Sunday, January 16, 2011

Isaiah on toast!

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
(text Isaiah 49:1-7)

May my words be in the name of God,  Father,  Son, and  Holy Spirit – Amen.

I'm sure you've all heard of the miraculous sightings of religious images in natural objects that make the news every so often. I'm talking about things like tree stumps that people think look like Jesus or a patch of mould on the outside of someone's fridge or worse inside someone's fridge – that looks like the Blessed Virgin Mary. Toast is very popular venue for such sightings… there have been plenty of miraculous appearances of OurLord's face on people's burnt breakfast … and then there was the grilled cheese sandwich discovered by Diana Duyser of Florida on which she saw the face of the Virgin Mary just as she was taking a bite out of it … she claimed she kept it on her night-stand for ten years and through it's power did very well at the casinos … the fact that it didn't go mouldy was seen as a another proof of its authenticity … and if you have any doubts as to its powers, then you should know that when she put it up for sale on e-bay, the partially eaten sandwich was bought by the Golden Palace Casino for $28,000!

The thing about these kinds of visions though is that for every person who sees a face in the toast, sandwich, fridge, or whatever, there's more who see nothing at all … or indeed a completely different image. It's a bit like looking at the stars and seeing pictures … I always like to think of the episode of the Simpsons, when Homer, trying to teach a child about the constellations, points to the sky and says: that big dipper looking thing is Jerry the Cowboy!

It's all about interpretation – what you see depends on where you are standing … and the same can hold true of passages from the Bible … Take for example our Old Testament reading today from the prophet Isaiah … I'm going to suggest to you four different interpretations of that passage, which are all dependant on where the individual happens to be standing, in a cultural/social/historical sense …

The first is rather a literal interpretation … and it's pretty much a taking of the text at its face value: the prophet knows he has been called by God – he is God's servant, who is going to bring God's people Israel back to God's ways, and in this way God will be glorified … the prophet feels he has failed in this task 'I have laboured in vain' he says, but still trusts in God … and
God tells him not to give up … because his job is not just to bring his chosen people back to him, but all people … he is to be a light to the nations … and even though he is despised by men, he will be honoured by kings and princes because of what he must do ...

The next interpretation would come later in time … the prophet is long dead … the people of Israel are oppressed … they look for a Messiah that will rescue them … and here they find a passage that speaks of how God's people Israel will be brought back to him, by a servant he has called and chosen … the powerful rulers of the earth will bow down before the one they thought of as a slave, one they despised … for those looking for a mighty, warlike Messiah, this passage from Isaiah seemed to speak strongly of the time when their day would come, when the weak little kingdom of Israel would be the light of the world …

And then there is the interpretation of this passage that comes when it is looked at in the light of Christ … Christians see this as one of Isaiah's servant songs … God's servant is sent to his people Israel … he is rejected and seems to fail … the task is too much … but that failure is his servant's success … because his mission was never limited to Israel, but to the whole world … and the one despised and abhorred by the powerful will now have the powerful prostrating themselves before him … This is surely one of the passages that Jesus quoted to his companions on the road to Emmaus, as he opened the scriptures top them and explained to them how the Messiah must suffer and die … and who's not to say that there was not always an element within the people of Israel who understood that this was the kind of Messiah that God would send. Look at our passage from John's gospel today … John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God' and Andrew calls him 'Rabbi', becomes his follower, and goes and tells his brother Simon that he has found the Messiah … think about what the Lamb represented in Israel of the time … it was a weak, powerless creature, often used for sacrifice in the temple worship of the day … and the main constituent of the Passover meal … and yet when John calls him the Lamb of God, Andrew and others recognise him as the Messiah …

And our fourth and final interpretation … which is less of an interpretation than a question: what does this passage mean for us today? There are also the questions that flow from that question. If we see these verses as talking about Christ, then what has that passage to say to us who through our baptisms are one with Christ … do we remember that God called us even before we were born? Do we see ourselves as his servants whose lives are to give him glory? Do we trust in him at all times, and especially when we think we are failing in our lives or when we think that life is failing us? Do we work to be a light to the nations, to all people, so that all might know and love God, even when we think that our only reward will be to be laughed at, despised, abhorred, and rejected, so that God's salvation will reach the ends of the earth?

A lot of questions … far more than we could possibly answer here this morning … and so I leave them to you to ponder over them in the coming days … essentially: in what ways are you a servant of God in the pattern of Jesus Christ … perhaps you can think of it every now and again when you have a free moment … maybe, for example, as you're eating your breakfast … you may find it a more rewarding activity, and certainly more spiritually enlightening, than looking for faces in the scorch marks on your toast … Amen


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

kinder and gentler

O, I am weary. 2011 has gotten off to a fine start. First there was all the cold weather making travel difficult - and travel around the parish is kind of essential in ministry. My mother went into hospital, ostensibly for a couple of days for tests. But she picked up a bug while there and ended up staying in over three weeks - which of course means trying to fit hospital visits into my already crowded schedule. But hey - the clergy get a bit of down time after Christmas, right? Except the thaw from the cold weather revealed that the freeze had burst pipes in the attic of my parents house. Good job they don't live there anymore, 'cause they'd be homeless right now otherwise. But it meant a lot of my down time got eaten up ripping up wet carpets and skipping things soaked and ruined.

I've had a few other things eating into my limited free time. I don't actually feel sorry for myself - I'm just feeling tired. I started a chaplaincy course this week and I've had two days in the classroom, which takes it out of me. I have to head out to a parish meeting later, which makes it difficult to wind down and relax as I know I'm not 'off duty' yet.

The course is interesting. I'm doing it mainly because I see a lot of the stuff that one learns about being a chaplain as being applicable to general parish ministry. If I understand aright, the plan is to come to understand myself more deeply so as to be more effective in ministry. Getting to know myself better - that may be a rather scary prospect. Knowing my strengths so that I can't make the excuse 'I can't do that' - knowing my weaknesses so I can better avoid failure. Sounds like the end result could be being even busier than I am now! O well ... maybe finding out more about me will make me a kinder, gentler person ...

How have you started off your 2011?