Friday, February 24, 2006

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving ...

A sermon preached on the occasion of the baptism of Matthew Whelpdale.  Our readings from the Bible are Romans 8.12-17 and John 3.1-8.


In the wonderful Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life, there’s a skit where two medical technicians try to persuade a sceptical woman to donate her liver –given that they want to remove it while she’s still alive you can’t blame her for being just a bit hesitant.  Trying to get her to see the bigger picture they burst into song –  “Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown ...
    Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
    and revolving at 900 miles an hour ...
    In an outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour
    of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.”

By the end of the song, Mrs Brown is feeling just depressed enough, just insignificant enough, to agree.  It’s a wonderful, comic moment –but it’s got a sting in the tail.

The genius of Monty Python is in the way it manages to blend the ridiculous with the truly hard questions of life.  What are we here for?  The fact is that the universe is bigger than our wildest imaginations, that it’s in motion, changing and evolving, still being born.  As the psalmist asks – what are humans, that God even bothers to think about us?  Religion used to duck the hard questions posed by science – even today, many Christians feel threatened by the idea of a universe that isn’t finished.  How special are we?  Does evolution make a mockery of religion’s claim that human beings are created in God’s image?

This morning we’ve heard from St Paul, and then we heard from Jesus in St John’s Gospel talking in a very similar sort of language.  About the new and transformed life that becomes possible when we recognise the movement of God’s Spirit in us.  And I think the thing that strikes me most of all about this sort of talk is that there’s the sense of movement.  The word that Jesus uses that Nicodemus gets so hung up about – in Greek it’s anothen which means two things at once, it means ‘again’ but it also means ‘from above’ – Nicodemus just hears it as ‘again’, but what Jesus is talking about is more profound, it’s about recognising that our own identity is formed by God not just as a ‘one-off’ creation but as a work in process – that God’s spirit continues to move in us and form us moment by moment – and for Jesus the Spirit-filled life is possible when we begin to recognise that movement and go with the flow.  And that, also, is what St Paul is getting at – the Spirit of God in us is not just a ‘set and forget’ creation but an invitation for us to dive headfirst into the flow of God’s own life – for us to be God’s children means the recognition that what is animating us is God’s own Spirit, the recognition that we ourselves are in movement from the inertness of individualism towards our true identity as active participants in God’s own life.  In short, that human life is a journey into the creative heart of God.  It’s a surprising and exciting idea, and it’s one that for most of the last two thousand years, with its emphasis on human sinfulness, the Christian Church has often forgotten about.

It’s a strand of Christian spirituality that connects us with the mysterious and powerful currents of our own creative potential.  Back in the 17th century, the mystic Meister Eckhart recognised this when he wrote, ‘we are heirs of the fearful creative power of God’.  Our creative powers can be either life-giving or destructive – or both at once, for example in the human genius that unravelled the mystery of nuclear energy.  And Eckhart realised that this human creativity that we all share has its source in God - and this is exactly what it means that we are created in God’s image, that the human soul becomes the furnace of creation.  Everything that God has created, and everything that God will create millions of years in the future, Eckhart claims, is created by God in the depths of the human soul.  We who are made in God’s image, share God’s capacity to dream and to imagine the universe into being.  Not just in big ways, through the creative genius of artists or scientists, but in the everyday miracles of human creativity, giving birth and bringing up children, growing and preparing food, the joy of making things that are useful and beautiful.  That’s where we get to share in God’s never-ending act of creation.

Which of course brings us to baptism, and to the focus of our worship this morning, which is to share with Ben this pivotal moment where all this comes into focus.  Every time we have a baptism at All Saints I try to say something about what baptism is, and what it means – I try to find something that might be helpful for parents who bring their child for baptism, and for all of us as we reflect on what our own baptism means.  And this time I’ve been most struck by what Jesus says that connects our baptism – our saying ‘yes’ to the Spirit-life that God wants to give us – with God’s original ‘wind hovering over the water creation’.  Baptism, according to Jesus, is us consenting be created by God, us consenting to enter into the partnership of creation that God wants to offer us.  Remember in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist, how he comes up out of the Jordan River, streaming with water, and he sees the sky torn open and God’s Spirit coming down on him, and he hears God’s voice saying ‘You are my Son.  I love you.  I delight in you.’  Doesn’t that remind you of the story in the very first chapter of Genesis, the story of how God creates the earth and everything in it?  How God’s Spirit hovers over the chaotic waters and how, as each new thing emerges, God recognises it and pronounces it good?  You see, that’s what happens in baptism.  God creates us, God recognises us as his sons and daughters, God whispers in our ear our true name, who we really are.  And God says to us, ‘You are my child.  I delight in you.’

Today, God’s going to be whispering in Ben’s ear.  And of course Ben’s going to need help to hear what God is saying to him.  That’s why we ask parents and godparents to promise to bring up their children in the faith of Jesus Christ, to tell their children the story of creation, and the story of Jesus, and the story of themselves as God’s own child.  That’s why we ask the whole congregation to promise to be a community where God’s story is told and retold, where God’s creation is celebrated and God’s promises are remembered, where each and every person is reminded that they bear a special responsibility for God’s creation because they are made in God’s image.  For one reason, and one reason only.

So we can help one another remember the words that God whispers to us: ‘You are my child.  I made you, I delight in you.  In you and through you, I bring the universe to birth’.



Saturday, February 18, 2006


At the very end of James Joyce’s mammoth novel, Ulyssess, Molly Bloom surprises herself by falling in love. In the very last words of the last chapter of the novel Molly muses to herself about the sheer unlikeliness of it all: ‘and I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes … and I put my arms around him yes … and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes’.

Isn’t ‘Yes’ just about the most wonderful word in the English language?


Just think about all the times in your life that doors have opened for you when you have heard the word ‘yes’ from somebody, when your heart was in your mouth while you waited for the answer that might just change the rest of your life. The yeses and nos of other people are like the traffic lights of our lives that close off some directions, some dreams, and bring other dreams to life.

But the yesses and nos of life aren’t always consistent or clear. Remember the TV show, The Vicar of Dibley? And the old character on the Parish Council, old Jim who responds to every question with a well-considered ‘No – no, no, no, no. Yes’? – my Dad used to do something a bit like that, he never even realised it until someone asked him once, ‘why do you start off every question by saying ‘no’?’ I remember he had to think about it for a while, because what he thought he was saying was ‘You know?’ It had become so much a habit that it just came out as ‘No?’ When yesses and nos get mixed up, when we come across people who say yes when they really mean no, or whose yesses and nos seem random or inconsistent – that’s when relationships become difficult.

Child psychologists tell us that for children, security means being sure of what a parent’s yesses and nos are about – when I became a dad myself, I realised how much attention my twin boys paid to my yesses and nos when one day after a sustained bout of pestering I finally said ‘well, maybe’. And they fell silent for a bit. Then from the back seat of the car I heard Joseph whisper to Ben, ‘Maybe means yes’. I hadn’t actually realised that, but of course he was right. Children whose parents’ yesses and nos aren’t fixed and dependable start to lose their moorings. Sometimes – in fact fairly often – a parent’s firm but consistent and loving ‘no’ is what the child really needs to hear. Sometimes a parent’s ‘no’ means ‘yes’ to what really matters.

At the beginning of his second letter to the church in Corinth, a letter that seems to have been written at a time when relationships are strained almost to the breaking point – St Paul interrupts his somewhat defensive self-justifications by reflecting on the ‘Yes’ of God in Jesus Christ. St Paul’s not being na├»ve - he doesn’t think that God always says ‘yes’ – in fact, elsewhere in the letter he reflects on the ‘no’ we sometimes seem to get from God [1] - but here he says that God’s ‘yes’ is dependable and that Jesus shows us and acts out for us how God’s promises are a ‘Yes’ to life.

You see, there’s a pattern to God’s ‘yesses’, God’s ‘yesses’ are always consistent with what brings life. Have you ever noticed how a sunflower turns itself throughout the course of a day so that it always faces the sun? The need for light and the yearning for light is woven into the sunflower’s DNA. And in the same way, St Paul reflects that the ‘yes’ of God strikes a corresponding chord in us. God’s ‘yes’ he says, encounters at the deepest level of our selves, a corresponding ‘Amen’. Like the trembling delight of Molly Bloom when her ‘yes’ encounters the ‘yes’ of a lover, God’s ‘yes’ resonates and echoes within us whenever our lives take a turn towards what brings us light and life. God’s ‘yes’ is woven into our own DNA as the divine permission and divine intention for human joy.

Is it at all surprising to hear that in church? Is it at all surprising to hear that God intends you for joy, and that joyfulness is the very best indication that you are oriented towards God? Maybe so, because historically the church has not been very good at preaching the ‘yes’ of God. Too often we focus on the ‘thou shalt nots’, on the cost of being a disciple. At the cost of living lives defined by judgmentalism and narrow prejudice, we forget the exuberance, the life-affirming irrepressible ‘yes!’ of God that we see all around us in the goodness of God’s creation.

Our gospel reading today shows us just what St Paul means, Jesus saying ‘yes’. And I just want to pick up on just one point of this wonderful, jam-packed gospel reading. It’s about knocking down the barriers that get in the way of God’s ‘yes’. Metaphorically as well as literally and, the paralysed man can’t move. Luckily he has some lateral-thinking friends. Maybe here paralysis stands for more than physical disability, maybe it stands for everything that keeps us immobile. Sometimes it’s the self-paralysis of shame and guilt that prevents us from living freely and joyfully. And I think Jesus recognises that this man’s deepest need is spiritual, not physical, because he says, ‘your sins are forgiven’. And only after that, ‘get up, pick up your bed and walk’. Jesus never presumes, as most people of his time did, that physical illness is linked to sin – but he has a fine eye for what really has people pinned down. ‘Be free of what has you trapped’, is what he’s saying. ‘The whole reason I am here’, Jesus tells us, ‘is so that you might have life in all its fullness’. [2] That’s God’s ‘yes’, and because human beings are oriented towards God, because we are made in the image of God, God’s ‘yes’ finds an echo inside us.

The sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius of Loyola, has got the same idea, and he teaches us how to listen for God’s ‘yes’. The spiritual method St Ignatius teaches is simplicity itself. ‘You want to know where God is, where God is leading you?, asks St Ignatius. Just notice what delights you. Be guided by your deepest joy. Don’t be fooled by this – as an ex-soldier, Ignatius imposed a military discipline on his priests – this apparently simple question is more tough-minded than it looks! Ignatius suggests to us that when the currents of our life are flowing in the direction that God is leading us, then the result is joy at the deepest level. Joy that persists and that is enough to sustain us even in the middle of the hard circumstances and the sad losses of our lives. God, who knows us through and through, the God who knows our failures and our lost potential and the smallness of our capacity to love, keeps saying ‘yes’ to who we are and what we might become. It’s a word that all too easily gets drowned out by broken dreams and negative self-talk. So you have to work on it. Reflect daily on what gives you life. Notice the pattern of when God’s ‘yes’ has encountered an answering ‘yes’ within you. Listen together for when our life as a community has resonated with God’s ‘yes’ for us. Learn from the times when it hasn’t.

Expect to be surprised by joy.

[1] For example 2 Cor 12.8 ‘Three times I appealed to the Lord about this …’

[2] John 10.10 ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Kissing frogs

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who happened to meet an ugly frog. ‘Hello, beautiful princess,’ said the frog. ‘I'm not really a frog at all. I've been enchanted by an evil sorcerer. If you kiss me, I will turn into a handsome prince.  Promise.’

So the beautiful princess bent over the lily leaf and planted a great big kiss on top of the frog’s slimy head.  Like you do.  Unfortunately, she had completely forgotten to check that the coast was clear first.  History is unclear about whether the frog ever did turn into a handsome prince.  But there is no doubt that the photographs in the morning paper and the ensuing scandal did force the princess to leave the castle in disgrace.  After all, she might start developing warts on her face.  Who knew what she might get up to next?  Or what disreputable types she might get up to it with?  Come to think of it, she was beginning to look a bit froggy herself …

Always, when we read the stories that have come down to us in the gospels, we need to remember that this was a very different world to ours.  The way people thought in the 1st century was completely different to the way we think.  Anthropologists would describe it as a society dominated by the opposite poles of honour and shame – being acceptable or being unacceptable.

One of the main ways this worked in Jewish society was about whether you were ritually clean – this wasn’t about how often you washed your hands, but it was about not being yucky.  Yucky people weren’t allowed to worship God.  The idea seems to have been that God couldn’t put up with yuckiness.  That of course worked mainly against poor people – who no matter what century you live in are generally the ones that get landed with the most yuckiness.  Not only were yucky people not allowed to worship God, but if you wanted to worship God you had to make sure you didn’t go anywhere near anybody yucky.  Sometimes you got temporarily yucky, for example if you touched a dead body, or a sick person, or if you gave birth – like Mary did when she gave birth to Jesus.  For the temporarily yucky person it wasn’t so bad, you just had to wait a while and then offer a sacrifice and then you were back in.  For permanently yucky people it was more of a problem.

One of the ways of being yucky was to be a leper.  Now this isn’t modern leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, which is a disease of the nervous system, but a catch-all term that probably included any sort of skin complaint, anything from scarring to an unexplained rash to a bad case of pimples.  If you were a leper and you got better, well and good, and there was a definite procedure for getting a clearance from the temple authorities and then you were back in.  In the meantime – tough luck – you had to wear rags, not comb your hair, cover your face, live outside the town limits, and shout ‘Unclean, unclean’ to anybody who might come too close.

But today we read about a leper who breaks the rules.  For us, in our individualistic age, that mightn’t sound too shocking – although it wasn’t so long ago, was it, that people lived in irrational fear of touching somebody who had AIDS?  But in the world Jesus lived in, social boundaries were a whole lot harder to cross.  You stayed where you were put.  But not this guy.  Instead of staying at a distance, he comes right up close to Jesus.  Instead of shouting his pathetic warning, he issues Jesus with a direct challenge: ‘you can make me clean, if you want to’.

This pushy leper who knows he is a social pariah, who knows he is terminally on the outer, believes that God is so powerfully present in Jesus that none of that matters.  He insists that yuckiness should be acceptable to God.

I wonder if this pushy leper, who comes along according to Mark at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, helps Jesus to work out who he really is, and what God really wants him to be?  Because there’s a bit of doubt about exactly what happens next.  There’s a bit of doubt about how Jesus reacts to this outsider who won’t obey the rules.  And it comes into our Bible in verse 41 where we read that Jesus is moved with pity.  Because the trouble is, not all the ancient manuscripts agree about this.  Some of the oldest ones say that Jesus is moved not with compassion but with anger - and many Bible scholars think that might even be the original version because it’s harder to explain.  We find it easy to understand why Jesus reacts with compassion, but anger is more puzzling, more disturbing.  And a couple of verses later it seems Jesus is still angry, he speaks sternly to the man he has just healed.  Can you feel compassion and anger at the same time?

I think we get a clue about this when we read the rest of the story, because this guy just doesn’t do what he’s told.  Jesus, who ends up getting a bad reputation for flouting the rules, is actually really keen for this man to do things by the book.  Take yourself off to the priests, show them you are healed, he says.  Little enough to ask, wouldn’t you think? 

Maybe Jesus is feeling something similar to what I feel when I’m confronted by a smelly drunk at the train station.  A mixture of emotions, isn’t it?  Compassion has its limits.  There are ways of getting help without putting me on the spot like this!  Jesus knows that if touches a leper – if he touches a yucky person then he is going to be yucky too.  By touching the unclean person, Jesus himself is going to become unclean.  Could it be that Jesus is caught between a pushy leper and the community sense of the right way to do things?  And he is angry because he is being put in a bind.  Angry because he’s torn between compassion and the need to belong.  But in this story we see Jesus working out who he is and what God wants of him.  Because what wins is compassion.  Jesus does what Jesus always does – he touches the one who is untouchable.

But it doesn’t stop there, because the former leper keeps breaking the rules, and the rumours start spreading quicker than chickenpox: ‘Did you hear what Jesus did?  He actually touched a leper!  Yuck!’   

You see, when we first read it, it looks like the leper is doing Jesus a favour.  Getting him a reputation as a great healer.  But actually the reputation Jesus is getting here is the wrong sort of reputation altogether.  Jesus has been caught out kissing a frog.  Maybe that’s why he has to stay out of town from now on.  By touching the outsider, Jesus becomes an outsider, and we already know how the story ends.  Eventually he’s going to die as an outsider, on a cross on a garbage dump outside the city.

Do you remember last week, how I said that God heals us by touching us.  Nothing fancier than that.  But there’s always a cost.  Jesus kisses frogs and ‘poof!’ – now there’s two frogs on the lily leaf – making outcasts acceptable by becoming an outcast himself.  The way God works on our brokenness and our unacceptableness is by joining us right in the middle of it.

But what does that mean for us?  Two things – First, it tells us that God’s love for us is costly.  Making us whole and complete isn’t as simple as pulling us into the winners’ circle, a divine immunisation against misfortune – quite the opposite, answering our prayers and healing our brokenness means God joining us in the reality of our day-to-day circumstances.  This is what St Paul is getting at when he writes: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness’. [1]  Don’t pray for the weakness to be taken away from you, because it is in your weakness, in your brokenness, that you will know the reality of God with you and God for you.

And the second thing?  We get to kiss frogs as well.  I guess we don’t generally come across lepers wandering the streets of Belmont.  The world we live in isn’t desperately concerned about ritual cleanliness and purification.  But who are the people we don’t want to touch?  The list of available suspects is long enough – immigrants, rich people, poor people, bikies, Muslims, car thieves, child molesters, drug addicts – our world still makes outcast groups through vilification and blaming.  But who is it for you?  Who is beyond the pale for you personally?  It’s not a rhetorical question, and if it makes you angry you’re in good company.  But look closely, next time you come across your secret leper at the shopping mall or waiting at the traffic lights.  Look into the face of the one that you would cast out and see the face of Christ.



[1] 2 Corinthians 12.9 – NRSV translation ‘for power is made perfect’ but notes other ancient authorities, ‘for my power is made perfect’.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The long day at Capernaum

[This sermon follows a number of sad losses in our parish community. We begin by naming and reflecting for a moment on these.]

And I think when these things happen to us, there’s a mixture of feelings – always a sense of being caught unprepared, of not being ready, not knowing quite what to do, a feeling of having been left alone to deal with an anxiety or a loss that nothing in our lives has ever prepared us for, a concern also that our expressions of care for one another might be inadequate. A feeling of having come adrift from our moorings, the solid supports that keep our lives on an even keel. A feeling of tiredness, of being overwhelmed.

Of course we know that we will get through these things – we give thanks for the strength and support of families and friends, and we are reminded as a community of the importance of caring and praying for one another. But maybe we are also reminded how our faith in God and our faith in one another may have become weak or habitual. The fabric of our community of care may seem to have frayed. Where is God for us today? How does God help, in times when everything seems to be falling down around us? Or even – as the people of Israel seem to be asking in the background of our reading from Isaiah - does God care?

Isaiah is writing here to a community who have survived war and captivity, a community on the edge of being released from exile but who are tired and dispirited. After 70 years of exile Israel no longer sees God’s promises as trustworthy – against the cruel realities of international politics and being tossed around as a minor trophy between the great powers, Israel no longer has the awareness of God as being in control or even caring much about them. God has come to seem remote and uninterested. And against this background, in Isaiah chapter 40, God himself speaks – the prophet dares to speak in God’s own words.

It’s a message that’s more awe-inspiring than cosy, isn’t it? God reminds the people of their difference in perspective – don’t you get just slightly the feeling that God is talking to the people as though they were schoolchildren who have forgotten something they should have learned back in grade one? ‘Don’t you know? Have you forgotten?’ Our best efforts to understand the ways of God or of the world around us seem pretty feeble, nothing we do is permanent, none of our achievements will last – our plans and everything we build are transient, gone in a moment from God’s perspective, we hop around like grasshoppers. We get distracted by success, and we get distracted by grief. God points out the stars in the sky and reminds us who created them, who holds them in place. You might be reminded here of God’s answer to Job in his sufferings. ‘Just remember who created you, buster – don’t expect to see things from my point of view’. You might not be feeling a whole lot better at this point. But does God care?

But then comes the rest of the answer. ‘Why do you suppose that I don’t care?’, God asks – ‘because my strength is your strength, my infiniteness is what holds you up’. That’s more or less what God says here. All you need to do is wait on me – but the Hebrew word that our Bible translates as waiting is an interesting one because it’s an active thing, not just hanging around twiddling your thumbs. Qawah which means ‘to wait for’ and ‘to hope in’ comes from a root word that means twisting or plaiting a strand of rope – waiting on God means allowing God to work on us, to braid us or plait us into God’s own strength and purpose for us. Even young athletes run out of puff – just think of that poor young Olympic rower who collapsed in the middle of a race – and that’s how it is for us if we try to depend on our own strength. But if you allow God’s strength and God’s wisdom to hold you up then you will soar like an eagle – that’s effortless, isn’t it, the way an eagle hangs in the air almost without moving? It finds the thermals and just lets itself get carried. Do nothing, just wait and trust and allow God to work on you.

That’s a pretty strong and encouraging picture, isn’t it? Turn to God, says Isaiah, and he will give you wings that will enable you to soar and ride out the storm, whatever happens, or wherever you find yourself in life. God will renew your strength and fill you with new energy whenever you turn to him and let him recharge your batteries.

But how do we do that? Is that just spiritual jargon – ‘turn to God’? In our gospel reading today Jesus shows us exactly how.

Our gospel reading today is part of the passage in Mark’s gospel that some commentators call ‘the long day at Capernaum’. We actually started last week, with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, making some new enemies and healing the man possessed with a demon. Then straight after church, off to Simon Peter’s house to heal his mother-in-law. A quick break for lunch and hopefully an afternoon nap, because as soon as the sun sets, at the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the whole village is queued up at the front door. People to be healed, demons to be dispelled. Everybody wants something from Jesus.

This is Jesus’ busiest day ever, and taken altogether it shows us why the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming is good news – because people are being healed and set free. Jesus in his ministry is fulfilling the promise of Isaiah.

But I want to pick up just two points out of this jam-packed reading – and this is the first one, that Jesus heals people by touching them. He heals by showing compassion, by holding people, taking them by the hand – and this is the ministry of healing with which Jesus also charges us, as his disciples. God heals us by physical touch, by coming into our own community and touching us in the universal language of human care. Nothing more glamorous than that, and that is how we also are called to heal one another. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law responds to the healing she receives by getting up and making lunch. Simple acts of physical availability make us part of God’s own life, because that’s what the Trinitarian life of God is all about – pouring out God’s own self in the service of the Other.

But the gospel writer also wants us to notice the need for balance, because the morning after the night before Jesus wakes up feeling drained and tired. We do know what it’s like to be worn out by grief, our own grief and the grief of other people. Jesus must be feeling light-headed with it, and what does he do but go right back to where he started – straight back out into the desert to spend some time alone in prayer. This tells us something fundamental about Jesus and about ourselves too. Jesus needs to turn inwards, away from the desperation and demands of human need and back to the solitude that will bring him back into focus and reconnect him with the source of healing and compassion. Take time out to let God plait you back into the rope of God’s own life. Learn to be silent. Wait on God. Learn to listen.

There’s something else that often gets overlooked, and it’s that Jesus never did heal everyone who needed him. There were always so many others, that’s the problem isn’t it? – if you’re in Capernaum then you’re not in Bethsaida – if you’re praying in the desert then there are people in the villages not getting attended to. Can’t you imagine the clamour next morning when it turns out Jesus has disappeared – ‘but I brought my mum all the way from Sidon!’ Jesus is no exception to the reality that, on a human level, the needs that surround us are always too great. Learn from Jesus that you can’t do it all.

Jesus doesn’t need to be needed. He just needs to be in touch with God. The point – for we who are called to be Christ to one another - is to be in touch with the source of what gives us life, stop flapping our wings and wait for the thermal currents of God’s own breath to lift us up. Allow ourselves to be healed and we will be a source of healing and peace for those around us.