Archive for January, 1998
It came flooding back this weekend, the memory, clear and embarrassing, of sitting in my mother’s house one Holy Week afternoon, aged twenty or so, watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Zeffirelli’s sweet and oh-so-sixties story of Francis of Assisi. Watching it, trying to be above its sugar and sentiment, and failing—instead being drawn in, being drawn into a helpless envy. If only I could be that wholehearted, that complete in my dedication, that free from convention, and comforts, and confusion. If only… I remember clearly and embarrassingly the little voice in my heart that spoke quietly: “Rob, why not?” I remember my immediate response: “Shields up, Mr. Sulu—evasive action.” I switched off the TV and decided foolishly I needed time alone. So I went to my room, sat on the bed, picked up my Bible, and opened by chance (ha!) to Jeremiah chapter 1: “before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations.” Out of the frying pan into the fire.
It’s a shame our reading today misses out the next bit, that delicate exchange between the reluctant prophet and the persistent God.
“I’m just a child.”
I can’t speak.
“It doesn’t matter because I know you, I have always known you, I know what you are capable of, I exactly how much you’ll wriggle, and I’m looking forward to knowing how much we might do together.”
We are each and all called to be prophets. It is our baptismal call. A call not to believe, but to do. Believing is nothing—the devil believes. Doing is everything. As infants water is poured over us, words spoken over us, promises made for us because we haven’t the tongue to make them ourselves. And those promises are carried for us—something precious, something delicate—kept for us by family and community. Not kept in a closet somewhere but kept here, on a Sunday, in worship and kept every day in between when one of us, not only believes, but does.
Which isn’t to say that each one of us doesn’t respond to our own prophetic call with reluctance—even with resistance. We each have that moment, that succession of moments, when we put childish ways aside to answer for ourselves, to keep our own promises, to move beyond belief into action.
And I think there’s a glimpse of how hard these moments can be in the gospel this morning. You’ve got to remember the context. “Previously in Luke”: Jesus standing with all eyes upon him, in the synagogue of his hometown, reading the words of Isaiah the prophet, words he has come to hear as his own calling: to be someone sent with glad tidings for the poor, liberty for captives, sight for the blind, release for prisoners, and God’s favour for everyone. He stands there and says, “Folks: this is me, this is who I am.”
He has the words—everyone is marvelling at him, speaking favourably of him—but it seems like the actions fail him. Everything is going well until what sounds like a wave of insecurity washed over him. All eyes upon him, it seems for a moment that he has forgotten who he is. He lays into the people who are hanging on his word. Provokes them: “I know what you’re thinking, you’re going to say, ‘show us your miracles,’ you’re going to say ‘physician heal thyself’. Well let me tell you…”
It’s no wonder his kin turn against him and drive him away. The poor guy nearly gets lynched for his outburst. Not even Jesus, it seems, finds it easy to be a prophet. It takes him time and reluctance and mistakes and second chances to learn to be who he is called to be.
But like I said a few weeks ago. Luke’s Jesus is just one of us, an ordinary guy, given an extraordinary prophetic mission when he was baptized… just like we were.
January 27th, 1998
There’s a strange thing going on with time in these readings. We start with the very beginning of St. Luke’s book about the life and ministry of the early Jesus movement and finish with the very end of St. Luke’s book about the life and ministry of Jesus in the flesh. Time is out of order. And here at the hinge we have a rush of events and a lull of waiting. Time is racing. Time is on hold.
Time is racing with Luke’s description of the forty days of intermittent presence of the risen Jesus and of the strange departure of their already elusive friend. Time is racing as Jesus promises his followers a great and energetic future moving out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth preaching and giving witness.
But time is on hold too as this same Jesus tells them to wait, to stay in the city and wait. And they do, no longer hiding behind closed doors in fear but constantly in the temple singing the praises of God.
It might seem a strange thing to be doing, given that they have just lost someone they loved. But it is only strange if you are mistaken about where he has gone.
The Church draws us each year into this mystery of disjointed time and absent presence. We, with our ancestors, the first followers, are waiting: Jesus has gone in the flesh and has not yet come in the Spirit. But only St Luke rubs it in – the other gospel writers don’t see the gap or don’t trust it. But Luke thinks it’s so important that he tells it twice and makes it the hinge on which his two-part story turns.
The risen Jesus has gone. The spirit has not yet come into the church. And yet the assembly prays. This is the first novena. The original. The nine days of joyful waiting. And they could be joyful because they didn’t feel that Jesus had gone the way dead people go, only to be present in memory, but that he had been lifted up and put in charge, in charge of everything.
I don’t know if any of you saw the last Oscar ceremony? There was a moment when James Cameron, riding high on the victory of his film Titanic, seemed to be about to be briefly humble and thankful and full of praise for others, but instead couldn’t resist stealing a line form one of his characters—”I’m king of the world” he shouted. It was embarrassing to watch. But it makes me wonder who is in charge. When we look around the world we have to wonder. With promise of peace in Ireland; with revolution in Indonesia; with deadly horror in Oregon; with nuclear bombs in India. Just who is in charge?
Bill Clinton? Bill Gates? Hardly! Frank Sinatra’s gone. And Godzilla’s only managed to be a blip on the screen.
St Luke says that Jesus is in charge. He has taken a throne in the heavens and now everything is his to put in order. He has taken the reins. And, though the Spirit has not yet come to bring the church to birth, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. The coming task of witness and ministry and justice is all still to be done—for them and two thousand years later for us—but, even before it begins, the victory is assured because Jesus has been raised from the dead and raised up to rule the world.
That’s why the prayer of the waiting community is so full of joy and the praise of God. Because we have a friend in the heavens. One who walked with us, wept with us, one of us has been raised above angels and principalities and powers. The lowly has been lifted up and mighty cast down.
It seems to me that the prayer of the waiting church, then and now, should be Mary’s own song of praise. I see her singing it for the gathered community in those days. Letting it’s words of praise now speak not just for herself but for her son and for all her son’s friends. God has looked with favour on our lowliness so that all times to come will call us blessed for the mighty one has done marvellous things for us. God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, dethroned the powerful, and lifted up the lowly. The hungry have found satisfaction and the rich discovered their own emptiness. God has promised the victory of Justice and the defeat of Death. And holy is God’s name.
January 24th, 1998
Oreo Cookies, Family Photos, and Steve Young. Not necessarily in that order.
Item: Family Albums. “Who’s that?” ask Laura, to her little one. And with a roll of her eyes, as if the question was a no-brainer, Amy says, “that’s me.” This is New Year’s Day and the old photos are out and we’re looking back, to look forward. And Amy is pointing at her mother’s swollen stomach and seeing herself. Clever kid! Then comes the question that makes you glad you’re a visitor: “but where was I before that?” Aa!
Item: Steve Young. Best player in the NFL. That’s what the New York Times says this morning. But, they wonder, if he’s so good – and they have all the stats to prove it – if he’s so good why does he still fall behind Joe Montana in the hero stakes? Myself, I think he’s too nice to be a hero. In the TV ads he’s this big, genial, slightly dopey, all-round nice guy. The ideal big brother, the perfect uncle, the model son. But I like my heroes to be just a little less “nice” than him. A little more out of reach. A little more … special.
Item: Oreos. After 85 years of being a disguised pork-product the archetypal American cookie is about to be declared … kosher: no longer off limits to Jewish kids across the country. And a Rabbi, long tempted by this chocolatey forbidden fruit, sees this as the end of Jewishness as he knows it. “Can we,” he asks, “survive being so normal?”
Three good questions for a Sunday morning/afternoon: how did we begin; who are we taking after; and what makes us different?
A New Year, and though the church’s year began with advent, today we begin reading in earnest from Luke’s gospel. We are going to spend the rest of this year with Luke’s Jesus. And though most of the stories are the same, the character at their heart is different. So who’s the hero of the story as Luke sees him? Well it’s not the troubling, miracle-worker that Mark marvels at; nor Matthew’s great preacher of a new inner law; and above all it’s not John’s commanding, all-knowing, super-hero who walks through the gospel two-inches off the ground. Luke sees Jesus as one of us: an ordinary person, a good person, who prays like the rest of us, gets tired like the rest of us, gets baptized like the rest of us. Jesus is a gentleman, a gentle, kind soul with a desire to cure all the ills of the world. With a powerful message of liberation delivered quietly and without violence. This is our hero: one of us; a son of Adam. But if he’s so like us doesn’t he make a lousy hero?
Luke takes us back to our beginnings to answer that question. Back to this moment at the Jordan when something happens to Jesus which makes all the difference. It’s not the baptism. And it’s not voice from heaven. It’s when the Holy Spirit comes and settles on Jesus.
As Luke sees it, Jesus begins his ministry because the Spirit comes to him and begins to lead him and empower him. The Jesus that we follow begins there, drenched and praying, when God comes to him anew with a message and a mission.
Luke wrote the Acts of Apostles too. And today we hear Peter talking to a bunch of foreigners. Peter’s just had a vision telling him to break kosher – to eat his Oreos — so here he is swallowing religious pride and speaking the gospel to outsiders. And what happens next? As they are all praying the same Holy Spirit settles upon them all. God comes to them anew with a message and a mission.
For Luke it’s the Holy Spirit that makes all the difference. It’s where we all begin. Jesus began there. The Jewish Church began there at Pentecost. The universal Church began there in Cornelius’ house. And we begin there too.
Our hero, the Jesus we’ll be with all this year, is just some nice guy who let himself be seized by the Holy Spirit, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and led on a wild goose chase by the Holy Spirit.
I for one find that disturbing. I like my heroes a little out of reach, a little special: not so ordinary. Because then I can let them be who I am supposed to be. I can watch from a safe distance while they take my risks for me and live my life.
I like Mark’s Jesus because he’s wilder than I am. I like Matthew’s Jesus because he’s wiser than I am. I like John’s Jesus because he’s more magical than I am. But Luke’s Jesus frightens me because he leaves me no excuse.
I don’t like my heroes to be too much like me, because then I might have to be one too.
January 11th, 1998
Looking for the rising star where else do you go but Jerusalem? To Zion set on a hilltop; to the king in his palace; to God in his brand new Temple? You make the pilgrimage. You don’t mind the desert chill or the barren winter plains because ahead, always rising, is the jewel of Judah, is Zion, is Jerusalem, city of Kings and the one place in all this round world where God dwells by his promise. Every step takes you upward as the ground breaks into hills and the hills into mountains and the valley you follow rises and dips and rises again. You remember the pilgrimage songs of the Jewish people, the songs of ascent, as they walked this same road long ago:
“How I rejoiced when they said to me “Let us go to the house of Adonai” and now our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem restored! One united whole!” “May Adonai bless you from Zion, God who made heaven and earth.” “For Adonai has chosen Zion, chosen to make it God’s home.”
Ah, the songs of Zion. Looking for a rising star where else would you go? But to the heart, to the eternal city, to the holy dwelling place of God.
It is night. Deep and dark as velvet. Unbroken by moonlight. It is cold, bitter and bleak and black. Almost there, the climb almost complete, you pause for breath, winded by the ascent, and your gaze falls back on the way you have trod. Isaiah is in your ears: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick clouds cover the nations. But upon you Adonai shines and over you appears God’s glory.”
Once maybe, and maybe once again. “Rise up in splendour Jerusalem: your light has come.” But not tonight. So here you are, in darkness, travelling in hope after a rising star. After a light, at the turn of the year, to guide your steps and make the future bright, brighter than the year’s difficult climb to where you stand exhausted now, remembering, regretting, hoping. Trying to be ready for the rising star. Ready to give whatever you need, all your golden talents, all your hopes like incense, to receive the new light of the world. But all is dark. Not only the valley: but Jerusalem too, city of kings, chosen dwelling place of God, heart of the earth. Dark and cold. But you will wait.
Jerusalem by daylight. City of contention and uneasy peace. Of occupying armies and quarrelling priests. What you will never know, for all your golden gifts and fragrant prayers, is that the star is already risen, the light already come, but shining obscurely miles from here. Not in the city of Kings, but unnoticed, in poverty, a child was born. To a mother and father, refugees fleeing the chosen dwelling place of God. A dim light, a fragile light, one that might be easily put out. So while you wait in the sensible place to see the rising star, to find the light in darkness, the heart of the earth has shifted. The axis of the world has tilted. Once again the radiant presence of God is on the move. As of old Adonai walks with a pilgrim people, as once before God is homeless with the chosen stranger.
Away from the safety of golden palaces and incense-scented temples, the Creator of the Universe has dwindled to infancy, the Word become flesh cannot speak, and the eternal God learns the bitter perfume of embalming oil. The risen star is to be found in all the wrong places. The light shines in darkness and – miracle – the darkness has not overpowered it.
January 4th, 1998