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Sunday 27 November 2011

Claiming God's Faithfulness

Texts:  Isaiah 64. 1-9; Psalm 80. 1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13. 24-37

I hope there are some Monty Python fans amongst you this morning, because I want to begin by recalling a scene from one of their funniest movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Perhaps you will remember it.  King Arthur and his brave companions have just been done over by an incredibly well-educated peasant on one of the King’s estates, and are feeling a little despondent about being part of the aristocracy.  Arthur decides to seek divine guidance.  Afterall, there’s not a great deal for a king to do if even the peasants won’t obey you!  But before his prayer has progressed very far at all, Arthur is suddenly interrupted by a trap-door which opens in one of the clouds above, and a rather grumpy-looking God appears.  Immediately the whole company falls to its knees in eager-to-please obeisance and fear.  But God tells them to stop grovelling. “Oh please”, he says, “stop all that silly grovelling.  ‘Forgive me’ this, and ‘I’m sorry for’ that.  It really gets on my nerves”.  “Sorry, Lord” says Arthur.  “Don’t say sorry!”, says God, rather angrily, “I’m sick of people being sorry.  All those grovelling Psalms really are very boring !”  And after God calms down a bit, they finally receive their mission to seek the holy grail.

Now, like a lot of good comedy, Pythonesque comedy is strong on hyperbole.  That is, overdoing things in order to make a rather modest point.  And whether they knew they were engaging in theological reflection or not, the Python managed to make a rather spot-on theological point in this particular sketch.  And that is that many Christians are far too concerned about being sorry about their sins.  You might be surprised that I say that.  Afterall, we said a rather stark confessional prayer this morning, and clearly I do see a confessional moment as quite essential to our worship of God, whether that be at Sunday service or elsewhere.  We are sinners.  We really do need to acknowledge our guilt before our Maker.  Nevertheless, I also believe that there is a very real danger in becoming too much concerned with confession.  For if we are forever thinking about our sins, we might even become inclined to invent sins to be sorry about—to blame ourselves, and no-body else, for all that seems to go wrong in life.  This kind of attitude seems particularly prevalent amongst Protestants who, consciously or unconsciously, are followers of Luther or Calvin.  Both these venerable gentleman had, on occasion, a rather morbid approach to the sinfulness of human beings.  But I shan’t go into that now.

Instead, I will simply point out that the things that go wrong in life are not always our fault.  Sometimes they are someone else’s fault.  Sometimes they are no-one’s fault.  And sometimes, sometimes, the things that go wrong in life may well be God’s doing.  That is most certainly the view of the prophet in our reading from Isaiah.  In speaking with God about the sins which led to Judah’s captivity in Babylon, the prophet says this:

                            You were angry, and we sinned;
                            because you hid yourself, we transgressed.

Earlier in this same prayer, in chapter 63 verse 17, the prophet says something similar:

                            Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from our ways
                            and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?

What an alarming suggestion!  We are used to thinking, are we not, that God gets angry because we sin, that God hides Godself from us because we have departed from the terms of the covenant?  Yet here the prophet claims that the opposite may be the case sometimes as well:  that we sin because we experience God’s anger, and it feels cruel and unfair.  Sometimes, he suggests, we fall into a gutter of despair and sin because we find that God has disappeared, and is no longer there to support us, which leaves us with a sense of having been abandoned.  What are we to make of these claims?  How do we make sense of them?  Can we really hold God responsible for some of the chaos in our lives?  Could we dare?  Is God really one who sends calamity without regard to justice? 

Well, I shall not be answering that question in full this morning.  There is no time.  But I would ask you to notice that whatever God may be up to “objectively”, as it were, the particular passages we are examining this morning show absolutely no interest, no interest whatsoever, in  justifying the ways of God to human beings.   What the passages are interested to do, however, is acknowledge and validate the legitimacy of that experience we have been examining i.e.  that sense one occasionally gets that God has abandoned us for no reason that we can readily identify.  Now, of course, when everything appears to be collapsing and life has fallen into a great big pit from which there appears to be very little chance of escape, we are right to search ourselves for character flaws, or sins.  We are also right to search our families, our culture, or even the world economic order for the effects of sin, for patterns of repression or evil intent.  But after all that can be known is known, after all the truth-telling and repenting has been done, it may still be the case that the sky is falling in and it is simply impossible to see any decent reason why.  In that moment, we can only really see ourselves as powerless before forces which seem indifferent to our very real, very present, and very personal pain.  At such moments the words of the psalmist come easily to our lips:  “How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers?  You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” (80.4).  Indeed, at times like this, our prayers seem to bounce off a God who, far from being indifferent, actually seems to have it in for us!

When life is like that, what are we to do?  Well, this is not a time for confession.  Confession is something we do when we can actually identify and acknowledge what we have done wrong ourselves, or in acquiescence with someone else’s wrongdoing.  Having searched ourselves long and hard, having confessed whatever there is to confess already, there’s no point in going on to invent sins that aren’t actually there.  Inventing sins for ourselves has another name.  Masochism.  And Christians are not called to masochism, which is a form of fantasy and reality-denial.  Rather, we are called to lament what has happened to us, and claim the promise of God’s salvation.  Which is precisely what the prophet does in the passage we are reading.

The kind of language we are investigating is called LAMENT.  Lament is what you do when disaster has come and you’ve confessed until your mouth is dry.  You’ve confessed and repented of everything you can find, but the disaster just keeps on coming.  The best example of lament in the bible is the aptly named Book of Lamentations, which reflects on the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants.  But the two Old Testament passages set for today are good examples as well.  Here the writers tell God that life is pretty much in the gutter, and that God had better do something about it.  Lament is what you do when there’s nothing else you can do.  As a key part of their lamentations, our psalmist and our prophet both point out that God actually has an obligation to do something for them, to rescue them. And they base that claim on two things that they know about God already:  (1) God is a compassionate creator;  (2) God has made a covenant with them, in which salvation is promised to all who abandon their sin and cling to God.  I want to spend a few moments looking at each of these in turn, because I think they give us some important clues for how we might do our own lamenting. 

When the bottom falls out of life, I first encourage you to call on God as the Compassionate Creator.   The prophet says:

                            Look down from heaven and see,
                            from your holy and glorious habitation.
                            Where are your zeal and your might?
                            The yearning of your heart and your compassion?  (Is 63. 15)

                            Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
                we are the clay, and you are the potter;
                            we are all the work of your hand.
                            Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
                            and do not remember iniquity forever.
                            Now consider, we are all your people.

Here God is imaged as a father who is also a potter.  The point is clear.  God did not create us with indifference, but with compassion, love, and father-like affection.  Therefore we may count on God to eventually let go of his anger and relent.  We are his own beloved people, the extraordinary products of his own tender imagination.  No matter what we may do, God will not destroy, absolutely, what God has made.

When the tidal wave hits, I would also encourage you to call on God as the senior signatory to a rather special covenant.  The Psalmist says this:

                            You brought a vine out of Egypt;
                            you drove out the nations and planted it.
                            You cleared the ground for it;
                            it took deep root and filled the land.
                            The mountains were covered with its shade,
                            the mighty cedars with its branches;
                            it sends out its branches to the sea,
                            and its shoots to the river.
                            Why then have you broken down its walls,
                            so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? . . .
                            Turn again, O God of hosts,
                            look from heaven and see.
                            Have regard for this vine,
                            the stock that your right hand planted . . .
                            Restore us, O Lord, God of hosts;
                            let your face shine, that we may be saved.

This allegory of a vine is the story of Israel in miniature.  It speaks of the history of the relationship between God and Israel.  How God created the Hebrew nation in Egypt, and rescued it from slavery.  How God cleared a land for the people to live in.  How they prospered and bore much fruit because of God’s guidance and care.  And yet now, with Jerusalem destroyed and the land in ruins, the fruitful nation has become plunder for others.  In telling this story, the Psalmist emphasises the role of God in the relationship.  God is the primary actor, the protagonist who makes things happen.  That’s how it was with ancient, middle-eastern, covenants.  One party, the stronger party, takes the initiative to grace the other with its protection and care.  All the weaker party is asked for in return is trust and loyalty.  And in the case of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, even if Israel withdrew its loyalty for a time, the terms of the covenant could be reactivated with a genuine renewal of Israel’s faith.  Here the Psalmist is arguing that Israel has indeed renewed its trust so that, under the terms of the covenant, God should now jolly-well offer his care and protection once more.  And immediately.

As Christians we are members of a ‘new’ covenant that nevertheless owes a great deal to the ‘old’ covenant between Israel and Yahweh.  In Jesus, we are privileged to have witnessed just how seriously God takes his side of the bargain made with Israel.  Through the life and death of Christ, God has shown us clearly and unambiguously that disloyalty need be no impediment.  In Christ, all is forgiven.  This is so not only for the Hebrew people, but for all who are called into the community of God created by Jesus.  As the book of 1 Corinthians tells us, ‘He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1. 8, 9).  On that basis, when the bombs fall on you from the sky and the ground opens up beneath you, you have every right to call on God and demand what is yours: Salvation!  Not just the salvation of your soul, but the salvation of your body and your planet as well.  This is God’s promise and God’s gift to all who are joined to Christ.  So don’t be backward in coming forward.  If life is giving you a hard time, if GOD is giving you a hard time, and you’ve run out of honest confessions, then call on God to honour the promises God has made.  Pour out your lament, and don’t hold back.  Ask for what is yours as a child of God: your salvation, your healing, the liberation of the world from its bondage to decay.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with pleading for what is already yours in the gift of God.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Bearing Fruit for the Kingdom

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

Here are some thoughts about a parable of Jesus by which many are puzzled and even bewildered, the parable of the 'talents'.  I will begin with some observations about the historical and theological background of the parable, and then make one or two suggestions about what the parable is trying to communicate.

Let us begin by being quite clear about what a parable is, and why Jesus told parables.  According to the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, a parable is a story which seeks to question and subvert the very fabric of reality as it is commonly understood by its hearers.  To everyone who smugly assumes that they know what is real and understand how life really works, the parable says: “Is life really like that?  Are you sure?  What if you are wrong?  How would you change your life if you were wrong?”  This explains why parables are often rather difficult to understand.   Parables only begin to make sense when the hearers are prepared to entertain the possibility that reality may not work as it seems to work.  Clearly, that is a very difficult thing for many of us to do.  Most of us would prefer to assume that we are right about the world, that there are some objective truths out there that we all have in common, that the meaning of life comes down to a certain amount of common-sense.    To people who think like that, parables are rather troubling, for if we take them seriously, they have the potential to shake the very foundations on which we have built our lives.

Jesus, it seems, was particularly fond of the parabolic form of story-telling.  He was not the first to use parables, nor was he the last.  But it is generally agreed that he remains the master of the genre.  In reading the gospels, it is clear that Jesus used parables for a particular reason:  he wanted to show his contemporaries that the world they experienced every day was not the most real world, and that many of the values they lived by were not, in the end, of much lasting consequence.  For Jesus believed that a yet more real reality was arriving in the world, a reality he called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  All the parables Jesus told are about the kingdom of heaven, and about the way in which its arrival will not only change things, but turn almost everything his hearers assumed as common-sense upside-down.  The parable we are focussing on this morning, the parable of the ‘talents’, is no exception.

Right from the very beginning of the story it is clear that we are not dealing with reality as it would have been commonly understood by the Jewish people of Jesus’ contemporaries.  For no master with any sense would leave such incredibly large amounts of money in the care of his slaves, no matter how well they had served him.  Do you understand how much a ‘talent’ was in the Roman money?  Most recent scholarship agrees that a talent was the equivalent of fifteen year’s wages for the average farm-labourer.  In today’s Australian money, that would be about $405 000.  So when the master leaves five talents to one of his slaves, two talents to another, and one talent to a third, we are clearly talking about a master who is certainly NOT like any master known to first century Jews!  NO master would trust a mere slave with such massive amounts of cash.  ANY such master would be widely regarded as either mad or morally impaired. 

A second indication that we are dealing, here, not with reality as it was commonly understood, but with some kind of alternative reality, is the behaviour of the first two slaves upon receiving the cash.  Without any precise permission or instruction from their Master whatsoever, they immediately take the money out into the market place and invest it.  They pour the money into ventures that, precisely because they have the potential to create more wealth, are also incredibly risky.  Now, in the normal scheme of things, any first century Jew would have been deeply shocked at the very prospect.  There would first be the question as to why a slave might take such risks.  For, under Roman law, a slave could in no way expect that they, themselves, would be enriched by such speculations.  Slaves had no rights whatsoever.  They received no wages and had no personal control over their futures.  If a master became displeased with them, whether the reason be fair or unfair, they could be sold or even executed without any recourse whatsoever.  So what could possibly motivate a slave to take such enormous, and potentially catastrophic, risks with his master’s money—especially when the master had given no such instruction to that effect?  The answer is “nothing at all”!  In Roman-occupied Judea such a thing would never happen.  Never.  The more common-sense thing would be to act as the third slave does.  Out of a well-founded fear for his life, any sensible slave would simply hide the money away in a very safe place so that there could be no risk of loss.

And there is yet a third indication that we are dealing here with a very uncommon vision of reality.  When the master returns he does exactly the opposite of what any decent, sensible master ought to have done.  For while the first two slaves might have used their skills to make the master more wealthy, that wealth could in no way be seen as justification for the incredible risks taken in generating that wealth.  According to the values of Jesus’ hearers, a ‘good’ master should have received the cash, put it in the bank, but then punished the two slaves for their incredible irresponsibility.  But that is not what our parabolic master does.  No, just the opposite, and to a positively outrageous extent!  Not only does he reward the slaves with his thanks, but he also invites them to share in their master’s joy—which is a first-century way of saying ‘you are now shareholders and co-owners of my estate’!  Contrast that with way the third slave is treated, the common-sensical one who behaved most responsibly.  Even the money he safely preserved is removed from him and he is summarily thrown out into the street to become the very refuse of his society. 

So you see, this is a story that would have been deeply confronting for Jesus’ first hearers.  To them, it would have made no sense—no common sense—whatsoever.  So why did Jesus tell the story?  Well, as becomes clear from the context in which the parables occurs in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tell the parable because he wants his hearers to know that there is a revolution on its way called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  He wants them to know that when that kingdom arrives on the earth, things are going to be very different, so they had better get ready for that kingdom’s arrival by beginning to live and behave as though the kingdom was already here.  Allow me to summarise what I believe the central message of the parable was for Matthew’s first audience.

Matthew used the parable to tell his hearers what God was like.  ‘The God of Jesus Christ is not like the God that most of you believe in’, said Matthew to his people.  ‘God is not a tyrant who wants to keep us enslaved, maintaining watchful control over everything we do.  Neither is God a landlord who exploits our labour in order to enrich himself alone.  No, God is infinitely generous.  All that we have, God has given us, whether skills, talents, personal resources or money.  All are given as genuine gifts, that is, they are given to us to use as we wish.  And while God would clearly like us to invest our gifts wisely—that is, according to the strange wisdom of the kingdom of God in which wisdom is often mistaken for foolishness—God is not a puppet-master who would run the whole show from behind the scenes.  No, with every free gift, we are also given genuine responsibility.  We are free to use our gifts either for good or for ill.  In this God has made himself rather vulnerable.  He has invested in us, and what we do with God’s investment really matters.  If we use what we are given for good, we and God will share together in the joy that we have created together.  If, on the other hand, we use God’s investment only for ill—only for keeping ourselves ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ in the world (as the world would understand safety and security)—it is not only ourselves and our neighbours, but also God who suffers the consequences of our lack in both imagination and generosity.  For God invests in us out of a spirit of very risky generosity.  If we hide that investment in the ground, if we do not re-invest what we are given according to that same spirit of generosity, then the whole world is impoverished.  Not only we ourselves, but also our neighbours, and God himself.’

All parables have a 'sting' in their tale. So let's be clear that the sting in the tail of this parable has both an ancient and a modern iteration.  The ancient iteration, as I've already made clear, is the idea that a wealthy landowner would share his profitable investments with slaves.  The other side of this particular coin is the idea that a slave might be justly punished for NOT taking unauthorized risks with his or her master's money.  Either suggestion would have been most offensive to a first century audience. One should note, however, that the parable is not actually concerned with money, first of all, but with faithfulness in the kingdom of heaven.  In the context of the gospel of Matthew, the servants who make risky investments and share in their master's plenty are like those who are called to be salt and light, whose righteousness 'far exceeds' that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5.13-16, 20). They are also like those who store up 'treasures in heaven' (6.19-21), who are 'shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves' (10.16).  The good they invest is like the gospel itself which, when sown in good soil, produces a crop 'yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown' (13.23) or like the mustard seed, which 'though the smallest of all seeds, grows to become the largest of garden plants' (13.31).  Again, the goods these servant invest are like the five loaves and the two fishes that Jesus multiplies to feed several thousand people (14.18-21) or like the expensive jar of perfume which is poured out liberally to anoint Jesus for burial (26.6-13) but which is multiplied a hundredfold in the resurrection.  The common theological theme here, as I noted above, is that grace multiplies itself, like the money left to the servants, who then share in the 'joy' of their master.

The servant who hid his money in the ground, however, is like the Scribes and Pharisees who are not interested in grace and its multiplication, but only in an uncreative and deeply conservative keeping of what they have already received in tradition (9.16, 17; 12.1-14 ) and, because of their lack of creatively iterative faith, are 'thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' (8.12; cf 13.50 and 22.13).  The point here is that the servant who buries what he is given in the ground clearly represents, for Matthew, those of Jesus' hearers who fail to produce fruit for the kingdom, especially the religious authorities who seek to cast aside the invitation at every turn (21.43-46).

Turning, then, to the ways in which the parable might sting a modern audience, I would risk the following.  Many moderns have reduced the meaning of the love of God to a form of middle-class niceness that asks, for example, 'How could God be so cruel as to punish an uncreative servant who conservatively preserves what he is given in the ground?'  In fact, however, the the punishment of the uncreative servant is consistent with the punishments envisaged throughout Matthew's gospel for those who receive God's grace but do nothing gracious (read 'excessive or risky') with it.  Grace is like the manna given Israel in the desert: if you bury it in the ground or try to hold on to it for a rainy day, it will go rotten, it will cease to be grace (Ex 16). If grace is not received as grace, as that which must constantly be given again, reinvested in other lives, then those who receive completely misunderstand the God who gives it.  They mistake God, as the uncreative servant does, for someone who is a bullying magistrate who wants us to follow the mere letter of the 'law', very often in the politically correct form it is received in our own particular culture and society.  Here the kingdom of heaven, and its radical values, are functionally replaced with the conservative mores and norms of middle-class society.  But God is a God of generosity and freedom, who gives us the gift of life that it may be ever more given in the spirit of generosity in which it was originally given.  Those who bury this gift in the ground clearly punish themselves as well as others - they cut off the ever-multiplying potential of the life God has given. But the freedom in which the gift was given also guarantees that their choice to hoard rather than risk will be honoured by God.  They shall indeed be cast, as they cast themselves, 'out into the darkness' where the hoarders go to hide their lights under a bushell.  In this sense, if one actually believes in the word of Scripture (rather than standing over it in the guise of a middle-class judge) one must also conclude that such a one who 'does not have, even what he has shall be taken from him'.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Renewing the covenant of baptism

Texts: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13

In a few moments, in the Lord’s Supper, we shall do as Joshua and the people of Israel did in our reading.  We shall renew the covenant God has already made with us, a covenant that expresses both God’s love and faithfulness toward us, and our own desire to live God’s way in the world.  The word covenant means, of course, a firm agreement to honour, not a contract so much, as a relationship.  While contracts can be easily broken by one party or the other, a covenant is not so easily put aside, for it is founded not on convenience, but on love.  It is a bond between parties who want to stick together through thick and thin.  For the people of Israel, the Lord’s covenant had been forged with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then, when they were slaves in Egypt, with Moses.  The terms of the covenant were simple.  God loved his people and wanted to give them a land and a way of life that would be the envy of the whole world.  In return, God asked for the loyalty and obedience of the people, for without this, they could never hope to develop the habits, customs and ethics that defined the good life that God wanted to give them.  If God was jealous of their hankerings after other loyalties, therefore, it was not because he was a power-freak.  It was because he was God, and knew what would make his people genuinely blessed.

For Christians, the covenant we are called to renew from time to time was first forged in baptism.  In baptism we accept God’s offer of grace and a way of life that is modelled on that of Christ, and promise to live this way for the rest of our lives.  Again, the emphasis here is not on the strict terms of a contract, but on the centrality of the relationship baptism signifies.  In baptism we are made one with Christ in his life, death and resurrection.  In him we enter into a relationship with God which is more like that of a marriage than anything else.  And, as you well know, a relationship like that can survive many mistakes and betrayals so long as the desire to be in relationship is stronger than the shame of failure.  God is faithful.  In the Spirit he gives us the power to be faithful as well, so long as our desire to do so remains.

So why is it important to renew the covenant with Christ, as we do each time that we share the Lord’s supper?  Having exchanged vows once, why should it be done again and again and again?  In the case of confirmation, that is perhaps obvious.  Many of you were baptised as children and were not capable of making the promises yourselves. Confirmation became the church’s rather sloppy way of redressing that imbalance so that you, yourselves, can affirm the promises that make such a baptism complete.  In the early church, of course, there was no such divide between God’s promises and our own.  Confirmation happened immediately following baptism, and had nothing to do with vow-making.  It was a prayer for those who had taken their vows that very day, asking that the Spirit help them to keep those vows.  That is why, in most contemporary churches, we are shying away from the language of confirmation and speaking, instead, of various ceremonies in which baptism (as an already-entire covenant) is re-affirmed.  These ceremonies range from personal re-affirmations to the congregational re-affirmations of the Easter Vigil or the Wesleyan-styled covenant service from which we shall borrow a prayer today. 

In the case of the Lord’s Supper, the covenant is reaffirmed by a re/petition of the relationship forged in baptism.  Here God invites us, anew, to receive his grace in the form of bread and wine, a tangible offering of his very self which recalls the equally real and tangible self-giving of Christ in his life, death and resurrection.  In the Eucharist we then accept this offering, not as the pagans would do through some kind of payment in kind, blood or grain or whatever, but through a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  The ‘great prayer of thanksgiving’ that the church has said over the bread and the wine since the beginning, repeats the story of God’s dealing with us in order to emphasise that it is not our own works or efforts that make the covenant possible, but God’s infinitely patient capacity for mercy and forgiveness.  In the great prayer we are reminded, each time it is said, that we cannot buy God’s favour through some kind of moral performance, but are given this favour as a gift, even before our particular histories begin to unfold.  Our taking of the bread and the wine should therefore we seen as the concrete manner by which the people of God take to themselves, again, the mercy in which we are born, live, move, and have our being.  It is our acceptance of that mercy, our trust in its power to heal and reconcile and transform.  It is to take that mercy into ourselves in the hope that we shall be transfigured, metamorphosed into people who can be as merciful to others and God has been for us.

But there is a final, very powerful, reason for re-affirming the vows of our baptism in such a regular ritual, and it is alluded to in the passages we read from Thessalonians and from Matthew this morning.  In these accounts of the return of Christ to inaugurate God’s new kingdom of justice and peace, there is a simple encouragement to always be ready.  Be ready, they say, keep those supplies of lamp-oil in reserve, for you know not the day or the hour when the bridegroom shall return.  Ceremonies like the Lord’s Supper function as constant reminder that the vows of baptism are not magical.  They are promises that call for ever-new discernment, reflection and action within the particular circumstances of our lives on very particular days.  In the new Testament, of course, oil functions as a key symbol of the Holy Spirit and of spiritual aliveness.  The call to be ready is therefore a call to stay, always, within the region of the baptismal covenant, where you were anointed with oil as a sign that God had poured out his holy Spirit upon you.  ‘Stay awake and alert to everything spiritual’, says the parable, ‘always be alert to the stirrings of the Spirit within you.’  Rituals such as the Supper are therefore, at their very heart, a wake-up call for everyone who has fallen asleep in their marriage with God.  They call us from our seats in an acknowledgement that the covenant is only as real and effective as we allow it to be, right here and right now, in the midst of our lives.  May God give us courage, even today, to be awake and ready for what God would ask of us.