Archive for 1996
Since Peter McGrath’s not here today it safe to let you in on a secret. In cynical circles, Jesuits are not known for their liturgical awareness. In fact, there’s a joke. How do you tell a good Jesuit liturgy? —No one gets hurt.
Advent is a good example. In my house of 11 men, we bought our Christmas tree on the first Sunday of Advent, dressed it on the first Monday, and celebrated Christmas around it four days later. Meanwhile the poor Advent wreath with its one candle sat there, glowing dimly, totally overshadowed by this gaudy Tree with its miles of electric light.
Part of our early-Advent Christmas is a community gift-exchange. Usually we draw names from a hat and buy a little something for someone in particular but this year we went the anonymous route. Every one buys something and puts the gift under the tree. Then you all draw a number and the guy with number one gets to pick a present and open it. Then Number Two has a difficult choice: delve under the tree for some unknown gift or rip the Bing Crosby CD out of Number One’s hands. No contest! Number Three has to choose among Bing Crosby, three pairs of socks (from the Gap, of course), or whatever mysteries still lurk under the Tree. Are you following this? … Number Five was kicking himself for days because he took Number Four’s coffee mug and then found the gift he would have opened was a certificate for a half-hour massage!
Which brings me today’s message—be careful which gift you settle for because there’s something better coming down the pike.
The promise of the ultimate gift is shining in Isaiah: good news for the lowly, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty for captives. Oh, and for good measure, joy, salvation, justice, praise. It’s no wonder that Paul is telling the Christian community in Thessalonika, “Rejoice!”—the ultimate gift is coming.
But what’s all this fuss about John the Baptizer? He was with us last week proclaiming the coming end-times, the harbinger of the final harvest, offering a last chance to maybe be forgiven. He’s here again—and he seems to have an identity crisis, knowing only who he isn’t: are you Messiah? NO! are you Elijah? NO! are you the final prophet? NO! Then who is he? And why are the gospel writers so concerned to include him and at the same time to subordinate him to Jesus? … I guess because many people were confusing them and mixing their messages. So all the gospel writers are very careful to tell them apart and show who’s boss. That’s why John is good but Jesus is better. John is the open gift but Jesus is still under the tree.
John the Baptizer stands for us as the “almost answer.” In Advent we wait and wait for the answer to all our questions, the fulfilment of all our longings, the satisfaction of all our hopes. The Baptizer is the symbol of all the inadequate answers, the half fulfilments, and the sort-of- satisfactions, which we settle for because they are here now and can put an end to our waiting for the ultimate gift. All the gospel writers are crying out—voices in the wilderness—”Wait! Wait for the real gift, wait the best gift.” So what are our “almost answers,” what are we settling for in place of the best gift, what are we clinging to in case all that’s left under the Tree is a lump of coal?
John—the almost answer—comes with winnowing fan, and fire, ready for harvest and God’s judgement. In contrast, Jesus opens his ministry not with fall but with springtime, not with the scent of bonfires but with stories of seeds, and growth, and new shoots, and green possibilities.
While the Baptizer is in prison, Luke has him sending messengers to Jesus and asking “Are you the one, or must we wait for someone else?” And Jesus’ answer is beautiful: “look around you—the blind see, the lame walk, the outcasts find a home, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor—the poor—hear good news.” The ultimate gift has been given. Can we believe him just long enough to wait, just long enough not to settle for fire and judgement, just long enough for tenderness to grow among us like a child?
December 15th, 1996
The first of December! No sooner are the turkeys all eaten than the Christmas trees are being sold. Why is it that December seems the shortest month? Once Thanksgiving hits and the dishes are all washed up you know that it’ll be no time at all before its January. However long November seems with its rain and its chills December rushes by. There’s so much to do. So much to think about. So many worries.
Well December is here, and our feet are on the starting block and the race is about to start. We are waiting for the starting pistol to fire so we can be off and running—parties, presents, family, shopping, making ends meet. What are you looking forward to this December? What are you rushing towards? And what are you hoping will soon be over?
Advent is here too … and Jesus is rushing somewhere too. He’s pretty worked up about the coming of the Kingdom. He’s afraid we’re not going to be ready for it. Listen to him: “Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! Don’t be caught napping! Be on your guard!” The Church is wanting us to feel some of that urgent expectancy in Advent, wanting us to feel an ache in our guts, a longing in our hearts, a painful yearning in our lungs, for … something. What are we yearning for in Advent? Do we give a damn?
In Advent, if we do it properly—if we let it inhabit our bones—we will be caught between two moods. The first is there in Isaiah—to be calling with all our energy and breath on God to come back to us because he seems lost, seems to have gone, seems to have ceased to care. “Where are you God? Why have you left us alone? Why don’t you do the great things you once did? Why don’t we feel your presence and know you like we used to do?”
The other mood knows that what we pine for has already been given to us. “Thank God for all the gifts bestowed on us in Jesus. For our hope, our love, our friends, our community. Thank God that we have been called to join the family of Jesus.”
Advent is caught somewhere between these two moods. Between longing and fulfilment—between grief and gladness. December is like that too. Between panic and contentment, between longing for it all to happen and longing for it to all be over. Just living through December is a good way of living Advent! But what else can we do to make it real for us this year? Well in the words of Jesus: “Stay Awake!” Be aware of what you are feeling this month in the depths of yourself. All the gladness over the gifts you have been given, the riches of your life, the joy, the laughter. And all the longing for what is no longer here, the grieving for loss, the yearning for what only might be.
If we really feel—if we pine, if we rejoice—we will find ourselves doing the Advent thing—waiting, hoping, expecting. Waiting for a gift of God’s own giving. Hoping for a new life. Expecting a baby to be born in the dark of the year, a baby to bring light to our days.
Because we wait like this for one child to come among us—and because we know he already has—because of these things we can also welcome another child among us today, welcome ____________ to become one of us, a sister of Jesus Christ, and a sister and child of this community. Please pray for her and her family as we celebrate this sacrament now.
December 1st, 1996
Imagine something with me … What if the world were to end this afternoon, let’s say at 2:38? What if these next few hours the only ones left to you? Can you entertain the thought for a while, can you let it slap you in the face, can you believe it for a moment, can you wonder? What would you do? What would you do with these suddenly precious, suddenly precarious, moments?
Who would you turn to? Who would you touch? What last minute phone calls would you make for last minute good-byes? What unlikely things suggest themselves, things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the courage? What risks might you take in these last few hours now that safety and reputation have become meaningless?
What would you do? … An orgy of mad, passionate, and unsafe sex? … A trip to the bakery for all those now empty calories? … Or maybe there’s something to be said that can no longer remain silent. Maybe a hurt to be healed before it’s too late, or a hand to be held? What would you want to be doing when the end comes?
One thing is sure: when the bright light of eternity shines into our dozing lives we wake up to our priorities. We discover what we really desire, what’s worth the risk—what we really want.
Like a slap in the face, like a splash of cold water, like an unwanted alarm in the morning, the imagination of impending death shakes us to life; jolts us out of the fearful, frantic, mechanical routines we have fallen into.
Of course some of us would rather not know, would rather let the end creep up on us quietly. Some of us would rather our dreams remained buried lest we act upon them. So which are you? Is this knowledge of your impending end Good News or Bad? Is it Gospel to your ears or not?
The urgent light of eternity is shining in today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel. After a long absence the Lord and Master is back to settle accounts. It’s not an easy story to find Good News in! There is disturbing injustice and harsh treatment. Is this the kind of God we have to look forward to? Some harsh capitalist in the sky? Can you hear Good News in the voice of the Master—”You worthless lazy lout! Throw him out into the darkness outside!”?
If there is good news here, it can only be the same shocking good news as the slap in the face that wakes you from a blazing fire, or the rough hand that rouses you as you fall asleep at the wheel of your car.
In Jesus’ own story, as Matthew is telling it, we are nearing the end. Jesus has been stirring up trouble for himself, attacking the establishment, courting disaster, and in the next few pages of the story he gets the reward for the risk he’s taken: he is arrested, tried, humiliated, executed as a criminal.
And here, in between the risk and the reward, as a last violent attempt to convince us of what is at stake, Matthew’s tone turns nasty. His Jesus loses the familiar, pleasant smile and begins to talk like a madman about the end of the world and the returning Lord who is going to settle accounts. And through it all the urgently repeated message: “Be ready! For you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The very earliest Christians weren’t dreading the end-times—they believed they lived in them! They were longing for their promised vindication. Jesus had promised it would be soon, within the generation, within the next few years, within the next few months, or days. But the days pass, months pass, years … decades …. and no end.
That’s what Paul is dealing with in our second reading—trying to be encouraging, trying to be comforting, in the face of this delay—telling them whatever happens to be children of the light—but here in the gospel Matthew takes a very different tack. His community, with the delay of the Master, was forgetting the promise, losing the edge, refusing to risk all for their dreams. And Matthew wastes no words of comfort on them—he hits them hard with the words: ” You worthless, lazy lout! Throw this worthless servant into the darkness outside, where he can wail and grind his teeth.’ Matthew tries to frighten the life into them!
When the light of eternity shines into our lives it throws certain realities into sharp relief. It makes the present important. As the three servants stand there waiting to see there Master, who has come again after so long away, do they regret how they have spent their time? Would they do it differently with hindsight? Would they have taken bigger risks? Would they have lived differently to be ready for this moment?
Two of them seem proud of how they have lived, in between, while the Master is away—they’ve been entrusted with riches that have given their life an extra focus, an intensity of purpose. They’ve risked everything and enjoyed it. The thought of the return of their absent Master has kept them alive. They know their priorities. But the third servant is afraid, afraid to hope, afraid to live with purpose and buries his dreams in the dirt, where at least they won’t go away. And anyway there’s plenty of time. I can invest tomorrow, live tomorrow, dream tomorrow.
What about us? Are we excited by the rich purpose of our own lives? Or have we buried our hopes in the ground. How are we going to live out these, our last, hours?
Imagine with me a little more…. What if the end doesn’t come at 2:38? Nor 2:40. Nor at midnight, nor this week, nor even this year? Can’t you feel your priorities slipping? Can’t you feel your focus fading? Can’t you feel the old mechanical patterns clicking in? And aren’t you just a little disappointed.
So please God, disturb us! Shock some life into us! Blind us with the bright light of eternity so that we might see.
November 17th, 1996
I don’t know if you saw in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, amidst the murders and the political pundits, a little headline for a review of a new film about Cesar Chavez. It ran “Not a saint but human.” Not a saint but human.
Where do we get the idea that holiness is not for real people? That sanctity reduces humanity? That being close to God means being far away from ordinary life?
I think part of the reason is the stories we have told each other down the ages about saints — strange, troubling stories about heroic lives of renunciation, of martyrs’ awful pains and hermits living on nothing but air and the host.
But were do we get the idea that holiness is about divesting ourselves of good things to live a thin life, unattached to human glory? It can’t help that we as a Church have chosen all those celibate men and virginal women to represent ourselves in heaven. Where are all the married, the lovers, the passionately attached; the tillers of fields, the makers of things, the parents of children? Where are you?
The tail-end of today’s gospel doesn’t help either with it exaltation of humility and threat of humiliation. With its attack on titles and esteem and its general tone of setting aside of worldly things. But there’s a paradox in the gospel that undermines this implicit picture of sainthood. Listen to the tone of Jesus’ words: he is annoyed, he is scandalised by what he sees, and he is speaking his mind — loudly and forthrightly. He is throwing down a gauntlet that will get him killed. He is taking on the authorities, daring them to notice him and do something.
Wherever we get our pale picture of sainthood it’s not from Jesus. The picture of Jesus we get here and throughout the gospels is not of a saint as we have attenuated them but of a passionate human being. He was all out against the people of his time who tried to live a holy life by living a life less human. He battered them unmercifully. But those he loved— and loved to spend time with— were the prostitutes and the traitors; those dying of unmentionable illnesses and those living in destitution from moment to moment who could not afford the luxury of holiness.
In Jesus we see someone who is so in touch with life and all its living that it can get to him; someone who has plunged into life and lived it to the full; someone who loves life so much he will even risk it for life’s sake. It is not sanctity—as it was defined— that got him killed, it is passion that brings him to the Passion. And even then his hold on life is so great that death cannot hold him. He rises to new life.
There are some wonderful icons of the Harrowing of Hell that depict a passionate Jesus striding forth from the gates of hell where he has routed evil and death and brought back with him all the dead, freed from death’s chains.
Sanctity, holiness, sainthood is something we are baptized into. By that little death we become people of life, people of passion, people called to take up life and be its champions. No more can we choose death, because we have Jesus for our model. He is our only teacher, but —thank God—there are many of him — many other Christs, who like him have lived passionate lives and still do so. The people who make our lives worth living. The ones who inspire us to be alive. They are all around us now— living and dead — and their prayer for us is simple — be alive, be filled with a passion and an untamed energy.
November 3rd, 1996
Two things happened to me this summer in England. I was ordained and I fell in love—more or less at the same time. Such is God’s comic timing! At just the moment I am reaffirming a public commitment to a celibate life my heart is soaring in an altogether different direction.
“You shall love the Lord your God all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Those “all’s” don’t seem to leave much room for manoeuvre! But alongside them is the command, “love your neighbour as your self,” which Jesus says is “like” the first. Work that out in practice! And I’ll tell you, I tried.
But not for too long, because my doubly soaring spirit quickly took a nosedive when it became clear that my love was unrequited—to use an antique word. I discovered myself as one who loves more than he is loved—at least in this instance. And for a while that discovery was devastating. Painful, hurtful, horrible. To have been surprised by love and by rejection in one swift movement.
And of course, poor God bore the brunt of my anger, or at least felt the cold of my shoulder. Loving God with my whole heart was out of the question. For a time, even the homage of a divided heart was doubtful.
But, insofar as I paid attention to God, I discovered—am discovering—two things. One is that the love of God and the love of neighbour are inseparable. They are one. I believed that before—but now I know it. … Jesus has been saying to me, over and over, this enigmatic phrase, “your priesthood begins here.” And its true. I cannot think of any better way to begin this ministry, though I can think of quite a few I’d prefer.
The second thing I’m discovering is this. Not only have I come to know myself as one who loves more than he is loved. But I am coming to know myself as one who loves less than he’s loved. I am realising that God loves me far more than I love God—far more—and that God feels the pain of that as keenly as I have felt my own. It is a humiliating thing to discover.
But, as I stay with it, it is also liberating. Liberating because God, maker of the universe, creator of worlds, knows the pain of unrequited love, knows what it is like to love more than love is returned. God knows that experience—which is my experience and maybe yours—God knows that experience from the inside. … God, for reasons beyond me, has set aside power, and control, and invulnerability to know what it is like to love me more than I love God. That is compassion—com-passion, feeling with, suffering with—and it amazes me.
I think we all stand in this relationship with God—you and me—each of us loved by God with a love we can scarcely begin to know how to return. It’s this love which lies at the heart of the first reading today. God’s compassion for the stranger, the poor, the widow, the orphan, is exactly that—com-passion. God knows how they feel. And when they suffer, God suffers. When they cry out, God listens, because God’s heart is broken with theirs. The whole of the law and the prophets is built on compassion, on a love glides lower than death and the dark. The whole of the law is a challenge: can we be as vulnerable as God; can we let the pain of the poor be our pain—the loneliness of the stranger, the grief of the widow, the insecurity of the orphan—can we let the compassion of God be our compassion? Can we? Our priesthood—which we all share in baptism—begins here. Here is our ministry laid out. And here is God aching to love us and aching to love the world through us: in our love, in our service, in our vote, in our lives.
October 27th, 1996
What a hope there is in the vision of Isaiah! Food for the hungry. Vintage wine for the parched spirit. An end to death for ever. No more war, no more shame, no more humiliation, no more violence, no more poverty. For every suffering of Isaiah’s exiled and defeated people he promises an opposite joy. Quite a hope!
Does it seem like that today when we read the newspaper or look around our neighbourhoods? Is life a banquet or is the table empty? Is this a time of feasting or a time of mourning?
According to the Gospel the Kingdom of God which is among us now is a banquet — and not merely a good meal but a royal wedding feast. At least for the new guests invited in from all over this is, as Isaiah said, a time to be glad and rejoice. But, like all parables, the story has a catch — just as we begin to congratulate ourselves on being in the door, feet under the table, it seems we are to be unsettled again. Just as we thought this was a free invitation with no strings attached it turns out that there is a dress code and our place at the table may not be as secure as we thought. The banquet may not be for us.
Matthew is giving a dual message: as Christians we have been given the Kingdom but we can each of us lose it too. The invitation is open — and good and bad alike answer it but it turns out that not all can stay. We have to be “properly dressed,” whatever that means. Some sorts of conduct will get us thrown out of the party. There is something we have to do if we want to be able to face the King and not be left speechless. We have to have this wedding robe. What does Matthew mean?
Now, in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, he is the last one to worry about external appearance — he’s always telling off the Pharisees for doing just that. For Jesus it’s the inside that matters not the outside. So the wedding robe can’t be about appearance. It must be something more.
Why do we get out our best clothes, all cleaned and pressed, to go to a party? Some who read this story say that the problem here is a lack of respect — that the guy here insults the King by not dressing properly. But that hardly sound like Jesus either: Jesus who mixes with traitors and prostitutes and lepers; Jesus who is blamed for being a low-class Galilean himself. Jesus is not likely to take that sort of offence.
So what’s this wedding robe all about? My guess is this. If the kingdom of heaven — the Christian way of life now — is meant to be a wedding banquet — the reality of all that Isaiah dreamed of — then the wedding clothes signify the willingness to live life as if it were a feast.
Think of the best wedding party you’ve been to and what made it so good. Laughter and solemnity, dancing and depth, conversation and communion, oh, and food more than you can eat, and drink enough to intoxicate an army! This is Jesus’ vision of our life now. The best — open to all people and with someone else footing the bill. All you have to do is turn up and enjoy yourself.
What’s the worse thing you can do at a wedding party? … Not enjoy yourself. Be miserable, wear a long face, turn down the food, refuse the wine. That’s our man in the story today. When he is asked by the King how he got in without his good clothes he has nothing to say. He is speechless. The word is literally “muzzled” — like a dog. And that says a lot. With a muzzle there’s no eating or drinking, no laughing or kissing, no words of praise or forgiveness, no song.
The invitation is made to each of us, to all of us — good and bad alike — and here we are — we’ve each accepted and come to the feast. But are we wearing our wedding robe or a muzzle? Are we enjoying ourselves? That’s the question that makes all the difference.
October 13th, 1996
Is God good, merciful and forgiving or is God angry, vindictive and merciless? That’s the problem that the parable seems to be dropping us into. A God who has two faces. On the one hand a gentle ruler who is moved in the depths of his guts by the plea of the slave who somehow has ended up owing him 10 million dollars, so moved that he writes off the debt and lets go a fortune, just like that. On the other hand an angry tyrant who is able to change his mind and hand someone over to the torturers until they’ve paid up.
Now which is it? Because the parable seems to paint the portrait both ways: infinitely forgiving and dangerously punishing.
Nasty things, parables! But we’d better get used to them: we have a string of them coming up in the next weeks, each one, like today’s, claiming to tell us something about the kingdom of heaven, about the reign of God. Parables are nasty because they first hook us with a story we think we understand and can identify with. Then just as we begin to expect we know what happens next we get a surprise. There’s a twist in the tale, or a contradiction or something that doesn’t make sense. Today it’s this two-faced God who is at first so ridiculously forgiving and then suddenly so stubbornly violent. And it’s in the nature of parables to just leave us hanging. Parables don’t have a moral or an explanation — they’re supposed to leave us confused and grasping after order. The proper response to a parable is not to understand but to change our minds and see the world in a different way. And that takes a risk.
So how do we get out of the dilemma today’s parable poses? At first as I listened I thought, well, you see the face of God deserve — if you are violent and unforgiving so is God — if you’re gentle and forgiving so is God to you. Tit for tat. But if that’s the case we really are in a mess because we know we need a God better than we are — if we were to be treated fairly we wouldn’t have a chance. We need a God who will forgive us and be gentle not because of who we are but despite who we are.
I think — and this is a guess — I think the whole problem lies in the set up. In the idea that God is like a king and that we are like slaves, like property to be bought and sold. And in trying to talk about forgiveness in the language of debt, of money, of economics. The parable talks this way and leads us into confusion because, I think, the change of mind, the conversion, called for, is away from relating to God as someone who owns us and relating to each other in terms of who owns who and who owes who what. Writing off a debt is a misleading model of forgiveness. If we insist on it we will never be able to trust God. Instead forgiveness is a matter of the heart not the pocket. Each of us stand before a God who sees us, not as property, but as friends of his son, so close as to be almost part of the family. The reign of God isn’t the IRS but an extended family. Families don’t hold debts against each other, don’t call in the torturers, don’t keep a ledger. The heart is deeper than that, forgiveness runs deeper than that. In fact, it’s harder to forgive from the heart someone you love than it is to simply write off the debt of a stranger. But in God’s eyes there are no strangers: there is only family and that is the way it has to be among us too.
September 15th, 1996
I hate Ezekiel. He’s a prophet to give prophets a bad name: While Jeremiah is driven near mad with having doom to speak and Amos is overwhelmed by his passion for the poor and even Isaiah seems at least genuinely hurt by the word of exile he bears, the voice of Ezekiel always seems a little too happy to be heard, always a little too happy to intimidate and to threaten disaster. And our readings open today with Ezekiel’s excuse, a veritable busy-body’s charter, — if I don’t echo the voice of Adonai then I’ll pay for it. Your Honor, I had to do it — it was me or him. I was only following orders.
But, like ‘em or loathe ‘em, we will always have self-righteous Ezekiels. And that’s because there’s always injustice and division and hurt in the world, in the church, and in our communities. Always … and all too real. And that’s what the readings today force us to remember. For every Ezekiel there is a Cain — that first of many murderers — with his question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Somehow we have to handle hurt in our midst and division in the church and injustice in the world and handle it with neither the relish of Ezekiel nor the cynicism of Cain.
But how? Paul tries an answer in terms of love — “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But how do you love your neighbour if they seem to hate you? Or where does tough love end and persecution begin? Oh, and there’s always that awkward gospel question: “who is my neighbour?”
Matthew seems to have something nicely worked out — a protocol, a scheme to follow, a foolproof method of handling trouble. Maybe he does, but I have a suspicion that the calm words Matthew speaks in Jesus’ voice betray instead just what a burning issue this was for Matthew’s own church community — an awkward issue that wouldn’t go away and needed this decisive word from Jesus. But it’s an issue that hasn’t gone away from then to now, whether the wrongs that trouble us are political or social, theological or cultural, or just plain personal.
And I guess by now you want my own solution in a few pithy sentences. Sorry! What I want to point out though is how Matthew ups the ante. Ezekiel’s in the business of speaking out, out of self-interest, and Paul probably so as to keep his churches out of the notice of the civil authorities, but Matthew has two startling reasons for careful and nuanced handling of differences. First, because what we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. And these terms, binding and loosing, are primarily about keeping and expelling: those we keep, God keeps, those we drive away, God drives away. Astonishing! So we’d better get it right! For some reason, beyond me, God has chosen to adopt our human voice — the very opposite of what Ezekiel is saying. Ezekiel’s God threatens him: our God trusts us, … perhaps too much.
Matthew’s second reason is even deeper. “if you join your voices on earth, what you pray for will be given you; when you gather in my name I am there.” How do we gather in Jesus’ name? Only, he says, by joining our voices together. When our voices are joined Jesus is present. But if we cannot speak with one voice we remain alone. That’s why we have to face injustice and division and hurt — here among us, between our worshipping communities, at large in Oakland, and in the greater political process. We have to find the one voice which we can all speak because only that will let Jesus come among us — to heal, to hold, to make new.
September 8th, 1996
The missal says today’s readings are about food and feeding — but it seems to me that nothing links them — at least they are linked by nothing. So I have nothing to say and I want to say it three times! Confused? …
Hands up all those who find the first reading insulting? OK, at least embarrassing? No? Well, I do. Water, wine, bread, milk: symbols of all the heart desires and the body pines for — all this ours for nothing? For nothing. But who wants charity? … What’s the catch, God? Because there’d better be a catch; there has to be a hidden cost — nothing is too demeaning. OK, God, lower the price a little, if you must, bring these things within my price range — set it where I can afford — but please leave me at least the dignity of paying a little. Please don’t just give it away. What do you think of me? Do you think I can’t pay? Do you think I’m worth nothing? I am worth something you know. I don’t want your charity. Nothing is just too little. Don’t you know I have my pride?
(move to centre)
Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ. What is there between a work of art and the artist who creates it? If she is very lucky something bridges the gap of creation and the artist sees herself in her work. There are the thumbprints in the clay, the brushstrokes on the canvas, the form of feeling expressed and made visible. The very person of the artist, opened out, expressed, come to public life for all to see and touch and hold. Something stands between the artist and the work and makes it possible for one to contain the other. That something is the medium — the clay, the canvas, the gesture. … We are God’s work of art. A work in whom God comes alive in delight. A work made out of nothing, ex nihilo. The medium of our making is nothing. Nothing stands between us and the love of God made visible in Jesus. The human artist wrestles with the clay, the blank canvas, the marble: encounters it fully and takes the risk that something of beauty will emerge from the medium. God stoops down into nihil, into nothing, and finds us there. Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(move to chair)
“Sometimes,” says a character of Ursula Le Guin’s, “sometimes only too far is far enough.” Sometimes all you have is next to nothing. Sometimes in the face of need, and pain, and hope all you have is nothing. Sometimes only nothing is enough. Sometimes all you can do is take what little you have, raise it in thankful blessing, break even smaller, and … give it away. Sometimes only nothing satisfies.
August 3rd, 1996
I think we all know, in one way or another, what St. Paul means when he talks about being caught in the slavery of decay: we all know, at times, the feeling of being trapped, the sense of the slow downhill slide; we all know how the past can be a prison, the present packed with pain, and the futile future only promising to hold worse. We now the struggle to not go under, to just survive, to just keep on breathing against the whole weight of the world.
All of us have an inkling of that slavery to decay—in our own personalised package—and I only evoke today by way of contrast, because the readings set before us this afternoon underline powerfully God’s verdict on fear, on decay, and on death.
The message for us is that, just as God once spoke into the chaos and the void and found there light and life, so today God stands with us, sits among us, and says “let there be life.” Let there be new life.
Time and memory—that’s what our readings are about today. Time and memory and the way we are always poised between past and future in a moment of present possibility. Because no matter how we feel ourselves to be prisoner of the past, we have our moments.
There are moments, moments of surprising ease, moments when the powers of our past are balanced—poised—and it seems like the gears of things line up, the forces at work in the world are for a moment in harmony, and change is possible—change and hope.
Seed-like moments—which, if we recognised them, we would hold our breath for fear of hurting them—so delicate do the seem. Moments so balanced that a single grain of seed, here rather than there, might make all the difference. Moments that can shoot and root and bloom from nearly nothing to almost everything.
Maybe this is one of those moments for you—maybe God would like it to be—a moment when anything is possible, when everything could change. If it is such an opportunity then it is not because of this occasion, not because of me, not even because of you, but because of the One who sows these seeds. Because of the Sower, present with us in this moment. Not being careful in his planting, not being cautious in her scattering, but casting great handfuls of seed everywhere in hope.
Always in hope. Never writing off even the most unpromising soil, because maybe, just maybe, this time a seed will grow. So what is it that asks for hope in you today? What part of the past wants to be done with, to be let wither away? What little part of the present wants to sprout and grow and open up into the future?
Gardening has never been my speciality, but one thing I have learned and that’s how hard it is to tell, when something is just beginning to grow, whether you’ve got a flower or a weed— at that age they all look the same. So if we’re wise we wait a while until we know whether we’ve got cabbages or nettles before we start pulling. We are discriminating, yes, but we give everything a chance at life before we start thinning out. If only we took so much care with out inner lives. Most of us, inside, have instituted a scorched earth policy. Nothing new gets a chance to grow. God is waltzing around—prodigal as ever—with all these seeds of possibility. And we give so few of them a chance. We prefer to strangle them at birth rather than take a risk on a different future: on life; on happiness.
Perhaps it’s because the seeds seem such tiny, little things—surprising thoughts, unfamiliar feelings, memories full of life, inklings of hope—maybes and what-ifs.
What if I’m not as ugly as I think? Not as stupid? Not as lazy? Not as much to blame? Maybe that smile was meant for me, maybe someone up there cares for me, wants me to have fun, is yearning for me to laugh, is aching for me to bloom, is dying for me to live.
Maybe the face of God that looks upon me now isn’t scowling, isn’t stern, isn’t condemning. Maybe those eyes are tearing up with my pain, or softening into a smile. Maybe those lips are open to bless, to kiss. Maybe those arms want to embrace, to hold. Just maybe.
What if? What if I didn’t strangle these tender thoughts so quickly, what if I let them grow? What then?
Who knows what then! That’s the point! All creation since the beginning has been yearning, groaning to see what then. To see the revealing of the daughters and sons of God. The angels stand in awe of what then, all of heaven holds its breath … for a seed to grow.
So there are moments … moments like seeds when our past, as it passes through our present, can become the stuff of dreams and longing—our dreams, certainly, but, first and foremost, God’s. This is a seed-moment for me, a moment of possibility, a moment for dreaming God’s dreams. A little step further into new life. New Life!
Where are yours? There’s got to be some because God scatters them everywhere. And though some miss the soil altogether, and some get scorched, and some get strangled, some—oh some—shoot and root and bloom and ripen. And then a single seed yields a hundredfold. A hundredfold!
July 14th, 1996