Sunday, 13 March 2011

Lent 1 13 March 2011

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called The Two Pilgrims. It tells of two Russians who set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem intent on being present at the solemn Easter festivities. One had his mind so set on the journey’s end and object that he would stop for nothing and take thought for nothing but the journey.

The other, passing through, found people to be helped at every turn and actually spent so much time and money along the way that he never reached the Holy City. Yet he received a blessing from God the other failed to find in the great Easter celebration.

As we start Lent Tolstoy’s story reminds us that true religion is more about generosity than proper ritual observance. Keeping short accounts with our neighbour is more important to our sanctification than freeing ourselves of all distractions.

What distracts is very often flesh and blood which we sweep away at our spiritual peril.

It comes down to choices, as our first reading reminded us. The story of Adam and Eve warns against choosing things which conflict with the destiny we have under God. It is a poem full of truth about the human condition that is picked up by St Paul who describes how Our Lord’s obedience counters human disobedience. That obedience is represented in the Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 4.

You may have read Bishop Tom Wright’s commentary on this passage set for yesterday in his Lent for Everyone commentary on Matthew’s gospel. He points out how temptation is about good things being distorted. 'Bread is good. Jesus will later create a huge amount of it from a few loaves, to feed hungry people. But should he do that just for himself?'

Coming back to Tolstoy’s Lenten pilgrims it is good to be singleminded but it is also good to be sympathetic.

In the story the sympathetic guy is the hero. Better slower together than faster alone.

My son bought me for Christmas a book that’s full of insight about the impact of the screen culture. In Future Minds Richard Watson recognises that the internet is probably going to rank with the alphabet and numbers as a mind-altering technology of universal significance. He goes on to warn about the associated cult of the immediate and contemporary with all the unsympathetic impatience it carries with it.

Whilst it is wonderful to see electronic networking bringing down dictators as in the Middle East and North Africa our best future is challenged by the erosion of conversation and reflective thinking it brings. There is a need for some users to find space and time for these lest electronic technology saps their patience and the resilience essential to creativity.

Internet usage illustrates the creative tension there is in many an area of life between singleminded pursuits and relational obligations. Both are encouraged in Christianity. The seeking first of God’s kingdom is there in one text alongside a warning in another text that to do so, to go for loving God whilst ignoring your brother or sister in need is a serious failure.

If Lent is a call to singlemindedness it is so with the spiritual health warning that comes out of Tolstoy’s story. The singleminded pilgrim so set on his object that he stopped for nothing was not commended as he lacked discernment and sympathy for his fellows. The second pilgrim who was so occupied helping people he got spent up and never reached Jerusalem was commended.

As part of the stocktaking of Lent we might examine where we are on the big life journey and how much our own preoccupations, even spiritual ones, are helping build authentic humanity in us and around us. In a village like our own we have less excuse for not wasting time with people as the Spirit leads us. Love is wasting time, really. When I hear people say ‘time is money’ I feel slightly uncomfortable. There should be sufficient time for us to be ourselves and be ourselves with others, not least those nearest and dearest. Yet the demands of the workplace and commuting are incessant upon many of us. There are no easy fixes here, just a warning to work for a balance.

In this month’s P&P I wrote of Lent as the annual reminder to look to the main things in life and to keeping them as the main things and that for Christians the main things are attention to God and neighbour but you’ve got to give attention to yourself to succeed in these. Examining our stewardship of time, talents and money is part of this, as well as refocusing on the Lord and giving him the things that agitate us.

I quoted another Russian writer, St Seraphim: ‘Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find salvation’. In Tolstoy’s story the blest pilgrim was the one who let his peaceable heart be emptied on the journey in the flow of circumstances and the human needs that presented themselves. The other pilgrim achieved his personal target but was judged to have missed the mark by seeing the people on the journey as potential distractions.

How often do we get put into that position, treating people as less than they are because we’ve got ourselves set upon the next thing or the next person. This gives me opportunity to warn us as a community to be always alert for Our Lord’s presence with us in the person of the occasional newcomer or visitor after service. St Giles is a place to catch up with our friends on a Sunday, but let’s make sure everyone in church is treated as a friend!

The moral is, whatever grand spiritual aspirations we make, the Holy Spirit is closest to us when we are about our neighbours, sorting out our destructive attitudes, putting love in where there is none, recognising the humanity of those who can seem to be somewhat blind to our own.

May Our Lord deepen such sympathy in us and among us as we prepare in this holy season for the Easter Feast. May we see triumphs of his Spirit as we correct the balance of our lives in obedience to his call upon our lives to seek a richer humanity that is more in his likeness.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Sunday before Lent 6th March 2011 8am

As the Church begins to set her sights on Easter the Sunday liturgy before Lent starts centres in the Gospel on an anticipation of the Easter festival that we are shortly to prepare for in the coming holy season.

We just read in the Gospel a very beautiful incident from the account of the life of Our Lord.

Jesus ascends a high mountain with Peter, James and John. While praying up there the Lord’s face glows with the brightness of the sun and his garments became dazzling white.

The splendour of Christ’s divinity penetrates through his human body as the Son of God appears in his splendour and glory.

The glory that was to shine at Easter shone in this isolated incident through the person of the earthly Jesus.

The disciples were shown as much glory as they could bear.

Just as when there is an astronomical event like a transit of Venus across the sun people are warned to view the event indirectly so it was when God shone in Jesus on the earth. The disciples fell to the ground and hid their faces.

‘No one can see God and live’ we read in Exodus 33 verse 20. Yet moving from Old to New Testament texts we catch something of the revolution that Our Lord brings, as in St John’s Gospel Chapter 1 verse 18: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’.

At the heart of Christianity is a yearning to see God as he is. This has sprung up from the days Jesus walked and shone on earth with the promise we could see God.

Not with mortal eyes but in the resurrection.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord anticipates both his Resurrection and our own. As children of God we are heading for the full, glorious sight of God.

‘Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed’ Saint John writes. ‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is’. (1 John 3:2)

As Lent approaches we should be in the valley of decision about some action that can help us better head for the beatific vision, the vision of God.

It is a time to refocus upon Our Lord, to turn our eyes upon Jesus. Lent challenges us to look to the main things in Christian life and to keeping them the main things.

This season is a call to study God’s word and I do commend again Tom Wright’s Lent for Everyone which helps you read through sections of Matthew’s Gospel day by day. The book includes the scripture text.

Through contemplating today’s Gospel we see an image of devotion as the yearning to see God as he is. This yearning that sprang up from the coming of Jesus remains at the heart of Christianity.

May the Lord excite our yearning for him by the devotion we seek in the coming weeks through things given up and taken up to mark the season of Christ’s Passion.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his beautiful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.