If we truly trust God, we can trust God with our doubts

January 13, 2018

Epiphany 2 – 2018

John 1:43-51 (Some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose shoulders are broad and who will not turn a doubter away. Amen.

My father did not tell many jokes and those he did tell, he told over and over again. One that I particularly remember was about an Irishman named Paddy. Paddy was a Council worker who was working with a group of men on a road outside a village. It was a hot day and at lunchtime the group sent Paddy into the village to buy some beer. Paddy got to the pub and ordered the beer. The publican asked where he was going to put it. Paddy thought for a minute, took off his hat and said: “Put it in here.” The publican filled the hat, but there was not enough room for all the beer. He asked Paddy where he would put the rest. “No problems,” said Paddy as he swiftly turned the hat over so that the remaining beer could be poured into the crown of the hat. Walking very carefully so as not to spill the beer, Paddy made his way back to his workmates. Seeing the beer in the crown of Paddy’s hat, his astonished workmates asked him if that was all that he got for the money they had given him. “Of course not,” said Paddy, as he turned his hat over once again.

Of course, today we are careful not to cause offense and we avoid making jokes that are based on country of origin, gender and hair colour or any other stereotype. In the past though every nation and subgroup had their jokes about other cultures or sub-cultures. (Apparently if you were in France you would tell my Father’s joke but substitute a Belgian for an Irishman and so.) One of the ways that we use to set ourselves apart or distinguish ourselves from others is to demean or to make jokes about them. If Irishmen/Belgians/New Zealanders are foolish then by inference the person telling the joke is not.

In first century Palestine, a person might tell jokes about the Galileans – those unsophisticated yokels from up north who knew little to nothing of the real world. That helps us to understand Nathanael’s response to Philip. Nathanael reports that: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” To which Nathanael replies: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathaniel can be forgiven his skepticism. Nazareth was, archeologists think, a village of 2-300 people (and no I didn’t leave off a zero). Nazareth consisted of 40-60 families at the most. These families lived in limestone caves that dotted the hillsides (and which form warrens under modern-day Nazareth). It was extremely unlikely that anyone of any note would emerge from such an environment – let alone the long-expected Christ. Nazareth was close to many significant Roman cities including Sepharis. Nathaniel came from Bethsaida which like Capernaum was a fishing village whose residents lived in stone homes, not holes in the ground. From his point of view Nazareth, and anyone who came from Nazareth was not deserving of any attention.

Undeterred by Nathaniel’s disbelief, Philip insists that Nathaniel come and see Jesus for himself. Instead of berating Nathaniel for his doubt, Jesus commends him for his honesty – “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

There is a tendency among some Christians to believe that doubt is the antithesis of faith, that doubt suggests disbelief or a failure to truly trust in God. Those who doubt sometimes feel guilty or are made to feel guilty by those who claim certainty. Others (afraid that any form of doubt will bring the castle of belief tumbling down) hold on to their certainty in the face of evidence that contradicts all that they hold dear. They dare not ask questions or allow others to ask questions for fear that that will lead to other questions. Their confidence in God and in themselves seems to be insufficient to allow even the smallest doubt to put a chink in their armour.

The results of a closed, unquestioning faith are manifold. People who cannot or will not ask questions are sometimes left holding conflicting ideas in tension, are forced to defend positions that science has proved to be untenable or are placed in a situation that can both stultifying and stagnant. Their faith cannot grow in part because it is too weak to withstand the rigor of challenge.

Perhaps what is worst of all is that those who are too anxious to question their faith demonstrate, not their trust in God, but their fear of God. They hold on to a belief that God demands unquestioning loyalty and obedience. They are afraid that at any sign of doubt God will cast them out of God’s presence. This attitude leads to an unhealthy and often dishonest relationship with God. Someone who is afraid to question God may bury his or her discontent (because one can’t question what God does or doesn’t do), accept the unacceptable without demur (because it is God’s will) and explain away any inconsistencies with platitudes that may or may not provide real satisfaction (because everything has to be accepted on faith). This attitude can lead to a relationship with God that is constrained and limited and which, as a result, fails to benefit from the sort of relationship that benefits from honesty, from robust discussion and seeking to grow through exploration.

Jesus’ reaction to Nathaniel’s doubt demonstrates that rather than dismissing those who ask questions, Jesus/God embraces and responds to them. From the time of Adam and Eve, through Abraham, Moses and the prophets, God has made it clear that God seeks to be in a strong, honest and real relationship with God’s people. God has broad shoulders and is not easily offended or put out – certainly not to the extent of casting people off. Nathaniel’s reaction to Jesus’ acceptance was to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus’ reaction to Thomas’s doubt was to provide him with the answer that he sought. Thomas’s reaction was to worship Jesus as: “Lord and God”.

Like human relationships, our relationship with God must be built on mutual trust, a willingness to say what we think and the sort of confidence in each other that allows us to work through any difficulties.

If we truly trust God, then we must know that we can trust God with our doubts.

 

 

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Temporary happiness or eternal joy?

January 6, 2018

Baptism of Jesus – 2018

Mark 1:4-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks us to place our trust in God and to know our true worth. Amen.

There is a great gulf between what we are being promised by the commercial world and what we actually receive. One example is the advertisements for L’Oreal products in which a beautiful and rich woman encourages other women to buy their products because “we are worth it”. I understand that the advertising company is challenging a view held by many women that they shouldn’t put themselves first. The question is – does spending more on beauty products really improve a person’s feelings of self-worth. Or perhaps more important, does the use of beauty products make a person – woman or man – more worthwhile than they were before they used the product?

Another example is an advertisement I saw last week for a (supposedly) impressive four-wheel drive. Apparently, if you own this car you can get away with doing just about anything. In the advertisement the mother of young adult daughters attends a rock concert with them and causes them great mortification by crowd-surfing. The by-line is: “if you have nothing to lose you can do anything.” The connection between owning the car and having nothing to lose escapes me. Presumably, other people will be so impressed by what you drive that they will not think any the less of you if you do something that is immature, crazy or just fun. At the same time, the advertisement suggests, if you own this car you will free to do whatever you like and will never be embarrassed. Both advertisements have sensed – presumably correctly – that most people want to feel good about themselves. People want to know that they have value and credibility in the eyes of others. But does owning a better car, a more powerful car, a more prestigious car really help a person overcome feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt? If underlying feelings of failure and powerlessness are not addressed, no car, not matter how powerful will fill the void.

Advertisements, knowing our insecurities, focus on externals – the image that we can create if we use or buy their product. They suggest that simply by purchasing or applying their product that we can change our state of mind – become more confident, be more respected, have more authority or generally feel better about ourselves.

In the commercial world there is no place for inner strength, inner beauty or the self-confidence that comes from being at peace with yourself. Yet we all know that our identity has nothing to do with externals. Who we are is not defined by what is on the surface – how we look or what we own – but by our character, our relationships with others and by our inner strengths and resources.

What set Jesus apart – as we will see over and over again – was that Jesus did not feel a need to prove himself. He didn’t need external signs of power to make people sit up and take notice of him; he didn’t need to be richer or faster than everyone else to know his true value and worth. He didn’t need to set himself apart from his contemporaries to give the impression that he was better than them. Jesus appears to have had an inner confidence in his abilities and his sense of his own worth such that he did not need to be bolstered by what he owned or by what other people thought. Jesus’ belief in his own self-worth meant that he didn’t to seek affirmation or validation by jumping off cliffs or turning stones into bread. It was Jesus’ self-confidence and inner strength that allowed him to ignore the criticisms of the authorities of his day – not the fact that he owned the latest chariot. It was Jesus’ compassion and understanding that drew the crowds to him – not the fact that he was wearing designer clothes. It was Jesus’ personal resilience and inner resources that enabled him to make the journey to the cross – not the way in which his beard was trimmed. Jesus didn’t need any external prop to make him feel strong and invincible.

It was because Jesus knew who he was and where he was going that he felt free to seek John’s baptism of repentance. Having nothing to prove and nothing hide, Jesus didn’t have to feel self-conscious or embarrassed when he lined up with everyone else to repent. Jesus was happy in his now body and comfortably with his humanity. Another person might have been too proud or too independent to submit to such a ritual, but not so Jesus whose humility came from a sense of self that was sufficiently strong to ignore the games of power and outward appearance and to resist the social pressure to conform to the expectations of others.

The commercial world offers us products that promise to make us feel stronger, better, brighter, richer, more attractive or in some way better than our neighbour. The gospel gives us assurances of inner peace, joy and security, assurances of our own worth and our worth in God’s eyes – riches beyond our wildest desires. The gospel remind us that we are all of equal value before God. If we choose to buy into the values of the world in which case we will never feel that we have enough. If we choose the values of the kingdom we will have all that we need and more. The choice is ours – temporary fixes or lasting change, external signs of worth or inner certainty, temporary happiness or eternal joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subversive and counter-cultural (politically correct)

December 30, 2017

Christmas 1 – 2017

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who does not discriminate, but who values each one of us just as we are. Amen.

What is sometimes disparagingly called “political correctness” has the ability to put some people’s teeth on edge. Yet if read or watch historical dramas like Jane Austin or The Duchess we are be reminded of the powerlessness of women and children in past eras. Or if we watch crime shows or read detective novels we can see how vulnerable and dependent the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled are and how much they depend on the goodness (or lack thereof) of others. Such reminders help us to understand that what some people refer to disparagingly as political correctness is in fact an attempt to build a more equitable and compassionate society that values the contribution and value of all its members not simply those who meet some predetermined standard. Today most of us would recoil in horror to hear someone called a “black” or a “spastic” or a “mongoloid”. Such terms are dehumanizing and discriminatory and they deny the individuality and personality of those so labeled. A majority of people today recognise that all people deserve to be regarded with dignity and respect regardless of their level of ability, their occupation, their race or religion. Unfortunately societal norms can be so ingrained and so unconscious that they can be hard to identify let alone alter. At times societal pressure and even legislation has to be brought to bear to bring about lasting change in values and attitudes.

I mentioned last week that Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth in completely different ways. We can look in vain for the magi in Luke and will have no success if we search for the shepherds in Matthew. No only is the content of the story different in the two gospels, but the way in which the authors relate the story is quite different. A characteristic of Luke is his use of doublets and his juxtaposition of male and female characters. For example, the parable of the lost sheep is placed side by side with the parable of the lost coin – two stories of the lost, in the first the kingdom of God is likened to a shepherd and in the second to a woman.

Both of these techniques are evident from the very beginning of the gospel. Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth is paralleled with that of John the Baptist. The announcement to Zechariah is paralleled with the announcement to Mary and Mary’s hymn matches the hymn of Zechariah. The two stories contrast in ways that make the parallels more obvious. Elizabeth is old and barren whereas Mary is young and presumably at her most fertile. Zechariah receives the news from the angel with skepticism whereas Mary accepts that God can do what God intends. Zechariah and Elizabeth are from priestly families whereas Mary (and Joseph) appear to be of more humble origins.

In today’s gospel another couple are juxtaposed – Simeon and Anna. Both are old, both have prophetic gifts and both respond to the presence of Jesus by making a public pronouncement regarding his identity and his role. From the beginning, Luke is happy to give to women the same authority and prophetic role as men. Mary, not Joseph is the significant character in Jesus’ life, Elizabeth recognises Mary as the mother of her Lord, and Anna proclaims to all who will listen that Jesus is the one who will redeem Israel.

Luke makes it clear that women, as well as men play a significant part in the Jesus’ story. Without labouring the point, Luke also makes it clear that Jesus’ family have no obvious status or wealth but exist on the economic margins of society. Zechariah is a priest; Joseph (we discover later) is a carpenter. Jesus is born in a stable and his first visitors are not exotic men from the east, but shepherds who have no position in society and little income to speak of. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the Temple, instead of offering a sheep as stipulated by Leviticus, they offer two turtle-doves (a concession made for those who are poor).

Through his juxtaposition of men and women, priest and layperson and through his positioning of Jesus among the poor, Luke makes it clear from the very beginning that the gospel is for everyone – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, the pillars of society and those on the fringes. As such the third gospel is perhaps the most inclusive of all the gospels as well as the most subversive and counter-cultural.

In Luke’s gospel the poor are privileged and the rich are castigated, women play an important role and Jesus himself is situated among the poor, their story is his story. Using today’s terminology, Luke could be accused of being politically correct – of giving dignity and honour in equal measure to all members of society in defiance of the societal norms of his time.

Luke’s record of Jesus’ origins are a reminder that we are called not to fit in with the world around us, but to critique it – to stand apart from the crowd by working for justice, trying to create a society that is welcoming and inclusive of difference and by showing compassion and understanding towards the vulnerable in our midst and to those who are on the fringes of our society. The gospel challenges us to expose and not to protect the elite and the powerful, to confront exploitation and abuse, and to challenge the miss-use of power and the oppression of the weak.

In other words, in his account of Jesus’ birth and infancy, Luke challenges us to put ourselves in God’s place and to see the world from the point of view of one who came not as a powerful warrior, a harsh judge or a despotic ruler, but as a helpless, vulnerable infant who could be put to sleep in a manger and held in the arms of Simeon and who identified with the poor and the helpless, stood with women and children, welcomed the marginalised and the outcast and who brought hope to the hopeless.

What is God asking you to do?

December 23, 2017

Advent 4 – 2017 

Luke 1:28-38

Marian Free

 In the name of God for whom nothing is impossible. Amen.

 If you read the beginnings of the four gospels, you will notice some substantial differences. For example, Mark launches straight into an account of Jesus’ ministry: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Mark is not interested in where Jesus has come from, but only in what he has done and what it means for those who believe. The gospel attributed to John is cosmic in breadth and poetic in expression. Jesus is identified as the Word who coexisted with God from the beginning of time and who, in fact, is God. The author of John’s gospel is not interested in Jesus’ earthly birth and childhood, only in his divine origin.

If we want to discover anything about Jesus’ human history, we have to rely on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately they are not reliable sources. Their accounts of Jesus’ birth have at least as many differences as they have similarities. Luke has much more detail than Matthew making his account nearly twice as long. Even the style is different. Luke’s is rather like an overture to an opera, two of the main characters burst into song. Matthew’s account is more sedate and includes to fewer details.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph, not Mary plays the central role. It is to Joseph that the angel appears and it is Joseph who is informed that the child is to be called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins). Joseph makes no protest and asks no questions, but simply does as the angel has commanded. There is no census, no crowded city and no manger. We are simply informed that Joseph formally married Mary and that he didn’t consummate the marriage until after the birth of the infant. We are to assume from this that Joseph and Mary were already in Bethlehem. (Jesus only goes to Nazareth because after Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt they learn that it will not be safe to return to Bethlehem.)

Joseph plays only a supporting role in Luke’s version of events. In fact, we are half way through the story before Joseph appears and then he is only mentioned as the means by which Mary gets from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary takes centre stage here. The angel (named) appears to Mary (in person, not in a dream) and tells her that she is favoured in God’s sight. Mary is informed that she will bear a son who will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Unlike Joseph who simply accepts the angles word and responds immediately, Mary reasons with the angel (reasoned is a better translation than “pondered”), and she challenges him: “How can this be?” It is only when the angel reminds Mary that nothing is impossible with God that Mary acquiesces to God’s plan.

After Jesus’ birth, the gospel writers again present two quite different scenarios. According to Matthew the magi come from the east following a star and bringing exotic gifts. From the way in which Matthew tells the story, we can infer that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s hometown. And from Herod’s over reaction we can guess that by then Jesus was about two years old. In place of the magi Luke records the appearance of the angels to the shepherds who visit the newly born Jesus in the stable.

Both Matthew and Luke are determined to show that Jesus didn’t simply emerge from nowhere. They make it clear that from his birth Jesus was set apart as God’s anointed. Not surprisingly, the way in which the gospel writers tell the story reflects their different interests and different audiences. Matthew wants to make it clear to his readers that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises. He also wants to demonstrate that the new community of faith is the true Israel. Those who believe in Jesus cannot be considered a breakaway sect because they exist in continuity with all that has gone before. In Matthew’s account, Joseph has dreams as does his namesake in Genesis, Mary’s pregnancy and the gifts brought by the magi fulfill events predicted by Isaiah and Bethlehem is the place where according the Old Testament, the King of Jews, God’s anointed one was to be born.

Whereas Matthew is writing for an audience that is primarily Jewish, Luke is writing to a largely Gentile readership. Luke’s audience knows that they are not Israel – new or otherwise. They are more interested in the power of the God revealed in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. This God, Luke tells them, can achieve the impossible and can create something out of nothing. Other characteristics of the Lukan author are evident in his account of Jesus’ birth – his interest in contextualizing the story against the events of the time, and his concern with the poor. It is important for Luke to ground Jesus in the history of the time, so (even though he gets both the date and the ruler wrong, Luke connects the birth of Jesus with the census ordered by Quirinius in 6CE). Mary’s hymn affirms that the “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. It is uneducated shepherds with no resources who are the first to worship the infant Jesus.

All of this is interesting and we could spend much more time examining the differences between all four gospels and exploring the reasons why they emphasise different aspects of the beginning of Jesus’ story. But these are not quaint stories written so that we can exercise our brain. They are stories of faith and as such they continue to speak to and challenge us today.

Joseph and Mary are ordinary people going about their ordinary business when an angel bursts into their lives and demands that they trust God and that they join God in a grand and costly adventure. The response of Mary and Joseph force us to consider:

Is our relationship with God deep enough and intimate enough that we are able to recognise the voice of God when God speaks to us?

And if we do hear:

Is our trust in God strong enough and confident enough that we are able to believe that God will empower us with the courage and skills we need when God asks us to do the seemingly impossible?

And if we do trust:

Is our faith robust enough and important enough to us that we are comfortable with the idea of taking risks and not worrying what others might say about us?

In their different ways, Mary and Joseph answered God’s call to bring Jesus to birth. Are we paying attention, are we aware of God’s presence and if so, are we ready and willing to respond to God’s call?

Who are you??

December 16, 2017

Advent 3 – 2017

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who cannot and will not be contained on constrained by our limited understanding. Amen.

 

Renae [1] and I have had an interesting week. I have been introducing her to people whom I visit. Among other things we discovered that not everyone is clear about the role of a curate or a Deacon. For example, one person asked Renae if she was going to be ordained, and another, despite our protestations to the contrary, continued to believe that Renae was my daughter. At one point this person commented how much Renae looked like me; at which point I realised that it was foolish to argue any longer!

Two of today’s readings are about identity – the identity of the prophetic voice in Isaiah and the identity of John the Witness. In relation to John the Witness, those who came to ask who he was, already had made up some guesses as to who he was. If those whom Rosemary and I visited were not troubled by dementia, a conversation between Rosemary and someone who knows a little about her might go like this:

Your maiden name is Solomon. That’s an unusual name, are you related to Peter Solomon? (No, I’m not.)

Solomon is a Jewish sounding name – do you have a Jewish ancestry? (No not at all!)

I guess that if you are a Deacon that you are expecting to become a priest. (Comment)

(If we already know some details about Renae – that she is a woman, a wife and a mother, that she has a Bachelor degrees in Arts and Theology, we might use our preconceptions and stereotypes about these roles and qualifications to fill out our picture of her. In the end, we might have a reasonable amount of information, but we wouldn’t really know her at all.)

It is all too easy to make mistakes or to draw conclusions about a person’s identity on the basis of very little information. Most of us are guilty of drawing conclusions about someone based on first impressions and most of us at some time, uses stereotypes to categorise someone because it saves time and makes life easier than trying to process a lot of information.

The conversation between the priests and Levites and John bears some similarities to that which I have just had with Renae in that it tries to fill out some very limited details by asking simplistic, stereotypical questions. That John is baptizing people in the river Jordan has become known in Jerusalem. In order to maintain their relationship with the Roman occupiers, the Jewish authorities have some responsibility for keeping the peace. They are keen to know whether John poses a threat to the stability of the region or whether his popularity threatens to unsettle their place and their status among the Jews. In short they want to know if John was simply calling the people to repentance or whether he was using his charisma to de-stabilise Temple worship and the priesthood. Was he stirring up the people to call for change or was he simply urging them to repent and to deepen their relationship with God. The former was dangerous but the latter was harmless.

The authorities didn’t go out to the Jordan themselves; they delegated the task to priests and Levites. John’s interrogators are stumped, they want him to fit into a preexisting category: the anointed one, Elijah or a prophet. John is none of these, but because his interrogators can only see the world through one lens, they ask the same question three times: “Who are you? What then? and Who are you?”

John does not fit into any of their boxes. His responses are all negative. He is not the anointed one, he is not Elijah and he is not the prophet. John knows that in and of himself he is nothing; his role is simply to point the way to someone else. He points to Jesus, to the light, to the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for another. In the end we only learn what John is not, however his responses have reassured his questioners, they return to Jerusalem confident that he is not going to form a revolutionary movement that will upset the delicate balance of power.

John’s gospel is not interested in John the Baptist. The author of John is more interested in John who bears Witness to Jesus. John the Baptist is the wild man of the Synoptic gospels who preaches repentance, addresses the crowds as vipers and warns that Jesus will come with a winnowing fork in his hand and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John the Witness is a peaceable, mild-mannered holy man whose spirituality draws people to him and leads them to seek baptism, John the Witness points forward to Jesus. He does not draw attention to himself.

The readings during Advent challenge us to pay attention – to the presence of God in and around us, in people and in creation and in the unexpected surprises in our day. Paying attention demands that we take time to focus, to notice details that would usually escape us and to celebrate God in our lives.

This week we are challenged to pay more attention to people whom we know or whom we think we know. Who are they really? What are their hopes and dreams? We are encouraged to ask ourselves: Do we allow the people around us to really be themselves or do we expect them to conform to our preconceived ideas? Have we boxed them in, restricted them to particular roles or fitted them into pre-existing stereotypes that are limiting and confusing? John didn’t fit the categories into which the priests and Levites tried to place him but so long as he didn’t cause trouble they were content to let him be.

There are no images or types that are able to contain Jesus the Christ. We must be careful to pay attention and try to adjust focus so that when Jesus is right in front of us we will not make the mistake of thinking that he is something or someone else.

This Advent, pay attention, keep awake, be alert. Allow God to stretch and challenge your way of thinking about God. Open yourself to new and different possibilities and experiences of the divine, because only then will you be ready when God in Jesus catches you by surprise.

 

[1] Renae was ordained as a Deacon two weeks ago and has begun working with us as a Curate.

Promise and threat

December 9, 2017

Advent 2 – 2017

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Amen.

Isaiah calls out to those in exile:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God has charged Isaiah with a message of assurance for the Israelites. The time of their banishment has ended. Soon they will be able to return to their homes. What is more, a road will be prepared for them so that they do not encounter too many obstacles on their way. Isaiah declared that despite all that their forebears have done, despite their present anxieties and fears, God has not forgotten them. During their exile the Israelites have recognised their dependence on God and God, who observed their remorse had sent the prophet with words of comfort and hope.

Centuries later, the author of Mark’s gospel used these same words more as a threat than a promise. John the Baptist did not offer words of assurance but rather insisted that the people: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Instead of offering comfort to a suffering people, John demanded that the people admit and repent of their sins, that they turn their lives around in order to make the path clear for the coming of God.

Isaiah reassured the people that God had forgiven their transgressions and would come to them and will comfort them. In contrast John the Baptist warned the people to seek forgiveness for their transgressions because God was coming among them.

In Mark the words of Isaiah are applied to a different time and place. Whereas the Israelites in exile needed to hear words of comfort and reassurance, the people of the first century needed to be confronted and challenged. The exile had given the Israelites plenty of time to think about the past and to long for their relationship with God to be restored, whereas the situation of the 1st century had allowed them to once again become complacent. It was true that the Romans had occupied the land, but the Temple still stood and the people were free to worship and offer sacrifices without too much interference. Such freedoms however had come at a cost. The priests and leaders of the Israelites had accommodated themselves to the Roman occupation. They had made themselves comfortable with the present situation and they had made compromises that meant that they had lost the trust of the people and led others to believe that the Temple and its worship had become corrupted. They had lost sight of their need to trust in and depend on God to take care of all their needs. They felt that they were comfortable enough. They did not need a prophet to speak words of comfort. They needed to be challenged and confronted. They needed to be forced to consider what was really important – their own comfort or their relationship with God.

Isaiah offered comfort. John demanded repentance. Our scriptures are full of these kinds of contradictions: comfort and judgement, reassurance and challenge, compassion and rage. The different voices of our scriptures reflect the different situations into which they speak. There are times when the prophets need to censure the people of Israel, to remind them of their true calling and to bring them back to God. At other times, often when the people of Israel have been humbled and humiliated – the prophets need to speak words of reassurance and comfort, to reassure the people that God has seen their suffering and has not abandoned them.

The different voices of scripture speak to our own situations. There are times in our lives when we need to know God’s loving presence: when a loved one is dying, when we have lost our job or when our child comes up against an obstacle. At such times it is easy to recognise our dependence on God and to seek the comfort of God’s presence. There are times in our lives when everything seems to be going along smoothly, when we are at peace with the world around us. At such times it is easy to take God for granted, to lose sight of our dependence on God and to go our own way.

The contradictions that we find in scripture help us to seek the right balance between anxiety and complacency. Threats of judgement remind us that we cannot take our relationship with God for granted. Like any other relationship, our relationship with God can be damaged by neglect, by carelessness and disregard and when it is damaged we will experience the pain and heartache of being separated from God as if we really were in exile. Words of comfort provide us with hope in our moments of darkness and despair. They remind us that no matter how far we have strayed, God is constant and will never abandon us.

The tensions and contradictions in our scriptures serve to heighten our awareness of our relationship with God and encourage us to take stock of our lives. Words of judgement and calls to repentance remind us that there are consequences to pay for going our own way. Words of comfort provide strength and encouragement in those times when we are tempted to feel lost and alone.

This Advent, may the contradictions and tensions of our scriptures keep us on our toes, help us to focus on what is really important and prevent us from falling into the sort of complacency that allows us to neglect God and to forget how much God has done for us. May words of comfort not blind us to the need to be on the alert so that we are ready when Christ should come again.

Are you ready or will you be caught by surprise?

December 2, 2017

Advent 1 – 2017

Mark 13:24-37

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is always present and always coming to us. Amen.

 

Loud noise (cymbals, child crying). Bach’s Toccata

That got your attention didn’t it?

I love Advent. I love the sense of anticipation, the build up towards the coming of Jesus, the assurance of God’s love and the time to reflect on whether or not my relationship with God is such that I would know Jesus when he comes again. That said I always experience a sense of disquiet as we come to the end of the church year and the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of eager expectation, we might find ourselves experiencing a sense of dread and trepidation. Like me, you may have noticed that for the last few weeks we have been bombarded by Matthew’s parables of the end times. There was the parable of the foolish maidens whose lack of preparedness saw them locked out of the banquet, the parable of the servant who hid the money with which he was entrusted and who, as a result was cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and finally the parable of the sheep and the goats which concluded with the sheep being admitted to eternal life whereas the goats were sent to eternal punishment.

If that wasn’t enough, prior to that Matthew had warned his readers (and therefore us) about the suffering that would precede the end of the age and the need for watchfulness so that we would not be caught out when the Son of Man returned unexpectedly. We are constantly warned to be alert, awake and prepared so that the coming of Jesus will not catch us by surprise (1 Thess 5) and we are expected to live in such a way that we will be counted among the sheep and not the goats.

In today’s readings, Isaiah expresses a longing that God will rend the heavens and come down so violently that the mountains would quake at God’s presence. He begs God not to be exceedingly angry and not to remember our iniquity forever. Mark, quoting Zephaniah, tells us that at the coming of the Son of Man, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. When you add to these warnings and dire predictions the descriptions of the end found in Jeremiah and Joel and worst of all in Revelation, it is a wonder that we do not spend our days cowering in terror, desperately hoping that Jesus will not return anytime soon.

Such predictions of cosmic realignment, destruction, judgement and punishment are so vivid and dramatic that they have the potential to strike terror into our heart and to cause us to live in such a constant state of anxiety that we would never do or achieve anything. This in itself creates a problem because the parable of the talents warns us that being so fearful that we do nothing is not the solution. So where do we go from here? It seems that we cannot afford to be complacent or relaxed, but neither can we afford to live in a state of heightened anticipation or anxiety.

I wonder if the colorful and terrifying pictures of the end are designed not so much to cause us apprehension, but are intended to gain our attention, to keep us on our toes and to get us to focus on what is important. Through the writers of scripture God is trying to shake us out of our complacency, encourage us to think about the way we live and to ask ourselves whether we are really prepared for the experience of engaging with God face-to-face. Stars falling out of heaven and fire-breathing armies (Joel) are much more likely to penetrate our awareness and capture our imagination than God’s simply turning up unannounced.

The irony is, that despite the posturing and the ominous threats, despite the lurid and violent images that were associated with God’s coming, God defied all expectation and entered the world silently, anonymously and unobtrusively. Instead of wreaking utter destruction, God made Godself totally vulnerable and came among us as a new-born child. Instead of our finding ourselves at the mercy of God, we discovered that God had placed Godself entirely at our mercy. Instead of wreaking vengeance and destroying humanity, God placed Godself in a situation in which humanity could destroy God.

The contradiction between our expectations and the actual event of God’s coming among us gives us cause for thought, challenges us to pay more attention and encourages us to be more ready and more alert so that we are better equipped to notice and to recognise God’s presence in the world.

This Advent, take some time to look around you, to notice God in unexpected places, in surprising events and unusual people. In the next few weeks, try to be more aware of the world around you so that you are able to recognise God in God’s creation. Above all be alert, keep awake and be expectant so that God’s coming will not catch you unawares, but however subtle, however unusual God’s coming may be, it will not be beyond your capacity to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sheep or a goat? Which are you?

November 25, 2017

Christ the King – 2017

Matthew 25:31-end

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is who is present in the poor and the vulnerable. Amen.

 

One of the things that comes with the territory of being a priest is the requests for assistance. These can vary from food, to transport, to accommodation – even to storage facilities. Over the course of my ministry I have helped out with train and bus fares, food vouchers and even overnight stays in motels. On some occasions the person asking for assistance is mortified that they have come to this position, incredibly grateful for some help to get back on their feet and he or she never asks again. Others are experts at spinning yarns that tug on your heartstrings making it difficult to refuse help, or leaving you feeling guilty if you do. Some, sensing an opportunity, return over and over again until you wake up to their tactics (or are warned by someone else).

Even though I have a psychology degree, have staffed the Life Line phones and have worked at the relief centre at Inala it doesn’t make the situation any easier. I am sometimes caught up in a person’s story before I realise that it is full of holes and by then, often the only way to move them on is to go some way to meeting their request. The problem is made even more difficult by the fact that, as I have said, sometimes the person asking for help has a genuine and temporary issue – they have just moved house and having paid the bond, the removal costs and the reconnection costs, they don’t have anything left for food. Perhaps the case that makes it hardest for me to turn people away is that of the woman who turned up at 5pm on a wet Saturday afternoon. She had come to Brisbane with a boyfriend who had encouraged her return to her drug taking habits. Between them they had no money and in order to pay for accommodation out of the rain, the woman had been prostituting herself. What she wanted was one night’s sleep out of the rain. Reluctantly I organised a motel room and saw nothing more of the woman until, six months later when she passed the grounds as she was out walking. “Hi,” she said, “Are you the pastor?” When I said that I was she said: “I’m that woman you got a motel room for. I’ve ditched the boyfriend, given up the drugs and I’m in a really good space.” The implication was that my assistance had made a difference in her life.

How, and how much, to help others is a fraught issue. It is hard to know who to help and whether our help will really make a difference. Only those who are professionally trained know how to tell the person with genuine need over the person who is taking advantage of us. So when we are confronted with a gospel reading like today’s we can feel that we are in a cleft stick – we can’t do nothing, but we don’t know what’s the best thing to do.

The problem isn’t helped by the fact that twenty-first century Australia is vastly different from first century Palestine. In Jesus’ time widows, orphans and those with any form of illness or disability were utterly dependent on the kindness of others. In our day we pay our taxes to contribute to welfare payments and to public health care. We make donations to charities that provide aid to those who cannot afford to support themselves and their families. Our clothes and other unwanted goods are given to jumble or other organisations who ensure that they go to those in need.

In first century Palestine a great many people lived in villages. Everyone knew everyone. They knew the rogues who would try to exploit them and they knew who needed what. The charity offered may have been meagre but in most cases help was given directly from one person to another and the donor could see whether or not the money was wisely spent. In cities of a million people we are not intimately connected with the hungry and the thirsty, the naked and those in prison and it can be difficult to discern which charities make the best use of our money.

At the same time the inter-connectedness of our world means that we are bombarded on a daily basis with statistics about homelessness, information about people who fall through the welfare or health care cracks. On a world scale we are confronted by the refugee crisis of the Rohinga in Bangladesh, poverty in the Philippines and elsewhere, the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Sudan and countless other places. The scale of the problems can make them seem insurmountable. How can we possibly feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked and provide appropriate care to those in prison? Sometimes the vast scale of the problem can leave us frozen in indecision.

The problems faced by some people and by some families often seem beyond our capacity to make any kind of difference. There are some things that we can do. We can think carefully about how we spend our money (and about how much we really need for ourselves). We can try to be generous with what we do have. We can endeavour to spend our charity dollars wisely and where the need seems to be greatest. In this great and wealthy nation we can use our democratic freedoms to create a just, compassionate and generous society that takes responsibility for its most vulnerable members and that strives to support nations and people who are weighed down by corruption, overwhelmed by poverty, natural disaster and disease or held in the grip of war and violence financially and through other means.

“Come you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me.” Sometimes the poor come to us, when they do not, we must find ways to reach out to them.

Wisdom and courage, tent pegs and deception,

November 18, 2017

Pentecost 24 – 2017

Judges 4:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who has made us all, male and female, in God’s image. Amen.

When you get home today you might like to try the following exercise: Make a list of all the biblical characters that you can think of (named and unnamed) and then divide the list into men and women. I would be very surprised if your list of men was not much longer (maybe three times as long) as your list of women. There are at least three reasons why this might be so. Firstly, with some notable exceptions, both the New and the Old Testament are set in the context of a patriarchal society. This means that by and large, women have no role in public life. Secondly, so far as we know the bible was written by men who will have seen life from the perspective of their own gender. Thirdly, for the last two thousand years the bible has been interpreted by men who seem to have had a blind spot regarding the place of women in biblical history.

Our reading from Judges today is evidence that not only did women play a part in our history, but that the role that they played was far from insignificant. When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land they were governed by judges. One of those judges was a woman – Deborah. We know nothing about Deborah except these tantalising ten verses and the song that she sings in chapter 5. Deborah is both a judge and a prophet and, it seems, a woman of authority and influence, courage and vision. Deborah summons Barak (a warrior) to inform him that God wants him to go out against the Canaanites. For reasons that are not clear, Barak is unwilling to act on the word of God unless Deborah (a woman and a prophet – not a soldier) goes out with him. Deborah agrees to do so but warns Barak that the victory will bring no credit to him for God will give Sisera (the commander of the Canaanite army) into the hand of a woman.

You have to read to end of the chapter to see how the story plays out and to discover that it is another courageous and, in this case, canny woman who ensures that Israel triumphs against the Canaanites. Sisera flees to the land of Heber the Kenite where he expects sanctuary because Heber is at peace with the King of Canaan. Jael, Heber’s wife, invites Sisera into her tent on the pretext of providing him with protection. She lets him lie down, gives him milk to drink and covers him with a rug. Exhausted, Sisera falls asleep. Then Jael takes a tent-peg and drives it through Sisera’s head with such force that it nails his head to the ground.

There are other, less violent stories that tell of the significant role that women played in the history of Israel. The Israelites survived their captivity in Egypt because the midwives Puah and Shiphrah defied Pharaoh’s order to kill the male children at birth. Miriam’s quick-wittedness saved the life of her brother Moses. Rahab hid the Israelites who had been sent in to spy out the land of Canaan thereby saving their lives. Esther became a queen and risked her own life to save the people of Israel from annihilation by exposing the evil intentions of Haman.

They may be few in number but among the women named (and unnamed) in the Old Testament there are prophets, warriors, queens, midwives, seers, victims, wives, concubines and daughters. In fact, it is possible that without their intervention, Israel might not have survived. By their courage, their faith, their wisdom or their resignation, all of the Old Testament women have something to teach us.

The New Testament too includes a number of significant women who played a vital role both in Jesus’ ministry and in the life of the early church. Woman accompanied Jesus on his travels and supported his ministry from their own finances. It is to the Samaritan woman that Jesus first reveals his identity and it is Martha who identifies Jesus as the Christ. Mary Magdalene is not only the first to see the risen Jesus and the first to proclaim the resurrection, but the gospel of John and later the gospel of Philip make it clear that she played a leading role in the life of the early church. Mary and Martha also appear to have held leadership positions in the community for whom John’s gospel was written.

During Jesus’ ministry, the woman from Syrophoenicia challenged his narrow viewpoint and caused Jesus to change his mind and the woman with the haemorrhage impressed Jesus with her faith. Jesus says of the woman who anointed him: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed what she has done will be told in memory of her.” The disciples abandoned Jesus, women followed him to the foot of the cross and in the early morning went to his tomb.

Paul’s letters inform us that women played a vital role in the early community. They were teachers, apostles and deacons, prophets and co-workers with Paul. Paul wrote to the Corinthians on the basis of a report by Chloe and he is concerned that Euodia and Syntyche end their disagreement, as they were his co-workers along with Clement. The book of Acts makes it clear that women were teachers, prophets and leaders of the early communities. Women such as Lydia hosted gatherings in their homes and Dorcas was known for her good works and generosity. The “elect lady” of John’s letters appears to be a leader in her community and the letters to Timothy single out his mother and grandmother for special mention.

The characters that populate our biblical stories are many and varied and in their stories we can find our own. Male or female we might identify with Peter’s impetuousness, Thomas’ courage, Jael’s cunning, Hannah’s despair, David’s sinfulness, Solomon’s wisdom, Tamar’s grief or Jephthah’s daughter’s resignation.

It is important that we have a balanced view of our biblical history. It is important that our daughters and our sons have both male and female role models in their faith journey and it is essential that all of us understand that our service of God is not limited by our gender, but only by our refusal to believe that God can and will use us in whatever way God chooses.

Taking it seriously

November 11, 2017

Pentecost 23 – 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God who has given us everything and to whom we owe everything in return. Amen.

My parents tell a story of my godmother Catherine. Neither Catherine nor her mother had any interest in cooking. Meals at their home generally consisted of meat and salad. On one occasion when my parents were staying with Catherine, my mother was making the dinner. When Catherine offered to help, mum asked her to stir the white sauce. Catherine couldn’t concentrate on the task. As a result the sauce was lumpy and inedible. When my mother asked why she hadn’t kept stirring, Catherine replied: “I didn’t think continuously meant that I had to stir it all the time.” Catherine had no commitment to cooking, so her approach was careless and lackadaisical with the result that the dinner was ruined.

I’m sure that you can think of many situations in which things don’t go as well as they could due to someone’s lack of commitment, their failure to think things through or their casual approach to the task or the event.

This morning’s parable is all about being fully engaged in the task at hand. It is, I think, one of the most confronting of all the parables. The shut door does not sit well with our image of Jesus as loving, forgiving and compassionate and I suspect that we all feel a chill at the possibility of Jesus slamming a door in our face.

It is essential that remember that this is a story not a real event. We don’t have to puzzle over details such as whether the markets would be open in the middle of the night or where exactly the girls were. We just have to take the story at face value. There are ten girls waiting for a bridegroom. Of the ten only five have thought to bring extra oil so that they can be sure to ready to greet the groom when he arrives.

We know very little of the marriage customs of Jesus’ time. Based on the practices of surrounding cultures we can assume that it was the practice of the groom to go to the bride’s home to negotiate the bride-price with the father. As this might involve a certain amount of haggling, the timing of the groom’s return home could not be determined with accuracy. Add to this the fact that the notion of time was quite fluid – “this evening” could mean anytime after sundown. The girls would have had no idea when to expect the groom. The groom was expected after dark as the girls had their lamps with them and their lamps were lit.

Five of the young women had extra oil and five did not. Even so, the reaction of the bridegroom appears to be harsh in the extreme. Five of the girls were foolish and ill prepared, but they were not bad. They had not broken the law or committed even a minor misdemeanour. I think that this is why the parable offends our sense of justice – the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. Surely mere foolishness is not enough to lead to such final and definitive exclusion?

In fact, foolishness is not the problem, neither, despite Matthew’s addition to the parable, is sleep. It is true that the five foolish virgins were not bad but they were thoughtless, careless and unfocussed. Theirs was an important responsibility, but they had not taken it seriously enough. They had one job and one job only – to greet the bridegroom and to lead him to his house, but when he arrived they were nowhere to be seen. Five of the girls had prepared for the eventuality that the groom would be delayed, but five had not. The first five had thought about the role and what it required and the others had not. The five foolish girls did not really have their heart in the task, they had taken their responsibility lightly and in so doing they have in effect shown their true colours and locked themselves out. Their actions (or rather their lack of action) demonstrated that they were only half-hearted about their involvement in the wedding, they were happy to be involved, but not willing to do what it took to take the role seriously.

A number of the parables point in this direction – that is they make it clear that it is not so much that God judges us, but that by our own inaction, our own carelessness or indifference we make it clear that we do not really want to belong. Take for example the parable of the man without the wedding garment: he was happy to come to the wedding but couldn’t be bothered dressing appropriately. The parable of the house on the rock and the house on the sand suggests that it is our decisions and our actions that determine how the future will play out. Whether we are invited in or locked out depends, at least in part, on how much we want to be included, on whether or not we are truly conscious of what a great privilege it is to have been chosen in the first instance.

Being good is not enough on its own. The parable shows that it is possible to be good but not attentive, to be good but not thoughtful, to be good but in some sense to be absent. Today’s reading from Joshua gives us some sense of what is required of us – to revere God and to serve God in sincerity and faithfulness – that is, to give ourselves completely and unreservedly, holding nothing back; not half-heartedly and superficially, distracted by worldly affairs.

Joshua’s challenge to the people of Israel rings out through every generation: “Chose this day whom you will serve” and having chosen: “Revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness – fully committed, totally focussed and completely engaged in our relationship with God – then and only then will we truly know God and know that God truly knows us.

 

 

 


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