Sunday morning

It’s Sunday morning. I had thought maybe of retracing my steps to my childhood church, twenty miles away; but the moment passed. I will stay in the village.

In fact, I am locked in my father’s house; he may or may not have set the alarm before he went to bed last night, so I dare not open any doors.

Instead tonight, before dinner, I will make my way downhill to the village church for Evening Prayer. My mother’s grave marker will be the last thing to greet me before the open door.

It is never easy, returning. In part, this time, that is because my legs have been destroyed by the mountain. It was strange; we both remembered clearly the frightening and unforgiving ridge. We had both forgotten completely the amount of full-on, full-body rock climbing it took to get that far, and more on the other side.

I think that I managed it more easily this time than decades ago. I was less afraid, for certain. I have learned, somewhere along the way, to trust my body, having got me this far. I have learned that what will hurt and destroy and throw me down is less easily predicted or mapped out than 35mph winds on a narrow ridge. I have learned, not to tempt fate nor to accept it, but to work with it.

I am in no more pain, coming down, than last time; but that is not saying too much.

The prospect of descending the steep hill to church, let alone coming back up, is daunting; but there is no easy way out. It is Sunday morning, and I am locked in my father’s house, waiting.

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Statuesque

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2017

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” (Acts 17:22b-23)

Paul arrives in the ancient city of Athens, and I imagine from what he says that there are statues everywhere – to all kinds of gods and goddesses, demi-gods, illustrating aspects of Athenian life and values, ambitions and aspirations: Athena and Aphrodite, goddesses of love, beauty, and wisdom; Apollo, who made music and medicine; and Nemesis, the god of revenge – but there is one shrine in particular that catches Paul’s attention – a shrine to the unknown god.

Which led me to ask the question: To whom would you dedicate a statue, and why?

It’s not supposed to be a trick question, but it may reveal something more than the surface would suggest; might pierce the shroud of our shared values and bring our biases into the light. After a confederate statue was sold by the city of Charlottesville, VA, last weekend white supremacists took up torches, illuminating exactly why such statues have become the source of controversy, conflict, and shame. In New Orleans, such statues have been removed by night and under the cover of anonymity, since the contractors chosen to complete the task received death threats.

Choose carefully what to memorialize, is the lesson learned; the question of to whom we would raise a statue, and which we take down, calls out our values: what we seek out, admire, aspire to.

You can tell a lot about the shared values of a city or a system by what they choose to memorialize. One of my favourite statues in Cardiff, the city where I did much of my growing up, is of Aneurin Bevan, the author of the British National Health Service which transformed the face and financial implications of healthcare in that country.

He is often to be found with a traffic cone on his head, because it doesn’t do to take one’s heroes too seriously. They all have clay feet, concreted into the ground.

Someone Tweeted last week the observation that there are no public statues to the leaders of the once-powerful Nazis in Germany; only Holocaust memorials.

One of the most iconic images of this nation is the statue of Abraham Lincoln seated in stone. Not too far away stands the recently completed image of Martin Luther King, Jr. We share with France twin statues of Lady Liberty; symbols of a relationship built upon the shared values of the two relatively young republics.

In Denmark’s capital, a statue to the Little Mermaid overlooks the harbour of Copenhagen; a monument to power of story, imagination, and love.

What we choose to set in stone for all to see gives away more than we might realize about our beliefs, our values, our aspirations.

And so Paul arrives in Athens, and finds it full of statues and shrines, and even one dedicated to a god as yet unknown.

He is half-teasing; more than half when he says to the Athenians, you are so religious that you worship even what you don’t know!

One of my test subjects, on being asked, to whom would you dedicate a statue and why, replied without hesitation, “Myself, because I am awesome.”

Which is awesome, but which would not have given Paul that same opening of humility and haunting half-knowledge, seeking what we know to be real but not quite yet seen, that was represented by the shrine to the unknown god.

This shrine has potential precisely because it acknowledges that truth, that there is something beyond what we know that we know to have power, and value. It is precisely when we leave off from making our gods, our idols in our own image that we can begin to seek the God who made us in God’s own image,

“So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. “ (Acts 17:27)

When we have the humility to seek the answers from our God, instead of telling God what we already know and what God should do about it – then we begin to find that God is waiting for us, to show us the way.

When we awaken the hunger to do God’s will; when we stop asking God to do our will, to back our side against all others, to funnel grace in our direction, when it is designed to fill the whole world – when we awaken that hunger and thirst for God’s kingdom, we find ourselves refreshed.

When we seek and serve Christ in all persons, as our baptismal promise guides us, then we find living statuary, made in the image of God, to be all around us in the city, awaiting our notice; not far from each of us.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promises, “I am coming to you.” And he does, in the bread and the wine, in the water and the word, in the church and in the world. And no statue will do him justice, and no shrine will hold him hostage; but we remember him, each time we come together at his table, to share in his body and blood, and he meets us, and reminds us of what matters: love and sacrifice, not set in stone, but set free from the tomb hewn out of the rock to live to the glory of God alone.

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Crossing time

This time next week, I hope to have reached the mountaintop.

Between here and there is a steep and rocky ridge. Last time I crossed Crib Goch, it was on my hands and knees. My ambition, some quarter of a century later, is to stride across (at least some of) it like a woman, erect and unafraid; but if I crawl again, clinging to the earth and rock the whole way as for my very life, I will not be ashamed.

I realized rather late in the day why this trip has become a source of such anxiety, a needle of nervousness when I prick my plans upon it. The last time I was in that land was for a funeral. My father made the journey to join us not, I think, so much for the sake of the widow as because, in the dying days, an opportunity to share the same air should not be wasted.

The death of my father-in-law has changed the landscape to which we will return, and the journey has become, in its details and diversions, its stops and starts, layovers, inspections, security insecurities – it has become a metaphor for the passage of time, unseen and uncertain, and steeped in our mutual mortality.

My ambition is to stride across it like a woman, erect and unafraid. But if I fall to my knees, clinging to the earth and rock as for my life, I will not be ashamed.

Be to me a rock of refuge (Psalm 71:3)

 

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Creation

He was silent for the longest time
(it felt like an eternity),
brooding over the dark waters
as though through glass, strangely
untouched by the storm, unmoved
by the violence of the deep as it wrestled
life to the surface, only to sink
again into depths unplumbed.

Fascinated; hypnotized
by his own genius, he skimmed
something like a stone across its face,
turned away, stopped, spoke: “Light,” 
he muttered, and at his back 
the sunset lit the sea on fire.

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Truth, lies, and email scams

A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, 2017

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (14:6)

Later, at his trial before Pilate, he said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

But Pilate treated truth with contempt, like a thing to be ordered by his whim. “What is truth?” he said. (John 18:38)

Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to find out the truth of what’s going on. For example, I received an email this week via the church’s account, marked “Extremely Urgent,” from a man I will call WM. Mr M wrote, in part,

The Bank has sent me frequent memos urging me to get in contact with the beneficiary of the sum of THREE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUND in the account of my late client at their bank … Till his death I was his personal lawyer, this was why the bank informed me to get in Contact with the beneficiary of his bequest funds in their custody. I have made series contacts to get the beneficiary without success and I just confirmed that the beneficiary has also passed on … and his family relocates from their former address no one know their where about and I could not locate them after several try.
For this reason I like to present you to the bank as the beneficiary of the bequest THREE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUND to enable us to claim the funds from the bank otherwise the funds will remain in the bank unclaimed, meaning the funds will belong to the bank if not claimed. I have all the details to claim the funds from the bank peacefully and lawfully.
Get back to me for us to work together and claim the funds from the bank for ourselves.

I did write straight back to Mr M, advising him that this was a church, and that I would pray for him. He responded, IN ALL CAPS,

I am quite aware is church email i.e. (Church of the Epiphany). I contacted you so that part of the funds can be as donation for the church. That is, by the time we claim the funds, I will have 40% for myself, 40% for you and 20% for Church of the Epiphany as donation.
Reply if you are interested so that we can commence to claim the funds immediately without delay.

So I explained to Mr M that I thought it unbecoming of a priest to claim falsely to be the beneficiary of a man whom I had never met, even for the sake of a substantial donation to the parish coffers. I reminded him that Jesus told his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to thread the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. I could have added something about choosing God over mammon, or the time that Jesus himself declined to involve himself in an inheritance argument between two brothers, or that he advised on storing up treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth can destroy, nor thieves steal it away, and that where one’s treasure lies, there one’s heart will dwell also. But I wanted to keep it short and sweet.

Mr M, to my surprise, was not yet deterred, but offered his further opinion that I was quite wrong, explaining,

You will not be dishonest to involve in matter of this nature because if we don’t claim the funds from the bank, the fund will ever remain in the bank unclaimed and automatically the funds will be long to the bank. I am a very good Christian so I believe it is far better and more religious for us to claim the funds and use for ourselves and in the course of propagating our religion.  This how I look at the whole matter. The lord will reward you if we claim the funds and make donation to the church rather than allow the funds to remain in the bank forever.

“The lord will reward you” for bending the truth.

My final word in the matter was that I was unconvinced that pretending to be someone I was not would still be dishonest, even if it deprived the bank of undeserved money. I also let Mr M in on the secret that his emails read somewhat like a scam to trick an unsuspecting person into revealing their own bank details down the road. I continued to assure him of my prayers, and I have been praying for him, whatever his true name might be, ever since.

The truth is, of course, as fun as it was, that I had no right to be holier than thou with him. We all fall short of scrupulous truthfulness from time to time. It’s easy to spot the lie in a scam email, but it is harder to keep an eye on that subtle tendency of sin to skew our discernment, especially when it is coupled with expediency, or greed, or need, or “the lord will reward you.”

But whenever we turn away from the truth, we lose sight of Jesus.

In an exhaustive examination of the ethics of truth-telling and deception, Sissela Bok says that

Deception is taken for granted when it is felt to be excused by those who tell the lies and who tend also to make the rules. [i]

In other words, those with the power to shape the world around them decide for themselves what manipulations of the truth are acceptable in order to do so. By means of false words, they remake the world to suit their purpose. Remember Pilate?

People with that kind of power – and the scammers who prey on people by email are only a caricature, a cartoon villain of the type – people with the power to deceive live in a different world than those who, as Bok notes, are “rendered powerless” by the falsehood.[ii]

But the world was created by the Word of God, which is the ultimate truth; the Word of God, which is the Christ; Jesus, who is the way, and the truth, and the life.

And Jesus, in the gospels and in everything that follows, has a tendency to side with the powerless.

He is the way, and the truth, and the life. Thomas asks him, “How will we know the way?” And Philip says, “Just show us God already and we’ll be satisfied, we’ll be good.”

Jesus tells them, “You know the way. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. And if you are paying any kind of attention to me, you have seen God.”

When we turn from the truth, we lose sight of Jesus. When we turn away from him, we lose sight of God.

The words we use to try to remake the world in our own interest and our own image cannot replace that creative Word of God, which writes truth on the heart and directs all of life towards its loving mercy.

As the twentieth-century poet WH Auden wrote,

He is the Way. Follow him …
He is the Truth. Seek him …
He is the Life. Love him …”[iii]

Amen.

________________________

[i] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 2nd edition (Vintage Press, 1999), Introduction xxviii

[ii] ibid, Introduction xxix

[iii] From WH Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, part IV, in WH Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (Vintage International, 1991), p. 400; and in The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, #463 & 464

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Spring cleaning

I threw away
the old, stale curry leaves,
the old, stale bread.
I threw away
the old, stale news-
papers half unread.
I threw away
old, empty bottles,
their promises unslaked.
I threw away
some old, empty dreams
that were keeping me awake.
I threw away
the skeletons, but they
refused to go,
piling up their
old, stale bones
to barricade the door.

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Gateway Jesus

The readings are for “Good Shepherd Sunday,” fourth of Easter, 2017

I have some sympathy with Jesus’ original audience, who heard him speak of sheep and shepherds, gates and gatekeepers, and wondered what he might mean. So he tries to lay it out more clearly. “I am the gate,” he says, as he will also say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Is this any clearer?

This Jesus-gate; this way of truth and life; it is the way of the cross. It is the way of life through the love that endures everything for the sake of the other. Whoever does not enter by this gate comes only to steal and kill and destroy, for his own benefit.

The way of Jesus, the gate that Jesus opens and is, is the way of love: love God, love your neighbour, love your enemies, love one another.

The other ways, those deficient in love lead only to thievery, death, and destruction. Those ways are predicated on self-love, not self-denial; on self-preservation, not self-giving; self-justification, rather than repentance; on self-aggrandisement, leaving no room for the glory that belongs only to God.

As our Presiding Bishop might say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about Jesus.” If it is not the way of love, for God, neighbour, and enemies alike, then it is the way of thieves and destroyers.

Even the newest disciples of the gospel understood this imperative: to enter through the gate of Love. They offered everything that they had to one another, sharing in the joys and sorrows, the affluence and afflictions of all. They took care of those with nothing to bring, without resentment or reservation. God bless them, they were innocent of all self-interest, placing themselves at the mercy of God, and their neighbours, and their enemies.

There was a couple, in the early days of Acts chapter 5, named Ananias and Sapphira, who wanted to be a part of this great movement for the kingdom of God, but who didn’t want entirely to give up their own self-interest. They were willing to sacrifice a judicious amount to the cause of the community of the saints; but first they would set aside a little something for themselves. They were hedging their bets on the gospel, keeping just a small side-bet on mammon, for security’s sake. After all, they reasoned, they had to take care of themselves first, or no one else would.

Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a field, and after talking it over with her, he set aside their security deposit, and brought the rest to the apostles, pretending that it was the whole price paid for the property. Peter, of course, full of the Holy Spirit knew his deceit at once. Ananias, confronted with the error of his ways, having entered through the gate of thieves and destroyers, dropped down dead, as did his wife Sapphira a few hours later when she attempted to keep up the charade of complete devotion to the community of the gospel and the way of the cross.

We no longer live as the first disciples did. Sharing everything in common and taking care of the needs of the least resourced among us out of the wealth of the privileged went out of fashion somewhere along the road, and the idolatry of the invisible hand of the market replaced that radical trust in the providence of God, predicated on the faithfulness of that covenant to love God and to love one’s neighbour with all of one’s being. Like Ananias and Sapphira, we learned to keep back a portion of our own self-interest, laying the leftovers at the feet of those charged with distributing security to the poor and the helpless, and then worrying about whether it was enough. It is, when honestly assessed, a depressingly faithless way to live, but it is our way.

We might want to think and pray about that sometime.

Within the church, perhaps we try to do a little better: we try to give our best to God, to determine from our prayer and praise the first and best portion that we can use for the good of the community of Christ, striving in love to find our way through that gateway that leads to the kingdom of God, without reservation or resentment of those able to offer less, knowing that all that we have comes from that providence of God.

But even in the earliest days, there was the temptation, and the tendency, to turn away from the way of Jesus, the gateway that is the cross, and just to make sure of one’s own security; a temptation to doubt the power of the gospel to do good.

Where we need to take care is in that sin of Sapphira and Ananias. It is all well and good to offer what we can, but if we are sneaking around the side of our own conscience and God’s claim upon us, setting aside self-love, self-satisfaction, self-justification, securing our selves first instead of offering our selves to God and to one another in love, then we risk our own destruction, the loss of our souls.

You hear the metaphor often of the emergency oxygen mask: first, secure your own; but these are only to be used in an emergency, in a crisis. They are not intended as a way of life. The way of the cross is.

Peter told Ananias, “While [the field] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”

With Ananias and Sapphira, it was not the owning and withholding of property in and of itself that was their sin, but their sin was the pretence that they were all in with the gospel of Christ, all in with that covenant of faith that loves God with every part of our being, and our neighbours, and our enemies as much as ourselves; that they were all in, trusting that God would make even out of the way of the cross a way of new life, resurrection, and glory. They pretended to be Christians, while secretly worshipping their own lives; and it was that blasphemy that was their destruction.

The gateway into the kingdom of God is that way of love, demonstrated and opened for us by Jesus in every touch of his healing hands. Even those who touched the hem of his robe received the generous power of his mercy. He opened the gate by every word of forgiveness and grace; opened the way of life for us by his death on the cross, that supreme act of non-violence that absorbed death and transformed it; by his resurrection, his guarantee that the life which God wills for us will not be overcome by sin or shame, death or destruction; that it cannot be stolen by thieves that break in, but it is eternal in its hope, and its faith, and its love.

We may not be able to find our way back entirely to the faith of the first apostles. Sin is our pre-existing condition. And yet, without resentment or reservation, without exclusion or premium, without denial or trial, Jesus has us covered. And I can almost hear him saying, “Go, and do likewise.”

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