Can these dry bones live?
Can these dry bones live?
As you can imagine I've pondered a lot about what I want to say in my first sermon in six months. For a while I thought about setting out some ideas and visions about our community life, or maybe making a response to some concerns that have arisen for some people in the past wee while. But I've decided not to. This morning what I want to do is to tell you where I am at, how I am, in my faith at the moment, and to invite you to journey with me, alongside me, as I figure out the next steps.
I have spent the majority of the last six months 'losing my religion', to some extent. That is, there has been little within the Christian faith, the Christian story and the church, that has called to me and grounded me and transformed me in the past months. It's fair to say that, once I no longer had to be here, I realised that I didn't really want to be. Not 'here' specifically – it's not that I didn't continue to love and value Cityside and Citysiders. It's more that my professional life has masked a lack of enthusiasm for churchness in general, and a kind of vagueness in relation to what exactly it is that holds me within Christianity.
And I think that part of the reason is that I have been living and working out of a kind of bent energy that's estranged not only from my own authentic core but from the place in me where God dwells. Or, to put it another way, I've been doing religion without Spirit, I've been working hard, but not sustainably, and not tapped into the Source. It feels a bit like my life has been being performed by a productive and accomplished, if a little sick and tired, Brenda avatar while the God-breathed and recognised Brenda has gone underground and disappeared for a while. Maybe even for years. It's like I've been trying to run a race with a twisted ankle, or to grow a plant without watering it. That kind of distance from self and God can go unnoticed for a long time. But it's beginning to take a toll in a number of ways, not least that when I stopped working in the church for a while I realised that I wasn't missing anything because there had ceased to be much of a spiritual life to sustain.
What I did still want to do, and did manage a few times, was to get to a service of Eucharist, or Holy Communion, in a sacramental church – a local Anglican church. That is, I wanted to keep feeding on the liturgy and the bread and wine in an environment that keeps alive the promise of mystery, of encounter with the Holy in the context of ritual. This in itself has offered some clues to me about where my own faith is at, what I value in worship, and what I want to offer to our context here. My hunch is that it is possible to directly experience and encounter God in private and corporate worship without needing to opt into the language or paradigms of the charismatic or Pentecostal worldview. Some here are comfortable swimming in that stream, and others are not. I don't think that there is only one thread within Christianity that facilitates genuine encounter with God and nurtures the gifts of God's Spirit within us. The particular expression of Christianity that we might call 'charismatic' is only one framework, one that has been quite dominant for many of us for good and for ill. My sense is that another way for us here to meet God in a powerful and experiential way, is in sacrament - in rituals where the mystery and Otherness of God are celebrated as incarnate and immanent.
I have had enough, for the moment, of talking about God, thinking about God and trying to articulate an expression of faith that connects with the realities of our everyday life...all the while having no real access to God within myself or in the context of worship. I don't want to know about God. I want to know God.
I want to experience in my depths the sense of being 'in Christ' that St Paul talks about. I want to rediscover some connection to the person I am meant to be, and I am reasonably confident that if I can do that, then I will meet God there also.
I made it to Cityside a few times over this period of leave, and what I heard in sermons on a couple of those occasions intrigued me. I heard a similar desire, albeit expressed in slightly different language. Nigel talked on Easter Sunday about the transformation of the disciples after the resurrection. About how we can infer from the extraordinary and courageous post-Easter actions of the apostles some kind of encounter whether in flesh or vision, with the risen Christ. And that this transformation, this inspiration, this fullness of Spirit, is for us also to partake of.
And then Derek talked at Pentecost of the difference between 'knowing about' and 'knowing' - or being 'born again.' He suggested the difference was like the difference between looking at, or admiring, a stream of light coming through a chink in a dark room, and standing in that light - being permeated by it - and seeing the world around by means of it.
Neither Nigel nor Derek said how we go about getting into the light, how we facilitate encounter, how we become inspired, or become people who are filled with God's Spirit or see with God's light. I won't put them on the spot by asking them if they actually experience this transformed self, or if like me, they simply a have longing, and recognition that there is much more yet to this 'knowing Christ' business, than we settle for on a daily basis.
I want to share with you two images from Scripture that have from the beginning of my Christian journey spoken to me of the potential in the spiritual life. One image from the Hebrew scripture (or First Testament), and one from the Gospels.
Read: Ezekiel 37:1-14
I have one remark to make about this image – first that it's one thing to renew and restore a body out of dry bones. But it is another, a further thing, to give it breath, and thus the essence or secret of life. The prophecy of Ezekiel is that not only will the Israelites be revived, and resurrected from their graves of hopelessness and deathly sorrow, but that Yahweh will fill them with the spirit of God – God's breath – so that the lives they will live on the soil of homecoming will be lives of connection with the Creator of all. For me this story joins the dots between the breath of creation in Genesis, and the breath of re-creation in the gospel of John where the resurrected Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them 'Receive the Holy Spirit'. There is life, and then there is real life. There is living, and there is inspired living. There is being born as a human, and there is being born of the Spirit.
This is the mystery of our faith. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Personally, I wonder if Christ 'coming again' isn't a future event, an apocalypse, but something that happens every time someone steps out of their own grave, out of their own dark night of hopelessness and estrangement, and gasps a breath of the true air – the breath of God – the oxygen of God's kingdom – and is filled with the life of Christ. Because in that moment, Christ is alive in them, and they are alive in Christ, and Christ is present to the world in flesh once more.
The other image that calls to me in this phase of life is also in John's gospel – and it comes from the words of Jesus.
Read: John 15: 4-12
I see in this passage an image of what life in Christ is meant to be like – an unbroken flow of sap, the life energy of the vine passing into the branch and flowering and fruiting and blessing the world with beauty and goodness. Whatever good we try to do in the world apart from our life source who is Jesus will eventually wither, and our selves will wither along with it. But what does it mean for us as branches to remain in the vine? Love. Love and love. The one commandment of Jesus. Love.
These two passages are a glimmer of hope in my current alienated and disconnected state because they are a promise of what God longs for us, and a mirror of the longing that is within us – a longing for the breath in us to be the very breath of God and for our actions in the world to flow from the greening energy of God rising within us. This is a very different picture from my earlier images describing how I feel I'm actually living my life: running on a sprained ankle or nurturing a plant without water.
Of course, the 'how' question remains. But perhaps there's a clue to it in this passage of John's gospel. If I'm reading it right, then the fruit and the means by which we remain in the vine are actually the same – by keeping the commandment to love. Love of self, love of neighbour, love of God. This, of course, is very vague, and so the journey that I am on and that I invite you to share with me is to find out what, in practice, that means, and looks like. My hunches are that it's all there in the gospels, but that it's been obscured by a theological paradigm that sees Jesus simply as the sacrificial lamb, rather than a teacher offering us keys to living a transformed life in the here and now.
But there's more to it than just getting a renewed understanding on board. I know I need to submit to the pruning of productivity addictions, busyness habits and my inner commitment to Martha-ness by which I do anything, anything, to avoid the one thing needful, which is to sit quietly at the feet of Jesus. I need to learn how to be a branch and receive from the vine, rather than trying to be the vine all by myself. I need to learn, by practice and experience, what the oil is that lights my lamp, and how to carry enough so I can see clearly to recognise and be recognised by the bridegroom. I need to drink from the well that has living water in it, and not just to keep drinking the kind of water that satisfies in the moment but doesn't become an inner spring. And when I say 'I need' all these things I don't mean in a grit my teeth and make it happen sort of way, because finding and connecting to the Source is more about being receptive and accepting what I can't do, than it is about what I can achieve. It's about yielding to God's grace and inviting the kind of change that I can't muster by any act of will.
I do hope that some of this resonates with where you find yourselves on the Way at present. I am sorry I haven't been able to walk this journey ahead of us, to experience the transformation that gets passed on by osmosis, the kind that emanates from a radiant soul. I have nothing to offer you except honesty, company on the journey, and maybe the occasional postcard from the byways that are mine to travel, even as I invite from you the stories of your own explorings. Let's talk together about what we have actually found to be true, our experienced glimpses of God, our tiny encounters no matter how insignificant they seem, as well as talking together about the big picture - what we want to be true for us in time.
I'd like to leave us with a blessing, which is actually a mash up of a few different John O'Donohue blessings. Then there'll be some images to ponder while I play a track and I invite you in that space to ask God to show you which of the images best reflects where you're at. Offer that space to God, however you're feeling about it. When the track ends, I invite you to join with me in singing the hymn 'Breathe on me breath of God.'
Blessed be the longing that brought us here.
May we have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs us when we have settled for something safe.
May we discover the new directions our longing wants us to take.
May we come to accept our longing as divine urgency.
May the Angel of Awakening stir our hearts
To come alive to the eternal within us,
To all the invitations that quietly surround us.
May all that is unlived in us
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.
May we come home to ourselves
and know God.