Sun 14 Feb
Warning: this sermon is about to meander like a braided river, veering here, veering there, some things merging, some things not. Lent is a metaphor for meandering.
Lent recalls the years the wandering Israelites got lost. Have you ever done the calculation of how long it would take to walk from Egypt to Israel if you didn’t get lost? Well, Cairo to Jerusalem is 427 kms. At say 15 kms per day [and allowing for a Sabbath rest, and a sick day or two] that’s about 5 weeks. Not 40 years!! No wonder there was significant grumbling.
So wandering meant meandering. There was physical walking and camping. There was spiritual walking too. They were trying to figure out who they were, who/what their God was, and what the whole spiritual/secular shebang required of them. No wonder it took a lifetime of getting lost and getting found.
Which reminds me of the story of the prophet Samuel when he was a kid. The Hebrew text simply says “the Lord called Samuel” [I Sam 3:4] and we aren’t told the details. If the writer had been Irish maybe he would’ve said a fairy was poking him in the ear.
As you are probably aware the phrase ‘the Lord’ is not a reference to a male, up-there boss, but simply a literary post-it note to be placed on top of the unpronounceable and unmentionable name of the divine. The point being that the divine is utterly beyond us. Hence why ‘getting lost’ and ‘looking for God’ are in the same category.
So the ‘call’ from this mysterious beyond is to be understood symbolically, or better ‘imaginatively’. It’s not a verbal call as you or I make. It’s more akin to a tickle of your soul, or a prod, or a poke in your ear.
The dreams, legends, and fables of ancient people invite us into different worlds with their own understandings of time and the place of the human heart. Dreams have their own time, as does love, as does God. I guess that’s what 40 years were all about. Not that anyone had a watch.
I always start the day with coffee. There’s a good Italian story told of when, around 1600, Pope Clement VIII was asked by his clergy to ban coffee as it was a favourite beverage in the Ottoman Empire. And as any good Catholic knew the Ottomans were Moslems – infidels – and coffee was therefore the “drink of the devil”.
The pope, to his credit, took a ‘taste and see’ approach [the same approach I take with whisky]. Clement, so the story goes, found it to be delicious and instead of banning it gave it the papal nod of approval. This was interpreted, interestingly, as the pope having baptised coffee. After this Catholics [read Italians and the French], widely accepted the beverage and coffee consumption rapidly increased.
A drink of the devil, or a drink baptised by the pope? Coffee meanders over our humanly constructed boundaries between sacred and secular; and if you are one who likes your boundaries nice and secure – as many religious people do – then avoid coffee. And avoid places that specialize in it, and their baristas.
A friend wrote of the latter: “Bearded, inked, hipster baristas dying to give you a fix. Pourover? Siphon? Expresso? Single origin?”
Yes, coffee – like theology- has a language all of its own. In case you are wondering, like I did, what a pourover is then listen up: It’s Japanese in origin. It needs a special kettle, carafe, plus the beans of course! It requires patience because it takes time. About 20 minutes. I know, ‘cause I ordered one.
To appreciate coffee as a cross-over brew, a way-station on the journey that is spiritually secular, then you have to take time. You need time to ponder. You need time to appreciate the aroma, and your surroundings. You need time to let your thoughts run down a tributary and puddle in a backwater.
There is a 1970s book of theological reflections by Kosuke Koyama called Three Mile An Hour God – three miles an hour being the pace of walking. Koyama’s point being that God is not in a hurry. When the world speeds up, God goes slow. Following God means going at a different pace than others.
It’s like love. You can’t love fast. When a couple tells me they have known each other for six weeks and want to get married I tell them, very politely of course, to get lost. I tell them to get lost in each other in order to find the truth of each other and of themselves. Sometimes this can take only six months, but usually it takes a number of years.
Despite what magazines or soap operas tell you, you can’t pull into a drive-through and order a double, crispy love burger with a side of meaning and a large commitment, and then drive off hoping it will last forever. You can’t for the simple reason it won’t be love. Love takes time – both the time on the clock and the pace of the heart. Love is more akin to my nana’s Christmas cake with multiple ingredients soaked for days and slow baked for hours.
Which brings me to one of my secret desires: an Aga stove. [I told you this sermon was going to meander]. Ever since I spent a week in Northern Ireland and learnt to cook with an Aga stove I’ve secretly hankered after one. Not that an Aga stove is at all desirable in an Auckland summer! For this is a stove that never stops, and so warms the whole house, dries the washing, and solves every damp problem. It’s also a stove which cooks incredibly slow, and produces a beautiful result. I’m still trying to master the art of slow cooking.
I think we have Lent wrongly configured. Wikipedia will tell you it’s about giving up things – butter, chocolate, and other favourite fats. A modern ‘giving up for Lent’ suggested adding plastic to the list. Wikipedia will also tell you it’s about penitence and penance [saying sorry and proving it]; about fasting and prayer; about almsgiving and trying to make and be a difference in the world. So Lent is about cleaning out the cupboards of your lives and restocking with the good stuff. And depending on the size of your cupboards it can be a busy time.
No, I think this is the wrong configuration for Lent. This is about being busier, not less busy. This is about being religiously active, rather than being still. This is about being in step with a God who does the foxtrot, rather than a God who is just chilling out the back. Yes, I think Lent is time to be in with the slow God.
I remember a small town in North Auckland that rebranded itself as ‘slow’ at a time when ‘bright’ and ‘busy’ were all the rage. This town, unlike their near neighbours, decided to be a slow town. In this town there weren’t any fast food outlets cuddling close to large red sheds. Obese mega-stores with their lure of cheap goods and employment weren’t part of the town plan. Rather, slow food, aesthetically pleasing buildings, locally made products, were woven into an altogether different brand. It was a slow brand. I would have liked the local church to rebrand itself similarly. Remember that prayer is about slowing and nourishing the spiritual heart by listening to no-thing and hearing the angelic cicadas sing.
There are two words in Greek for time: chronos and kairos. The first is chronological time, the time on the screen, minute upon minute. The second is the right time, the time of the heart, grace time.
In the Gospel of Mark [5:22ff.] there is a story of Jesus responding to the request of Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue, to come and heal his daughter. Jairus out of his love for his child had humbled himself asking assistance from a man that his colleagues and maybe even he strongly disagreed with. The need was urgent. His daughter was close to death. Time, chronos, was of the essence.
Yet as Jesus hurried to the child’s side Jesus experienced a spiritual violation. A haemorrhaging woman, ritually unclean, had grabbed his garments. Jesus stopped. By touching him the woman violated his purity status – which was no small thing! Jesus was now in the eyes of God and the law himself unclean. Her stain had become his stain. As a holy man he should have distanced himself from others and performed the necessary and time demanding ritual ablutions in order to rectify this violation.
Instead Jesus called the woman forward and spoke words of comfort and courage. Time, kairos, was of the essence. This was a moment of grace for that woman. Cleaning himself did not have priority. The clean God would have to wait.
Yet chronological time did not stand still for Jairus. His child was dying. Indeed as Jesus was speaking to the woman a messenger arrived from Jairus’ household saying the little girl was dead.
Life often seems to be a conflict between chronos and kairos, between the deadline and the life time. I think the more chronos dominates the less likelihood that moments of grace will occur, and the energy from that grace be absorbed into and shape the community.
Yet there are consequences when we disregard chronos. We know that in Jairus’ case everything turned out okay in the end. But our lives are seldom like that. Usually we have to make choices. Hard choices.
In the meandering of Lent we learn that it is the heart that is our guide. It is the spiritual rhythm of the heart – kairos – that we need to stop and listen out for. To be in kairos we need to lower our expectations of others and ourselves. There is a time to slow down, to stop, to turn around, and see the agapanthus and the fairies dancing on top. Sorry, but you won’t see the fairies if you are in a rush.