Saturday, 28 March 2015

Tipping Point

Palm Sunday 

Mark 11:1-10
Wouldn't it be lovely, just one year, not to have the horror of Good Friday looming over this event? For some paradox of time to switch the ending of the week to something less guilt-riddenOne of the hardest parts of the Gospel for me to read without shuddering at what was going to happen next. 

Ignatian Spirituality embraces the practice of imaginative meditation as well as contemplative prayer. Placing yourself in the Gospel can teach, heal and inspire. 
This year, the thought occurs to me that Pope Francis may well be joining Jesus in having a Palm Sunday moment or two. 

For both of them, all that time in the desert, the message was being passed, believed, ignored, dismissed. Until the summoning of the Spirit brings them out of the soul thirsting, dryness and the unending struggle of the darkened and dry valleys of hopelessness and poverty. 

As they teeter on the tipping point of their lives a decision is made - how am I going to do this? How do I subvert the expectations of the world.

Jesus, for the first time ever (and against the desire of the authorities) accepts a position of honour and the homage of the crowd. Pulling together prophecy and  expectationhe creates the image everyone was waiting for. And they react in kind. Rephrasing the usual pilgrim's welcome to bless the King who comes in the name of the Lord; they deafen the onlookers with their praise. The world is present in Jerusalem. The crowd, overcome by the spectacle, are giving him the clothes off their backs.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been following his Lord's example for over two years now. As Francis, he stands as a servant; with borrowed clothes and second hand jewellery; he speaks to the faiths and cultures of the world; the crowd pour blessings onto him. He feeds the hungry and provides showers and hairdressers for the homeless. He takes hospitality with him wherever he goes, for whoever he meets.  The media delights in daily discourse and uncovering one more fact or fancy. 

In the next few days for Jesus, and the following years. with God's grace,  for Francis, life is going to get much more uncomfortable. 

How easy it would be to keep Jesus on his colthow easy to keep Francis up on his pedestal - letting them challenge the status quo whilst we wave our flags from the sidelines. How easy, then, to be the onlooker; the critic; the cynic; believing that these challenges are surely not made towards us. 

The authorities will have little patience now with Jesus; a threat to the spiritual and the imperial leadership, he has put his head in the lion's mouth and it is only a matter of time. Even his followers of three years will turn on him in one way or another.    

 For Francis - asked to build a living church - a different culture; a different time; a different set of values - two thousand years of faith and tradition- surely we are better prepared? The scandals of Rome are a matter of opinion. Feeding the poor, welcoming the marginalised, women on the sanctuary. 

The crowds will fade taking their memories with them; the media will pack up and go home; the flag will be used as a duster and the only people left will be those for whom the Gospel is a living truth. Those who want to destroy it and those who want to build it. 


Saturday, 21 March 2015

In the stillness of waiting

John 12:20-33 

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. These approached Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee, and put this request to him, ‘Sir, we should like to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew, and Andrew and Philip together went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied to them:
‘Now the hour has come
for the Son of Man to be glorified.
I tell you, most solemnly,
unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies,
it remains only a single grain;
but if it dies,
it yields a rich harvest.
Anyone who loves his life loses it;
anyone who hates his life in this world
will keep it for the eternal life.
If a man serves me, he must follow me,
wherever I am, my servant will be there too.
If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him.
Now my soul is troubled.
What shall I say:
Father, save me from this hour?
But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name!’
A voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ People standing by, who heard this, said it was a clap of thunder; others said, ‘It was an angel speaking to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours.
‘Now sentence is being passed on this world;
now the prince of this world is to be overthrown.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I shall draw all men to myself.’
By these words he indicated the kind of death he would die.

This Friday past was, as a young boy exclaimed on the radio, the best day of our lives. 

In truth it was a pretty 'best day', as the northern hemisphere witnessed one of the few total solar eclipses of the century. That young man will possibly have his own son on his shoulders at the time of the next one in 2026. 

Incredible how this prophesied event could tempt so many away from their Friday morning usuality. Thousands of schoolchildren took their lessons outside, squinting through special spectacles, creating pin hole cameras, and measuring the temperature of shadows. Thousands of workers risked the bosses ire by wandering towards the windows or 'needing' to go outside just at the right time, risking their phone cameras for the perfect shot. Hundreds of thousands woke with a sigh that the sky was clouded and then sighed as the drop in temperature brought about a 'reveal' of the Sun's crooked smile or even less. 

Thousands gathered at Stonehenge and other ancient sites to acknowledge the ancient understanding of the world's place in the universe, eagerly sacrificing their cynical minds for the wonder of the moment. A scientist commentating moment by moment on the Radio, went as silent as the surrounding birdsong at the climax of the event, then admitted that the scene had affected her more emotionally than she would ever have expected. 

Perhaps the ancients had it right after all. The death of a Sun is not something to be taken lightly. And even knowing that it is for no more than a degree or two in the the Earth's turning, is it not a moment worthy of witness? 

For that one moment we experience the physical separation from the Sun, from light and heat. For the one moment of withdrawal we are reminded of our fragility. Jesus' words ignite a fear of loss held so lightly below the surface of our certainty.

Life is a crystalline reality, easily broken, easily formed into something else. Death is part of that reforming. Creation needs all its little deaths in order to make things new. Even fossilised life becomes a power source or a foundation for the future. 

We despair of our poor choices, mistakes and disappointments , marking all of them as little deaths. It is the waiting in the eerie dusk of the eclipse, when hope is turned blind by failure, that it is so easy to give up. Take heart then, that with just a turning or two, there will be new life, a new beginning. 

Maybe,  even, the 'best day' of our lives. 


Friday, 13 March 2015

How the light gets in

Gospel John 3:16-21 

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

‘Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost
but may have eternal life.
For God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.
No one who believes in him will be condemned;
but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already,
because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son.
On these grounds is sentence pronounced:
that though the light has come into the world
men have shown they prefer darkness to the light
because their deeds were evil.
And indeed, everybody who does wrong
hates the light and avoids it,
for fear his actions should be exposed;
but the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light,
so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.’

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a learned man of faith. He knows both scripture and the Law; he has lived his life by it; a teacher himself - he is a good man. But he has questions. There is something new in what Jesus says and, although the teaching is outside Nicodemus' experience, it has truth in it and he wants to understand; desperately wants to understand.

It seems a bit surreal - not the actions of a God that we are used to. 
Jesus tells of when Moses protected the Isrealites from the poisons of snakes sent by God himself. An attempt, by God,  to bring them back to him once again. 
Once bitten, there was only one way to save themselves from an agonizing death; they were saved by looking on the bronze serpent held high on a pole by Moses. It was 'tough with a taste of jealous' love that  worked; but with a cost. Where is the integrity in faith born from fear; from obeying the Law - or else?

Of course, this is still early days in the relationship between God and his people; still very much a learning process. But, as in many relationships, if you don't have the right understanding at the beginning, you are going to struggle. It becomes easier to ask for a set of rules; a measuring stick; a sense of either/or. But then it comes down to being 'good' and who can be 'good' enough?

I have met many people like Nicodemus who find this Love idea too good to be true. People whose idea of God is a judgemental father waiting to catch us out; reinforced by spiritual leaders who find the promise of damnation a little too attractive. People whose lives are tormented by the idea that in everything that they do they are found wanting; who can't go to Reconciliation because of the shame of being 'found out' or who constantly go to Confession because they cannot believe they have been forgiven. People who do not realise that the only one who stands in judgement of them - is them.  

Cannot believe Jesus' own words;

God so loved the world

That he gave his only Son

So that everyone who believes...may have eternal life

Not to condemn the world but to save it.

Along with every other piece of Lenten scripture this is a journey of transformation -  Nicodemus walks away under cover of night in confusion; this is a good thing, a very good thing - the crack in the armour of certainty  allows the Light to enter. And we know that this is only the beginning - Nicodemus appears again - a public supporter at the trial;  and again - a sorrowful witness at the foot of the Cross. 

We are asked to have faith but it cannot be a passive faith. Jesus asks us to be aware of what action our faith calls us to. We must struggle, like Nicodemus, with what we already believe; struggle with the ties that bind us to tradition and convention. 

Have courage to step out of the shadows and stand beside the call to love.
Allow ourselves the freedom to accept the glimpse of light; the invitation of Love; the call to truth. 

To have the compassion to take into our arms, into our lives,  a God who so loved the world that he gave us himself. 


Saturday, 7 March 2015

What money cannot buy

Sunday Gospel

John 2:13-24

Just before the Jewish Passover Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and in the Temple he found people selling cattle and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting at their counters there. Making a whip out of some cord, he drove them all out of the Temple, cattle and sheep as well, scattered the money changers’ coins, knocked their tables over and said to the pigeon-sellers, ‘Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ Then his disciples remembered the words of scripture: Zeal for your house will devour me. The Jews intervened and said, ‘What sign can you show us to justify what you have done?’ Jesus answered, ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this sanctuary: are you going to raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the words he had said.

In my youth, my image of Jesus was reflected in Robert Powell's portrayal of Jesus in the television series Jesus of Nazareth. Actually this image of a tall, white, ethereal gentle man, while owing nothing to the likely physical characteristics of a rural Palestinian, pretty well fits in with most of the visual images that, we in the West, have of Jesus; that he was born meek and mild, and seemed to spend his whole ministry acting like the quiet lamb who is eventually led, willingly, to the slaughter.

Well, thank goodness, that even Robert Powell's Jesus found a voice in the scene that represented this week's Gospel. It is one of the dramatic counterpoints of the series, where Jesus truly loses it with the people who are using the faith of their community and countrymen to make a quick buck. The courtyard, within the Temple grounds, was used not only by the moneychangers who made their profit exchanging Roman coin for Temple money (plus commission) but by venders who had set up stalls for the selling of birds, lambs, goats and calves to be offered in sacrifice. Doubtless there would have been other vendors selling candles, oils, incense; whatever could be sold would have been sold.

God had told his people, how many times, that His Covenant was with them. He'd made the world, he didn't need it offering back to him. He didn't drink blood or ask for sacrifice like the little idols of the other religions. Their relationship with God didn't depend on how many sacrifices they could afford. In fact the only sacrifice God did ask for, their heart and their love, was the one thing missing in the Temple market.

After the time that Jesus had been spending, living with the poor, the criminals and the unwanted and knowing their need to experience God's Love, but being denied by Temple Law, the last thing he would have wanted to see was this further barrier to his Father. If anyone has ever been in a Eastern bazaar, you can imagine the chaos that would have broken out as tables were overturned, people scrabbling to pick up money, livestock screeching and flailing, cages breaking open. It would have seemed as though one of the sand devils from the desert has hit causing pandemonium and in the midst of it Jesus, incandescent with rage.

I love that image, I love that Jesus. Because, sometimes, that is the Jesus that I need in my life - maybe not 'rage' but passion and power and energy and so alight with the Divine that his heart and his eyes shine out of his body. I need that Jesus to come into my head full of limitations and expectations and throw them all out. I need that Jesus to drag me along the path when I am feeling tired and downhearted. I need that Jesus to challenge me to do more, to be more.

How can he not have been like that? Because only when you have all that power can it mean something when you do submit to being a servant, to making the sacrifice. Jesus has that power and never uses it to his advantage, only ever to point the way to his Father. To wake us from our complacency and show us the potential of a life filled with a passionate desire for a godly life.

When you have that desire you can overturn the world's values and seek the truth.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Joy mountain

Mark 9:2-10

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke to Jesus: ‘Rabbi,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.

As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.

At the beginning of Mark's Gospel, Jesus walks into the water and arises to his new life with the words of his Father in his heart and ears '“You are my Son, I love you; you make me so happy.” Stirring words to carry him through the next three years of ministry. I wonder how often, during those years, did Jesus have to re-live that moment as people walked away; refused to believe; refused to change; forgot to say thank-you.

How often did he wonder - how can my Father be pleased with this? How often did he return to the lonely places, as a child, to have his Father console him with his love?

Probably not an image of Jesus anyone would want to consider; yet the conversation in Gethsemene tells us that Jesus is not in control of the Mission; sometimes Jesus does seem to learn as he goes; the woman who asks for healing as scraps from the table for instance. Some would say Jesus uses the situation to teach a lesson. I wonder if Jesus himself sometimes needed the lesson - after all he believed he had come to gather Israel first - maybe this woman was his teacher this day - a lesson learned from experience - and others along the way.

Now, three years or so later, the final pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the one that will end with his death. In the past few days he has talked with the disciples about the sacifice that is to come and they still don't get it. I imagine Jesus sitting at the fire during the morning de-camp; watching the hustle-bustle as preparations are made for the day; the talk of anticipation for the Passover. I see his eyes reaching towards heaven and in his heart a simple cry - 'Father'.

And his Father says 'Come to me and bring your friends'.

The mountain is not an escape. It is a refuge. The going up will mean coming down again but surely worth it? It isn't always about moving on; moving forward; sometimes its about reaching a point where there is nowhere else to go and staying with that.

At the top of the mountain the air is thin; they feel lightheaded; catching their breath at the landscape rolling out below them. For the fishermen this is as far from the sea as you could be; as far from their early life as they could imagine. Maybe as they watch Jesus pray they whisper together about the adventures they have had; the lives that have been changed because of this man, this friend, this brother.

And then they see this man, this brother, as the Father sees him; shining and wonderful beyond all recognition; washed clean again from the doubts and prejudices of human preception. Resting in the company of the fathers of faith; wrapped in the light of his Father's eyes.

Why tents - why seek to confine this experience; to enclose it within manageble 'space'? Because they could not cope with what they were seeing? Because Peter speaks for the struggle we all have to 'be still and know'.

And then the voice of the Father; speaking to them - ordinary men out on a mountain - God witnessing to them 'This is my Son; I love him; listen to him.'

As they come down the mountain the doubts and misunderstandings are already beginning to set in. Keep this to yourself - Jesus tells them - you don't understand now; talking about it won't help. But the experience will come back to you when it is needed.

What does Transfiguration mean to us. That we are fearfully and wondrously made? Yet how often do we believe that? How often does life not let us believe that?

The Lenten message is one of letting go, of sacrifice, of moving ourselves from one inner place to another. It is a journey of labyrinths and mountains yet its paradox is that it is also a journey towards joy. Sometimes it is about no greater grace than being on a mountaintop and letting God wash us clean; seeing ourselves reflected in God's eyes; letting God tell us we are Beloved; that we have a message worth listening to?