Archive for April, 2005
I hate homilies that begin with an apology or a complaint … so I apologise about the following complaint! … Don’t the readings today leave you caught between two worlds? Acts is so prosaic—this happened, that happened: it could be the minutes of a meeting—and John is so … John—mystical, wordy, repetitive, obscure, strangely beautiful…
Now I could set this homily up as one against the other—the plain and worldly vs. the sublime and spiritual—but that would do justice to neither Luke nor John, nor—especially—to our own lives. The story Luke tells in Acts might be dressed up as secular history but it’s a story of faith, faith acted and acting, a story of God at work even in the minutes of a meeting. And John, well John often speaks straight in crooked words but his Jesus, however obscure, however much he seems to hover an inch off the ground, his Jesus is grounded in the earthy details of human life. John it is who so often speaks as though he was there: at 4 o’clock invited to come and see, or naming the women around the cross, or putting real words into the disciples’ mouths.
Both Luke and John are in the business of gospel, good news and the good news is we are not split in two. We don’t have secular lives which take turns with our life of faith; it’s not right vs. left. We have one rich and intricate existence where God is alongside us constantly in our loving and our working, our sleep, our politics, our prayer. The Good News is that God is as much at home in what we, in our audacity, allege is the secular world, as God is often absent in what we piously hope are our sacred rites and institutions.
Anywhere we look we might see God; anywhere we go we might touch God. For even now God is beside us reaching out to touch: is that touch tender, is it strong, is it urging on or holding back? Only you can tell. Even now God is looking upon us—in delight, in hope, in challenge, in joy, in compassion?—and in that look we might know ourselves whole and entire for the first time.
April 20th, 2005
The other years of the cycle of readings are a lot easier to handle than this one. They focus on the shepherd, on the one who guides us, the one who’s voice we know, the one we can be certain of. But today we have an image I find altogether more uncomfortable: ‘I tell you most solemnly, I am the gate of the sheepfold’. The gate. I guess it’s an image about safety and safekeeping: ‘anyone who enters through me will be safe; he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture’. But I’m not sure I like the image… I do want to be safe, I’m sure of that. But gates can be shut as well as open; gates keep out as well as letting in. Maybe our safety depends on thieves and murderers being kept out. Maybe for us to have life to the full some others have to have far less. Maybe.
We have a problem with gates here. They keep breaking down. They get stuck on open. The local kids climb them, fiddle them, abuse them. To us the gates are a necessary evil. They deter vandals and car thieves. They keep the grounds quiet so that John’s garden can be the place of peace we want it to be for our retreatants. They keep the grounds a safe place to walk in at night. Or at least they should. We want them to.
But for a necessary evil our gates are quite grand, all wrought iron and gold leaf, with the name of Jesus on each one: the gate of the sheepfold.
Retreatants often say they feel a real sense of peacefulness when they come through those gates to this oasis. But it’s an oasis won with iron bars and barbed wire.
What do our neighbours think? What do the kids who sneak past them think? How do they see this place? Forbidden? Mysterious? A place to hide? A place for pranks?
Robert Frost says, ‘before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence’.
We know here what we are walling out but what are we walling in?
I’m not talking about Loyola Hall but about the Church.
April 17th, 2005
The death of Stephen marks the beginning of a great persecution of the Jerusalem Christians. Saul thinks he sees his life’s work: to destroy the Jesus-movement entirely. But the way Luke tells it he only succeeds in spreading the gospel on the tongues of scattered believers.
There’s an irony in the very word Luke uses for the persecuted people. Church he calls them—in Greek ecclesia—meaning the gathering. It is the gathered people of God who are scattered. The ones called together who spread the word by being flung apart. The gathering grows by being un-gathered.
We can read that as an irony for Saul—especially since we know the change of role and name coming up for him. But it’s also ironic for everyone involved. Though ironic doesn’t really capture the pain, the uprooting, the imprisonment. Is the Church being destroyed or being built up? Who are the heroes of the story and who are just the walk-on parts, the extras, history’s cannon fodder?
Don’t we wonder that in our own lives from time to time? Particularly at times of scattering, when the fabric is fraying, and the unknown opens ahead of us. Are we extras in someone else’s drama or is this our moment, the chance to speak our lines from the heart and move the great story on.
John has thought about that: “The will of the one who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me and that I should raise it up on the last day”.
In his way of telling the story there are no extras, there are no loose threads or wasted lives: each of us is at the heart of the tale. As God sees it, each of us is the axle history turns upon. You and I, each one of us is the hero of a story that has God riveted.
April 13th, 2005
An image from this morning’s papal funeral has been haunting me all day: it’s the small, plain, rather ordinary wooden coffin in the middle of all the splendour and ceremony filling the square. Just a simple box. And around it cardinals and bishops, prime ministers and presidents, and weeping, cheering pilgrims from all over. Just a wooden box.
Gamaliel gives good advice today: wait and see. Here’s the full might of the nation’s priests and scholars, lawmakers and law enforcers—the Sanhedrin—and in their middle just a couple of scruffy Galileans. Are they worth suppressing? Wait and see, he says. Christianity then was a handful of men and women with little going for them but a boldness and a crazy vision. Just a very few, a handful. Will they survive? Wait and see.
Despite the choirs and the cameras aren’t we heading that way ourselves—at least in Europe—dwindling to a handful. Our churches echo to empty words, the culture at large cannot take us seriously, while we argue among ourselves about trivia. Will we survive?
The Jesuits in this country have a single novice. In the six months he’s been with us half a dozen of us have died. Not long before we are just a handful. Will we survive? Will we be enough? Wait and see, says Gamaliel. Not much of an encouragement!
Jesus has encouragement aplenty but the price may not appeal to us. A handful, he says, is all he needs. A couple of fish and few lumps of bread. Will it be enough? He doesn’t wait and see. He wastes it. He takes it, blesses it, breaks it and gives it all away to feed a waiting world.
Not so many months on, he does the same, does it with his own body and blood, wastefully, in an attic room, while the Passover rages all around him. That was enough.
We only need a handful, only need to be a handful, if we are willing to throw it all away and waste it. Take it, bless it, break it, and give it away.
April 8th, 2005
It seems there are two ways for a preacher to play this gospel and in my time I’ve done both. Either doubt is a bad thing and Thomas’s a cautionary tale to make us believe blindly or doubt is good and Thomas is an image for us to imitate. The first approach is easy: John puts words into Jesus mouth – ‘Doubt no longer but believe’. The second is harder to pull off persuasively but you have that great profession of faith to work with: ‘My Lord and my God!’
Right now I’m feeling that both these miss the point. We are tricked by a name into making this story about doubt but I doubt it is. … What is it that the others believe yet Thomas will not? For me the clue is in the extra evidence Thomas demands: he doesn’t just want to see the Risen Jesus he wants to see his wounds—touch the holes made by nail and lance. I think that’s Thomas’s stumbling block—not that Jesus might be Risen but that Jesus Risen should still be wounded, still bear the mark of his failure, his shameful execution.
What does it mean for us that even resurrection cannot heal those wounds? What kind of happy ending is it if the holes in the fabric never get mended? What kind of God is it who wears such shame with pride?
I find myself torn. I love those wounds—they may be all that God and I have in common—my truest link to him, my surest unbreakable bond. But I hate them too—they seem … a flaw in things, an ugliness. I want my own wounds, my shame and shallowness gone. I want the touch of grace to make me whole and entire. I want the holes mended, the faults forgotten, the death undone.
Yet here is my Lord, my God, scarred, gashed, wounded.
I’m torn another way too. Why does Jesus only show himself to his friends? Why doesn’t he arrive in a flash of thunder on Pilate’s doorstep and teach him about truth? Why doesn’t he show Caiaphas once and for all the worth of a life? Why doesn’t he … well you can name the terms. He died, he rose, and still the rich oppress the poor, still we starve and suffer, still we murder in his name.
The fabric is still frayed, there are holes. The world is wounded like our God is wounded.
And we are given today a gift and a duty. The gift, the promise, is this: that when we put our fingers into those holes we will know and understand our God, and even ourselves. The duty? The duty is to be for the world what the Risen Christ has been for us.
April 3rd, 2005