Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Reflections from The Hill – Questions and Promises – Luke 4.21-42


It’s hard enough just visiting one’s home town without having the difficulty of taking a service in the church you grew up in or wearing the embarrassment of preaching a sermon.


The closest I’ve ever come to doing any of that was to give the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral. The Requiem and all the other bits were done by the Rector.


There is a case to be made for not playing the Hometown Boy/Girl Made Good part. Just allow the one who has the job to do the job.


However, it did strike me the other day that we clergy actually have our own version of Hometown Boy/Girl whenever we take services and/or preach in a parish we’ve previously worked in. I suspect it happens quite often.


No matter how much people remember about us, foibles and misadventures are always overlooked; we are still treated like family; the congregation is still pleased to see us and proud that they’ve had some input into who we are today.


“Why, he was just the son of a humble carpenter when he left us. Now look at him. Born to it, he is. I always knew he was special.”


So, what went wrong? How could a homecoming turn so ugly? One minute people are amazed at his gracious words; next, he’s criticising them by assuming what they’re thinking: “No doubt you’ll quote the proverb …” That’s always a good place to start a blue.


It’s his fault really. He’s probably offended that they’re surprised at how well he’s done. And he’s turned around the warm-fuzzy they gave him about his genealogy and turned it into a challenge: “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?”


Perhaps he’s just sceptical about every attempt they’re making to be nice. Perhaps he feels he can’t trust them. Perhaps he’s just having a bad hair day. We’ll never know.


What we find out is this: his listeners might have reckoned that they knew him – and they may well have, at least to a point – but he knew them better.


For starters, he’s talking globally, not locally. He’s declaring something about God’s concern and love for all people, not just for the mob who are standing in front of him; his friends, neighbours and the kids he went to school with.


His use of the Isaiah quote (we heard/read it last week) is as important for what he doesn’t read as it is for what he does. He doesn’t read the nationalistic bit about crushing Israel’s enemies, for example.


He only reads about God having a special focus on the poor. There’s an important difference right there.


For this global view to become real, he’s saying that there’s going to have to be some changes. Just doing the logic will show that if God is to raise the lowly, then the powerful will be brought down.


Simple maths tells us that, in order for the poor to be fed, the rich are going to have to go away empty. The pie is only so big.


No, this speech isn’t about who’s The Favourite. It isn’t about The Big Man, who s/he is or where s/he comes from. It’s about change and the challenge this brings to the gatekeepers.


The sadness is, as we watch Luke unfold his Gospel, that it’s the messengers, the ones who have the vision, the dream, who pay the price, often at the hands of the gatekeepers.


The only thing that keeps our heads above water is to keep looking to him, the only one who God raised from the dead. The rest have gone the way of all flesh.


But he’s still out there, bringing forgiveness and grace – passionately and relentlessly – to all of God’s people.


We can start this new life by giving up the pretence of being perfect, of having it all together, of being able to make it on our own.


It ain’t easy, as I keep saying, because making a promise and then doing it can be really tough. The promise is that God will fulfil his word and, really, that ought to be enough to propel us all into a life of service, purpose and meaning.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Reflections from The Hill – Grace – Luke 4.14-21


Once upon a time, I had the world at my feet, my shoulder to the wheel and my eye on the prize. As a result, I now have constant leg cramps, rotor-cuff damage and myopia (short-sightedness).


In those days, I had no money, no wife on my arm and no job to go to. Now look at me.


The condition in which I once wallowed highlighted just how individualistic our world was back then. My guess is that nothing has changed in the meantime. That’s sad because it’s still all about me.


Church stuff just adds to the sadness. Right at the point where salvation came to my precious soul, right there at that sweet spot where amazing grace became a reality, we have persisted in the belief – and dare I say, the practice – that this saving grace has been brought on by some decision or action on our part.


In a world that has taught me to believe that life is all about No1, my actions, my strategies, my plans and my decisions, it’s confronting to discover that things aren’t like that at all if we’re serious about our faith-life.


In that setting, there’s nothing I can do because it’s all been done.


In a lot of ways, it would have been easier if we stopped reading at bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and setting the captives free. At least there’s plenty of action in that.


This part of the Gospel Reading today is the classic passage for every Liberation Theologian, every Evangelist and every preacher who can say “Jesus” in three syllables. It’s The Bloke’s Manifesto, his Inaugural. First words are important.


In a remarkably short sermon in which he uses only nine words, one of which is ‘fulfilled’, The Bloke lays down what he’s really on about. We modern day preachers could learn a valuable lesson here about the length of our sermons.


When something is ‘fulfilled’ – as in “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” – then that’s what it means: something that’s crammed full to the brim. It’s complete accomplishment. It’s something where there’s no space for me to do anything. And, frankly, it drives me nuts.

What does it mean that this scripture has been filled up and by whom is it filled? What does the promise mean for the poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed? Should it be limited to just those people?

What about the abused, the addicted, the put-down? What about them? And what does it mean for those who don’t suffer such difficulties? Are they to be left out? If not, is there another level of meaning here that I’ve overlooked?

There’s no easy answer to these conundrums (or is it ‘conundra’?) except that it doesn’t mean ‘no compassion’. What it does mean is that there are to be no whimsical feelings without my presence.


It doesn’t mean there’s to be no activity. What it does mean is that there’s to be no planting of a culture in someone else’s, something for which we in the west have been famous and for which the costs are just beginning to be counted.


The long and short of grace, for that’s what all this is about, is for us to realise and recognise and accept that The Bloke who read the scroll in the first place is fully aware of what he’s doing and saying and that we will too when and if we but stay close by him.


I guess that’s why we call it “Amazing”.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Reflections from The Hill – Wine and Time – John 2.1-11

It’s been said that while I mightn’t have learned a lot of theology in the seminary, I did graduate with a prodigious knowledge of red wine. I dispute that, of course: it took me another 4 years just to pass my final exam.

My tutors each said, in an attempt to pacify me: “That’s OK; you’re just a late bloomer. Your time will come.”

I’m not often likened to the Messiah but, honestly, it’s not difficult to miss the connection. Either that or I’m sillier than I thought.

Stories about grog being in short supply at weddings abound, at least in the community, where turning water into grappa – and walking on water – is part of the vernacular. While I might wonder about the truthfulness of such accounts, it’d be fair to say that there’s a fair bit of hyperbole at play here.

Truth is, most of the stories I’ve heard about weddings are about the quantities of alcohol that get consumed by the guests. (By far the best is the one about the mob who drank 21 bottles of cognac in one sitting. Even Napoleon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.)

Spare a thought for the wait-staff, though, those who had to clean up the empties and vacuum up the crumbs under the tables and dispatch the linen to the laundry. Spare a thought for those who were privy to what was a miracle of abundance, who actually saw it with their peepers, and probably didn’t even get as much as a sip.

Can you imagine the story that was told by the servants in their living rooms when they got home after work? Can you imagine the dawning understanding that they, unseen by most, were/are the ones for whom God’s abundance was especially meant?

Can you imagine that it was in the simple act of rescuing the reputation of the host of a wedding that the world itself was about to change, if only you had eyes to see? John is trumpeting it for us in today’s Gospel: this is just the first sign.

Knowing just this much makes a huge difference. Mary testifies to that simplicity: every moment we live in Jesus, she says, has the capacity to tell us something about The Big Fella. Bread, wine, water, even a hug – given at the right time – can convey something spectacularly supernatural.

It’s a curious thing, then, that the world seems to be drowning in a sea of Seiko and Citizen yet people never seem to have enough time. We might have lots of watches but time is of the essence.

Here’s the thing, when Jesus turns up, it’s always at the right time. However, what we’ve done is teach our young that time equals 5pm on a Friday, after which it’s our own; or it’s 8am on a Monday and it’s time to begin sorting through those invoices again. Everything between those two points is off-limits.

There is a time like this, make no mistake: a time that gets measured in minutes and seconds, weeks, months and years. It’s the sort of time that gets spent in lines at the supermarket or while idling the car at the stoplight. It’s the kind that relentlessly beats until our eyes close and there is no more.

Somewhere deep down, however, is another sort of time, the kind that displaces predictability with possibility. This is the sort that The Bloke talks about when he says that his hour hasn’t come yet.

Through and in the ordinariness of a wedding (and all that entails, as we have read), we hear The Bloke talking, not about dates on calendars, but about The Big Fella revealing something special.

We see him showing the wedding guests, in the utter ordinariness of it all, something about the way The Big Fella will be understood in future: through ordinary things like water and wine, crosses and death.

Whatever time we might think it is, it is also God’s time. When The Bloke turns up, so does The Big Fella – accessible and available to everyone. That’s the time when everything becomes possible.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Reflections from The Hill – The Call – Luke 3:15-22


In just about any parish anywhere, hardly a month goes past where there isn’t a titanic struggle over the question of baptism. It generally starts with a phone call, proceeds to a meeting (or even a series of them), gets followed up by an arrangement about dates and times and finishes with The Show itself.

The warfare, generally, isn’t fought between the parties, although I’ve witnessed some humdingers of those. This battle takes place between the ears of the clergyperson who’s been given the job of doing The Show and it’s been known to have a debilitating effect on the inner peace of the said Sky Pilot.

This is due, in part, to the Clergyperson’s superior knowledge about the context of The Bloke’s own Baptism and what followed. S/he knows, for example, that his baptism wasn’t about candles, white robes and parties but about struggles in the wilderness with demons.

That warfare is taking place because the danger these demons pose and the connection this has with a person’s journey of the spirit has been swamped by the ritual razzmatazz of getting the kid done.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the first bit of that last sentence doesn’t rate a mention in too many Baptism Classes these days. More’s the pity.

Mind you, it wasn’t the case when I was at The Coalface, either; I’ve always found it easier to go along with organizing The Show than to introduce folk to demons who can turn rocks into bread.

All this raises the question about the reason for baptism. The Bloke’s baptism, for example, is about his identity (read: vocation or calling): “You are my Son, my Beloved”, words coming to him in the intimacy of prayer.

From what I can read, there may not have been a whole bunch of eavesdroppers there, either, so it was for his ears only, a really personal encounter.

There’s still a lot of stuff to happen in Jesus’ life. Whatever else there might be, there’s the life-long drama of him living out his identity (read: vocation or calling) and meeting the great expectations that get laid upon him as he goes.

Maybe it’s worth pointing out that The Bloke’s calling (read: vocation or identity) isn’t about his job or his career; it’s not about a challenge to mission, that he should get out and talk up the Kingdom. Not yet anyway.

The Baptism is first and foremost the delight that The Big Fella has in his beloved, this chosen one, this child. It’s not a call to do stuff but a call to be something, not an activism but a vocation that names.

As with him, so with us: our first calling, our baptism (read: vocation) is one that simply loves and names us: “You are my child. I am well pleased with you.” This is where it begins and – let’s be bold to claim – it’s where it finishes, in the arms of the One Who Holds our Future.

Between the one and the other, between the beginning and the end, this identity (read: vocation or call) will sometimes morph into action.

The old books call it mission and ministry but there are other things here as well, not the least of which is learning how to wrestle with demons and to be waited on by wild beasts. As I say, it ain’t an easy road.

We learn very early in life to tell when it’s our mum’s voice calling us for meals or the chores or our homework. There’d be demons there if we didn’t hear.

Then it became the voice of parents, teachers and others calling us, shaping our lives in some way or another. There might be dragons there, too, for many vocations (read: call or identity) were initially wrapped in the voice of someone else.

Not all of those voices were the Voice of God and not all of them had to do with our journey. That’s why we need discernment.

However, I believe it’s a blessing to thank God for the joy of purpose in our lives and for the times when the call to something specific was, and still is for some, crystal clear.

Even when that Voice is muffled and our responses almost beyond our abilities to perform them, it’s good to remember that the calling (read: vocation or identity) that actually matters comes first and will continue right to The End.

Tasks, activities and duties matter – of course they do – but what lasts, what abides – our calling (read: vocation or identity), our belonging and our future – is heard right there by the waters: “You are my child, beloved and delight.”