Archive for July, 2015

“Reaching for the Light” (Sermon, July 26th)

I’m so glad to be here as your curate, and it’s rather thrillingly appropriate for me to preach on this passage from the Gospel of John, which I feel is so dear to the heart of this parish.

This is the only story which all four of our canonical Gospels share in common. But it means different things to each writer. The Gospel of John’s mission is to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah despite how he was received on earth. John’s lens tells the story of an anti-coronation, the lifting up of a king who was unlike any other king the world had seen before. Nothing in this Gospel is free from the specter of that 20/20 hindsight irony lens.

Today’s story has been portrayed as a sweet pastoral scene, where people sit together in harmony with Jesus at the head of the table, probably surrounded by sheep and sunshine, and demurely nibbling their bread. It’s been the kind of thing someone might have put on the cover of a children’s Bible with pastels. This doesn’t give us a fair picture, though. There’s nothing neutral about this story in the Gospel of John. After all, this section of the Gospel, Chapters 2 through 12, is called the Book of Signs. This is a sign, and a sign always points to something outside of itself. It’s not good enough to just say that this story is about sharing. Despite the fact that we don’t always follow the rule, pretty much everyone learns about sharing by the time they’re three years old, and they don’t have to go to church to do it. John’s Jesus always tells us to go deeper. Let’s go deeper.

First: Today, the city of Tiberias is a holy city for our Jewish brothers and sisters, but this was not always the case. Tiberias was named after the Roman Emperor by Herod Antipas, who we heard about a few weeks ago in the story about John the Baptist’s death. It had also been built over top of a necropolis, or a city of the dead. This location, plus the name it shared with the hateful Emperor, made it an unclean city for many Jewish people. If Jerusalem was at the top of the ladder to heaven, Tiberias was probably a couple of inches beneath the soil.

Unclean location.

Second: “The Passover is near.” Here comes a huge crowd of people – conspicuously not in Jerusalem, where the great Passover feasts are to be held. They were probably too poor to make the journey. These are people from the Galilee, and about 90% of that population was desperately poor. Our beloved friend Philip (tested by Jesus the way Israel is tested in the wilderness) finds a boy, who has two little fish – which he may have caught himself – and barley loaves. Barley was a poor people’s food, usually fed to animals. Rich folks would have had the more expensive wheat bread. The inability of these people to engage in the prescribed rituals would have made them an object of pity to the religious leaders, and scorn to the upper classes.

Unclean people.

This is the raw material for the sign that is about to occur. A Eucharistic anti-banquet, hosted by Jesus, the anti-monarch, in an anti-palace. Our king refuses the world’s trappings of wealth and makes his royal court among beggars, lepers, and thieves. As Jerusalem prepares to feast sumptuously, the Messiah transforms ghetto, gangster, and gruel into gold.lanfranco-g-34

And there’s not only enough – there’s an abundance. There are twelve baskets left over. We the informed readers of John remember that there are other disciples who are to come afterward, who have not seen but will come to believe. Perhaps the baskets of fragments are kept in honour of those unknown, anticipating their hunger for the bread that will last.

Another person’s hunger can sometimes be something that we can’t see with our eyes. It’s not always physically apparent – but the feeling, the empty maw, remains, for the physically and the spiritually hungry. It’s an all-consuming feeling of waiting – the body or the soul whispering, “When?”

This is what reminds us that we cannot simply remain on the warm grass of this field, enjoying and sharing our bread. This beautiful meal is more about who God is than who we are. It is a sign pointing to the light shining in the darkness, a sign we are called to embody, right here and right now.

We are the raw material for a sign which is about to occur, a sign pointing to who God is. We are disciples looking among the unassuming pebbles of God’s precious earth for crumbs of bread to feed a multitude we could never have imagined would come this far, after all they’ve been through – after all we’ve been through. We are disciples gathering up the leftover fragments of this great gift, holding onto it for those who will come after us, who have not seen and yet will come to believe.

The hungry of our world, the hungry of this parish, are waiting for signs, and reaching out for bread.

Well, we have bread! But that’s the easy part. One of those two hungers is much easier to fix than the other, isn’t it? There is little honour or sense in caring for a soul and not the precious body which clothes it.

But all the same, when the bellies are full, Jesus still has work to do. We don’t live by bread alone.

When the people have eaten their fill, they are desperate to make Jesus their king. They still don’t understand. John always insists that Jesus’ kingship is about being lifted up not on shoulders but on a cross, and that hour has not yet come. The community of love will not be ready until that hour has come. It is not only the crowd which needs to see and believe. We disciples also need to see and believe.

Jesus withdraws to the mountain, and the dark comes. A fierce wind begins to blow. And finally they see Jesus, walking through the dark and the storm toward the boat. The light is shining in the darkness, and although the darkness overcomes the disciples it does not overcome the light of the world, the one who says to his terrified friends, in our problematic English translation, “It is I;” and in Greek, “I AM.”

The hunger of the belly has little comfort to offer in the face of the storm. Storms are where the heart begins to hunger.

And while some of us may be lucky enough to never feel the hunger of the belly, none of us pass from this life without knowing the hunger of the heart – the all-consuming feeling of waiting, but not for physical things; for things which cannot be grasped by the darkness. Things like the light.

So we’ve brought our baskets of fragments, and we’re in the boat now with them. The storm could be a lot of things. Remember, the wind is pneuma, in Greek – the same word for spirit. That wind that we hear right now is the Spirit, singing as loud as she can.

It’s scary how loud she sings, and it’s scary that she’s not particularly organized or logical about where she does it. Fear and disorientation is, again, understandable, but we’re allowed to leave it behind. The Beloved walks on top of the chaos. His voice cuts through it: “Take heart. I AM.”

So let’s receive the light out of the storm, out of the dark, and into the boat – this meticulously maintained but slightly creaky boat lovingly made by human hands, this boat which holds his precious flesh every time we gather.

He’s here, but, like the Kingdom he calls us to build, he’s also not here.

He’s here, and he’s out in the storm, and we all have work to do.

For ninety years we’ve been feeding hungry bellies and hungry hearts. We’ve reached out through the storm toward the light and received our beloved into our boat.

This time, though, let’s also take a page from Matthew’s Gospel, and step onto the water ourselves.

Take heart.

He is.

We are.

“I have seen the Lord!” (Sermon, July 22nd – Mary Magdalene)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:1-3, 11-18


We’re in what the Godly Play curriculum refers to as “the green and growing time” of the church year, and yet we have this little slice of Easter peeking through at us, because today we celebrate Mary Magdalene, who some have called the Apostle to the Apostles. The name “Magdala” may refer to her place of birth, or it may refer to something more: in Aramaic Magdala meant “tower” or “elevated, great, magnificent.”

I feel a special connection with her for a number of reasons. I consider her the patron saint of my marriage, and a close friend also refers to me as “his Mary Magdalene.” I haven’t yet asked him what it means. I’m a little worried about what the answer might be!

After all, you might be familiar with her complicated history. She plays a role in all four Gospels and is one of the first people to see the resurrected Jesus. She also looms large in several of the documents discovered at the Nag Hammadi library, particularly the Gospels of Thomas and Philip, and in fact, among those documents is a Gospel that bears her name. The Nag Hammadi documents tend to have one thing in common: they tell of difficulties between Mary and the other disciples, particularly between her and Peter. We don’t know precisely what this means, but it seems to foreshadow the controversies that have followed Mary since the beginning.800px-TINTORETTO_-_Magdalena_penitente_(Musei_Capitolini,_Roma,_1598-1602)_-_copia

It took several generations before Mary was merged with other characters in the Gospel stories, like the adulterous woman saved from stoning by Jesus; or Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus; or the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. She went from being a disciple of Jesus who had received an exorcism of seven demons, to a penitent sinner, to a prostitute or woman of ill repute. Paintings of the era show a woman with fiery hair loose around bare shoulders, eyes rhapsodically cast upward toward heaven, made new in the light of Christ. I actually rather enjoy some of these pictures, which show her remaining wild, as she was imagined to be before following Jesus, and not hidden under miles of modest veils as a response to her salvation. However, it was never appropriate to conflate her with these other women. So at first it may have appeared to be a welcome correction to read The Da Vinci Code when it came out and slapped down the idea that Mary was a prostitute (even though it was rather presumptuous to assume that no-one had figured this out). However, in the book there was a similarly problematic assumption, which was that Mary Magdalene must have been married to or romantically involved with Jesus. We will never know that for sure. And again, it’s not as if this was a new hypothesis: the Cathars, a medieval sect, believed the same thing and suffered greatly under the rule of Pope Innocent III, who slaughtered many of them on the Magdalene’s feast day for slandering her.

I find that the problem of these visions of Mary Magdalene is that they render her eternally passive, very much like another famous Mary. The earlier movement of the church framed her story as one of a “defiled” woman who was made a new creation in Christ through being cleansed of her former liaisons with other men. The movement of society after The Da Vinci Code framed her story as the beloved wife of Christ, who bore him children and established a line of holy descendants. My question is, “Why are we so tempted to make Mary into an object who is acted upon, rather than ever letting her have a chance to be one who acts?”

After all, the Gospel today shows her quite active. She comes to the tomb. She sees the stone. She runs to the others and speaks to them. She weeps. She demands information of the stranger she sees standing there. And finally, she sees Jesus, and he calls her by name, because the Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name. He calls and the floodlights come on for her. And then, most intriguingly, she can’t hold onto him. He doesn’t let her.

She has to take charge now. She is told to go and tell the others, and she does.

Although other Gospels and traditions include stories about what Mary did after she talked to the disciples, we don’t see her again in this Gospel. Maybe that could remind us of the Samaritan woman in Chapter 4, who runs into the town to tell them about the mysterious stranger who met her at the well at noon, the way Isaac met Rebecca, and Jacob met Rachel. We never find out what happens to her afterward either.

For me the true beauty of the Magdalene is in her commission and her faith. You can see it in the gratitude she had for Jesus granting her freedom from those seven demons, her ability to stand beside him in the darkness and to welcome him in the morning (even if she didn’t know it at first) and her strength in going to the others and doing what she had been commissioned to do, even if, as some of the other Gospels suggest, none of them believed her at first.

My prayer for myself and all of us is that we follow her example – that we allow ourselves to be healed of the things that hold us back from discipleship and respond with joy and service; that we go to the dark places – the tombs – of our world and perform the rituals of care required by the forgotten and destitute (even if they eventually turn out to be unnecessary, as in Jesus’ case!), and that we have no hesitation in speaking out the truth:

We have seen the Lord.