Archive for 1995
Something is coming. Two voices proclaim the same thing. Hear the voice of a desert herald: Prepare the way, something is coming. Hear the voice of an ancient prophet: A dead stump is sprouting, something is coming.
Two voices, as unlike as day and night, are agreed. Something is coming.
Isaiah speaks softly and soothes his people: things are going to change. Something is coming.
The Baptist rages with threats against his people: you’d better change. Something is coming.
Do you hear the voice? Can you feel the pressure of something coming, something big, something awesome? Can you remember the waiting in your guts after a tremor in the night— is this the big one? Can you remember the hot dry wind that blows before a fire — is somewhere a spark being kindled? Something is coming.
Fools that we are, in Advent we celebrate that feeling, celebrate that something is coming.
Something is coming that will end the way we live and begin a whole new age in our planet’s story.
John the Baptist sees the ending of the old with an awful clarity: the axe is already laid at the rotten roots of the tree.
Isaiah the prophet dreams the birth of the new with lyrics running wild: even now the dead stump is putting out shoots, bursting into bud, springing to life.
Either way, something is coming. Hope for it or hide in dread, it’s on its way. And it will make a change indeed! Greater than the quaking earth, wilder than the fires of fall, something is coming that will overturn all our futures, burn away all our routines.
John has a terrifying vision of the harvest bonfire: the hypocrites, the settled, those with fruitless lives — all are ready for the fire, to be burned away like chaff to leave the grain sheer and clear.
In contrast, gentle Isaiah’s words are consoling: there is going to be justice for the poor, there is going to be help for the afflicted, the is going to be no harm or ruin in all God’s earth.
But there will be change, change of a magnitude we can barely encompass!
- The lion will learn to be vegetarian.
- The snake will lose its venom.
- The predator will make peace with the prey
- Children will be safe on the streets.
- Nations will be one.
- And the earth will quiver no more.
Something is coming that will change the natural order right down to its roots. Not just a change of human hearts — which would be miracle enough — but a transformation of creation all the way down to the smallest sub-atomic particle.
Something is coming and when it does it will break into our world and change it so utterly we will only recognise it in our dreams, in our strangest middle-of-the-night stirrings when the heart refuses to rest.
Something is coming — that’s the promise and the threat of Advent — and, fools that we are, we celebrate.
We celebrate, but we don’t believe! This Christmas we will celebrate our hurried feasts without ever daring to hope or fear what might have been, what could have been, what we only hope in the dark of night may yet be.
Only in that moment after the midnight quake do our hearts open to the possibility. Something is coming.
Only when the fire-winds of fall keep us looking to horizon for smoke, only then do we feel it. Something is coming.
Something is coming — prepare its way.
December 10th, 1995
These are bloody readings! Readings of torture and death — yet here we are moving towards the holiday season! Our year is moving to its end in celebration, while the Church year comes to an end in violence. Which is more real?
In these weeks, Jesus has been on the road to Jerusalem. Last week in Jericho with Zacchaeus he drew close. This week he’s here, in the Holy City, which has welcomed him with a political rally and great rejoicing and will soon crush him as it always crushes the prophets of peace. Next week he’ll be in the very heart of the Temple promising its downfall and his own death. And soon, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, he will be nailed, under a mocking sign, between earth and sky.
“Ah! Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “How I have desired to gather you up the way a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not!”
He moves to his violent end as we move into the season of family and peace and goodwill. There is an awful challenge here today! A week ago Yitsak Rabin was shot dead by a murderer who believed that God loves a principle more than a human life. Rabin found his Jerusalem in Tel Aviv, his Golgotha at a rally for peace. What are we to believe, faced with this violence, this hatred of life? What are we to do in a world of torture, a world where the death of seven brothers could only make the evening news for a single day? In this world as we hurry to the end of our year, where are we going?
Jesus has found his way to Jerusalem, the city of his death — and today we find him being tested on catechism by those who will kill him. The traditionalists among Jesus’ people pose this obscenely trivial problem of the woman seven times widowed, seven times bereaved. They put the question glibly, unable to notice the human pain, only eager to show the absurdity of an idea — the idea of resurrection. They don’t care about life, or pain, or the violence they are prepared to do — they only care about their dogmatic puzzle. And Jesus, the one who knows that he will soon die, answers them not with talk of death but with talk of life, answers them not with dogma but with God. They ask for a clear line to be drawn between life and death — and Jesus draws one —but in a very different way: “God is not the God of the dead but of the living. All are alive in God.” God is not the God of death but the God of life and living. God has no part in death, no part in murder, no part in violence. God is alive. And all who live in God are alive. Jesus’ questioners want to disprove life. But Jesus, knowing only life, disproves death — disproves it in his answer, and disproves it in walking the way to the cross and making it the way to life.
In these weeks before the end of our year we too are caught between life and death and reminded of the choices we always have to make. Let’s pray that by following Jesus we may know the difference between what gives life and what deals death, and knowing the difference we may be able to make a difference in this life.
November 12th, 1995
Justice is not easy to come by. We know that justice is not easy to come by. We know that people don’t start off in life with an equal chance. We know that the laws that we make deepen that injustice. And we know that often enough politics, and police, and the whole machinery of law—the very system that is supposed to guarantee justice—is hopelessly biased. Justice doesn’t come easily if you are not male, if you are not white, if you don’t have money, if you don’t live in the right place, or you don’t speak with the right accent.
We know it, we joke about it. It’s a fact of life. And it seems to be getting worse.
Luke’s parable this morning is a joke about justice. But to hear the joke we first have to get the characters right—the Justice and the Widow. Our model of justice puts great stock in balance and impartiality. A judge is supposed to deal with everyone in the same way, without fear or favour. By those standards today’s judge seems admirable: he isn’t swayed by respect for anyone. He isn’t to be frightened into a verdict. He is impartial. But by the standards of Luke’s time and place those very qualities are what make him unjust. A judge in Jesus’ culture was supposed to be biased. A judge was not meant to treat everyone alike. Judges were meant to be heroes and defenders; they were meant to fight for the rights of those who had no rights, they were meant to champion the cause of those outside the system, especially the traditional triad of widow, orphan, and immigrant. Sadly, this is not to say that they did. The unjust Justice was a stock character, one the audience understood only too well.
Widow’s for their part were stock characters. What they shared with orphans and immigrants was a total lack of rights. They belonged to no one, were owned by no one, had absolutely no economic or political power.
We tend to jump to the modern conclusion that our widow was old. Most likely she was young: widowed in some fishing accident or through the latest round of disease. With no one to defend her she would be at the mercy of men to take her in and give her some precarious safety in return for her labour and maybe for her womb. It is, in all likelihood, her own family that she names as her opponent in the parable: a son or brother-in-law. And as a woman she would have been expected to take all this quietly. Women were supposed to go about veiled, to speak only when spoken to, to keep their eyes downcast, and know their place.
But our widow seems to have a mind of her own. If our judge was a predictable stereotype, the widow would have been an outrageous surprise. She doesn’t keep quiet. She pesters the judge. She cries out for justice, she demands her rights, she won’t shut up. She is even physically intimidating. She is not a good widow.
This is Luke’s joke. See who’s intimidating who? See how Jesus turns the world upside-down? Luke clearly lifts her up as an example of what we should be—tireless in bothering God with our prayers. Luke is afraid that his community is losing heart. Against the background of a second coming that won’t come, Luke’s community are losing heart so he wants them to pray constantly and wait to be vindicated by the Son of Man who will burst through the heavens as the true and just judge who will put all things right for them. Luke promises that God will come speedily and adds just enough of a threat that perhaps they should rather like God to delay until they get their act in order.
But for us who are so little concerned about the second coming I think it’s just to take Luke’s words this morning to wonder at a deeper vision of God in the parable?
Is God the judge? Stereotypical not in long-suffering worldliness but in the swift power to vindicate, to mow down the enemy? Or is God the widow? If God is the widow what is the heart that we are losing?
God is the widow always in our midst, crying out for justice. God is the one who can’t even get a hearing. God is the one who is being pushed outside the boundaries of decent living. God is the one who doesn’t belong. God is the one who will not be owned. God is the one who will not be silent about her treatment. God is the one who will not leave us alone to be patient and impartial. God is the one who has to stand up and embarrass us in the streets to get our attention. God is the one who has to almost black our eye to get noticed.
If she is God, this widow, then justice is in our hands. In this season of Renew will we be able to ignore her, even if it means losing our heart, or will she disturb us into noticing her?
Things are not the way they should be. They are getting worse. Thank God she will give us no rest until we give her what she wants.
October 22nd, 1995
One word echoes around and around these readings today: faith. And the way faith is talked about makes it sound like a fragile thing, a thing in short-supply, or at least something you have to work at to keep. Like the ashes of a fire that have to be stirred into flame. Like a rich treasure that has to be guarded. Like a message that has to be written in big letters to jog the memory. Like a tiny seed that has to be planted and cared for.
But what is it? What is this faith we are talking about? The gospel gives us a good image of the experience of faith — it’s like standing in front of an enormous sycamore tree and wondering how to uproot it and throw it into the sea. Not with tools and trucks, not even with bare hands, but with a word. Imagine it. This is the experience of faith — or of despair, for the only difference is in what you do. And what makes all the difference is that despair does nothing but faith plants a seed in the hope it will make a difference. Faith is planting a seed in the shadow of a sycamore.
We get a glimpse of faith in action in the words of Habakkuk. Habakkuk is a prophet who stands before a sycamore tree and does not despair of moving it. He sees the violence in his society — the ruin, the misery, and the destruction — and while his contemporaries are looking outside Israel for enemies he sees the violence on his own doorstep — violence done by his own friends, by his own community — violence perpetuated by his own legal system, by his own religious leaders, by his own government — he sees the violence which no one else will name and he names it. He names it, stands before it, lets it tower above him, and refuses to despair. He calls on God, shouts at God, begs God until he gets an answer. And the answer is “Habakkuk, do something.”
That’s faith in action. Faith isn’t a thing you have, but a thing you do. That’s why you have to stir the ashes into flame, that’s why you have to write the message in big letters so it can’t be forgotten, that’s why you have to take a tiny seed and plant it in dirt.
Faith is what happens when you experience the immovable violence and injustice all around you and within you and still do the one thing necessary, however insignificant it may seem. Faith is sitting down on the bus because your feet are tired — faith is speaking a dream of justice in the face of violence — faith is knowing the gap between the way things are and the way God means things to be, and feeling the gap like fire in your bones — faith is doing something impossible because it cries out to be done.
Thank God we are not alone in our faith — that faith is not mine, that faith is not yours, but that faith is ours — or it’s nobody’s. We don’t face the sycamore alone.
Today, we begin Renew. Today we have seeds to plant, seeds symbolic of faith, our faith, our desire, our hope. And we have dirt to plant them in. It is dirt that Habakkuk names: dirt, violence, ruin, misery. Planting a seed is a risk, an act of hope that somehow in God’s good time and with God’s good grace a tiny seed can change filth into flowers, can take the dirt and make it grow.
October 8th, 1995