Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Things He Carried...

I wonder what you are you passionate about? What drives you? What could you be a total bore about in conversation with others? Perhaps it’s gardening? A favorite sports team? Maybe Reneissance  art? For some others of us it might a certain era of music, or the books by a particular author, or stories about the antics of you and your best friend when you were younger or your other half’s superb cooking. What or who do you carry in your heart that you absolutely love...?

What about you Jesus? What are you passionate about? Is it possible that for some you became a total bore as you talked endlessly about the love of your Father? Was it that some got sick to the back teeth of hearing about the topsy turvey values of the Kingdom that you lived and loved by and called other to too?  Is that why we are here with you - making this last journey with eternal consequences?  What do you carry in your heart Jesus that you absolutely love?

Jesus as we turn with you toward your Passion I know that you carried the harsh words that I reserve for those I love most. You carried the bruising resentfulness of my pride. You carried every one of the petty excuses that I use to defend myself. You carried the puffed-up charade of my vanity: my self- importance and my self-reliance. You carried every wrong decision I have ever made. You carried those moments of wilful wrong-doing, where I have stared down the right path, seen what it would cost me, and chosen the easy road instead.

You carried the times I take delight in seeing someone suffer. You carried the times I have bullied and cheated. You carried the time I stole, and the time I fiddled my expenses claim, and the many times I separated sex from love, and all the lies I told, and the hundreds of times I never said thank you, and the thousands of times I was so self-obsessed that I was blinded to the good that I could do.

I even stood in the street as you walked by, carrying all this for me, and I did not notice you. I passed by. And you carried this as well. You carried my negligence and my envy. You carried my broken promises. You carried my deceit. You carried all those little hurts where I have let people down, where I have sat on the fence. You carried my cynicism: all my carefully rehearsed answers, put-downs, excuses; all my reasons for not caring, not believing, not trusting. You gathered up all the fragments of my conceit, every piece of bread that I refused to share – and the baskets You carried were overflowing. 

And You carried the big, global horrors born of our pretentious complacency. You carried the melting ice caps and the ravaged rain forests of our plundering the earth, imagining it was ours to do with as we pleased. You carried the xenophobic fantasies that have bred the genocides and holocausts that litter our history. You carried the poisonous hatred that built Auschwitz and the arrogance that invaded Iraq. And the economies that thrive on division; and the poor whose plight is a necessary part of the equation that makes others rich; and the exploitation and degradation, and the corruption of power, you carried it all. The raped child and the bloody horror of the rapist – You carried it. Every hair on our sinful heads You counted and carried. All the idols we worship. All the things we do with our power and our wealth: the towers of Babel we build; the bombs we stockpile; the sophisticated ways that we kill each other, and the money we pour into finding new ways; the crucifixes we erect; the palaces we adorn for ourselves, and the thrones we set in place, and the walls we build around ourselves, and the sentries we post. Everything we construct to keep ourselves in and everyone else out: You carried it all. The divisions were so vast that they had to be dragged together, united in bin and in you, nailed down. You saw everything that separates me from us, and us from each other, and all of us from God, and You pulled it together and carried it. You picked it all up and he took it to the cross.

Ringing in your ears, You carried the frightened denials of Peter. Still wet upon his lips, You carried the moisture from Judas’ kiss.

‘Sir we wish to see Jesus.’ Is this what we came to see? A failed circus act?  As you went by we heaped more things upon You. We spat on You; we ridiculed You; we made fun of You; we gambled for Your clothes; we jostled for a good view of Your dying, or we fled in fear; and when You was thirsty we gave You vinegar to drink. And then we laughed at You some more.

This is what sin does. It isolates. It divides. It rules. It flourishes in the fertile ground of self-delusion, where every decision begins with me. And why do You carry this great weight? This impossible burden of everything that is warped and twisted? What possible good can come from it? Isn’t this stupidity just one more reason to sneer?  The answer will shame us. Unless, that is, you have let cynicism get such a grip on your heart that there is no room left for love. For that is the answer: love.  For God so loved the world . . .

The weight is unimaginable, but the arms that bear the weight are stronger still, and they are true. You carry them because You want to get rid of them. You will take them to the cross and crucify them.  Father forgive them, they don’t know what they do... And we still don’t.

You will take them to the tomb and bury them. You will go on loving when all we can do is load insult upon injury. For this is what we do: we pass the buck, we blame each other, we evade the spotlight of responsibility, and we hide. We duck and weave. We squirm and sneer. And You carry it. You carry it for love. For when we say You carried the sins of the world, we mean every sin; and we mean that there is no such thing as a large sin or a small sin; and we mean every sin that separates us from each other and God; and we mean that sin is real; and most of all we mean my sins and your sins. It is all so horribly simple: I don’t do the things I want to do. And I end up doing the things I don’t want to do. I am compromised and defeated by all my wrong choices. I choose to call it something else, but I know it is sin. It is what I know to be wrong and I don’t need God to know it. I am stranded. I am weighed down.

‘Sir we wish to see Jesus.‘ What do we really see as we look at you here?  If I look very closely I can see something else that You carry Lord. Not just my sins as if they were separate from me (I am dead in my sin, I am not the person I want to be, I am already isolated and alone). You are carrying something else: carrying something which is very precious; something which needs to be restored; something which You knows can be beautiful; something which can be loved back to life. Jesus what are you passionate about? What is that you carry in your expansive heart of eternal love?  You carry me. And I am not heavy to you.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Burglar

She was 89. She’d lived in that house longer than she had lived anywhere else. It was the last house her husband left - first to the nursing home and then to his Maker.

She regularly went across to stay with her brother for periods of time to break the calendar of loneliness. On this occasion, she returned to find the house, the home, the treasure trove of memories violated - she had been burgled.

I was worried for her and furious at ‘them’.  How could ‘they’ have done this to her - she was 89 for crying out loud.  Anger burned deeply because ‘they’ had ransacked something special, not the house or home as such, but the story it told. They had displaced and upended memories and emotions. How could they have done this to her house; how could they have done this to her?

How could they have done this to His house? How could they have done this to Him?

The Temple was such a vital place for God’s people the Jews. It was the place that they came to meet God, to be in His presence, a physical space, an encounter.

This building told the story of a nation, of people’s waxing and waning response to God’s song of love sung through prophet and priest alike - I love you, I want to be with you, will you come and be with me?

It began as a tent, making pilgrimage across the desert. God with His people. Over centuries the calf skin sides had become blocks of stone. It wasn’t that God had stopped moving, but His people had. They inherited the land that He promised them and settled down. Perhaps they had become spiritually stationary too. God needed somewhere to come. Or was that it in the Temple they could contain Him, like a genie in a lamp?

And so Jesus comes to Jerusalem and to this stone story, and he found the story retranslated into a foreign language. Their memories were eternally short. The God of Israel was not a God for Israel, but for all people - Jew and Gentile alike, and here they filled the place for those Gentiles with an open-air market. How could they draw near where there was no space? How could they hear of His love above the sales patter and barter, braying animals and taxes paid? And with a flurry of fury - tables turned, flapping birds and flapping traders - ‘what is this place for?’ he screamed.

Why is Jesus furious? It’s surely not the fact that the Temple buildings and courts were being used this way? No, perhaps it is more to do with God’s people’s priorities having been skewed. The Temple’s focus was no longer a concert hall to hear eternity’s greatest love song; the worship of the Living God had been replaced by the irreverent worship of dishonest gain.

And this is such a contemporary encounter - those exercising ministry in the name of Jesus, colluding to remove those who wish to turn the tables of those who benefit most from the ill-gotten gains of our bonus culture... And Jesus wept...

The Temple’s focus was to be a concert hall to enable the whole world to hear eternity’s greatest love song... The building was a means to an end.  Jesus’ actions that day weren’t about the decorated, dignified, deified space of the Temple, but the decorated, dignified, deified space of the human heart.  Hearts that need to be daily crucified and resurrected to allow God to fill them with His glorious presence.

As we turn our faces more determinedly towards Christ’s Passion, we would do well to ask ourselves - where is our focus as we strain to hear God’s song of love to us? On the church building, or seeing God build His church? Is it more about place than people? Is it about stones or hearts?

If Lent means anything, it calls us to allow Christ to enter the Temple of our hearts afresh and cleanse it; to upend, to bring down, to overturn, and to free, to break all that prevents us from drawing into His glorious presence; and to free our lives to welcome others into His glorious presence. Let us pray:

Lord, do something about your Church.
It is so awful, it is hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it.
Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned:
hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical,
respectable, comfortable, moralising, compromising,
clinging to its privileges and worldly securities,
and when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.
Lord, we need your whip of cords.
Judge us and cleanse us,
challenge and change us,
break and remake us.
Help us to be what you called us to be.
Help us to embody you on earth.
Help us to make you real down here,
and to feed your people bread instead of stones.
And start with me. Amen

Sunday, 4 March 2012

You Choose - Life or Life Eternal?

We have a book at home called ‘You Choose.’ It’s been a firm fave for a while now. The premise of the book is - if you could live anywhere, wear anything, do any job, enjoy any pastime, eat any food, live in any house, travel in whatever you like and sleep in any bed - what would you choose? Anything being possible I quite like the idea of living on the beach, wearing a suit of armour, working as an artist, eating sweets, flying a space shuttle and sleeping in a shoe.  It’s ridiculously silly, but it raises an important question - if you could have any life - what would you chose?

Would you go for a Euromillions style bumper life - new house, cars, holidays etc? Would you go for the much touted celebrity life - premieres, receptions, fancy food, glam clothes, fabulous body and a gorgeous face? Would you rather have the life you have now, but a bit better - the mortgage paid off, a bigger pension?  Sadly most of the time it’s not like that. Most of the time life is pretty humdrum, sometimes it’s expensive, sometimes peppered with joy - like the imanent arrival of a new baby, other times with the searing pain of tragedy.

Along comes Jesus preaching good news. Great, I could do with some of that, but listen to Jesus today - ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it...’

Take up their cross? Lose their life? That is good news to the celebrity obsessed generation? That is good news to the unemployed engineer? That is good news to the struggling single parent? How so Lord?! Can’t we cut straight to the good news of Resurrection bodies and new and eternal life? I’m not sure that any of us signed up for this Way of the Cross self-flagulation. I want to follow you Jesus, but as you’re the expert, can’t you carry my cross for me please? But that is exactly what he has done...

All the doubt, fear, brokenness, and sin in the world - that’s the weight of the cross that He carries. And we are invited to carry it too - to learn to be Christlike is to share in His sufferings even as we hope to share His glory.

Rajmund Kolbe was born in January 1894 in central Poland, which was at that time part of Russian Empire.  His father was German and his mother of Polish. He had four brothers, they lived a simple life. In 1907 Kolbe and his brother decided to join the Franciscan.Order.  In 1910 Kolbe was allowed to enter the novitiate. He professed his first vows in 1911, taking the name Maximilian.

In 1918 Kolbe was ordained a priest. In 1919 he returned to the newly independent Poland, from Rome where he had been studying, and he encouraged his fellow Poles to live a renewed faith.  During WWII he provided shelter to thousands of refugees from Greater Poland and was also active as a radio amateur vilifying Nazi activities through his reports.

On February 17 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned, later being transferred to Auschwitz.  In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death, in order to deter further escape attempts. One of the selected men, cried out, protesting that he had a family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

During the time in the cell he led the men in songs and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. He was finally executed with an injection of carbolic acid.  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it...’

Carrying our cross may not call us to the extreme sorts of living and dying as Maxamillian Kolbe, but Jesus calls us to carry our cross. Each of our crosses will be made of different materials and carry different weights - the times we know we have let God, ourselves and each other down, the brokenness of our lives, but our crosses are also honed by the things we struggle with in life - debt, a tricky marriage, an elderly relative, loneliness - things we’d like to lose but find ourselves carrying in our hearts each day. We weigh ourselves down still further if we insist on grabbing onto the we so often put ahead of following Christ - health, wealth, success - all seem so alluring now, but can so easily turn to dead weight, that wont take us into the Kingdom, burdens that will hamper us in following the One who’s call is constant.

This is the cross He carries for us. The one one which, through His death on it, offers each one of us the chance to unburden our hands and our lives.  The cross we are each called to bear by Him, is not one of patient endurance in the face of suffering, it’s not even a call to the quiet martyrdom that life for some has become - ‘we all have our cross to bear.’ 

The cross He calls us to carry is the empty cross of the Resurrection, the one we are marked with at our baptism. The one that identifies us with Him - the one who carries the weight of our brokenness, our sinfulness, and in return offers us eternal life.

Which do you chose? A life that allows you live anywhere, wear anything, do any job, enjoy any pastime, eat any food, live in any house, travel in whatever you like and sleep in any bed... or one that takes seriously Jesus' words, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it...’ The choice is - do you carry your cross, or His? It’s as simple as the choice of life or Life Eternal? Amen.