Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pah! Kids!

On 14 August, the Church remembered Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest killed in Auschwitz, after ten prisoners were chosen randomly to die in revenge for what was wrongly thought to be an escape. One man cried: "My wife, my children! I will never see them again," and immediately Kolbe stepped forward to take his place, saying: "I am a priest; he has a wife and children."  Two weeks later, when his companions had died, and the cell was needed for more condemned prisoners, he was given a lethal injection.

The prisoner whom he had saved returned home at the end of the war, and was reunited with his wife, but, tragically, his sons had been killed. Every 14 August for five decades, he returned to Auschwitz to honour Kolbe. He said that he felt remorse for effectively signing Kolbe's death warrant, but came to realise that a man like him could not have done otherwise, and, as a priest, he wanted to help the men condemned to starve to death to maintain hope.

Kolbe's instinctive reaction to value that prisoner's unknown wife and children was the fruit of a lifetime of perceiving and knowing what he ought to do. By embodying Jesus's teaching, he publicly reversed the "values" of the Nazis.

"...The children are not the future. The living truth is the future. Time and people do not make the future… Fifty million children growing up purposeless, with no purpose save the attainment of their own individual desires, these are not the future, they are only a disintegration of the past. The future is in living, growing truth.” D. H. Lawrence

In and of themselves, our children aren’t a cause for hope.  They are just people, like the rest of us. Just because children might have more time ahead of them than we do doesn’t mean that they are going to make things better for humanity as a whole. Cuteness doesn’t bring about sufficient change or the world would be far lovelier by now. But that isn’t pessimism. It’s just rejecting sentimentality.  I don’t think that Jesus pulled the child towards him to gain the ‘ahh factor’ or to make a sweet point about innocence.

Hope comes from a greater truth than mere youth. Hope comes from the capital T – Truth that lives with us and within us and works before, between, and behind us all - God.  Mark shows us Jesus as Truth, capital T, declaring that things change if we welcome the children rather than childishly bicker about rank.  We see our world’s priorities tipped topsy turvey on their head, which is so often God’s way.  Worrying about status turns our gaze inwards on our own perception of self which will only get us tangled up in lonely ego.

Welcome is vital for Christian community. I’ve said it before - the most important person in a successful company is not the CEO but the receptionist. The quality of the welcome you get as you come in through the door colours and dictates the nature of your ongoing relationship (or lack of it) with that company.  It’s true for us as church - it’s being open to others, being aware of their comfort – or discomfort – with a situation and setting aside our own priorities to offer them love and comfort.  Like Maxamillian Kolbe, it is about us embodying Jesus’ teaching, and living out the welcoming love of God in Christ who, the Scriptures remind us, left the glory of heaven to come to search people like us out.

And, of course, it’s bigger even than our children as important as it is welcoming them.  And we should welcome them, not because they are the potential church of tomorrow or even because if we get them we get their parents - like church is some sort of recruitment drive.

Jesus expanded the concept of “neighbour” to include everyone who needs us, and I think that the word “children” on Jesus’ lips this morning means everyone. Everyone who is smaller and weaker or needy and hungry, and maybe less courageous, or lonely, or struggling, or tired, or sad. We all need to feel at home and welcomed into the presence of God by Jesus.

The Reverend William Ball of Westminster Presbyterian Church Ottawa,  recently posted this fantastic  welcome on facebook. It comes from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community and William found it here.  It’s a long one, but it’s worth wall-space in any church lobby.

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or if you can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!

Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes one such in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Sunday, September 16, 2012

I will follow...

George W Bush once visited a home for those suffering from dementia. He enjoyed a brief exchange with one of the residents, who seemed to be fairly lucid….so he risked asking “Do you know who I am.”  “No…” replied his conversation partner “but if you ask that nice nurse over there I’m sure she’ll be able to tell you”.

Of course, even on a bad day, George W wasn’t really in need of information…any more than Jesus is, in our gospel reading.  But that doesn’t mean that the question is unimportant. Quite the reverse.

As Jesus makes His way with His disciples to Caesarea Philippi He asks them  who people think that He is? Are people interpreting the miracles, the healings and the teaching correctly? In that people see Jesus in the same line as the ‘great ones of God’ like Elijah and John the Baptist means that people are identifying Jesus’ actions and words with the actions of God. Good. But what of those closest to Him? Do they get it?

‘Who do you say that I am?’ We will never know whether Peter’s response has been brewing for ages or not, but out it comes - Jesus you are the Messiah. No words of recognition from Jesus to Peter. No, well done you’ve got it right. Instead stern words not to tell a soul. Odd...

But has Peter really got it? Have any of those closest to Him really a clue? Are they any further down the line than the crowd?

So to make sure, Jesus quite openly begins some intensive but clear teaching with the disciples. The one that Jesus calls ‘the Son of Man’ will suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders, and after 3 days rise again. Is Jesus referring to himself? Surely not...

It’s no wonder that Peter wants to check things out with Jesus: ‘You are the Messiah right? The one bring to in God’s reign? The one who will liberate us and free us from Roman rule and into a new relationship with God? You cannot get the wrong side of our leaders and be killed by them and fail...’ And Jesus turns on him...: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ Is Jesus being overly harsh here? Well yes and no. It’s clear that at least one disciple hasn’t got a clear answer yet to Jesus’ question.

Who do you say I am? Peter get’s the title right, but the meaning wrong, Jesus is the Christ in one way, but in another, He is the AntiChrist. I am not trying to be controversial here but is Peter making Jesus to be Christ or Messiah in his own image, using the expectations of his day? Is he making assumptions of what Jesus is called to do by God and how He will accomplish it?

And so Jesus recasts who "the Christ" is and what he will do. He won't wield power over others; instead, powerful and cynical people will have their way with him.

Whispered conversations as to who Jesus really is lead to an open invitation to follow and discover for yourself. You can speculate all you like. The invitation though is open to anyone - not just the religious elite or those who expect liberation from Roman rule - He’s not that sort of Messiah, He’s the anti Christ - so the broken, sinners, the Gentiles, the unclean, the poor are all welcome as are gays, straights, drug addicts, alcoholics, the debt ravaged as well as the more respectable members of first and twenty first century society whether Jew or Gentile. There are only 2 conditions to following: self-denial and taking up of the cross.

Being a disciple of the anti Christ is about self-denial.  It’s about redefining what defines us. A person in Jesus' day was defined by those to whom they belonged -- usually family. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Those who follow Him are invited to join a community defined by association with Jesus; they enter a new family comprising all of Jesus' followers.

Self-denial also does not mean embracing suffering for its own sake.  Jesus has spent much time alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever he encounters it.  The kind of suffering Jesus acknowledges as a reality is a particular kind: persecution resulting from following him. Self-denial comes with risks.

Being a disciple of the anti Christ is about cross-bearing - Jesus is being blunt. Discipleship is about failure of reputations and death. Those who bore crosses in Jesus day were criminals who deserved punishment, those who lived contrary to the law and who the State had denied a right to life. In being called to bear the cross, judgement is being passed by the way a Christian life is lived on the standards set by our culture. It is not a call to separatism , but it is about losing our lives, and having them redefined by Christ’s own death and resurrection.

Who do you say I am? If Jesus is Peter’s Messiah, the Christ, then we are still waiting for the political landscape of the world to be changed, for the mighty to be unseated, for people of faith to be liberated and for God’s kingdom to come in with triumph.

But there’s no military might here only seemingly the prospect of a reputation in tatters and an embracing of death. But if you want to discover who Jesus really is, then your only option is to follow, to find out for yourself, for looking at Him from the outside can only misjudge Him as even Peter discovered.

It’s no wonder that this Jesus still has trouble attracting followers. It’s not an welcoming prospect.  His logic, that seems so opposite all we have encountered in life, invites us to discover our lives by receiving our identity as beloved children rather than trying to earn it through our accomplishments. It invites us to find our purpose in serving others rather than in accumulating goods. It invites us to imagine that our life – and the lives of those around us – have infinite worth simply because God chooses to love us apart from anything we've done or not done.

Why follow? Because, even when confronted by self-denial and death on a cross, it’s all about life. Not the pseudo-life we've been persuaded by advertisers or politicians it's the best we can expect, but real, honest-to-goodness life.  All we have to do is trade what we've been led to believe is life for the real thing. It's incredibly hard because so much money and energy has gone into convincing us that the best we can expect is a quid-pro-quo world where you get what you deserve. But if we can let it go, even for a few moments, we'll discover that God still loves to create out of nothing, raise the dead to life, and give each and all of us so much more than we either deserve or can imagine. Amen.

Saturday, September 01, 2012


So I have been back at work for 2 days, following thje most amazing holiday. I feel a little lost and unsure of what I am doing. This feels odd as I am now what the diocese call, 'an experienced priest.'

Part of it I suspect is that all of this is still new. I have been in my current post for just over a year. Much of the routines, people and places are ones that I am just getting to know.

Part of it though is something to do with holiday. Holidays are not just about time off, but from a Christian point of view, they are about rest, renewal and recreation - literally being made new. All this echoes the actions of God in His acts of creation as told in the book of Genesis. There is something in there about a theology of Sabbath too.

I am relaxed and renewed. I am not back in a place where I am ready to take on the stresses (however joyful they are much of the time) of parish ministry. I feel anxious but this morning I started to think differently.

This feeling comes from a sense of being overwhelmed at the task ahead of me. This is ok, because I have been reminded that I can do none of it on my own. My call to serve here is God's call, it's His church, and my work is about a pertnership with both.

This feeling of unprepared inabilityof anxiety that I feel, I have decided is good, because it arises from real rest and relaxation. The time off with my family was fully restoring and I don't want to lose that feeling! I had the time, I made the time, we had time... and that time and space was very good indeed... I need to make, to have, to take time in the midst of all that lies ahead of me. Part of that is about time with God, part of that is about time with and for my family and friends. Part of that though, is creating time, making diary space, to move more slowly, which is rather anachronistic in this instant world.

As a spaceship re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, heat and light are generated, as in the picture above. It's something about the interaction and reaction of ship, atmosphere and the forces applied one on the other at speed. (Sorry if I have got the science of that wrong.) The light and heat though are a concequence, an outcome and there is a very real risk is that the ship might burn up. Get the materials of the ship, the angle of re-entry and a miriad of other factors right and all is well.

I want to make sure that I get the interaction and reaction of work and rest right on me as I re-enter parish life so that the 'light' and 'heat' that are generated are not me burning up, but evidence of the purposes of God.

I need to get the angle right (How much am I doing? Am I giving myself and others the time they need?), I need to make sure that I am built of the right stuff (which includes what I make my life with - reading, prayer, worship, music, cycling, family, cooking. walking, sleeping etc).

A friend of mine, many years ago, told me that as people we are made to be human beings not human doings... I think I am going to try, this week at least, to live that way...