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Comments on Readings from three year Lectionary for Sunday Services. Whitestarhaven's Ramblings
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Humility brings Freedom.

July 3, 2020 - 5:36am

It hurts so deeply because we love so deeply. These words are uttered time and again in reference to the pain of separation. The words drip with truth and yet only scratch the surface of the anguish that accompanies separation from a beloved. When one reads letters between soldiers and their loved one, the raw emotion and tenderness leap from the page. In our Hebrew Scriptures that is how the Song of Songs is often understood, a dialogue between two very intimate partners. Even when understood as allegory, the verses resist timidity.
This kind of rapturous intimacy is often missing when we discuss our relationship with God. There is often a distance, a kind of stoic admiration from afar. And yet, our deepest longing is for intimacy with our creator; to know and be known at an intimate level. We speak so highly of our friends the mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, and yet we rarely engage the book most given to mystical interludes. Why do we run from it? Who taught us to remain distant from the one who is love and created us in love? What is sacrificed in not knowing God more deeply?
 A female as protagonist is found only in Song of Songs. While controversial among some theologians, for those unafraid to engage, it can provide a critical perspective on gender equality and enlighten our understanding of gender roles and masculine normativity. What pathways do engage that female voice open up to us? In the wake of #MeToo and the deconstruction of unequal physical agency, especially among those marginalised in our society, how might this scripture inform and reform our social norms?

 In our “McLives,” (Macdonald Golden Arches fame type of lives) we are often racing to get somewhere, racing to be on time for another meeting, racing to deliver our children to their practices before running laps is required for tardiness. In these fast-paced lives we often rush through what should be important interactions and thoughtful conversations. This includes our prayer lives. With the popularity of movies like War Room, the notion of a prayer closet has been reintroduced. The ancestors often spoke of tarrying in the spirit to “have a little talk with Jesus and tell him all about our troubles.” The delight the author takes in seeing her beloved come near is borne of a deep longing to be in one another’s presence. That level of joy is not birthed in quick exchanges. In our over-scheduled lives, is time with God on the calendar?
So often Christianity or religion in general is eschewed as being too demanding, placing a heavy burden upon believers. In some circles there is the thought that life as a Christian is too confining or restrictive. We are all so staid, dour miserable and wowsers it is said. These criticisms are derived from a belief that old friends and familiar places will have to be sacrificed on the altar of piety. Yet the verses in Matthew 11:28-30 are the very antithesis of burden.
One translation reads, “My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” The writer of Matthew from this week’s scripture informs the reader that humble submission to God actually brings freedom and a way to lighten the load. Unlike the yoke of oxen, which is heavy and conjures images of being forced to work hard in the heat of the day, the yoke of Christ is love and companionship. As the Lord’s Prayer illustrates so beautifully, those who walk with Christ want for nothing. Do our lives witness to Christ as burden-bearer?

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Welcome Journey.

June 26, 2020 - 12:15am

I read of a television programme in the United States where a Mister Rogers famously sang, “Won’t you be my neighbour?” to begin his television show. Apparently, this was years ago. He was a pastor, encourager, and educator of children. Mister Rogers’ work and life focused on being kind and inclusive. His work and life also were focused on teaching. He knew that children are our present and our future. He knew that welcoming a little child is the greatest gift we can give to the world.

Matthew’s use of the phrase “little ones” in our reading from scripture set for this week (Matthew 10:40-42) may be about children, but it also may have meant his disciples, those new to the faith community, those young in their beliefs, or those at risk in the world. It was definitely about inviting others into the way and to join those calling themselves Christian on a journey, taking care of their needs, and taking care of the least or “little ones.” Jesus prepares his twelve disciples to go out into the world. The last part of this sending is our scripture for this week and comes as a teaching moment after the Sermon on the Mount. Welcome is a pivotal word for this passage. In a number of our translations of our scriptures available to us today, the word is used six times in the passage.
However, I have to be honest and say that welcome is not one of my favourite words as it is used in the church. For many, welcome is equated with simple tolerance of those different from themselves. To many who visit churches who claim to “welcome” them, there is a distinct level of distrust. Most marginalised persons much prefer a place that exhibits radical hospitality and full inclusion than mere “welcome.” This is definitely not the sentiment that I hear when Jesus uses the word. He was instituting a practice of hospitality for his disciples on their mission of spreading the good news. Jesus is talking about going on the journey of faith and life with that new person.
If anyone welcomed one of them, they were indeed welcoming Jesus and, by extension, God the Creator. We can reclaim this word for the church by exhibiting the kind of welcome that Jesus is asking of us. So, sadly often we use the word welcome to talk about saying hello, offering material but not about befriending, compassion and willingness to share the journey of faith. The challenge is to all Christian people as they are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. Can we at least agree on that? As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. 

As this passage from Matthew 10 is the final part of Jesus’s teaching about his disciples being sent out to share the faith, we are once again are also reminded about the need to evangelise others. Unfortunately, the “e” word has taken on many negative connotations over the last few decades. A lot of people see evangelism as a loud, judgmental, and in-your-face practice. The word evangelism can bring about images of knocking on doors, asking if those inside have “found Jesus,” or handing out tracts on street corners declaring the doom of those who do not follow Jesus.
Still the need—yes, the imperative—to share the good news is part of our commission as disciples of Jesus. Sharing the ways, we have been reconciled and forgiven by Christ is part of truly being a disciple. Many Christians are nervous about sharing their faith. Yet one of the things we forget as Christians and as those outside the faith is that one can share their faith, evangelise by our words and our actions in profound ways. In uniting these two themes, we see that telling the story of our faith journey can bring lost ones into the welcoming arms of Jesus. This is a word many need to hear.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

This is Not The End of the Story.

June 18, 2020 - 10:13pm
It’s hard to think that the way of love taught by Jesus would be a source of conflict. Yet again and again Jesus reminds us that indeed it is. In fact, Jesus’s own life, his healing, reconciling, and hanging out with outcast and sinners, ended up in his death. Most of us sit in our sanctuaries on Sundays safe and sound. We hear the stories of Jesus, his teaching, and his actions, and we smile and feel good about ourselves. We go about our lives, and most people around us claim Christianity as their religion.

For me the question this week is: Are we loving radically enough? In this time when many of our society are being left behind by the economic policies of our government as it concentrates on a particular type of economic theory and fail to balance that with the importance of people and our call from God to love all, have compassion, to care and support those in need and struggling and not allow greed and abuse to control our society and its interactions.
Loving the unlovable in our society can indeed be radical and controversial. For those who choose the way of Jesus being agents of healing, of reconciliation, of light (especially to those in power) might also stir the pot and thus be rather dangerous. What if for a season of our life together as congregations we measured our effectiveness in kingdom work by how much harassment we suffered, how much trouble we got into, how much life we lost?
This week in our readings there is an invitation to take seriously the call of Jesus to love God and neighbour with abandon, to recognise that our call to discipleship is not a call to being a majority, a call to power and control, a call to privilege and arrogance, but a call to denial, a call to love radically even unto death, a call to allow our coming alongside the least to become our resurrection.
Romans 6: 1-11 reminds us again that discipleship is about death. This time, though, it is reframed in a way that places the emphasis on Christ. Here we have an opportunity to reframe the conversation with our congregations from an emphasis on individual sacrifice to our communal work as the body of Christ. If we are to die to sin, we must remind one another of the story of Jesus, we must call one another to accountability, and we must claim again and again our new life in Christ Jesus. In fact, here in Romans we are reminded that death is the only way to new life. In a culture that is death averse, this love, connection, and restoration for us, our neighbours, and all of creation.
No matter what happens in our lives, God remembers us! The story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us that it is easy for us to find ourselves drowning in our difficult circumstances. Shame, guilt, and disorientation keep us from seeing beyond where we are. If we pay attention, we might just hear God’s voice reminding us of the promise that we are not forgotten, that life is before us. Recognizing God’s voice changes our perception and we begin to see possibility, potential, and new life where death once lived.
This week’s texts also remind us that we Christians don’t have a neat and tidy little religion that is up market-respectable in all ways at all times. Sometimes life, even a life of faith, can go horribly wrong. But we are clearly reminded that the story doesn’t end there. The story goes on. Isaac goes on to live a life of faith, and he becomes the father of Israel. There is always the possibility of redemption. Even in a thicket on top of a hill. With a knife in the air over the wide-eyed stare of a child. Even there.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Look and Listen for the Joy.

June 11, 2020 - 11:42pm
There’s no greater gift than to be listened to. I remember a primary school teacher always differentiating between “hearing” and “listening.” Hearing is a biological experience; our ears hear sounds that are processed in our brains that foster and further our understanding. Even when our biological hearing fails us, different aids and apparatuses can assist us in hearing. But “listening” takes on a deeper process where we bring our lived experienced into what we hear to find sympathy, empathy, or common threads that connect what is said to a larger story.
 This week, in Psalm 116, the writer says that the Lord “hears [his] requests for mercy” and “listens closely” to his cries. The psalmist has a confidence in God’s listening capabilities; there are many things the psalmist could name as the first of many actions God has taken on his behalf, but it is the act of listening that he names first. Knowing that God is not simply hearing, but listening to us, matters so much in a time when the voices of the marginalized are often heard as inconvenient interruptions, like a mosquito buzzing around one’s ear. But the cries of the righteous pierce a part of our being that calls for us to listen, to give attention to for the sake of both correction and action.
 What resolve we are able to have knowing that God listens to us.
 The story of faith such as we find in Genesis 18 constantly messes with our modern sensitivities. The idea of opening our doors to complete strangers and trusting them to have a message from our God seems naïve, irresponsible, and misplaced. In today’s world, we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient; all we need is our own take on things, our opinions, our perspective, our own hearing of God. Strangers are met with suspicion, lack of trust, and at times fear. If they tell us that they have a “word from God,” most of us would think they are delusional or just arrogant.
In our scriptures as Christians we find that again, and again God sends people. Unexpected people, empowered people, strange people to bring good news. Often the outsiders have a much better take on what God is up to than we do. Coming from the outside seems to bring clarity if we are willing to hear, to provide hospitality, and to respond.
I wonder what the people around us would tell us of what God is doing now as we move through our experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. What would God be saying about our dealing with issue of race and violence particularly against those of our first nations within the justice system let alone generally. What would they say to Christians about our life together, our worship, service, and our witness? Christians sadly, tend to think of ourselves as the ones who are sent, and we are at times. But I think Genesis invites us to open ourselves up to the possibility that there are people sent to us and that those who might seem like strangers, might just be messengers from our God. Those who demonstrate are a giving a message we need to hear and a voice we need to listen to.
 Let’s pay attention, for the coming of those messengers we usually seem to avoid might just be the continued fulfillment of God’s promise to us. Let us listen with the ear of God in care and love and with compassion. We can listen and bring joy by making those changes our God is calling us to and challenging us with. Look and listen and seek God’s joy for all, seek healing for the past and the present. Listen in our time to those voices of the lost, the lonely, the abused and those not treated as equal and make the changes needed to bring joy.
Listen. Laugh. Joy. This sequence of events we see Sarah experiencing in Genesis 18:1-15 and again in Genesis 21:1-7 as she listened (more like eavesdropped) on Abraham’s conversation with three visitors to their tent. One of the visitors prophesied that Sarah would have a son within a year’s time—and like we often do when we hear the unbelievable, Sarah chuckled to herself. Beyond her childbearing years, she listened and laughed at what seemed impossible—and would find herself listening, laughing, and joyous again in chapter 21 as the promises of God manifested themselves in a baby boy named Isaac, whose name, in fact, means “laughter.” “Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,” Sarah proclaims.
There are times in our lives when we listen to the promises of God, whether through our own internal dialogue with the creator or through the mouths of those trusted pastoral advisors or a community of reliable others, and find ourselves laughing at the impossible. Both Psalm 116 and the Genesis text point toward the impact and reward of listening to God and hearing God’s promises—even the ones that are impossible to believe. One thing is certain, as both Sarah and the psalmist learn, that God’s promises are yes, amen, and full of joy.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Connectedness of God

June 4, 2020 - 10:37pm

In this time of pandemic, grasping the essence of the nature of God is urgent and important. How might an abstract-sounding church doctrine matter now? We find in scripture and the teaching of the Church that the nature of God is an essential connectedness. This communion within God’s own self gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God – and, knowing that a deep connectedness describes well the universe in which we live, speaks to the longings in our own hearts as we are separated from others.
The Corinthian Christians in our scripture reading from 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, were wondering about their witness. In the midst of everyday life, of the struggles of living the way of Jesus, of the ways that the world around us pushes us to respond differently, how are we doing? This is especially relevant for us as we try to discern what balance there is for a Christian between people/compassion/care and economics. How do we love all, care for each other and not tip over into greed because of the pressure of the world stating that economy is more important?
It is difficult to self-assess, to take stock, to evaluate how we are doing in our discipleship. This requires an awareness of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts and lives and how that work is bubbling up as we live our lives each day. It also requires attention to those people around us who have been Holy Spirit to guide us in our way of discipleship.

Paul reminds the Corinthians to “put things in order” (2 Cor 13: 11). To model God’s work at the beginning of time by entering the chaos of their lives and the lives of others so as to be agents of order, encouragement, harmony, and peace. I would say that living in these ways might just be the most important sign of our work of discipleship, a key way that we as followers of Jesus live into our call to compel others, by our loving behaviour, to become followers of Jesus.
If we are to be effective in our work of discipleship, we must be willing to help one another grow in love. To shine a light on how we can love better, reconcile with one another, and be encouraged. This is especially important in a culture that seems set on tearing others down, on stirring chaos, and on living in harmony only with those who agree with us.
You know we who follow the Christian way are interesting at times, as we have words which can mean different things to different groups within the faith yet are alien to those outside the faith. Discipleship is one of those buzzwords that so many of us struggle to define. What would it look like for us to teach what Jesus commanded? I think we might begin by engaging in a shared journey through the life of Jesus, studying what he commanded, the fruit of his activity on earth, and the key themes of his teaching. I imagine that engaging in this quick survey will begin to give a more concrete picture of the life of discipleship, a more objective measure to how we are doing, and will empower us to be more faithful in our work. Always remembering that doubts will still be present and that the re-creative work is never finished.

For the Christian Jesus is with us always. He is with us as we live our daily lives, with us as we doubt, and with us as we take stock of our lives. Jesus is with us as we engage others and as we engage creation. Jesus is with us calling us back, reminding us that we are indeed created in God’s image and part of the created order. Our journey with Jesus will indeed guide us all the way through the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. Living in this way should be a reminder to stay humble, be encouraged, and to persist in God’s loving work.
We also live in a society with great divisions and we all know of people who are alone in a time of despair and anxiety. The love we are created to show then must find expression in our reaching out to others in the ways available to us. This is not something we do to earn the favour of the Holy Trinity. Instead, staying in contact with others is part of how God blesses us, letting us be a conduit of grace to those we call, write, and meet with online.
Our Gospel text from Matthew 28 for this week gives Christians and any followers of the way Jesus taught an opportunity to be reminded of the church’s commission into the world. It is also a time to rehearse our belief about the essence of God. One of the ways that Christ passes on this power to his disciples is through the commission of baptism. Profoundly and poignantly here, the risen Lord connects the ritual with the essence of God: “… in the name of the Parent, Child and Spirit (traditionally Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”).

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Dream those Dreams of God

May 29, 2020 - 12:33am

The anniversaries of key markers in our lives are important. Birthdays are a good example. Some of us age until we are not all that crazy about our birthdays. They are a sign we are getting older, but even as we age, birthdays are important. Birthdays celebrate the labour of the woman who gave us birth; they celebrate the way in which we were nurtured as children; they celebrate another year given to enjoy. Birthdays are a big deal.
So, it is with other key anniversaries in life, such as wedding anniversaries or the milestones of our children’s lives. These are marker events remembered and celebrated annually. These anniversaries mark the significant passages of our lives. They also give us the framework for our stories. This is true not only of happy times, of course, but also of our difficult times. I wonder how the Covid-19 pandemic will be flagged and remembered as part of our stories. Will it be marked by a special day or be part of our histories only?
If you’ve experienced the breakup of a marriage, each year you remember the time when that happened. If you’ve lost a loved one—a spouse, a parent, or a child— those dates are forever pressed upon your memory. Those anniversaries are not marked by parties, but they are times of remembrance. This is important, not only for individuals, but also for countries. In the Australia we have Australia Day with celebrations with fireworks and outdoor barbecues. The celebration calls to mind the stories of the arrival of non-indigenous people in this land and the deep sorrow for the indigenous people that followed.

Anniversaries remind us of our stories, so it’s important that we observe the church anniversary of Pentecost. This is the day when we tell the stories and celebrate the events that gave birth to the church. In the first weeks after the Resurrection, there was no organised thing called the church, just people who had known or followed Jesus, who had experienced his resurrection. One day they are all together, and then, suddenly, miraculous events begin to happen.
A mighty wind blows through the house and shakes the very foundation. Tongues of fire leap from person to person. People begin to speak in the languages of the world. Then, after all this chaotic uprising of the Spirit, the Spirit expresses itself in yet another way as Peter quiets everyone down and preaches. He explains to them the meaning of the events that have just taken place. Peter tells the story and teaches us something about our roots, so the story of Pentecost teaches us about our roots as the church. Telling and retelling the story reminds us of the fundamental truths that are deeply embedded in our birth as the body of Christ.
We need the reminder because we live in the mundane “everydayness” of the church. Every one of us can find something to criticise in the church. We all can tell of disappointment, or even of hearts broken by the church. It’s important, then, to remember that the church is more than the fallible human beings it comprises. To use the words of an old creed, “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time,” not because we are the church, not because we embody the full measure of what the church should be, but rather because it is not ours, it is God’s.
For all of its faults and failings, it is through the church that we have been told the stories of the love of God in Jesus Christ. The church, for all its human messiness, is a gift of God. A second thing the Pentecost birthday story of the church teaches us is that the church, from its birth, was multinational, multicultural, and multilingual. We need frequent reminders of this. The text from Acts we here on this day is a testimony that at the church’s birth we were multinational, multicultural, and multilingual. We certainly don’t look like it most of the time, do we? Unfortunately, our congregations are often not reflective of the God-given nature of real church. We have to tell the story to be reminded of our true self. Our true self isn’t monolithic; our true self isn’t mono-cultural; our true self is multicultural.
There’s something else in the birthday story that’s worth remembering. After all the chaos and uproar of wind and fire and languages, Peter calls for order and attempts to interpret what all of this means reminding us to remember  that it is important “your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” This Peter takes from the Hebrew Scripture of Joel 2:28. Maybe from its birth, the church was meant to be a big dreamer for God. The church, from its birth, was to be a visionary change agent, not an agent of conformity, was meant to have visions and to dream those dreams.

Peter, on the day of Pentecost, tells us so. The church should always be dreaming God’s big dream. When our dreams are small or absent, when we are satisfied with the status quo, when we think we’ve done as much as we can possibly do, we’ve quit being the church, because the church is a dreamer. The church is visionary; the church is a possibility place. It’s important to tell our birthday stories and remember again our beginnings.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Where Did he Go?

May 22, 2020 - 12:26am

Where did he go, the broken body, the strapping thirty-year-old, where did he go, my love, the crucified, the friend who ate with us at dawn by the lake? Peer into the clouds, scan the stratosphere; you must find him and bring him back, we cannot live without this glorious body. For in him the fullness of the divine dwells, and where he has gone, the fullness of our humanity has followed, and who are we, without our humanity?
A human body is now with God, as we Christians say, seated in equal power, and so we stare at the sky amazed, searching for our lost humanity.
The gospel readings set for scripture we have been hearing since Easter Day has been leading us step by step towards today's disappearing act. Early on, the story of Thomas and the wounds warned us to believe without seeing; then the story of the road to Emmaus suggested that we meet Christ every time we gather to share the meaning of the scriptures and to eat together -- every Sunday we recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Then we were warned that Jesus is a door through which we walk to green pastures, safety, and fulfillment; then the remarkable statement: I am in the Father and the Father in me.
The Christian community that wrote these words back in the first century had come to the realisation that the absent friend was none other than God. And finally, last Sunday we heard above vines and branches, and were reminded that our life flows from the life of God in Christ. In many ways, through several stories, the Gospels have been telling us about the meaning of our lives as Christians when our lover, Jesus, is gone. We have been gently guided to trust this absent lover.
But where is his Body? you say, scanning the sky. Luke, writing in Acts foresaw your question, and so the angel says to the disciples, "Why are you people standing there looking up to heaven? The body you are looking for is not there." The letter to the Ephesians points clearly to where it is: for God has "...put all things under Christ's feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all."
You are his Body. Look in the mirror when you look for Christ. But you are not his Body alone. Rather, we are his body, together.
His Body, gathering week by week, --physically gathered together, hearing scripture with our bodies, praying with our bodies, with our bodies praising a Ruler who is far above all the powers and principalities, presidents and governments of this world.
A body gathered to eat at a table open to all, acting out for all to see and touch, to hear and smell, the New World of justice which God is giving birth to among us even now. We gather to eat, and we have a glimpse of what it feels to be truly human, made in God's image.
The Body gathered to wash and anoint new members, dramatically acting out the meaning of Jesus's own dying and rising, repeated in our own sharing in his passing. We wash new members of our Body to give them a memorable experience of new birth. For belonging to Christ --and not to the powers and principalities of this world-- is like a new birth.
The Body gathered to celebrate the mystery of love between two persons, pointing to lovers and saying, "there is God, between them, praise the Lord!" --and seeing in their faithfulness, a distant echo of Christ's own faithfulness to us, and our longing for him. The Body gathered to forgive sins --even in a private confession the whole church is present-- proclaiming the deeply subversive Good News: your sins are forgiven.
The Body gathered to lovingly anoint its sick members, recognizing Christ in them, and committing ourselves to minister to them, attempting to mirror, in our life together, God's own infinite compassion and mercy, even when in death we gather to honour a person's life and tenderly honour the body that once serve it.
The Body gathered to praise God for leaders, to appoint them as such, to recognize the blessing and torment of leadership based on service, flowing from our memory of being sent out by Christ in service to the world.
Unlike Thomas, we are invited to trust without seeing. Unlike the disciples at Emmaus, our hearts burn, and we recognise him without his being here physically. Unlike his own disciples, who denied him, we trust him like a door to lead us to our happiness. Unlike the Pharisees, we trust that he is God. For we are grafted unto him like branches, and his physical presence has passed into our celebrations as a gathered people. Here, in the washing, eating, listening, announcing, praying, anointing, forgiving, marrying, healing, burying, we are Love's own Body, taken, blessed, broken and given for the life of the world. --Much more interesting, if you ask me, than I used to find reading the Sunday paper in bed.
No, we should not be looking up to heaven; The Body of Christ that is gone, is, in fact, right here. We are that Body, which is why, we will instinctively greet each other in worship with Christ's own words of greeting: "peace be with you."

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Tree of Life

May 14, 2020 - 11:57pm

One of the things that I notice when arriving in a new part of the world to live has been the emphasis on things rural. I am not sure why but think it might reflect my upbringing. Often this has reminded me of the importance of trees in our life. Where I come from in New Zealand we tend to sadly, take our magnificent trees for granted but since arriving in Australia I have been made aware of how important they are in our lives.
It also reminded me of a time many years ago when I had to take down a tree as a task in Bob a Job for scouts. The person didn’t tell me why the tree needed to be cut down, I was just told to get it out of the way. The tree looked fine to me, full of leafy branches, a huge trunk, and standing straight and tall. But when I started the cuts to take it down, I found that the inside was decayed. It was all rotted away. The inside of the tree was hollow.
The tree looked fine from the outside but was dead inside.

The same thing happens with us, with humanity, as well. We may look fine on the outside, but without the Holy Spirit living within, we are hollow, we’re dead inside. Jesus is telling his disciples in this week’s scripture for John 14 that he is leaving but God will give them an Advocate a Counsellor (the Holy Spirit) that will abide with them and will be in them. In this way, they won’t be “hollow” or dead inside. Trees are used quite often in the Bible. The term “tree of life” appears in Genesis 2:9 and in Revelation 22:14. In between the Bible refers to “tree” or “trees” many times, in ways both practical and spiritual.
Some practical ways are readily apparent - well for those of us of mature years – the wooden chair where we sat at a wooden desk to write with a wooden pencil on paper made from wood fibres or the buildings where we lived and worshiped, just to name a few.  But trees not only serve to meet the utilitarian needs of people, but also serve as metaphors for spiritual growth and responsibility, as well. One example is the giving of one’s life for others. The tree is cut down and made into shelter, fuel, etc. This is a metaphor for the sacrificial ministry of Jesus. A second example is in the living tree providing shade, shelter, and food during a long lifetime.
I think the “tree of life” mentioned in Gen. 2:9 refers to Jesus in many ways. The tree of life was said to be centrally located in the Garden of Eden, readily accessible. Likewise, Jesus is centrally located in both His earthly and His heavenly garden. Another way is that trees are often planted as windbreaks, shelterbelts, and buffer strips along rivers and streams. Psalm 91:1-2 says, “You who live in the shelter of the “Most High,” who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress…”. We are sheltered by the “tree of life”.  A third way (and my favourite) is the type of work trees do to provide us with life. The work of photosynthesis. Trees and other plants take carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to produce sugars that are converted into leaves, stems, and roots. In this process, they give off oxygen. Trees take the carbon dioxide we breathe out and return to us life-giving oxygen.

Jesus, as the “tree of life” has taken our “carbon dioxide”, our sins and “converted” it into life-giving oxygen. In keeping with our theme of trees and the tree of life, I’d like to tell you a story.
Jesus was born in a manger (built from a tree), preached in a boat (built from a tree), and died on a cross (built from a tree). I refer you to a legend/story “The Legend of the Three Trees as a helpful exposition of how trees can help our understanding of our faith and relationship with Jesus. Jesus, as the Great Carpenter, knows what needs repairing in our lives. He looks past the outward appearance and looks on our hearts. He can fill up our emptiness with an Advocate who will be with us forever. Jesus will give us the life-giving oxygen (the Holy Spirit) to live within us, so we won’t be like a hollow, decaying tree. And because of all this, we can be as alive on the inside as we appear on the outside.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Sometime A Few Years Ago

May 7, 2020 - 11:27pm

Sometime a few years ago I was standing in my living room, watching a neighbour cut his lawn. For where we were living at the time it was a typically hot and sunny Saturday afternoon. My attention was drawn to him because I wondered why he wasn't inside watching the cricket or tennis. But there he was, outside, pushing the petrol-powered mower back and forth in endless repetitions, the noise of his lawn mower joining with other mowers from other neighbours in what some people call the "Saturday symphony."
Sometimes when you stand and watch a small drama will unfold - and on this occasion it was a bit like a pantomime for me because I was indoors and too far away to hear any of the words. As my neighbour crisscrossed the lawn, suddenly the door to the house opened and his five-year old son emerged, followed by his wife. She put a small, plastic replica of a mower on the grass so that the son could "help dad" cut the grass. Like father; like son. Very sexist in job allocation but still typical at that time.
Mum returned to the house, and I watched father and son pursue their separate courses, the son "mowing" over grass that the father had already cut. This charming scene continued for a minute or two, and of course, my heart was warmed by the whole thing.
Then something happened that surprised me, but also made the point with an exclamation. The son abruptly stopped mowing, abandoning the mower where it stood in the lawn. He disappeared into the house, and I thought he was through. He'd had enough, or it was too hot, or he realized he wasn't cutting grass anyway, or his five-year old attention span had reached its limit, ... none of my guesses were correct.
After a minute or two, he re-emerged followed by his mother. She was carrying a plastic grocery bags, resourceful woman that she was. She crouched at the plastic mower and tied the bag to the back of the mower where the handles attach to the blade cover. I glanced over to the father again and knew immediately what was occurring. The father's mower included a grass-catching bag. The son could not truly be like his father - it wouldn't quite be right - unless he was like his father in every detail. If his father had a grass catcher, then he needed one too.
Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me, has seen God my parent."
Just five weeks ago we recalled the crucifixion of Jesus and collectively wondered what kind of radical or revolutionary or extremist he must have been in order to get himself executed. He was vilified by the religious and political authorities of Judaism. He was sentenced to death under Roman decree, crucifixion being a uniquely Roman form of state sanctioned execution. What on earth do we law-abiding, tax-paying, church-going citizens have to do with him?
However, in this week's gospel reading from John 14 we are reminded that Jesus is neither renegade nor rogue. Instead, he stands precisely on the same ground with God. This same God has been known down through the centuries as the God who creates, who gives life, who seals covenant, who decrees law, who anoints rulers, and who speaks through prophets. This one, true, living God and Jesus are alike, in every detail. Rather than representing something totally new, unheard-of, or tangential, Jesus speaks that which is consistent, constant, and at the very core of the divine and human encounter. It turns out that the people in authority - local and empire-wide - have strayed. No wonder Jesus was accused of blasphemy.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. God's truth results in a life worth living. Jesus is the way into that truth. He was the way into that truth to people in the first century, just as he is the way into that truth for us. Occupying pew space, even on a regular basis, is no guarantee that we are immune to other "truths" that compete with God's truth. That has been so true over the last months as various beliefs about the Covid-19 Virus have been expounded.
These competing truths possess great attraction. For example, many hold to the truth that if we focus completely on our own life - our business and job, our assets and property - to the exclusion of everything else, we can greatly increase our personal net worth and live in greater comfort and enjoy greater pleasures. It is also true that we can ingratiate ourselves to those who hold the reins of power, and in the name of the "common good" achieve great personal and monetary benefits. Both of these examples are true.
However, God's truth, which has been consistently articulated from the beginning, and is affirmed by Jesus, slices through these competing truths, calling us to a life of fulfillment as its goal, not comfort. The widows and orphans cared for, the prisoners released, the sick visited, the forgotten remembered, the outcasts welcomed in, the workers compensated adequately, the strangers recognized, the foreigners given a home, choosing these activities and others like them, results in a different kind of life. Following a different truth results in a different life. Following God's truth, we behave as God behaves.
In our private lives, our professional lives, and our communal life Jesus is for us the way into the truth of a passionate God who calls us to a life worth living.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Shepherd or Thief?

May 1, 2020 - 12:00am

When we read Luke’s description of the early church, it’s easy to become either nostalgic — “nostalgic — “Those were the good old days ...” or depressed — “What are we doing wrong?” Before falling prey to either reaction, however, it’s worth considering that we now live in a culture that no longer assumes church attendance is either expected or obligatory. That is, people no longer go to church because they feel they should. Instead, they give their time, energy, and resources to those activities and institutions that make a real difference in their lives.
So perhaps we should ask people what they want, what they need, even what they crave from their faith communities. My guess is that the variety of answers we receive will have one thing in common: we want life, real life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life characterised by fulfillment, generosity, and love. This is still probably the most important thing even though we are currently worshipping virtually or apart. Which is exactly what Jesus promises in the Gospel reading from John 10:1-10 today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”
There are still “thieves and bandits” promising life to our people but failing to deliver. They can set the context for our preaching. In response to the false promise of acceptance—if you become thin or beautiful enough—that animates so many diet fads, the Gospel promises unconditional acceptance. In response to the false promise of escape in the face of hardship that drives many to drugs and alcohol, the church offers a community that shares all in common (Acts 2:44)—including joys and suffering. In response to the false promise that contentment comes by having more stuff, the church reminds us that “the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1 NRSV).
You see, to me the audience craving abundant life has never been larger. So, let’s offer it.
 The quest for good leadership is a universal struggle. Good leaders bring life, peace, and joy. Poor leaders don’t. Some even seek power for no other reason than to control and fleece those under their (lack of) care. Leadership in the world currently, in face of the Covid-19 crisis, does seem to be somewhat lacking. In the Gospel for this week, John presents Jesus as the ultimate leader who loves and brings life to his followers, who, in turn, are called to lead and love those under their care. This is the message of this week’s Gospel reading.
This section does not stand alone. It is part of a much longer discourse and flows out of the preceding narrative. The John 9 story of the Sabbath-healing of the man born blind sets up Jesus’ statement about making the blind see and the sighted blind. In reaction, Jesus is challenged by Pharisees who ask if his words apply to them. His response begins the discourse that continues, uninterrupted, into John 10 — “Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

While this story appears to be part of the sequence beginning in chapter 7 at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, 10:22 seems to indicate that the Shepherd discourse happened a few months later at the Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah), which commemorated the Maccabean confrontation of true and corrupt leaders (about 160 BC). Since the Ezekiel 34 prophecy about the wicked shepherds of Israel was customarily read at this festival, it makes sense for this to be the setting for the shepherd discourse. But John certainly wants to keep the connection with the blind man in our minds.
In the discourse of John 10, the “blind” religious leaders of the previous chapter are Ezekiel’s wicked shepherds and Jesus’ thieves. Jesus, mixing his metaphors, claims to be the opposite. He is the good shepherd who enters through the gate with the gatekeeper’s permission. He is the gate through which the sheep enter to find safety and protection and go out to find pasture. He has the interests of God’s people at heart, unlike the thieves who “steal, kill, and destroy” the sheep. Bad leaders sacrifice the sheep on the altar of their own greed, power-hunger, or need for control. Jesus sacrifices himself for the sheep that they may find abundant life. It’s a simple test of leadership: who gets sacrificed, the sheep or the shepherd?
Every person is a leader in some sense, and we are all called to be “good shepherds” who lay down our lives for our “sheep.” To the extent that others are sacrificed or damaged by our needs for control, power, or material gain, we are less “shepherd” and more “thief.” But insofar as we lay aside our needs, insofar as we embrace sacrifice so that others don’t have to, we are the good shepherds that Jesus calls us to be. And only in this way can we, and those we lead, find life.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

ANZAC Day from Epping

April 24, 2020 - 12:41am

Sitting in my home in Epping I am thinking about those who would have gathered with us early in the morning to remember. As we draw near to Anzac Day 2020 and reflect on the situation of how Covid-19 will affect our celebration I am reminded also of the many dimensions to this day and its meaning. This year we are unable to gather with friends, family and mates and share those elements of service and relationships deeply formed from our own or our family members Service. We are unable to touch deep within ourselves in that moment those things which are important to life.
I want to focus on another dimension of life on this day. My focus not only being on this Anzac Day but also on the Christian faith which just might be relevant to a nation’s war memories and the legitimate honouring of its war dead. It’s the insight of the apostle Paul who generated so much early Christian theology. Centuries later, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (among others) would draw on this insight to great effect. What was it? Christianity calls for reconciliation between enemies.
For Paul, the enmity at issue was between God and humans – a notion jarring to modern ears, but not to his own contemporaries. What would have jarred for his contemporaries was his novel argument that God was the peacemaker. St Paul inverted the common idea that peace would come through humans cringingly appeasing an angry deity. In Paul’s theology, it is God who makes the declaration of peace. God is the friend-maker. Enmity is over and friendship begins.
This is the deep Christian meaning of reconciliation. And this way goes beyond loving enemies. It’s the “what’s next?” step. Reconciliation seeks abiding friendships. If the wells of Christianity are to be tapped this Anzac Day, it could be to encourage, support and celebrate the friendships between peoples all over the world, all former enemies from wars.
We might well learn from the ongoing relationships that have, against all odds, developed between those Anzacs and the Turkish people from that point of the campaign of Gallipoli. For us the ideal we seek would be that previous enemies need not only to be loved, but to be lived with.
Lest we Forget

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

What Binds Us.

April 23, 2020 - 11:08pm

In this week’s reading from Luke 24, two of the disciples are headed to Emmaus. Surely, they were still reeling from the loss of Jesus, but something keeps them moving. As they walk along, Jesus falls into step next to them. “What are we talking about?” he wants to know. They respond: “Haven’t you heard? Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place?” In short, “What rock have you been living under?” (“Well, actually . . .,” begins Jesus.)
It is almost comical as the friends share a long account of Jesus’s death and resurrection . . . with Jesus himself. Was he just letting them ramble on because he found it amusing? Or because he knew they wouldn’t believe him if he tried? And for that matter, why didn’t they recognise him?
Maybe the answer, though far less funny than Jesus making rock jokes, is simple: they were heartbroken.
The Pixar movie Inside Out gets into the head of Riley, an eleven-year-old girl whose family has just moved to San Francisco. While her whole life thus far has been mostly happy, she struggles with sadness at leaving her friends behind and adjusting to a new school, city, and hockey team. The main characters— the feelings inside Riley’s head— work together to help her process all the change. Their biggest challenge turns out to be this: in the process of all that moving, the “Sadness” character touches some of Riley’s old memories and finds that her touch turns them blue. In other words, once sadness starts to move around inside of you, it can colour even your happiest memories.
In seasons of grief or just difficult transition, nothing looks or sounds as it should. We might find ourselves feeling lost and alone, and even those closest to us can’t reach us. Change and loss can leave even the most familiar things unrecognisable. I’d venture that every person in the pews (or chairs) prior to Covid-19 will be able to relate to this on some level. Even now many without the technology are probably feeling loss.
So how does love transform sadness? What does resurrection mean when we are lost and hurting? What does it take to draw the broken-hearted back into fullness of life and hope?
In the story I have shared that I read that is in Riley’s case, it had everything to do with the embrace of her parents and her place at the family dinner table. It seems like we could say the same for those disciples. He stayed with them, and they didn’t know him. They sat together, but they could not see him. Then he broke the bread, and they said, “Of course that was him. Of course, it was. Our very hearts were on fire, when he came around . . .”

The Emmaus Road story is also a lesson in being prepared to recognise the holy in everyone we meet, regardless of whether or not we were expecting to meet God in just that way. Stories of unexpected allies, strangers in need, or the formation of community in an unlikely setting would illustrate this truth well. I would suggest that you read Ann Patchett’s book “Bel Canto” or watch the movie “The Way” to further explore the transformation that can take place when people are drawn together through tragedy or in the midst of chaos.

Again, looking at a reading from this week’s lectionary, we can see that Psalm 116 presents an interesting tension: that of being free while also being a servant. Chris Tomlin’s arrangement of “Amazing Grace/ My Chains Are Gone” give us a way of exploring this in worship and provides us with a point of reference. If we use the images of becoming unbound— alongside the psalmist’s use of servant language — we are enabled to reflect and look at our own lives and how we deal with those things that bind us all.

I find myself asking myself about what “bindings” are harmful? Some that come to mind are addiction, other people’s definitions of worth, material wealth, abusive relationships, and so forth. As the psalmist suggests, that the ways of being “bound” might also give us life. These could include community life, marriage, pro-reconciling movements, peace and justice work, and so on. I wonder what we think and how we would ponder such images in our own minds. I also wonder how we might lead others into a deeper understanding of servant leadership and how it might transform the church, the workplace, and the world.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Lord help us Trust.

April 17, 2020 - 12:31am

You know a good prayer when you hear it. The best prayers, those that are most authentic and heartfelt, those shorn of tired clichés and pious platitudes, are often our shortest prayers. The writer Anne Lamott insists that she has prayer down to one word: “Help!” The psalmist for this week in Psalm 16 utters a prayer notable for its brevity, tenderness, and power. It is just five words, and you can pray it at any time, at any place, for any reason: “Protect me, O God.” It is a prayer rich with pastoral and political ramifications, particularly in light of the current situation the Covid-19 virus has placed us in.
The psalmist’s prayer implicitly acknowledges what we all know from experience, that far too much of our world, for far too many people, is not a safe place. For many the world is a horror of devastation and destruction, vulnerability, and sorrow. In a favourite hymn we hear, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) admitted that ours is a “world with evils filled, that threaten to undo us.” Still, the Hebrew psalmist is confident about the God whom he worships; a God who counsels and instructs, and to be sure he will not abandon us. In an unsafe world God is a God of protection, preservation, and refuge.
In 1910, a leading British pundit, Norman Angell, wrote The Great Illusion, which rightly argued that national economies had become so interdependent, so much a part of a global division of labour, that war among the economic leaders had become unimaginably destructive. War, Angell warned, would so undermine the network of international trade that no military venture by a European power against another could conceivably lead to economic benefits for the aggressor. I wonder if there is a lesson for the leaders around the world today such as in USA and China.
Angell surmised that war itself would cease once the costs and benefits of war were more clearly understood. Angell was correct, economically speaking, but just a few years after he published his book, World War I, a Great Depression, then World War II, unleashed catastrophic consequences, economic and otherwise, for all the world. Vovid-19 has done this in our time.
Christian prayer to stop war is thus both a pastoral and a political act. We pray for soldiers and civilians alike, for governments and diplomats, for peacemakers and treaty negotiators, for Iranians and Congolese, Palestinians and Chechens, as much as for Australians: “Lord, keep us safe. Somehow. Some way. Save us from our warring impulses. Please, keep us safe.” People pray that we may find a vaccine or cure for this virus and that we may be kept safe and of course with little damage to the economy we have.  
On another path for this week’s scripture readings I want to reflect on Acts 2:14a, 22-32 which brings us a portion of Peter’s sermon delivered on the church’s first Pentecost. Does it seem out of place, perhaps better suited for Pentecost Sunday? The text is fully appropriate when one considers the ancient tradition of the Great Fifty Days. Indeed, Eastern Orthodox Christians call their service book for Eastertide the Pentecostarion. Hearing Peter’s sermon reminds us that Easter faith is lived in the power of the Spirit.
The Second Sunday of Easter offers the John 20:19-31 reading each year of the three-year cycle. What should we hear? Note that the disciples were gathered together, but that the doors “were locked for fear of the Jews.” Jesus came and stood among them anyway. As we are told, Thomas was not there on the evening of the first day; for that matter, neither were we. Now here we are a week later, standing with Thomas and listening to the text. We should not be too hard on this one who has long been called “the Doubter.” The other disciples had seen the Risen Lord and had testified to that fact, yet the doors of their assembly were still shut a week later.
This text is about believing and that shape of believing. Indeed, “that you may come to believe” is the goal of John’s Gospel. What does “believing” for us mean? I note that it is important that we who are Christians do not assume that we and others have a well-developed understanding of what believing means. Although the disciples had received the Spirit and were given a commission to forgive sins, they were still huddled in their room. What manner of believing is that?
What locked doors are we standing behind? Can we trust the Risen Christ to help us move beyond them? Challenging questions for all of us as we seek a safer better world than the one, we currently experience. A challenge as we start to become desperate for a change in our isolation status and seek to go back to a normal. And what will that normal be? Will we start again to care for the poor, the downtrodden and those suffering. The new normal certainly can’t be what we had before despite the attempts of the greedy to return to that. Maybe in a similar vein to the Psalm for this week we need to pray Lord help us to trust and maybe add Lord keep us safe.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Seeking Proof.

April 10, 2020 - 12:59pm

For the Christian faith family, the last few days have seemed like an eternity as we’ve reflected on final meals, foot washings, betrayals, brutal beatings, crucifixion, and preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. After all of that—and because of all of that—we long for this day to come (Easter Sunday Morning) when we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as God’s triumph over sin and death, and what a glorious day it is! The stone is gone, and we even stuck our heads into the tomb for good measure. Jesus is no longer in the tomb, nor has he been taken. The cry goes up in Christian Churches all over the world, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed.”
Countless sermons have been delivered on this passage and rightfully so. It contains a series of powerful moments: an apostolic footrace, linen wrappings without the corresponding corpse, a weeping woman, angels, and a risen but unrecognisable Lord. Often lost in these narrative elements, however, is Mary Magdalene’s troubled refrain: someone has taken away my Lord. She expresses a concern for the location of Jesus’ body no fewer than three times throughout this passage from John 20.
Mary first reports the body’s disappearance to Peter and the other disciples. This first Easter proclamation is filled with blame, doubt, and uncertainty. Her words prompt Peter and the other disciple to go and see for themselves. Similarly, in tear-laden words, Mary reports to the two angels that “they” have taken away my Lord, never once stopping to inquire of the divine messengers regarding Jesus’ location.
On a third occasion, in the presence of Jesus himself although she mistakes him for a gardener, Mary wonders aloud about the location of the corpse. In an interesting narrative twist, Mary seeks clarification from the supposed gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” The anxious uncertainty that motivates Mary’s remarks and questions is somehow anchored in her ignorance of the Resurrection. She has yet to encounter the risen Lord.
It is almost as if the absence of his body exacerbates her grief. Mary Magdalene’s frantic search for Jesus suggests that finding a corpse on Easter morning is preferred to the absence of Jesus’ body altogether. She has found her treasure, yet she does not recognise its form. She is holding on to the crucified Jesus so tightly that she is unable to grasp the resurrected Lord. As humans it is often the way we too act as we grieve the loss of a loved one.
Mary’s frantic search ends abruptly when Jesus calls her by name. Her eyes and heart are opened to his presence as she hears the familiar voice of her rabbi, her teacher. Although the text does not say, it is not difficult to imagine Mary reaching out to embrace Jesus or falling at his feet. Her mind must be filled with relief, confusion, and sundry questions at this point. Her Easter morning is indeed a serendipitous one.
It is striking that immediately after Mary realises it is Jesus who stands before her, she is forbidden to cling to him: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ She is then instructed to deliver a message to the brothers: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” What! You can’t be serious! What kind of tragedy is this? It isn’t enough that Mary is mourning the torture and crucifixion of her teacher, now her own expectations in the wake of his death and subsequent resurrection are frustrated as well. Why is Mary being told that she is about to lose Jesus yet again? Granted, she is not losing Jesus to death, but she is losing him to the God.
I wonder if we need to question more deeply Jesus’ response to Mary on that first Easter morning if we wish to learn something of what Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates for us and within us. Jesus, we read earlier in our scriptures informs those who follow that in a short while the world will no longer see him. He goes on to say that he will be visible to his followers. Jesus also at one point promises that “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice.” Is it possible that Mary has mistaken Jesus’ appearance to her on Easter morning by associating it with the promises made?

Questions to ponder. Mary Magdalene mirrors many of our concerns and wishes on Easter morning. Resurrection seems so unlikely, so distant—although it is ever so near. Like Mary, we who are of the Christian faith or seeking are frantically searching for whatever shred of proof or foothold of new life we can find. Yet this passage insists that we not expend energy trying to hold on to Jesus or worrying about losing him, for only when we release him to God do, we receive the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Cross under the Shroud.

April 8, 2020 - 9:11pm

At this time in the Christian Church calendar, Lent draws to a close, and we are brought to the foot of the cross. How do we make sense of God’s Messiah dying on a symbol of criminality and shame? If we are honest, this is not at all what any of us would have expected. The earliest Christians struggled to make sense of this crucial moment in Jesus’ life. Execution on a cross was as shameful a death as anyone could imagine. What could this senselessness have to do with God? What does Good Friday have to do with our God or us. The Scriptures answer with one voice: everything. When Jesus looks most deserted and defeated, the promise of hope, love, and grace resounds most powerfully.
When early Christians turned to the prophets, they found exactly this tension in Isaiah’s song of the suffering servant. Similarly, they turned to Psalm 22 and read a lament that could have been on Jesus’ lips as he seemingly breathed his last. In these powerful cries for justice, our sisters and brothers found Jesus’ shameful death and his exaltation standing side-by-side, not as contradictions but as the mysterious path God chooses to reach us, God’s children. We are not alone in our distress. Jesus meets us in suffering and anguish, for he has walked with us.  
This year, these hopes, and expectations come together in John’s extended account of Jesus’ passion. Space does not allow for extensive comment on this long passage save this basic guiding principle. We are not to rush to the confession that God will deliver in Psalm 22 or the exaltation of God’s servant in Isaiah. We are called not to rush to the glory of Easter morning. Instead, we are called to walk in the steps of Christ, not in order to dwell on his torture and death but to reflect on the burdens he chose to bear for our sake. We are called to take the journey with our God at our side offering love as the grace of this journey of faith.
I am reminded of an event I read about. It started in a fabric store and goes thus: {“I should have seen the question coming. They always ask at this fabric store. I suppose it makes an otherwise boring job of measuring, snipping, ripping, and folding a little less tedious. If the person handling your fabric and cutting it from the bolt can start up a conversation with you about how you are going to use the fabric maybe it benefits you too. Maybe you can begin to see the project take shape, right there in the store.
So, I should have anticipated the question and perhaps prepared an answer, but I didn’t. And when she asked me, quite innocently, what I was making out of those two yards of black poly-cotton blend, I hesitated for a few seconds, then stammered, “Um …. a shroud.”
Her eyes narrowed as she considered this. She began, ever so slightly, to ask a follow-up question, then it showed quite plainly on her face that she changed her mind. But really, what would one ask? And we stood there, wanly smiling at each other, agreeing to just let that matter drop.
But as she worked, I thought back to just a few minutes earlier. Had I really stood at all those bolts of black fabric, touching them one by one, considering weight, heft, drape? Could I really explain how such a thing could possibly matter when the task for the fabric—the thing the fabric was going to do—was to cover the cross on Friday?
Even more ridiculous—almost comical even—I had stood in line at the fabric store with all the other customers that day, surrounded by people buying cheery cottons printed with eggs and bunnies, and sherbet-toned polyesters that would become little girls’ Easter finery within the week.
Later, when the fabric was hemmed and ready, and I took it to the church and practiced shrouding the cross on the Communion table, I realised the futility of such careful consideration of the fabric. Although, yes, the fabric was fine and did what it was supposed to do, no matter how weighty it was, the cross beneath it was recognisable. We can cover up the cross, but we cannot undo that terrible day any more than we can get to Easter morning without it.}
I leave you with these challenging but profound thoughts.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Waving Palms

April 2, 2020 - 10:41pm

This Sunday we in the Christian faith celebrate Palm Sunday, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on an ass. Our scripture is from Matthew 21 and I believe we like those present want to ask, “Who is this?” It’s no wonder they asked. We wave our palms and smile at the children and feel the joy of—well, what is the joy we’re feeling, exactly? We’re likely remembering being little children ourselves, going to church and having something to do that wouldn’t happen any other day of the year, marching either from outside near the Church building and into it or around the sanctuary and waving the palms. We feel festive!
Palm Sunday is one of the few days in the church year when pastors wear red vestments and we use the red hangings or ornaments around the Church. It’s a party! Even good Australians, many of whom would never want a king, love King Jesus riding into the city, and the sweet hosannas being sung, asking him to save us. Who is this? A man on a donkey, riding into town, was not the amazing sight. It was the people around him and their clear adoration of him that got the attentions of the authorities, which set the events of the rest of that week in motion.
In the days to come, we will remember events more dramatic and less celebratory. We will follow Jesus to the upper room, and out to the garden of Gethsemane. We will hear him pray and feel his disappointment when his friends can’t stay awake and wait for him even for an hour. We will shudder at his arrest and trial and crucifixion. We will wonder how anybody could think of betraying him.
Maybe for a minute we’ll realize that we would have been just like the people around Jesus, as helpless to stop the earthly powers, as sleepy as the men and as silent as the women who followed him from Galilee into Jerusalem, the same friends and followers who started the week cheering for him.
Maybe, just maybe, we will step outside of our own stories and wonder how it felt for Jesus. The letter to the church at Philippi stresses that Jesus lived the human experience right up to the end. He had both the form of God and the form of a human. He rode into Jerusalem on that donkey as both. He did not use the power of God to save the mortal body. He rode in that day prepared to take whatever would come.
And that makes me want to celebrate, although the form my joy takes, feels as solemn as it does festive. We come to the end of Lent, to the beginning of this Holy Week, and we gather to worship God who loved us enough to be one of us: to live as one of us and to die as one of us.
Who is this? The whole city asked the question, says Matthew. It must have been on everyone’s lips. And the answer is simply “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee”
Notice that here the crowds identify Jesus as a prophet.  Can you think of current figures who have received such overwhelming support, only to quickly fall from grace shortly after? This is a passage that aches to be visually depicted in our Christian congregations who meet this Sunday for worship. That’s why we wave the palms. We need to see it, experience it, and be part of it. Is the triumphant entry like a protest march? Upsetting the order of the day?
There are other dreadfully practical ways to welcome Jesus as well. Be a peacemaker; love and pray for your enemies; go an extra mile with someone; stop striving to be first or best or most powerful. You may say that these practical instructions amount to being nice to others and being a good person but carry very little spiritual weight. We would all prefer merely to contemplate the mystery of God’s coming near and follow Jesus’ journey with a spiritual devotion to the suffering servant.
It is true that many of these instructions don’t seem spiritual in themselves. We must do them, not because of their own spiritual weight, but because our hearts are very small. We clutter them daily with concern for ourselves, misplaced loves, and hurt feelings. We must make room for Jesus in order to welcome him properly. Somehow this practical work done with spiritual attention prepares the way of the Lord as nothing else can. It changes us. It makes room in our hearts that Jesus can fill with the kingdom of heaven. This is the way to make straight the path of the Lord: self-emptying.
There is no other way to let Jesus’ message sink in, and there is no other way to follow our Lord than to walk in his footsteps. Jesus’ life was one of self-emptying and service to God and humanity, and so we make our lives in his likeness. If there was ever a week to get this right, this is it. If there was ever a point in the Christian narrative to step out of the way and let the story of divine love continue, this is it. Let this work be the homage you pay to the king as he comes.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

There Is a Scene ………

March 27, 2020 - 12:22am

There is a scene in the movie Return of the King, based on the third volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn gives dead soldiers who deserted their king a chance to regain their honour and be restored to peace if they will help to defend the City of Kings which is under attack by evil powers. He enters a cave through a small crevice in the mountain. It is dark and the sound effects make it clear that this is not a pleasant place. He steps over piles of dry bones heaped up against the walls of the cave and it appears that these are nothing but dry skeleton bones. 
Suddenly, in the centre of a large room, these skeletal creatures begin to threaten, but they are not really alive. Aragorn offers them a chance to redeem themselves by making good on their pledge to defend good against evil, and to be a part of a community that will restore the kingdom.
The prophet Ezekiel has had a similar experience in this week’s Hebrew Scripture well known reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14. In a vision or dream, he is with God in a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to instruct the bones to listen to the Lord. Then God tells the bones that God will restore their bodies with muscle and flesh and give them breath, resurrecting them to life and knowledge that God is the Lord. God calls upon the four winds to bring life back into the bones and they are alive again. This powerful image of God’s Spirit being breathed into the bodies so that they may live brings us back to the creation story in Genesis.
God communicates with Ezekiel through a vision or dream. God needs Ezekiel to tell this story to the people of Israel. They have lost hope and are feeling disconnected from their relationship with God. God wants them to know that only God gives life and has the power to restore the community to fullness. It has a semblance of applying to our world today as we face the requirements asked of us to stop the spread of Covid-19. God wants Israel to know that feeling powerless and hopeless is a form of death that sucks the life out of them, creating despair. Ah and this is what we too meed to hold on to; But they can be restored if they will just be faithful. This vision of hope for the revival of their nation as the children of God comes from God’s word and Spirit alone.
Both of these stories are about restoration, not of individuals but of communities being redeemed. They both have a prophet who is the messenger to the people. They both reject death and trust the stunning freedom and power found when the whole community is restored to their call to action and faithfulness.
As we near the end of Lent, we are being reminded that God’s Spirit is the source of our life as a community. We are not only being prepared for Christ’s resurrection but our own. As we read the Gospel, we have to look beyond the obvious. This account of the resurrection of Lazarus seems strikingly similar to the account we will hear of Jesus resurrection in a few weeks. In fact, it is this story that precipitates the plot against Jesus and leads to his death and resurrection. Jesus acts, not on his own, but from God’s guidance and not at the urging of others. It is another account of life coming from God and no one else.
Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus in Bethany is ill. But Jesus does not go there for two more days and not until after the disciples remind him that Bethany is the place where the people wanted to stone him just a short time ago. Jesus takes the opportunity to tell the disciples that he will go there so that they might believe. He is the prophet in this story, and it is up to him to bring God’s message of life.I will leave you to read what actually happens but as a part of our Lenten journey we are given yet another opportunity to walk a path toward restoration with Jesus. But we must walk that path as a community so that there may be a resurrection into new life. We are reminded that only God gives life. These stories give us hope that God will continue to give life even over death. Even in these times of pandemic that promise, and that hope is still valid.
We are living in a new time but first we must experience Easter. We can make some choices about how we get to Easter. We can choose not to focus on the things of the world that distract us and drain our life from us. We can choose to resist loving or accepting some more than others because they are different or think differently. We can deny those things that satisfy a sense of artificial power based on material things. We can choose to nurture a sense that we are individually more important than who we are together, as a family.
Or we can be restored by allowing the Spirit of God to give us life. We can choose to live as Jesus lived. We can live into our call to be a community of faith focused on the strength of our unity. We can give ourselves over to be restored by letting those things that separate us from God and each other die and be resurrected in Spirit to life as faithful believers.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Refreshed by Grace.

March 20, 2020 - 2:58am

Over the years for Christians, even those on the fringe of Christianity, Lent has often been seen as a time of intense self-reflection. But self-reflection without understanding the power that God holds to make something beautiful of our clay vessels, our little lives, is to defy the power of the God of Love. According to the psalmist, in Psalm 23 set for this week, the valley of the shadow of death is where God is. It is in the presence of our enemies that a table is set, and, deep in our own muck, we are led beside the still waters.
According to the book of Samuel, again one of the scriptures for this week in our lectionary, God picks David, a young child, to fight Goliath and to be king of all Israel. And through that kingship, which has its times of horror and times of victory, God makes David the king Israel needed for the moment. In addition, in the Gospel of John, the blind man suffers consistently throughout his life because people look at him as deficient, as sinful, as someone not worthy. Self-reflection in all these cases would bring us to a place of despair, but in the hands of a good and merciful God? Something beautiful happens.

As human beings, we look at vulnerabilities as weaknesses, as those places that need to be thrown out or erased, denied, or refused. But it’s in our weakness and vulnerabilities that God reveals God’s self. It was in the choice of the smallest and youngest son that God revealed the king. It was in the valley of the shadow of death and in the presence of enemies that the poet knew that his God anointed him with the most fragrant oil and his cup ran over. And it was in the man’s blindness that the Holy One’s spit and a little mud helped him see in John 9.
But we live in a world where the expectation is that we are always and forever at the top of our game or we are punished. We live in a world where admitting our weakness is to admit defeat and to encourage harassment. We are in a world where we hide our hurt or we will be further damaged. We live in a world where panic and greed control which we have seen in the hoarding as people panic about the Covid-19 sickness the world is facing. And yet our God says, “It’s in our vulnerabilities that we find the grace” and that finding grace and mercy is the ultimate goal of human existence within the Christian faith.
John Wesley hoped we would become perfected but being perfected meant perfected in receiving and showing mercy, not in our perfection in a particular moral code or a sense of our own “doing it right.” That is the transformative power of the Christian faith. The ability to receive and swim through the muddy and spit-filled complexity of life with a merciful, loving creator.
And now a comment on the reading from John 9. The blind man could have been a “seeing” man—it is not the healing of the man’s blindness that is the ultimate experience Jesus hoped to address. The ultimate experience is God making us whole; God’s work is in making us whole. The one who was blind from birth was surprised by grace (there’s that word again), surprised by Jesus, shockingly loved and chosen, and his vulnerability became the place where the good news that he, too, was deeply loved was made manifest. To God, we are all the beloved. Each one of us is both beloved by God and the beloved to each other. It’s just sometimes we don’t recognise this or choose not to recognise this.
The real injury in the blind man’s life was the criticism from society, the damning from the religious leaders, and the selling out of his parents.  The ultimate holy experience, and one that is throughout scripture, is to experience God as one who does not see as mortals see—who does not see us in all the ways others have judged us, raced us, held us down, and been aggressively jealous or arrogant toward us. Yet it is facing those judgments, oppressions, imprisonments, jealousies, and arrogances, and reflecting and focusing on God’s love, grace, and mercy that will heal us.
The ultimate is that we are all yet beautiful, full, alive, living this life with the Spirit of God deep in our hearts. The ultimate is that God chose to birth us from love and mercy, continues to love and give us mercy every day of our lives, and, at the end of our life, will receive us into arms of love and mercy. The love of God is the grace given to us as we are created before we were born and continues with us throughout our lives.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs