Monday, January 15, 2018

Readings:  1 Samuel 3:1-18 and John 1:43-51

(God calls and invites, but does not force.  And it's through those who respond with openness, humility and surrender that the kingdom of God takes shape.)

“Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”

It’s what old Eli the priest in the dying years of his ministry taught young Samuel to say when he heard the voice of God calling his name in the darkness.

It’s also the title of a little book by Rosalind Rinker – a simple instruction book on prayer that was one of the first books I remember owning.  I think someone gave it to me as a gift. 

Being taught, teaching others, and helping one another along the way to pray – to listen to God as servants listen to a Master or a Lady for direction, seems pretty fundamental to our being a faithful church and an honest community of faith – let alone to our being faithful and honest Christians and persons of faith in our own lives.

I wonder, though, how easy it is. 

“Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”  I wonder how much I might yet learn from that book today.  Because do I really trust God, love God, open myself to God that fully and that habitually?

In my job, with all the talking I do, do I really listen as much?  My education and training have given me a Master of Divinity degree – and sometimes it seems that’s what I try to be and to do.  Personally, I’m obsessive-compulsive enough to think it’s my job to know the answers more than sit with the questions.  And practically, I like to know ahead, to not be blind-sided, and not have plans upset mid-stream.

So how often do I honestly say, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”

On Friday the on-line daily meditation that I read from Fr. Richard Rohr kind of hit me between the eyes. 
“To begin to really see,” he says, “we must observe – and usually be humiliated by – the habitual way we encounter each and every moment.  It is humiliating because we will see that we are well-practiced in just a few predictable responses.  Not many of our responses are original, fresh, or naturally respectful of what is right in front of us.  The most common human responses are about trying to be in control of the data instead of allowing the moment to get some control over us – and teach us something new!

“To let the moment – and God as God is in that moment, teach us, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly stunned by it until it draws us inward and upward, toward a subtle experience of wonder.  We normally need a moment of awe to get us started, and then the spiritual journey is a constant interplay between moments of awe followed by a process of surrender to that moment.  This is the great inner dialogue we call prayer.  We humans resist both the awe and, even more, the surrender.  But both are vital, and so we must practice.”

Thomas Merton puts it this way:

“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in their soul.  For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women.  Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because we are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love” – the kind of freedom, spontaneity and love of God and all that God loves that honestly and readily says, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”

It makes me think that the kingdom of God – that realm and that way of living in which we know ourselves living in God’s care, doing God’s will, and sharing God’s love is by invitation only – and that the problem – the reason we sometimes don’t feel part of it, or feel left out, or that it’s somehow beyond us, is not that only some are invited, or that only a few invitations are given, but that while invitations to all of us abound every day, we somehow learn to ignore them, throw them in the garbage or the blue box like so much junk mail, or tell ourselves that a lot of the calls from God that come to us must be from a telemarketer or be a wrong number intended for someone else.

I have – I think we all have, so many ways of staying in control of the calls we take, and of screening and predetermining the invitations we accept.

In my first pastoral charge – back in the early 80’s I was already feeling spiritual dry-ness.  I was just a year or two out of theology school, in my first pastoral charge finally doing what I had dreamed of doing, felt called to be doing, and had trained to be doing for all those years.  And already I was feeling empty, depleted and more than a little anxious about it.

That’s when I looked through the brochure for the fall and winter offerings of the Toronto School of Theology School of Continuing Education, and I saw the title of a week-long course at Regis College – the Jesuit School in TS T.   “Deepening the Spiritual Life Through Prayer.”  I sent in my registration and thought I’d found the answer to my prayer – so to speak.

I showed up at the course and no more than a few minutes into the orientation session I knew this was not what I had signed up for.  Rather than a week-long session of lectures and talks about prayer, and maybe a few discussion groups, from which I could take notes and learn a few tips and maybe a few new strategies and perspectives that I could try to put into practice once I got back to the safety of home, it quickly was clear this was a full-fledged Roman Catholic prayer retreat – a directed retreat, at which instead of “learning about” prayer I would be assigned a spiritual director for the week, would be given some passages each day to meditate on and pray with, and would meet once a day with my director to tell him or her what I was feeling and hearing and what my praying was actually like, and get further direction about how to open myself to God maybe even more.

My first thought was to wait for the coffee break, slip out, pack my bag and go home.  Not because it was too Roman Catholic.  Rather, because it would mean not being in charge, but being intimately and openly connected, under someone else’s direction, open to their gaze, and having no way of hiding.

It was like the time maybe 25 years ago when I first answered a call to volunteer for a while at Wesley Urban Ministries when they still operated an over-night shelter.  I was there Thursday nights, showing up around 10 when the doors of the shelter opened and I helped serve soup and sandwiches from behind the kitchen window.  But once that was done, from around 10:30 or 11 to midnight or a bit later when the lights went out, I was directed to go out and mingle – chat with the patrons, spend time with them, get to know them, play euchre with them.  That was the scary part – because that was the part without a role, a mask and a title, and without a protective barrier against the call to be there becoming more than I felt ready for.

But I did it.  At the overnight shelter once the soup and sandwiches part was done, I mixed and mingled, spent time at the tables with the patrons, got to know them a little, played euchre, and received back from them something I never imagined would be part of the bargain, something I never knew I needed, but which once they gave it to me I realized was maybe one of the reasons God called me there when God did.  It was their acceptance – a gift you sometimes don’t really know you’re missing until someone gives it to you.

And so it was with the prayer retreat.  I had signed up and I was there.  Something had convinced me this would be an answer to prayers I didn’t even know how to say.  So I stayed.  I remember still how momentous and big a decision that was for me to make at that time.

The director I was assigned was a little – and I mean little, old Irish nun named Maeve on a three-month sabbatical from her order in Ireland, and through the course of that week I experienced grace I had not known before.

I believe God called me there through my need and restlessness, and it was there I received what God knew I most needed.

And that’s how it is when we honestly open ourselves to God as a ready and willing servant.  The invitations to God’s feast of grace don’t always look like what we think we need, or want, or are praying for.  But God is always inviting us to come and see.

Monday, January 08, 2018

What if ... (sermon from Sunday, January 7, 2017)

Reading:  Matthew 1:1-12
(In the Gospel of Matthew's nativity story, magi from the East come to visit Jesus shortly after his birth, because they have seen his coming in the stars.  That the magi were foreigners from another culture and religious tradition, practicing arts of astrology and divination forbidden to the Jews, and that the cosmos itself seems to have been altered by the birth of Jesus all testify to the universal significance that the early church ascribed to the coming of Jesus.)  

What if ...

when the magi appeared in the front yard of the home
where Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus were living,
when Joseph looked up from his work in the yard to see
who this this grand but now-very-dusty entourage was,
and what they wanted,
when they said they were magi from the East,
wise travelers who had come a long way to see
a new-born king – God’s promised prince of peace
that all the cosmos was waiting to welcome,
and could they please see him now to pay homage,
what if when Joseph saw and heard all that he had said,
          “You’re who?  And you’re here to do what?
          And you think my son is who and what?
          I would rather you not puff him up
with such notions of grandeur and glory.
He’s not yet proven himself anything, 
and better he be taught a little humility, shame,
confession and repentance
if he is ever to learn to be acceptable to God
and of any pride to me or anyone else.
          So, I’m sorry you came all this way,
but I’d rather you be gone!”

Or what if ...
when Joseph did open the door and let the magi in
to see Mary caring for little Jesus,
when they introduced themselves and their purpose
and then opened their gifts –
          gold because this little one was a king
to lead the world in the ways of peace;
          frankincense because like a priest he would help
to cleanse the world of evil
and bring an air of sacred holiness
to every place, every person and every relationship
in his life;
          and myrrh because in the end
he would give his life and die
for what is right and good,
for the sake of the kingdom of God
being implanted that much more deeply
in the life of the world,
what if when Mary saw and heard all that she had said,
          “Fie on you!  And a pox on your houses!
          How dare you offer him gifts like that –
gifts and ideas of a life that will lead him away – away from home and safety and me and our family!
          Why don’t you just leave my boy alone? 
          Have you any idea what this world, what our land,
what our king is like?
          Please go, and take all these dangerous gifts with you!”

It would have been easy. 

Because isn’t what we imagine Joseph saying essentially what a lot of traditional religion tells us?  That really at heart there’s something wrong with us that the disciplines of humility, shame, confession and repentance will cure us of, if we only pay good attention to them.  And that then, maybe then, we can feel right with God and of use to others.

And what we imagine Mary saying, isn’t that just a natural impulse of any human heart – mother or father, sister or brother: to wish safety rather than risk, comfort rather than challenge; to set up a boundary – even a wall around home and hearth and homeland; to divide the world into us and them; and then wish for those we love and want to have near us, a long and happy life rather than risky, life-changing sacrifice for others?

But they didn’t say any of these things.  That’s not the way this story goes.

Joseph for his part seems to have opened the door to the magi – to these exotic, foreign, wise travellers.  And Mary for her part seems to have welcomed them and their gifts into her house and into the life of her family.  Together they offered these magi and their gifts as open a door and as ready a welcome as they themselves had longed for when they first arrived in Bethlehem with the gift that they were bearing for the world.

And in doing so they let themselves be led and instructed one step further into the Mystery of the life they were living because of Jesus – the Mystery of his calling to help lead the world in the ways of peace, to help cleanse the world of evil and bring an air of sacredness to everything and everyone he touched, and to give his own life as a seed of God’s kingdom coming to be on Earth.

The place where they were was inherently holy – holy by birth and divine purpose.  And holy requires openness.  Because holy is always a pointer to something bigger than just one place.

And I wonder if that is one of the things this story teaches us – we who read it more than two thousand years after its first telling.

I think sometimes we tend to put a halo on things like this.  In pictures of the home where the magi came to visit and pay homage to Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, we paint an extra special light around it, maybe place some angels hovering just above it, or hanging around it as a sign that it’s somehow set apart.  Different from all the rest. 

And it becomes one more way of keeping God and what’s holy and what’s truly life-changing in the world at a distance – somehow set spart.  Different from us and where we are, and different from what our lives are about.

But what if the message is different than that?  If the message is that what we see now, in and because of the story of Jesus, is that God is in all places, that God always was but now we see it more truly -- that God is to be named Emmanuel, “God-with-us” and that all places, all homes and all towns, even all human lives and hearts are haloed and to be hallowed, because they hold within them the mystery and the miracle of holy birth, holy presence, holy promise and holy good purpose? 

What if the message is that the glory and good purpose of God are afoot in the world and within humanity, that they always have been, and that now it’s just coming more and more to light?

Very briefly, three things about this and how we share in it, from the story.

One, this is something that all humanity is involved in.  Looking for the light and living within the good purpose of God is something that crosses all borders and boundaries.  We make a big deal of how, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the gospel and the church that preached it very quickly moved beyond the limits of Judaism and the “covenant community,” and learned to embrace all the world – all people and all cultures, as people and cultures of God.  But who would have thought – what a bold twist in the tale, that some of these foreigners – these apparent outsiders to God’s plan, would have a role like this even before Jesus is known to his own people?  The search for truth, wisdom, peace and holiness is something shared by all humanity, and all have something to say – all have something to contribute to the quest.

Two, this happens best when doors are opened.  When we respond to others not with fear, suspicion and defensiveness (remember King Herod?), but with wonder, curiosity and openness.

And three, this happens most often and most productively in the humblest of places.  The journey of the world and of all its people towards truth, wisdom, peace and holiness is not a top-down enterprise, but a bottom-up adventure.  It happens most often and most helpfully for the world when it happens in humble homes, in the daily-ness of neighbourhood and little town life, in the glorious dust of daily life lived between people just trying to share what they each have, to make the world a better place to be. 

Could it really be that what we see in Jesus is true of all people – including ourselves? 

That as the Gospel of John says the Light has come into the world, and the Light is really the life that is in all people. 

That in our own ways, in our own daily lives, in our own little corner of the world, we all are called to the Mystery and the miracle
·        -  of helping the world to live in peace,
·        -  of helping to cleanse the world of evil and bring an air of sacredness to everything and everyone we touch,
·        -  and of giving our own life as we are able as a seed of God’s kingdom coming to be on Earth?

“We have seen his star at its rising, and we have come to pay homage to the one God has promised for the healing of the world.”

Could it really be us?  And others around us, too?   

Could it be all of humanity really, as we learn to grow up to what and how we are created to be?

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Can we ever see ourselves the same way again? (First thoughts towards Epiphany Sunday, Jan 7)

Reading:  Matthew 2:1-12 

(In the midst of King Herod's dark reign over Israel, magi from the East show up looking for the long-promised, apparently now-born king.  "We saw his star at its rising," they say.  Herod is terrified at the prospect of his dark reign coming to an end.  He sends his scholars to dust off the old promises and prophecies, so he can tell the magi where to find the baby king, and then tells them to be sure to hurry back and let him know too where the little darling is ... so he can ... adore him (of course, what else?) and pay him homage, too.  And the rest of the story we know: the magi follow the star to the ordinary, humble home where Joseph and Mary are living now in Bethlehem, they pay homage and give the baby gifts worthy of a king, a priest and a martyr, and then God encourages them to leave Herod in the dark and go home a different way.)

It's called the Feast -- and now the Season of Epiphany.  

It's about seeing.  About having our eyes opened.

About seeing the glory and good purpose of God revealed in the world.  In a place you might least expect it.  Not in the palace or royal court.  Not in the Temple, even.  But in a new way and new place.  In a humble home, in a baby born to two otherwise-unremarkable persons.  God-with-us in the dust of daily life.

Which makes me wonder.

What if the epiphany is not just -- maybe not even so much, about God as it is about us?  About humanity in general?  About us -- each of us and all of us, in particular?

What if God's purpose, the purpose of this birth and the story of it, the purpose of all history itself is that we should come to see not God, but ourselves in a new way?  As the bearers ourselves of divinity?  As the home and household ourselves of glory and divinity in the world?  

To know, and now not be able to un-know that we are holy?  That divinity is in our DNA?  That there is a glory born within us, that the dust of our daily life only makes all the more evident?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Whatcha buildin', God? (Need any help?) sermon from Sunday, Dec 17, 2017

Reading:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

(The people of Israel are back in their own land, rebuilding what was destroyed when they went into exile.  The rebuilding is slow and frustrating.  But the prophet assures them God wills a new kingdom for them -- one that will draw the admiration of all the world for the way it re-organizes society according to God's care for the poor and oppressed.

In the reading, the word "liberty" in "liberty to the captives" is a word used to describe the release of slaves in the sabbatical year.  It was one of God's laws that every seven years, any person who had entered into servitude to another because of unpaid debts, bankruptcy or any other reason, was to be freed, all debts cancelled and forgiven, and be given a free and fresh start again in life.

The phrase, "the year of the Lord's favour" is the year of Jubilee -- the 50th year, the year after every seven seven-year cycles, when all property gained at the expense of other people or taken from them is to be returned to its original owner -- again, to give everyone a chance to start over, to go back to square one, everyone on equal footing and on their home square.

Joseph was a carpenter.  Which means he wasn’t really poor.  At least, not the poorest of the poor.

He had his tools.  His trade.  And work for which he would be paid.  Maybe not always with money.  Sometimes with a chicken or two, or some grain for meal, or some oil for heating and lighting his house.  But he had an income he could count as his own.

And his work was portable.  He wasn’t tied to a piece of land, and to the whims of weather, markets and an unjust landlord.  He could go where the work was – within reason.  And with where he was living – in Nazareth, in the northern province of Galilee, an area of considerable unrest and sporadic uprisings against the government in Jerusalem and the empire in Rome, where every now and then the army would have to come in and root out a few zealots, knock down a few houses, burn a few buildings to the ground that would have to be rebuilt – along with whatever normal jobs he had putting on additions for growing families, building chicken coops, making tables, carving door posts, making oxen yokes, maybe even crafting family altars, Joseph was as close as anyone in those days could be to being guaranteed a good living.

Which means Jesus, had he learned the trade from his father, accepted his father’s tools, and taken over the business, could have had a good and comfortable life.  He had a rough start – born in a Bethlehem barn because of the Emperor Caesar’s untimely edict and the absence of Trivago or even a travel agent to book a room ahead, and then a few years in Egypt as a refugee family because of King Herod’s political paranoia and insecurity.  But once that was over and the family settled into Nazareth, Jesus could have had the good and comfortable life that all parents probably want, and spend their lives working for their children to have. 

Except Jesus was drawn to something else.  To being a different kind of carpenter.  Building something else in the world.  Working with a blueprint for something other than houses and tables and oxen yokes.

The Gospel of Matthew tells a story of twelve-year-old Jesus wandering away from his parents on a trip to Jerusalem, to sit in the Temple and chat with the scribes and the teachers of God’s law.  “I must be about my Father’s business – capital-F father,” he said. 

New studies in the historical Jesus suggest he actually went to rabbinical school to study Torah – the Law and the Prophets, and all the traditions around them.  Joseph was well-off enough to give him that opportunity.  But Jesus came to interpret the Law and the Prophets differently than his teachers.  He saw things in the tradition they overlooked.  He took seriously the things about the good will and love of God they explained away.  He grew restless with the rules and restrictions they placed on the people to keep them divided from one another and under control.

Which leads to what we read in the Gospel of Luke – in chapter 4, just 2 chapters after the story of his Bethlehem birth – where we read of the now-adult Jesus, 30 years old, leaving the school and its distortion of the real will of God, to start teaching God’s kingdom in the towns and villages of Galilee, healing and casting out unclean spirits, forgiving people their sins and setting them free for new life, calling them together and creating new grassroots networks of inclusive spiritual community … until finally he works his way back to Nazareth, and one sabbath day in the synagogue, when it’s his turn to read, he reads the Scripture for the day, which was the same that we had today from the prophet Isaiah – the one that includes God’s ancient laws of compassion and freedom for those who fall into unjust debt and servitude, and forgiveness and support for families that along the way lose their place in the world.  Jesus reads the same words we heard David read today:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, [he reads]
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.

Then, he rolls up the scroll.  Gives it back to the attendant.  Sits down – as the teacher for the day would, before beginning the interpretation of the reading.  And with the eyes of all in the synagogue fixed on him, he utters these momentous words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  The kind of world Isaiah talked about God building, is being built all around you even as we speak.  The blueprint God has given us to follow, to make the world over into the kind of world God desires Earth to be, is the blueprint that I and others who are with me, are following.”

At which point they run him out of town.

The prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus and we have read, lived in a time of rebuilding.  The people of Israel were back home in the promised land, after years of exile.  Everything they had left behind was in ruins, and they were trying to rebuild the city, reconstruct the Temple, regain the life they had known, restore the glory they used to have. 

And it wasn’t working.  Things weren’t fitting together the way they used to.  They leaders couldn’t agree on what to start first.  People weren’t working together very well.  The rebuilding and reconstruction of the kingdom was not going well.  They were not succeeding in making Israel great again the way they remembered it.

To which Isaiah says, “The problem may be you’re not focused on building what God wants, and what God is doing among us.  God isn’t really into rebuilding what used to be.  Just reconstructing the kingdom the way we remember it, isn’t what God has in mind. 

“Because what God wants to do – and already is doing, is to build a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of social structure, a different kind of community than the old one was.  God has a blueprint for how the world is to work, a blueprint that aims at forgiveness, compassion and support as social norms, and God is calling people – even right here and now, to help build up the world we have into the kind of world God wants it to be – a world, a society, a kind of kingdom, a network of communities that will be good news to the poor, will free the captives, will offer new life for the oppressed, and create hope for all who have been left out and excluded – nothing less than the good will of God done on Earth as in heaven.”

I can imagine that promise, and that vision of God already and always building the world in the way it’s intended to be, being somewhat unsettling to people around Isaiah who were tied to their place of privilege in the way the kingdom used to be.  But to Isaiah and to those who followed him, and many who heard him, the message was joyful.

And isn’t it also, for us, part of the joy of Christmas? 

That in the birth of Jesus we see God coming in with both feet, entering fully into the life of this world to help build it the way it’s to be? 

To show us that much more clearly – in living colour and life-size, really, what the blueprint really is? 

And thus to call us that much more deeply and lovingly into helping to make the world over into the kind of society, the kind of kingdom, the kind of communities God really intends this world to be?

We live it out so happily at Christmas.   

And we know the call to live it out all year.

Thanks be to God.