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.

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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.

 

 

 

Forces for change

November 4, 2017

All Saints – 2017

Luther

Marian Free

 In the name of God who speaks through holy men and women in every place and time to challenge, encourage and renew the people and the church. Amen.

In the early sixteenth century in Germany, a monk of the Augustinian Order had been going through “hell”. Martin Luther was obsessed with his own sinfulness and the impossibility of remembering in his sins in order to confess them, anxious lest he forget and therefore not be forgiven. Trying to work out how to become righteous before God, Luther had tried all kinds of self-abasement – sleeping in the snow and lying almost naked in the belfry tower at night. Nothing seemed to work. Luther felt that he could never do enough to earn God’s favour. Luther could see only God the All Terrible, God the Judge, God the Divine Majesty, God the impossible to please.

Luther’s behaviour was extreme, but we have to remember the context in which he found himself. The Roman Catholic Church (THE Church) was focused on sin and judgement. The Doctrine of Purgatory was based on the idea that imperfection had no place in heaven, and that Christians had to be purged of all sinfulness before they could enter eternity. In purgatory all traces of impurity were burned away making a person fit for heaven. The greater the sin, the longer it took to purge, though prayers on someone’s behalf could reduce the time a person spent in purgatory. In such an environment it was impossible to believe in grace and forgiveness, love and goodness but only in demand and judgement, fear and anxiety about what the future might hold.

Indulgences provided an opportunity for the faithful to repent and thus to have their sin forgiven. The more sin forgiven, the less time spent in purgatory.[1] During the Crusades, indulgences were offered as a carrot to get people to join the Crusades. Over time, the practice spread and indulgences became something that could be purchased by the wealthy. A privileged few, included Luther’s own Prince Frederick, were given the authority to offer indulgences themselves thus increasing their own coffers.In this environment, Luther struggled to overcome his perceived sinfulness and achieve some sort of worth before God.

Luther was an academic and a teacher. In 1515-1516 he was teaching on the Psalms and Romans. This forced him to reflect – first of all on the suffering of Christ (God) and on Christ’s sense of abandonment on the cross, and secondly on the meaning of the righteousness of God.

In his own words: “I greatly longed to understand Pail’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience; I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped the justice of God is that the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the phrase “the righteousness of God had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ….

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.“[2]

In searching for the exact meaning of the Greek word “dikaisunē”, Luther came to understand that the word rendered “justice” in English, really meant the process by which sometimes a judge suspends the sentence, places the prisoner on parole and expresses confidence in him. (In other words it was less about being judged and more about being set free.) Further, Luther came to see that justification was not something achieved by the individual, but was God’s gift to us through Jesus. A consequence of this discovery meant that Luther was at last freed from his striving and his sense of inadequacy knowing himself secure in God’s love.

Through his study, Luther was exposed to the spirit of the age, which was demanding a return to a simple faith and in particular a reinstatement of the Bible as the sole source of authority for the faith. By now the Bible had been translated from Latin into the vernacular and many people were reading it in their own language for the first time. There was an air of renewal and reform throughout Europe, a desire to return to the heart of a Christian faith that had been over-laden with ritual, ceremony and artifacts and in which a person’s relationship with Jesus had been broken by intermediaries in the form of a plethora of saints.

In 1517, a monk, Johann Tetzel, began to sell indulgences in Germany with the goal of providing funds to renovate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now that he understood that salvation could not be bought, but came through faith alone Luther was incensed. He penned a response: “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” and, tradition has it, nailed his 95 Theses[3] to the door of the Castle Church. His ideas spread rapidly and it was not long before he was labeled a heretic, called to Rome and eventually excommunicated.

When at last he returned to Wittenberg, he discovered that his teachings and writings had galvanized a movement that was both theological and political. He himself had little to do with the movement but continued to write until his death.

Luther’s significance cannot be underestimated. His writings captured the spirit of the age and throughout Europe, reform movements sprang up and Protestantism was born. At the centre of this new movement were a firm belief in the Bible as the primary source of authority and that salvation cannot be achieved but only received.

While the Reformation took its own shape in England we as Anglicans heirs and beneficiaries of Luther’s intellect, wisdom and vision.

[1] The practice was, of course, open to corruption and could be used as a source of revenue not only for Rome, but for those whom Rome allowed to dispense indulgences themselves. In the words of the Article XXII of the Anglican Church “the doctrine concerning purgatory …. is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon not warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

[2] Bainton, R. Here I Stand – The Classic Biography of Martin Luther. Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1978, 65.

[3] http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

Knowing our past

October 28, 2017

Pentecost 21 2017

Reformation Sunday

Marian Free

In the name of God, who remains constant and unchanging despite changes and turmoil in the world. Amen.

Today the Lutheran Church and many other churches throughout the world are celebrating Reformation Sunday. This marks the closest Sunday to October 31, the date on which Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While this is a particularly significant date for Lutherans, it is important for us to remember that our own church was formed in the turmoil of the Reformation and the political and religious agendas that were swirling around at that time.

The church of the early 16th century was very different from the church of today. The Mass was said in Latin and the Bible translated into Latin – a language that only the educated could understand. Ceremony and sacraments threatened to override the place of scripture and many intellectuals expressed dissatisfaction with the corruption of the clergy and the doctrine of the church. The saints were worshipped as intermediaries between God and humanity and there was a steady stream of pilgrims to religious shrines and a healthy trade in relics. Priests were poorly educated, often corrupt and/or absent from their parishes and they and the church was losing the confidence of the populace.

For a number of reasons an anti-papal sentiment has been growing in England from the 1300s: the pope was based in France (England’s traditional enemy); the Inquisition and its attack on the Templars had caused disquiet in England where the order was held in some regard; the heavy taxes imposed by the pope funded military and political objectives that were contrary to those of England and, to add insult to injury, sometimes the pope appointed Italians clerics to English Parishes. So great was the resistance to the interference by the papacy that long before Henry thought of marry no Anne, at least 5 Acts of Parliament were introduced to curb its power.

On a political and intellectual front, these were times of great upheaval. The Medieval Age was coming to an end and Europe as a whole was in a state of flux. Nationalism was on the rise and the Holy Roman Empire existed in name only. It was not only in England that there was resentment against the heavy taxation imposed by the papacy. Nation states across Europe were dismayed that their wealth was going elsewhere. The rise of humanism was one aspect of the intellectual change that was sweeping the world. Among other things, humanism approached the bible from an intellectual point of view and humanists sought to discover and translate the original Greek and Hebrew texts. This along with the emphasis on individual thought inspired by the Renaissance, allowed the bible to be brought into questioned in a way that it hadn’t been.

As early as 1328, people like Wyclif had railed against corruption in the church, the wealth of the monasteries and the fact that there were two rival popes. His critique of the church included criticism of its doctrines including that of Transubstantiation. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English. This meant that it could be easily read by lay people. The development of the printing press meant that new ideas spread rapidly and the laity became better educated and able to think for themselves.

In 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses captured this spirit of the age and led to a variety of movements that challenged the authority of the pope, emphasised the authority of scripture and embraced the role of grace (not works) in salvation.

Henry XIII was born in this time of great turmoil and change. He was aware of what was happening in Germany and elsewhere, but had no sympathy for the Reformers. In fact, he was so little convinced by Luther’s political and religious ideas that he wrote a stinging attack on Luther’s view of the sacraments. Such was the conservatism of Henry’s view that the Pope bestowed on him the title “Defender of the Faith”.

Henry was a gifted scholar, sportsman, musician, poet and a devoted Christian, but he was egocentric and determined to have his own way. He was able to develop arguments to defend his point of view and thereby to salve any qualms of conscience he might have. Henry had received special dispensation from the Pope to marry his older brother’s wife. When that marriage failed to produce a living heir, Henry began to ask himself whether God was punishing him for his unorthodox marriage. Well before he fell in love with Anne, he was seeking ways to annul his marriage to Katharine.

Nullify was often a formality for the wealthy and influential but, because Henry had received special dispensation to marry Katharine, the matter was more complex than it might otherwise have been. Add to this that Katharine’s nephew was the King of France and the pope’s host, it is easy to see why the Pope was unable to come to a quick decision. Tiring of the prevarication and desperate to have an heir, Henry took things into his own hands. By nefarious means he deposed Cardinal Wolsey who was been negotiating with the pope then made the clergy carry the guilt for accepting Wolsey’s leadership. They could escape punishment for this trumped up crime if they accepted Henry as ‘Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and clergy’. This was a step too far, but a compromise was reached. Having cowed the clergy, Henry the played on the anti-clerical sentiment in Parliament to legitimately sever England from Rome and to make himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. A few more Acts of Parliament ensured that he was able to divorce Katharine and marry Anne.

In England then, the immediate cause behind the break with the Roman Catholic Church was political rather than religious, it was Henry’s son Edward under the tutelage of Archbishop Cranmer who really implemented the Reformation in England. Under Henry the doctrine of the church remained unchanged and the worship of the church was as it had always been. Towards the end of his life, Henry produced a number of Articles of Religion that quashed any hopes that he might have supported the European Reformation. He did encourage the translation of the Bible into English and insist that a Bible in Latin and English be provided in every Parish.

Knowing our history can be unsettling. It is important to remember that the church is a human institution, vulnerable to the pressures and influences of the times. The church that we hold so dear was born in a time of political, religious and intellectual turmoil and change and over nearly five hundred years it has remained largely unaffected by world affairs. We should not be too surprised if once again, buffeted by movements in the social, intellectual and political world around us and captive to the whims of strong and unyielding egos, the church is caught up once again in revolution and change. Whatever happens in the church and in the world, we can be sure of one thing – God will remain unchanged and unchanging and our faith is certain and secure.

In God’s image

October 21, 2017

 

Pentecost 20 – 2017

Matthew 22:15-end

Marian Free

In the name of God who is and was and ever more shall be. Amen.

According to Cambridge University: “Competitive debating is a fun activity akin to a game in which we examine ideas and policies with the aim of persuading people within an organised structure. It allows us to consider the world around us by thinking about different arguments, engaging with opposing views and speaking strategically[1].” The same website states that judges measure a good debater according to three criteria:

Content: What a person says and the arguments and examples he or she uses.
Style: How the debate is presented – that is the language and voice that is used.
Strategy: How well someone engages with the topic, responds to other people’s arguments and structure what they say.

At its best good debate is like a piece of theatre – full of drama, repartee, humor and a clever turn of phrase. Good debaters know how to put their point convincingly and how to expose the weaknesses of their opponent’s arguments. If they are particularly clever and astute, they may be able to throw the other team off course and force them team to put a foot wrong and thereby lose the debate.

Jesus often engaged in debate with those who opposed him. These debates were not for fun, but were serious affairs in which one or more persons tried to bring Jesus into disrepute in order to enhance their own status and honour. In today’s gospel three groups of people try to discredit Jesus through questions about politics, faith and the Jewish law.

First the Pharisees, assisted by the Herodians, come up with a question that they think will force Jesus into a corner. If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he will alienate the majority of his audience who resent the taxes exacted by Rome. On the other hand, if he states that the taxes should not be paid his challengers will have grounds to report him for sedition. Jesus appears to be in a lose-lose situation. Not so. Jesus refuses to fall for their trap. His response not only fails to give them what they want, but it also exposes their hypocrisy and their faithlessness.

Jesus then asks for a coin and one is readily produced. In a sense, by being in possession of a coin, his adversaries have answered their own question. The coin signifies identification with the Empire. The Herodians had publicly aligned themselves with the Romans, but the Pharisees, who prided themselves on keeping the law, should have refused to carry a coin engraved with an image of “Tiberius Caesar, August, son of the divine Augustus, high priest” – a graven image forbidden by the 10 Commandments. (Even if the coin belonged to an Herodian, the Pharisees would tainted by association.)

Jesus goes further and asks them a question: “Whose image[2] is this, and whose title?” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. )Too often, Jesus’ response here has been used to justify a separation of church and state which, at its extreme, allowed Christians to go along with or to ignore the policies of the Nazi state. What is at stake is more than an issue of earthly authority vs the authority of heaven[3].  The power of the Emperor is not a separate power from that of God. All heaven and earth are under God’s dominion; all powers and principalities are subordinate to the overarching authority and power that belongs to God. The image on the coin implies authority, power and divinity in this case for the Emperor. Paying taxes returns the coin to the Emperor whom it represents. If we give the coin to the Emperor, what do we give to God? What is it that bears God’s image. Humanity is made in the image of God and it is ourselves, our whole selves that we must return to God.

Jesus’ diversion with the coin was more than just a clever response to what was meant to be a difficult question. Jesus’ was confronting the Pharisees’ failure to live out their role as the image of God and to give to God what was God’s.

When the Sadducees saw that the Pharisees had failed to score a point against Jesus, they came up with a question of their own – one that related to a matter of belief. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They hoped to confuse Jesus with a complicated question about the resurrection. Jesus’ response showed that they were approaching the question from completely the wrong point of view. He reminded them that it was foolish to think of the resurrection in purely human terms.

In a final attempt to discredit Jesus, the Pharisees sent a lawyer with a question about a matter of the law. The Pharisees wanted to expose Jesus’ ignorance with regard to matters of the Jewish law. Which law was the greatest – that would be something only those who were students of the law might know. Jesus was not just some yokel from Galilee. He was politically astute; he knew the tenets of his faith and was well versed in the law. None of his opponents were able to trap or outsmart him.

Having proven himself Jesus turns the tables on his adversaries. He has a question. How can the Christ be both David’s son and David’s lord? They cannot of course and Jesus’ opponents slink away – defeated.

When we listen to accounts such as these that we allow ourselves a certain amount of smugness – the Pharisees and Sadducees were definitely in the wrong and on the wrong track, we think. We wouldn’t make that mistake. But I wonder about that: how often do we call God into question, try to pin God down or force God into a corner? How often do we pit our wills against God – seeking answers to questions that may be well beyond our ability to comprehend? How often do we enter into competition with God, trying to get God to prove Godself? In the final analysis perhaps that is the point of today’s gospel. It reminds us that contending with God is futile. The truth is that no matter how smart or how educated we are we simply cannot plumb the depths of God. There is so much that is beyond our comprehension. God is mysterious and complex and awe-inspiring. God cannot be contained or captured by slogans or simple formulas.

Jesus’ response to his challengers reveals two possible actions – we can accept and submit to God’s dominion and be a part of the kingdom or we can challenge or defy God’s sovereignty and thereby demonstrate that we want no part of the kingdom. We need to choose a side – do we stand with the Pharisees and with all who contest with God? or do we acknowledge God as our Lord and Jesus as our Saviour. There is always a choice let us be sure to make the right one.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] cus.org

[2] Note the Greek word “icon” is often translated as “head” which makes it more difficult to grasp Jesus’ meaning.

[3] Dennis Hamm and others

What to wear?

October 14, 2017

Pentecost 19 – 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God whose invitation to salvation is not one to be taken for granted but to be cherished and nurtured. Amen.

I don’t know if any of you have ever used the phrase: “I’ve got nothing to wear!” It is usually uttered with a mixture of exasperation and despair.  It doesn’t seem to matter how many clothes one has, there will be still be occasions on which nothing in the wardrobe seems to be appropriate. Going camping for the weekend, being invited to a cocktail party or going to the gym can create a wardrobe crisis. Weddings can be particularly stressful. One doesn’t want to wear a frock that has been worn to another wedding, or upstage the bridal party or the mother of the bride. Even though today’s world is much more flexible and dress codes are not always strictly adhered to, they can still be a cause for concern.

What to wear is at the heart the conclusion of today’s gospel.

Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet is very different from that of Luke. Luke has Jesus tell the parable at a dinner party in response to a guest’s statement: “Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God.” Matthew on the other hand places the parable in the context of Jesus’ dispute with the leaders of Israel. There are a number of other differences that make it clear that Matthew has had a hand in the re-telling. It is a king not a landowner who issues the invitation, a single servant becomes two sets of servants and the invitees not only refuse to come, but also kill those sent to bring them. Luke’s telling suggests that the banquet is happening in the present and it provides a justification for Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners. Matthews’ changes make it clear that he is indirectly condemning Israel for refusing to accept the invitation to the kingdom, making the Jewish leaders responsible for Jesus’ death and suggestion that the destruction of Jerusalem is a consequence of their stubborn refusal to believe that Jesus is the one sent by God.

While aspects of today’s parable are exaggerated for effect there are others that can be explained by the culture of the day. Issuing two invitations to an event was standard practice. The first invitation was to give people fair warning of the event, something like a “save the date” in today’s terms. Then, when the feast was ready to be served, the guests were informed that it was time to come. In this parable, it is the second invitation that is important. Slaves are sent to tell the guests that the feast is ready. Surprisingly, the guests, who should have been have been honoured to have received an invitation from the king, act as though it is a matter of no consequence. They don’t even offer excuses for their refusal to attend. They simply go about their business. One of the invitees is so disdainful of the invitation (and therefore of the king) that he takes the slaves, mistreats and kills them. No wonder the imaginary king is enraged. In a culture in which honour and shame are paramount, the first two invitees have shamed the king and the third has publicly shown his contempt. The only way that the king can reclaim his place in society and redress the wrong is to act and to act forcefully and this he does.

The audience might have been surprised by the casual and disrespectful attitude of those invited, but it is what the king does next that is truly shocking in their context. The king breaks the rules in more ways than one. Those originally invited would have been the wealthy members of the society, the elite, those with the sort of status that would make them not equal to the king, but at least on the rung just below the king. In the face of their refusal, a feast prepared and no guests to eat it, the king extends the invitation to everyone else – the good and the bad, the deserving and the undeserving, the poor and the marginalised. Jesus’ meaning is: those who were invited (members of the Jewish nation) have refused the invitation, so the invitation has been indiscriminately offered to everyone – the worthy and the unworthy – there is a banquet to be eaten after all.

So far so good – it is clear that Jesus is not so subtly attacking the leaders of Israel and making it clear that as Israel has refused to accept the invitation that he offered, the invitation will be extended to others. What makes this parable particularly difficult (and for some unpalatable) is the ending. Why would the king, who has issued an open invitation without qualification or exception now, not only cast out one of the guests, but cast that guest in the outer darkness simply because he has not dressed appropriately.

Only Matthew adds this second parable and some scholars consider that it is of Matthew’s making. It is certainly consistent with Matthew’s emphasis on judgement and on the separation of the good from the bad. The new guests are aware of the great honour that the king has bestowed upon them and most have dressed accordingly. One guest, however, has treated the invitation with disdain, taking it as his due, showing no deference or gratitude to his host, but rather insulting him with his cavalier and disrespectful attitude and his refusal to dress in a manner suitable for the occasion. By his own behaviour, he has demonstrated that he does not belong, indeed that he does not want to belong.

Matthew’s addition to the parable of the banquet appears to be aimed at his own congregation. It is a warning for them not to be smug, not to take for granted their place in the kingdom and not to be complacent about their eternal salvation. Like the guests in the parable they have done nothing to deserve their place at the table, they are there not because they deserve to be there, but because the host (God) has overlooked their shortcomings and their unworthiness because he doesn’t want his feast to go to waste – there is a gift that simply must be shared.

This second parable is a timely reminder to ask ourselves whether we believe that our salvation is our just reward or whether we understand that it is a gift from God? Whether we accept the blessing of the kingdom as our due or whether we are constantly in awe of the fact that God would consider us worthy of the honour. Are we clothed for eternity or does our attitude, our behaviour or simply our complacency or indifference suggest that we do not really belong or worse that we would rather be somewhere else?

Self preservation

October 7, 2017

Pentecost 18 – 2017

Matthew 21:33-46

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whom and with whom we have our being. Amen.

The annual Synod of the Diocese was held two weekends ago. There were not many controversial things on the agenda and only one piece of legislation to pass. One thing that absorbed a great deal of time was a presentation that is now a regular part of the Synod proceedings – the Diocesan statistics. Each year I (and every other priest) in the Diocese are obliged to provide information regarding how many people came to church in that year, how many were buried, married or baptised and so on. As you may guess from looking around, those numbers can be quite sobering. Only a few parishes in the Diocese are growing, many are remaining stable and a good few are declining in numbers.

The publication of these figures leads to a great deal of navel gazing and worrying about how we can halt the decline and build the church. I am a firm believer in being accountable and I think that it is important that we know how we are travelling, but I do worry that our concern is as much about self- preservation as it is about the future of the gospel, that worrying about our numbers makes us inward rather than outward focussed. Worse, I wonder whether we are so busy worrying about what is happening to the church and asking ourselves what we can do to maintain it, that we risk being unaware of that God might be doing something new, exciting and different. Alternatively, we are so inwardly focussed that anything new and exciting and different is seen not as a gift from God, but as something against we must protect our traditions and our structures.

Self-preservation certainly seems to be a concern of the Chief Priests, the elders, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus was seen as a threat and not a gift. He was unconventional and popular and nothing could convince them that he was God’s plan for the future of the church. Instead of welcoming Jesus as a gift from God, they closed ranks, trying to protect their position, their status and their authority – all of which required the church and its traditions to remain unchanged. Jesus represented a to the stability of the system that they were so carefully preserving.

Today’s gospel is set in the Temple. It is a small section of an ongoing dispute between Jesus and the chief priests and elders. They are worried that Jesus’ popularity and his refusal to maintain their traditions and are attempting to discredit and diminish him. Jesus turns the tables by telling the parable of the wicked tenants in order to expose their agenda. The parable likens the chief priests and elders to tenants who want to hold on to what they have at any cost. The leaders have forgotten that it was the landlord (God) who planted the vineyard, built the fence, installed the wine press and built a watchtower. The tenants, like the chief priests and elders have become so absorbed in themselves and their own roles, that they have lost sight of the fact that they are working in God’s vineyard. In the slaves and in the son, they see a threat to their comfortable existence, a threat that must be destroyed even though it has a legitimate claim on their attention.

In Jesus’ day the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees and elders have come to believe that responsibility for the vineyard (church) and for its future resides with them – that God has, in effect, abrogated all responsibility to them. They are so sure that they know what God wants that they cannot allow anyone (even Jesus) to unsettle the boat.

In 1182 in a small town in the north of Italy, Francis di Bernadone was born into the family of a wealthy merchant. Francis, like many rich young men of his day was something of a playboy and, influenced by the ideals of medieval chivalry, he longed to make a name for himself on the battlefield. His first foray into battle led to his imprisonment and his second was thwarted by an encounter with Christ that led him to spend time in prayer and to provide for the poor. Francis’ generosity and piety caused his Father such concern that he had him called before the Bishop’s court. Francis’ response was to strip naked. He was renouncing wealth, status and power and placing all his confidence in God.

Sometime later when Francis was praying in the ruins of a church, he heard the voice of Christ saying: “Build my church”. He understood that he was to spread the gospel to the world not to shore up the institution of the church. He began to preach anywhere and everywhere and, so compelling was his message, that within weeks he was joined by three other young men who within a short time became twelve. Francis did not need to accumulate goods, power or respect, he understood that he was doing God’s work and that his role was to tend the vines that God had planted, and to acknowledge that the growth belonged to God.

He and his companions wandered the countryside preaching the gospel to all who would listen. Because Francis had given up everything, he, unlike the leaders of the first century church had nothing to lose. Because he recognised the absolute sovereignty of God in his life, he was not threatened or intimidated by those who came to share his work in the vineyard, he did not need to take credit for his work, and he certainly had no need to refuse entry to others whom God sent. Francis’ complete and utter dependence on God freed him to serve God selflessly expecting no reward except the privilege of serving God. In direct contrast to the wicked tenants who represented the leaders of Jesus’ day, Francis recognised that everything came from God and that he owed everything to God.

As we watch in despair as our numbers decline, as we wonder what the future of the church will be, we do well to remember today’s parable – the church is not ours but God’s and that God can see a future for the gospel even if we cannot. In the 21st century, we may have to entertain the idea that once again we are being asked to give back to God what is God’s and that are being asked to recognise God in unexpected voices and unexpected people. The question we must ask ourselves is this: are we open to the possibility that God might be ready to do something different, or are we determined to hold on to what we have at any cost?

 


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