The banquet

No sermon this Sunday, simply the observation that today’s Gospel whispered to me of those times that you have slipped into the back of the church, trying to melt into the shadows cast by the dark-wood pews, sure only of the sense of deep transgression stepping over that thresh-hold; only to find yourself called forward, irresistibly, by the grace of Jesus gripping you by its nail-scarred hands, drawing you to the very seat of love, feeding you with the very life of Christ, releasing you blinking and bewildered back into the sun beyond the heavy oak doors, lighter, bleaching back into the background with a snaggle-toothed smile of wonder …

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Untethered

There’s a man standing in the lake 
on his phone. From my seat between
a mallard duck and the old tyre,
I watch him, waist deep, cradling
his elbow firm against the rock
of the waves, watch the clouds scud
across the satellited sky,
seagulls screech, beach themselves,
shaking salt from their feathers
as though the ocean were nearby.

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God bless you and keep you

There is a moment towards the end of the Holy Eucharist service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer where

The Bishop when present, or the Priest, may bless the people.

For special services – the Thanksgiving for a Child, for example – a scripted Blessing is prescribed. The Book of Occasional Services offers some lovely seasonal examples, and Enriching Our Worship curates some more.

But for ordinary Sundays in the Book of Common Prayer, permission is given but no specific instruction as to how one might word the blessing.

The 1549 Book of Common Prayer prescribed the blessing,

The peace of God which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you alway.

This is the blessing of my childhood, and the one to which I most comfortably revert.

Nevertheless, I am moved to try something new. Each week, until Advent 2017, I will post a blessing based in the Scriptures of the Sunday to come. I’d love to hear from you, if you use them, especially how they are received by your people and by your own spirit.

A Blessing for August 28, 2017: Year C, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

Readings: Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16 OR Sirach 10:12-18 or Proverbs 25:6-7Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

May you have confidence to say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

May you hear God’s Word calling you, “Friend.”

May your heart in all humility, by the daily visitation of God’s Holy Spirit, be lifted up to glory.

Amen.

(Hebrews 13:6; Psalm 118:6; Luke 14:10)

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Facing God

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

Do you notice that the affliction that has bowed the woman down, bent the back of the woman whom Jesus heals; that this affliction is named as a spirit?

It is a spirit that has degraded her body until it is bowed down to the ground. That is the spirit from which Jesus sets her free, and one would think that for this to happen, and in the synagogue no less, that her community would rejoice with her, as she immediately “stood up straight and began praising God.”

Eighteen years she had faced the floor, and as she raised her lips to sing out God’s praises, the leader of the synagogue was angry:

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day!”

He was angry with the woman for getting herself straight, for standing up, for singing God’s praises from an open chest and a full throat, no more constriction and constraint.

There has to be something more to the leader’s anger than simple concern for the Sabbath law. He knows as well as Jesus does that the elders of their religion agree that the only work of the Sabbath is that of mercy, and of kindness and consideration.

But the leader of the synagogue is angry, tries to redirect his flock: “Come on the other six days to be cured!” For now, he says, all eyes should be on me, all ears tuned to my voice. I will tell you the right spirit from the wrong.

The leader of the synagogue is jealous. He is afraid that his authority might be diminished by this miracle, and he is determined that he needs to keep control over what happens in his church.

He is more personally afraid of the Spirit of God than he is of the malign spirit that has kept this woman bent to the ground, face to the floor, for eighteen long and painful years.

At least that is how he sounds to me.

We are all prone to the jealousy and control issues that the leader of the synagogue displays. We have all heard or even said, as though it were a word of comfort, “There’s always someone worse off than yourself.” What a perverse way to comfort one another – to rest in the knowledge that we are not at the bottom of the heap, that someone else’s back is bent even further to the ground than our own!

I know that the stated purpose of the phrase is to engender gratitude that we are not ourselves worse off – but the implications for those around us are dire.

It is difficult to be part of the ruling elite, or even middle management, and to root for the release of the spirit of oppression, the spirit that binds burdens to the backs of those who bear the weight of a system that piles people on top of one another like a pyramid, so that only the upper echelons can stand up straight, and sniff the fresh air, and feel the lightness of the breeze.

The prophet Isaiah directs the people,

remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Remove the yoke, the spirit of oppression, the spirit that says, “My ox deserves to be cared for on the Sabbath, because it serves my interests; but that woman can wait until tomorrow. There’s always someone worse off.”

if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;

if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;

then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

Satisfy the needs of the afflicted – remove the spirit of her weakness and the burden of oppression that bows her to the ground, lift her up, and she will praise God, and you will see the lightness that love can bear, the spirit of praise, and not a faint spirit. Lift her up, and you will find yourself lifted free of the need to climb over others to get a better view of God. Lift her face from the floor, and you will find the face of God.

The choice that Isaiah and Jesus offer is between a religion that binds and burdens the people; and one that sets them free. We face much the same choice today. Which gospel will we proclaim in our words and in our lives? Which spirit will we embrace?

The words of the leader of the synagogue echo wherever religion is used to bind people’s backs and burden them, turn their faces to the ground; wherever the spirit of diminishment and degradation whispers, and is not admonished. Where discrimination festers, and disgrace is preferred to embrace. Where the privileged and the oblivious clamber onto the bent backs of women and children of God to get a better view of life, there that spirit of Satan persists. Where, in our religion and our righteousness, we prefer to discourage infringements of our Sabbath observance, instead of encouraging healing, a Sabbath rest from sin and suffering for those bent to the ground.

But Jesus sets the woman free. He will not allow our lack of faith in God’s grace to bind him; our fear that her health will diminish our wealth, or that her miracle will diminish the chance that there will be one left for us when we need it. Jesus will not be bound by a spirit of faint praise or by the fear that he will be thought over-enthusiastic, healing people on the Sabbath, no less, setting them free, lifting her face from the floor to see God.

No, Jesus sets her free, and he stands her up in front of the whole synagogue, and she sings praise to the glorious God.

And all that the leader of the synagogue really needed to do, was to say, “Amen.”

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Overwhelming

I am considering the word “overwhelmed.”

I cannot unsee the news photography: cars sinking, dramatic rescues, coffins floating down streets overwhelmed by the Flood;

an airbag deployed, overspilling its plastic cage, overwhelming the object of its zealous protection; she is shaking.

A friend is overwhelmed with love, kindness, generosity; the best kind of deluge.

I am overwhelmed by a flash flood of story, emotion, reaction, and the prevailing requirement to remain calm in the face of the storm.

Overwhelming is the grace of God, which is not drowned nor diminished by our tears of gratitude, joy, or desperation;

overwhelming, so that sometimes, I have to hold my breath, dive deep to find it.

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Off centre

The hedgerow maze boxes me in,
walls me out through another false turn.
In the centre hides perfection,
unbreakable cypher, impassive God.

Out in the margins of error,
the elbow crook of one more dead
end, lies Jesus, sprawled as though
we were not hopelessly lost at all.

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The cross and the lightning rod

A sermon for Year C Proper 15: August 14, 2016
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus declares.

It is almost as though the cross itself were a lightning rod for trouble, division, and sin.

“I came not to bring peace but a sword,” he says, and we wonder, what happened to “blessed are the peacemakers.” What happened to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

The cross as a lightning rod, drawing the flightning crossire to the earth, laying it to rest in the ground.

Hate, cursing, abuse: they do not happen in a world at peace, where there are no enemies, no abusers. In the meantime, peacemaking is hard work, and not for the faint of heart. It does not pretend that there isn’t trouble; there is no peace without justice, after all.

The cross is not a magic wand, or a totem against trouble. It is a lightning rod.

A couple of weeks ago, Giles Fraser wrote about the sacrifice at the altar of Fr Jacques Hamel, an elderly priest in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in northern France. Teenaged extremists, bent on trouble, division, and sin killed him during the prayers of the Mass, sacrificial act.

Fraser wrote,

 I have no time for the idea that Jesus is sacrificed on the cross to appease an angry God. If that’s true, then God becomes the enemy of humankind and I am against him. No, Jesus absorbs the violence that comes from us not from God. He receives our blows, our punishments, our disdain. And, despite his innocence – or, rather, precisely because of it – he refuses to answer back in kind. No more an eye for an eye.

In other words, the sacrifice of the cross is the non-violent absorption of human violence. The offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death. This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay. This is what makes the eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult.

And this is how Fr Jacques died, says Fraser: rehearsing the sacrifice of the cross at the altar. The lightning rod for sin and division and despair is rendered life-giving by the transformation of Christ of death to life, of hatred to love, of abuse to forgiveness.

Peace-making is less about winning, still less about fighting, than it is about justice, mercy, and love.

And what shall we say of the two Muslim clerics murdered in New York as they walked home from Friday prayers? Did they not also, in their way, absorb the fire aimed at our hearts, run it into the ground?

I read the obituary of another priest this past week. This one, Edward Daly, lived in Northern Ireland, and was raised up as a bishop during the Troubles because of his leadership, and his propensity for peace-making. He first came to public notice

british_army_kills_13_on_bloody_sunday

Detail from BBC footage take in 1972

after the so-called Bloody Sunday massacre, when he was filmed leading a group of men, waving a bloodied white handkerchief to hold the fire of the soldiers, as they carried a dying young man out of danger. He had given the boy last rites, he later told the cameras, before leading the way past the rifles and bullets, being their lightning rod, to run further violence to ground before it could reach them.

The cross is not a magic wand to bring peace at a stroke. It is not a talisman to ward off sin.

The prophets against whom Jeremiah warns dream their dreams and ignore reality. They would have God favour them, for no other reason than they favour themselves. They would have God save them, for no other reason than their own self-interest.

But the chosen people of God are not chosen for themselves alone, but to be harbingers of God’s word for all people; to be bearers of God’s standards, of justice and peace, for all people; to be lightning rods for sin and despair, running it into the ground, for the protection of God’s good earth and all who live in it.

That is the way of the cross.

The drama that is played out in the midst of that storm is sometimes obscured by the wind and the thunder and the rain, noise and damage. But in the centre, standing still, is the cross. It is the old priest before his altar, turning wine into blood, giving life to his communicants. It is the young priest before his people, showing forth the sign of sacrifice, red on white, boots on the ground, carrying the fallen, anointed with oil. It is the cleric drawing fire simply by the way he is dressed for prayer. It is the one who turns aside anger, running it into the ground, offering another cheek, another chance, another way.

It is the priesthood of all believers, that great cloud of witnesses, walking in the way of the cross, blessed lightning rods.

But notice, it is not the purpose of the lightning rod to be destroyed by the storm. Far from it; the lightning rod has the capacity, by its design, its materials, its placement, to draw that dramatic and dangerous fire into the earth, rendering it, in ideal circumstances, almost harmless. For your creator has made you well, and with a purpose.

The purpose of the cross is not to harbour death, sin, violent division. It is designed rather to run it to ground. In the act of crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, the drama of Christ converts violence into silence, death into life, sacrifice into mystery.

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” says Jesus, “and how I wish that it were already kindled.” But do not be afraid of the storm.

 

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