Romans 8 viewed through a Seashore Prism

IMG_0910It’s summer in Rhode Island. I’m stating the obvious to be sure, for everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer. Being new to Rhode Island I am sensitive to the experience of it being summer, because while it reminds me in many ways of an English summer, it contrasts dramatically to the Phoenix, Arizona summer, from which I feel I have escaped. This is my recent experience of summer as a furnace heat of the sun driving people into air conditioned hibernation. In Rhode Island, summer is a time to come out of hibernation and to reconnect with the delights of living on the coast in a State of the Union, which seems to be more sea than land.

I notice that the cells of my body respond in some mysterious way to the siren call, not so much of the sea, which is frightening in its vastness, but of the seacoast. I felt this intensely, as last Sunday evening Al and I were treated to dinner at the Dunes Club in Narragansett. The place where we ate was a mere hands breath away from the sound of the sea lapping against the human-made barrier of the sea wall.

For me, the lasting impression is not so much of the sea, but of a liminal space between land and sea. Liminal space expresses the experience of inhabiting both sides of a boundary. The seashore is a liminal space where land, water, earth and sky, with a fluidity, transition in and out of each another. This liminal-transitional place evokes the ancient primal memory of the sea as the birthplace for all life. This primal memory of life’s aquatic origin lodges in the unconsciousness of the human body’s cellular memory.

The significance in the experience I am trying to articulate, seems to lie in seashore as a place on the margins of both land and sea, a place of transition where I experience a fluid process of dynamic motion, of ebb and flow, of merging and separating. The power of this experience lies only partly in its sensory nature. It’s also an experience that is beyond the senses. The word I give to this is intuitive, some might say spiritual. At the intuitive level of experience being on the seashore evokes in me a profound awareness of the transition between having and yet still waiting, of now, and still not yet.

Groaning in travail

It is Saturday morning again. I rise and sit to address God’s invitation to come into conversation with the lectionary readings for Sunday. The week leading up to this moment has been a process of unconscious percolation, punctuated by the moments of conscious panic – a certain degree of groaning in travail, being subjected to futility, fearful of not having anything to say come Saturday morning. As I sit, I note with curiosity that on my way to address the words of the Apostle Paul in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, this is how I begin – by reflecting on the transitional dynamics of the seashore.

I am curious because before I sat down to write I had no notion that these would be the recollections that would come to mind as I begin my journey towards Romans 8: 12-25. Rather like the sea, Paul’s writings often strike me as a little two vast for easy comment, and in places, unpredictably contradictory.

Dualistic lens

At first sight it’s easy to read Paul as making the all-too familiar dualistic distinction between the body as bad and sinful in its carnality, and the spirit as good and pure. It’s easy to dismiss Paul’s distinction between flesh and spirit as the dualistic expression of a pre-psychological mind. However, I think a dualistic reading is more our problem, than Paul’s. After all, we are the heirs to the triumph of Greek philosophy with its inherent dualistic, body-spirit split perspective. We should remember that the Classical dualislism is the philosophy Paul most confronts, challenging its assumptions at every turn with the paradoxical message of the cross and resurrection of Christ. For Paul the paradox of the cross and resurrection is the challenge to the dualism of the world he lives in, not its confirmation.

Today we are just as dualistic as our forebears, the difference being that we now elevate the body over the concerns of the soul. A post-psychological, and hence post-dualistic reading of Paul’s distinction between flesh and spirit might be rendered as a distinction between appetite and intention. Paul’s startling message to the Romans is that it is through the transitioning back and forth between body and spirit within one integrated experience, that salvation is offered. The tension Paul identifies is not a tension between the spiritual and the physical, but between living life controlled by self-seeking appetites and a examined life directed by an intention that opens us to the transformation of grace.

Paul

The central message of Paul is that in Christ simply everything has changed. As the Message, a contemporary Bible translation of verses 12-14 puts it:

So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent…. God’s spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go. 

Paul reaches the peak of his eloquence in a sequence of transitions that is simply breathtaking:

We are children of God – if children then we are heirs of God – and if heirs of God then we must be joint heirs with Christ – sharing the same inheritance as Christ – which is why this life involves both suffering and joy. It’s not only at the individual level we participate in the same life that Christ lived but the very world itself – the entire cosmos is on a journey into the realization (groaning in travail) of the glory to be revealed in us as children of God.

Cosmic limitation

Yet, how can we not be mindful of a world groaning in travail (King James), subject to futility (NRSV), more or less held back (Message) in a week when children die on a beach in Gaza as an unintended consequence of the escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel, when a commercial airliner is shot down on the border between the Ukraine and Russia, when each week we face an influx of vulnerable, unaccompanied children on our southern border, seemingly unable to embrace the primacy of compassion over politics.

Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. (Romans 8:21 the Message translation). 

At the intuitive level of experience being on the seashore evokes in me a profound awareness of having and yet still waiting, of now, and still not yet. This intuitive expression of the sensory experience of land and sea, earth and sky as interweaving transitions is a good way to understand the relationship between flesh and spirit, at both the individual and the cosmic dimensions of experience.

There is no demarcation; no strict dualistic separation between the physical and the spiritual, between realization and still waiting, between frustration and fulfillment, each is simply a place on a continuum of the ebb and flow.

To live in hope 

Paul’s message is that in Christ, God has made the outcome of liberation inevitable, even while we live through the messiness of the tension between our desire to have our small-self appetites satisfied (which is the root of all the pain and suffering we inflict upon one another) and our intention to open to our greater-selves represented by the life in the spirit.

In the meantime we wait in hope, remembering that hope is always an expectation of what has not yet arrived. The object of our hope is not the best we can expect. The object of hope is something just beyond what we are capable of imagining. Hope is faith in things unseen, as the writer to the Hebrews states it. Yet, while the object of hope is beyond our imagination, the very act of hoping means that we are being conformed into alignment with that for which we wait in hope. In the meantime, as the Message translation words it: Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens!

When we manage to peel back nearly 2000 years of dualistic and patriarchal reading of Paul we discover something startling at the heart of his Christian message. Paul fundamentally understood that God valued the human body so much that he came to live within the limitations of having one. He preached a God who valued the human body so much that it is through the physicality of a bodily resurrection that salvation comes into the world.

Standing on the seashore, experiencing the interplay between land and water, earth and sky, I experience the primal resonance of the sea as the womb of all life on earth. This awareness or resonance is lodged in the memory of every cell in our human bodies. Similarly, might this not also be a metaphor for the relationship between flesh and spirit. The experience of spirit is a deep cellular resonance always in a process of emerging to give substance and shape to our conscious intention.

Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

Indiscriminate Waste or God’s Generosity?

607-21952~The-Sower-PostersInitial observations on the text

In Matthew 13:1-23 we are offered one of the most evocative of all Jesus’ parable teachings. Matthew has Jesus not only tell the parable story, but also offer an allegory of the parable’s meaning. This is unusual for Jesus normally lets the parable speak for itself. In fact the effectiveness of a parable lies in not resorting to an allegorical explanation of its meaning, for its meaning is fluid and lies in it’s power to confront the hearer’s normative assumptions about how things should be.

This has led some scholars to suggest that the allegory section from 18 – 23 is an addition, perhaps by Matthew. Jesus’ detailed explanation using the device of allegory from v 18 onwards seems to be in marked tension with what he tells the disciples in v 13 – the gist of which is that the power of a parable lies in its ability to elude the hearers understanding as long as he or she remains unwilling to let the paradox at the heart of the parable turn normal expectations upside down.

In the Early Church the greater the distance between the community both in time and culture from the original Jewish context of Jesus’ parabolic teaching, the more likely the need for an allegorical interpretation. While allegories are instructive, they tend to tie down the fluid nature of the parable, confining it to a set meaning. Turning a parable into an allegory is a very non-Jewish thing to do, and hence another paradox for Matthew is the most Jewish of the Evangelists.

Matthean context

The Lectionary has jumped us from chapter 11 to chapter 13. In omitting chapter 12, which is concerned with the religious leaders rejection of Jesus and their desire to kill him, we miss an important piece for understanding Matthew’s locating the parable of the sower at this point in his structure – between the authorities rejections of Jesus and the more intimate rejection by the people of his hometown. The import of Matthew’s narrative concerning sowing and reaping the fruit of the seed seems to lie in the recognition that some hear and receive the word, while other fail to receive, because they do not hear. This question remains central in our own reflection on the context in which we live-out our Christian faith!

Three possible ways for us to receive this text

There are at least three if not more ways we can interpret meaning from this text. The traditional reading of the parable of the sower suggests that Jesus is the sower who sows the word of God. In this interpretation we, individually and communally, are the soil. The direction this interpretation takes us, is towards a pietistic examination of either our own failures or virtues depending on which kind of soil we think we are. 

The problem for me in this approach is that it’s too neat and can become in the wrong hands more than a little judgmental. It also encourages the attitude of self-improvement. By the stint of our own hard work we can become more fertile soil for the reception of the word. We celebrate ourselves as fertile soil, while judging others as not. This interpretation rests on the assumption that except for the seed that falls upon good ground the rest of the seed is wasted. We bring to this parable assumptions drawn from our modern agricultural preoccupations with the two E’s -efficient planting, effective soil husbandry. So we plough under the weeds, we sieve-out the rocks, we uproot the hedgerows, and we eradicate the birdlife. We then increase the goodness of the soil through effective use of artificial fertilizers. As in farming, so in our lives; it’s all about our own carefully generated success.

A second approach to this text modifies some of the pietistic emphases of the traditional interpretation[1]. The soil types are not distinct and mutually exclusive categories for receiving the seed. Offering a psychologically nuanced approach, the soil types when taken together represent all the ways in which the seed flourishes or dies within each one of us and within our communities. This approach requires me to be personal for a moment.

  • In the area of my life represented by a deep longing to the core of my being to be open to an experience of the love of God, the seed finds a fertile soil environment. This is not only an internal, individual longing within me, it is also a relational longing that find fulfillment in community and relationship with others. I am faithful in private prayer and common worship, I am involved in community service and this produces a deep and rich experience of God, and the community that is God, in my life.
  • Yet, so much of my experience is, at the same time, confined and constricted by my fearfulness. My courage and nerve fail me as I seek to take the safest path, and choose the least risky option. This is a shallow, stony soil in me where the Word of God withers for lack of the moisture of courage to risk, and hope to trust. It is only courage and hope that will take me beyond my familiar comfort zone. In other words, the birds represented by winged fears, come and devour the seed.
  • Still struggling through the process of a major relocation of town, job, house, and friends makes me acutely aware of how the weeds of greed and phobia of scarcity grow up to choke my gratitude and restrict my generosity. In having been given so much in terms of material support and comforts, why do I seem to grow more anxious about losing what I have? As I contemplate the level of my pledge to my new Church community, the cares engendered in me by not yet knowing how much I will need to live on. My liberal credentials are sorely put to the test by the shock of moving from a low to a high tax economy. These pressures rise to choke my awareness of God’s profound generosity calling from me a response of gratitude that opens me to living generously.

The third way to approach this text is to focus not on the seed, but on the sower. This approach does not see Jesus as the sower, and nowhere does Matthew have Jesus identifying himself as the sower. Jesus simply says:

A sower went out to sow.

In this approach we see God as the sower and Jesus is the seed. The striking thing about God as sower is his recklessness and lack of agrarian efficiency. No farmer, modern or ancient – and here is the paradoxical confrontation at the heart of Jesus’ parable – would plant crops in this indiscriminate and wasteful way. Yet, God scatters the seed of the Word far and wide heedless of the type of ground upon which it falls. God scatters the seed everywhere in the world and its fruiting is not confined to having only fallen in our supposed, good soil.

God is free of our petty moralistic judgments about what is efficient, what is effective, and what is ultimately fruitful. God seems to foresee the possibility of fruitfulness in our failures, and in the arid areas of life where we remain limited by our fearful self-protections. It is in failure as much as in those parts of our experience where we encounter the self-satisfaction of our own success. [2].

Concluding observations

I am learning the contours of a new community and for me this is, first a foremost, a listening exercise. As I listen in these first weeks, which coincide with the summer exodus of many from the regular routines of Church, something so very much needed as a time for re-creation, I hear of past initiatives judged as failures or mistakes and therefore not to be repeated. I hear of other initiatives that achieved their goal, but failed to afford those who had invested considerable time and talent with a sense of their efforts having been valued by either authority, or the community. I hear of initiatives when passion, effort, and success all came together in one place, and at one time. These are remembered with a longing to recapture or repeat those moments, even if the time has now past.

In experiences and disappointments, the dynamic of relational and community life unfolds amidst the ordinariness of our hopes and dreams if we dare to entertain them. As the contours of a new community emerge into my awareness I see the hand of God indiscriminately scattering the seed of the Word in the world so that it may bear unexpected fruit in us. Another way of speaking of God’s indiscriminate scattering of the seed of the Word is to speak of God as a God of unrestrained generosity!

 

[1] Pietism is an approach to the spiritual life that focuses almost exclusively upon individuals and their moral worthiness. The living of the spiritual life is reduced to a concern about me, my God, and whether I am getting or doing it rightly or wrongly. Pietism flourishes in the cultural emphasis on autonomy and individuality in modern American life.

[2] I like Brian Stoffregan’s comments from his blog http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt13x1.htm

This parable may also challenge us to take risks that may possibly fail; to try some things that may prove to be ineffective. Could “recklessly throwing out the seeds of God’s word” by similar to Luther’s “sin boldly”? Or to paraphrase it, “Do something, even if it’s wrong (or ineffective or inefficient)”? I’ve read business books that advise, “Be sure to generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes.” Another book, (Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, by Robert Kriegel & David Brandt) offers these quotes: “Says former IBM chairman Tom Watson, ‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate’” [p. 97]. And “Said one executive, ‘If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing anything worth a damn’” [p. 99]. Another book by Robert Kriegel (and Louis Patler) is entitled, If It Ain’t Broke … Break It!: and Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World. The willingness to make mistakes, to waste time and energy is part of the creative process. Such creativity may result in a wonderful break through or new product, etc. Why is it that so many people in the church, which is to be centered on forgiveness, find it so difficult to risk making a mistake — for the sake of the gospel?

 

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Community is the answer, but what is the question?

Since Trinity Sunday, the Lectionary Gospel focus has been on Matthew’s rendition of Jesus’ teaching concerning the experience of discipleship. I have already commented on the way Matthew presents Jesus as a very Moses-like figure http://relationalrealities.com/2014/06/21/facing-up-to-matthew-10-after-a-bewildering-week.

In his condemnation of the Galilean towns where his message has not been received, Jesus’ tone is reminiscent of God’s tone of voice, as we hear it in the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. This tone is an expression of the Jewish nature of Matthew’s Christian community, and their pain having recently been expelled from the synagogue.

The Gospel

The word Gospel means good news. What is the good news? The good news  is that through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has entered into the experience of being fully human. God becoming human means that the community of the Trinity has now expanded to include us. So, the good news is that after Jesus everything has changed. Now that, we might say, is a big claim!

As we receive[1] the Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday, we are accepting God’s invitation to enter into a conversation about the nature of our common life. This is an invitation to make the good news a reality in our shared common life, and only then, by extension, in our individual lives. One Christian is no Christian, said the Early Church Father, Tertullian. We receive the good news as a community of the baptized. In the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church, worship is the principal occasion in which we, as a community receive the good news  of the Gospel, which is our acceptance of God’s invitation to become changed.

Doing theology

We are all familiar with the phrase: let’s do the math. Doing the math is to work something through to a conclusion. So, what does it mean when Christianity claims that in Jesus, God changed everything? Let’s do the theology.

It’s a difficult question because at the level of the obvious, it appears to us that the world before and after Jesus has remained largely, unchanged. Let me list only a few obvious points:

  • Roman domination continued, and in time was simply replaced by countless other regimes of domination down to our own time. A society built on the principles of the unequal distribution of power, fuelled by the institution of slavery continued. Subsequently, societies, left to their own inevitable trajectories have continued to systemically enshrine the inequalities and resulting abuses of power.
  • The Temple as an institution of spiritual domination was simply in time replaced by the Church, which came to behave in the same way.
  • Today, we can be excused for feeling that human beings seem to be as selfish and bad as ever they were in olden times.

Christians claim that after Jesus everything has changed, the old order is ended and the new order has arrived. What we mean by this is that in Jesus, God has moved human consciousness through a threshold[2] shift. Put simply and concisely, after Christ, however badly we behave, we know better! 

Growing into the fullness of the promise

As the Christian Community, God invites us to become changed through allowing ourselves to grow into the fuller expression of what it means to be human. An oft repeated mantra of mine is:

To be human is to be most like God. To be Christian is to know, that to be human is to be most like God. 

Yet, Paul, in Romans 7:15-25 highlights our human experience of internal conflict. Here, Paul distinguishes between an experience of the spirit and one of the flesh. Interpreting him, rather than translating his words, I understand Paul to be talking about the tensions between will and desire. I don’t read this passage as Paul’s puritan-struggle with the demon flesh- i.e. sexual impulses. The contrast between Paul’s use of the terms spirit and flesh refers more to the tension between intention and gratification.

We have all heard the phrase act of will –a phrase, which for me brings to mind the exhortations of the Anglo-Catholic Manuals of Devotion, much beloved by me in my youth. To perform an act of will  is to consciously intend something at a point in time when you have no certainty of how to achieve what you intend. An act of will  is like firing an arrow into the middle distance. We note where the arrow falls and this becomes the marker towards which we then, begin to journey. Our intention is clear. Yet, on our journey towards the place marked by the arrow’s fall, i.e. the fulfillment of our intention, we are tempted to take detours or short cuts. The detours are the action of desire upon our intention.

Psychologically, our desires reflect the multilayered nature of our sense of self – of who we are. Our identity is not comprised from a single sense of self, but from a complex interplay of aspects of self, each with conflicting desires. There is a noble desire that fuels our intention. However, there are lesser desires, seeking gratification. When we achieve gratification, we often feel short-changed because the imagined fruits of gratification have promised more than they can deliver. Of the less than satisfactory consequences of our satiated desires we protest: but this is not what I intended. And indeed it was not, which leads us to join with Paul in crying: who will rescue us from this body of death? 

Liberation into the mind of Christ

We are redeemed from our human desire to be gratified (liberated from the flesh as Paul would put it) by the death and resurrection of Christ. I hear Paul saying that the old self still echoes in our minds, but because in Christ everything has changed, even though we may not always be able to resist the siren call of the old voices we now, know better. The significance of this knowledge is not negated by our failure to walk a straight path of our intension. Rather it is validated trhough our perseverance when we pick ourselves up and return to the path of our intention, guided by the mind of Christ. Failure is a necessary part of the process through which we hopefully, become a little wiser than we were.

Where do we find this mind of Christ? The mind of Christ is found through our participation in the life of the community of the baptized. We express and become empowered by the mind of Christ when we become, and act as the community of the baptized.

Receiving the Gospel

I am a newcomer to participation in the community of the baptized at St Martin’s, Wayland Square. Being new, I bring fresh eyes and what I see is a deep commitment by many to the building-up of our common life in Christ. Yet, I also see an experience of commitment that leads to exhaustion.

Someone said to me the other day: at St Martin’s if you volunteer to do something, then, everyone else leaves you to it. I didn’t hear this person saying: its great, no one gets in your way, but: you are abandoned to carry the load alone. While this is clearly not the whole truth, it is nevertheless an element of experience that we need to explore.

After condemning the towns through which he has passed for refusing the invitation to become changed by the good news of God, Jesus offers words of consolation. These words are burned into the memories of older Episcopalians as the Comfortable Words. These words were spoken by the priest following the pronouncement of the absolution of sins in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Looking to the future

It’s summer and many are away, yet I trust that you will commend one another to read the sermon blog here at relationalrealities.com or on the St Martin’s FaceBook page  https://www.facebook.com/stmartinsprovidence?ref=hl.

A repetitive theme of my teaching and spiritual leadership will be to emphasize our need to move from a traditional Church culture of membership to a new culture of discipleship.

The difference between the two is graphically expressed by Jesus’ in the comfortable words from Matthew 11:25-30: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Membership emphasizes responsibility, which eventually becomes a heavy burden that saps the spirit, because membership emphasizes our individuality. Contrastingly, discipleship emphasizes an engagement with our passion, fed through participation in community, and is a response to Jesus’ invitation to: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

 

[1]Receive is the proper verb here, not read or hear, although both of these actions are involved. We receive the Gospel because having read and heard, we take it to heart in the hope that in doing so our lives may be shaped by it.

[2] The notion of a threshold change is usually applied to material things, such as when water freezes to become ice, or boils to become steam. It’s the same substance but changes its form. Human consciousness although hardwired biologically, nevertheless evolves in the direction of higher levels of apprehension and at certain key moments in history bursts onto a new level functioning.

Posted in Sermons | 2 Comments

Welcoming the Image of God

The text

In Matthew 10:40-42 we have a continuation of teaching on discipleship. However, the tone shifts dramatically from last week’s gospel verses which focused on the likelihood of having to negotiate serious conflict when we tread the road as disciples of Jesus –read further at Facing up to Matthew http://relationalrealities.com/

Verses 40-42 focus on the action of welcoming and the object – as it were – of welcoming, i.e. prophet, righteous person, and-or little ones. In these three designations we have a full spectrum of persons who might be likely to visit with us. I would suggest that we define these categories of: prophet – a person mature in faith, the righteous – a good person, and little ones –  someone unsure, possibly vulnerable, likely doubting, yet searching for that which they know they are in need of. While we can see in Matthew’s categories an identification of types of person, I would further suggest that we find all three identifications coexisting simultaneously within ourselves.

The context

Matthew weaves together in a particular way what were most probably, a series of remembered sayings of Jesus. In other words, it is unlikely that Matthew is reporting a verbatim of Jesus’ teaching, as in this is what Jesus actually said on one single occasion. He is taking snippets of what his community remembers of the disparate Jesus sayings and weaves them together into a particular message for his community. So we can discern that the dynamics of welcome were as much an issue for the Matthean community as they are for the community of St Martin, on the East Side of Providence.

Yet, Matthew’s context differs from ours in a rather significant aspect. Whereas, we will be thinking of persons who arrive through our doors as individuals,  because we live in a society that constructs identity as something coterminous with each of us as individuals, i.e. I am me, and you are you, and in that lies the difference between us. In Matthew’s community, like that of any community in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century, personal identity is a relational concept denoting a connection with, and representation of a wider group or community. To welcome an individual is to welcome a whole group of persons to which the individual belongs. In this context the welcome of strangers served the interests of fostering wider social ensuring some degree of harmony between different social groups, and disparate communities.

Our context – receiving the text

Translating this text into our own context brings to mind two aphorisms – pithy sayings that carry a generalized truth. The first is the Garrison Keeler comment about the attitude Lutherans towards visitors:

As you leave church don’t bother to introduce yourself. If we want to know who you are we will look in the visitors book.

The second aphorism applies closer to home. Referring to the sign that hangs outside every Episcopal Church,[1]:

The Episcopal Church welcomes you! In our minds this reads: The Episcopal Church welcomes you as long as you are like us!! 

Having enjoyed a good laugh at our own expense, the fact is that it is not helpful to generalize about Churches, and Episcopal Churches, in particular. Because the degree to which any church is, or is not welcoming is a reflection of the internal dynamics within that community.

In my first week in the parish, I met with the Vestry. It is my custom to reverse the normal vestry agenda priorities so that discussion of finance and more routine, recurring matters is placed as the last item on the agenda. I do this because I have learned that to place routine matters that don’t change much from month to month at the top of the agenda priority is the best way to inhibit the vestry’s collective creativity and thoughtfulness.

At the meeting two weeks ago we began with a form of Bible study known as divine reading or lectio divina, through which the Holy Spirit invited us into a more expansive frame of mind. I then invited the Vestry to brainstorm four major priorities to be worked-on over the next 12 months. You will be able to see from posting of the minutes what the Vestry came-up with. However, one priority is especially interesting, and one member coined this priority as inreach.

We came to understand this to mean that the most fruitful way of welcoming others is through reaching into s deep self-examination as a community. We do so in a spirit of appreciative enquiry, and curiosity. As we begin to practice inreach we are going to make important discoveries about who and what we are, and are not. I guess some discoveries will be reassuring, and others disconcerting.

Coming into St Martin’s I continue to reflect long and hard on why the aphorism about the Episcopal Church’s welcome seems to strike a chord of recognition in all of us. My experience of arrival has been characterized by a profuse and generously exuberant welcome.  I arrive, somewhat in the guise of Matthew’s prophet. The expectation attaching to the incoming Rector is that he or she is bringing something of what is needed by the community to continue into the next stage of its journey. Yet, how do we imagine the experience of the visitor or the stranger who comes through our doors?

Episcopal parishes have a general dynamic of reserve. Unlike some other Christian traditions we are not known for falling upon the neck of the visitor [2]. Yet, at St Martin’s I suspect it would be a mistake to interpret such reserve and restraint as a sign of being unwelcoming. St Martin’s, clearly is a missional parish. By this I mean it’s a community that is vitally interested in the state of the world around it. There is a long and strong tradition of outreach and social concern. St Martin’s, well understands that it has responsibilities to the wider Church and society.

Like many Episcopal parishes, St Martin’s is a community where the righteous - in the Matthean sense of good people imbued with a sense of humanitarian concern, readily find a welcome and a home. I also suspect that St Martin’s is a community where prophets – as in the spiritually mature, because they are able to persevere until they pass through the glass wall[3], also find a welcome and a home.

The question in my mind is how do we think the little ones – as in the vulnerable fare? Vulnerability comes in different guises. There are those socially marginalized, whose material needs are their uppermost concern. There are those who are socially ostracized through disturbance in mental and emotional health. There are the lonely and the sorrowful. There are those who experience themselves as the objects of discrimination. There are the skeptical, yet spiritually- seeking.

For the skeptical, yet spiritually-seeking some restraint and reserve may well be appreciated allowing them to find their way, at their own pace, into community relationship. Educational formation is going to be important for these persons. Our polite, middle class, emotionally restrained culture will probably make us an intimidating place for the socially vulnerable, and maybe the lonely. Our theological tolerance and progressive engagement in the service of the expectations of the Kingdom will make us a welcome place for those differently marginalized through discrimination. Our compassion and social concern will help us to embrace those variously disturbed, so long as they are not too disturbing.

Yet, the truth remains that we are a difficult tradition to penetrate. One reason for this is our theological and liturgical complexity. It is a steep learning curve to find your way around the Book of Common Prayer and into the concept of a community defined by its worship and not mutual agreement . Yet for those who can resist the urge for instant gratification, the BCP opens a portal to a world of deep spiritual, liturgical, and emotional tones and resonances that are most longed- for in our modern world. We are not the community for those whose response to the challenges of the modern world is to seek clear, unequivocal, true or false answers. Yet, for those who can tolerate living in the tension of interpreting the rich tradition of our Christian past for the purpose of creatively invigorating our Christian living in a 21st century world, we are exactly the right community.

As your new Rector, I want to invite us all into a process of inreach. Curiosity is one of the primary motivations necessary for the spiritual life. With curiosity and appreciative enquiry, let us explore ourselves as a community, celebrating our strengths, yet not shying away from our weaknesses.

In conclusion

Matthew 10:40-42 leaves me with two abiding insight.

  1. If each one of us can become more aware that in us the spiritual maturity of the prophet, the commitment to right action of the righteous, and the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of the little ones - all require our self-reflection.Recognising that to varying degrees, all three are part of our identity allows us the flexibility to orient ourselves to what is most needed, not only by the visitors that come through our doors, but by our neighbors and co-workers, and the stranger we encounter by chance in the street.  The fruit of our process of inreach will be effective and welcoming outreach. The task is to recognize in others what we know about our own familiar needs, and to let this self-knowledge orient us in relation to them.
  2. Ultimately, we welcome not the individual, but we welcome Christ, through whose image we recognise ourselves made in the image of God. When we recognize ourselves as made in the image of God, then we cannot miss seeing that same God-image in the faces of the visitor and the stranger. I believe it is the cultivation of our own spiritual resources that makes the difference between benign indifference and welcome.

 

[1] St Martin’s has two at either end of Orchard Avenue

[2] A reference to Acts 20:37 where the brothers and sisters embraced Paul, falling upon his neck and kissed him.

[3] By the glass wall I mean that experience of persevering with a new community until suddenly one day you find you have moved from the outside to the inside.

Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

Facing up to Matthew 10 after a bewildering week

It’s been a somewhat chaotic and bewildering week, this first week in a new parish. I am someone who needs the external environment to be ordered and aesthetically sympathetic. So moving into a new office and trying to order the office space while simultaneously beginning to respond to what seems a myriad of priorities, has taken its toll. However, how can it not be so? I would not have it any other way! For in the midst of the challenges and competing demands, I have also experienced a deep communal empathy and goodwill supporting me.

In a new situation it’s hard to identify what are immediate priorities and what can be left on the back burner for a while. Harder still is to distinguish between the priorities of the external environment and those habitual anxieties that are always a part of who Mark Sutherland is when facing new situations and the yet-to-become-known. Yet, again, I have found a warm and tolerant, if watchful, welcome from others,  both parishioners and particularly my wardens and the small staff team at the nerve centre of the parish’s day-to-day functioning.

***

So, as I now sit to put my mind to the task of the upcoming sermon for this Sunday I am very conscious of the fact that it takes time to learn the frequency of communication with a new community. The old frequency that worked so well in my last post at Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, does not seem quite right for St Martin’s, Providence.

My intention was to rise early on this Saturday morning and get to grips with another of those astonishingly provocative gospel passages, which Matthew seems to specialize in. I have setup for myself as small working space, literally under the eaves of our early 1800’s house, which a designer friend of mine back in Phoenix described as rustic colonial. It’s a small room in the attic, which a previous owner had furnished in the style of a grandchildrens overspill play-sleeping space.

So, I sit in my dolls house-like space and my first encounter is not with the profundity of my response to Matthew 10:24-39, but a tussle with the cordless keyboard that won’t sync with my laptop. After calming down a bit, I begin to reflect on the process of synchronizing. And my mind returns to the process so uppermost for us at St Martin’s, i.e. making our way through a time of transition into our new future together.

What is transition? The best definition I can come up with at the moment is an analogy between the cordless keyboard – PC synchronization and our situation of transition at St Martin’s. Transition is an anxious process as we engage in the process of waiting and watching to see if our broadcast frequencies will be mutually recognized, registered and synchronized so to enable us to continue to move forward into the new phase of what God is dreaming us into becoming.

***

The Evangelist Matthew offers us the most Moses-like image of Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is authoritatively commanding and exacting – a Jesus who does not beat about the bush and with true Yankee pragmatism just comes out and tells his disciples not to expect a smoother road than the one on which he is travelling.

This is provocative because we tend to fall into a frame of mind that says that because Jesus did the hard stuff then we can expect a smoother, less painful ride.

Matthew’s Moses-like Jesus is no accident. Matthew and his community were in that painful transition following their expulsion from the synagogues. The image I have is of the Jewish followers of Jesus moving to less salubrious premises and opening the first storefront churches, literally across the road from the synagogues. Of-course they don’t cease to be Jewish, and they bring with them their Jewish theology of Jesus as the new Moses who had come not to abolish, but to complete the Law. Locating Matthew and his community within their religio-political context, helps explain Matthew’s Moses-like image of Jesus and his provocative tone, so reminiscent in places of the exacting tone of the Torah’s[1] teaching.

Matthew writes for a community that is struggling against powerful discrimination, if not persecution. In this context there is little expectation of a cushy ride and the Christians of Matthew’s community had their own unique experience of the cost of discipleship. A cost they paid in the day-to-day experience of contesting the centers of power around them, and clearly from today’s gospel text, between them.

***

Each Sunday, the lections we hear proclaimed comprise the conversation God is seeking to have with us as a community. To better hear this invitation to conversation we have to adjust for context. Matthew’s context is not our context, though the themes governing human societies across the ages are depressingly repetitive.

The purpose of the preacher in the liturgical assembly is to offer a response to God’s invitation to conversation from the community side of the line. This involves a sometimes complex, twofold process. The preacher attempts to translate between the original context in which a piece of scripture arises and the contemporary community setting. Yet, at the same time the preacher, while translating from one historical context to another needs to allow the timelessness of God’s conversation to be heard within his or her own community.

What we are listening for is the original voice of Jesus in the context of his ministry of preaching the expectations of the Kingdom of God around 30AD. Jesus’ voice is communicated to us through the filter of Matthew and his community’s interpretation of that voice around 80AD. Yet, rather than dilute Jesus’ message, Matthew’s witness clarifies it further, making it more accessible to us as we translate it out of his context into ours in 2014AD.

***

I am attempting to fulfill the purpose of being the preacher while still being new to many aspects of my community’s context and experience. Going-back to my earlier analogy with electronic synchronization, I am feeling my way towards the best frequency that will sync my words with my new community’s experience – a process of hit and miss taking time and requiring patience on both our parts.

I don’ t feel I am able to address the St Martin’s community in anything other than the most generally applicable of terms. I engage with Matthew’s context and the way he witnesses to the earlier context of Jesus. Then i try to translate out of Matthew’s context into that of the community of St Martin in Providence RI, l attempt to identify and translate the core timeless elements of God’s communication with us through the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 10:24-39.

In translation this is what I read :

  • There is a right order in relationships, which is often inverted in the world. We are not better than God. It’s enough for us to be like God, but not to allow our own sense of self to supplant God’s place in our world nor allow our lives to trespass apon the lives of others.
  • Conflict is everywhere and we cannot expect to be insulated from it. Yet, the danger never derives not from the negotiation of conflict. It comes from the fear and consequent avoidance of conflict. This is what makes us retreat and hide.
  • It is fear itself that colors our picture of the world. Our need for courageous engagement in the world no matter how difficult and painful this can be, must not give way to an attitude of hiding and keeping our heads down.
  • We have to continually expose the lies and subterfuges that we rely upon to make a convenient accommodation with abuses of power and systems of injustice. Our easy accommodation with violence masking abuses of power, systems of injustice, and scapegoating only unconsciously reinforces our sense that there is much to be afraid of. Giving-in to fear makes us even more fearful. Examples of the way we do this lie in our inability to get a grip on the abuse of guns for violent ends, in the steady and continued rise in drug addiction at home, fueling the grip of violent criminality and the evils of corruption south of the border in Mexico. Other examples lie in the way we as the most privileged nation on earth maintain our economic advantages.
  • Social systems structure our relationships with one another along the lines of class, race, gender, sexual identity, and family. In each of these spheres there is a hierarchy for the exercise power that gives to some more power and to others, less. The rich have more power than the poor, whites have more power than blacks – and here I stress that black and white are concepts that sometimes have little to do with race or skin color. Class is the real determinant of privilege. Men have more power than women, husbands than wives, parents than children. A patriarchal view of heterosexuality is privileged to the specific disadvantage of homosexual and transgendered persons.

Jesus promises to shine the light of truth into our everyday lives exposing the way we collude with one another in the maintenance of social relations that mask the disparities in privilege and the exercise of power. We should not be lulled by Jesus’ identification of violence with possible death. By lulled I mean, that thinking which says because our lives are not in danger this text does not apply to us. Every moment of every day many people’s lives are in danger of death through myriad forms of violence . Unless we protest we cannot escape being implicated in the maintenance of a society that preserves a sorry status quo.

***

With time I trust that my incorporation into the life of the St Martin’s community will afford me more insight into the particularities of the conversation God seeks with us.

Jesus tells us that the path of discipleship is not a path that avoids exposure. Exposure leads to division and conflict, sometimes in the spaces where our most intimate human relationship are lived-out

The most significant part of Jesus’ teaching  lies in his exhortation for us to firstly:

  • To live without fear, or more accurately to refuse to let our fear limit our courage for living.

And secondly:

  • To let ourselves become found through the privileging our relationship with God. His means to give up our perpetual assertions of self-interest and potency. We do this best when we are able to let our concern for our neighbor come before our own self-interest.

For those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 

[1] The Torah or the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures comprise the Law and traditionally have been ascribed to the authorship of Moses.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Trinity Sunday and Fathers Day Ponderings

The Problematic Trinity

Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Jesus’ response to Peter is a fair summary of how many people feel about the Trinity. In the Western Church, a term that identifies both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions of Christianity, our engagement with the deeper meaning of the claim that God is both three, and yet one, has been obscured by the preoccupation with theological definition. For Western Christians, the Trinity is a frightfully abstract, head concept. Despite the profusion of churches, especially in our Anglican-Episcopal Tradition dedicated to the name of the Holy Trinity we tend to ignore the triune nature of God, seeing it as an unnecessary complexity. We abandon the most essential of all Christian understandings of God for some vague unitarianism often summed up by: oh I don’t understand this three in one stuff. For me God is Father, or Jesus is friend, or its’ the power of the Spirit, for me.  This is not the case in the Orthodox traditions of Christianity in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and Coptic Africa, where the conception of the Trinity is received and joyfully celebrated with a full and joyful heart that contrasts sharply with our cool response of cerebral assent.

As the joke above captures, many of us regard the Trinity as a thorny theological and philosophical conundrum, best ignored. However, the important and relatively simple thing to remember is that the Trinity emerges out of the ordinary experience of the first Christians beginning to make sense of their tumultuous experience of God.

The experience of Trinity

The first Christians were Jews who knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of their fathers and the Creator of the world who revealed himself to Moses and to the people through the gift of the Law and the preaching of the Prophets. Yet, they also had to make sense of a direct experience of Jesus as a revelation of God within the intimacy of their human relationship. As if this was not complex enough, they were forced to negotiate the further experience of God as Holy Spirit. This was and experience of God as a force of nature that had completely changed everything about the way they understood themselves and the world around them.

For the Early Christians, the three-fold experience of God was not a theological experience, but a deeply human and relational experience that both empowered and bewildered them by turns.

The Church expresses this threefold experience of God through the chronology of the Calendar placing the celebration of the Trinity as the final act bringing the Easter Drama to its completion.

Rehabilitating the Trinity on Fathers Day

This year the celebration of the Trinity coincides with the secular celebration of fatherhood and fathers. This leads me to ponder the question: so who is God for us? I imagine that this question will usually connect us to an association of God as Father. For some this will be a positive and affirming experience, yet not all have comforting associations to fathers. Yet, we often have found creative and affirming experiences of fatherhood in the most unlikely places and in the most unexpected persons. I will come back to fathers and fatherhood further on. Here, I simply affirm that God as father can be a limiting association for some of us, while the association of God with fatherhood can be more creative. On Fathers Day we celebrate the gift of fatherhood, often expressed through the gifted and broken vessels that are our human fathers.

Another way to answer the question: so who is God for us? – is to go back to the Old Testament lesson taken from the first chapter of Genesis. In this first creation narrative, God finally gets around to creating human beings as the penultimate action in a long day marked by intense creative energy. Paying careful attention to the text we notice something, which at first sight seems rather perplexing. Not only is God displaying the first sign of madness, i.e. having a conversation with Godself, but the conversation indicates God’s sense of having several personalities. In a conversation that sounds alarmingly like that of multiple personality syndrome, God uses the pronouns us and our to refer to actions. God does not say let me create humanity in my own image, but says let us make humanity in our own image, male and female let us make them!

We are relational beings, finding fulfilment in  both nuclear and extended communities. Relationality is what it means to be human because we are made in the image of a God who is within Godself, relational. Our relationality is not something particular to us and our needs. Relationality, it seems from Genesis, is also particular to God and God’s needs. The Trinity is the way we Christians understand and protect the mystery of the relationality within the heart of God.We see in Genesis 1, God revealing relationality and sharing the joy of relationality in the creation of the cosmos.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: theology of gender implications

For the first Christians, God as a divine community was powerfully experiential. They identified with the Father-creator – lover, Jesus the Son- communicator – beloved, and Holy Spirit empowering presence, love sharer. For them, the relational God comes to full experience in lives of relationship and community.

I  have italicized nongendered relational terms and associated them with the traditional identities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Father equates with lover or source of love. Son equates with beloved or the object of love. Holy Spirit equates with love sharer. My point here is that God is neither male nor female, yet the principles of masculine and feminine are present in God’s nature.

Although Jesus as a human being certainly was male – the Word of God (logos) is not male. The Father – creator, and the Son – communicator, can be viewed through masculine imagery without being defined as male. The Holy Spirit, in Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, is correspondingly, feminine. The feminine principle is captured in the notion of the Spirit as generative, fecund energy, bringing life to birth and sharing the divine love everywhere. Traditionally the Holy Spirit was referred to as it, because I guess it was difficult for a patriarchal tradition to refer to an element of God as she. As human beings, made in the image of God, we each contain within us an arrangement of masculine and feminine principles which render us the unique individuals we are.

In our human relationships the divine principles of masculine and feminine are located in gender, though not confined by gender.  To pick up on my earlier associations between the celebration of the Trinity and Father’s Day; Fathers are more often male, but not necessarily so, for the function of fatherhood is masculine, not male. In a similar way the function of motherhood is feminine and not simply confined to being female.

God expressed through doctrine

As time passed the first Christians needed to be able to articulate their experience. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the gentile Christians, it was natural for them to turn to this tradition of learning in search of a way of speaking about their experience. The doctrine of the Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about God and protect the mystery of God.

In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature. The doctrine of the Trinity, which for us presents God as a conundrum best ignored, like all doctrines functions not to explain or define God, but to protect the essential mystery that is God from being reduced to the simplicities of only that which human beings in each generation can understand!

God expressed through the psychology of relationship

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me.andrei--rublev-russian-icons--the-trinity_i-S-61-6179-4K11100Z

Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another puts into pictorial form the conversation we hear God having in Genesis. We see not three Gods, but three persons in one God, each reflecting back the image of the other.

In conclusion

Each person has a function. The Father -the lover is the creator source of all things. The Son -the beloved is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit -love sharer is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but the way each function emerges out of being in relationship, one with another.

Please go online to http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon explanation.htm  Here you will find a further explanation that uses Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to demonstrate how this can be imagined.

Posted in Sermons | 3 Comments

A Farewell Discourse

Opening thoughts and reflections on friendship

Since the announcement of my appointment as the 12th Rector of St Martin’s Providence, these last weeks have been filled with the experience of saying good-bye. This particular experience of saying goodbye is a very bittersweet one. It’s hard for human beings to say goodbye, which is why some of us long for nothing better than to just disappear in the quiet of the night – as it were.

Saying good-bye is hard because as I have experienced these last weeks, among the many, many expressions of love, affection, gratitude, good will, and good luck, there has been sadness in the face of a sense of impending loss. I have had to remind myself on numerous occasions over the last weeks that there is no greater testimony to the quality of human relationship than the experience of sadness at the moment of departure.

In John 14:1-14, the Gospel for Easter 5, we are given a continuation of Jesus’ very extended and prolonged good-byes to his disciples – known appropriately as the Farewell Discourses. John gives Jesus four long chapters for his good-byes, whereas on my last Sunday at Trinity Cathedral the sermon slot allows me an interval counted-out in mere minutes.

The culmination in Jesus’ long farewell comes in chapter 15:12 when Jesus tells his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. Yet, for me, the punch line comes in verse 15 when Jesus declares that his disciples are no longer his servants, but his friends. We are called to be Jesus’ friends and this is made concrete through the way we become friends with one another.

Arresting images

I am arrested by the first image that the writer of 1st Peter offers us in the Epistle for the 5th Sunday in Eastertide:

Like the newborn infants you are, you must crave for pure spiritual milk, so that you may thrive upon it to your soul’s health…[1] 

The writer of 1st Peter here is drawing upon the primary image for the connection of one human being to another – that of infant at the mother’s breast. Through it he offers us a vision of what is involved in being a Christian community of friends.

There is a very particular school of psychoanalysis known as the British School of Object Relations Theory. Object Relations Theory departs from the classical Freudian School in seeing the primary impulse of human nature, not as seeking gratification, but object relating. Object relating is the psychological term for human connection, fulfilled in relationships.

1st Peter can be read in a classical Freudian way where the focus is on the newborn’s desire to be gratified by the spiritual milk. After all we all desire to be fed, to have our hunger satiated, to experience the gratification of being full. Yet an Object Relations reading focuses our attention beyond our need to be fed to our desire for connection. The infant does not treat the mother’s breast only as an on-demand feeding machine. The breast becomes the first object for relationship. Relationship is further mediated through the loving gaze of the mother in whose face the infant learns to recognize its own reflection. The infant discovers itself to exist as it glimpses a reflection of itself in the mother’s, eyes, the mother’s smile, her voice, and her touch.

Object Relations Theory and Christianity, at least on this point, seem to me to share a profound understanding of human nature. The Christian understanding of human fulfillment is friendship with God. As Jesus tells his disciples friendship with God is reflected and experienced through friendship with one another. As 1st Peter suggests, the roots of our capacity for friendship are found in the earliest experience of encountering another.

It is no coincidence that both 1st Peter and the Object Relations School identify the roots of human friendship to lie in the encounter between infant and mother. Through having tasted the spiritual milk, our desire is to come and find rest within the loving gaze of God is nurtured. In the face of Jesus we glimpse ourselves made in the image of God. This is an image of relationality. God has revealed God self as a community of relationships. So to catch a glimpse of our own nature reflected back to us through verbal gaze of Jesus who calls us friends, we are nurtured into relationship with God through the quality of spiritual friendship binding us together as a Christian community.

The writer of 1st Peter now offers us a second arresting image:

So come to him, our living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight …[2] 

After I was ordained a deacon in 1985 and then priest the following year, I began a journey of surprising discovery about myself. Very quickly, I discovered that it was as if neon sign above my head flashed: if you struggle with an experience of estrangement, speak to me. I found this rather bewildering because I was the only one it seemed who could not see the sign.

Through the experience of others being drawn into conversation with me about what troubled them most I found myself compelled to seek in psychotherapy the training and skills I felt I had not been equipped with in the seminary. More significantly, I now understand that entering into psychotherapy training was also a way I could give myself permission to enter into begin my own self exploration in therapy.

Here, I learned that the one thing that troubles human beings most is a sense of marginalization, the experience of estrangement or rejection. Through beginning to notice this in others I was led to reflect on my own experience of living life on the periphery with the feeling of never really fitting-in. Marginalization or that sense of estrangement was a very confusing experience for me, because, the source of my feelings of marginalization were not immediately obvious to anyone else.

I learned that all of us have, not one identity, but several intersecting and often, conflicting identities. For instance, I was male, which is no mean signifier in patriarchal society. In addition to being male, I was a white, educated male, and as such equipped to make the most of the opportunity afforded me, and to successfully negotiate the dynamics of an unequal society in pursuit of my own self-interest. Yet, hidden within, or maybe not so hidden as I thought, the source of a profound sense of marginalization lay in knowing a truth of which I was ashamed. I was gay.

If we first discover ourselves through catching our reflection in the face of another, what happens when we are unable to find any externalized reflection of the most feared and painful parts of our self?

Over 18 years of ministry at the sharp end of mental health, I worked through my own sense of being marginal by ministering to others whose experience of marginalization seemed more obvious and more serious than my own. Human sexual identity and human emotional and psychological wellbeing are both fearful regions of our individual and collective experience. We all experience the nature of conflicting sexual desire. We all experience a continual assault upon the stability of our mental and emotional wellbeing. What do we do with these fears? We project our fears into those who evoke in us our deepest dreads – for how often have we felt there but for the grace of God, go I.

A farewell discourse

During these last four and half years, my ministry at Trinity Cathedral has reconfirmed that we often come together as spiritual friends through a shared experience of estrangement. Knowing my own experience as I do enables me to recognize the familiar tones of another’s struggle. My own experience sensitizes me to know what to look for in others. When I see the signs of fear and confusion in another’s eyes, I allow myself to become known to them.

Becoming known is not about sharing everything about me. It is not about inappropriate levels of self-disclosure. Becoming known is about signaling my availability to walk with another the path that leads out of the place of fear. In so doing I am signaling that this is a path I have trod before and can be trusted to be their guide along this way.

For me availability is the key to ministry. It’s the availability of the mother in giving herself over to the needs of her infant. Similarly, it is also the availability of the priest to likewise mirror for the community and its individual members God’s invitation into spiritual friendship.

God’s always communicates with us within the constraints of temperament. For some of us the invitation to spiritual friendship leads to a direct and somewhat mystical experience of God. For most of us God’s invitation to spiritual friendship will be chiefly known through our ability to be available for spiritual friendship with one another.

Through all the varied aspects of ministry, my chief concern is always to mirror the love of God. It would be a mistake for you to assume that I do this always from a place of confident strength. It would be a mistake to assume that I mirror from my abundant experience of the love of God. Most of the time I mirror from a place, not of abundance, but from a place of my own longing. In reflecting the love of God to others, my hope is that I may catch a glimpse of its return to me in the faces of others.

Mirroring is a process of seeing and becoming seen. Being able to see into another’s struggle is no help to them unless you offer a reciprocal experience of becoming seen by them. The mutuality of human connection lies in the ability of two people to make an impact on one another. There is no relationship without mutual recognition.

Over these last weeks, so many of you have taken considerable trouble to tell me how much my ministry has meant for you. Many of you have spoken about the experience of my recognizing and meeting you at a place of need and of my journeying with you through experiences of doubt and fear. My parting charge to you is to go and do likewise with one another.

The writer of 1st Peter reminds us that God calls us all to spiritual friendship not in spite of, but because of our experience of fear and estrangement wherever the sources of those feeling might lie. In the Christian community we are called to like living stones, let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, for we are no less than a royal priesthood claimed by God as his own.

[1] 1st Peter 2:2

[2] 1st Peter 2:4

Posted in Sermons | 2 Comments