It will never be the same

April 4, 2020

Palm Sunday – 2020

Matthew 21:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who uses our pain and suffering to transform and renew us. Amen.

Life will never get back to “normal”. When this crisis is behind us the world will look very different What that will be like no one knows. There a will be vast numbers of people for whom this experience will have been costly in more ways than one, we as a community and as a nation will have learnt much and in many ways changed for the better. One difference will be that our congregations have embraced digital technology. A significant improvement for the community will be the inclusion of telehealth in Medicare that will save people the time and money that it costs for them to drive great distances for a repeat prescription and or to access therapy. Many businesses are already finding innovative solutions to the shut-down and the care and goodwill that is being shown by local communities and individuals will not easily be forgotten.

That is not to say that a pandemic is good or that it’s part of God’s plan but it is a reminder that if we allow them, pain and suffering and loss can lead to growth and transformation for individuals and communities.

In general humanity is not very good at dealing with trauma as has perhaps been demonstrated by the slow uptake of the government’s encouragement that we stay at home. People react differently to pain. Some wallow in it, enjoying the attention and sympathy they might receive. Others are stoic. “We all have our crosses to bear” is a refrain of those who seem to think that they are destined to suffer and must simply endure it. Some pull up the draw bridge and look at ways to keep the hurt out. Still others try to bury the pain through medication or sheer will power – imagining perhaps: “if I don’t think about it, it might go away” or “if I’m strong enough I’ll get through this”. Some people fill their lives with distractions (throwing themselves into their work or their social and family life, or by abusing drugs or alcohol) so that they don’t notice the pain. Still others simply deny that there is anything amiss with their lives; afraid to look too closely in case they do not like what they see or in case it overwhelms them.

I mention these various reactions not to be critical – I suspect that most us have reacted in similar ways during the course of our lifetimes. We all need strategies to deal with grief, trauma and loss – whether they are life-giving or not.

In today’s world, there is a tendency (at least in our privileged, self-absorbed Western world) to see pain and suffering as the enemy. We use language such as: “I’ll beat it” as if we can defeat everything (even death) threatens our idea of a good life and we forget that joy and sorrow, love and grief, success and failure go hand in hand. Many of us push suffering and pain to the periphery as if it did not belong to the swings and round-abouts of life.  Popular culture has encouraged us to embrace positivity and happiness as if they will steer us away from pain and despair. Motivational speakers make vast sums of money selling stories of how they overcame their adversity and telling anyone who will listen that they too can do this if only they believe in themselves and focus on the positive.

There is wisdom in focussing on the good rather than being absorbed by the bad, but if we deny the place of suffering in our lives and in the world, or if we ignore it rather than dealing with it, we will forget that suffering has something to teach us. As Richard Rohr points out, “we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us— in deep and mysterious ways that become the very matrix of life and especially new life. Only suffering and certain kinds of awe lead us into genuinely new experiences. All the rest is merely the confirmation of old experience.” [1]. In other words, if we spend our lives ignoring our pain, relishing our pain or burying our pain then we miss out on the growth, enrichment and the transformation that suffering can bring about.

Suffering is not good in and of itself, it should not be sought out and it certainly should not be imposed on others. But it does, as Rohr suggests, force us to reassess our values and our expectations, to separate the trivial from the important and to let go of our illusions about ourselves.

Holy Week reminds us that Jesus did not seek pain, but nor did he try to avoid it. He did not hide from the authorities but risked teaching in the open. He did not restrain Judas but let him conspire with the priests. He did not resort to the sword but submitted to being arrested. And he did not call down the angels but allowed himself to be nailed to the cross.

Had Jesus made different choices, he would not have died, but neither would he have been raised from the dead.

We can choose to hold on to what we have and what has always been, or we can let it all go and see what God will do with it.

This prayer/poem by Brother Richard Hendrick gives us something to reflect on this week and in the weeks to come.

So we pray and we remember that:

Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul.

Yes, there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of life. (Brother Richard Hendrick, A Capuchin Franciscan living in Ireland. Quoted by Julia Baird in The Sydney Morning Herald,

April 4, 2020, p32.)

[1] Daily reflection, March 29, 2020.

A matter of timing

March 28, 2020

Lent 5 -2020

John 11:1-45
Marian Free

In the name of God Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

In Year A our Lenten readings come from the gospel of John. I have always felt that over the course of Lent, these readings rise to a crescendo before everything comes tumbling down. We begin with Nicodemus’ question in the dead of night, which is followed by the debate with the Samaritan woman at noon, the healing of the blind man and now, today we witness the raising of Lazarus. In John’s gospel debates about who Jesus is are followed by the opening of eyes and the the revelation that not even death is an obstacle to Jesus’ compassion and his ministry. We seem to be soaring towards victory – is there any Jesus cannot do! And yet, as we go on to see, Jesus’ triumph is only temporary and it leads not to glory, but to the cross.

As is the case with John’s gospel as a whole, this chapter has many layers and can be seen from many different angles. On the surface is the story of Lazarus – his illness, his death and his being brought back to life. A closer look reveals the import role of the two women, his sisters – Martha (who names Jesus as the Christ) and Mary who has anointed Jesus for burial. Their place in the story suggest that they were leaders in their community.

When we look deeper and consider this passage in the light of the gospel as a whole, we can see that the situation surrounding the raising of Lazarus is much more complex than at first appears. Underlying the retelling of the miracle and the relationship between the women and Jesus, there is an atmosphere of foreboding. Jesus knows that the closer he gets to Jerusalem, the closer he gets to those who wish to kill him. The more he is exposed to the religious authorities, the more his life is in danger.

From almost the beginning of John’s gospel John makes it clear that Jesus is perceived as a threat to the establishment and that his own life is in jeopardy as a consequence. While the crowds might be drawn to him, the religious leaders see him as a menace. Why else would Nicodemus have come to Jesus at night? The leaders are disturbed that Jesus is making more disciples than they which forces Jesus to leave Jerusalem. Then when he returns, Jesus gets into even more trouble because he heals a lame man on a Sabbath. As a result, not only do the the Judeans begin to persecute him (5:15) but they ‘were seeking all the more to kill him’ (5:18). The establishment were affronted because Jesus blatantly ignored the Sabbath law and even worse, identified himself with God! Such heresy could not be accepted or condoned. Jesus does not defend himself but instead seems to deliberately antagonize the religious leaders. He accuses them of not understanding the prophets or the testimony of scripture and of not having the love of God in them! It is little wonder that they wanted to be rid of him.

Later, despite the urging of his brothers, Jesus is reluctant to return to Jerusalem to attend the Festival of the Booths (7:1f). He is aware that the Judeans are seeking to kill him, and he would rather stay in Galilee where he is safe. In actual fact he does go up but in secret not, as his brothers had hoped so that ‘his disciples could see the works that he was doing’. While there, even though he knows himself to be at risk, Jesus does teach in the Temple further alienating the religious authorities who try to arrest him but fail. When, at the end of the eighth chapter, Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham, the Judeans pick up stones to throw at him.

All this tells us that Judea in general and Jerusalem in particular are places to be avoided by Jesus at all costs and explains why Jesus takes two days before deciding to go to see his friend. Bethany (the home of Lazarus) is too close to Jerusalem for comfort. Even Thomas is aware of the potential danger, announcing, “Let us also go, so we may die with him.” Jesus might be able to save Lazarus but in doing so, he will sign his own death warrant. It is not a journey to be taken lightly. The raising of Lazarus might be the high point of his ministry, but it will also be the final nail in Jesus’ coffin (cross) – for which of the religious leaders will be able to cope with such blatant competition?

There is yet another layer or another thread to this story and the gospel as a whole. Jesus’ life might be in danger, but he remains in control of the situation. As was the case when his brothers encouraged him to go to Jerusalem, Jesus will go to Bethany in his own time and on his own terms. It is not fear or arrogance or laziness that keeps him away. As with everything in his life, for Jesus the timing must be right – not his timing but God’s. (‘My time has not yet come’ 2:4, 7:6, 8 is a constant refrain.)

We are living in unprecedented times. Many of us are anxious and unsettled. We cannot see the future and feel as if we have lost control of aspects of our lives.

Jesus took control by ceding control to God. He refused to be pushed and pulled into doing what others wanted him to do but remained focused on his mission. He placed himself entirely in God’s hands and, having made that decision, did not waver no matter what the temptation (to save his friend, to save his own life). There are things at this time that are beyond our control – who we see, whether we can work, how far we may travel. What we can control is how we respond, how we feel and how much we trust God to bring us through.

If we have never faced anything like this then we have been truly blessed. In the midst of this anxious and confusing time, let us hold fast to our faith, place our lives in the hands of God and understand that his timing is not our timing and his ways are not our ways.

 

Until we meet again

March 20, 2020

Lent 4 – 2020– the day on which we closed the church for the first time in 100 years
John 9:1-41
Marian Free

In the name of God who sustains us through the darkness of night to the dawn of a new day. Amen.

COVID 19 is anything but funny, but there are a number of people who are refusing to lose their sense of humour and who are bringing smiles to our faces. On Facebook a couple of weeks ago someone posted the statement: “I didn’t think I’d have to give up this much for Lent.” Those of us who have decided to forgo alcohol or chocolate during Lent, are now giving up, or being forced to give up, our social activities and our food choices are limited by the panic buying of others. “I didn’t think I’d have to give up this much for Lent.”

Today as we gather in person for the last time for who knows how long, Lent provides the most apt metaphor for this experience. For the sake of each other and for the safety of our community we are being asked to give up something that for many of us is our life-blood – the nourishment through Word and Sacrament that sustains us and the community that supports us.

For most of us these are unprecedented times and the virus is only a part of it. We ourselves do not yet know the effect of having the virus or knowing someone who has it, but we cannot be unaware of the economic strain that physical separation is being faced by a great number of our community, including, I imagine many of you. Employers are reluctantly letting go of casual staff as they face the possibility that their own source of income has dried up. Those who work in businesses that require close proximity to their clients will have to close their doors. People who have never been out of work may find themselves at Centre-link and those who rely on the stock market are finding their incomes drastically reduced.

Socially and personally there are costs. As Aged Care Centres go into lock-down, families are separated from loved ones who may be past the stage of using social media – if they ever could and are finding themselves unable to offer the care that they would wish to. In this Parish we are having to put into recess some of the activities that connect lonely and vulnerable people with the wider community. Social isolation for those who live alone or the pressure of spending more time with each other for those who don’t will undoubtedly have serious consequences.

For many it is already a time of anxiety on many fronts and for some recovery might be slow and long. We must pray daily that those who are suffering financially, physically or socially are given the resources to survive and the strength to continue.

And still, we are among the lucky ones. We live in a country with a well-resourced health system, and a stable government. The inconveniences and losses we will experience cannot compare with those of the millions who are languishing in refugee camps or living in war zones with little food and little to no medical support.

It causes me great sadness to forbid you to come to worship, but I have come to see that this is a novel and extraordinary way to spend Lent, even if it is a longer Lent than we had expected. A time of separation from those things that sustain us, a time in the wilderness is a gift that we don’t often allow ourselves in the midst of our day-to-day lives. Now that we are being forced to stay away from our usual social and spiritual activities, we have an opportunity connect with God at an even deeper level and to reaffirm our trust in God through good times and through bad.

It is true that we probably won’t be able to gather for Good Friday this year, but that will make it the most extraordinary and profound Good Friday ever – going without the one thing that really makes it Good Friday! We don’t need to be here to intentionally stop and reflect on that moment when God seemed truly absent. The loss and grief of being unable to gather in this place will help us to share Jesus’ cry: “My God, my God, why?!” and to reflect on Jesus’ willingness to give up everything so that we might have life.

And Easter – what will it be like to celebrate Easter without gathering together to sing those wonderful triumphant hymns that are a reminder that we have pulled through the darkness to the light on the other side? It may feel so empty and even joyless, but I would encourage you to think of this as an extended Lent that will end when the crisis is deemed to be over. Then what celebrations will there be! Easter and new life will never have seemed so real and we will affirm for another year that: “Jesus lives! Thy terrors now can no more O death enthrall us!” and join in singing other hymns that assert Jesus’ victory over the grave.

This is an unusual moment in time and your clergy team, your wardens and Parish council will do all that we can to support you through it.

My friends be strong, be careful, care for each other, be safe and above all keep the faith until we meet again to proclaim the new life that awaits, to remind ourselves that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God and that not even the grave could contain Jesus our Saviour and our friend.

Seeing people for what they are

March 14, 2020

Lent 3 – 2020

John 4:5-42

Marian Free

In name of God who knows us, affirms us and trusts us. Amen.

During the course of my lifetime I have heard more than one exposition of this amazing encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria. My first memory is of a church camp that I attended in my teens. On this occasion, the account was used as an illustration of mission. The person leading the study pointed out that it was Jesus accepted the woman as she was and it was he who initiated the conversation. The study leader suggested that if we wanted to bring people to faith that we should take this as our example. Later, in the Eighties, when we began to try to identify the role of women in the early community, scholars picked up on the the unusual nature of the meeting between Jesus and the woman. It was pointed out that the woman must have been an outcast from her own society if she was coming to the well in the middle of the day. When Jesus asked the woman for water, Jesus broke a number of religious boundaries – he was speaking to a woman, who was also a Samaritan, and a sinner AND he was also suggesting that he share a utensil with her – all  of which were not only forbidden by Hebrew law but which would result in Jesus’ being ritually unclean.

At the same time scholars made an effort to rehabilitate the woman from the perception that she was a prostitute or a woman of loose morals. It was speculated that she was a victim of circumstances and this, not her impropriety, was the reason that she had had five husbands and was currently living with someone to whom she was not married. Had she, it was asked, been passed from one brother to another as husband after husband died – like the woman in the Sadducees’ question about  the resurrection (Luke 20:27f for eg)? Or, was she a victim of domestic violence who had been forced to flee for her life only to seek shelter in the arms of yet another abuser? Perhaps, it has been suggested, the five husbands are merely symbolic. In which case the woman could represent Samaria and the five husbands the nations whom the Assyrians brought in to settle the region when they conquered it in 721 B.C.E. (see 2 Kings 17:24).  It is also possible that the woman’s broken marriage was a symbol for the breach of covenant between the northern kingdom (that included Samaria) as God (a breach described as divorce in Hosea).[i]

It  is not by accident that Jesus’ meeting with the woman follows directly after that between Nicodemus and Jesus. The juxtaposition of the two encounters brings out a number of striking contrasts. Nicodemus meets with Jesus secretly, under cover of darkness whereas Jesus’ meeting with the woman of Samaria takes place in the full light of the day. Even though there is no audience (at first) the interaction between Jesus and the woman is out in the open. There is no secrecy here, no fear of being exposed. Furthermore, the two characters could not be more different. Karoline Lewis points out: “Nicodemus is a Pharisee, an insider, a leader of the Jews. He is a man, he has a name, but he comes to Jesus by night. The woman is a Samaritan, a religious and political outsider. She has no name and it is Jesus who comes to her, not at night, but at noon, in full daylight.” Despite his understanding that Jesus comes from God, Nicodemus remains confused and unbelieving after the encounter. He cannot move beyond his traditional way of thinking. The Samaritan, who does not have Nicodemus’ advantages and her different faith background, is equal to Jesus in debate yet she remains open to what Jesus has to say. Because Nicodemus is bound by tradition, he cannot acknowledge that Jesus is God. Contrast this with the woman who hears Jesus say, “I AM” (4:26) the name of God utters to Moses through the burning bush. Nicodemus’ question exposes his disbelief. The woman’s question leads not only her, but the the whole village to faith:  “He cannot be the Christ, can he?”

The contrast between the two encounters suggests that we need not worry about the woman’s background or about the symbolism (though they play a part in the story). What is important, or so it seems to me, is that the woman (despite her apparent disadvantages) is not a victim and nor does she appear to see herself as such. She is a woman of character, confidence and strength. Not only is she prepared to challenge Jesus on matters of religion but she is able to convince the people of her town that they should come someone who has, “told me everything I have ever done”.

Jesus sees beyond gender, colour, race, religion, status, income and education. He affirms, encourages, empowers and commissions the most unlikely of people. He challenges us to see beyond the externals and to follow his lead in identifying a person’s strengths and capacities rather than confine them to socially engineered norms.


[i] Other imagery may be significant including that of Jacob’s well which in Hebrew lore represented the patriarchs but which also alluded to betrothals – especially that of Jacob and Rebekah.

Knowing and not knowing

March 7, 2020

Lent 2 – 2020

John 3:1-17 (Thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who shines light in the darkness, exposing our weaknesses and our failure to really believe. Amen.

John’s gospel is deceptively simple, but a closer look reveals that it is full of hidden depths and secret meanings. The gospel operates on two levels – the superficial and the symbolic. From the point of view of the gospel writer it is only those who believe in Jesus who can understand the secret code and who can fully grasp the significance of Jesus and what Jesus is saying.

Underlying the gospel as a whole is a cosmic struggle between light and darkness, truth and untruth, knowing and not-knowing, eternal life and perishing and between heaven and earth. It is a struggle that Jesus ultimately wins by “conquering the world” (16:33). In the meantime, the readers or listeners to the gospel are challenged to choose – to expose themselves to the light or to stay in the dark, to open themselves to new ways of knowing or to remain in ignorance, to grasp life or to choose death.

Hidden meanings are revealed through symbolism. Double entendres (words or phrases that can be understood in one of two ways) confuse the reader exposing his or her ignorance. Misunderstandings provide Jesus with an opportunity to explain himself and encourages the listener to see things differently to be open to new ways of thinking and new ways of being. Judgement takes the form of a person’s reaction to Jesus which indicates whether they have accepted or rejected him; whether they are willing to come into the light or determined to stay in the darkness.

The purpose of this gospel, as is made clear in its final verses is to encourage people to choose Christ.[1] “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Throughout the gospel, readers are challenged to make a decision for Christ. Anyone who fails to come to Jesus demonstrates that they are happy to remain in the dark, that they are among those who do not know and therefore are those who are perishing.

Today’s gospel is something of a microcosm of the gospel as a whole. The richness of the symbolism and the double meanings in Jesus’ speech reveal hidden depths to what at first glance seems like a simple meeting between two educated men – Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, suggesting that he belongs to the darkness. He is attracted to Jesus, but not so much that he is prepared to risk his reputation or his standing in the community. He comes at night to avoid being seen. Even though he has begun to understand that Jesus has come from God he is not yet prepared to acknowledge that Jesus is God, to move from the darkness to the light, to choose life rather than death.

Night or darkness in this gospel is not only the opposite of life but is also a symbol of unbelief or at least the wrong kind of belief (3:19-21). Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He believes in the God in whom Jesus believes, he shares Jesus’ Jewish faith, but as we seem his understanding is limited and constrained by what he knows. He is unable to open his mind to new possibilities of knowing. He has seen the signs that Jesus has done but cannot bring himself to accept that Jesus’ signs are meant to challenge his way of seeing the world and to encourage his way of practicing his faith. When Jesus explains that: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, Nicodemus simply cannot see Jesus’ hidden meaning. His understanding is limited to his earthly experience – being born in a physical, human sense. He is confused by the literal meaning of Jesus’ statement – it is impossible to “enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born”.  His thought processes are not flexible enough to grasp Jesus’ invitation to change from an earthly way of thinking to one that is heavenly. At this point in time, Nicodemus remains in darkness because of his failure to understand the double-meaning behind Jesus’ words and his unwillingness to grasp spiritual truths.

John’s gospel is clear. We are either for Jesus or against him. We are either in the light or in the dark. We either understand or we do not understand.

Through its dualism, symbolism and hidden meanings, the gospel challenges us to surrender our conventional ways of thinking, to let go of our preconceptions, to abandon the safety of the tried and true, and with eyes wide open and hearts full of trust to walk confidently into the new and heavenly experience that comes from truly knowing and understanding Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Many scholars believe that chapter 21 is an addition.

Family values

February 29, 2020

Lent 1 – 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who has created us in God’s image. Amen.

Even though I am not a royalist I am as curious as anyone else about the current buzz around Harry and Meghan. On the ABC website on Saturday (29th February) there was some commentary about their future, in particular the future of their branding. The point was made that if the pair want to make their own way in the world, they will have to find a way to brand themselves that attracts engagements and/or sponsors that will create an income stream. That goal may be difficult, the writer points out, now that they are no longer able to use the title or the brand “Royal”. By going their own way, they have cut themselves off from the family/the brand and from the responsibilities, privileges and roles of being part of that brand. To ensure a public presence and to create their own brand they may have to seek the very thing that they were trying to avoid – publicity. In the past Harry’s identity was tied to that of the Royal family, none of us know what it will be like now that he has cut those ties[1].

What does it mean to be a part of the Christian family? More particularly, what does it mean to be the Son of God, a child of God? This is the question that Jesus’ temptations attempt to answer (for Jesus first of all and for Matthew’s readers second). Jesus is led into the wilderness as a direct consequence of his baptism at which a voice from heaven declared: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew has gone to great lengths to establish Jesus’ identity as a member of the people of Israel whose lineage goes all the way back to Abraham. What is more, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises.

Jesus’ baptism takes this process of identification one step further, Jesus is named as the son of God. That is, he is integrally related to God, a member of God’s family (part of God’s brand even!)

Jesus’ temptations tease out the meaning of this title and Jesus’ entitlement to claim his place in the family. The tempter is encouraging Jesus to strike out on his own, to make his own way in the world. “If you are the Son of God..” Three times the tempter or Satan confronts Jesus with these words. If you are the Son of God turn stones into bread, throw yourself off this high place, fall down and worship me. If you are the Son of God. If you are the Son of God, prove it. Perform miracles, demonstrate that no harm can come to you, take over the world! Make your own way in the world, you know you can do it!

In the mind of the tempter (and perhaps in the minds of the readers of the gospel] being the Son of God means having the power to do all these – working miracles, doing dangerous things and coming to no harm and using one’s power to rule the world. Thankfully, Jesus is clear that being the Son of God means remaining close to God, taking on the responsibilities and demands that come with being God’s Son and conforming to the image of God, whatever that might cost. Despite the temptation to do so, Jesus will not do cheap tricks, take an easy path or seek power for himself. To do so would place him in competition with God and would cut him off from the source of his life and power.

As the Son of God, Jesus has to trust God, to believe that God knows what is best (for him and for the world) and to understand that if he wants to be a part of God’s family he has to accept and conform to the family norms and values. This is what the tempter does not understand. Coming from the position of someone who challenges and resists God, the tempter believes that Jesus will fare much better if he strikes out on his own – if he chooses his way and not God’s way.

On a superficial level this seems to be the case, especially in the first instance. It is completely within Jesus’ power to turn stones into bread – after all, doesn’t he feed the five thousand? Jumping off the Temple without being hurt would certainly draw people’s attention – and be an easy way to ensure that people followed him. And ruling the world – isn’t that what it is all about, getting the world to follow him?

Jesus understands that being severed from God will not in fact benefit anyone but himself (if it does that). He resists the seduction of an easier path. He places his relationship with God above his personal needs and desires and he trusts that, whatever lies ahead, reliance on God, trust in God, submission to God and above all his intimate relationship with God are the only way to achieve God’s goals for him (and for the world).

Being a child of God means aligning oneself with the values of the family of God, accepting that (however difficult the present may be) God has our best interests (and those of the world) at heart and that the future God has planned for us is one that we will not find if we choose any other way.

 

 

[1] In what follows, I am not suggesting that Harry and Meghan have given into temptation, just that their current situation illustrates what it means to separate oneself from the culture and norms of a family.

Glory and suffering

February 22, 2020

Transfiguration- 2020

Matthew 17:1-9

Marian Free

May I speak in the name of God, Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. Amen.

Six days later. It always seems such an odd way to begin a reading. Six days later than when? Why, when the gospel writers have no particular interest in time, is it important to be so exact on this occasion? What happened six days ago (at least in the telling of the story) that was sufficiently important that the readers needed to know the time frame? What is the symbolic meaning of those six days? Unfortunately for those who are curious there are no agreed explanations for the number six (Luke says 8) days. Our best guess is that Matthew and Mark are alluding to the time that Moses spent on the mountain when he received the law. What is clear though is that the gospel writers are drawing our attention to the fact that the events on the mountain are integrally related to and have to be interpreted in the light of what has come before. That is, Jesus’ transfiguration has to be seen and understood against the background of suffering which both precedes and follows the mountain top experience. Earthly and heavenly sit side-by-side. Jesus’ divinity can never be separated from his humanity, his glory cannot be severed from his humiliation.

Six days before Jesus took Peter, James and John with  him to the mountain, Jesus had thrown out a challenge to the disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked. The disciples responded: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked:  “But who do you say that I am?” To which Peter responded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended Peter for his insight but immediately went on to redefine what it meant to be the Christ. It was not, as the disciples seem to expect, a way of glory or might. Being the Christ will not lead to power or to victory over Rome, but to suffering and to death. What is more, Jesus continued, those who wish to follow in his footsteps must prepare themselves for the same fate. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus’ transfiguration affirms Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Son of God but the event is framed by suffering – Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering which precedes it and his reference to the suffering of John the Baptist which follows it.

Suffering and glory, ordinary and extraordinary are integrally linked in the gospel. They seem to be two sides of the same coin.

Together they provide an illustration of discipleship which, for the most part, will be mundane and ordinary, which will not protect us from suffering and pain (and in fact will, for some,  be the cause of their suffering and pain) but will give us moments of transcendence, clarity and peace that will provide strength and courage for the journey.

The Bible makes no attempt to suggest that a life of faith will protect us from harm or that doing God’s will will somehow shield us from danger – just the opposite is true. From beginning to end we are shown that placing our trust in God and responding to God’s call on our lives, exposes us to misunderstanding and possible rejection. Discipleship is counter-cultural, it means telling truth to power, standing up for what is right and protecting the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable. Truth-telling is not always welcomed, mixing with or being inclusive of the outsider is often viewed with suspicion as is lifting them out of places of despair. Discipleship will not always win us friends or respect but sometimes the opposite. The prophets are threatened, exiled and thrown into cisterns. Jesus has only a brief period of being revered by the crowds before he is unceremoniously arrested, flogged and crucified.

Transcendence is only part of the story. The life of discipleship is often mundane and sometimes painful but there will be moments when God breaks through the cloud revealing a different reality and transfiguring our suffering into a future that we had not imagined was possible.

Breaking the vicious cycle of trying and failing

February 15, 2020

Epiphany 6 – 2020

Matthew 5:21-48

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires our wholeness as much as our holiness. Amen.

While I have no desire to be anything other than Christian, I do believe that we can learn a lot from the practices of other faiths. For example, on Friday I learned, from the driver of an Uber, who practices Jainism, that his wife was completing a fast that had lasted 411 days! During that time, she could only eat prescribed foods and then only between certain hours of the day. On some days she could only sip boiled water. As I listened, I felt more than a little chastened. Even though fasting is one of the Christian spiritual disciplines it is not one that I find easy to practice and, to be honest, my Lenten practice could be more costly and embraced more wholeheartedly. Our forty days of Lent do not even compare with the 411 of this woman! I’m not saying that I intend to compete or suggest that we should aim for a similar goal, but I can allow this woman’s practice to throw a light on my own poor efforts to improve the state of my soul and my relationship with God.

When Julie and Maria were employed as my P.A.’s I was able to explore with them some of the practices of Buddhism. One aspect of their practice that I found attractive and useful was the way in which their teaching offered practical techniques in relation say to loving one’s enemies or forgiving someone who had wronged them. More than once, good faithful Christians have said to me, “how can I love a murderer or someone who is an abuser?” or “I feel terrible, but I can never forgive her (or him) for what they’ve done.” The problem is that it is not just that they can’t keep the command to love, but their failure to love or to forgive leaves them feeling guilty and worthless. Sometimes such a person feels that they cannot play a role in the life of the church or worse that they don’t belong in church at all. Tragically, they have heard the biblical teachings but have not been fully equipped to apply in their lives.

As I understand it a major component of Buddhism is the practical instruction or illustration of the teaching – how to forgive, how to love the unlovable. On one occasion I was feeling particularly put upon by someone. I was hurt and angry and probably a little self-righteous. Maria knew the situation (Personal Assistants can serve as a sounding board). Her response was to tell me that Buddhism teaches that we need to ask ourselves what the situation has to teach us. In other words, she turned the tables on my self pity and reminded me that the situation might have something to teach me. (Ouch)

Some Christians, and those who have left the faith, see Christianity as being full of dichotomies – be good, not bad, obey the rules or be punished; don’t do this, don’t do that. It can be easy to hear the church’s teaching or to read the bible in terms of black and white and to miss the grey, to see it as a list of proscriptions rather than than a guide book on how to live, as being more about what not to do than what to do.

The traditional interpretation of today’s gospel contributes to that view – especially if one understands Jesus as strengthening or adding a new list of prohibitions to the pre-existing law. Taken as antitheses – not this, but that; “You have heard it said, but I say” – the set of six teachings appears to put the keeping of the law beyond the reach of anyone.

Moderns scholars argue that this either/or approach is not helpful. They suggest that rather than setting two things in opposition Jesus is offering alternative ways of living or of behaving. Instead of critiquing the law and making its demands even more stringent, they argue that Jesus is providing a way out of the tit for tat that results from an unthinking application of the law. In other words, Jesus is providing practical ways of applying the law that break the cycle – being bad, being punished, being hurt, hurting the other. In these sayings, Jesus demonstrates how this cycle can be broken when those who believe in him take actions that are transformative not retributive, positive not negative. Blind obedience cannot lead to the fulfillment of the law – love of God and love of neighbour.

The first teaching in this set of six is the clearest example of this pattern and the easiest to explain. The traditional teaching is “you shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement”. Jesus continues by pointing out the vicious cycles that lead to murder and therefore to judgement. Being angry with another member of the community would lead to judgment, insulting another would cause them to be brought before the council, calling someone a fool you will be in the hell of fire. But, there is an alternative, a transformative, peace-making initiative[1] – be reconciled, make peace with your accuser before you get to court. There is another ending to the story and it is not judgment.

Jesus offers a positive way to keep the law, a way that breaks the cycle of anger and blame, a way that breaks the cycle of repeating the same mistake again, and again, and again, a way that breaks the cycle of impossible demand that leads to feelings of worthlessness and guilt. He replaces the negative demands of the law with positive solutions that free us to live unencumbered by fear and self-loathing and to grow in our relationship with God and with one another.

 

 

[1] It begins with Jesus quoting the Traditional teaching on murder

  1. You have heard of old that it was said
  2. You shall not kill,
  3. and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement

Then follows

  1. Jesus’ teaching on the vicious cycles that lead to murder and judgement
  2. Being angry – you shall be liable to judgement
  3. uttering ρακα (anger) – you shall be liable to the council
  4. uttering μωρε (you fool) – you shall be liable to hell

Finally Jesus provides

  1. teaching on transformative initiatives that deliver from the vicious cycles
  2. If therefore you remember that someone has something against you, go be reconciled.
  3. Make peace with your accuser if going to court.
  4. Explanation: otherwise you will be liable to judgment. (Glen Stassen)

No room to rest on our laurels

February 8, 2020

Epiphany 5 – 2020

Matthew 5:13-20

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

When we think about The Sermon on the Mount most of us think of Matthew 5:1-12 – the Beatitudes. In fact, the sermon as a whole extends all the way to the end of chapter 7. It consists of a selection of Jesus’ sayings that Matthew has gathered into one place and arranged somewhat thematically. Matthew structures his gospel around five (some say six) such blocks of teaching of which this is the first. The teaching material is separated by narrative material which is linked to what has come before. In this instance Matthew introduces the ‘Sermon’ with an announcement that Jesus teaches and heals. The sermon (teaching) is followed by accounts of Jesus’ healing before Matthew moves to the next collection of teaching material. It is most unlikely that Jesus’ teaching consisted of long lists of unrelated material. A more believable scenario is that during the course of his ministry Jesus taught the disciples and the crowds a variety of things and, after his death, Jesus’ followers collected his sayings (and parables) together and repeated them to each other. In time the material was gathered into collections of sayings which the gospel writers used in their own particular way. The sayings included in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) and in the Sermon on the Plain and Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke) are believed to have come from a common source (technically Quelle or Q) that was known to Matthew and Luke but not to Mark.

Though the sayings seem unrelated (today’s being salt, light and law), Matthew appears to have tried to structure them and to gather them into themes. Perhaps the best example of this is chapter 18 that contains sayings that are specifically directed to the community of faith – being careful not to harm another’s faith, how to resolve differences within the community and forgiveness (of other members of the community).

It is generally believed that the community for whom Matthew’s gospel was written was a community of Jews who had come to believe in Jesus and who believed that they were the logical outcome of God’s promises to Israel. That the community still thought of themselves as Jews is implied by the references to “their synagogues” (4:23, 9:35, 10:17, 12:9, 13:54) which suggests “our synagogues”. Only a Jewish Christian would engage so heatedly with the synagogue and would judge Israel so harshly. A Gentile community probably would not feel that there was any need to compete. Further, a primarily Gentile community might have placed more emphasis on the relaxation of the law instead of insisting that, “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

That Matthew’s community were convinced that they were the true Israel is also hinted at by the gospel writer’s use of the Old Testament and of Rabbinic forms of argument. Most importantly, the belief that the community felt that they were the logical and obvious continuation of Israel is demonstrated by the ‘competition’ with those Jewish communities that did not believe in Jesus and the attitude of one-upmanship concerning the law that we see in today’s gospel: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This make-up of the community also explains Matthew’s harsh, legalistic and exclusive stance . Whereas the other gospels and the letters of Paul express some ambivalence or even negativity towards the law, Matthew not only affirms it, but insists that members of his community should both keep the law and keep it even more rigorously than members of the Pharisaic sect with whom they seem to be in competition and whom Matthew accuses of hypocrisy. Matthew’s attacks on the scribes and Pharisees are much stronger than in Mark and Luke (see for example the invective in Chapter 23: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites!”). Such sayings suggest a defensiveness on the part of Matthew’s community and a need to protect their legitimacy.

Following on from the Beatitudes, the sayings in today’s gospel appear to be instructions to the community. Those who are blessed are expected to be salt and light; seasoning and illumination for the wider community. They are to live in such a way as to make Jesus present in the world. In other words, Jesus both comforts and reassures, commissions and challenges the disciples. He assures them that they are blessed, but insists that with the blessings comes responsibility. The mission does not end with him but must continue in and through the lives of his disciples – in this case the members of Matthew’s community.

It is possible to soften Matthew’s rigid stance with regard to the law, to argue that Jesus here is referring to fulfilling the law in the sense of bringing to completeness, bringing wholeness to the law. We can argue that in some way the law has come to fullness in the person of Jesus that it is fulfilled, not abolished. It is not done away with, but is transformed. I want to suggest that we should let the saying stand if for no other reason than that this saying challenges us never to slip into the sort of complacency and hypocrisy that Matthew’s Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of, but that we are always striving to build lives that fully represent the desires of God for us as revealed by Jesus.

The blessedness of which Jesus speaks is not an excuse for laziness, but a reason to excel, to strive to be worthy of such blessings and in turn to really be the presence of Christ in the world.

Seeing what is in front of us

February 1, 2020

Feast of the Presentation – 2020

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

May I speak in the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.

Sacramental worship in first century Palestine was a very different proposition from that in Brisbane today. Whereas we are used to celebrating Holy Communion every week in our Parish Churches, the Hebrews might, if they were able, attend the Temple for major feast days or to observe specific rituals that could only be carried out in the Temple. Passover seems to have been a must for most Israelites, but it is possible that not everyone was able to make these pilgrimages on a yearly basis.

It is difficult to know how many towns or villages had synagogues, but from the biblical evidence that Jesus taught in their synagogues and that the early believers came together every week, we can assume that it was the practice (of the men at least) to gather weekly to read from scripture, say or sing the Psalms and to expound on the biblical text. But as there was only one Temple, anything that required the services of a priest took place there, in Jerusalem.

In setting the scene for his gospel, the author of Luke is careful to establish Jesus’ Jewish credentials. This seems strange for a person who was writing for a Gentile audience, but the Roman Empire was suspicious of anything novel, in particular of different belief systems which they regarded as superstitions and as a threat to the Empire. Judaism was accepted and even respected by the Romans because of its long, established history. By making it clear that Jesus was a member of this ancient faith Luke establishes the credibility (and the heritage) of what, to many, appeared to be a new religion.

Luke builds up the picture of Jesus’ Jewish credentials in a number of ways. The parents of John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin) are described as coming from ancient priestly families and Zechariah is in the Temple offering the sacrifice when an angel announces John’s conception. Mary and Joseph fulfil the obligation under the law to circumcise Jesus on the eighth day. Forty days after Jesus’ birth they make the long journey to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice to redeem their first-born son and to undergo the rite of purification. Later, when Jesus is twelve years old, the family will return to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Five times in today’s the author refers to the law, the basis of the relationship between God and God’s people and Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the Temple – the centre of the Jewish faith. In other words, the Gentile readers of this account of Jesus’ life (in particular Theophilus) are left in no doubt that this emerging faith has its roots firmly based in Judaism and is in fact nothing new but a continuation of that ancient religion.

In describing the presentation of Jesus in the Temple Luke moves the story forward. He suggests that the time of the prophets has ended. What God has promised to Israel has come to pass. Led by the Spirit, Simeon recognises the child as the Lord’s anointed – the one who will be the instrument of God’s salvation – a light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel. Without labouring the point, Luke establishes that God has acted in the world and that going forward, Gentiles as well as Jews will be included in God’s acts of salvation.

Luke has established that this apparently ‘new’ faith has an age-old history. Now he makes it clear that, with the birth of Jesus, the faith is moving from one era into another. It is a continuation of the old while at the same time it is leaving the past behind and forging a new path. John the Baptist provided the bridge between the past and the present. From now on the focus will be on Jesus and God’s actions in the world through him. All this, the reader is led to believe, is completely in accord with God’s plan.

Luke moves the story forward in another way as well. Simeon’s words to Mary give us a foretaste of what it to come. Jesus’ presence will not be welcomed by all. His teachings and actions will be a source of division. People’s reaction to him will reveal where they stand in relation to what God is doing in the world and a once unified faith will be divided to the point of separation.

When I read this account, what strikes me is the wisdom, openness and spirituality of Simeon and Anna and their very different responses to Jesus. Both are near the end of their lives and seem to have led lives of prayer such that their connection to God is strong and their awareness of God’s presence in their lives is real and powerful. Mary and Joseph would have been little different from other parents visiting the Temple that day, that week or that year. They were poor (as is indicated by the sacrifice of a dove not a lamb) and had travelled from an insignificant village in the Gentile region of Galilee.  Yet Simeon, guided by the Spirit, comes into the Temple at the very moment that they do and recognises in Jesus the child whom God had promised he would see. Simeon’s reaction is to take the child and give thanks. Anna appears to be already in the Temple and has presumably seen or heard something. She wastes no time with the child and his parents but exuberantly praises God and announces the presence of the child to everyone who is ‘looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’.

As their lives come to a close, Anna and Simeon demonstrate a depth of faith that enables them to sense what God is up to and to recognise God’s presence in the world. They display an openness to the possibility that God might do the unexpected and they reveal their confidence that God will do what God has promised. May we too live such lives of faith and faithfulness that our relationship with God will make us aware of God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of others and may we live in expectation that God will act in the world.


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