Divisive Jesus

It’s never easy to speak about divisive Jesus. Passages like today’s reading aren’t comfortable in today’s world, because if your experience is anything like mine, we oftentimes feel that divisive Jesus is used by the “other side” to justify an unpopular stance on the day’s political or social issues.

We like to use divisiveness as a marker of our own justification.

We may use “shepherd Jesus” when helping a friend in need, but we pull out divisive Jesus when it comes to our politics. Are you being mocked for your views? Ah well, Jesus said that would happen. That must mean you are holding the truth.

However, when we use Jesus to justify our viewpoints rather than looking at how Jesus himself confronts our viewpoints, I think we can get a message that reinforces our own shortcomings rather than truly challenging ourselves on our path toward the kingdom.

What is so divisive about Jesus? Why would he use this language of division and fire in speaking to the crowds at the end of a varied series of sermons and parables?

I didn’t frame this around politics in order to say that Jesus isn’t political. Jesus is very political. Politics killed Jesus. Almost all of his actions were strong statements against the established legal and religious powers. He overturned tables in the temple. He continually escaped the traps of the Pharisees. He worked on the Sabbath. He affirms the inherent value of those oppressed and forgotten by Rome.

But the reason he is divisive isn’t just because he’s taking a stand on salient political issues, it is because he proposes a path of holiness that sidesteps those issues –and that angers the power structures more than anything because it undermines them more effectively than simply proposing an opposing policy.

Jesus is divisive because he always refuses to play the game.

Earlier in this chapter, a man calls out from the crowd asking Jesus to settle a financial dispute about inheritance between him and his brother. Jesus responds by asking the man why he should have any business to judge between them before turning to the people and lecturing them about the dangers of greed and encouraging the people that life is not defined by what you have.

He sidesteps the call to judgement with a deeper answer about human flourishing.

We as humans want Jesus to be the judge. We want someone to give us a clear dichotomy between what is right and what is wrong. We seek judgement because it draws an easy line in the sand; we want the winner and the loser. It would be much easier for us if Jesus could just propose a political platform around which we rally and vote, but Jesus makes it clear that this is not his job.

At every turn, at every legal and rhetorical trap, Jesus reveals an alternative inner path, a way of life that asks us to become more than who we are and to move on a path toward living in God’s kingdom.

So when people look at this passage today and say that Jesus told us to be divisive, that he came to start a fire and to carry a sword –it’s not because Jesus is calling us to be violent, obnoxious people who are proud of our self righteous and seemingly godly stances.

No, Jesus is divisive because he proclaims a way out of the vicious cycle of empire.

The way out is by going in — in deep inside of ourselves. This is why the kingdom is so difficult to access. Like passing through the eye of a needle. You can’t just sign onto a new set of political views with Jesus, you have to do deep, transformational work within yourself. You have to be ready, time and again. You have to be dressed, as Jesus says, staying up late in expectation of the master.

You have to say yes and open yourself to the things of God.

Jesus chides the people for being able to tell the weather, but not being able to recognise the fundamental change of season he is bringing. Jesus isn’t just developing a more progressive political party against Rome, which is what the people want and expect, he is bringing us into a whole new God-season, a new creation.

The temptation for us today is that we interpret divisive, fire-making Jesus simply as the Jesus who justifies our own fiercely held beliefs about our own empire. We convince ourselves that we are defending Jesus and people don’t like us because of our faith, even if our own views of the day have little to do with Jesus’ true call toward kingdom living.

Just because your politics are unpopular doesn’t mean you are taking a stand. Jesus continually reinforces that this type of divisiveness isn’t the point. The fire he is lighting, the divisiveness he is bringing is because God is not the God of human systems.

I like the image that priest and writer Richard Rohr provides for Christians. “ Those who agree to carry and love what God loves — which is both the good and the bad — and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves, these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world. The cross, then, is a very dramatic image of what it takes to usable for God. It does not mean you are going to heaven and others are not; rather, it means you have entered into heaven much earlier and can see things in a transcendent, whole, and healing way now.”

Importantly, this doesn’t mean we can or should expect popularity along this path. We are not just going along with the flow to make our faith a trendy lifestyle. The humble way of the cross will never be the dominant way of the world. The empire killed Jesus, and today’s reading from Hebrews is filled with the testimonies of those who took a leap of faith, who said yes to God to move their framework of living beyond the world. And as the writer says, they never got their hands on what was promised, but lived in hope of resurrection.

Divisive Jesus for us should be a marker of that hope. A recognition that life won’t be easy, and we won’t be popular as we turn the world right-side-up, but that true kingdom living continually brings us into ourselves in order to draw us out of ourselves. We participate in a redeeming force that yes, may eventually and hopefully will include our politics, but that no matter what is always much, much larger than any human empire.

Amen.

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
18 August 2019, Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Luke 12:49-56, Hebrews 11:29-12:2

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Relationship with Wisdom

In today’s Old Testament reading we encounter wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Famous for its wise sayings and profound adages that have worked themselves into the fabric of our language and art, this Sunday we meet this book in a different light.

In today’s reading, wisdom herself speaks. The author personifies wisdom in a beautiful poem in which she describes herself as present with God in the process of creation.

As a reading for Trinity Sunday, this personification of Wisdom illustrates for us the presence of the Holy Spirit. As opposed to the similar sounding passage of Job in which God asks his creation, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, Wisdom is clear in her response: I was there. I am there.

However, it’s not simply the presence of the Holy Spirit at the creation of the world that is interesting for us today. This poem from Proverbs underscores Wisdom’s relationship with God from the very beginning, and this is the key for us today on Trinity Sunday:

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily in his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.”

Trinity Season marks for us the beginning of Ordinary Time. The time of the year in which we celebrate the age of the Church. It’s not ordinary because it’s boring or unimportant. It’s ordinary because it is counted. As we move beyond the day of Pentecost we count in joy the weeks since we have been empowered by God’s Spirit. The Wisdom that stands alongside God in the creation of the world has descended into our lives as wind and fire. The powers of creation herself heralds the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in us.

Like Wisdom as God’s workman in creation, we too proceed in relationship with God. This is the great mystery of the Trinity. It’s not about solving the mathematical confusion of three in one, its about seeing the power of love on display through relationship. Bishop Kallistos Ware explains the doctrine of the Trinity not as a theological jigsaw puzzle but as a call to mutual love for one another as an icon of the trinitarian relationship.

In short, when we fulfil Christ’s call to love one another, empowered by the great Wisdom of the ages, we are living in God’s relationship. The deep, deep magic that binds all the universe together is at work in our hearts in a daily basis, counting forward toward its completion in the Church and in all the world.

Importantly, this love is not just empowering as an image of the eternal. Like the eternal, it is also creative. It is the trinitarian relationship of God that inspires Creation. With wisdom there, hovering over the waters, God creates everything out of nothing.

Love is infinitely creative, and this is for us the joy of the season of the church.

The possibilities are limitless. No matter the trapping of daily life or the constraints that we perceive due to money, jobs, health. Or even mostly empty churches. The gift we have in God is the creative power of love. We remember those in our life who love freely. It doesn’t matter what they had or didn’t have, or what they had accomplished in their life, the power and impact of another person’s love does not easily depart us.

I remember one of my favourites quotes from an author who just died last month, Rachel Held Evans: “Death is a thing empires worry about, not a thing resurrection people worry about. As long as there’s somebody baptising sinners, breaking the bread, drinking the wine: as long as there’s people confessing their sins, healing, walking with one another through suffering, then the Church is alive, and it’s well.”

As Paul says in Romans, hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. The power of relational love is eternal, even as so much of this world slips away. Trinity Sunday signals the beginning of the season of the people of God. Empowered by the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we mark from here the days of eternity, counting forward the age of the Church to tell the world of the love that has been with God at the beginning and is with us now.

Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Amen.

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
16 June 2019, Trinity Sunday

Feast of Doubters

During the Easter season, our lessons often focus on what happened to Jesus two thousand years ago in all this business of the Resurrection, and rightly so. How did it happen? Where did Jesus go, how did he get back? Our narrative is focused around the story itself: Jesus, the reaction of the Apostles and the subsequent sequence of events.

However, a week into the magnificent and glorious season of Easter, when our alleluias continue to ring strong, I want to focus on what the Resurrection means for us, today. How do we understand this story not just as a narrative of events that occurred in the distant past, but as a calling in how to live our daily life here and now?

I especially want to explore the significance of the Resurrection for us through the lens of our doubt, as illustrated by Jesus’ appearing to the disciples, and to Thomas.

If you struggle with understanding the Resurrection as historical narrative, if you aren’t sure that you can be part of the “club” because you have doubts, or after years of participation your beliefs, or your beliefs about your beliefs, have begun to unhinge you rather than complete you, unsure if the ancient story still bears meaning, let me encourage you. Do not let your doubts stop you from your participation in Resurrection. Don’t dismiss them, but don’t fear them. Don’t allow these doubts to condemn you.

St John of Chrysostom begins his famous Paschal homily with a magnificent call of grace to all people: come to the feast, he cries. Whether you have fasted or not, whether you joined at the third or the eleventh hour, come one and come all to the feast of the Resurrection. You don’t need to worry about having all of your assents assured, because this is the good news: you are invited to the feast.

The Resurrection is a great banquet, a great throwing-open of redemptive opportunity for all people. If you struggle to touch the Resurrection in your mind, try to touch it in your spirit. Do not stop participating because you have doubts.

Doubter or not, every Easter we are given the opportunity to meditate on how we are invited to integrate the narrative of our lives today into the festal reality of Ressurection as described by St. John of Chrysostom. You are invited to the feast.

If we limit ourselves to using Easter only as an opportunity to defend these magnificent events within their historical context, then we miss the point. We sacrifice the spiritual impact that they should have for us in the here and now, in today’s world.

Jesus wasn’t resurrected so you could say the creed, he is resurrected to bring you life.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples, especially later to Thomas, he allows them to touch his wounds. But as Thomas moved into a spirit of belief, pay attention to the language of some translations, that the words poured from his heart. We aren’t given a description of Thomas making some quick biological calculations of affirmation. It is his heart that believes. This is what Jesus affirms in all his future believers.

Why is this important? Why is how we walk toward belief important?

Often in today’s religious culture belief has become synonymous with intellectual assent. You either believe something as a series of facts, or you disbelieve it as such. Or, belief is described as something that stands in opposition to intellect. You believe despite your intellect. I don’t think that this is the type of belief Christ is trying to call out in us.

Jesus gives his disciples the Sacred Breath of the Spirit. The word for breath here is the same word used when God in the Garden of Eden breathed life into Adam. This is the life-giving breath of creation. And with this Spirit, Jesus charges the disciples to go out and forgive sins! Heart belief in the Resurrection somehow enables us to forgive sins. It doesn’t give us a cushion upon which to rest our intellectual superiority. Jesus didn’t say to the disciples, you have been given the breath of God so you can go prove me to the heathens.

Breath gives us the power to create. Breath is the force of life. It gives us the power to forgive one another. It gives us the power to invite one another to the great Paschal Feast.

As Jesus allows Thomas to put his fingers in his wounds he tells him not to give in to his doubts any longer, but just believe. This is actually quite strange. Jesus here is providing physical evidence to doubting Thomas concerning the Resurrection. If we follow today’s model of evidence, Jesus shouldn’t be calling Thomas to believe, he should be calling him to see the evidence of proof. Stop doubting, but conclude in your mind: here are the facts.

But this isn’t how Jesus works. Even now in resurrection just as throughout his ministry, Jesus is interested in the transformation of our hearts. Belief is less about assenting to crazy things as it is opening ourselves up to receive God’s life-giving breath. Think back to that classic sinner’s prayer, or even our own sacrament of Confession, there is no magic in the words themselves. The deep magic, if you want to call it that, is in how we allow our words and beliefs to open us to the things of God.

It is this opening-up that allows us to receive the Sacred Breath.

So if in this Eastertide you are struggling in your intellect, or even if you are struggling in your heart and mind to understand some crazy things. It’s okay, you are welcome here.

Stop, and take a breath. As we say the creed remember that we are also breathing together. Creating and living in our very breaths. Remember that you are already invited to the feast. Remember that Jesus gives his people the Sacred Breath in order to forgive one another. To love one another. Remember that even as Jesus allows doubting Thomas to touch his wounds, he isn’t trying to change his mind, he is trying to open his heart.

The power of the Resurrection for today is not just its claim of historical fact. The Resurrection is a claim of unshakable hope. It is a claim of creation. It is a claim of forgiveness. Even if in our doubts, we are hoping and creating and forgiving.

So what happens in the Resurrection? Death could not hold God. God met humanity in death and pulled us out with him. Trampling down death by death. He pulled us out so we could believe. He pulled us out so we could forgive. He pulled us out so we also could pull out all people. As St. John of Chrysostom celebrates in his Easter homily:

“Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.

O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!

O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!

You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.”

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

Amen.

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
28 April 2019, The Second Sunday of Easter

Meditations on All Saints’ Day

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
4 November 2018, the Feast of All Saints

If you have ever felt alone in your faith, then this feast day is for you. If you have ever felt doubt, then this feast day is for you. If you have ever questioned or not believed or not known what to believe then this feast day is for you.

The feast day of All Saints is a remembrance fashioned to echo back through the ages of Christian history, to proclaim that we are not alone. Your faith, your baptism, does not belong to you alone. This journey is not only a singular and personal experience for you alone to figure out and get right.

As a Christian, you are not blazing a new trail. Your prayers and questions and doubts and hopes are not singular in the great story of Christianity. You are walking a well-trod road, paved and shaped by those who have traveled and shaped it before us.

All Saints is not just a celebration of those who have died; it is for those who, through and in the Christ, are more alive than ever before. Even as we remember those who have died in the company of our faith, we recall the prophecy of Isaiah: that the Lord will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.

The profound and, even frustrating paradox, of Christianity is that we can’t speak about death without also speaking about life. For many this is a point of difficulty and of pain: we all know this too well. People trying to comfort a friend after the death of a loved one, frustrating comments that don’t give room for grief. Trying to cover up loss with shallow, temporal words.

Trying to cover up the pain of death with some distant and otherworldly hope.

We could dissect and discuss what are the appropriate responses to death and pain in this world, but at the core, our faith won’t find the perfect answer. Our faith is what forces us into this painful paradox. Christ’s life, death and resurrection drops this simultaneously harsh and beautiful reality into the centre of our faith.

As Christians we believe fundamentally in life. Sometimes annoyingly, sometimes painfully, but most of the times beautifully, we have no other choice. And our journey with those who have gone before us is to live into the mystery of this path.

The eastern church captures this paradox well. If you ever enter into an Eastern Orthodox church building you will certainly notice the icons. But the depictions are not reserved just for Bible stories and images of the cross. The lives of all the saints fill the sanctuary. When we worship, we worship in the company of all the faithful, past and present. You are surrounded by the saints, and you can feel it in the space.

The vision cast in today’s reading from Revelation is one of a corporate faith, one that includes all of the faithful saints. It is about God’s holy city. God’s people. God’s place with man. Many interpretations of Revelation that reveal it is a prophetic description of the Eucharist. That the imagery and language of Paul’s dramatic vision is a mirror of how the early church worshipped, and what they envisioned was happening in the Church’s gatherings to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Consider again these words:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

“It is done!” He continues, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give the spring of the water of life without payment.” God’s vision is to break down the walls of old religion. To be with his people. Religion has always been about satisfying payment, but it is done says the Lord. The springs are opened! The feast is prepared! God’s dwelling place is with man.

The feast of All Saints is a prophetic celebration of that wall breaking down. What is a more profound barrier in the human experience than that of death? All Saints is our celebrated hope for the great and eternal unification of God’s people.

We celebrate this in our prayers, in our remembrance and in our hopes. But nowhere in the Church is this celebration of wall-breaking more profound and more universal than in the Eucharist. A banquet table spread for all who are hungry and thirsty.

It is believed that early persecuted Christians would celebrate God’s great feast of the kingdom underground in the catacombs, atop the tombs of the martyrs. Those killed for their faith. What a picture! A tomb as God’s table of life.

This profound, visceral juxtaposition of life and death has been lost in our modern, sterilised world. We can hardly even bring ourselves to visit a graveyard, much less celebrate Christ’s life-giving, wall-breaking holy meal in the company of those who have died. By doing just this, those early Christians declared our profound hope in the face of profound despair! Breaking down the walls between life and death.

Where else in our lives can we break down the walls of old religion? Where else can we break down the walls between life and death in such a profound way, to join with the all the saints to participate in God’s new dwelling place?

We can often make this true religion so difficult to access. We hide it between many layers of rules, of ritual, of subcultures filled with their own way of speaking, of pride and self-assuredness. If God can offer springs of living water without payment. If Christ can trample down death then surely we can help open the banquet tables?

This is the beauty of the feast of All Saints. You are not alone. Man is not alone.

When you come to the table. When you pray. When you don’t know how to go any further –heaven is with you, and the company of heaven joins in your journey.

When we come together as church, as the gathering of Christ’s body, we affirm the eternal memory of the saints. Of those drawn on our walls and inscribed in our hearts. Of those we knew, know today and our own future selves. It is in and through the saints that we proclaim the victory of eternal life. And when we gather together around the table of Christ’s Great Thanksgiving we celebrate this feast altogether.

Revelation as a prophetic description of the Eucharist is important because it is cosmic. Just like this feast day. It is for all God’s people: past, present and future.

In a few moments we will pray together. Together with those gathered here, with our brothers and sisters in the other churches of Villars, with all Christians around the globe and in all time. We will pray for those who have died. We will pray for those who live, but who feel alone and thirsty for the company of Christ.

No, Christian, you are not alone in this journey. Struggling, doubting, disbelieving, forgetting, not caring, suffering, living, loving and giving thanks. We are not the first and we are not the last. But He who is the first and the last of all the saints, He has set for us a feast atop his holy mountain.

Amen.

Bread for the Journey

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
12 August 2018, Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

Today’s collect describes a pathway of obedience to partake in the treasures of heaven. The language here points us in the direction that obedience as a Christian discipline is not only through a specific set of choices, but rather a journey that we walk in grace and mercy toward holiness. It is not to say that there are not particular choices we make to inform that journey, but we are to remember that running in the way of God’s commands is an ongoing work.

Wilderness journeys, I realise, are very often an exercise in obedience. Elijah’s own journey in today’s reading helps us bring to life Paul’s commands in Ephesians concerning the new life of Christ. In putting these texts together we arrive at an interesting juxtaposition, of a God who makes a way for us, who provides bread for the journey and yet still challenging us to this new life.

What happened in today’s reading? Why does Elijah flee to the desert shortly after a dramatic victory against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? Standing alone as the Lord’s prophet, Elijah called down God’s fire onto the altar prompting a massive conversion of the people before defeating an army of pagan prophets. This should be a season of victory and celebration.

The story indicates that a messenger delivers a death threat from the wicked Jezebel, and Elijah just seems to lose it. This isn’t to say a death threat is no reason for fear, but Elijah is a prophet, tasked by God to speak truth to power. Isn’t angering “the power” part of that job description? Given recent victories, why is he brought to such desperation so as to collapse under a tree having lost all hope for both his own future and the future of his people?

Elijah perhaps has fled to the wilderness because in this death threat he has realised that no matter how many altars are consumed in fire, how many false prophets are defeated, how many children are raised to life, how much flour and oil is supplied to starving widows or how long the drought continues, the people of God will continue to turn away again and again.

Elijah’s wilderness is the wilderness of hopelessness.

What does this mean for us? Even in this season of our victory, we too can be overcome with hopelessness. We find just enough shade, lie down and admit secretly to God that he should just end it all. That it’s enough now.

Before, we could handle the wilderness because it was a season of expectation. Like Advent or Lent. We were waiting for God, and as difficult as the wanderings might be, we could see some prophetic light at the end of the tunnel. Some hope of redemption. A promise in the desert. In the pillar of fire.

Now, though, we have been through Advent and Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The dead have been raised, the lame leap, the blind see and we ourselves have been filled with the power of God to go out in obedience, and give God’s hope to the rest of the world. To show the people walking in darkness that a light has dawned. The wilderness was to be a distant memory as we obediently marched forward in truth and righteousness.

But then, we see the war. Some get death threats. Some get death. Abusive leaders molest the innocent. Abusive systems destroy hope. Racists march openly in the streets. Parents must bury their children. People seek freedom from the prison of their own minds. Elections create violence, not peace. We turn away again and again from the Lord.

And suddenly, the plight of Elijah does not feel so distant.

The desolation of hopeless that Elijah experiences alone in the wilderness is not some ancient metaphor, it is our own news cycle. Our own experience. Many interpret this story through the lens of burnout in ministry, but I see it simply as a burnout in the brokenness of humanity when we thought it was supposed to get better.

Elijah thinks he is the good guy in a story when the good guy doesn’t matter.

God’s immediate response, however, to an Elijah who seeks the end of his life is to send him food and drink, the very substance to maintain our life. Jezebel had sent Elijah a messenger bearing death. Now, in the face of death in the wilderness, God sends Elijah a messenger bearing life:

“Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”

Elijah takes and eats the food.

The rest of the chapter then describes Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb. After forty days and forty nights on the sustenance of this meal Elijah ascends this holy mountain, and God asks him, what are you doing here?

It almost seems that Elijah has arrived at this mystical experience, uninvited.

God never takes note of Elijah’s existential, wilderness crisis. Elijah tries to justify his work and explain his plight, and God seems to ignore the struggle. If anything, this experience could be taken as a rebuke. God takes Elijah instead to the mouth of the cave and parades his power before him. But God is not in the great wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still, small voice.

Elijah had grown accustomed to large, dramatic demonstrations of power from the Almighty. Of course God could change the weather. Of course God could raise the dead. Of course God could bring down heavenly fire. But God can also speak in the still, small voice. In the wilderness, he had said to Elijah, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”

Maybe this is a stretch, but I don’t think Elijah was supposed to go to the holy mountain. I think when the angel of the Lord gave Elijah food and water, and said, “the journey is too great for you,” I don’t think it was the journey to Mount Horeb. I think it was the journey of his prophetic ministry. God wasn’t calling Elijah up to the top of the mountain for a mystical experience, he was calling Elijah back into the world, and he knew it was too much to bear.

Of course it is too great for us. We can read the news stories. We know all too well the brokenness and the sadness and the desperation of a people who are lost and found and then lost again. God doesn’t pave over the pain of death.

When the world is crumbling around us, and all our dreams of justice and redemption collapse into the sands of the desert, God is there to give us bread.

“Take and eat,” said Jesus softly.

God knows the journey is too great for us. This is why the wilderness of our desperation is also an exercise in obedience. God doesn’t need us to stand on the mountaintop and explain how much we have been doing for the cause, how we are the only one still fighting for goodness and fleeing for our life.

God gives us the food we need and pushes us down the mountain with a plan. “Go, return on your way . . .” he says, this is what we are going to do. If we are the prophets of God’s redemption, our way out of the wilderness is obedience to his journey.

Paul gives us an idea of what this means. Ephesians calls forth the obedience to bring us out of the wilderness. Feeding on the bread of life, the new life in Christ is simply this: speak truth with your neighbour, be angry without sin, let the thief do honest work, our speaking should impart grace, do not grieve the Spirit who has sealed us for redemption, put aside bitterness, be kind, forgive, imitate God, walk in love.

We can call down all the fire we want, we can even raise the dead. Christ could do these things. But if we are not prepared to eat the bread of life, and listen for that still, small voice teaching us obedience in this new way of life, even all our jealousy for the Lord does not garner a response atop his holy mountain.

This is why we end each service with such a commission:

“Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Amen.

Touching God

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
1 July 2018, Fifth Sunday after Trinity.

From today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Wisdom:

“God did not make death and he does not delight in the death of the living.”

“God made man in the image of his own eternity.”

The profound realities expressed in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom form for us the lens through which we are able to understand Mark’s gospel as read during this season after Pentecost. It is in this season when we are living and learning to be within the divine. As we study the God that walks amongst men, we delve deeply into the life of Christ, to let the stories and lessons of the Gospels mould our actions and our very being.

We read these stories together and out loud again and again because there is something for us in them, as individuals on a spiritual journey and as a Church bearing God’s redemption in the world. In today’s gathering prayer, the collect, we ask for the Spirit of God in our vocation and ministry, to serve in holiness and truth. How does our worship today further this call?

In the first part of the story we meet Jesus after he has crossed to the other side of the sea when he encounters a desperate father begging for the healing of his daughter. He is asked to “come lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” We know from other Gospel stories that Jesus does not need to touch in order to heal. In the story of the centurion’s servant recounted by Matthew and Luke, Jesus simply proclaims healing from a distance. We know that Jesus can simply speak and the impossible happens, but this time, Jesus seems to be emphasising something else.

After the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years reaches out in faith to touch Jesus for healing he continues on to the house where the girl has since already died. With just a few disciples, Jesus goes into the room, reaches out and touches the girl to not only heal her, but bring her back from death itself.

Many interpretations of this story focus on the faith of the woman and the synagogue ruler. The story becomes an important lesson on the power of faith and belief in Christ to make the impossible happen. While there is certainly a lot of wisdom to be gained in such a reading, what really fascinated me in working through the story this week was Mark’s unique emphasis on the physical, not just the spiritual. The physical act of touch is key in both accounts.

Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” Because it mattered in a real way.

We have in these stories two very physical manifestations of grace: a human reaching out to touch the divine in the hope of redemption, and the divine reaching out to touch humanity to bring us back from the grave.

In our culture we are quite happy to draw exclusively spiritual, helpful lessons from these stories. But as a reasoned, sophisticated culture we get uncomfortable when things transcend the spiritual to become physical.

Our faith requires us to break down the barriers between body and spirit, and when we imply that the things we do, the things we touch and see and taste can have just as profound spiritual implications as the things we think, people become uncomfortable. Spirit belongs only to the mind, we say.

This is why incarnation has always made humanity uncomfortable. At its very core incarnation says spiritual things are not only spiritual, and physical things are not only physical. If God can become man, then the rules and barriers we believe to govern the world might not apply how we once thought.

Most visibly, this is evidenced by Christ’s healing power. But it is not just the healing itself that is so beautiful, it is not just the result that should give us pause and get us excited. It is the process. The manner in which these two healings take place emphasise to us thousands of years later, the power of the incarnation to move us both in body and spirit.

A woman, cast out from society, dirty to the enlightened and unfit for religion, this unclean, bleeding woman could now touch God.

And God asked, “Who touched me?”

The woman reaches out, not in pursuit of knowledge or relationship or power, but in desperation for the healing that would lead to acceptance, and in response, God asks to know the woman. He asks a question of identity. It’s not for curiosity that Jesus asks the question, God is responding to physical touch with the touch of his spirit. He is breaking down the walls. He is touching where it matters, in all domains of our existence.

Examples of God’s power was nothing new to the Jewish people. The Old Testament is filled with such stories, but now, the God who for generations had been identifying himself as the “I am who I am” is now asking his people on the street, who are you?

But this story isn’t complete without an incarnational reading of both healings. Not only are we able to reach out and touch God in a crowd, but the Creator of the Universe can take his creation by the hand and say, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” The God who spoke us into existence arrives to speak life from death.

From the prophetic Book of Wisdom: “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.”

Many early church fathers expressed this idea summarised by Clement of Alexandria, “The Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” In this worldview, the role of the Christian is to bear God. With the descent of the Holy Spirit we are given the divine breath that enables us also to heal the sick, raise the dead and bring the touch of life.

Incarnation and theosis. God becoming man. Man becoming god. The icons of the Church represent this transformational reality of how the incarnation is to bear itself in our lives. My favourite icon of the Virgin Mary is the one most often painted above the altar of an Eastern Orthodox Church. It is present there as a prophetic fulfilment of the Old Testament’s mercy seat in the temple.

A seat that was once empty is now filled by the God-bearing woman, the Theotokos. It is an image and a reminder for all of us that stands in testament to who we also are in Christ. Like Mary, we are now the God-bearers, bringing the light, touch and healing power of the divine into the everyday.

In our own lives today, when are we that woman reaching out to the divine for healing and identity? When are we the Christ reaching out to conquer death? The incarnation means that through our physical lives, our physical touch we both receive and give the healing of spirit and body.

Our vocation, then, in the body of the Church is to touch the world. Not just as a spiritual lesson, but as a physical reality into which we are called to live. As those who bear God. The hands of those who have reached out to touch the divine, and who have been touched by God incarnate, are now called to serve in holiness and truth to the glory of God’s name. We can touch in healing. We can touch in love. We can touch in all the ways that God has touched us.

We do not always live out this vocation, as individuals or as a Church, and more often than not we may identify with the woman pushed around in the crowd, uncertain of our place alongside the God who walks the streets. But may we never forget that God is always asking the crowd, who touched me. Even when we are so far as to be lost in death, we hear the voice of the Christ coming down to us, his Bride, taking our hand and saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Amen.

Springtime of Forgiveness

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
14 & 18 February 2018. Ash Wednesday & First Sunday of Lent.

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. These are the words read from the prophet Joel in the Church at the beginning of Lent earlier this week, Ash Wednesday. Written to the people of ancient Israel, this prophetic call to repentance still today presents for us an interesting meditation, a realisation and recognition of all that is tightly bound up with this season: ash and fasting, repentance and the echoes of judgment.

These are deep themes to contemplate. And at first glance they could seem quite dark, depressing even. The passage we read from Joel is less than cheery. And this is unfortunately often the reputation the church has gathered in today’s world. I read an article in the New York Times presenting the conundrum of having to have Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the same day. Could Christians really celebrate both?

We are regarded often not as a people of celebration, but as a people obsessed with ourselves: our eternal destination, our piety, our focus on death and ash. Our rending of clothing, as Joel describes.

Lent, however, should be for us by contrast our opportunity as a community and as a Church to challenge that notion projected onto us by the world. We mark ourselves with ash today, not because we are obsessed with our mortality and our death. This is not a mark of morbidity or depression. It is not an indicator of only sadness.

This week we enter into a new day, a new season, a calling back to the very beginning. We use ash on Ash Wednesday because Lent brings us back to the very beginning. The beginning of creation. The beginning of yes, our sin, but also our journey toward redemption, our capacity for forgiveness.

At the beginning of this season, the Eastern Orthodox Church sings: “The lenten spring shines forth, the flower of repentance! Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light: ‘Glory to You, O Lover of man!”

Lent, as a word, means springtime. It is an ancient term for that time of year when winter first begins to give way. We may not yet feel this reality in the Alps, but already, our darkest days have passed. The sun lingers in the sky just a bit longer even if we still feel the cold breath of winter wrapped about us.

The season of Lent is one of repentance. Ash is a symbol of that repentance. However, this does not mean it is a season of darkness. True humility does not need the shadow. True repentance does not dwell in the night. To come face to face with our humanity, with the ashes upon our brow is an entirely different sort of sadness, a bright sadness. In recognising our sin and need for repentance we glimpse the Eternal. In the fresh start of repentance we find renewal.

Yes, at the moment our church feels quite dark, and as this season progresses and we continue to remember Christ’s Passion, it is fair to say that this is indeed a somber time of year. But just as the flower of Lent pushes up from the dust and ash of the earth, so we rise together with it in the great hope of what this season brings, and where we are going.

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. We return to these words of Joel. Repentance and forgiveness is a movement of the heart. Our steps toward these spiritual realities must be worked out in our souls, not just our actions or religious piety. In this passage God was upset with a people who did what they needed on the outside to “get” God’s forgiveness, but in reality their hearts were still hardened both against him and one other. This isn’t true repentance. It is not truly turning around and examining ourselves for who we are.

This Lent, for all of us, should be a starting point. It is the springtime of our spiritual lives, in which we look forward with anticipation and joy to the victory of a God who could not be held down by the same ash that marks our forehead. Christ is the God whose flower bloomed through the dirt of our humanity, giving us too the chance to push through the winter frost into spring.

This journey through Lent looks different for each of us. For some, it may be learning to meet God for the very first time, and yet for others the whole idea of any God at all may still be a distant and silly concept. That’s okay. This is where we start. Maybe, however, the thought of a God isn’t the stumbling block, maybe it’s your own heart. Your own fears and lingering hatred toward someone who has wronged you. That’s okay. This is where we start. Maybe for whatever reason your heart really does need to be broken and put together again: from a past pain or a present battle. That’s okay. This is where we start.

In silene. In prayer. In forgiveness.

No matter where we come from, Lent begins with this forgiveness. In the Orthodox Church they don’t have Ash Wednesday, rather, the Sunday on which Lent begins is known as “Forgiveness Sunday” because it is on this day that everyone in the church is expected to both extend and receive forgiveness. The church actually creates space and time, an official ritual, by which those gathered go around to give and receive this forgiveness. This rending of the heart. In this way then, one can only enter into the effort of Lent by responding to the most very basic of all Christian realities: forgive one another as you have been forgiven.

So no matter where you think you are in your life, however close or however far from God, we all begin in the same way. In forgiveness. We have all contributed in someway to the brokenness of this world, and so we are given the chance to also heal it. Let forgiveness be your first act of penance in the season of Lent. Don’t worry about the chocolate, the sweets, the food or whatever else we may feel compelled to give up. Where we truly begin is in the rending of our hearts, because when we really do that: when we break ourselves open in search of forgiveness, then the path will become clear to us.

As we walk along this path of fasting, of penance, I always feel compelled to issue a reminder: no matter what type of fast we have taken on, each Sunday is a day of feasting. A day in which we break our fasts and celebrate the blooming of that spring flower, the resurrection of our Christ. It reminds us that any of these rituals are designed not to rend our clothing, but our hearts. Because notice, even in this feasting, even in our celebration of resurrection, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, of Eucharist, we always begin in the same way as we begin each Lent. We seek forgiveness. For ourselves. For our neighbour.

For the which we have done and for that which we have left undone.

This should be the pattern of our life. In our fasting and in our feasting. In our going out and our coming in. As we search for God and as we run from Him. All the pains and all the joys of our present life should begin with the same spiritual discipline: forgive one another as you have been forgiven.

In our prayers throughout this season we will often repeat the ancient, beautiful and simple prayer of the Church, “Lord have mercy.” In our minds, it is easy for this prayer to be the stopping of something negative: Lord, don’t crush us. Lord, let us off the hook. And while we do ask for mercy, the prayer is larger than this judicial meaning. The term “mercy” as drawn from the Hebrew and interpreted in the Church can be translated in other ways: steadfast love, tenderness, loving kindness, or very simply, love. In this way the prayer becomes an affirmation of God’s identity, of his goodness to us. A prayer that God be himself to us. To be merciful, not as an antonym of justice, but as an expression of his goodness, kindness, generosity and love.

Lent is the time of year when we fling open the shutters of our soul, when we set forth on the journey to real life. When we break forth through the earth like the flower. To the land of the living. And in this journey toward the great light of the Paschal feast, we cry: “Lord have mercy, Lord be to us as you are, Lord act to us as you do, Lord we want you to be with us and to do with us as you yourself are and actually do” (Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring). What great hope we have in us when this is our cry. Begin your Lenten journey, then, where you are, and may God bless it and keep it, and may it bring the deep, beautiful joy of springtime.

Amen.