Posts filed under 'Homilies'
Readings: Deut 6:2-6; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34
‘And after that no one dared question him any more’… Interesting. What do you think shuts them up so thoroughly? Are they scared? Confused? Are they silenced by his cleverness? Are they moved in some more obscure and unknown way?
And what of us? What happens in your heart on hearing that great prayer echoing tonight? ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the one God and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength’. What stirs in you? Anything? Fear? Devotion? Joy? … What?
All my heart, all my soul, all my mind and all my strength. That’s asking a lot. Will there be anything left over? All my heart, my soul, my mind, my strength. All my time and all my money. All my health and all my illness. All my virtue and all my vice. My light and my dark. My feeling, my dreaming, my laughing, my losing, my living, my dying. My blood and bones and highest hopes. My all.
And the more, the more I give, the more I have to love my neighbour and myself.
November 6th, 2006
Readings: Ephesians 2:12-22; Luke 12:35-38
Paul is falling over himself with metaphors today, mixing and matching like crazy, but all to one end: the urgent communication of a distance dwindled to nothing.
In Christ, foreign has become familiar. In Christ, two become one. In Christ, distance becomes closeness; hostility, harmony; war, peace.
We are now a single body, a single building, a single Temple.
We are no longer strangers, no longer lost and alone. We are saints and citizens and children of God’s own household.
The truth is we need all that rhetorical excess. We don’t find it easy to believe that the deed has been done, that we are one in God, part of the family, familiar, at home with God. Above all that God is at home with us… with you and with me. We keep inserting distances, awkwardnesses.
Luke tells a parable today about such awkwardness: we are waiting for God, he says, like servants waiting on their Master’s return but, when God comes, he does the waiting, he waits on us. I love the image: God puts on an apron, sits us down to dinner, hands us the menu, and waits on us hand and foot.
That’s our God.
October 24th, 2006
Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
I was watching a rerun of the West Wing the other evening, right back from the first series, and there was President Bartlett delivering an impassioned pep-talk to his daughter Zoë. She was about to leave for College and the passion flowed as the president grappled for words, trying to find how to say what he felt he needed to say. Here was his youngest about to step beyond the limits of his protection into an unsafe world and he wanted to say all that was in his heart of care and concern, of advice and admonition, of what to do and what not to do, who to know and who not to know—above all of who to be. All the stuff that needs to be said, yet cannot be said, but somehow is heard.
I remember being on the receiving end of just such a heart-to-heart—embarrassing and baffling and touching. To hear my father’s pride in me and his doubt and to see a strange vulnerability come over him as I realised the depth of my power to hurt him and the power of my desire not to. Here he was trying to give me the low-down, the pith of what he wanted for me, the essence of what he held most dear, the lessons he had learned, his fragile legacy of wisdom… for me, his son, to stand me in good stead, to make me a man.
Those two scenes have been with me today … with the echo of a third. Imagine it if you will. There’s God the Father on the timeless eve of the Incarnation, giving the Son just such a pep-talk, such a blessing. Telling him what to aim for, who to hang with, what to value, what to fear. I can see it, that picture—for some reason by the hearth of a roaring fire—but I can’t hear the words.
I find myself having to guess. Well, it’s not exactly guesswork since I’m supposing Jesus took that pep-talk to heart and lived it day-to-day to make his father proud. So I have a clue what passed between them. I glimpse a father’s concerns in his son’s. I hear an echo of a father’s words on his son’s lips… ‘The son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’.
October 22nd, 2006
Readings: Job 38:1, 12-21, 40:3-5; Luke 10:13-16
We get a rare glimpse of a family likeness today: Father and Son both letting off steam, both sounding provoked beyond endurance, both ticked off. And both complaining that we continue to be wilfully blind to the plain and glorious truth under our noses.
I love Job, the man, the book. He won’t let up his demand for explanation. And it won’t give up any answer to Job’s predicament. What we do get—which finally silences Job—is this tirade from the tempest’s heart. Who are you? Can you not see? Do you not know? Will you not wonder?
And then there’s Jesus letting rip too, wondering what it would take to get people to see and believe, pointing to miracle and marvel and the kingdom coming about their heads. Who are you? Can you not see? Do you not know? Will you not wonder?
I guess I’m glad Father and Son care enough to lose it a little. I have a tendency to let God grow distant, above my petty concerns, and beyond caring. I let God grow cool and careful and colourless. Maybe it feels safer. Certainly it asks less of me. But God never lets me off the hook. God cares. God nudges. God nags. Once in a while God loses it. God aches for me to see and to celebrate, to live and to love. Nothing less will do.
October 6th, 2006
Readings: 1 Cor 7:25-31; Lk 6:20-26
Setting his misogyny aside, I do love Paul’s urgency and absolute conviction that everything has changed. Everything is different after the death and resurrection of Jesus, with a difference that has diverted human—and even cosmic history—in a new direction. And in that new direction all the old rules cease to apply, all our customs and cultures are flimsy and fading. Kinship and consumerism, marriage and mirth—every bond and tie is loosened by the call of the coming kingdom.
I love that urgency—but of course I can’t feel it—even the greatest head of steam fizzles away over 2000 years. The world as we know it hasn’t passed away and we’ve all gone back to owning and operating with a certain relief.
Jesus has his own urgency and his vision is at once grander and more mundane. For him too, everything has changed. It has always and everywhere already been changed but we’ve conned each other into thinking otherwise. Not just so we can believe in tomorrow but so we can acquiesce to the demands of living the good life here and now. There’s a list of values—wealth, consumption, security, reputation—that we measure each other by. They drive our economies, control our customs, and feed our wars. And Jesus is saying we are wrong. Wrong on all counts. And we always have been. These are not the ways God accounts, not God’s values. Poor, hungry, bereft, and hated: those are God’s values, God’s way of life.
How can we believe such things of God All-powerful, all-knowing, all-present? Only by looking at Jesus: born in a cave, bedded in a trough, carried off as a refugee. Poor, hungry, bereft, and hated. … Happy.
September 13th, 2006
Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
It seems likely that that word ephphatha, be opened, was the first thing that man ever heard. That he came to hearing with that as his first word. Wouldn’t it echo in his opened ears for the rest of his life? Wouldn’t that be the word he cherished and held dear and whispered to himself in the middle of the night?
It used to be part of the roman rite of baptism, blowing on the child’s ears and eyes and lips and speaking the word ephphatha. It is the first word of every Christian life: ephphatha, be opened.
Notice it is not ‘open up’ but ‘be opened’. Not something we have to do but something we receive. It is the first gift God gives us and it echoes in our opened ears all life long.
What does it mean to be opened? First on the list is the way we receive the world: to see clearly, to listen sensitively. But it applies to our expression too: ‘the ligament of his tongue was loosened and he spoke’. To be opened is to express oneself openly, freely. The first gift of the Christian life is God opening our hearts and unbinding our tongues.
Opening and unbinding: there’s most of the Good News in a single breath. What is the first thing on God’s mind for each of us and for the world? That we be opened and unbound. That tells us more about God than a whole heap of hearsay.
I have been wanting to say that such a gift imposes an obligation in return. That we too be ones who open and unbind; in what we do and what we say, in how we vote and how we spend our money and our time, in the way we combat closed minds and double-binds wherever we find them.
But of course I’m wrong. There is no such obligation, no responsibility of right-living, no burden of blessing. The first words we heard from God removed all obligation—we are given our freedom freely, as a gift. What we do with it is entirely and wholly up to us.
September 10th, 2006
Readings: 1 Cor 3:1-9; Luke 4:38-44
What would it take for us to be weaned? For us to be beyond the milk of spirituality—past the rusks and the stewed apple even—and eating the spiritual food of adults?
Paul is pretty clear that the first thing to go would have to be the jealousy and wrangling and all those spiritual slogans that set us against each other in the church and the churches and make us such a laughing stock in the eyes of the real world. I can’t remember the context but it was Henry Kissinger who said of some situation of fevered hostility and bitter rivalry that it was all because the stakes were so low. And isn’t that how we must look from the outside? Which way should the altar face? What kind of music is allowed in church? What can a minister safely do in the bedroom—and with whom? Do you praise this Pope or the previous or the one before that?
Such matters matter I’m sure but bring out the scales and load them all in one pan and in the other place a single child maimed or murdered by the violence we sanction and see then how the balance weighs.
Jesus has a ministry of unburdening, of letting loose and setting free, but once the devils start speaking theology he shuts them all up and moves on out.
The test of our spiritual maturity is not in our religious purity and propriety—it’s not even in what happens on retreat—the test is how we manage to be or not be good news in the world. To be it, not speak it. Good news for those who doubt it most.
September 6th, 2006
Readings: Jeremiah 1:17-19; Mark 6:17-29
You could hardly have two readings more calculated to contradict each other than these. The first is bracing with promise: you will be a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze; they will not overcome you. And it’s quite a ‘they’ arrayed against the prophet: kings, princes, priests, and people. And it’s a promise that God does not keep. In the end Jeremiah is doomed and defeated: the Lord neither delivers him nor the people.
John the Baptizer fares no better: his message arrays the powers of his day against him and … and his God does not deliver him either. On its own that is bad enough, but we have that promise made to Jeremiah in our ears, awakening the engrained conviction that things really should go better for those who speak God’s word and do God’s work?
Hopkins the poet says it like this: “Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me?”
Not a happy note to begin a retreat we might think… but that seems to be exactly what Jesus does. As Mark tells it, he hears the story we have heard and he retreats to a quiet place to wonder about it all. To wonder about lost friends. To wonder about his own ministry, his own words and work, his calling, his future. To look to his roots. To look to God. To let God look back. … and if that’s good enough for Jesus perhaps it might be make a difference for us too.
August 29th, 2006
When I was at university some friends of mine signed up for VSO, Voluntary Service Overseas, to head off for Papua New Guinea. With the ghoulish interest of a 21 year old I thought to myself ‘mmm, cannibals! head-hunters!’ and hit the library, intent on scaring the life out of my buddies. I discovered that though dying out, the practice still existed but that it wasn’t a straightforwardly bloodthirsty activity but a deeply religious one. It was about bringing the tribe together around a sacred table where you literally made a meal of outsiders. You ate them—daintily I’m sure—to ensure that you all knew who you were and who you were not. It was a meal that formed and reformed you as a people. A meal to make your gods dwell among you, within you. A rite of communion and community.
Now doesn’t that sound just like what Jesus is talking about here? ‘Eat my flesh’, ‘drink my blood’. Notice there’s no talk of bread and wine here: this is stronger meat for stronger stomachs. Flesh that is real food, real meat; blood that is real drink, thick as soup.
The gospel rubs it in by the choice of words. John’s been using an ordinary word for eating but when he gets to point, ‘he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him’, he switches to a rather nasty word usually reserved for animals gnawing and chewing on their carcasses. ‘He who gnaws and chews my flesh lives in me.’ No wonder his hearers are arguing with him.
Cannibals and head-hunters only make explicit and literal what all human communities do implicitly and metaphorically. They—we—build our communion by making a meal of our enemies—the ones we will not tolerate among us. We cast them out to make ourselves whole. We might not know who we are but we sure as hell know who we are not: Us not Them.
It’s a very unholy communion: consuming the bread of death and division to find life and security.
Is this what we are doing here this afternoon? Is that what our communion is like? If it is we have betrayed Jesus who shows us another way—a holy communion. Instead of building a new community on the sacrifices of others he offers himself as a willing gift, a bloody meal without sacrifice, to make us whole. No more sacrifices. No more victims. No one is outcast from this table of his flesh and blood.
But to eat this flesh and drink this blood means more than opening our mouths and swallowing. It means saying ‘Amen’, ‘so be it’, with our lives. To eat this meal is to consent to be eaten too, to agree be flesh and blood for the life of the world.
August 20th, 2006
Bread. Bread for the journey, bread to keep you going in the desert when you are done with doing…
We join Elijah in mid story, sulking under a tree. ‘I’ve had enough. I want to die.’ But in truth he’s been eating the bread of death for a long time. He’s been fighting a guerrilla war for the honour of his God, culminating in a showdown with the massed priests of Ba’al. How do you prove your God is better than theirs? You turn to the tools of death. You settle the score with sacrifice, with a wager. 450 priests chanting and praying and gashing themselves for fire to descend and burn up their offering of a bull. Elijah taunting all the time… Nothing! Then our hero, building his altar, butchering his bull, getting his enemies to douse the lot with water, and then again, and once again, building it all up to a showman’s climax of fire licking from the sky consuming all before it. And the people loving it, leaping up with one voice: ‘Yeah! Yahweh for us!’
But the sacrifice doesn’t satisfy Elijah. Not enough. … It has only fed the fires that are burning him up. He seizes on the blood lust of the people and butchers all the priests of Ba’al.
Which sends him on the run… We catch him in the desert, under a thorn tree, his elation drained away, wanting to die. ‘Enough’, he says, though he is famished and still hungry for death. The bread of death hasn’t satisfied him.
I like to think this place of hell is a place of grace for him, his moment of truth… I like to think that he’s not just depressed because he has the hounds on his heels but that, with the taste of blood in his mouth, he is beginning to learn that sacrifice doesn’t satisfies him. ‘I am as bad as the worst of my ancestors’, he says out loud. And then and there his God dies, his bigger and better Ba’al dies and leaves Elijah alone and at rock bottom. And there and nowhere else the true God comes to meet him. Or since, rock bottom is God’s natural habitat, Elijah finally makes it down far enough to find God. Either way God is revealed here not as a bigger Ba’al but as someone with bread to feed him and give him the taste for life.
Like Elijah we come to the altar with blood on our hands. We are killers, all of us. Our every meal we take from the mouths of others. Our clothes off their backs. Our liberty we buy with their despair. Our health with their infirmity. We are no better than the worst of our ancestors.
We come to the altar guilty as sin, deserving of death. And what we find instead is someone with bread to feed us. It’s not much, that bit of bread, but it is enough. Enough for God. Enough to give us the taste for life.
August 13th, 2006