Saturday, November 25, 2006

Advent 1: Are we awake?

Once upon a time there was an exceedingly ancient monk, who spent his days in prayer and silence.  Because he never had a bad word to say about anybody, and every time you came across him in the cloister his whole face screwed up in a great big smile, he was loved and revered by the whole monastery.  One day, a very junior monk came to him seeking inspiration.  ‘Father’, he said – ‘on account of all these years of meditation and fasting, getting up at 4.00 am, keeping silence and doing penance – it is said that you have achieved enlightenment and great holiness.  Can you share some wisdom with me?’  The old monk burst out laughing and said ‘Holiness?  Wisdom? – is that what they teach you young monks?  Mostly it’s as much as I can do to get through the day with any sort of grace.  Listen, I’ll tell you a secret – if I get up at 4.00 am it’s only because my rheumatism won’t let me sleep – if I haven’t got a bad word to say about anybody it’s probably because I’ve forgotten their names - every time I come across one of you young monks in the cloister I have to squint just to recognise you because I’ve lost my glasses.  Most of the time it’s as much as I can do to get through the day with any sort of grace.  I don’t know about holiness!’  Well, the young month persisted – ‘So why do you stay here?  Haven’t you learned anything in all your years of prayer and silence?’  ‘I have indeed’, the old man told him – ‘I’ve learned how important it is to stay awake.  You never know when your best-laid plans are going to get interrupted.  Didn’t you know - God loves to give you a jolt – the best way I’ve found to live my life is as though I’m right in the middle of falling off a horse.’

No time left to make plans – no time left for recriminations or learning from past mistakes or changing your mind!  No time left for anything except going with the flow.  Everything depends on how ready you’ve been, how much attention you’ve been paying to what’s really important.  Welcome to Advent – the short, sharp wake-up call at the very beginning of the Christian year when God dares us to believe that the promises we’ve half stopped believing in are really coming true.  The first word we hear comes from Jeremiah, that patron prophet of grumpy old men – some day, he says – some day women and men are going to wake up to the fact that the way things are is not the way they are meant to be, the day is coming when what human beings do to each other is going to be judged by the standards of truthfulness and justice, the day is coming when the way we live our lives is going to be judged against the suffering of children in Sudan and Lebanon.  Some day God is going to break right in on top of the way you live your life, and whatever you’re doing right now is going to get turned upside down.

Advent is more than just the time of waiting – we all know how to wait – Advent is the jolt we get when God dares us to believe again that history is going somewhere, that the world as we know it does get called to account against the justice and the holiness of God.  Scary stuff, this passage from Luke’s Gospel, wars and terror, famines and plagues and tsunamis and confusion – a description so dreadful that every generation ever since it was written has seen in it a prophecy of their own age - and this, Luke tells us, is what we’ve all been waiting for – this is a good thing – stand up straight, he says, because this is the time of promises fulfilled, of justice for those who since the beginning of history have been denied justice.  Advent begins, as it always does, with a reminder not of the beginning but of the end of all things.  Forget the scaremongers, forget that hateful perversion of Christianity that preaches the final coming of Christ as a time of paranoia and mass destruction – but forget, also, the insipid middle-class Christianity that preaches the cuddly and cute version of Christmas – this Advent get ready for a bumpy ride because the Christ child that gets born at the end of the donkey-ride is just the first instalment of the sobering reality that God is with us.  Advent is about the assertion – against all the evidence of human history – in spite of the appalling facts of world hunger and the global epidemic of AIDS, in spite of petrol-sniffing in Alice Springs and car-bombings in Baghdad – that human existence has dignity and grace and purpose because it belongs to God.  Advent is about staking our lives on the ridiculous-sounding idea that human life is God-shaped because God inhabits us. 

Does this sound unrealistic?  Does it sound unrealistic to affirm, in spite of all the dreadful technology of war and oppression, in spite of all our cunning and greed, that God is going to get the last word?  It is unrealistic.  It’s not the way the world has ever worked.  It takes every ounce of my faith to believe it.  In fact, I think that the unrealistic-ness of Advent faith might actually be part of what’s meant when you hear people say that the Church isn’t relevant to modern life.  We are indeed living in cloud-cuckoo land.  With the fairies at the bottom of the garden.  Advent faith involves a view of the world that is absolutely, gloriously, life-affirmingly out of step with the dominant culture of the society we live in, the culture of Big Brother and Survivor that values competitiveness and consumption over compassion and self-sacrifice. 

Advent faith calls us to live in the in-between times, to live as though God’s promises have already come true, with integrity, with generosity, and above all, with expectation.  Luke tells us to be on our guard against drunkenness – something to bear in mind this festive season – it means don’t get distracted by the tinsel and the fake Santas – by the agendas and the real estate market and the price of bananas – it means don’t get sucked in by the shopping and the decorating and all the trappings of the season’s self-centred celebration that distract us from the most important thing – the priorities of God that we see at the heart of the Incarnation, the priority of human dignity, the priority of living with compassion, of justice and generosity and self-giving.  Between the birth at Bethlehem and the Final Coming of Christ that draws all of history into the embrace of God, Advent reminds us that God is incarnate, over and over, in every one of us.  That God is incarnated in how we live.

At the very beginning of Advent, at the beginning of a new year of promise and uncertainty, the Gospel reminds us of the traps we need to watch out for.  The trap is that we leave it too late to care about the things that God cares about.  The trap is that God finds us spending our time and our passion on what is superficial or self-centred, that we’ve left it too late and that when God bursts in on us – as God surely does – we’re not ready.  The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, who on being urged by advisors to take a particular course of action was told, ‘You know God is on our side’.  Lincoln didn’t like that idea, and he answered, ‘Sir, my greatest concern is not whether God is on my side, my greatest concern is that we should be found at the end to have been on God’s side’.

The other day I was forcefully reminded that we live in a country of great material wealth but moral poverty - when the pop star Bono gently lectured us during the G20 conference on the fact that although Australia has signed up already to the commitment to spend 0.7% of our gross national product on overseas aid, our actual contribution is less than half of that.  Australia, he pointed out, comes in 19th out of the 20 OECD countries on our commitment to the world’s poor.  Our government’s dismissive response is that it’s trade, not aid, that best helps developing countries, but Bono is pointing to communities living in the shadow of AIDS and famine, children in the 21st century continuing to die of hunger and easily preventable diseases.  The sort of poverty that, historically, has come about as the consequence of the developed world’s push for resources and power.  God is not on the side of free markets, God is on the side of compassion.

At the beginning of Advent we’re rudely jolted awake.  ‘You know’, God tells us, ‘I’m coming ready or not.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.  Right when you least expect it.

‘Are you ready?’


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Funeral homily for Joan Clark

Ever since I have known Joan – about 5 years now – she has been aged.  Not just ‘getting on a bit’ – not just ‘elderly’ – but impressively and mysteriously ancient.  A fact brought home to me powerfully and wonderfully just the other day when I sat down with three generations of Joan’s female descendants – not that the great-granddaughters did much talking – I was reminded of Joan, some years ago, laughing in church as she read the part of the aged – in fact, 90 year old - Sarah being informed by the angel that she was about to conceive, and that she would be the mother of generations more numerous that the stars.  Joan saw the funny side, as she usually did, but more than that, I guess Joan was probably thinking that she herself had already been the recipient of promises just as wonderful as that, promises already fulfilled in daughters and sons, grand-daughters and grandsons.

Optimists are sometimes described as ‘glass half-full’ people, aren’t they – in contrast to pessimists who are ‘glass half-empty’ people – in my experience, however, Joan never fit into either of these categories, she was always a ‘glass full to the top and overflowing’ kind of lady.  Not that she didn’t have her bad days, not that she was unrealistic or anything – but you could always rely on Joan to see God’s blessings in her life and not only that, but to focus the minds of those around her on the abundance of God’s good gifts to us as well.

When I met with Anne and Tracy, and Toni and Kelly, the other day, what I was most struck by was the sense of how proud you were of your mum and your grandma, how deeply she was and is loved by you.  I guess that right now it’s not easy to imagine what life without Joan is going to be like, that you’re realising what a gap Joan’s passing has left in your own lives, and in the life of your family.  Joan’s parish family, I know, is realising that as well.  But as time passes I believe you’re going to discover how great a legacy of love she has left you -  even years from now, I guess, you’ll still be finding new treasures along the way, new blessings that your mum and your grandma has given you.

The other day, after you told me what readings Joan wanted for her funeral, I sat down and read them through, and I realised that these readings give us a very special view of what God’s blessings are like.  You see, sometimes it’s easiest for us to think of God’s blessings as just the things in our own lives that go well, when we get the good job, when we’ve got our health, when we see the birth of a new child.  It’s easy to think of blessings as a series of presents that God gives us along the way, a one-way trade - but both of the readings today have got a different perspective, both of these readings ask us to think of blessings as the gifts of God that we are asked to pass around in a kind of a circle – God’s self-emptying gift to us, which we pass on to others and ultimately back to God.  And that the blessings of God aren’t just the delights of things that go right, but the strength and the consolation that helps us to stay in touch with what really matters when things go wrong.  God’s blessings, in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, are meant to be given away just as fast as we receive them, because it is in the giving of blessings that we understand how much we ourselves have been blessed.  Does that remind anyone here of what Joan was like?  It certainly sounds like her, to me.

Next week, in church, we begin the short season of Advent, when we look forward to the wonderful blessing God has given us in his son, Jesus Christ.  Like all blessings, this one involves not just the giving away of something God has, but the pouring out of God’s very self.  In the gift of Jesus Christ, I think God is trying to tell us something about self-giving, about the self-emptying love that multiplies so much that it fills us more than we can ever imagine.  About self-emptying that’s so absolute it ends up on the cross, but that turns out to be the source of life and fullness and love.  You see, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is not just trying to rescue us from ourselves, not just trying to impress us, but trying to communicate with us that this is how we’re also supposed to live, that this is the shape that God intends for human life – that we should live for others, loving extravagantly and giving of ourselves without measure.  And in the resurrection of his Son, God whispers to us the paradoxical truth that what gets the last word in human life is not despair but hope, not sorrow but delight.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we hear God’s promise that in the giving of ourselves we are filled to the brim, that the endpoint of our own lives is not death but resurrection – and this is the promise with which we now commit our sister Joan to God’s loving care.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Wedding homily for Wendy and Gary, 18 November 2006

This is a wedding that’s been a long time coming – it’s just about a year ago, I think, when Wendy and Gary first asked me to celebrate their wedding – they’re obviously not a couple who rush into things – because of course they’ve been preparing for this day, themselves, for about 12 years.

You know, when I get these starry-eyed young couples in my office talking about marriage the first thing I do is get to know them a bit, talk to them about what marriage means and how well they really know each other.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve got to slow them down a bit, encourage them to reflect a bit on what it all means.

Well, I realised fairly soon that Gary and Wendy were a bit further along in their relationship than that.  Instead of having to encourage them to reflect a bit, I feel privileged to have glimpsed something of the depth of the love and the understanding that the two of you have for one another.  Your wedding today, that we are all privileged to be a part of, is maybe not so much a step into a new sort of relationship as a recognition of the love and commitment that has quietly grown and shaped your lives as a couple and as a family over the last 12 years – and the recognition that it’s that love and that commitment that gives your lives meaning, now and for the future.

It was Malcolm Fraser, wasn’t it, who pointed out the blindingly obvious and said that life isn’t always easy.  He thought it wasn’t even supposed to be easy though that’s maybe a bit pessimistic.  Anyway, that’s why we can’t get by on our own.  One way or another, human beings need to be sustained because it’s not easy living with integrity and passion and joy, in a world where things fall apart.  We all need the unconditional affirmation of love, and we each of us need to know that for someone out there, what makes all the difference in their lives is that we love them.  You know, I hope that every one of you has got that grace in your life, because that’s what life is about.

We read, today, that wonderful, also blindingly obvious, passage from the epistle of John that tells us, ‘God is love’.  Do you know, in just about every religion of the world, love is considered a pretty good definition of God.  In the words of an Islamic hymn, whenever two people love each other, the lover is God, and the beloved is also God, because that is what God is.

A 13th century Christian theologian, St Bonaventure, used to describe God as being like one of those champagne fountains where you pour the champagne into the top glass and it flows down and fills up the next level, and then they overflow and fill up the ones underneath them, and of course you end up with a delightful sticky mess that some unfortunate has to clean up afterwards – Bonaventure called God the Fountain Fullness and what he was getting at is that God is just so full of it – in a good sort of way – just so extraverted – that God just has to create the universe because it just can’t be contained any longer – and the way Bonaventure saw it is that creation – and you and I – are just like those champagne glasses halfway down the pile that get so filled up by the exuberance of whatever it is that God is pouring into us that we also start overflowing.  Of course, Bonaventure said it in Latin, which made it sound a whole lot more respectable.

To put it in less theological language – it means that the more we get in touch with who we are at a deep level, the more we need to express the aha-ness and the sheer goodness of life by giving ourselves whole-heartedly in relationships of love.  Another way of putting it, is that it’s only when we do learn to love without reservation, wastefully and wildly, that we start to get a glimpse of who we really are, human creatures built with an unlimited capacity for delight.

So we see here, today, Gary and Wendy filling up each other’s champagne glasses.  Re-filling, actually – because what they’re affirming is that they are each other’s favourite tipple, that they have filled and refilled each other for 12 years and mean to continue.  And what we also see is that the more they fill each other up, the more champagne they have to go around, because the love they have for each other transforms not just them but a little bit of the world they live in – the more we love, the more we take part, with God, in the act of Creation, because God is love.



Saturday, November 11, 2006

The widows' gifts (1 Ki 17.8-16, Mk 12.38-44)

Nothing focuses your mind quite so much on the value of something as when you’re running out of it.

Like water.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember ever thinking much about water at all, until we started to hear the doomsday predictions that the country was running dry.  We always used to think of water as being, just about free, like air.  A different story if you lived out in the bush, but for us city folk it’s a new thing to switch on the TV and see advertisements, like I did the other day, for water tanks.  They come in all different shapes and sizes, the traditional corrugated steel jobs, plastic ones designed to look like a section of your garden fence, even one called an Aussie Bladda like a great big water-bed that you squish under your front porch.  In a drought, water is the most precious thing there is, and we’re all of a sudden waking up to the fact that we really do have to change our thinking, find new ways of collecting it, new ways of making sure we don’t waste it.  New houses routinely come with water tanks, even in the city. I guess the water tank has become the new icon of guilt-free gardening.  Even splashing around the bore water like it’s never going to run out raises a few eyebrows, nobody wants to even talk about the Toowoomba option, your very own tank full of rain water collected off your own roof is your licence to have as green a lawn as you want.  An Aussie Bladda full of water means that no matter how blue the sky is tomorrow, your garden gets to drink.  Water represents life, it represents hope in the future, and even for a country like Australia that relies less and less on farm production, the prospect of their not being enough water to go around strikes at our sense of security.

Elijah the Tishbite, God’s argumentative prophet, was living in the middle of a drought.  In fact, Elijah had caused the drought, a few verses before where we started reading this morning, calling it down on the head of King Ahab to show him who was boss.  And God had set Elijah up to sit the drought out at the Wadi Cherith, a billabong east of the Jordan, where ravens would bring him food every morning and evening.  Which was a good plan, except that because of Elijah’s drought, the billabong dried up.  And so God sent him on to the widow of Zarephath.

Now the widow had water – we don’t know how much, but she didn’t have much else - a jar with a handful of flour left in it and a jug with a little oil.  The jug and the jar are like the Aussie Bladda full of water that you keep under your verandah, they mean that tomorrow you’re going to eat.  I guess in country like that drought was a fact of life, and because they didn’t have pipelines or desalination plants, drought means there aren’t any crops that year.  So the widow’s source of food, gathering up the grains that fall to the ground when the workers are bringing in the local farmers’ crops, has also dried up. There is no leftover food, I guess over the days and weeks she’s been watching the level go down in the jar, and she’s now gathering sticks to make the fire to bake a last loaf of bread with the little bit she’s got left. Widows are literally at the end of the food chain – with no social security, if she isn’t blessed with an extended family that want to take her in, she is the first one to drop off the perch when times get tough.

So God says to Elijah, ‘off you go to Zarephath.  The widow’ll feed you’.  Can you figure that?  Better off than the widow would be the day labourer, who at least can look around for a bit more work.  Skilled craftsmen are a bit more drought resistant again, because they’ve got something other people need.  The tenant farmers will struggle through, because they probably have a few pottery jars full of wheat in the back shed, they can slaughter the animals they keep as an insurance policy, maybe even got a few of last seasons figs and dates lying around.  The scribes and the priests, well, priests generally do pretty well for themselves.  So God sends Elijah to the widow.

Why would God do that?  To somebody who’s just watched the last of her jarful of hope run out, who’s just watched her future, and her son’s future, run out – why would God send along a useless prophet to take away her last scrap?  And here I think is where we need to remind ourselves what the almost empty jar of flour stands for.  If God is prepared to ask this widow to hand over her almost-empty jarful of hope, the last trickle out of her water-tank – what’s God got planned for my jarful of dreams? 

I think we all have one of these – I hesitate to stretch the metaphor any further in case I end up telling you that you’ve all got an Aussie Bladda full – but you know what I’m getting at.  I read somewhere that the children in the World War 2 Nazi death camps used to sleep at night if only they could go to bed holding a scrap of bread, because that meant that tomorrow they would have food.  It’s like we’ve all got a reserve tank full of reassurance.  ‘At least I’ve got a hundred dollars in the bank.  At least I’ve got my health.  I think my job’s secure.  Anyway, the kids’ll look after me.  The rivers have slowed to a trickle, Mundaring Weir hasn’t gone over the top for about a hundred years, the farm’s turned into a dust-bowl, but I’ve still got my Aussie Bladda.’

Except, what happens when you haven’t?  Because, that sometimes happens.  Your Aussie Bladda’s sprung a leak and run empty.  Your doctor tells you, actually, you don’t have your health any more.  You look and you haven’t got a hundred dollars in the bank.  The kids don’t want to know.  Stuff like that happens.  And sometimes, like the widow, we haven’t got any better plan than to just light a fire and scrape up the last few crumbs and after that, who knows? 

And then Elijah says something breathtaking in its presumptuousness, ‘oh, never mind.  Don’t be afraid.  Just make me a cake first.  You’ll be right.’  Is that going to inspire you with confidence?  I don’t have to spell out the connection with the widow and her two copper coins, do I?  You’ve already worked it out?  ‘That’s it, that’s all you’ve got?  Chuck it in anyway!’

‘Dare you to act as though you really believe that the real ground for hope in the future is not the little bit of flour in your jar, not the two copper coins that you’ve been guarding with your life, not your Aussie Bladda full of water under the deck or any of the reserve plans that are running through your heads right now.  I dare you (says God) to act as though your real hope is me.’

And both the widows do dare.  Really, the point isn’t whether the Temple was even worth the two copper coins – in fact, according Mark the Temple was already a doomed institution – the point isn’t whether Elijah was a worthy charity case or even whether you think All Saints can get on alright without your two cents worth.  The point is whether we are going to dare to trust more in God’s resources, which never fail, or in our own.

The stories are a little bit different – Elijah’s widow teaches us something about risky generosity.  You know, when I’ve got ten dollars in my pocket and somebody on the street asks me for change and I put my hand in my pocket and feel around to make sure I don’t get any of the two dollars coins, and I pull out 75c – that isn’t risky generosity.  That’s putting the stranger’s needs somewhere between the price of a postage stamp and the cup of coffee at Miss Maud’s that I might just fancy when I’ve finished my shopping.

Jesus’ widow – as a religious professional who wears long robes and likes to sit in the best seat in the church I do need to be careful what I say about her – I don’t, for example, think the point is that you should put the last of your pension money in the collection plate and in fact part of the point just might be that any religious system that relies on ripping off the poorest and the weakest members of the community maybe should be doomed – but we do need to recognise in her something of the character of Jesus himself.  Remember this story takes place, according to Mark’s sequence, a couple of days before the end of Jesus’ life.  No safety net.  No Aussie Bladda.  Taking a punt on the foolish notion that giving it all away in love is the only way to experience and to share the extravagant fullness of God. 

Two widows, one lesson on the wisdom of insecurity. 


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wedding homily for Steve & Kuan

Well, we’re finally here.  The day has finally arrived – it seems so long ago that Steve first came to me and told me he had met a young woman in KL and that they had decided to get married.  Today is a day that has taken so much planning – I don’t just mean the dress and the decorations and the ceremony though everything seems to have come together wonderfully – I have been privileged to have had a special insight into how carefully and how lovingly you have nurtured your relationship over the last year and a half, how much care you have taken not only of one another but of your families here and in Kuala Lumpur, the way in which each of you have honoured and learned to understand each other’s roots, the love you have both showed to Hannah and Bethany as together you have all explored what it means for you to be a family.

It’s been what we modern men and women call a long-distance relationship – the sort of relationship that telephone companies and airlines love.  Not only have you had to learn the nuances and the unique beauty of each other’s culture and language, but you’ve had to do it at a distance, learning patience, growing in tolerance, learning the precious art of communication … treasuring the times you’ve been able to be together, and learning how to sustain one another during the long months you’ve been apart.

It’s been a time in which the strength of your love has been tested, a time in which you have built a dream together that you know is going to last you a lifetime, and a time in which you have knit together an extended family that spans two continents, two languages and two cultures.  Even your wedding ceremony today is in a sense part of a larger ceremony that began in Kuala Lumpur – a celebration that is too big and too inclusive to be confined to a single country.

When we were planning today’s ceremony, we searched around for just the right reading from the Bible.  Eventually I came across these few verses from the rather odd book in the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes, which means ‘the Preacher’.  The Preacher goes to great lengths to look beneath the surface of life, to try to find what really matters.  And he concludes that a whole lot of what human beings take very seriously doesn’t really matter that much, when it comes down to it.  The Preacher tells us that a lot of what we spend our time and effort on is just vanity, just smoke and mirrors, just illusion.  It’s a world-weary kind of book – don’t get into The Preacher if you need cheering up.  But here is something that The Preacher does take seriously, and that is that it’s better to have a partner than to be by yourself.

And he does it with humour.  How are you going to keep warm at night, The Preacher asks us, unless you’ve got someone to snuggle up to?  I guess this was in the days before electric blankets.  You know, we live in an extremely individualistic society – the world we live in is competitive and often not very friendly – without relationships in which we can both give and receive unconditional love then we human beings just don’t flourish.  The whole, as the saying goes, is bigger than the sum of its parts.  The love that you give each other, your knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, your encouragement of each other, is what will allow each of you to grow into your full potential.  I think that’s the same sort of idea you find in Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, in chapter two where we read the story about how out of the one human creature God made both man and woman.  The whole idea is that we are completed in one another, we need one another to be whole and complete.

But then the Preacher adds something else, he’s still talking about the strength of human relationships, and he says, ‘a threefold cord is not easily broken’.  You know the strength of a piece of rope comes from it’s being twisted and plaited – two strands are strong, but three strands woven together are even stronger.  Well, Kuan and Steve are two strands, and it’s good to know they’re going to keep each other warm at night – but what’s the third strand?  The Preacher doesn’t say – I suspect he just likes tossing off mysterious little proverbs – but the whole point I think is this – that the strength of two becomes creative and productive when it gets focussed on something else, something that’s both the outcome of their love for each other and the force behind it.  For a start, we know that one fairly common side effect of women and men falling in love is that children get born.  Now I haven’t asked Kuan and Steve what their plans are here, but you know it just might happen – and when a family grows to include children I think the love in that family gains another dimension, like a three-strand rope – so I don’t know about the rest of you but I personally wish for Steve and Kuan – and for Bethany and Hannah – the wet and smelly joys of children.

But I think there’s also another interpretation we can put on the three-strand rope of marriage, and it’s this – that in marriage you’re not just two individuals, because the God who made you and who loves you has brought you together.  The love that you share with each other is part and parcel of the love that God surrounds each one of us with – I would even suggest that when human beings give themselves to each other in love then we become co-creators with God – we have a hand in creating the world that we live in.  Your love for each other is at its very strongest when you recognise it as a 3-way partnership – a partnership that’s going to take the very best that each one of you can give, and that is going to grow and give life to everyone around you because God’s love is expressed in you and through the love that you have for each other.

Kuan and Steve, it’s a very great privilege for me to celebrate your marriage today.  You’ve each come a long way to get to this day, and I’m very glad to have been a part of that.  I wish you every possible blessing and every happiness as together you set out on the journey of the rest of your lives.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

A saint in your own kitchen?

Today we are celebrating the feast of All Saints – and as this church is also called All Saints that makes it our patronal festival, our special day.  Have you ever felt it might be more fun if you went to a church named after St Francis or St Aloisius or St Beatrice? – colourful people who acted in improbably holy ways and met extravagantly sticky ends as a result – stories to fire up the imagination even as you – secretly – find yourself taking the claims with a grain or two of salt.  Maybe All Saints sometimes just seems like a day for the rest of us, the Also Ran’s, the saints that never qualified for stained glass.  And yet – the name All Saints that this parish chose for its church also focuses our minds, doesn’t it? – in a way that St Hildefonse never could – on the fact that every one of us has a vocation and a calling to be one of God’s saints.  Our name day is an opportunity for something more than a good yarn – it’s an opportunity to check in on how we’re doing.

It also means we’re free to pick out any saint we want for a special look.  Now, the fourth century produced lots of saints.  It seems to have been a fairly odd century, for a start it was the century in which the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, and that meant Christians all of a sudden went from being eaten by lions to running the empire.  Everyone seems to have gone a little bit mad, and one of the most extravagant ways of going publicly mad was to go out into he desert and sit on top of a pole.  That’s what St Simon the Stylite did.  He got to be a saint by sitting on top of a 60 foot pole for 30 years, which means everything he needed had to be pulled up with a rope, and everything he needed to get rid of had to be lowered down by rope.  People used to come out into the desert just to gawk at him, and no doubt because he was a saint no doubt they also expected a few wise words, but because he was 60 feet up in the air he could have said just about anything he liked and nobody would have known.

So that’s St Simon, praise be to God.  Anyway, when I was about four, and my sister Bethwyn was six, we somehow heard about St Simon the Pole-sitter, and because we were good Christian children we decided that sounded like a fine idea.  Unfortunately there weren’t any 60ft poles lying around at home and even if there were our Mum had other ideas.  She persuaded us that a 6ft kitchenette was really just as good and there was a lot less chance of falling off – so up on top of the kitchenette we climbed – or at least that’s where she put us, and gave us our lunch up there, and what with the elevated view we felt that sainthood was just around the corner.  Unfortunately there isn’t much to do up on top of a kitchenette and after an hour or so we’d started to fight so Mum said that was enough to qualify us as polesitters – we were a bit disappointed that we hadn’t managed to go the full 30 years but Mum told us practically nobody can manage to be a saint in their own kitchen, anyway.

Or wherever it is, for you, that the messy stuff happens.

I don’t know about you, but for me, when I cook, it isn’t pretty.  I drop stuff, I make a mess and while I’m looking for the turmeric the onions are burning.  There’s always at least one ingredient missing, the tomato paste has gone mouldy, the cheese sauce turns out lumpy.  Actually, I quite like cooking, but it’s not like the cooking shows on TV.  Unpredictable stuff happens. There’s always some sort of compromise to be made, you’re under pressure because you’ve got people coming for dinner in 20 minutes and the recipe you’ve never actually tried before just doesn’t work.  The kitchen is where confrontations happen, where relationships depend on the outcome of negotiations about washing up and emptying the rubbish.  You know what I’m getting at?  In real life, where stuff isn’t perfect, when you’re just trying to get by and you really haven’t got all the answers, it’s not easy remembering where God is.

There’s an exception to every rule, of course.  Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk in the 17th century, spent virtually his whole life in the monastery kitchen so nobody really noticed until he was quite old that he was a genuine saint.  Brother Lawrence wrote one little book called The Practice of the Presence of God, about the spirituality of pots and pans, the finding of God in the act of scrubbing a floor, about discovering the beauty and the companionship of God in the middle of the mess.

If you can get your hands on this little book, you should read it.

Saints in general, though, judging by the evidence of the stained glass windows you find in grander churches, don’t do much scrubbing.  Mostly they look calm and dignified, even when they’re being burned alive or whatever.  Their favourite activities are praying and preaching and looking holy, they never seem to have the slightest doubt and they certainly don’t get frazzled.  Stained glass saints, it seems to me, are the glossy magazine equivalent of what it means to live a life of faith, they set up an ideal that the rest of us just can’t live up to.

The really good thing, however, is that Jesus isn’t one of them.

So today, Jesus gets to Bethany where his friend has just died.  Now we know that Jesus is especially close to this family, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.  Out in the desert on the other side of the Jordan, Jesus had got word that Lazarus was sick, and for whatever reason he dithered.  Jesus didn’t arrive until it was too late.  Maybe he couldn’t have got there in time anyway.  In any case, by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.

And this is the reception he gets.  First Martha, then Mary – where have you been?  If you’d been here this wouldn’t have happened.  You can hear the anger, the hurt, they feel let down, they’re challenging Jesus.  This scene is just thick with emotion, when the gospel writer says Mary has been weeping the word he uses (klaio?) suggests more than just a few polite, saintly tears, it means her whole body is shaking, her face is red and blotchy, she can’t control her voice.  ‘My brother died four days ago.  So, where were you?’

This whole situation is one big mess. To add to the grief and the anger, there is also confusion. No one thinks it ought to have happened like this – not Martha, not Mary, certainly not the neighbours who make the obvious point that it’s not much use having a famous healer for a friend if he doesn’t turn up when he’s needed.

When they get to the tomb it just goes from bad to worse.  Jesus wants them to push back the stone but the smell of a four-day-old corpse is overpowering.  This isn’t a neat and tidy, stained glass miracle, in fact the whole thing is like some revolting horror story.  Jesus’ friends are distraught, angry and confused.  Jesus himself is overwhelmed with emotion – the Greek word suggests that Jesus is shaking as much with anger as with grief.  The onlookers are incredulous, critical, even scornful.  And even when Jesus calls to Lazarus and out he comes, there’s still no neat and happy ending – some of the onlookers are impressed, the rest think Jesus has gone too far this time, so they go straight off to the Pharisees to dob him in.

The point is that this isn’t a stained glass miracle.  Martha and Mary aren’t beautiful plaster of Paris saints, but real human beings who haven’t a clue what is going on.  Even Jesus struggles to understand what he is doing as he first delays and then has to face the consequences of that delay.  Martha, Mary and Jesus are brutally honest with one another – there’s no pretence that everything is all right.  Their faith in God – their faith in one another – never quite breaks, but it’s tested to the limit.  ‘I do believe in you’, Martha says to Jesus, right in the middle of telling him off.  Maybe at that point it’s a faith that seems to be wearing a bit thin.  But even within the confusion and anger Martha and Mary cling to the faith that God still IS – even though their world has turned upside down.  And they cling to the hope that, somehow, God will act, even if they can’t imagine how.

You can’t really be a saint by sitting on top of a pole.  Real saints, it seems to me, work out their trust in God by testing it in the marketplace of human relationships, real saintliness thrives on mess and tears and honesty.  Because it’s in the middle of the mess that God acts – by transforming who we are.  Real saintliness gets worked out in the context of our failures and our compromises and conflicts.  I’m still hoping to see St Evan, who dares to keep trusting in God even when the cheese sauce goes lumpy.  It might yet happen.  Because if you can’t be a saint in your own kitchen, there’s not much point trying to be one anywhere else.