Saturday 22 March 2008

Resurrection Yes or No? That's the wrong question!

Easter Sermon 2008
The Easter story is very simple – Jesus suffered, died, was buried in the tomb, rose on the third day and lives today. Hallelujah!

That is of course a very stark and simplistic outline of the central event of our faith. It doesn’t really do it or Jesus justice and yet most times that is a reflection of how we consider the Resurrection. It happened! – You either believe it or you don’t! If you do you’re a Christian, If you don’t you’re not! The Resurrection has become a historical litmus test of faith – a box you tick if you want to be a part of the Christian Church. As such it has become something defined and finite, something which must be apprehended by the faithful follower of Jesus.

And therein lies a problem: The Resurrection is not something that can be contained in creedal statements, it is not something that we can nail down! It is an experience that changes and transforms our world and the possibilities of our lives. It is not something which has a yes or a no answer. To reduce it to a historical event (albeit the most significant historical event in human history) is to curtail and to cut off its potential. The Resurrection is a continuing experience, not simply in our belief in a life beyond physical death but also a life before death. Resurrection is not simply about personal Salvation but about the triumph of God’s Justice on Earth. The Kingdom of God as a present reality.

This in itself is not a new departure. We need to constantly remind ourselves of the context in which Jesus lived and died. As Harvey Cox recently wrote: “We misunderstand him badly if we remove him from the ongoing saga of his people” In this Jewish context Resurrection was seen as an expression of God’s justice at the end of history. Again as Cox observes, the Resurrection is not something thing Jesus does, but something that God does! The Resurrection is in-fact a continuation of the Exodus story which declares that God wills his people to be free and so as Cox comments many Christians have called Easter a 2nd Exodus.

In our fixation with a selfish notion of individual salvation we have lost touch with the community dimension that was so much a part of the Exodus story. Jesus was a teacher of Jewish law who the night before he died celebrated the Passover liturgy, once again emphasising the continuity with the Exodus tradition.

Another dimension that often escapes our celebration of Easter is the significance of the nature of Jesus’ death. It is not simply a case of Jesus dying and coming back to life which would obviously call his mortality into question, but as Harvey Cox observes: “to restore a crucified man to life means to strike an equally decisive blow at the system that caused his wrongful death, and the death systems that continue to cause the suffering and fatality of millions in what the Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino calls a “world of crosses”.
The Resurrection story is not then just about the conquering of death, but of God’s prevailing over even the most appaling deeds of human cruelty.

So if the Resurrection is not a yes or no question how do we approach it?
I mentioned earlier the notion of experience, Resurrection as something we do not intellectually assent to but something that we experience, something that we share in without possessing, something that we partake of without owning but something that apprehends us and which we can see in our lives if our eyes of faith are open.

I have seldom heard it more beautifully described than in the experience of a contemporary Christian thinker and activist, Shane Claiborne. He tells of his experiences working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta:
“I fell in love with the Home for the Destitute and Dying and spent most days there. I helped folks eat, massaged muscles, gave baths, and basically tried to spoil people who really deserved it. Each day folks would die and each day we would go out onto the streets and bring in new people.
The goal was not to keep people alive (we had very few supplies for doing that) but to allow people to die with dignity, with someone loving them, singing, laughing, so they were not alone…… As Mother Teresa would say “we are called not to be successful but faithful”! ….and “we can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do but how much love you put into doing it”…..I heard many a volunteer scolded for not putting enough gravy on the rice, since the plate was being served to Jesus himself.

Khalighat is one of the places that showed me resurrection, that life is more powerful than death, that light can pierce darkness. Those dying people were some of the most vibrant people I have ever met. There is a morgue in the home for the dying. As you walk into it, a sign on the wall reads: “I’m on my way to Heaven.” And when you turn around to walk out, another sign says: “Thanks for helping me get there.”…..As I looked into the eyes of the dying I felt like I was meeting God. ….Over and over the dying and the lepers would whisper the mystical word namaste in my ear. We really don’t have a word like it in English….They explained to me that namaste means: “I honour the Holy One who lives in you”

That to me is Resurrection – triumphing against impossible odds and bringing joy out of the depths of suffering and depravity. That is certainly what Jesus did but that was not the end! We are still living in the Resurrection and can still experience moments in which we are lifted up and out of and beyond situations which challenge our very will to live. The Resurrection changes everything – It allows us to look on our lives and our world and to hope and believe that things can change that things will be better. It allows us to go on when all the signs around us tell us there is no way forward. It frees us from a captivity to fate and fatalism and allows us to truly live, not simply to exist. The Resurrection is what allows people to laugh in the face of death. The Resurrection is this promise: “He is going ahead of you to Gallilee; there you will see him” Matt 28:7 WE TOO WILL SEE HIM!

Since posting this sermon I have been made aware of some very disturbing information about Mother Teresa which seems to be from very reputable sources. Fellow Blogger Bock the Robber has this and Wikipedia this!  Does this invalidate the whole point of the sermon - I'm not sure but I think perhaps it illustrates how sometimes God works despite us as well as through us.  

Thursday 20 March 2008

He's behind you! O no he isn't! O YES HE IS!

Sermon for Holy Thursday/Maunday Thursday 2008

Friends, we gather tonight on this Holy Thursday to commemorate the Institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. This is the central act of our faith in which we experience communion with God in Christ Jesus and with one another as we stand or kneel side by side to share in these sacred gifts of bread and wine. This Sacrament was and is the gift of Jesus to us his people, his Church: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” In this event is expressed God’s desire that his people would come to him and not only as individuals but as a community of faith, bearing one another’s burdens and living not for ourselves but for the whole of his wonderful Creation.

There was of course another very significant event not unrelated to the Institution of the Eucharist which took place on that same night, when Jesus washed his disciples feet. Central to that event is the argument between Peter and Jesus: “Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Jesus is very much in charge here, the initiative is with Jesus. He is not about to let Peter start dictating the terms no matter how well intentioned Peter is. In fact he acknowledges to Peter that “ You do not know what I am doing but later you will understand”. Jesus is saying to Peter: Trust me on this, it is going to be ok! Let go – you don’t need to control everything! I know what I am about. Leave it to me!

But equally stridently comes this statement “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. Jesus turns Peter’s world upside down. He is not afraid of authority but what is different about this authority as Jesus demonstrates it is that it is redefined as Service. God in Jesus reaches out to his people in loving service. God wishes to wash away the drudgery and the pain of life, to soothe feet that have become sore from walking over difficult ground. God wishes to Love his people without pre-conditions or formulae…the initiative is with God and it we who are called to respond. And how do we respond, well Jesus once again spells it out for us in the command to Love: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Church was like that? Some might say it is – that the Church represents all those values – it’s just that people don’t get it – they don’t understand! There seem to be a lot of people who don’t understand if we are to believe this morning’s survey on religious belief and practice as published in the Examiner. I don’t normally buy the Examiner but I did this morning and it made very interesting reading. All of us know that traditional religious practice is in decline – the survey focussed on the Roman Catholic Church but the statistics are mirrored in our own communities:
In 25 years, weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 82% to 45%! That is a phenomenal statistic and the trend is continuing! And why are people not going to Church? The top 2 reasons given were that it is ‘time consuming’ and ‘irrelevant to my life’. Other reasons included: Lost faith with Church, Boring, Too busy, don’t know, can’t be bothered. Surprisingly enough very low down the list of reasons given for not going to Church was: Don’t believe in God/Religion. If fact and this is where the survey really gets interesting: The percentage of people who say that they believe in God has only fallen from 97% to 84% in the same 25 year period and most telling of all there is NO CHANGE in the numbers who say they pray either regularly or occasionally!

I don’t want to bore you with further statistics so I will stop there, but from all this we can say something very interesting about people today in Ireland and from similar evidence in other so called ‘Christian nations’: They like Jesus but not the Church!
That in fact was the title of a book published last year by Dan Kimball. In it he interviewed a number a number of people who have become disillusioned with the Church as they have experienced it. One young woman, Alicia, a molecular biologist by profession, talks about her experience: “Why do I need Church? It isn’t necessary. I have a relationship with God, and I pray a lot. But I don’t see the point of having to add on all these organised rules like the church leaders think you should do. It feels like they take something beautiful and natural and make it into this complex non-organic structure where you have to jump through hoops and do everything in the way the organised church tells you to. It seems to loose all its innocence when it becomes so structured and controlled.

It seems to me that Alicia is expressing what a lot of people today are feeling – that the Church, a bit like Peter in our Gospel tonight is reluctant to let God take the initiative. The Church has misunderstood its role and is alienating people from itself.

Spencer Burke, another contemporary theologian in a beautiful book called controversially: “The Heretic’s guide to Eternity” sums it up superbly: “The role of religion, then, is to point the way to God, not to control the flow. The goal is not to make people forever dependent on religion or the church for communion with God but rather to help them on their journey. Salvation is something that happens between God and his people individually and has communal implications.

Like Peter we need to take on board Jesus admonishment: We do not control the Grace of God! The initiative is with God! Grace is something so amazing (as the great hymn says) so amazing that it defies all our attempts to explain it and certainly to control it. It is a sum that doesn’t add up or as Robert Farrar Capon once said “if the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus!
Sometimes we need to let go of ourselves and allow God some space to move in our lives: To let Jesus wash our feet!

Barbara Brown Taylor an Anglican priest in America who wrote a beautiful memoir (Leaving Church) on her struggles with the institutional church has this to say: “The history of Christianity is about “beholding what was beyond belief” and that for us today “to confess all that we do not know is at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do know”. This same tension was leading Taylor to the realisation that shewanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business….to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he admonished Peter, uttering these words: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”.
Sometimes we are so concerned with getting it right and doing the right thing that we fail to see this Jesus as we meet him along the highways and byways of our lives. We do not have time to be loved by him or to love one another because we are running blinkered and headlong in search of a truth that has always been available to us. It is not for us to find him. He has already found us!

I finish with another extract from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir. It is an event in her life that seems to mark a turning point. One afternoon a bird hits the window on her front porch, breaking its neck. Taylor looks at the glass which the bird hit and in it she sees the reflection of mountains and trees and sky:
Poor bird,” she speculates “she had thought all that was ahead of her…….when it was really behind her, in the direction from which she had come.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

I'm a character! In a story............

One of the ways people crave immortality is through art and literature, either as the creator or the subject of the work in question. Imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning and I had an email from my friend and fellow blogger Bock the Robber who had written a little story about me overnight! While I slept peacefully this talented wordsmith was turning out his latest oeuvre with myself as the central character. In directing you towards this charming 'fairytale' I feel I must issue a note of warning: If you are uncomfortable with Anglo Saxon speak then probably best not go here but then you would be missing a gem of a short story. It's worth it for the closing line alone.

Saturday 15 March 2008

Honey I'm Home! - Just in time for St. Patrick's Day!

Well actually I have been for the last week but I have been in denial! It has been very hard to adjust back to cold, wet and dreary when you have had a week of pure R&R in a sunny climate.
Straight into Holy Week too seems to make the whole experience even more of a drastic contrast.
We celebrated St. Patrick's Day today (15th march) following orders from our House of Bishops, as apparently it is not appropriate to celebrate any Saints during Holy Week! So poor old St. Patrick got the heave ho! It seemed totally bizarre this morning celebrating the Eucharist of St Patrick for a faithful few who like me were bemused by the whole experience. On reflection it seemed to emphasize the disconnect that the Church continually demonstrates from the World in which it finds itself. It is one thing to resist the vagaries of changing culture and traditions in the name of a constant faith but it is another entirely to become so slavish to principles that we lose contact with our environment and the communities we are supposed to serve. The naivety of thinking that we were going to convince the nation that St. Patrick's Day is NOT St. Patrick's Day would be funny if it were not so tragic!
I personally do not see why it would be wrong to remember the one who is largely credited with bringing the Christian Faith to these shores at the beginning of the week when we remember the central events of the Christian story. So on the real St Patrick's Day the only Eucharistic feast in this parish will be Green Beer and cocktail sausages! But at least the Church won't be involved in this Saintly celebration - Perish the thought!