Stormy waters

August 8, 2020
The Jesus boat

Pentecost 10 – 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who understands our deepest fears and who overlooks our multiple weaknesses. Amen.

The most visited tourist destination in Israel is Kibbutz Ginosar on the shores of Galilee. It was here, in 1986 that two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, found the remains of a first century boat. That year the water levels were particularly low and the brothers – who spent a great deal of time looking for artifacts – came across a rusty nail which, on inspection belonged to a boat, buried in the mud beside the water. Recovering the boat was a mammoth task. Archaeologists had to work out how to excavate the boat without damaging or destroying it. This meant keeping the timbers wet, moving the fragile structure in one piece, cleaning off the mud without touching the boat, and finding the right fish to keep the bacteria away. Thankfully the hard work was rewarded with success and the boat can now be seen in a museum close to where it was found.

Boats are a feature of the gospels. Jesus calls four fishermen to follow him, he teaches from a boat, is responsible for an extraordinary catch of fish from a boat and he himself seems to criss-cross the Galilee in a boat. The discovery of the “Jesus boat” puts flesh on the gospel stories and enables us to visualise Jesus and his disciples as they sail from one side of the lake to another. The popularity of the “Jesus boat” lies in the fact that it is probably the most intact structure that can be related directly to Jesus’ life and ministry. 

Fishing, in the time of Jesus was regulated by the Roman government – delegated to local officials. Anyone who wanted to fish needed to purchase fishing rights and a proportion of the catch was subject to tax. Fishermen were at the mercy of the brokers and tax-collectors. They were also vulnerable to the vagaries of the sea – a good catch was never guaranteed and the sea could whip up into a storm at any moment. Most fishermen could not swim, and, as the sea was considered to be the home of demons, falling overboard was doubly dangerous. No wonder the disciples were terrified when they found themselves on the lake, at night, in the middle of a storm.

An account of Jesus calming the sea is one of the few stories that occurs in all four gospels – sometimes twice. In Matthew, Mark and John it follows Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000.  Matthew and Mark have included an account of Jesus’ walking on the water. In every instance, the event illustrates Jesus’ power over nature and over the demonic forces, but the authors use the story in very different ways. (Only Matthew chooses to include Peter’s attempt to walk on water – his initial confidence and his ensuing doubt.) 

In Mark, Matthew and John, Jesus is not in the boat when the storm blows up. He has stayed behind. Later, during the storm, he walks across the water towards the boat. A comparison of Mark and Matthew is interesting and illustrates the different purposes of the gospel writers and the different ways in which they depict the disciples and the disciples’ reaction to the stilling of the waters[1]. In Mark, the incident is directly related to Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, specifically the bread. When Jesus enters the boat and the wind ceases the disciples are utterly astounded, but there is no expression of faith because: “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”[2] Matthew reports an entirely different reaction. When Jesus and Peter get into the boat (after Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water) and the wind ceases, the disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God. 

In Mark’s gospel, the disciples never identify Jesus as God’s son. Indeed, other aspects of Mark’s telling of the story, suggest that the question of Jesus’ identity remained a secret until the resurrection. Throughout that gospel the disciples are consistently depicted as foolish and lacking in understanding. In contrast, Matthew suggests that despite the fact that the disciples do recognise Jesus as the Son of God, they constantly waver between doubt and faith (even after the resurrection – Mt 28:17). 

We will never know for certain the purpose of the authors. (We have nothing except the gospels on which to base our conjectures). Is Mark, the first of the gospel writers, describing the disciples as they really were and did Matthew, dismayed that the founders of the church were presented as such poor role models, remodel their failings from misunderstanding to doubt? Or did the community for whom Mark was writing need models that shared their misunderstanding, and did Matthew’s community need to feel that even the disciples had moments of doubt? 

Whatever the truth of the matter, the writers of the gospels have given us disciples with whom we can relate, real people with real fears and failings. This means that if we are confused, we can be reassured that the first disciples were confused. When we are afraid, we can identify with disciples, who despite being in the presence of Jesus still experienced fear.  At those times when our faith wavers or when we are overwhelmed by the circumstances in which find ourselves, we can be comforted in the knowledge that the disciples too had moments of doubt. 

Our gospel writers did not gloss over the failings of the disciples, nor did they present them as exemplary models. In our gospels we find disciples with whom we can identify. Through them we are assured that God does not expect perfection but will find ways to use us – however weak our faith, however wavering our courage and however poor our understanding. 

There is one thing of which we can be sure that, whether we falter or not, whether we are uncomprehending or not, whether we are brave or not God’s love for and confidence in us is steadfast and unwavering.

[1] Read Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6 45-52 (John 6:16-21 Jesus doesn’t calm the storm, but he does walk on the water.)

[2] Hard to know just what this means!

Besides women and children

August 1, 2020

Pentecost 9 – 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

“And those who ate were about 5,000 men, besides women and children.” Matt 14:21

In the name of God who by becoming one of us affirms the dignity of all humanity. Amen.

Some time ago I watched a rather harrowing movie – The Whistle-blower – starring Rachel Weisz. The movie is based on the real story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer in Nebraska, who was recruited by an American company, DynCorp International. DynCorp had a contract with the United Nations to hire and train police officers for duty in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kathryn had not been in Bosnia long when she came across Raya, a young Ukrainian woman, who had managed to escape from a brothel where she was being sexually exploited and abused. Raya had been trafficked across the border by the uncle of a friend who had persuaded both girls that he had found them a job in a hotel. It was a sophisticated operation. He had brochures of the hotel and job descriptions but in reality, he was preying on their financial vulnerability and their trust in him. When the girls arrived in Bosnia, they discovered that they had been sold into prostitution. If the movie was accurate, the conditions in which the women were kept was appalling and the brutality they experienced at the hands of their “keepers” was horrendous. 

Bolkovac endeavoured to find a place of safety for Raya only to discover that her employer, DynCorp was facilitating the sex trafficking and worse, that the international peacekeepers knew of the operation but chose to turn a blind eye. As a consequence, Raya’s whereabouts was leaked, she was recaptured, violently punished. Within a few weeks was shot dead as an example to others. Kathryn tried to bring the situation to the attention of the United Nations and as a result she received death threats and was fired. She took her employers to court for unfair dismissal and won, but while she reported that the company was involved in prostitution, rape and sex-trafficking, only local employees were prosecuted as UN contractors had immunity from prosecution.

The deliberate, calculating trafficking of people for profit is endemic. Despite the efforts of William Wilberforce and others in the late 18th, early 19th century, slavery is far from dead. At any one time in 2016 there were an estimated 40.3 million people held in slavery. Over 40 million people – that is 5.4 people for every thousand person on the planet! The statistics are horrendous:  

  • 51% of identified victims of trafficking are women, 28% children and 21% men
  • 72% people exploited in the sex industry are women
  • 63% of identified traffickers were men and 37% women
  • 99%  percent of all women and girls who are trafficked are trafficked into the commercial sex industry.[1]

Australia is not immune to this trade in human beings. In 2018, Anti-Slavery Australia helped over 123 people who had been trafficked to or from Australia.[2]  A study by the Australian Institute of Criminology published in February last year estimated that in 2015-16, 2016-7 the number of people trafficked or forced into slavery in Australia was between 1,300 and 1,900 meaning that for every person who is identified as being trafficked or enslaved, there are another four who are not identified.[3]

Trafficking is only the beginning of a lifetime of exploitation, torture and abuse.

There are millions of stories of trafficking, exploitation and abuse – slavery in the 21st century.

The human capacity to denigrate, dehumanise or ignore others is almost beyond comprehension. The ability to be blind to the talents, hopes and dreams of those who are different from ourselves almost defies belief. And yet, as is evidenced by modern day slavery, both are very real human characteristics. 

Whenever we view another person or group of people as lesser than ourselves, we are in danger of dehumanising them – as if there were gradations of being human. When we consider that another person is of less value than ourselves, we free ourselves to disregard their needs, their feelings and their ambitions which in turn frees us to treat them in ways that are cruel, degrading and exploitative. When we take the view that a person or group of people exists primarily as a source of our own comfort or our own enrichment, we become blind to their needs for comfort and security. Whenever people are put to use to improve the lifestyles of others, they are vulnerable to financial exploitation or to physical or sexual abuse. 

Failing to take notice of the gifts, talents and capacities of people whose race, background or economic status are different from our own, impoverishes all of us. We not only lose the contribution they could make to our society; we also allow our own selfishness free rein. At the same time, we also excuse ourselves from taking responsibility for their well-being, and fail to advocate on their behalf. 

In today’s gospel it is the women and children who are unnoticed. Jesus fed 5,000 men we are told by Mark and Luke to which Matthew adds as something of an afterthought: “besides woman and children”. Only John includes everyone in the story.

Throughout history many people have been left out of our story – women and children, the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, the prisoner, people of colour, people whose faith is different from our own, people whose sexual orientation or gender identification does not conform – on and on it goes. 

If slavery and exploitation are to end, it has to begin here, with us – with our own attitudes, beliefs and values. 

Who are the people whom we leave out of the story and whom are we abandoning to potential abuse and exploitation by our ignorance, our blindness, our selfishness and our desire to pay less than a product is truly worth?

In other words, who are the “besides” in our story and what will it take from us to ensure that they are included?




The seduction of the kingdom

July 25, 2020

Pentecost 8 – 2020

Matthew 13:44-58

Marian Free

In the name of God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. Amen.

There is something seductive about religious experience. Being filled with the Holy Spirit or feeling as though one is in the presence of God is such an amazing feeling that many people try to recreate it. In the process they forget that God is not at our disposal to be summoned at will. The same is true of preaching. My own experience is that there are times when I speak with such passion that I can feel the impact my words are having. While it is tempting to make this a regular habit, I am aware that it would take me down the track of insincerity. I would become more concerned about the effect of what I was saying rather than the content. I would be relying on my own ability to move people rather than on the Holy Spirit. This tendency to self-congratulation can, I think, be seen in some evangelists who almost certainly begin with good intentions, but who become convinced of their own power to move people and end up build empires that are really about themselves not God.

Over the last two weeks we have been exploring the interpretation of parables. I have suggested that the purpose of parables is not – as the biblical interpretations suggest – clear and accessible. Parables are, we believe, intended to jolt us into a new and different way of thinking. I suggested that a good example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ listeners (ordinary Jews) would have been expecting that the third person along the road would have been one of them. First, the Priest, then the Levite – the next one would surely be a person to whom they could relate. Imagine the listener’s surprise when the third character on the road is not one of them but a despised Samaritan. It is he, the enemy, who stops to help the injured Jew. This is the sting in the tail, the unexpected twist that forces the audience to reconsider their long-held prejudices and challenges their accepted ideas as to who does or does not belong in the kingdom of heaven.

Today’s parables are no less shocking, in particular the one about the field. Again, because the parable is so familiar and because we are so used to hearing it in the context of the parable of the pearl, we hear it in the positive sense of giving up everything for the sake of the kingdom. In so doing, we miss the blatant immorality of the parable and give no thought to the possibility that the one buying the field is enriching himself – potentially at the expense of another. Selling everything in order to achieve the kingdom might seem to be a noble action but even in today’s society, buying property without disclosing information regarding its true worth would be regarded as devious and self-seeking. 

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44).

In the ancient world burying treasure or items of value was a common practice – especially in the context of war and exile. It was not unusual for the person who hid the treasure to forget where they hid it, to die without sharing its location or to be in a position from which they never returned home. Ownership of found treasure was a matter for discussion among the rabbis which suggests that it was not an unusual circumstance.

In the case of the parable, it is clear that the treasure does not rightfully belong to the finder and that the finder buys the field with the intention to deceive – why else would he hide the treasure having found it? As Crossan points out: “If the treasure belongs to the finder, then buying the land is unnecessary. But if the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust.” This is not the only issue that the parable raises. In order to purchase the field, the finders sells all that he has an action that potentially leaves him impoverished. He may have the treasure but in all likelihood,  he cannot use it[1]. What then does the treasure have to do with the kingdom?

Scholars like Crossan and Scott believe that the key word in the parable is “joy”. They suggest that there is a lawlessness to joy, to the kingdom, something that disrupts the normal flow of events, a force which is freely given and distributed, but which cannot then be constrained or refrained. (Think of the sower who throws the seed with wild abandon – heedless as to where it might land and how it might – or might not – grow.) No thought is given to the recipient of the treasure. There is no test of character, no limits placed on the use of the gift. The seed is thrown, the treasure brought to our attention, whether the recipient deserves it or not.  It is, they suggest, the very “lawlessness”, the unexpected nature of the treasure-finding that means that it has the capacity to both bring joy and to corrupt.

Here is the sting. The idea that the kingdom has the power to corrupt pulls us up short. If it is the kingdom of God, how can it be anything but pure and moral and yet the examples with which I began indicate that that it is possible for the weak to be seduced by the gifts and the power of the Spirit and to use them for their own ends rather than for the advancement of the kingdom. 

The parable may tell us about giving up everything to achieve the kingdom, but this seems too self-evident. It is more likely that Jesus tells it to shock his listeners out of their complacency, to challenge their beliefs that God’s gifts are given only to the deserving, to undermine their desire to see only the positive aspects of God’s gifts and most importantly, to warn us against relying on our own egos rather than being totally dependent on the presence of God with us.

The kingdom of God is like treasure – once it is given, God does not demand it back. Be careful how you use it. 

[1] We have to remember that this is not a true story. There are a lot of unanswered questions – if the man does not own the field, what is he doing digging in it? If he is there legitimately as a day-labourer or a slave, what can he possibly have to sell?  

Leaving it up to God

July 18, 2020

Pentecost 7 – 2020

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Marian Free

In the name of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust and causes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good. Amen.

The events of recent times – Covid 19 and “Black Lives Matter” – have brought out both the best and the worst in human nature and have revealed deep divisions in our society and more particularly in that of the United States. To give one example, the legislated wearing of face masks seems to have touched a deep chord in the people who are objecting to the ruling. In Florida, an enquiry into the legislation heard the most extraordinary, and emotive reasons as to why the wearing of masks was, among other things, satanic. Passions are running so high on this subject that in the United States people have been spat on, a man has been charged with making terrorist threats and woman who was asked to wear a mask in a store began throwing her groceries everywhere. In Gosford in Australia, friends of mine were rudely told to remove their face masks by a young passer-by. These reactions, though unpleasant, pale into insignificance compared with the young bus driver in France who was hauled from his bus and kicked to death simply for asking four passengers to comply with the requirement to wear masks.

The pandemic has exposed vastly different attitudes to authority, competing interests with regard to health and to the economy and opposing views about the nature of freedom. At the extremes of some of these positions are people who are so convinced that they alone are right, so threatened by change, so worried about the impact on their personal freedom that they are taking matters into their own hands with, as we have seen, tragic results. 

In these difficult times, differences and divisions between different elements of society are highlighted and exaggerated leading to parochialism and partisanship. People are divided into them and us with “them” being everyone who holds a different view or behaves differently from ourselves. 

Parables such as the one I have just read play right into this tendency to divide society into those who agree with us and those who do not, those who hold our faith and those who don’t, those who are rigid adherents of the law and those who are not. The way that this parable is usually understood  – thanks to Matthew’s addition of an interpretation – can lead to self-satisfaction on the one hand and condemnation of the other on the other hand. If we are wheat (which of course we are!) then those who are different from ourselves must be weeds and by definition must be destined for destruction.

However, as Rosemary reminded us last week, Jesus’ parables are primarily about the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven). They are not about us. 

I have said on many occasions that parables are not neat and self-explanatory (as Matthew’s interpretations suggest). Jesus doesn’t tell parables to affirm the way we see the world but rather to challenge our preconceptions, to shake us up and to move us to a new way of thinking. In other words, rather than confirm our world view, Jesus tries to help us to view the world from another, completely different perspective – that of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Take today’s parable for example – the sower is not, as might be expected, a poor share farmer, a day-laborer or a slave but a householder. We learn that the sower owns both land and slaves. Jesus’ audience would have pricked up their ears. Why, they would have thought, didn’t the householder delegate the task of sowing to his slaves? This is not the only aspect of the story that would have jarred with common practice or experience. Jesus listeners might have wondered why an enemy would plant darnel – a weed so commonplace that it would most likely have sprung up by itself and why would the householder instruct the slaves to leave it to grow when good agricultural practice would have been to weed the crop? You certainly wouldn’t allow these weeds to grow – the seeds of darnel are poisonous. Harvesting the plants together would have risked mixing the two thereby making the wheat worthless.

What to us, who are so far removed from first century Palestine, seems like a possible scenario, would, to Jesus’ listeners, have been a reversal of normal practice – slaves plant the seeds and crops are weeded as necessary. In the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus suggests, the good and bad exist together – separated only at the harvest.

Left to stand alone the parable exemplifies the complexity of human existence and the fact that Christians and non-Christians alike comprise the good and the bad, the saintly and the unsaintly, those with open and receptive hearts and those who are narrow and mean-spirited. Discerning who belongs in which camp can be as difficult as determining which is wheat and which is weed. As individuals and as community, we represent the breadth and depth of human experience and of human behaviour – the best and the worst together. 

The point of the parable seems to be this – that the world and its people are full of complexities, and it is not up to us to make distinctions based on our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. Only God can truly discern the purposes of our heart. Only God can recognize what has made us who and what we are. Only God is in a position to determine who is good and who is not. Judgement will happen in its own time and without our intervention. 

If the wheat and the tares are left to grow together, if the good and the bad in ourselves and others are part of the reality of our existence and if rooting out the bad has the potential to damage the good, then perhaps the lesson is that we should be more gentle with ourselves and more understanding and compassionate of others.

Above all, in today’s turbulent times, perhaps we should humbly mind our own business and leave to God the matter of judgement. 

The profligacy of God

July 11, 2020

Pentecost 6 – 2020

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who created the universe from nothing and whose boundless generosity is strewn with wild abandon throughout the world. Amen.

The parable of the sower is something of a golden oldie. Almost from our first encounter with church we learn this story and its interpretation. The imagery is graphic and simple – weeds choking, sun burning and birds eating. It makes a great Sunday School lesson. Children can be presented with pictures of seeds landing in bad or indifferent places and growing or not growing as a result. They can be encouraged to think about what sort of soil they might be and made to feel guilty because they are not disciplined enough, not brave enough.

This is a problem which not helped by the attached interpretation which is found in all three gospels – which draws our attention away from the sower to where the seed lands. However, when we are distracted by the soil – good, bad and indifferent, we fail to be astounded by the randomness – some would say thoughtlessness – of the thrower. In other words, concentrating on where the seed falls leads to our focussing on ourselves – on the state of our own spiritual ground instead of looking to where the seed comes from.  We find ourselves wondering about the state of our spiritual lives and, in the worst-case scenario, having judged ourselves we turn outwards and judge others. (Which of us represents the seeds on the path, the seeds on the rocks or the seed among thorns?) How often have we in the church thought to ourselves or out loud, that the reason that our churches are empty is because everyone else has become distracted by the cares of the world? 

Interestingly, scholars generally agree that the interpretation of the parable is a later addition – an explanation added by the early church to provide justification for the indifference of non-believers or the lack of courage or failure of commitment on the part of some who had come to faith but fallen away. This interpretation could be used to affirm members of the believing community, who could, as a consequence of their steadfastness, consider themselves to be the good soil.

Parables were, by and large, intended to stand alone. They usually said something unusual or shocking that challenged a traditional way of thinking and forced the listener to consider the world in a new way or to change their conventional way of thinking. (Think for example of the parable of the Good Samaritan – a contradiction in terms for a self-respecting first century Jew. There was no such thing as a Samaritan who was good.) The point of a parable came in the unexpected “sting” or surprise at the end – a mustard seed that becomes a tree, a farmer that sells everything for one pearl.

Further support for this argument lies in the fact that parables are usually intended to tell us something about God or about the kingdom of God. Most parables begin: “The kingdom of God is like …” To make this parable about the seed and the soil is to make the parable about ourselves rather than about God. It leads us to dwell on ourselves and our reaction to the word of God rather than directing us to consider the action and nature of God – an action that is wildly extravagant and which stands in stark contrast to the action of a careful, prudent first century farmer[1]

According to the parable, the sower tosses scarce and precious seed with gay abandon; is utterly heedless as to where it might land and gives no thought as to the condition of the ground where it might fall or the waste that might result. This sower, it appears, is not fixated on the final crop, nor is the sower concerned about giving each individual seed the best chance of growing and producing fruit. Rather, this sower seems to be more anxious that the seed is spread as widely and generously as possible – regardless of where it might fall and whether or not it will be able take root and grow. Here’s the point though – what seems extraordinary and rash to a prudent farmer is not as foolish as it seems – the crop that results from such carelessness is not pitiful it is enormous! The seed that does take root and grow produces grain in abundance – one hundredfold, sixtyfold and thirtyfold! 

The significance of such a crop would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience. In first century Palestine the expectation would have been that a crop would produce sevenfold – tenfold at best. Even thirtyfold would have been an amazing result, 60 would have been extraordinary and 100 would have been simply unbelievable. 

When we concentrate primarily on the interpretation of the parable – the seed and the soil – we are tempted to make the parable about us, to become self-absorbed and mean spirited, seeing primarily ourselves and our various reactions to God’s words and God’s actions as the point of the parable.

When we take our focus off the ground and place it on the sower where it belongs, we are forced to be less egocentric and less concerned about how we, or anyone else reacts to the word of God. Paying attention to the parable rather than to the interpretation enables us to see the wanton extravagance of God and God’s confidence that God’s word – spread without thought and without restraint will land on good soil, will take root and will produce abundantly.

The challenge of today’s gospel is to stop navel-gazing and to turn our attention outwards to the boundless, senseless, heedless profligacy of God.  

[1] There are more technical reasons to believe that the interpretation is a later addition, in particular the fact that the structure of the interpretation does not match the structure of the parable.

Not dancing or mourning

July 4, 2020

Pentecost 5 – 2020

Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Marian Free

In the name of God who defies all our expectations. Amen.

In February 2006 a woman at a University bus stop in Brisbane was left face down in her own vomit for 5 ½ hours. Delmae Barton, an internationally renowned opera singer had been on her way to work when she had a stroke and a mild heart attack. For five and half hours she lay in 35 degree heat while people walked around and past her and even sat in the bus-stop beside her. Not one of up to a thousand commuters or one of several bus drivers thought to call an ambulance and not one person stopped to offer help. Finally, two Japanese men stopped and asked if she needed help and offered her a glass of water.

Delmae was well-dressed and was on her way to a university job which in most circumstances would have given her respect and status on campus, if not in the broader community. She was well-educated, well-travelled and well-regarded, and she was left to die in broad daylight, in a public place frequented by many people. It seems unbelievable, until you realise that Delmae is aboriginal and that the colour of her skin led people to assume that she was drunk – apparently a good enough reason not to offer assistance or even to ask if she was OK. 

Like most university campuses, this one is off the beaten track. There was no reason to think that anyone would be there unless they were related to the university – whether students or staff – but it seems that no one stopped to think of that. Those who chose not to assist Delmae were blinded by their prejudices and their stereotypical images of first nation people. They could not imagine that the person lying in front of them was a university lecturer. They were unable to see her as a fellow human being, let alone as a woman of stature in Australian society. 

The colour of Delmae’s skin led passers-by to make assumptions about her condition and those assumptions freed them from any sense of responsibility towards her.

Expectations and stereotypes are not limited to people of different races or cultures. We are all guilty of categorising those who are different from ourselves and of placing realistic and unrealistic expectations on groups of people. Stereotypes free us from thinking and allow us to make broad generalisations that may or may not fit anyone in a particular group, let alone each individual person. 

Stereotypes simplify our lives and are useful when they help us to understand people and cultures that are different from ourselves, but they also confine and limit those people to specific roles and behaviours and can prevent us from seeing each person as an individual in their own right and from understanding that for every person who fits the stereotype there is another who does not. 

It is this all too human tendency to classify and stereotype that Jesus is challenging in today’s gospel. “This generation”, presumably Jesus’ fellow countrymen and women, seem unable to recognise either John the Baptist or Jesus for who they are – people sent by God, whether prophet or anointed one. John’s austerity is associated with demon possession and Jesus’ more relaxed behaviour leads him to be called a glutton. Both have been characterised, demonised and rejected on the basis of one aspect of their behaviour – their attitude to food and drink. Neither, it appears fit their generation’s expectation of a saviour – whatever that was. 

In all likelihood, Jesus’ contemporaries would have had great difficulty identifying him. As the parable suggests they would not have recognised Jesus as God’s anointed if he had been less like them and they didn’t recognise Jesus because he was too much like one of them. John was too different for them to relate to and Jesus was too ordinary to be seen as someone extraordinary.

Jesus is making is clear that he is in a lose-lose situation. No matter how he behaves, no matter what he does, he will not meet the expectations of his contemporaries. Even Jesus’ followers will need the benefit of hindsight to see that Jesus’ teaching and actions were consistent with God’s promises. 

You and I can trawl through the scriptures and locate all the references relating to how God will work or will be revealed in the world and we will not be able to pin them down to one or even two possibilities. This is because God refuses to be categorised or restricted. The very nature of God is that God cannot be pinned down or confined by human imaginations. No matter how creative or free-thinking we are, God will always beyond our horizons. We will catch glimpses of God’s presence from time to time, but never be able to fully grasp the enormity or the awesomeness of God. 

Jesus’ condemnation of his generation is a warning to us – a reminder that our understanding is always limited and that however much we think we know there is always more to know. We cannot afford to be complacent, nor can we afford to stop exploring and searching – for this is a journey that has no end point except death. God will always be just beyond our reach until we are finally face-to- face. Until that time our task to retain an openness to God’s presence in the most unlikely people and places. Through prayer and contemplation, we must let go of our stereotypes and expectations and allow God to be God and not who or what we think God to be. Or else we will play the flute and be disappointed that God does not dance, or wail and be frustrated that God does not mourn and we will miss the fact that God has been right there in front of us all the time.

Who gets the water?

June 27, 2020

Pentecost 4 – 2020

Matthew 10:40-42

Marian Free

In the name of God who empowers us with the Holy Spirit to be Jesus’ presence in the world. Amen.

Matthew concludes his ‘missionary discourse’ with a rather confusing and apparently disconnected set of sayings. I have to confess that I have always found this passage difficult and disconcerting. Chapter 10 is primarily about Jesus’ sending out of the disciples, his instructions to them and his warnings as to what they might expect from the world. Suddenly, at the end of the chapter, it appears that Jesus is addressing a different audience: “Whoever” and he introduces prophets, righteous ones and little ones when he had been speaking about the disciples. 

For me, the confusion lies both in Jesus change of direction, and also in the way that the passage is usually interpreted. As the Collect for today suggests: “O God, your Son has taught us that those who give a cup of water in his name will not lose their reward: create in us generosity of heart, that we might share our bounty with others,” the last verse in particular is interpreted as an exhortation to extend generosity to others. Generosity towards others, particularly the poor can be interpreted as generosity towards Jesus (see for example, Harrington, 154)[1]. But that is not how the passage reads. If the four sayings are a whole, then the last verse, as the first, must relate to the disciples not to an undefined “little one”. The cup of water must be offered to a disciple, not to the poor.

If we take the sayings in order, it is clear that the first phrase “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me” refers to the disciples (or to the twelve) – those whom Jesus has “sent out” at the beginning of this discourse. In the final line, the “whoever gives a cup a water” must refer to the “whoever” and of the first line and the “you” must be the same “you” of that line. In verse 40, the “whoever” is the party whom Jesus is now addressing and the “you” refers to the disciples. In other words, Jesus is referring to the generosity that people can and should offer to the disciples and not to what the disciples might or might not do for others! 

Mark uses the phrase about the cup of water in a completely different context, but he makes it very explicit that the disciples receive (not give) the water: “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mk 9:41). 

This is why I find the passage disconcerting. The usual direction of generosity is reversed. Instead of the disciples giving relief to others, they are the recipients of generosity. Further, these statements undermine our understanding that discipleship is about service. They suggest instead that discipleship is about being honoured, respected and served.

Puzzles such as this cause us to be grateful for the scholarship of others. Luz points out that first four sentences have the same form and that key words are repeated (up to six times as in the case of “received”)[2]. This makes it clear that that the last three verses elaborate on the “you” of the first verse. We know that Jesus has been addressing the disciples which tells us that they are the “you” about whom speaks. This means that the “prophets”, “the righteous ones” and “the little ones” all refer to the disciples whom Jesus has sent. The actions described are the actions that the “receivers”, the “welcomers”, and the “givers” do towards or for  the disciples – not the actions that the disciples themselves engage in. 

As the disciples are Jesus’ representatives, the way in which people respond to them is indicative of their response to Jesus. The way in which they respond to Jesus determines their response to God and their place in the kingdom (their reward).

Here the gospel writer (or Jesus) employs a Rabbinic principle: a person’s representative is like the person himself (sic). Receiving the representative is the same as receiving the person.  Further, both the person and his/her representative may share the same fate. This principle is particularly pronounced in the gospel of John – “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).  Jesus’ identification with God is replicated in the disciples’ representation of Jesus and Jesus’ fate is the fate that the disciples can expect. Perhaps more importantly, John’s gospel makes it very clear that judgement is not related to good or bad behaviour but is determined by a person’s response to Jesus (and therefore to Jesus’ disciples).

Here in Matthew, we have one of the few instances of a parallel with the fourth gospel. The one sent (the disciple) is to be seen as the representative of the one who sends (Jesus) and the treatment received by the one sent (disciple) is a reflection of the esteem in which the sender (Jesus) is held and of the relationship between the one receiving the message and the sender (Jesus). In other words, the way in which a person receives a disciple is indicative of their relationship with God. If the disciples are received as if they are Jesus, a prophet, a righteous person or a little one (a member of Matthew’s community (Mt 18)) the one who receives them, welcomes them or gives them sustenance is thereby demonstrating their positive (or negative) response to the gospel. A positive reaction to the disciples and to their message indicates a positive relationship with God and the “rewards” are the benefits (including eternal life) that devolve from that relationship. 

The primary point of the passage then, is not generosity – either towards the poor, or towards the disciples. The primary point of the passage is the reception (or not) of the message – spread first by Jesus and then by the disciples. The chapter begins with Jesus’ sending out of the disciples and concludes by alerting those to whom they take the message that they will be judged by how they receive it and how they react towards those who bring it. 

[1] Harrington, Daniel, J. S. J. The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

[2] Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20. Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2001, 119f.

Graduation speech?

June 20, 2020

Pentecost 3 – 2020

Matthew 10:24-39

Marian Free

In the name of God Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

In 2015, the actor Robert de Niro addressed the graduands at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Commencement ceremony. He began by saying: “Tisch graduates you made it and you’ve had it.[1]

The speech in full is available on Youtube. This is an excerpt.

“You’ve had it. The graduates from the College of Nursing, they all have jobs. The graduates from the College of Dentistry – fully employed. The Leonard Stern graduates of Business Studies, they’re covered. The School of Medicine graduates, each one will get a job.

Where does that leave you? Jealous? I doubt it. Those accountants they all had a choice. I suspect they used reason, logic and common sense to give them a career that would give them stability. Reason, logic and common sense at the Tisch School of Arts? – are you kidding me? But you didn’t have a choice did you. When it comes to the Arts common sense doesn’t come into it. You have a talent; a passion and you chose to pursue it.

“That’s not a bad place to start. Your place is clear – not easy, but clear. A new door is opening for you, a door to a lifetime of rejection. How do you cope? I hear that Valium and Vicodin block the pain, but you don’t want to block the pain too much – without the pain what would we talk about?” 

“Rejection may sting but my feeling is that very often it has nothing to do with you. You have to be true to yourself. I presume you didn’t pick this life because you thought it would be easy. Don’t be afraid to fail. Take chances, you have to be bold and go out there. You are not responsible for the whole project, only your part in it. You learn to trust each other and depend on each other, because you are all in this together.”

It would only take a little adaptation to turn de Niro’s words into Jesus’ graduation speech to his disciples. There are two major differences. One is that I am not entirely sure that the disciples chose their path. Sure, they have followed Jesus willingly – but he asked them, not the other way around. The second is that the Tisch graduates (judged by their wholehearted laughter) have some idea that the way ahead will not be easy – and may in fact be extraordinarily difficult.

Today’s gospel continues that begun last week – Jesus’ sending out of the disciples. Last week Jesus provided a list of instructions to the twelve – what not to take and where not to go. If these instructions weren’t daunting enough, Jesus continues by informing the disciples what they might expect. Up until now, I imagine, the disciples will have been caught up in the excitement and novelty of being followers of Jesus, with little to no thought that it might be dangerous or costly. Jesus teaching may have in parts been difficult, even harsh, but there has, up until now, been little hint that the path that they have chosen will lead to persecution or to the cross. 

And now – just before Jesus sends them out on their own – he spells out the consequences of following him. Graduates of the Tisch School of Arts might face unemployment and rejection. Disciples of Jesus can expect to be handed over to the authorities, betrayed by their own families and hated by all. They must even be prepared to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake. 

I can’t help wondering if the disciples realised that this was what they had signed up for. In fact, did they think that they had signed up for anything at all? And, even if the twelve had made a choice, if they had signed up for discipleship, did they really know what it entailed? Did they understand that one day Jesus would simply send them out (on their own) into a hostile world – a world of hatred and rejection, a world filled with violence and persecution, a world that would turn its back on them and which might even put them to death? I suspect that this was all news to them. 

At that point, I would not be surprised to discover that the disciples were frozen in fear, unable to go forwards or backwards. Our Arts graduates have their talent and their passion to fall back on. The disciples had no such resources. Only Matthew could be considered to have been a “man of the world”, someone who knew how cruel and unforgiving it could be. Thankfully, Jesus’ warnings are interspersed with assurances. Despite promising the disciples that he has come to set “a man against his father and a daughter against her mother” Jesus insists that they need not be afraid because their very association with him is the protection and strength that they will need. He may not be able to keep the disciples from harm, but he can assure them that when they are at a loss for something to say, the Spirit of the Father will speak through them. Their lives may be at risk, but Jesus can give them the affirmation that their lives are of such value that even the hairs of their head are all counted.  Jesus doesn’t promise that it will be easy, but he does promise that even if they lose their lives they will find them.

In the light of this passage, Jesus’ “graduation speech” we may all have to reconsider our understanding of discipleship. If we had thought that following Jesus comprised conformity to a code of behaviour and a peaceful coexistence with our fellow human beings, then – this passage tells us – we are very much mistaken. Jesus has come not to bring peace but a sword. His very presence was divisive and confrontational, and he expects that our presence will extract the same reaction. Where there is injustice, we are called to confront it. Where there is oppression, we are called to challenge it. When people are excluded, marginalised or stereotyped because of their race, religion, colour, gender or sexuality; we are called to stand for and with them whatever it may cost.

Disciples of Christ – you are done for! Wherever you go from here may be dangerous and frightening. It may cost you your family, your friends and your life! In the end, though, it does not depend entirely on you. You are not alone, and you are not “responsible for the whole project.” With other disciples of Christ, you are in this together and you are supported and upheld and given voice by the Spirit of the Father. 

The way ahead may not be easy, but in the end, would you have made any other choice?

[1] Not his word. He used a word that got attention, but which I didn’t feel I should repeat.

Taking Responsibility

June 13, 2020

Pentecost 2 – 2020

Matthew 9:35-10:8 

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls, equips and sends us into the world. Amen.

A number of you will have received and returned the Parish Survey – thank you. The Wardens wanted to get a sense of your expectations as we prepare to re-open the church for public worship. If you have completed the survey you will know that most of the questions are quite straightforward – where you are most comfortable worshipping, how you have found the isolation, what are you most looking forward to when you return and how you see St Augustine’s (what does it mean to you). I imagine that no one had difficulty with any of these questions and, from the answers we have received so far, it is clear that a majority of people have been reasonably happy with what we have been doing in the past and are keen to resume face-to-face worship in much the same way as it was before.

After answering the more general questions you might have been caught by surprise (as I confess, I was) when it came to the last statement on the survey: My vision for my spiritual future looks like:…. Most of the other questions were somewhat general and impersonal. They allowed us to place responsibility for the life of the Parish elsewhere: on the Parish Council or on the ministry team. But, as I read it, this last statement asked us to take responsibility for ourselves and for our own spiritual journey. “My vision for my spiritual journey.  The statement challenged us to reflect on our own spiritual health, to consider whether or not it will look any different in the future and, if we think it will look different, what we are going to have to do to make that future a reality. 

It is a quite confronting and even demanding statement, especially for traditional Anglicans who are not used to articulating their inner experiences or sharing their spiritual practices with others. It is a reminder too, that in the end it is we as individuals (not the Parish as a whole) who will have to answer to God for the way in which we have responded or not to the presence of God within us. As members of this Parish we may have to justify how we have or have not built the Kingdom of God in this place, but how we do that will depend in part on how we have responded to God’s call in us.

In the end how we move forward as a community depends not on the Ministry Team or the Parish Council, but on each one of us. Together we make up the congregation of St Augustine’s or of the Parishes of which we are a part. Our individual spiritual health contributes to the health of the congregation as a whole. Our commitment to grow in our faith and to develop good spiritual practices will in turn ensure the health of our Parish. The depth of our relationship with God and with each other will be a sign of hope in the wider community which will in turn draw others to faith.

Taking responsibility is at the heart of today’s gospel. Jesus sends the disciples out to do the very things that he has been doing: “preaching the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and casting out demons”. Jesus “sends them”. He doesn’t go with them to ensure that they get it right. He doesn’t give them explicit instructions as to what to do or what to say. In fact, he sends them out with very little – except their faith in him and his confidence in them. Jesus trusts his relationship with them and theirs with him. His mission and its future depends absolutely on his ability to trust the disciples to take responsibility for the healing, life-giving good news that he himself proclaimed. 

So, Jesus sends them out – on their own. He doesn’t go with the disciples and hold their hands. He doesn’t hand them a script and expect them to follow it word-for-word. He doesn’t give them a check list that they have to tick off. He doesn’t look over their shoulders to ensure that they are getting it right. Jesus simply sends them out believing that they are up to the task while he himself gets on with his own teaching and proclaiming. 

We know that the disciples were a mixed collection of foolish, ambitious, cautious (even cowardly) men yet Jesus has complete confidence that they are up to the task and the disciples, despite their human frailty, trusted Jesus (or the Holy Spirit that Jesus bestowed on them) to empower and lead them to complete the mission they had been given. 

So, it is with us. Jesus gives us the responsibility to trust that the Holy Spirit that each of us received at our baptism will lead, inspire, direct and encourage us to complete our mission – in our life as a community and in our individual spiritual lives. Jesus will not give us a detailed list of instructions or a specific road map of the way ahead. He won’t continually check up on us but will treat us as adults as people who have their own agency and their own free will to respond to his call on our lives and to carry out the mission to which he has assigned them.

It is somewhat unnerving I admit. The future is not clearly spelt out for us, it is not written down step by step. It will simply unfold as we continue to place our trust in Jesus and in Jesus’ trust in us. 

If you found the last statement in our survey confronting or challenging that is not necessarily surprising. Our spiritual future is something of an open book – one that is dependent in part on God’s plan for our lives, but one that will not come to fruition unless we continue to place our trust in God and to place our lives entirely in God’s hands. 

One God

June 6, 2020

Trinity Sunday – 2020
Matthew 28:16-20

Marian Free

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

There is a wonderful scene in a movie adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The story is set in Mexico in the 1930’s in a time when Catholicism was banned. An unorthodox priest and the socialist police officer who captures him forge an odd friendship and each in different ways is redeemed. One day over lunch the lieutenant challenges the priest to explain the Trinity. There are three bottles of wine in the basket and, from memory, the priest explains that the wine in the bottles is the same wine even though it is in different bottles. The next morning, when the priest awakes, he is overcome with guilt because the bottle he designated as the Holy Spirit was the one from which the two had drunk thus implying that the Spirit was somehow lesser.

Today we celebrate one of the key feast days of the Church – Trinity Sunday – and yet it is not announced with the colour of Pentecost, the excitement of Easter or the wonder of Christmas. How many of you are present today because you are fired up by the Trinity? Too often in fact the subject matter is skirted over, ignored, or, as my father used to bemoan, simplified to the point of heresy.

The problem is, that when it comes to the Trinity, most of us feel awkward and inarticulate, not up to the task of expressing what we are told (or what we know) to be true. Without necessarily understanding, some of us are able to intuit the threeness of the Godhead, others accept the idea that God is three and God is one because that is their faith, and others come up with poor analogies that don’t really do justice to the concept but in general most of us are aware that we can’t adequately put what we think and feel into words. This is distressing because the Trinitarian nature of the Christian God is what sets us apart from other religions and gives us the richness of understanding God as community. It is sad reflection on who we are because we assert that God is one and God is three and yet most of us find ourselves in a position where we simply cannot explain the Trinity to the curious or defend it against the sceptical.

In the last four years I have had the good fortune to stumble on two books that have helped me to really make sense of the Trinity. When I read The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr , I experienced a clarity that had eluded me until then. As the poem with which the book begins says in part:
“One is Alone
Not love
Two is at best
Face-to Face
but never community
Three Face-to-Face-to-Face
love for the Other and for the Other’s love
A fourth is created
Ever-loved and loving” .
God as community invites each one of us to be a part of that community. Extraordinary as it seems, if God is community, we are included in the divine energy that is God.

This year I came across the book, The Trinity, how not to be a heretic by Professor Stephen Bullivant from St Mary’s University London. I highly recommend it . Bullivant expresses his grief that the Trinity, the central doctrine of the Christian faith, is one that no one (catechists, priests, pastors, Sunday School teachers, theology students, online evangelists) ever talks about. It is, he says, passed over in silence and ignored as something that Christians supposedly cannot, and are not meant to understand (loc 127).

Yet, “the doctrine of the Trinity did not arise out of speculation about God” or from “philosophical thinking” but rather “out of the effort to digest real historical experiences” (Joseph Ratzinger, quoted loc 383). In other words, the Trinity is a concept that tries to capture the fact that the early Christians experienced God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and used the terms interchangeably and unselfconsciously, without in any way splitting God into three. For example, at Jesus’ baptism God and the Holy Spirit are also present. In the Gospel of John Jesus claims that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father, and that he (or the Father) will send the Spirit. In chapter 8 of Romans Paul refers to the Father, Lord (or Jesus) and the Holy Spirit in such a way that it is clear that he thinks of them as one and the same .

While the Trinity is a unique Christian doctrine, and while it is important that we should not read the Christian experience back into the Old Testament, it can be argued that the Old Testament revelation of God is not singular. Within the very first chapter, God refers to Godself in the plural: “Let us make humankind in our own image” (Gen 1:26). In chapter 18 of Genesis the Lord appears to Abraham in the form of three men, but Abraham addresses them in the singular, “My Lord”. In the Book of Proverbs Wisdom is both separate from God and yet is God and throughout the Old Testament there are references to the Spirit. God is experienced as Lord, as Wisdom and as Spirit without any hint that there are three Gods.

The Trinity then is not a complicated formula devised by theologians or philosophers in their ivory towers, but a word that sums up the lived experience of the early Christians, captures the ways in which God was known in the Old Testament and expresses our own intuition of who and what God is.

Bullivant suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity very simply boils down to three, core Christian convictions:
“1. There is only one God,
2. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God,
3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not the same.”

So, it is not that hard. When you are challenged, or when you want to share your faith in the Trinity you simply have to explain your experience which is corresponds with that of the early believers and which echoes the experience of the Old Testament writers – that is:
“1. There is only one God,
2. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God,
3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not the same.”

Have a wonderful Trinity Sunday and may the Trinity be the God whom you unselfconsciously and confidently know and proclaim.


%d bloggers like this: