Called in love


St George’s, Dunsborough

Epiphany 2, January 19, 2020

Sermon

Isaiah 49:1-4
Psalm 40:1-14
I Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

He put a new song in my mouth,
    even a song of thanksgiving to our God. (Psalm 40:3)

At every church I have attended singing is controversial. For some, like me, music is one of the most important aspects of our worship. Singing as a congregation binds us together. It releases dopamine and serotonin which we experience as pleasure and well-being, oxytocin, which makes us feel closer to each other, and endorphins, which make the body feel good and – important for me – they provide pain relief.

Some people call all these singing hormones the ‘messengers of joy’. This morning’s readings together are clear about what brings us joy: it is being called by God. God is always calling people, God never gives up, God invites people to love God and to love neighbour. God calls us and so we sing.

God calls every person. Not necessarily to the ordained ministry or to a specific role in the church. He doesn’t necessarily call everyone even to be a member of the church, but there is no doubt that everyone and everything is being called by God.

You will remember Lucy in her sermon here last Sunday spoke of the baptised Jesus being God’s beloved, and so all human beings are God’s beloved. God calls every creature into his love.

I know for a fact that you have been called, because I see you here in church. You have responded to the invitation of God to be part of God’s people.

For some of us, it is a long time since we have acknowledged this call. We’ve grown accustomed to our part in the church and forgotten how exciting it is to have been invited into God’s circle. It’s a bit like a long marriage.

I remember Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, a bachelor actually, who gave the same sermon at every wedding including ours. His advice to us was to keep the courtship alive beyond the warm glow of the wedding ceremony. A marriage of 40 years, 50 years, still needs the flowers, the kisses, the outings together, the tender words, the household chores done, just as it did during the engagement!

Similarly, do we keep the courtship alive in our relationship with God? Do we take time to remember how exhilarating it was when we first found God? Or more accurately, when God found us. Even if for some of us, those early times in our Christian walk seemed to be a battle, there was still an excitement about it, the sense of being caught up in something as big as the Universe.  

You know your story, and I invite you to take some time this week to re-visit it. It’s important, because God called you to be the real ‘you’, the best ‘you’ possible.

Like those early disciples, Andrew and Simon Peter and the others, you were called to spend time, to ‘abide’, with Jesus. You were called to ‘come and see’ where Jesus abided, where Jesus stood, what his orientation on the world was. You were called into the presence of Jesus, and being in that presence, that ‘abiding’ transformed you.

For those of us who became Christians when we were teens or young adults, we sometimes don’t realise how much Jesus’ presence in our lives changed us, because it is mixed up with our natural maturing into adults. I don’t know how different I would have been had I not let the influence of Christ become part of my life.

You see, the extraordinary thing about this process of being called, being transformed, is that is God who takes the initiative. It is all grace. We don’t have to believe this or believe that; we don’t have to behave this way or that way; we simply abide in Jesus’ presence and let that wash through us.

What changes God will make are hard for us to see. They are God’s actions working through us, and we may not even recognise what we have done in loving God and loving neighbour.

The Christians at Corinth must have been encouraged when Paul’s words were read out to them:

 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind. (I Cor.1:4-5)

The same is true for you. ‘In every way you have been enriched in him’. And for me. I was pleased and surprised once to be accosted at a farewell party. ‘You don’t know me,’ this person said, ‘but just by being here, the way you were, was an important ministry to me.’ I had no idea, still have no idea, really, what he was talking about. But it doesn’t matter. We are called to be God’s servant, and it is God who calls the tune. We just sing to it.

We can rely on God to keep God’s side of the romance going.

What we can do is refresh the feelings. Not only were we called, we are called. You know when the display on your mobile phone starts to fade, you touch the screen and it ‘refreshes’.

We need to do our part, touching our story, refreshing the courtship. Just as in a human romance, we have to continue to bring flowers, tender words, household chores, time to eat together, affirmation of love at least once a day, and our willingness to be changed by the other person, for our lives to be entangled with each other’s. 

§  Not real flowers, probably, but flowers of worship. If we are genuine about responding to the call of God, we will make it a habit to share with God and with other Christians regularly. There was a time, not so long ago, when keen Christians would try to come to a service every day. Being realistic, I would encourage us to try to meet for worship weekly. For some I know, fortnightly or monthly makes more sense, the point being that we continue to cultivate the habit of regular worship. And our experience of worship should be like our experience of flowers. In worship, we experience something of striking beauty – the music again, the words of the liturgy, the painted glass windows – so that we are lifted out of ourselves into an exceptional place, a place where God may make himself present to us.

§  The tender words we bring are those we speak in prayer. It may seem trivial to say the same kind of words to God that we say to our lovers and friends, but often our prayers should be tender statements of how we are feeling in God’s presence.

§  the household chores are the duties we undertake for the church. Some of you are deeply involved – in Parish Council, on different rosters, keeping the Op. Shop open, taking on the big tasks. All of us can choose to do something big or small, and whether it is managing the Family Centre or tidying the pews after a service, it’s done out of love – for the Church, true, and for God.

§  the special meal we eat together, us and God, is the Eucharist. There is so much going on in this meal. We are fed. We recognise God who comes out of his limitless dwelling place to nurture our bodies.  In eating together, we connect with God, with all human beings, especially the hungry, and with all the created universe. The bread and wine are our survival rations, and we respond to them with thanksgiving.

§  We say ‘I love you’ to God by opening ourselves every day to the presence of God. As a priest I am committed to saying the Daily Office, Morning and Evening Prayer, which includes reading the Bible daily. I struggle to do it well, especially after being unwell last year. But whether we have a daily Quiet Time or whether we remember God’s presence simply by saying Grace at meals, we respond to God’s call by deliberately making those moments every day, intending every morning to live in God’s presence.

§  and our response to God’s invitation to abide in him, to soak in him, to let him wash through our lives and to change us. It can be frightening to realise that God wants to go on changing us. Even if those changes are for the better, we have inbuilt inertia when it comes to change. But God does get entangled in our lives. God does change us, and we praise God for it!

So in all those ways, flowers, words, chores, eating together, affirming love, being changed, we touch our unique stories of being called, in the past and in the present, so that Jesus can ‘refresh’ us, and we can sing – literally or metaphorically – ‘the new song in our mouth, even a song of thanksgiving to our God’.

Discoveries before The Second Sleep


Robert Harris, The Second Sleep, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

From $23 online. Kindle $AU 4.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Second Sleep is set several centuries into the future after the great collapse of civilisation. A powerful – and fundamentalist – church has taken power while England has returned to pre-industrial conditions: there are no cars, and therefore roads are poor. The fastest travel is horse-back.  Village life centres around small-scale horticulture, providing just enough for the villagers.

A young priest is sent to a tiny village in Exmoor to bury the parish priest who has died after decades in the same parish. He discovers a world of secrets, from the housekeeper’s relationship to the old priest, to the illegal search for evidence of pre-collapse civilisation.

Many of his discoveries take place between the first and second sleeps, as people have reverted to the pre-electric light habit of having a period of waking between two stretches of sleep. ‘The Second Sleep’ begins to take on more meanings as the novel progresses.

Robert Harris is known for his novels of Ancient Rome (Imperium, Lustrum, Pompeii) and of institutions under stress including the army and the church (An Officer and a Spy, Conclave).  He writes page-turners, and his writing is simple and clear. You feel the mud and slush of unpaved streets and the smell of animals sharing living space with humans.

The Second Sleep is a compelling novel of the new genre of cli-fi (climate science fiction). Itis a meditation on our world on the brink of great destruction, perhaps brought about by climate change, perhaps not, and our values of freedom and progress.

Harris makes no final judgement as to which is worse, our world or his dystopia, but The Second Sleep is an appeal to maintain an open society in which power is shared between citizens and not centralised in a power-hungry institution.

It is also a novel of finding love and the difficulty of holding onto love in a repressive society. After a slow start with the characters, I enjoyed the priest Fairfax, his Lady, Sarah Durston, and Captain Hancock.

The priesthood: no other life?


Brian Moore, No Other Life, London: Flamingo 1994. Paperback 216 pages,
ISBN 9780006546924.

In W.A. Public Library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Brian Moore (1921 – 1999) was a well-known writer of the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote the 1991 screenplay based on his novel, Black Robe, exploring the Jesuit missions with Native Americans in frontier Canada. Moore was short-listed three times for the Booker Prize.

In No Other Life, the black robes of Jesuits are exchanged for the white robes of the White Augustinians, and the cold places of Canada for the warmth of Ganae. a desperately poor Caribbean island.

The Augustinian Fathers run a school where the mulâtre (mixed-race) elite educate their children. The noirs, the blacks, are kept in wrenching poverty by corruption. The island has always been run by a mulâtre dictator backed by the army.

Father Paul Michel wants to increase the number of black children at the school. He rescues a talented boy, Jeannot, from abject poverty. Jeannot is a single-minded boy who declares he wants to be a priest like his mentor. He eventually joins the Augustinians but runs a parish for the poor rather than work in the Order’s school. Jeannot’s oratory raises the hopes of the poor and he is elected President. But the effects of his leadership are ambiguous: is he an old-style socialist rabble-rouser, or is he a saint? The locals think he is their Messiah.

When the Augustinians expel Jeannot, he turns to his mentor. He implies that he would rather give up everything than be stripped of his priesthood. There is ‘no other life’.

Father Paul finds himself at the heart of a dilemma: is a priest an educator of the rich, or the servant of the poor?  Is faith a pre-requisite for the priestly life, and what happens if a priest loses it? From the moment he meets Jeannot he feels a bond with him, but as their friendship grows, Father Paul learns how to love. When violence and chaos erupt from the actions of his friend Father Paul asks how far does loyal love extend?

This is a gripping and beautiful story, written with a sure touch. The events on the island of Ganae are presented in a fascinating manner, but the themes of ambition and identity resonate everywhere.

No Other Life is certainly a book for priests. What is the core of Christian priesthood, and by extension, Christian practice? Is there ‘no other life’ that we can imagine for ourselves? And if not, that goes to our vocation and identity.

But is also a novel that will draw in any person and open us to the love that is in our midst even when we feel it is absent.

Clare’s Constant Goodness


Clare’s Constant Goodness  – A Liturgical Sonnet

Jesus called her to bare wood poverty,
Assisi’s high-born childhood cast aside:
sisters named in equal community,
nobles, handmaids live, and love side by side.  

Jesus called her to upright integrity,
her constant goodness a daily friend,
choices crafted with brightest clarity,
look for consequences with loving end.  

Core eucharistic regularity –
sharing the cup of wine and blessing bread,
bring to this moment Christ’s life charity,
God’s sacred heart among the sisters spread.  

Joy of goodness, riches of poverty,
planned Eucharist: life-giving trinity.   

+ + + + 

Ted Witham, Feast of St Clare 2018

Feast of St Clare – readings for Morning Prayer 

Psalms 62, 63
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 2:1-9
Matthew 13:44-51 

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Last Things – and more Last Things


At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

refugee_camp
Refugee Camp

Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II


A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!

allinone-banner

 

Breath on a Feather


A hymn for Epiphany

You Lord of grace, you’re breath on a feather,
You inspire us to care, adore;
Your breath helps us to praise you together,
Our song, just our song, can make us more.

You Lord of grace, you’re barbs of a feather,
Strengthen our spirits with love’s surprise;
Your longing heart helps us to tether
Ourselves to you, with you improvise.

You Lord of grace, you’re shaft of a feather,
You hold us tall whatever the storm;
You teach us to hold your standards to treasure,
And upright in virtue our lives may transform.

You Lord of grace, you are the whole vane,
You let us fly to love’s true height;
We feel your guidance your will ascertain
And our obedience makes you shine bright.

 

  • Ted Witham 2017
  • 9999 St Clement, O Waly Waly.

 

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Courtesy Wikipedia

Parts of a feather:

  1. Vane
  2. Rachis
  3. Barb
  4. Afterfeather
  5. Hollow shaft, calamus

 

 

Gift in love: Saint Francis


Our joy in fervent prayer and stately dances,
In full-sung hymns and full-heart confession,
in earnest emotional expression,
all diverse ways to celebrate St Francis.

Liturgical wealth but poverty deep,
In all, radical Godward dependence,
Tangled in matter we find transcendence;
The sole way integrity to keep.

More in story than godly abstraction:
The Pope gives the Order’s permission,
The lepers’ care and pairs for mission,
In mutual prize and always loving action.

Thank God for blessings and seeing all in joy,
Our gifting for love we hurry to employ.

 

 

Sermon: Ask, search, knock


Luke 11:9-10

I wrote this poem a few years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching that our desire to love, when taken far enough, eventually leads us to see the world in ‘I-thou’ terms. 

– Ted Witham

I asked for a Mercedes, coupé 220, of course.
Received a mirror, 360, signed, with love, Yours.
Reflected… the shiny image that was my deep desire;
to climb up the world’s path, a higher flyer.

I searched for love in writing reviews,
Expecting my readers to walk in my shoes;
I searched for love, making Church work my life,
but found love closer in children and wife.

I knocked on the door of God, Father, King,
Insight opened: metaphor turns God to ‘thing’;
I opening saw God as all my ‘Thou’,
me to be present in the Eternal Now.

Asking, searching, knocking, all stones stepped
to draw near to the One so wind-swept,
Spirit-blown, tempest-tendered,
The ‘Thou’ who all my love has ended.

 

The mystery of love


Now love is primarily a sharing: letting oneself be hurt by someone else’s distress, putting oneself at their side, living with, suffering with, begging with. She naturalises herself as one of the poor: this is where love works. And this process of sharing liberates the power of love to change the world; by her astonishingly fruitful activity, she contributes to changing the world. This is the very mystery of Mercy.

  • Paul Milcent on Saint Jeanne Jugan, founder and first Sister of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

St Jeanne Jugan