This week I have been reflecting on royalty and loyalty. You may have heard that I became an Episcopalian on Tuesday of this Holy Week, and in doing so I had to renounce my allegiance to any foreign ecclesiastical power. So basically I had to renounce my allegiance to the Queen, my mother was very upset!
I assured here it was only in an ecclesiastical sense, but still!
It made me reflect on whom we should have loyalty to? Is it any earthly power, or is there an allegiance we bear to another, better focus for loyalty? I have suggested I my sermons that we owe allegiance to the one who washes our feet, the one who dies for us and the one who can bring us new life rather than any human power.
But I haven't let that stop me from using stories from royalty to underpin my preaching this Holy Week!
So on Good Friday I used the Story of the Queen Mother who, after Buckingham Palace had been bombed in World War II said, "at last I can look the East End in the face!"
The East End had been bombed terribly badly, and here the monarch was sharing in the suffering with them. A curtain opened onto royal suffering and service, and on Maundy Thursday a curtain opens on divine suffering and service.
This was more pronounced in the story for Good Friday when I referenced the Queen and her speech about her "Annus Horibilis" in 1992 when all three of her children went through divorces or marriage break us and one of her homes had a terrible fire. She again opened the curtain on royal suffering and humanised the monarchy slightly – on Good Friday the cross opens a curtain on divine suffering in the form of Jesus in his death.
So what story for today? Well, I have been moving down the generations – so let us skip one and move into the future. Of course I am looking forward to the Royal Wedding on Friday. And I wanted to say, why on earth would William want to marry at all?
He comes from the most famous broken home on the planet, and his mother suffered from entering the royal family. So why would he want to subject the woman he loves to that? He has in fact said he was very cautious of marriage for this very reason. But there you have it – I said it a moment ago – he loves her, what is he to do?
Should we dwell on the darkness of the past, the suffering and the lack of love that existed before, or should we have hope for new life and new chances in the future? William and Kate marry on Friday as a sign that we should have faith in the future and faith in the possibility of new life and new starts.
New life is what we celebrate today – and Easter holds out for us new opportunities to experience the divine life in our own lives. Should we dwell on the fact that things have been tough before – or should we embrace life?
Resurrection – it is a fascinating subject. I have to say I don't quite understand it, but I know I need it!
Today we celebrate the resurrection and are open to the wave of divine life that lifts us.
As we lit the Easter Flame this morning I was reminded of the time difference between here and London – it was 8 hours before us that the dawn light rose on London and Easter fires were lit there. But it started earlier in New Zealand – just past the international date line – when Easter fires were lit there, then travelled across to Australia. Now my geography isn't good enough to go round the whole world, but the flames did. They got to England 8 hours before us, then to the Eastern Seaboard, and then they raced across the country with the dawn, reaching us and eventually going beyond us until in Hawaii they were finally lit just before the date line and the day closes.
It is like a wave a divine life sweeping across the globe. Enveloping us in the resurrection of Christ on this wonderful day of celebration.
Since I am in California I think I should consider learning to surf one day. I would love that – being able to ride a wave – waiting for the ebb and flow of the water and then popping up and balancing as the energy of the wave carries me forward. That is what we do today – we seek to ride the wave of divine life, letting it lift us.
But that wave image speaks to me further, because the wave passes and there is a dip in the ocean again. And this speaks to me of the way we should treat Easter. Easter is a moment in the church year and we should acknowledge and love it, but not try to hold on to it! It has to be allowed to pass as the wave passes, and there may be dips and there may be darkness again – but the wave will return and we will be carried on it if we are patient.
In addition to talking about Royalty – and to show you that I am embracing my new nation I have also been quoting poetry from Robert Frost this Holy Week. I pondered what to talk about today, and it came to me finally – it fits with this theme of not holding on too strongly to Easter. It is called
There is a nook among the Alders,
Still sleeping from the catbird's hush.
Above a long stone bridge is bending
Below a runnels silent rush.
A dreamer hither often wanders
And gathers many a snow white stone.
He weighs them poised upon his fingers,
Divining each ones silvery tone.
He drops them ere the stream makes music
Fair visions with its vault voice swell.
And so for us the future rises
As thought stones stir our hearts farewell.
(I wrote this out from memory – so any inaccuracy is mine)
The dreamer gathers thoughts like stones and then lets them go – not clutching on to them, but dropping them in the stream as it sings. This should be our approach to Easter – to take it in our hands – contemplate it – and then let it go – knowing it will come again and carry us when the time is right.
Another poet who gets this idea just perfect is: William Blake
Let me finish with this as a statement of how we should hold onto the delight of Easter (which is to say we should not hold on to tightly to it at all)
He who binds to himself a Joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise.
Annus Horibilis 1992 – I am talking about royalty this week – it seemed to occupy my mind as I prepared for Easter – and as I have just handed in my allegiance to the queen – it made me ask deeper questions about the nature of allegiance we might be asked to offer to another – our savior – who we see in his death today offers himself to us.
Into my own by Robert Frost
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
There is a canyon outside my apartment – with dark trees in it – it made me think of this poem as I was sitting on my balcony drinking a cup of tea preparing for today. As I said at the beginning – I have been thinking about royalty – how they are different and how they are the same as us – we can be dazzled by their splendor – but they suffer too – when the Queen spoke of her Annus Horibilis – it was a rather grand way of saying she had been through a horrible year. She walked through the darkness and then she shared it with us – for the tight lipped british monarchy it was a watershed moment – we were allowed in to see the suffering of royalty – as today we are invited in to see the suffering of divinity.
Robert Frost talks of those dark trees – and there is almost a reticence to approach them – because they are the mask of gloom – but he wishes too. Today we are asked to approach our own mask of gloom and enter into it so that we might see what we find.
Most of us want to avoid the dark at all costs. I was afraid of the dark as a small child – what I have discovered – through the years – is that I was not so much afraid of the darkness that descended in my room – as the darkness inside – which comes alive as the stimulation of lights and noise and action from the outside are withdrawn or dimmed. We can hear our inner world so much more clearly when we silence the outer world – and some of, well, all of us really, can be afraid of the darkness that is inside. But today we are asked to go there – be brave – be courageous – you are not alone – and what we find there might be in line with what Robert Frost discovered when he approached the trees.
Jesus does not avoid the darkness – he plunges into it – he is not unafraid – as we know from the Garden of Gethsemane stories – he was scared and wanted to avoid this – like we all do! But he went none the less – and entered the darkness: of suffering and death.
What is that suffering like?
Why did he do it?
What should we do? It would be easy to say don’t be afraid of the darkness inside you – but it would also be ridiculous to say it – do be afraid – do – do – do – but go there anyway. Becoming a spiritually mature person is dependant on you confronting the darkness inside rather than avoiding it – so it is scary – but it is worth it – when you get there you will find Jesus already there, waiting for you – having walked this path already he can take your hand through to the other side.
Revelation and Royalty
I have noticed that Americans like the royal family!
The royal wedding seems to occupy a lot of time and energy.
Do you know I just signed away my allegiance to the queen – it almost happened in such a rush I didn’t notice.
The queens birthday today – and Maundy Thursday – Maundy Money – John Hicks who was here last week was with her outside Westminster Abbey
Maundy – Mandatum – a new commandment – I mandate you love one another.
Prologue – as in Anthony and Cleopatra Act 1 scene 1 – to easter – all the themes are here – Jesus the example of service, and the betrayal and suffering that is to come is foreshadowed.
The queen mother – now that Buckingham palace has been bombed I can look the east end in the face.
God – suffering – service
A story that contains a great deal of meaning – but what effect does it have?
Well – we serve and we may suffer – but we are instructed to love as a new model of commandment – and worry less about being in control of our fates – we are asked to respond not to simple instructions of what to do – but to follow the whole example of Christ – and in these three days we have that example presented to us.
Revelation by Robert Frost
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
God reveals himself not in an instruction book – but in a person who lives, and cries, and tries to serve – and is the focus of divine grace and makes it available to us.
This is no scientific formula where if you add service plus suffering you get redemption – but it does work – the mystery of faith is that God speaks to us in these services, and gives us himself. We are then asked to take that gift – in sacramental form, incorporate it into our own sense of self and finally make an offering to others in service and suffering – and love.
Ordinary things are offered up on the Altar – I have been speaking of royalty – but let us not fool ourselves, the trappings of earthly authority – whether it is the President here in the bay this week, or the queen are very much surface matters – when we go deeper we see that true loyalty, true allegiance is not to be offered to a man with a seal or a woman with a crown – but a savior with a bowl who bends and washes our feet.
First I just want to say what an embarasment of riches we have in the readings today! Firstly there is the story from Ezekiel of the dry bones coming to life – it is fantastic. Then there is the Psalm, where the latin starts ‘De profundis’ – ‘Out of the Depths have I called to you’. It is a wonderful psalm of desperation in the face of the divine.
Then there is the Gospel in which Lazarus is resurrected – and wonderful story.
It is all about coming back to life from death. We are interested in this idea in our culture, there are movies, like Alien Ressurection – where a profitable movie franchise is resurrected because it can still make money. Then a few years ago there was the story where Superman died, was laid in a tomb and three days later was resurrected – sound familiar?
I love the biblical stories of resurrection. I was once preaching in a class at seminary about an old testament story that led into the concept of resurrection and I quoted the lines from ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ about Aslan’s resurrection and began to cry. I also remember last Easter being deeply affected by the resurrection story, even though I am not exactly sure what happens in it. I know it exites me and moves me at the same time.
We are going to look at this story of resurrection therefore – and we will do so by looking at it from the perspective of some of the characters Jesus meets in it.
Lazarus is sick.
I was there when the brought the news. Jesus seemed to take it well. He rocked back from the table for a moment, as though hit in the chest, composed himself, leaned forward again and mumbled something; something about it being for the best, not leading to death.
We couldn’t go back there, we all knew that. The Jews wanted Jesus dead, they were just looking for an excuse. We couldn’t go back. Lazarus would be fine… that’s what we told ourselves, and tried to tell him. But he was in one of his distant moods. He is insufferable when he is like that. Totally unreasonable and impractical.
One minute he says it’s nothing, then he seems very dark – Lazarus is just asleep, he says… so if it is just sleep, what is the worry? It will take two days to get there, and it’s dangerous as it is – if he’s just asleep why bother?
Over the last day he has been darker still – he is getting impatient with us – him impatient with us. He knows we would follow him to Rome and back if we had to, we would do anything he asked – just please, don’t let him ask this – to go to see a sick friend the week before passover when the Authorities are stretched and looking for any excuse to snap. There is so much tension around Jerusalem, all it needs is for him to shoot his mouth off about the similarity between their faces and gravestones and we are all in trouble.
Don’t talk in code Master, what is going on?
And we’re going.
Great – well I suppose we may as well go and join him then – hope there is some space beside him in the tomb.
Thomas – So negative, so little faith, wouldn’t you love to have him around in a crisis – ‘we’re all going to die’. Locked in, unable, unwilling to reach outside of himself, to grasp life, so afraid of losing his life, that he might as well not have it.
What kind of friend is he really? Two days would have been all. Two days from there to here, and that would have been walking, if he were really a friend he could have made more of an effort – found some camels, ridden on a donkey, got here in time.
I have to speak to him, ‘I am sure he would have survived if you had (tried) to be here.
I don’t care for this. I do all I can, I nurse Lazarus, hoping for some help, wanting just a little support, not even a miracle, but just an effort from those around me. I thought I, we deserved more than this.
Yes, yes, he will rise again at the last. What’s that? You are the resurrection? Oh what now? More riddles.
You are the messiah, the one coming into the world.
Four days, he is dead four days, you would expect better from a friend. Mary can talk to him. She was always his favourite.
Martha – So concerned that things should be done properly – so taken up with all that there is to do. Crying inside for love, for a kind look, for affirmation.
‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
Where were you?
I listened to every word you ever said. Your eyes are so warm, you made me believe anything was possible – you made me believe our lives could change, Perhaps the Romans could be defeated, we could have our faith, our country back. Or perhaps I believed that you could just make things better here – in Bethany – for us. But where were you – I believed everything you said.
Mary – so trusting, innocent, but what could she see of what was really to happen. A limited perspective, and a fragile heart.
Then there is Jesus – taken up in their grief – perhaps he dies a little in side as he sees their pain.
Four days: be in no doubt he is dead. There is a stench.
Personalities locked in on themselves,
Needing so much to be loved,
Trusting to the last, only for trust to be shattered,
An inability to see anything beyond the immediate – desperate situation.
Living, but dead. What kinds of tomb do we build for ourselves? How do we stifle life?
Lazarus is dead.
When you hear this story – what do you immediately think?
Raised from the dead – how ridiculous.
It’s all just smoke and mirrors, just special effects. Never really happened.
They were ignorant people. You cannot come back from the dead. Perhaps you could wake from a coma – perhaps you could, but not back from the dead.
They don’t have the grasp of medicine and science we have today.
We can tend to be a little chronologically snobbish – we can look at their lives from the enlightened perspective of the 21st Century. But we must be careful when we do so – they weren’t so ignorant. They knew what death was. The hallmarks appear throughout the story. Four days, in the heat of the Near East. They knew what death was.
We are invited to suspend our disbelief along with the first century Gospel readers and be amazed. The story does not work unless it is fantastical, unless it is impossible. The story requires that Lazarus is dead otherwise it is not worth telling, and so whatever the facts we must listen to the story – the rules of physics haven’t changed, and neither have the rules of narrative.
And why would we want to rob the story of its power!
Surely there is the possibility of new life, new chances, even in the most desperate of situations.
When faced with the flaws within ourselves, the decisions we have taken, the personalities we have, the ways in which we limit ourselves every day, the ways in which our society forces us to adopt roles, to lie to others as well as ourselves; there are so many ways to be dead. So, when we are offered the chance of life, new life, resurrection, Surely we should grasp it with both hands.
Lazarus come out!
When I was rereading an earlier sermon on this Gospel reading, from 9 years ago I realised that I had been preaching to myself – that very line: Lazarus, come out! Was for me. I was not out in relation to my own sexuality. Hiding something like that is a kind of death – we need to be resurrected.
I also remember a woman at my last parish whose husband was an alcoholic – he began recovery and it was almost a miracle. She told me ‘I have my husband back.’ It was almost as though he had risen from the dead.
Then there are the miracles of medicine – such as when Combination Therapy began for HIV/Aids patients. It was called the ‘Lazarus effect’ because they almost looked dead on their beds, and then would get up and recover amazingly.
There are many ways to be dead.
I want to end by showing you some paintings that Kristen did when she was at college. They were responses to the old paintings of founders of the college up on the walls. They are all paintings of Lazarus coming back to life. You will have to ask Kristen what she meant as she painted them, but my response was to see a kind of communal resurrection.
It is possible to look back at people who have gone before us in a community and see them as the life of the place, and also to see that in their death some of the vitality of the community has passed on also – but Kristen’s paintings – responding to the founders who had passed on made me think about the way in which communities can come back to life also.
We have a past that we must be thankful for – but we need the resurrection life of Christ flowing through our community and making us new again today.
Let us live.
So I am trying to buy a car and I go to the dealership and he brings the car out front for me to test drive. As he goes inside to fetch some paperwork I sit there in the drivers seat thinking: ‘what am I doing!?’
I have only just got here and been driving on the right hand side of the road for three weeks and here I am test driving a car – I was terrified.
Well, he comes back and directs me to drive out, I think, ‘ok, I will just drive around a few local streets and that will be fine.’ Then he says take a right onto the freeway. NOT THE FREEWAY!
I do what he tells me as I am concentrating so hard to drive OK that I cannot think of where else to go. So I drive on the freeway and as we drive he says – go on – open it up a bit, see how she runs. I think to myself: ‘No, I don’t want to open it up at all – 50 is fine for me thank you.’ Then he says get off the Freeway at the exit – and I am relieved, only to be taken back on again and back to the dealership that way.
We get there and park and I breathe a finally restful sigh. ‘How was the car?’ He asks.
I had no idea – I had not even seen the car for all the worry about driving it!
I could not see for looking!
There was another experience I had this week – my first paragliding lesson. I was trying to learn how to control the wing on the ground – lifting the wing, dropping the wing, lifting the wing, dropping the wing. I did that over and over and was just not getting it right – I could not see the wind it seems. After my lesson was over I sat in my car and watched an old guy who had set up his wing near the parking lot. He had it perfectly balanced, was not looking at it – and just seemed to be very still. It was almost zenlike watching him – he would take off and gently fly to a rock about 50 feet away, and then stop there – then go back to the first rock. He repeated this over and over again for about an hour, then just took off with a hawk who was hovering above him. It was amazing. He seemed to feel the wind – he could ‘see’ it in a way I could not.
We are thinking about blindness and sight today.
I was asked in the Gospel preview meeting whether this story was about a man born blind or whether it was about another kind of ‘spiritual’ blindness this week. I answered, ‘it is absolutely about both’.
It is an interesting story – and it starts with a question by the disciples about cause and effect. In their world view, a person who suffered an illness had obviously done something to deserve it. They were confused by this man therefore, as he was ‘born’ blind. They asked Jesus whose sin was being punished – this man or his parents – because that was the only way they could think about it. Jesus said neither – there is another option – this man’s blindness has something to teach you about God. He then proceeded to heal him.
The healing was not the end of the story though – after that the man born blind encountered some Pharisees who were indignant that Jesus should have performed this miracle on the Sabbath. They kept on questioning the man born blind – almost not seeing him in the middle of their anger and the infringement of their religious laws.
You see the concept of the Sabbath was that a day should be taken to thank God for creation – and to acknowledge the need for rest. It was a day to focus on the divine – over time specific rules had developed that meant people could not do any work of any kind on that day – and Jesus making mud and healing this man was considered work. No matter that the Pharisees were missing the very act of the God who they wished to worship on the Sabbath.
The man born blind remarks on this – teaching them about the nature of divine action in the person of Jesus and they get angry at him. They think he is over stepping the mark and insulting them so they cast him out of the synagogue.
Jesus finds him and talks to him. He asks him whether he believes in the Son of Man – and the man born blind agrees that he does. He can now fully see. Finally some Pharisees overhear Jesus making a comment about them being blind – and they argue with him. He makes the point clear at the end – that because they claim to be fully sighted (spiritually) they have committed a sin – because they could not see this man.
You see their treatment of him reflected the fact that the disciples had cited at the start of the story – the man must be a sinner to have been born blind – it was their way of ‘dehumanising’ him, so they did not have to look at him.
Jesus sees the person – not the problem – they only saw the problem and were blind to the person.
So the man born blind could finally see, and the Pharisees who claimed they could see were in fact blind.
Who is it that we do not see today? With whom do we see only the problem and not the person? We sometimes look at alcoholics or drug addicts and say, look, they are responsible for their actions – so I can write them off. Or we look at people with other problems, or perhaps illegal immigrants an see the problem but not the person.
The miracle that Jesus performed flowed from him seeing the person, not the problem – can we see the people at the heart of these problems and therefore release a miracle today?
Then there is the question of communal vision – we need a vision as a community in order to be able to work together for God in this place.
Does our vision include seeing the person rather than the problem? I have been very impressed in seeing the charity Home and Hope functioning here, because the volunteers I have seen don’t ask how the families became homeless. The volunteers see the people, not the problem they face. It is an example of a divine way of seeing issues and I am glad that we have this charity here and we are able to participate in it in this way.
As you get to know me and I get to know you we will begin to see each other more clearly, and I hope build a vision together. I am not sure exactly what that will be, but I hope it will include trying to see the person rather than the problem.
We record all of the sermons at Transfig so you can catch up with them if you miss them, or listen to them while you are running or driving.
If you would like to download archived sermons please go to iTunes and search for the "Transfiguration Episcopal Church - Sermons" podcast. Or click on the button below.