Archive for April, 1999

Sunday Week 4 of Easter Year A

“When they heard this they were cut to the heart.”
This morning’s New York Times magazine had me in tears. Ten years ago I spent just three months in Guyana, South America, from New Year to Holy Week. A country so poor its coinage had no value outside its borders and precious little within them. How do you describe the people of Guyana? Beautiful, divided, dignified, tired … above all poor. I kind of worked in a parish and loved it—I guess because people loved me. Then on Wednesday of Holy Week I had to leave. Whoever had bought the tickets whisked me away from Guyana to spend Holy Week in Barbados before jetting back to Britain. In Guyana the big stores have their empty aisles filled with the three local products—rank upon rank of bags of rice, of sugar, and bottles of the rum made from it. In Barbados you could buy anything. The riches of the whole world overflowing on every shelf and innocent smiling people to buy them. I ended up I tears. For the first time I was outside the world I’d come from, looking in—jealous, and angry, and hurt by its obscene good fortune. I wanted to go back to the poverty … but I didn’t.
This morning, in the paper, it wasn’t the faces of Albanian refugees that brought the tears, it wasn’t their stories, it was the elegant interiors and stylish furnishing of the upscale apartments for sale. I couldn’t tell you through the tears why I begrudge the interior decorating so much. In truth I don’t know. But that it should be paraded a few pages away from people who have lost lives and homes … Perhaps I begrudge the division it reveals in my own heart.
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,” preached Peter and thousands were baptized. But what about us who are already baptized what are we to do?
The gospel offers a promise and a puzzle. The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice—it’s familiar to them and it means life, life in abundance. There is an enemy though, a thief, who only wants to slaughter and destroy, and the test of our understanding is which voice we recognise and respond to: his or the shepherd’s. Who moves our hearts?
There was another piece in the magazine which touched me, with the subtitle: How the Heart gets Hardened. Peter Godwin, once a war correspondent in Africa, writing about the visual image of atrocity and how it moves the heart to sympathy even as it hardens it. The images we have seen this week are horrible, heart-wrenching, hard to behold. Kosovo and Colorado: twinned mirrors of our violence. But to tell the truth I’ve found myself flipping past the atrocity and analysis of European tragedy to linger over the details of Littleton’s shame. Why is my heart moved by one and not the other, I wonder? Both horrors are beyond me. I understand neither. Both events feel as though they have intruded from outside to shatter my illusions of civility. Both echo with violence I don’t really believe is possible. But where I avoid Kosovo—surf on by—I dwell with Colorado … why?
Maybe Colorado asks only sympathy of me but Kosovo demands much more. Maybe with Colorado it is easier to contain the blame and name the monster while in Kosovo I have to consider the heartless monstrosity of ordinary folks like you or me. Or maybe it’s just because Colorado is all over bar the burials while Kosovo will jade and jar me for months to come.
But in truth the answer is none of these. The truth is that while the Serbs are strangers to me the trench-coat mafia are not. I can identify with them. Not so much with the violence but as the experience. I remember the stratified world of adolescence, strange as any tribe’s rites of passage, with its insiders and outsiders, its pettiness and ridicule, its self-righteousness and shame. I would not go back for anything. The first reports from Littleton, as press and public grappled to make meaning, spoke of a war of cliques: jocks and preps and goths and nerds. The kids interviewed seemed to say of the murderers: Yeah they were creepy kids. Strange. Odd, Didn’t fit in. Not one of us… And I guess they weren’t. I guess they found their own place to fit in, strange and terrible as it was. And though I know being judged and excluded gives no excuse for violence, it is the hook that snares me. I know what it’s like and I know it has its own violence—with winners and losers assigned their roles early and then checked on at reunions just to confirm that all are playing their part. “He’s not one of us.”
In a 1997 poll for a Belgrade magazine Albanians saw themselves as peaceful, courageous, hospitable. Serbs saw themselves as … peaceful, courageous, hospitable. But each saw the other as treacherous, selfish, rough, and hating other nations. “They’re not like us.”
Where is the voice of the shepherd? What must we do to be saved? One thing only: remember—remember Jesus knew violence, felt it firsthand, it defeated him, totally, before he defeated it only by dying. His risen voice has no violence in it, no threat, no accusation and his hands still have the wounds.
What must we do to be saved? One thing only: remember—we are baptized, with Jesus we are dead to death and alive for life, and among us there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither woman nor man, neither slave nor free. We have no kinship but the one we celebrate today with each other, children of God. We are no longer strangers. We are no longer lost and alone. We are saints. We are one in the house of God.

April 24th, 1999

Friday Week 3 of Easter (St George)

George was a martyr. He faced terrible torture for years without giving in to his torturers. He lived with valour and died nobly. But of course that’s not why we remember him. We remember him because he killed that dragon. It’s the one thing everyone knows about St. George. And he didn’t just kill the beast—he slew it. George, dragon-slayer. That’s how he got to be the patron saint of England and have so many pubs named after him. Not for facing violence with exemplary courage but for skillful use of that same violence against the monstrous dragon. Richard the First of England, called Lion-Heart, developed a devotion to George when on Crusade against the monstrous Saracen. George, in crusader armour, appeared to him in a vision to urge him on to righteous victory against the infidel. Years later Henry V at the Battle of Agincort claimed George’s protection in his own just war against the monstrous French.
The message is clear—if you want victory against monsters and need that little edge in your tactical use of violence—call on George. George, slayer of dragons.
Violence is not an easy subject. Whether it’s in Kosovo, or Colorado, or our own heart, it troubles us. Whether it’s military or domestic or the silent violence of poverty, it disturbs us. And monsters make it easier. In Kosovo, in Colorado, and here tonight. But monsters were not made to make violence easier; they were made, as their name says, to show us something, to reveal something forgotten, to speak our True Name.
When the One sitting on the Throne makes all things new, in that new creation, violence may be no more but monsters will remain. Please God let there be dragons! Let there that which defies our understanding, outstrips our mastery, and leaves us gasping, wondering.
Have you read the Earthsea trilogy? It has something to say about violence, about monsters, and about humanity.

Young Arren said after a little while, “I see why you say that only humans do evil, I think. Even sharks are innocent; they kill because they must.”
Ged, the Mage, replied, “That is why nothing else can resist us. Only one thing in the world can resist an evil-hearted man. And that is another man. In our shame is our glory. Only our spirit, which is capable of evil, is capable of overcoming it.”
“But the dragons,” said Arren. “Do they not do great evil? Are they innocent?”
“The dragons! The dragons are avaricious, insatiable, treacherous; without pity, without remorse. But are they evil? Who am I, to judge the acts of dragons? … They are wiser than we are. It is with them as with dreams, Arren. We dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.”

1 comment April 23rd, 1999

Sunday Week 2 of Easter Year A

“You have never seen him, yet you love him, and without seeing you believe in him, and rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory.”
Well, do you? … Do I?
“You have never seen him, yet you love him, and without seeing you believe in him, and rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory.”
That’s quite a charge Peter makes, quite a challenge. Do you feel it? …
Thomas’s story reminds us that Easter doesn’t arrive all at once. The Church strings Easter out for fifty full days. Why? Because Easter is hard to catch. But catch it and it should show.
“You have never seen him, yet you love him, and without seeing you believe in him, and rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory.”
So has it happened to you yet? Have you visited the tomb of your hope and found it empty? Have you met the half-recognised stranger speaking your name? Have you felt the touch to bring you back to life and inexpressible joy?
Listen to the words of Jesus in today’s story: Peace be with you. Peace. Receive the power to forgive. Peace. Believe. Do you think he’s trying to tell us something? When the Risen Christ speaks, his words are only ever consoling. All the noise and doubt and confusion and accusation in the story comes from elsewhere. “Peace be with you!” Jesus says over and over again. “Shalom!” And he gives this panicky little group of traitors—the people who ran away and left him for dead—he gives them the gift of forgiveness. He gives them the gift of peace and the means to make it real. So that forgiving others freely they might find themselves forgiven and free.
And he shows us where Easter might happen. Poor Thomas is a sign, not of doubt, but of what happens when you are alone. Easter happens best in the gathered church. And in the gathered church a week later—today—Thomas can touch the wounds that heal his soul and can forgive Jesus for dying. And we all need that—the vulnerable, solidity of people to forgive and, in the forgiving, find our Easter.
The way Luke tells it, the new Easter people of Jerusalem experienced the brief flowering of dream—a gathered church where no one held back what another needed. Where bread was broken together, God was worshipped together, and all things were held in common. A dream soon woken from, for in the very next verses dissension arises and arises precisely over property, property owned rather than offered. And from then till now we have needed that gift of forgiveness which Jesus breathed into us. Oh, how we have needed it!
But I’m speaking as though forgiveness was a consolation prize, a second best for not quite making it. But, if that golden age of Christianity ever existed outside Luke’s imagination, it exists to draw us forward and not back. That tidal pull of the heart draws us on, to our own Easter, here, this morning, and asks us to give up whatever we are holding back from each other. And to give up whatever we are holding against God or think God might be holding against us. The prize of forgiveness is consolation, is joy, is glory. Somehow it is better that the dream was broken because in the forgiving we find Jesus among us—only he can make it happen. And he is here this morning. We are here and he is here. And he says, “Peace,” and speaks your name, and holds out a wounded hand, and says the words you need to hear. …
He is here. And because of it we do something extraordinary this morning. We know what happens when forgiveness fails—we know it better this week than for decades. Community falls apart, violence reigns, and the full price of peace is revealed. Here this morning we promise to pay our part. What we do might seem insignificant weighed against the hatred of Kosovo but it is something. We welcome someone new into our Easter family. Most of us don’t know ____________. In another place and time he might be the child of our enemy. But today we claim him as our own and we take responsibility for him whoever he turns out to be. Since he can’t speak for his own faith quite yet we promise to hold his faith in trust for him. We promise to hold nothing back from him. We promise to forgive each other as often as needed so that there’ll still be a community here when he is old enough to stand up and ask for his faith to be recognised as his own. One day, if we do our job right, he will say for himself: “I’ve never seen him, yet I love him, and without seeing I believe in him, and I rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory.”

April 11th, 1999

Easter Sunday Year A

“Christ is Risen!” … “Christ is Risen Indeed!”
But what if he weren’t risen? Or what if he were risen from the dead and we never got to know about it? You see so much hangs on the events we hear about this morning. What if Mary Magdalene hadn’t been so grief- stricken, or hadn’t been quite so brave, or hadn’t been able to make her way through the sleeping city to the garden on the hill? If she’d been quieter in her mourning, quicker to get over her loss, if she’d been just a little more cautious, or a touch less desperate, then we might never have known of the Resurrection. If she hadn’t been drawn to that place of death we might never have known life.
Easter isn’t just another event on the calendar—it’s also an experience, an experience of new life, found in the place you might least expect it, life in the middle of death. This homily is for all of you who have reached Easter in the calendar but not quite got there yet in your heart. The rest of you can just enjoy your Easter graces for a moment or two while the rest of us try to catch up. I hope you don’t mind…
The events of Holy Week are a challenge to us. Every year we dare to take part in them and every year we walk with a doomed man on a terrible journey that brings us all to tears. Mary Magdalene, walked that road with Jesus before us. So did Mary his mother, Peter and John his followers, and dozens of others, hangers-on, seekers, disciples. They walked it in utter confusion and increasing panic as all they had hoped for was dashed to pieces. Whoever Jesus was to each of them—son, friend, teacher, beloved, saviour—whoever he was, was dead and buried. For all of them all was lost. All hope gone. All light put out.
So Thank God we enter the story and walk with Jesus knowing always what Mary and Peter and John couldn’t know: that death was not going to be the last word, that Jesus would be raised up to new life. The catch for us is that because we have skipped ahead to the end of the book and know how it will all turn out we run the risk of knowing about resurrection without ever experiencing it for ourselves.
If Mary hadn’t been out of her mind with grief she may never have gone to the tomb and may never have found it empty. If she hadn’t revisited the place of death she might never have found him alive. And we might not know. And she might still be grieving a dead hope. And so might we.
The promise of Easter, the grace of it, doesn’t come automatically. There is joy to be had and new life and renewed purpose. But they don’t come to us just because Easter Sunday is here, just because the paschal candle is lit, just because we are singing joyful songs. The Easter gifts with our names on them can only be received if we go to the place where God is handing them out. And that’s the place of our need. The place where our hope is running out and our weakness threatens to overwhelm us. Not nice places to go. We spend most of our lives on the run away from them. But we have to take the risk, alongside Jesus, of feeling the places where death seems to have a hold. We need to visit our own tombs, and find them empty, before life can break out in us.
So have you experienced Easter for yourself yet? Has the life broken out in you? If it has—wonderful! If not then we have weeks of Easter still to come, and the promise still there, and maybe you want to stop running and feel your way to your own particular tomb. Maybe you’ll find it empty. You will never know until you try. And maybe, while you weep, someone you only half recognise will come and call your name and give you back your life.

April 4th, 1999


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