could also be a reference to the resurrection which took place ‘on the third day’.  This gives us a little clue to some of the ways in which we can read this story.  So I just want to share with you some of the key themes of this story to help us unpack it.

This miracle is only in John’s Gospel, it is the first of seven miracles or signs which reveal to us that Jesus is no ordinary man but is the Son of God.  That is why we have this reading in Epiphany, the season all about the revelation of Jesus to the world – the miracle at the wedding at Cana is the first sign that Jesus is not just anybody, that Jesus is divine.

 

At the end of the story we hear that Jesus did this sign, the first of his signs, and that this revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.  We, like the disciples, have come to follow Jesus maybe reluctantly, maybe feeling judged by a church which asks us why have you come here, but this miracle is the first stage on the journey – the disciples saw it and they believed in him.  So one of the key themes of this story is discipleship – that when we follow Jesus, when we begin the journey, maybe sceptically or reluctantly, God rewards us with the gift of belief.  Some more than others, but we are gifted belief.

The second important theme is the wedding.  Jesus draws on the theme of the wedding and the banquet often in his ministry.  The wedding Banquet is a sign of messianic fulfilment.  i.e. it’s a vision of the ideal community of the church, of life in heaven, of our life with God in Jesus.  The end of discipleship in this life might be suffering and death but ultimately it is the marriage feast, the banquet in heaven.

So when the waiter says ‘you have kept the good wine until now’ – it’s a proclamation of the coming of the messianic days, that Jesus is the messiah, that God has come to be among us.

And of course, the main theme is the abundance of wine.  120 gallons – that is a lot of wine.  Throughout the Old Testament one of the great signs of the Joy of God’s Kingdom is an abundance of wine.

 

So three big themes: discipleship, the disciples follow and believe, the wedding Feast as a vision of the fulfilment of God’s promises, a vision of heaven and lastly an abundance of wine, a sign of what the kingdom of God is like, filled with the abundance of God’s love.

Aside from Jesus the other key person in this story is Mary and her last recorded words in John’s Gospel:  ‘Do whatever he tells you’.  Mary can be seen as both a symbol of the Church and of the New Eve.  Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’ in this story, which always sounds a bit rude but it actually gives us a clue about who Mary is.  Just as Jesus is sometimes called the New Adam, so Mary is the New Eve in a very particular sense.  God is redeeming, saving creation and he does it through showing us a new way of being human, a new Adam and a new Eve.  Just as Mary will stand at the foot of the cross and be a sign of God’s mission after the death of Jesus so the Church is called to be a sign of God’s love in the world.

Her words ‘Do whatever he tells you’ are good advice.  Once we make the decision to follow Jesus – however reluctantly, sceptically or uncertainly we are obliged to try to live according to Jesus’ instructions.  We may fail to live according to Jesus’ advice, but we nevertheless seek to follow it because we consider ourselves to be disciples of Jesus.

So, answering the question ‘Why did you come?’ is in one sense very easy.  We came to follow Jesus.  But we know from bitter experience that in our life of discipleship we often fail, we are weak, we lack discernment, we lack judgment, we lack courage.

The story of the wedding at Cana is essentially a story about discipleship – about you and me being followers of Jesus.  And what it seems to say to me is that although we don’t have all the answers, although we are often confused or hurting, although we are often sceptical or uncertain, yet by remaining faithful disciples we open ourselves up to the free git of a mystical abundance.  Not a sufficiency but an abundance.

The abundant love symbolised by the wine at Cana prefigures the abundant love of the cross, resurrection and ascension.  This is the wonder of the glorified Christ which Fr. Benson was talking about last week – this is what the wedding Banquet and its abundance of wine represents.

What are you doing here?  Why have you come?

Do whatever he tells you.

“What Jesus did at Cana in Galilee marked the beginning of his signs; thus he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”

 

Amen.

Sermon for January 14th 2018: Fr. Benson Commemoration.

download

Relying heavily on M.L.Smith’s essay “The theological vision of Father Benson” in “Benson of Cowley” OUP 1980

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”

One of the joys of getting older is that you forget things far more often, but I had forgotten just how miserable January can be.  Days where it never quite gets light properly, where one struggles with some new variant of flu, where the problems and anxieties you left in the last year wake you in the night to remind you just what a mess you’ve made of things.  Positive thinking, like the cold fog, seems next to impossible.

 

So maybe it wouldn’t be your first choice to come to church today to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Cowley Fathers and first Vicar of this Church, who was once described as being made of ‘cat gut and iron’, a man who inherited much of the sober austerity of his hero Edward Pusey, a man who in one version of the story made the Cowley Fathers so gloomy and life denying that they sent him off to America so others could inject a bit of joy.

 

If that’s how you feel then its worth remembering that we don’t come here to meet people we like, we come here to meet people we are called to love – and we might end up liking them in the process – maybe.

Benson, our first vicar, is worth spending time with because he shares so many of our hopes and fears.  He once said, a very January thought I think, “Christian Dogma is often spoken of as dead and dry and indeed as men are apt to fight for it, it is dead and dry…It remains a dogma of the faith but no more like the original dogma of the faith than an empty husk that lies on the ground identical with the fruit once found upon the tree”.  Benson shares our January grumpiness.  He is also critical of the conventional concept of faith as an assent to propositions.  The divine Mystery is not mere knowledge says Benson but ‘the continuous apprehension of a continuous realty, a living receptivity’.  He goes on to say the Beatific vision will not be a stationary contemplation of a fixed form… we are called to rejoice in God’s truth as a continually progressive acquisition’.

 

And I hope by now you are warming to Benson, to his desire not to be static but to an elastic, and energised faith.  It turns out that Benson is quite Tiggerish, and invites us to some theological tiggerishness in this dark time of the year.

And as we all know The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs / They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one / IIIII’m the only one!

Benson, like Tigger, is a man on the move, he has an ecstatic and dynamic understanding of human beings and this feeds all his writings.  He bemoans those whose antagonism to faith lacks ‘the clothing, the atmosphere, the elasticity, the emotions of the divine life’.  Benson is forever ‘stepping forth’, rising up or breaking bonds.

In our most gloomy January moments God seems so static, so brittle but Benson speaks of ‘the relative energy of God within himself’ – the word energy keeps coming up in his attempts to give utterance to the Divine life.  In talking about God’s creative act, God’s outpouring of himself into creation he speaks of God “Having burst the bonds of his own Divine existence”.  What an amazing thing to say – God bursting the bonds of his own divine existence, as if even God can’t keep God in – the creative energy bursts forth, it must be proclaimed, like a kind of undiluted joy.

At the heart of Benson’s thinking about God was a great devotion to the mysteries of the Ascension.  I love reading about this because I am deeply fearful of a Christian community that has so lost its elasticity, its bounce, that it has fragmented the birth of Jesus from his death and from his resurrection and ascension.  This is Benson at his most beautiful, talking about the Ascension, about Jesus’ joy in his exaltation: “His humanity rejoices to be welcomed and rewarded as the Father’s son with the infinity of eternal love flowing forth in the perfected consciousness of his human nature”.

In Baptism, in the Eucharist, in our life together in the Church we are caught up in Christ, we inhabit the space of the risen and ascended Christ.  Benson writes: “We do not, I think, dwell as we ought on the present glorification of our natures, in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ”.

It is January, it is gloomy but we are here, we are members of the glorified body of Christ.  As its my birthday indulge me by listening to this much over used quote from Thomas Merton when he, it seems, had a revelation of our common calling:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Benson was fascinated by the 10 days between Pentecost and the Ascension – days when Benson imagined Christ moving through the nine angelic orders in an intensifying process of glorification.  Even here Benson cannot let Christ stand still, his glory is intensifying.  We are singing two of Benson’s hymns today – they don’t write them like that anymore – wow, that last verse:

“Oh the depths of Joy divine

Thrilling through those orders nine

When the lost are found again

When the banished come to reign.”

On this day when we honour Fr Benson’s memory, may we too be filled with the energy, the bounce, the elasticity, the light and the Joy of the ascended Lord, with a Spirit filled faith that recognises our salvation as rooted not in personal good works but in the grace we find in the community of the Church.  Angelic Light, illumination not of our own making but, in Fr Benson’s words, ‘an inherent participation in Divine self knowledge’.  Amen.