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Palm Sunday

הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א Hosanna!—Save us; grant us victory: Palm Sunday 2015

For the Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11.1-11, Ps 118.1-2

Passion Sunday Readings: Isa 50.4-9a, Ps 31.9-18, Phil 2.5-11, Mark 14.1—15.27

In Papunya there’s a very special donkey. Its body is a big metal drum and it has steel tubing legs that go down to a platform with wheels for it to roll on. I think its neck is a car spring, and it’s got a metal head with ears. This donkey lives all year outside Papunya church, usually lying on its side near the bell tower. But I hope and trust that this morning, the donkey of Papunya church will be having its moment of glory.

I wonder who will be riding it—being Jesus. I wonder which Hosanna song Pastor Graham will get everyone to sing; what sort of branches they’ll be waving—mulga? And I wonder how many people it will take to help that donkey and its rider across the red sand on its journey into the church. It’ll be such a wild, wonderful time for everyone there.

I remember as a small child how very special Palm Sunday was. I can’t think of a bigger day in the church during my childhood. It was gloriously, delightfully, noisily out of control. And when I first saw Papunya Church’s donkey, it flooded back to me—how we used to celebrate this day.

I imagine it was like the first Palm Sunday for the crowd when Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem; all those wildly hopeful people with no idea of Good Friday or Easter. They were living in the hope and joy of the moment, just like I used to, those many Palm Sundays ago. I was too young to make the sad connection with the coming tragedy. And in my church, we didn’t go inside and read the Passion Gospel like we have today. So there was no nasty shock of being suddenly dragged down from the glorious hope of triumph one moment to the utter tragedy of the Cross the next. Palm Sunday stood alone.

But things are different now. In the past half hour, we’ve all experienced the tragic fall from ecstasy to agony that Jesus and his loved ones will endure over the coming week. And the way we’ve just read it, we’ve owned we are all participants in this tragedy. We, the very people who outside just cried Hosanna—save us, we pray; grant us victory!—here inside, we’re still part of the crowd; but now the cry has turned to harsh judgement; Crucify him!

This is bewildering—and it has to be. We are the Palm Sunday crowd that cries out to be saved—cries out to be led to victory over whatever enslaves us—cries out to the best looking hope at the time. But we’re also a crowd which turns against any leader who looks like they’re falling from favour; in fact, a crowd capable of crucifying such a fallen leader.

Would it have been different if we were the custodians of the Jerusalem temple? What would we have done in their place, watching from atop the walls as the slow, jubilant procession came down the Mount of Olives and crossed the Kidron Valley into our sphere of influence; into our power? Probably the same as they did.

But surely we’re not like them—or are we? During Lent, we’ve realized we’re not as pure as we might imagine.

If we let Holy Week do its work in us, we’ll know we can’t carry our burdens alone; we’ll come face to face with our deepest needs. And in the middle of that realisation, we’ll find Jesus responding to us with compassionate love—calling us to keep walking with him, no matter where he leads. Bishop Tim would say, we’ll be challenged personally, but not individually. We’re in this together; and most of all with Jesus. To imagine Holy Week is just about individual soul-searching is to miss the point that it’s about relationship; how we love and are loved by God and how we love our neighbour as our self. That’s personal, but it’s not individual; we are not islands; we belong.

So Holy Week confronts us with failings and challenges we may never have known about. But it also enables us to meet them, reminding us that we’ve been entrusted with priceless gifts. If we receive these gifts, we walk with Jesus. These gifts; what are they? On Maundy Thursday, we’ll receive three of them:

  • the gift of Holy Communion which shows we are bound forever in love to Jesus and to each other,
  • the gift of Servant Leadership … each of us shows the love of Jesus in the humble act of washing our neighbours’ feet and having our neighbours wash our feet,
  • and the gift of the New Commandment—Love one another as I have loved you—the gift which shows how we’re called to belong to everyone by living as Jesus did.

And on Good Friday, we remember we’ve received the most precious gift of all: the life of Jesus Christ, offered in sheer love, to make possible the salvation—the redemption—the rescue—the liberation—the divine embrace—the belonging—of you, of me, and of the whole creation.

Let’s prepare to receive these gifts which God has offered to make us whole together. Amen

Lent 5, 22 March 2015

Lent 5, 22.3.15 Bridgewater

Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

There are very few things that everybody learns by heart any more. We each learn the songs that we like best; sing along with them when we hear them. And the advertising industry does its best to make us memorise little bits and pieces; implanting memories to sway our decision when that moment of choice arrives. But everyone remembers different things.

It’s quite different in more traditional societies. We went to a wedding in Bethlehem, and then afterwards to the reception. Two things struck me about that reception. First, there were lots of children. And second, when the DJ played songs, everybody danced, from toddlers to grannies; and they all sang along with the songs. I was stunned. How could they all have these songs in common. Song united everyone; it was lovely and joyful.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

During the service today, we’ll be reciting words together that people have said or sung for centuries all over the world, and in pretty nearly every language; much we know by heart. We should try not to look at the screen. And at communion, we’ll remember Jesus’s words when he first gave his disciples the bread and the wine, and we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer together. The words we know by heart are things that unite all Christians with each other; it’s strong and lovely and joyful.

These words bind us together, and we hand them on to our children; we help them to write these words on their hearts.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

Why do we hand out on these timeworn words and customs to our children? What difference do we hope it’ll make to them? They can’t understand those words now, and I’d have to say that a lot of us adults—me included—struggle with their meaning even into old age. What’s the point? Are we just indoctrinating them, or are we giving them something more? I believe we are giving them something very precious. And I’ve come across something that says it beautifully.

Jacob Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. A few years ago, he gave a talk about the great unanswerable questions of life; the questions that come from a deep place within us: Who am I? Does God exist? Is there a soul, and is it immortal? What can we know? What ought we do? What is good and evil?

He talked of the great body of ideas and teachings built up over thousands of years to help people as they try to answer these questions.

The great stories and images of the world don’t usually reveal their meaning to us right away. These great stories, these fairy tales, these Biblical images, these myths, these great works of art—sometimes they’re not there to convince the brain, … but they…go down in the direction of the heart. And later on, as the years pass, and suddenly life does something to you, some shock, some disappointment, some triumph, some extraordinary thing, and suddenly, ‘Ah! That’s what the story meant, that’s what the story was telling me!’ So try to let these stories come into you and slowly radiate their meaning.” He tells the story of a conversation between a pupil and a wise old Rebbe.

“… the pupil asks the wise Rebbe about a passage in the Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is part of the Torah, the heart of the Old Testament. There is a sentence there that says to ‘Lay these words upon your heart.’ The words, which sum up the fundamental belief of the Hebraic tradition, are these: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; And you shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ (Deut 6: 4-6)

And the pupil asks the Rebbe, ‘Why does it tell us to lay these words upon our heart? Why doesn’t it tell us to put them in our heart?’ And the Rebbe answers, ‘It’s because as we are, our hearts are closed, and the words can’t get in. So we just put them on top of the heart. And there they stay. There they stay until some day, when the heart breaks, they fall in.’”

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

The great wisdom: study it in all its forms,’ says Needleman, ‘and some day when your heart breaks, either in great sorrow or in uncontainable joy, it will fall in, and you’ll understand another level of [your humanity].”

I think at moments like that, we’ll feel God’s timeless, boundless love. We’ll feel it just when we need it; when we can finally comprehend it; when it can do the work it was send to do in us.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. Amen

Pentecost—the tongues of Acts 2

Each one heard the disciples speaking in their own native language; people from all over the known world— Rome, North Africa, Crete, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Iraq, Pakistan—you name it. Each one heard the disciples speaking in their own native language; they heard simple people from a fishing village in Galilee speaking their many languages fluently—telling them about God’s deeds of power. That would be like every one of us here breaking out in a different language; a language we’d never even heard of, far less studied.

It’s an amazing event. The curse of Babel Gen 11 was reversed in this moment—the curse of confusion and estrangement was healed by the gift of understanding and community. These Galileans were suddenly able to speak the various human languages of their time. Everyone could understand again. Everyone was included. That’s one of the important messages of that first Christian Pentecost. God is for both inclusion and diversity. There’s no pressure to conform; no desire to force everyone into the same mold. All are invited. All belong. God is for both inclusion and diversity. …

It’s like that in the older Jewish Pentecost too. Shavuot is the festival of the giving of the Torah. But a central text that Jewish people read at this festival last Thursday night was the story of Ruth—a foreign woman who not only received the Torah and so became a Jew. She became the Great Great Grandmother of David; their most revered king. Pentecost; everyone’s in. Everyone really belongs.

At the first Christian Pentecost, God included people by giving the disciples a gift of tongues; so all the visitors to Jerusalem heard the disciples speaking in their own native language. And their reaction? They were bewildered. Some were openly amazed and perplexed. But others tried to belittle what they couldn’t understand.

Many Christians experience a gift of tongues today, but in this case, we’re talking about something different from human language. We’re talking about the tongues of angels—the language of heaven. You’ll certainly be familiar with the expression tongues of angels from the reading we often hear at weddings, 1st Cor 13; the hymn to love. Though I speak in the tongues or mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (as in noisy accompaniments of pagan worship)

Tongues of angels. Many people have this gift; many don’t. And there are various attitudes to it. People in Pentecostal Churches value the gift very much. People in Reformed Churches tend to be more suspicious of people’s motives for using the gift in public worship. But if we have this or any other spiritual gift, its value is measured by the way it’s used to build up the community of Jesus; it’s always to be measured by love. Pentecost as we’ve seen is about everyone being in; belonging.

So how do we work with this in a practical way? When we were in India in 2012, Vicky gave a presentation on spiritual gifts to the clergy of the CSI Madras Diocese. It was a controversial topic there. Pentecostal Churches were attracting people away from traditional ones because of their very visible spiritual gifts—particularly tongues, which in some Pentecostal churches is almost an unofficial membership credential. If you can’t speak in tongues in some churches, you’re not really in. This is the exact opposite of Pentecost’s message of inclusion.

Vicky spoke of spiritual gifts in the order of importance Paul attached to them. As we heard today in 1 C 12, the gift of tongues comes last after the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles and prophecy—but as we know from 1 C 13, none has any value without love. Even though Vicky left tongues discreetly at the bottom of the list where Paul put them, they were the hot potato. In the discussion after her paper, senior presbyters were immediately on their feet trying to put a lid on this nonsense about tongues; they wanted no open discussion of it at all. But privately we had some clergy come and thank Vicky in tears for talking about this issue. They’d never been able to talk with colleagues about their dark secret; that they have a spiritual gift. What does God want here?

The conversation remained very live. Ruben, the senior presbyter who was in charge of our visit took us to Vellore Christian Hospital. In the hospital cafeteria, we talked about the spiritual gifts question again. The waiter overheard us and told me he’d been praying for the gift of tongues for years. I asked if he wanted me to pray for him, and he did. So I put my hand on him, prayed that God would grant him his heart’s desire, and immediately, he began. He was delighted. Ruben was thunderstruck. I should say that I don’t have the gift of tongues, but it’s a most beautiful thing to hear—particularly singing in tongues.

But what are tongues? What’s going on? In Church, if someone speaks in tongues publicly—at the microphone—congregations that are used to this will wait for someone to give an interpretation; to say what the angels’ message is. And then someone else with a gift of discernment is expected to confirm the message. What is given must build up the Church, otherwise it can’t be received. More often though, people with this gift exercise it privately—it builds them up in their faith so that they’re better able to build up the church. But how does this happen?

I believe that in Baptism, the Holy Spirit enters us and begins to pray for us and with us. She knows the deepest needs and gifts of our hearts better than we do ourselves. And in her love for us, she pours them out in prayer before God the Father. The most important process of prayer for us is to learn to hear those prayers of the Holy Spirit and to let her prayers shape our own; let our prayer be nurtured into harmony with hers. We can only receive this as a gift. I believe some people are given the gift of hearing from their own tongues the prayers which the Holy Spirit speaks from their hearts. It’s a beautiful thing; it springs from God’s love, and for that, I can only give God thanks and praise. Amen