Saturday, September 29, 2007

St Michael and All Angels

Feast days – always thought it a bit odd because there wasn’t any food.  (though today it looks as though we are getting something a bit special ... ) Stuffing yourself silly, McFeast (contains two ¼ pound beef patties – replaced during the 1990s by the Megafeast which we can only imagine) – quantity not quality (actually the opposite of what I’d call a real feast, bland, served in buckets) – overload, feasting your eyes on something, sensory overload, entertainment, jugglers, dancing girls, clowns, music, crackers, balloons – the wedding feast – anticipation, celebration and delight – or royalty, ostentatious displays of wealth and power, the peasants in the snow outside pressing their noses against the pane, now that’s a feast.  So what, I wondered, was it about the church’s celebration of St So-and-so that made it a feast, and did our celebration of it really live up to all the hype that the name implied?

On the other hand there’s what we call a fast, specially the weeks of Lent which, in my early Church days I was quite relieved to know didn’t literally mean bread and water.  Paring away, peeling back the layers to allow what’s grown comfortable and self-serving to be challenged again by the prickly truths of the gospel, the giving up of something good in order to focus on the real desire of our hearts, allowing ourselves to acknowledge our emptiness so that we can find room in our lives to receive God’s overflowing love.  So fasting for us can be even more metaphorical than feasting.  Sometimes, of course, fasting is undertaken by Christians quite literally, as an act of prayer, or as an act of protest, as Archbishop John Sentamu famously did for a week in August last year, giving up a week of his holidays to camp in a little tent inside York Cathedral fasting for peace in the Middle East.  When he was here just a few weeks ago for our sesquicentenary celebrations, Archbishop Sentamu spoke of his surprise that during that week he never actually felt hungry, the daily Eucharist with its dissolving scrap of bread and sip of wine, he said, really did provide all the nourishment he needed.

On Friday evening, Alison and I were honoured to be invited to a Ramadan dinner, an Iftar meal, which is the meal eaten just after sunset to break the daily fast – and we found ourselves amazed by a wonderful kaleidoscopic blend of cultures and foods that seemed more feast than fast, and a feast, too, of friendship and spirituality, of prayers and verses chanted from the Koran and read from the Book of Lamentations, a beautiful and agitated young woman speaking of her dream of Muslims and Christians living together in peace; a profound and gentle reflection by our own Archbishop that fell into place for me as the groundwork for what I wanted to say to you today, on the feast of St Michael and All Angels that is also our patronal feast day, the day of reflection on who we are as God’s people in this particular place and time.

Ramadan – the fast that is a feast – calls Muslim people to acts of generosity and prayer, to acts of vulnerable hospitality, to recognising as sisters and brothers those of other faiths who accept the simple invitation to sit down and eat together.  The recognition that the shared DNA of all humanity is the DNA of God.  And finally to the profound and disturbing recognition that the DNA of God is distorted by the heavens of our own narrow visions and making.  Perhaps that, Archbishop Roger suggested, is what we really need to fast from, from the heavens of our own imaginations.

Two powerful images compete for attention, for me, in our reading from the Book of Revelation today.  St Michael doesn’t really get a major starring role in the Bible, just a brief mention in the Book of Daniel, in the letter of Jude, and then, stunningly, here in John of Patmos’s dreadful vision of war in the heart of heaven itself.  ‘And there was war in heaven’. 

Can we even comprehend that?  War in the very presence of God!  In all the visions of heaven that we hold onto as a hope, that we comfort one another with at times of trouble, both the Christian and the Muslim images of heaven, the breath of heaven that sustains and nourishes our lives would seem for most of us to be the very antithesis of war – the nearer we are to God the more remote all our earthly troubles like competitiveness and conflict, suspicion and violence become.  We desperately want to believe that heaven is the home of peace.

And yet, Archbishop Roger said, just take a look at the heavens of our own imagination.  Just look at the war that breaks out when the fundamentalist religious fantasies of Muslim and Christian heavens collide.  Just look at the secular, scientific heavens we make for ourselves, the capitalist heaven of middle-class consumption in wealthy nations that condemns the two-thirds developing world to poverty, the greed for minerals and energy and medical breakthroughs and gadgets.  The ideological heavens of communism or humanism or postmodernism that hollow out the lives of men and women of meaning and dignity.  The heavens we human beings make out of narrow visions and universes that ultimately revolve around ourselves – and that inevitably fall prey to the worm of self-absorption and distrust.  What if in our fascination with the heavens of our own imagination, our fantasy worlds with rules for keeping us in and other people out, Archbishop Roger wondered, what if we’ve forgotten that the hospitality of heaven is God’s prerogative alone?  On the feast of St Michael maybe we need to fast, the Archbishop suggested, from the presumption of making heaven in our own image.

And so I was reminded of my second powerful image, jumping from the very end of the Bible to the very beginning, where an angel with a flaming sword is involved in another eviction.  If, as Bible scholars suggest, the dragon of Revelation is loosely modelled on the serpent of Genesis, here’s the shock, because in Genesis it’s not the serpent that gets shown the door, it’s us – or at least the archetypal representatives of the human propensity of thinking it’s not God in control, it’s us.  If the dragon of Revelation stands for the arrogance of reconstructing heaven in our own image, the angelic eviction in Genesis reminds us of our failure to live in right relationship with God or to nurture and protect the goodness of God’s creation.  Like scary bookends, angels with sharp objects at either end of the Bible stand as a permanent reminder of the presumption that needs to be banished from us before we can be ready to live in community as God intends us to.

Equally pyrotechnic, white and bright and wonderful, the angel that not only in St Luke’s gospel but also in the Holy Quran announces the birth of our Lord.  This angel is sheer gift, the hospitality of God who as St John puts it, chooses to pitch a tent among us.  This is the angel of over the top generosity, despite our inability to live in peace with one another or with God, God chooses to live among us, to learn our language and our ways – a feast of sheer delight that changes forever our relationship to God and to one another - but that comes at a terrible cost.

But there are also other, less flashy but more psychological, images of angels in the Bible.  The name itself, malachim, means simply ‘messenger’, one who bears the burden of God’s word to us; and the encounter with God’s malachim  typically takes place as God’s people struggle to understand what it means to be fully human.  In the Old Testament we see the encounter with God’s angels coinciding with the struggle for personal integrity – for example in the near sacrifice of Isaac or Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with himself as he prepares to cross the river to ask his brother’s forgiveness; or with humour and the offering of costly hospitality, as for example in the story of Abraham who hears and believes the unlikely promises of God from the lips of three strangers who have just polished off his best fatted calf.  The encounter with angels wounds us and transforms us and opens us to new possibilities to the extent to which we are prepared to be open and vulnerable to God and to one another.

So what is it with angels, and what does it mean for a parish church to see itself not through the human lens of this or that saint but of all God’s malachim, both seen and unseen?  First and foremost, I think, it means a commitment to believing in the angels of God that fill our lives with possibilities for transformation and grace.  A commitment to accepting the discipline of limitation as well as the wonder of new experiences of God’s goodness.  A commitment to living humbly and vulnerably with one another, open to the angelic in the familiar as well as in the unfamiliar, ready to take the risk of welcoming and being welcomed by strangers.  A commitment to recognising the hospitality of heaven in the middle of the everyday.



Saturday, September 08, 2007

Pentecost 15C

When I was a kid I was fascinated by the contents of my dad’s shed - I don’t suppose there’s anyone here like my dad - who used to store things away because you never know when you’re going to need them?? The point is, possessions can be like magnets - they don’t let go of us easily!  Every time you move it gets a bit harder packing up, and all the things you can’t let go of just keep piling up.  Apparently in the UK they’ve made a reality TV show out of this phenomenon - now I’m not a great fan of Big Brother etc -  the thing about reality TV is that the situations people are placed in are manufactured but the emotions all too often distressingly real - too much like emotional voyeurism for my taste - anyway on this show they called Life Laundry, every week two so-called “experts” come in to declutter someone’s life by moving all their possessions and furniture out onto the footpath - and not letting very much of it back inside again - apparently the joy of watching this lies in seeing the owner come face to face with some old memories, some happy ones and some painful ones – memories that might have been hidden away for years – being confronted by and then being made to let go of the past – apparently this is what counts as transformational TV.

Today’s gospel reading starts straight after Jesus’ story about the slap-up dinner party that none of the invited guests wanted to come to so the host has to scour the countryside to find some last-minute replacements – the point of that story I guess being that God is just so desperately, so foolishly in love with us that he (or she) is prepared to search the whole world over for us – except oddly enough in the sequence of the story as Luke tells it Jesus is now on his last long journey to Jerusalem, and he seems to have exactly the opposite problem - far too many people tagging along just to hear what he’s going to say next.  In terms of making his message relevant and entertaining, Jesus must have been hitting just the right spot.  Remember, this is back in the first century when a wandering half-starved prophet had the sort of charisma and entertainment value in the villages and back lanes of Galilee that we tend to associate these days more with celebrities and rock stars.  Jesus is attracting hangers-on, maybe in the same way that churches do today when they come up with just the right blend of pop music and big screens and inspiring preachers.  You’d think he’d be pleased, but apparently quite the opposite because he looks at them and more or less tells them they haven’t got what it takes – sorry, but you can’t afford the entry price of discipleship.  And indeed, after today’s effort it seems the crowds do seem to thin out remarkably.  The conditions Jesus seems to be putting on discipleship are a bit off-putting, to say the least.

Hate your families.  This is where the message starts to get a bit tough.  Actually, forget the crowds following Jesus hoping for a bit of free entertainment, this sort of thing also tends to throw preachers into an absolute tailspin.  We tend to think there might be a bit of a problem in taking Jesus literally here.  In fact, a lot of ink has been wasted over the years in arguing that in Aramaic ‘hate’ doesn’t really mean hate, it just means you put something else in first place.

There’s some validity to this approach - working out the linguistic context - but in the end we have to admit that what Jesus is saying is actually disturbing - it’s meant to be provocative.  At the very least, Jesus is setting the bar way too high for comfort - telling us not to bother unless we’re prepared to put God first in our lives – letting go of all the ways in which our families and our social contexts shape our lives and our sense of self, and allowing God to be the only thing at the centre of our lives.  Letting go, perhaps, of the safety net of social relationships and mutual obligations that, especially for first century peasants, represented the only really tangible sort of security they could expect in life, and look instead for security in the intangible and invisible spirit that as Jesus himself tells us, blows wherever it feels like? 

And then Jesus tells two stories that, to be quite frank, don’t seem to justify the extraordinary demand he’s just made.  You don’t start a major building project, he tells them, unless you’ve got enough money to finish the job – you don’t go to war against a more powerful enemy unless you’ve got a pretty good plan for how you’re going to win – well, actually if the first analogy was strictly accurate we wouldn’t be seeing two cathedrals in our own city half-renovated with signs out the front appealing for donations – but effectively what Jesus is telling would-be disciples to do is to sit down and have a serious think.  Count the cost.  Is this actually what you want, and are you prepared to pay the price because rest assured, there is a substantial one?  See, this is a cheery little episode, today.  You can just imagine the crowds thinning down a bit, at this point.  ‘Oh, and before I forget’, Jesus tells them, just before they leave.  ‘You’re not allowed to own anything’.

Excuse me?

You know what, there’s no explaining this one away.  According to Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, this is what the idealised Christian community looks like, everyone pooling their resources and nobody owning any private property.  Jesus, particularly the way he is represented in Luke’s gospel, is pretty clear that money and discipleship don’t mix – in fact, after today’s encouraging little chat the very next person who seriously wants to be a disciple, in chapter 18, is the rich young man who Jesus tells, ‘sure – just as soon as you sell the BMW and give it all to St Vinnies’. 

Are you feeling uncomfortable?  I know I am, when I read this, even though I don’t have a BMW.  There are some parts of my life, let’s face it, that I haven’t opened up to the demands of the gospel.  I guess it means I haven’t really sat down to have a serious think about what it’s going to cost me to be a disciple.  If I do think about it, like the curious and the easily impressed people following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, I might discover the cost is more than I ever dreamed.

What is the cost of discipleship for us, in the here and now?  Jesus’ hard teaching on family still has some bite to it for us.  Family can actually be a comfortable retreat from thinking about the needs of others in our community, or the bigger issues of the world we live in.  The expression you sometimes hear, ‘charity begins at home’, can actually just be a cop-out.  We are as Christians challenged to put our legitimate concerns and our love for those nearest to us within the context of compassion for all of God’s creation.  For other people, family can be a destructive place, a place of abuse or more subtly, unhealthy families can become places where freedom and self-worth are eroded.  So as Christians we’re called to place our family relationships within a wider context of life-giving relationships in Church and community, as Jesus puts it in Mark’s gospel, to widen our understanding of who we have a family obligation to.  [‘Who are my mother and my brothers?]  And in exactly the same way we’re called to re-assess our use of money within the context of the needs of others not only in our immediate family but in our wider community and the world we live in.  The balancing act isn’t easy, and the cost of discipleship is high.

The flip side of the choice to be a disciple, in other words, is that we get to do a ‘life laundry’, to de-clutter our lives.  We get to bring out of our houses everything that we own and everything that we invest ourselves in, and examine it in the light of the challenge that Jesus confronts us with - what are we attached to, what are we so involved with and so wrapped up in that we lose sight of where God is in our lives?  What possessions and what relationships keep us from hearing and responding to God’s invitation to be the people God has created us to be?  What are we so tangled up in that we’re unable to see God in those around us, what are the things that we’re so attached to that we’re unable to live compassionately?  What are the things that we need to let go of, or to reorient, to line up differently so that God is at the centre? 

Halfway along the road to Jerusalem, where deep down we already know what is waiting for him when he gets there, Jesus turns around and confronts us with a challenge.  ‘Are you really following me, or are you just tagging along out of habit or curiosity?  It’s a real question for us.

What’s the answer?