Saturday, April 19, 2008

Easter 5 (Acts 7.55-60, 1 Pet 2.11-25; Jn 14.1-14)

Often, when Alison and I go out to eat in a restaurant I notice the waiters – flustered-looking young people dealing with impatient customers, balancing impossible stacks of plates and bowls in their arms, getting blamed if the meal’s late or overcooked, working for a pittance – not a job I would fancy!  A pretty hard way of making both ends meet while you’re at uni.  But you wouldn’t expect it to be fatal.

Today, it is.  In the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read that the twelve apostles are getting distracted from the real work of preaching by the daily hassle of having to attend to emergency food distribution.  And so it is that they hit on the bright idea of appointing Stephen as one of seven waiters, the Greek word the writer uses for waiting on tables is diakonos, or servant, and that’s the word that we use today as deacon – an order of ministry in the Church today that has a particular focus on service.  Stephen is a waiter on tables, a distributor of emergency food relief and it’s this vocation and this way of witnessing to what God’s love is all about that leads to his death.  Interestingly the seven are also called martureo – the literal meaning of which is not one who comes to a sticky end for the sake of the faith, but one who witnesses in his or her life to the transforming power of God’s love.  If martureo do come to a sticky end, it must be because, like Stephen, their way of waiting on tables is subversive -  though he is chosen not to preach but to serve, his witness of caring for the lost and the least in the community so provokes and challenges the powers that be that he is captured and killed.  Presumably the long and rambling, not to mention inflammatory and not very accurate sermon that Acts puts into Stephen’s mouth as his last words wouldn’t have done much to defuse the situation either, but here’s the basic point: the first recorded Christian martyr isn’t a preacher, but an aid worker.

The lectionary skips all this, unfortunately, and picks up the story with Stephen preparing for his death. Luke is using this story to make a point, which is that discipleship is cruciform – discipleship is cross-shaped.  If you want to follow Jesus, if in your own way of life you want to imitate Jesus’ own model of self-sacrificial love, there’s a cost.  Just like Jesus, Stephen is attacked by an angry crowd and dragged out of the city.  In his last words, Stephen commends his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended his to the Father, and just as the psalmist commended his own suffering to God.  Echoes build upon echoes in this text, reminding us that faithful suffering has always been part of the calling for God’s people. As Stephen prays for his enemies and forgives his attackers, "Lord, do not hold this against them," we hear the echo of Jesus’ own words, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34).

We get the point, no doubt, though it’s not a very comfortable one.  Yet most obscurely, as one of my colleagues pointed out to me, the lectionary writers have managed to pair Stephen’s model of not-so-passive resistance with its almost exact opposite, in today’s reading from 1 Peter!  Obey the authorities, even when they’re corrupt!  Put up with economic oppression and slavery – being a slave in the ancient world wasn’t just an olde worlde equivalent of underpaid domestic worker, it actually meant having no rights at all to determine your own life – and so the writer of this passage is saying to accept mistreatment and abuse as a privilege because Jesus suffers and so God is going to approve of you when you suffer too.

Do you see how we’ve slid from self-sacrificial love, the accepting of suffering as perhaps an inevitable consequence of living as Jesus lived, compassionately and uncompromisingly – into a suggestion that suffering is good in itself, an argument that implicitly makes compromises with human institutions of power and condones the exploitation and abuse of those who are vulnerable?  You know, as a priest I hesitate to argue with the Bible, but this is not very helpful.  Like all of the books of the Bible, this one comes out of its own context, a Christian community trying to live in the real world of the Greco-Roman empire, and choosing to live lives of personal holiness while fitting in with the realities of the society they lived in.  And yet we do need to be careful how we handle this sort of writing because this is exactly the sort of stuff that has led the Church, time and time again, into the sin of toxic silence when we are surrounded by injustice, toxic silence when confronted with the sin of sexual abuse, toxic silence in the face of exploitation and unequal relationships that deny women and men dignity or opportunity.

Holiness is, I think, supposed to be dangerous.  Holiness takes us deeper into the heart of Jesus, which is the heart of forgiveness and compassion and justice.  Where the story of Stephen is right and helpful, is where it points out to us that discipleship is a path of courage and faithfulness.  Living out of the heart of compassion sometimes has consequences that challenge our courage.  But where it isn’t very helpful, especially when paired with today’s reading from 1 Peter, is when it suggests to us that persecution and piety go hand in hand, that being Christian means being passive or even worse, accepting of injustice.

Like Thomas, in today’s Gospel reading, we don’t really know where following Jesus is going to take us.  The one thing that seems clear enough is that it leads us deep into the heart of a paradox: failure that brings renewal, death that brings life, transformation that comes not from being in control but from letting go.  What is the balance between private spirituality and service, between tending to our own life as a community and reaching into the community around us?

Our reading from John 14 is one of the all-time favourites for funeral services, and for good reason.  It promises us that we are headed somewhere.  Jesus here is addressing his disciples for the last time, they have worked out that he is leaving them but they don’t know how they are supposed to follow, even though the journey he is about to take, the journey into the heart of love that is God, is one that we know we all take eventually, and Thomas tells him what I, for one, often feel like telling him: ‘This is really not very obvious, Lord.  We’ve watched you heal and we’ve heard you teach.  We have seen you modeling the way of love and forgiveness, but we don’t really know how we’re supposed to go about it.  Couldn’t you make it a bit clearer?’

It’s the opportunity for what we call a teaching moment.  A few parting nuggets of wisdom, and what does Jesus tell them?  ‘Believe in God, believe also in me’.  ‘Believe’, as Marcus Borg points out to us, doesn’t mean getting your head around some tough doctrinal point, it doesn’t mean agreeing with some fancy theological statements about God, or about Jesus - it means to give your heart to, to centre your life on.  ‘Centre your life on God, centre it also on me’.  And then he says, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’.  It means that where Thomas wants a roadmap, some clear directions, Jesus is just offering himself.  What he has to give can only be experienced in relationship, in this case a relationship that points us to God because Jesus himself has always been centred on God – a relationship that endures through thick and thin because it points us to the love that’s at the heart of our own being.  A relationship that expands to become a web of intimacy drawing in friends and enemies, insiders and outsiders, young and old because the love that it’s centred on is the love that brings the whole universe into being.  A relationship that becomes our true home because within it we discover that living out of the heart of love reveals to us our true selves.  A ever-expanding relationship that connects us to one another at a deep level – so that Jesus’ next words, ‘Nobody comes to the Father except through me’ become a claim not to exclusivity but to a deep awareness of kinship with all that is.

Well, what’s it all about?  How do we know the path from here to where Jesus wants to take us?  The Christian community described in the Book of Acts is working out its identity by emphasising its separation from the Jewish community it grew out of.  The Gentile Christian community of 1 Peter is working it out by emphasising a life of holiness lived inside the rules and boundaries of its surrounding culture.  For us in the 21st century the same problems exist – which way do we focus our energy and resources – inwards or outwards?  The answer, of course, is to live out of the relationship that Jesus is offering us – a relationship that dissolves all the false either/or divisions that human beings construct and offers instead the both/and of Jesus’ own way of expanding love.

‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going – how can we know the way?’


Saturday, April 05, 2008

Easter 3

In the wonderful 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is picked up, holus-bolus, by a tornado from her aunt and uncle's dustbowl farm in Kansas and plonked down, house and all, on top of a wicked witch in a land that's even further away from anywhere than home was – a dangerous and wonderful place called Oz where Dorothy's only friends are missing the essential ingredients – a Scarecrow who needs a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who yearns to be courageous – and they all set off together down on a desperate journey down the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz who they hope can give them a heart, make them clever and brave, get them home again.  The irony of course is that at the end of the road and all its dangers they find a pretend wizard who nevertheless teaches them the most important thing of all - that the resourcefulness and courage and love they need has been growing inside them all along the way.

A colleague who finds he has his best ideas and writes his best sermons on the move told me he was recently given a gift by his family – a little paper-weight with the words engraved on it, solvitur ambulando, 'it will be solved in the walking'.  Like Dorothy, my friend has discovered that what we think we don't have sometimes comes to us fully formed along the way.  The important thing is to keep moving, because it's movement, not stagnation, that stimulates creativity.

The Gospel, I think, is teaching us something similar, telling us that we will be transformed not by sitting and waiting but by movement – that we are going to encounter and be changed by the risen Christ in the process of spiritual growth, movement, pilgrimages whether involving physical journeys or journeys into new ways of seeing and understanding.  We are transformed by our moving.  God's Easter Spirit is found most significantly in process, rather than stability.  To experience God's inspiration more fully, we have to be on the move, because God also is on the move!

Why?  Because resurrection is about a whole new way of being, new ways of seeing and understanding, new relationships.   As Mary Magdalene discovers in St John's Easter morning story, resurrection is about learning to see familiar landscapes in a new way, daring to let go of old certainties and limitations and allowing God to tease our closed minds into recognising new possibilities, new connections.  As soon as we open our minds to the paradox of resurrection we discover new ways of understanding our relationships with the people around us, new ways of understanding who we might be ourselves.  A living faith, resurrection faith, we discover, is not about holding fast to the certainty of 'old time religion' but about strapping ourselves in for a white-knuckle ride through change, dying to much of what we thought would last forever and waking up to new challenges and new resources that we never dreamed possible.  Discovering that the God of change – the God of resurrection – is always there ahead of us, creating us moment by moment as the future unfurls in front of us.

Does that sound scary – or exciting?

Maybe we allow this talk of resurrection itself to become over-familiar when we open the Lectionary every year at around this time to find that the season of Easter is upon us.  But just imagine that very first Easter.  Imagine being there.  Imagine daring to believe that what experience and common sense, not to mention medical science, tells you is impossible, has just become the most fundamental reality of your life.  Imagine being confronted by the realisation that the God of history, the God of scripture, the God of synagogue and timeless liturgy is none other than the God of novelty, the God who casually blows away all your preconceptions of what's right and proper and what's not – the God of resurrection who doesn't play by the rules.

Because if I'm right – if resurrection is fundamentally about creativity and change and new perceptions – then what 'new thing', what novel practices and behaviours might God be calling us to right now?  How do we respond to resurrection in all its surprise and novelty in our personal lives and in our life together as a parish?  If living by resurrection challenges us and inspires us to expect something new – what new thing might God be about to do in our lives?  If we take seriously the experience of the divine willy-willy of resurrection – well, what are we going to do differently?

Today, two pilgrims on the way to Emmaus find resurrection as they walk!  Exhausted and depressed by the house of cards tumbling events of Passover Week, it seems they're going nowhere in particular.  Bible scholars tell us Emmaus can't be found – none of the contenders for this ancient village a few miles out of Jerusalem make any sense even as a night-time stopover for these refugee disciples.  If one of them is named Cleopas then the other may well have been the profoundly courageous Mary, the wife of Clopas who John's gospel tells us stood with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Magdala at the foot of Jesus' cross.  It's a journey without much sense of hope, walking for the sake of being somewhere else when hope itself - and everything you've lived for - seems to have been extinguished.  Even the rumours of resurrection are unsettling, more than they can cope with.

The point is, it's a journey we know about – a journey that most of us have been on at some point in our own lives, the journey to nowhere in particular.

But then, Luke's Gospel tells us, a third pilgrim joins them. Hidden from their recognition, they journey toward nowhere with the Risen Jesus, not knowing that everything is about to change, that their own resurrection is as close as the next footstep.  This, too, is an experience we know something about, the experience of being drawn, in spite of ourselves, at a time when we are most alone and most lost, into a new experience of life, new resources, a renewed sense of direction and purpose, the gift of the courage and wisdom of others that rekindles our own.  I think it's often like that.  Right when our journey seems to be headed nowhere is when, if we are prepared to take notice, God offers us a resurrection experience, a new take on the reality of our own life, a new perspective on those who travel alongside us. 

Resurrection, as I've been suggesting, is not static but fast-flowing and fleeting – God holds it out to us over and over again but the trick is, whether or not we catch hold of it depends on our reflexes.  And see in this gospel story, still submerged in their own depression and lethargy, the two travellers do something remarkable.  They reach out in hospitality to their fellow traveller, even though their hearts are breaking, their spirits are exhausted, and their bodies worn out.  As the stranger prepares to walk on to his next destination, they invite him to supper. And, true to the promise Jesus made on the night before he died, it's exactly in that moment, in the action of breaking and sharing bread, that they recognise the risen Christ in the one who has offered and shared himself with them.  But, just like Mary of Magdala realised earlier that same morning, they discover they can't hold on to the Jesus they knew.  As soon as they get the point, it fades from their sight.  Resurrection experiences come and go, you can't hold on to them.  Moments of assurance are fleeting.  Inspiration is transitory. Health is temporary.  But God is in every moment, filling it with holiness and then moving on the next and inviting us to follow.  Faithfulness is about remembering but it's also about the sort of movement that creates new memories and new possibilities.  Hospitality is the open door to creative transformation.

So what are we going to do next?  There's something here, I think, about trust, about knowing for sure that even when we don't know where we're going, the God who creates the world we live in and time itself is going to meet us before we get there.  There's also something about understanding resurrection as a process that isn't just completed in Jesus of Nazareth, but can only be completed in us – when we open ourselves to what God wants to show us, when we learn to live Jesus' own practice of radical hospitality then Jesus is resurrected – the risen life of Jesus is experienced in the Christ space of new possibilities that God creates between us.

Above all, I think, it's about recognising that resurrection life never stands still.  Keep moving.  Follow the yellow brick road of your life.  Keep assuming that, no matter where you are on your journey of life, the God who created you and brought you this far has still got something new to show you.  Just up ahead.  Expect to be surprised.  Expect Christ to come to life all over again, in you.

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