Archive for February, 2005
Once upon a time … yep, this is one of those homilies … once upon a time, in a land far, far away there was a great country full of pride in its past glories. And that country had a great monarch, proud and righteous, clever in his alliances and bold in waging war on his enemies.
But the life of even a King comes to an end. One day the King died and while his court squabbled for power his soul winged its way to heaven. He quite liked the sensation of whooshing up into the sky and, though he never really doubted his destination, as he went he practised his sincere and righteous smile for St. Peter. And indeed the Pearly Gates grew nearer and glorious till even he, accustomed to magnificence, was subdued and fell into almost humble silence. … There he stood, dwarfed by pillars of cloud, and waited to be received. He made sure he looked his best. He rehearsed his acceptance speech.
He waited. And he waited. And he waited. But no St. Peter. Eventually he got tired of waiting and squeezed through a gap in the clouds and began to wander around the empty streets of heaven looking for signs of life.
He wandered for hours until he caught the merest hint of sound: music, perhaps? Yes. And laughter! A party up ahead. A surprise party for him, no doubt!
Our ex-King hurried up to the great gilded door and, not wanting to appear in any way overawed, he quietly pushed the door open and looked in. Such a party was under way and, though at first he recognised no one, one by one certain faces became clear to him in one shock after another. Oh no, that awful newspaper man who kept trying to make people doubt him. And over there drinking with him, my God, Adolf Hitler. And more faces he remembered with horror. Harold Shipman and Genghis Khan and Saddam Hussein and Margaret Thatcher (hey it’s my story!). Our King was ready to bolt—clearly he was in the wrong place—when Hitler spotted him and ran up to bring him in. “Welcome to heaven!” he said. The King’s smile failed him: “How can it be heaven with you here?!” he cried, terrified. But Adolf just smiled and answered, “Yes, it does give people a nasty turn when they see me. I was surprised myself when I arrived.”
“But after all you did! This must be hell!”
A sadness crossed his face: “Yes, so much I regret but it seems I asked for forgiveness at that final hour and next thing I knew I was here with Jesus waiting for me. And though I was ready to be a servant and work off my debt of horror, the band was ready to play and the wine was poured and the party underway. Just like now! Won’t you come in?”
“But where are all the good people? Where are they?”
More sadness in his face: “Ah, the good ones. This place is theirs you know. Always has been. Always will be. But not many of them come much further than where you are now. It’s the company I’m afraid. Won’t you come in and join us—dinner’s ready? And look there’s Jesus over there, with Gordon, waving to you. Please …!”
“Let me think about it,” he said. And he went off in haste to that shadowy place where millions think about it in horror and sadness for eternity.
February 25th, 2005
Both our readings impose exacting standards of behaviour: Deuteronomy says we must observe all those laws and customs and observe them with all our heart and observe them with all our soul; Matthew, in turn, will be happy if we are simply perfect. They both set the bar pretty high. Impossibly high.
And Deuteronomy is clear on the consequences of failure. God will no longer be our God and we will no longer be God’s people. And the way the Deuteronomist tells the story that means defeat and death, uprooting and exile.
This is the tradition—or one of the traditions—that Jesus was brought up with. That God punishes transgression and God blesses obedience. Where did Jesus get the courage and the insight to speak the opposite: that God causes the sun to rise on bad and good alike, that God sends his rain to fall on honest and dishonest alike, that God loves her friends and enemies alike?
Where do we get that same courage and insight? When nation and church spend time and money telling the old, old story, where do we find the voice to sing, with Jesus, a new song? When our own tempters are always ready to whisper tales of pride and doom how do we have the heart instead to attend to the better angels of our human nature?
In a sense that’s all our work—letting people hear the right words, see the real God, get a feel for God’s humble perfection. But Deuteronomy isn’t just addressed to individuals like the ones who find their way to our door. Deuteronomy is asking a pledge of a nation, speaking to the heart of a whole people. And as a nation we’ve learned the message well: we bless and curse according to merit, or celebrity, or birth. How do we speak to that?
February 18th, 2005
This, our second instalment from the drama of Genesis, continues the pattern from yesterday—out of chaos, the imposition of order—layer by layer, species after species, goodness upon goodness—in a mounting crescendo of creation culminating, of course, in humans like ourselves—woman and man shining in God’s own image. Everything is in its place, everything is connected, every relationship is as it should be. It’s beautiful. The only catch is that, once the creation is over on the sixth day, the whole cosmos freezes. Everything stops as though dozing away the Sabbath. And as we’ll hear in the chapters to come the only way on is down.
The impulse to set everything in order and the impulse to stop everything moving very often beat together in the same breast. We want to worship creativity just as long as it doesn’t upset the patterns we have made, the laws we’ve written. And the urge to make patterns is irresistible. It’s the heart of art and science—pattern, order, beauty, law. But when patterns proliferate they stifle creation—everything stays the same. But God has never ceased doing the new thing – God is busy doing the new thing in the gospel today and Jesus is sharp in his scorn for those who can’t tell the difference between order and deadlock.
Here on retreat, one way or another, we’ve been asking God to be creative in our lives. To do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. To surprise us. To make all things new. To be alive for us and beautiful.
But, as a retreat draws to a close, there’s also the tendency to want to pack the experience up and put it into storage for safe keeping. There are two things to say to that: first that the retreat isn’t over yet and God might not be finished yet, even now; and second, that even when the retreat expires, God doesn’t and grace doesn’t. God goes with you wherever you go, creative, surprising, new.
February 8th, 2005
We used to say salt was a good thing—now we just reckon it raises our blood-pressure. Once packaged foods delighted in their saltiness — now they vie for the label “low Sodium.” Like “no fat” and “caffeine free” what we once sought out for pleasure, we now avoid for long life.
Salt used to be precious—in cooking, healing, preserving—Roman soldiers received part of their pay in salt—their salary. Any of you who are on enforced low-salt diets know just how precious salt still is. Things need taste. We need to be saved from blandness. This, says the gospel, is our communal vocation—to give the world some flavour. But will this low-sodium world thank us for it? I doubt it. But, in fact, our ambivalent feelings about salt offer a good image of our ambiguous relationship to the nation we are part of. We—church—as we lend a little flavor, should also be sending the blood-pressure of the world soaring. The people of Britain shouldn’t know what to do with us or without us.
Jesus’ message is that, like it or not, we carry the flavour of the reign of God. You cannot take away the taste of salt. Like it or not, the world tastes us, and through us tastes God. We cannot hide the way we taste. So how are we doing? How annoying are we? How salty?
Isaiah is at his most pungent speaking to his people today. ‘Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the destitute, do away with economic slavery, put an end to violence and oppression’. He doesn’t ask much: he asks everything. And we need to be asking too. Does the country see us as hounding them over a justice we hold ourselves to first or are we perceived as a bunch of sex-obsessed hypocrites with nothing to say to a world that has moved beyond us?
If Isaiah is right—if Jesus is right!—we shouldn’t worry about being a shrinking minority of faith. We are meant to be the seasoning not the main course. We won’t be held accountable for the quality of our worship or for how traditional or progressive we are. The measure both Isaiah and Jesus use is a very worldly one: the measure of justice.
And it’s not you or I who is being put to the test but God. If we, who count ourselves as salt, as light, as leaven, if we are tasteless, dim, and flat all it means for us is a quieter, duller life—God is the one weighed in the balance and found boring. So for God’s sake let us be salty.
February 6th, 2005