Seeing and being seen

January 18, 2020

Epiphany 2 – 202

John 1:29-42

 Marian Free

In the name of God who sees who we are and what we can do. Amen.

When I was at school, I found English composition particularly difficult. In fact, the subject as a whole cause me a great deal of anxiety.  Other students seemed to have no trouble writing imaginative compositions, analysing Shakespeare or eloquently expressing what they thought this, or the other poet really meant. I really struggled. I felt that understood poetry in my gut, but I couldn’t get the words onto paper. I’d think that I had a reasonably good idea for a story but would not be able to execute it in the way that I wanted. My teachers were excellent and, for better or worse, a number of lessons have stayed with me. These include don’t start sentences with ‘and’ or with another word with which you’ve begun a previous sentence. In fact, try to use a variety of words to say the same or similar things. As a consequence, from Year 11 until I finished my PhD, Roget’s Thesaurus was my constant writing companion.

The author of the fourth gospel has no interest in such variety. As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions John is quite sparing in his vocabulary and therefore repetitive. He manages to write entire gospel using only 1,011 words. Words like to know and others like believe, love and light appear again and again in the gospel. Today’s reading from chapter 1 is a case in point. In the first section, John the Baptist says exactly the same phrase twice in succession: “I myself did not know him”. In the second section the word “remain” or “abide” is repeated five times – twice in relation to the Spirit’s remaining on Jesus at his baptism and three times in relation to John’s disciples who want to know where Jesus is remaining, who see where he is remaining and who remain with him for the day.

Given this, it is extraordinary to note the number of different verbs that the author of the fourth gospel uses for ‘to see’ in these fourteen verses. In English the verbs “see”, “look” and “behold” together appear ten times. In Greek five different verbs are used – βλέπω, (to see), ιδέ (look! Pay attention), θέαομαι (to gaze upon, to see with the eyes), οραω, (to see or perceive), and εμβλεπω (to gaze at the face, to consider). These are subtle differences but given the author’s reluctance to employ a vast array of words, one cannot help but wonder if there is some significance in the writer’s choice of these five. Why use five when conceivably one would do?

I want to hazard a guess that the choice of words is not an accident. The verb Θεαομαι is used twice. In the first instance, John sees (with his eyes) the Spirit descend on Jesus. On the second occasion, Jesus turns and gazes on two of John’s disciples who are following him. It is possible that this particular word implies a supernatural or a spiritual ‘seeing’. John sees what no one else sees or has seen – the Spirit of God. Seeing the Spirit of God enables him to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. Later Jesus turns and sees (with his eyes) John’s disciples. He doesn’t ask: “Why are you following me?” but, “What are you looking for?” His question suggests that he has seen that they are following him for a reason, that there is something that they want from him. His seeing is not superficial.  It appears to look into their hearts and to discern their purpose.

Another word, “εμβλεπω” also seems to hold a deeper meaning than is at first obvious. John sees Jesus and announces that he is the “Lamb of God”. He gazes at Jesus, considers who he is before bestowing a title that is unique and has no precedent. John’s is not a casual glance. It is a searching look, one that enables him to discern something about Jesus that no one else has noticed. The same verb is used when Jesus looks at Simon. He gazes on Simon’s face considering who Simon might really be and how he might be identified. Jesus gives Simon the name Cephas or Peter.

What is clear is that these two periscopes are about really seeing and about really being seen. John’s openness to the one who sent him (God) allows him to see the Spirit. Seeing the Spirit enables him to identify Jesus. A careful consideration of Jesus enables him to see and name Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Jesus likewise sees, knows and names Simon.

Seeing and being seen are integrally related in our faith journey. They are two sides of the one coin. Unless we spend time gazing on God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – we may not truly see God and we may not recognise God for who God really is. It is impossible to have a real relationship with anyone whom we do not truly see. On the other side of the coin, we can be certain that just as Jesus knew who Simon was and of what he was capable, so God – Father, Son and Spirit – knows exactly who we are and what we can and cannot do. God sees past the image that we present to the world to the person beneath. God sees without judgement let alone condemnation. When Jesus named Simon the Rock, he knew that Simon (or Peter) would waver and fail. He named him anyway.

Seeing and being seen are two sides of the same coin, each equally necessary in this life of faith. Being in relationship requires an openness to God such that we can see God (not our idea of God) in the world around us, in the lives of others and in our own lives. It also means having the courage to accept that (for good and for ill) we are truly seen and known by God.

Both are a terrifying prospect, but they lead to a deep and meaningful relationship that frees us to be ourselves and leads to the peace, joy and fulfillment that only a relationship with God can bring.

In solidarity with all humanity

January 11, 2020

Baptism of our Lord – 2020

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free

In the name of God, who in Jesus became fully human and identified fully with the human plight. Amen.

On page 126 of A Prayer Book for Australia you will find the confession and absolution, a form of which is also to be found on page 120. It is possible that (unlike me) you never pay attention to the words in red print (the rubrics as they are known). The rubrics provide information not only about the Liturgy, but about such variations as are permitted. Since 1978, instead of a long, threatening and terrifying exhortation to confession, the Prayer Book has offered an invitation (which changes according to the season). For the most part the Liturgical Assistant reads, “God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy, welcoming sinners to the Lord’s Table. Let us confess our sins in penitence and faith, confident in God’s forgiveness.”

Those of you who do read the rubrics will notice that there is a suggestion that “silence may be observed”. The observant among you will also have noticed that in this Parish, we do not observe any such silence. I cannot be sure, but I imagine that the reason that silence is suggested is to allow for a moment of personal reflection. Certainly, that is how it seems to be observed in other Parishes. During my time at St Augustine’s we have not observed this practice. The reason for this not that I think that I, or we, have no need to reflect on our sinfulness, but because I do not believe that this is the place for individual introspection.

When we gather together for worship we do so as one body. Our prayer and our praise are collective. Holy Communion is exactly that: communion. It is an activity that we engage in collectively and not as individuals. If there is no one in the church with me, I cannot celebrate alone, for I would be celebrating isolationism not communion. The confession then is not an opportunity for each of us to drift off into our own heads and to count our own shortcomings, rather as the Book of Common Prayer makes clear: “Then shall this general Confession be made in the name of all those that are minded to receive the Holy Communion.” When we say together the General Confession, we are lamenting our collective sin, in particular our failure to love God with our whole heart and our neighbour as ourselves. We are not concerned at this point in time with whether or not we spoke harshly to someone yesterday or whether we are greedy or selfish.[1] Our individual sins are trivial compared to our collective and overarching sin of not giving ourselves wholly to God and to each other.

This may seem a roundabout way of approaching the subject of today’s gospel but, as I hope you will see, it is particularly pertinent to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John. John’s baptism, as he has made perfectly clear, is a baptism of repentance, but so far as we know Jesus has no need to repent. An understanding of the General Confession helps us to begin to make sense of why the sinless Jesus comes to be baptised by John and what Jesus means when he says that he needs to be baptised “to fulfil all righteousness.”

To understand what is going on here, we have to remember that first century thought was very different from our own. Two things are important to note. First of all, baptism as a way of initiating people into the Jewish faith was not widely practiced (if it was practiced at all). Baptism (which if translated literally means to wash or dip) was not, as it is for us, a ritual of membership. On the other hand, washing as a means of ritual purification was widely practiced. Secondly, first century Judaism understood that God’s relationship was with Israel as a whole and not with individuals. (On the day of Atonement for example, the High Priest performed rituals in the Temple on behalf of all the nation.) Likewise the coming of the kingdom of heaven had nothing to do with individual salvation, but everything to do with the salvation of the nation. John’s call to repent then was directed, not at individuals, but with the people as a whole. In this sense, John’s call to repentance was much like our invitation to Confession – it was collective and not personal.

So, if Jesus does not need to repent and if baptism is not a form of initiation what is Jesus doing here? Jesus’ sinlessness or otherwise does not enter the equation, because the repentance John demands is not individual. John is hesitant to baptise Jesus not because he has no sin, but because John has recognised in Jesus the one who is more powerful than he, the one who “will baptise with the Spirit and with fire.” John knows that he himself needs this different and more powerful baptism that Jesus can offer.

Despite this, Jesus insists on being baptised because: “it is fitting to fulfil all righteousness.” We cannot read Jesus’ mind or know what he really meant by these words but – if we understand that John’s call to repent addressed the nation as a whole and if we see in the birth, life and death of Jesus, God’s desire to be fully human – we can deduce that by allowing John to baptise him, Jesus is identifying himself completely with the people of Israel – not standing aloof or apart from his countrymen and women, but becoming completely one with them and sharing a common humanity. Through his baptism he was showing his complete solidarity with them.

In the General Confession we show our solidarity, not only with one another in our sinfulness, but with the troubled world of which we are a part.

 

[1] You may remember the controversy that was played out a few years ago in the Roman Catholic Church. It was the practice in that tradition that anyone who wanted to receive communion would, before coming to church, make their confession before a priest. Rome was concerned that private confession was becoming less regular and that individuals were relying the General Confession that they made in Church as their preparation for communion.

 

Authentic leadership

January 4, 2020

Epiphany – 2020
Matthew 2:1-12
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to trust God so that we can trust ourselves. Amen.

It all began at least 30 years ago when a friend gave me a Christmas card featuring the wise ones or the magi. “I chose it,” she said, “because the figures look like women.” Since then I have built up a small collection of Christmas cards and quotes featuring wise women – most of them humorous. One pictures three women mounted on camels bearing gifts of disposable nappies, a book on childcare and a voucher for a well-known baby store. A second has a stream of women stretching out into the distance. The caption reads, “Three wise men, 3,675,493 wise women.” Another reads, “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, swept the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts.”

While I enjoyed the humour on the cards I thought that the idea of wise women was an invention, or an aspiration of the women’s movement. It was when I was researching today’s sermon that I came across an article that suggested that women would have been in the caravan that sought out the ‘King of the Jews’. This led me to explore the matter further. It appears that there is good reason to believe that women might have been among those who came to worship Jesus. The “magi” (for that is the word in the Greek text) would probably have come from Persia or modern-day Iran. They were followers of Zoroastrianism – a faith system that is now in decline, but which was one of the precursors of Islam. Zoroastrian priests were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes and they believed that they could foretell miraculous births by reading the stars .Zoroastrianism allowed women to serve priests and women often travelled with their male counterparts . Indeed, the Old Testament precursor of this story is that of the Queen of Sheba who travelled from Ethiopia to see King Solomon bearing gifts fit for a King. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that women would have been among the magi.

The problem with Matthew’s all too brief account is that while he tells us that there were three gifts (the Queen of Sheba brought gold and spices), he does not specify how many magi there were, whether they were male or female or tell us that they were kings. That there were three, and that they were kings is our imaginative interpretation. Indeed, the word “magoi”, like the word “parent” can be used for either gender and the tradition that there were three derives from the number of gifts presented.

As long ago as 2004, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to retain Matthew’s word ‘magi’ rather than translate it with a word (or words) that were more easily understood. The argument for this was two-fold. The use of the translation “magi” was truer to Matthew’s intention. It retains the exotic nature of Jesus’ visitors and, as the word is inclusive, it allowed for the possibility that women were present.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter who the magi were, where they came from or how many there were. The significance of their brief appearance lies not so much in the mystery but in the dramatic tension their presence creates and the stark contrast between their reaction to the birth and that of Herod. Herod was not a legitimate king of the Jews, but one appointed by the despised Romans. For this and other reasons, he was held in low esteem by the majority of the Judeans. He was not even a Jew and was so insecure that he did not hesitate to put to death members of his own family if he thought that they might present competition for the throne. It is little wonder that when Herod heard of Jesus’ birth he was not filled with delight and anticipation, but with terror and a desire to crush or remove the threat that Jesus signified. It was not only Herod who was troubled. Everyone who depended on him for their wealth and position (“all Jerusalem” in fact) shared his concern and recognized the potential for disruption that an alternate king represented.

In contrast to Herod, the response of the magi was one of curiosity, reverence and awe. They did not seek to destroy the child; but travelled a great distance to worship him. Their authority and sense of self did not depend on external affirmation or legitimation. They knew who they were and were confident of their place in the world. As a result, the magi were comfortable in their own skin, they did not need to stand on ceremony, nor did they need to defend or protect their position and they were not threatened by competition (perceived or real). Their position in the world was not dependent on anyone else and it was not altered or compromised when they knelt and worshipped Jesus. In fact, their status was enhanced and amplified by their humility.

As such, the magi pre-figured the person that Jesus would be. Jesus would be a king who did not need to prove himself by competing with or destroying those who opposed him. He would be self-assured, certain of who he was and of his place in the world. He would not need others to legitimize him and he would not be easily upset by his enemies. Jesus would not be driven by fear to protect his position – or even his life – and his place in the universe would not be diminished by his humility let alone by his submission to death on the cross.

In contrast to Herod, the magi were confident of their place in the world, they did not depend on external legitimation or affirmation and were not threatened by competition.We live in a world in which there is an increasing sense of insecurity and an increasing reliance on leaders who are authoritarian and who disparage or demean any who dare to criticize or challenge them.

The magi were clear where true authority lay, may we have their self-assurance, their humility and their wisdom and that we will always chose the authentic over the showy, the secure over the insecure and those who choose to serve over those who are determined to dominate.

 

 

 

Falling from grace

December 28, 2019

Christmas 1 – 2019

Matthew 2:13-23

Marian Free

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

Recently I listened to an interview with Timothy Spall the actor who, among other achievements, played the part of the artist J.M.W. Turner in the movie of the same name. I first came across Spall when I watched the extraordinary 1996 movie Secrets and Lies in which he played the lead role. During the interview, he was asked to tell the story of why he missed going to Cannes for the showing of that movie. As he tells it, Spall was at that time experiencing a certain amount of lethargy and, thinking that it was exhaustion, he went to the doctor expecting to be given some sort of tonic or pick-me-up. Within days, while he was in the midst of filming an advertisement, Spall received a call from the doctors’ surgery asking him to come in. Not wanting to spare the time or to leave the filming halfway through he insisted on speaking with the doctor. The doctor also refused to share the news over the phone. When Spall presented at the surgery, he was informed that the cause of his tiredness was not overwork or poor diet, it was a particularly aggressive form of leukemia – acute myeloid leukemia. Had he not been diagnosed and immediately begun the treatment; he might have been dead by the end of the week! Instead of going to Cannes he went to hospital for chemotherapy.

The fact that he was being interviewed indicates that the cure was successful, but Spall’s story is a reminder of how quickly our lives can change. An accident, a diagnosis, a sick or dying child, a change in the world economy, falling victim to a scam, any number of things – whether of our our making or from completely unrelated events – can turn our lives and our fortunes upside down in a heartbeat.

As Matthew tells the story, such was the case with Jesus. His birth was facilitated by the Holy Spirit and heralded by an angel. A new star signalled his arrival. News of his birth reached the centre of power. Wise men or kings travelled a great distance to see him, to kneel before him and to give him gifts that were both rich and rare. This, Matthew leads us to believe was no ordinary child. He was born in the symbolically significant town of Bethlehem – the home of King David. As an infant he was recognized as King of the Jews and worshipped as God. Yet, barely had the wise men left, when Jesus and his family were forced to flee, not only the city, but the country. From being identified as royalty they became as fugitives. From having the world at their feet, they were forced to seek shelter from strangers. From being worshipped as God to being just another refugee fleeing cruelty and oppression. From having the power to strike fear into the heart of Herod and of Jerusalem to being completely powerless in the insignificant, barely known village of Nazareth. From being at the center of the Jewish world to being at its very edges, considered as little better than a Samaritan. Overnight Jesus and his family went from recognition to ignominy, renown to obscurity.

It was a dramatic turn of events, albeit one which has lost some of the impact in its retelling over the centuries. Unlike Luke for whom Jesus was born in a stable and revealed to the poor and lowly including shepherds, who were considered no better than thieves, Matthew places Jesus’ birth among the rich and powerful. Yet, hardly has he established Jesus’ credentials as king and God than he turns the story on its head. Jesus will not, as his beginning suggests, be identified with kings and rulers. He will in fact take his place among the most helpless and vulnerable of his community. Kings will not bow down before him, instead they will oppose him. His followers will not be the wise men from the east or even from among his own people, but the marginalised and the outcast, those with no status at all.

Jesus’ apparent fall from grace turns out to be anything but. As Matthew tells the story, everything that happened was going according to plan. Jesus is a king but, as the readers will come to see, he is a king like no other. Jesus is God, but as God he fully identifies with the plight of humanity to the point of becoming one of and one with them. Jesus’ change in circumstance is full of symbolic meaning that more fully spells out who and what he is, and, through the fulfillment passages, Matthew shows that God had seen how things would work out and that God’s hand had been with Jesus every step of the journey.

Life does not always work out the way that we hope and plan. Sometimes a curved ball is thrown in our direction and we have to re-think who we are, what we are doing and where we are going. At such times we must follow Joseph’s example and believe that, however bleak things appear, God is with us, guiding us through the darkness and helping us to accept and to work with the way things are. Sometimes, with hindsight, we will see that God has moved us through the pain and difficulty to where we were always meant to be.

 

 

Risking everything to bring Christ to birth

December 21, 2019

Advent 4 – 2019

Matthew 1:18-25

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us out of our comfort zone and into a world as yet unknown. Amen.

Fifty years ago many people were threatened by the emergence of feminism and some still are. Its opponents have argued that women are intrinsically different from men and have different roles and should stick to the responsibilities appointed to them. Of course, that view is no longer prominent, and most would agree that the feminist movement has had a positive impact on Western society. Not only has the movement freed women to take a fuller part in the world but, at its best, it has liberated both women and men to be themselves and to achieve their full potential. It is true that there have always been men who have taken a lead in household chores, in cooking and in childcare but, as women have been freed to join the workforce and pursue their dreams, so more men have taken the opportunity to take up roles traditionally assigned to women including those of primary child-carer and chief cook.  Because some women (and a few men) challenged the existing customs of their day, what was counter-cultural and even threatening 55 years ago has become, for many, the norm.

In their different ways both Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus’ birth is only possible because Joseph and Mary were prepared to act in ways that were radical and counter-cultural. Responding to God’s call on their lives was both dangerous and subversive and yet they faced the challenge with grace and courage. Despite the fact that the gospel writers make the choice look easy and imply that their decision were received by their neighbours without question, it is important to remember that only Mary and Joseph were privy to the appearance of the angels. They may have been confident that it was God who was speaking to them, but their relatives and friends would only have had their word for what had taken place. We have no idea how the small, religiously conservative village of Nazareth responded to the shocking and even immoral behaviour of two of their members. Like all change-makers Joseph and Mary risked vilification, exclusion and even stoning – Mary for becoming pregnant to someone other than her betrothed and Joseph for ignoring the social and biblical norms by taking her in marriage.

Neither Joseph nor Mary would have been able to justify their choices by pointing to history or to precedent. Nor could they defend their behaviour with reference to Old Testament prophecy. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it suggest that a carpenter from Nazareth would have a role in the birth of the Christ. I can’t imagine that anything in Joseph’s religious background or education would have led him to expect that the Christ would come into the world by means of two very ordinary people in a backwater of Palestine, let alone that he would be one of those people.

Joseph did not even have the advantage of seeing the angel face-to-face, but only in a dream. Nevertheless, Joseph, unlike Mary, asked no questions. He simply woke up and did as the angel commanded without any thought for the consequences for himself.

Joseph and Mary were free to say “no” to the angel’s request. They could have argued that responding to God’s call was simply too difficult, too dangerous or too risky. They might have been concerned about what other people might think and what the impact on their lives might have been. Instead, as the gospel writers tell it, their response was immediate and wholehearted, even reckless. As a consequence of their willingness to be God’s vessels for change, the course of history was dramatically altered. Within four centuries the child to whom they gave a welcome was worshipped throughout the Roman Empire and today, the faith that bears his name is one of the world’s major religions.

In the insignificant village of Nazareth, in the Gentile region of Galilee, Joseph and Mary could not have known how far-reaching their decisions would be. They would not have foreseen that in the name of their son hospitals and schools would be built to heal and educate the poor, that slavery would eventually be brought to an end, that wars would be won and lost and that thousands would give their lives rather than renounce him.

Joseph and Mary risked everything – their respectability, their family, their friends and even their lives – to answer God’s call. Throughout history thousands of others have refused

to be bound by cultural norms and sometimes, at great risk to themselves, have challenged the status quo in response to God’s call on their lives. Many of those whom we now call “saints” were non-conformists – people whose vision and confidence in God, led them to confront injustice and oppression and to question corrupt leadership both in society and within the church. Often, they paid for their actions with their lives.

Joseph and Mary together with saints and martyrs through the centuries remind us that, as followers of Christ, we are all called to be change agents – to hear the word of God tugging on our conscience, urging us to do what is right, to challenge unjust structures and to care for the poor and the outcast – with or without the approval of the society in which we find ourselves and with no concern for our own safety or social status.

The voice of the angel may elude us, but that does not relieve us of our responsibility to be those who through our words and actions bring Christ to birth in a world that as yet does not know how much it needs his presence.

Are you the one?

December 14, 2019

Advent 3 – 2020

Matthew 11:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God whom we see only in part. Amen.

When David Jackson premiered his movie The Lord of the Rings, there were cries of disappointment from readers who felt that he had not done justice to Tolkien’s story. Creating a screen play from a novel involves a lot of artistic and practical choices. Screen and print are two very different medium, tension and drama are captured differently and the writers have to translate descriptive words into concrete images. There are time constraints as well. Had Jackson included the apparently well-loved Bombadill, the movie would have been inordinately long and the mounting tension would have dissipated. It is very difficult for a script writer, a movie director, or a casting agent to get inside the heads of the thousands – maybe millions who will watch the final movie.

When we read a novel we form pictures of the characters and the scenery that become inseparable from our experience of the book. We think that because we are putting into imagination what the author has described that everyone else has the same visual image. It can be very disappointing when we feel that books that we have loved do not translate well on the screen.

In first century there was not one common form of Judaism, let alone a single, consistent image of a Messiah – the anointed one whom God would send. When people heard or read the scriptures they found very different expectations of the future – from the annihilation of the world to the building of a peaceful kingdom on earth. Similarly, there were different expectations as to how this would cone about. One stream of thought focused on the promise that God would raise up someone in David’s line to be King over them. Another was that God would come as judge and destroy the wicked- especially the enemies of Israel. The community at Qumran (writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) expected three different figures to come in the future – one priestly, one kingly and a third who would lead them in battle.

John the Baptist appears to have had a very clear idea as to the person whom God would send. He declares: “I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:11,12). When Jesus came to be baptised John recognized him as the one whom he had expected. How disappointed and confused he must have been when Jesus did not live up to his expectations. Instead of being a fire brand and a judge, Jesus was compassionate and, by and large, non-judgemental. There is no evidence in Jesus’ ministry of the ‘winnowing fork’ or ‘the unquenchable fire’. Instead of condemning the people Jesus healed and restored them. He certainly did not stand out from his contemporaries as the one whom God had sent to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It was no wonder then that John (who was by now in prison), sent his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Frustratingly, Jesus did not answer the question. Instead he said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” We will never know if this was enough to satisfy John. What is clear is that Jesus saw himself not as the one coming in judgement, but as one who was bringing to fruition a different promise that of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:6f).

As he languished in prison, John faced the possibility that he had been wrong – either in what he has expected orin his announcement that Jesus was the one who was to come.

John’s confusion is a salutary lesson for each of us. If John, with all his confidence! was not sure that Jesus was the one whom he had proclaimed, how can we be confident that we will recognize Jesus when he comes again? We are no more able to read the mind of God than we are able to get inside the heads of script writers. If the characters and scenes of a novel can be imagined in more than one way, how can we be certain that our reading of scripture is the only way that scripture can be read?

Advent is a time of expectation, a time of anticipation. Let us cultivate both so that we are not mired in a mire of certainty – blind to God’s presence with us now and unprepared for the way in which God will be revealed in the future.

You will be judged

December 7, 2019

Advent 2 – 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God who will come in judgement. Amen.

It is difficult for us to comprehend that John the Baptist’s followers did not automatically defect to Jesus. The fourth gospel that tells us that Andrew left John to become a disciple, otherwise the gospels are silent on this matter. This seems strange. According to Matthew John recognized Jesus when he came to be baptised and, we have to presume, shared that knowledge with others. Yet, as next week’s reading will make clear, John still had disciples when he was in prison and those disciples took his body and buried it. It appears that there were still followers of John at the gospels were being written and that John’s role had to be clearly delineated and limited such that it was clear that Jesus was the more significant of the two.

The New Testament was only interested in John so far as his life intersected with that of Jesus and the New Testament writers were certainly not interested in what did or did not happen to John’s followers. Notwithstanding this we know that John the Baptist’s ideas and ministry continued to influence people. This is evidenced by the Mandaean faith that originated in Mesopotamia some 2,000 years ago[1]. The Mandaeans worship John the Baptist whom they call Yehyea Yahana. Worldwide there are 60-70,000 Mandaeans and of these 10,000 can be found in Sydney’s western suburbs. Mandaeans are gnostic, that is they believe that they have access to secret knowledge and that their soul is in exile, seeking to return to its true home.

Not surprisingly, baptism is central to the worship and practice of the Mandaeans. Unlike Christians they can be baptised hundreds or even thousands of times during their lives. Baptism for them is not a sign of entry into the faith or the means by which they receive the Holy Spirit. It is a symbol of purification, an opportunity to cleanse and refresh one’s life and soul. Members are usually baptised in a river where the water is flowing and fresh. Baptism is practiced at significant times in the church calendar and on other occasions including funerals. We know little of their teachings or whether they have records of what the original Baptist taught.

We do know that John seems to have captured the mood of his generation. He established himself on the Jordan River, preached a baptism of repentance, and announced the coming of one who was more powerful than himself. Baptism as a means of entering the Jewish faith was not common if it existed at all. First century Hebrews were familiar with washing as a means of ritually purifying themselves, but it was not related to repentance. Purification related to fitness to worship in the Temple.

The biblical John is somewhat enigmatic and elusive. His role in the New Testament is primarily as a foil for Jesus. Yet, despite their embarrassment about the significance of John – after all Jesus was baptized by him – the Gospel writers are unable to disguise the fact that John had an important ministry and a following of his own.

Like the prophets before him, John named the situation for what it was – a time in which some had lost hope that God would act, and in which others appear to have assumed that their behaviour did matter because God would not act. John’s preaching appears to have exposed the sinfulness and lacklustre faith of his contemporaries. He seems to have struck a chord with both the people and with the religious establishment. John’s call to repentance must have spoken to their hearts and exposed the poverty, selfishness and faithlessness of their lives. Something in his preaching revealed the need for them to turn their lives around. After all, we are told that all Jerusalem, all Judea and all the region of the Jordan were going out to him.

John’s message was not one of comfort and reassurance, but of judgement and condemnation, even his message about Jesus was not designed to encourage, but rather to convince the people of the need to bear good fruit, to turn to God and to be ready for the wrath that was to come. No one was spared John’s tongue. He accused even the penitent Pharisees and Sadducees of being vipers and challenged the complacency that led them to believe that their ancestry assured them of a good outcome at the judgment.

Jesus’ message was quite different. It was aimed more at the people than at the religious hierarchy and was much more conciliatory and compassionate. That said, we forget John’s warning at our peril. Jesus’ death and resurrection may have assured us of God’s love and given us confidence that our sins have been forgiven, but that does not mean that we can afford to be complacent or that we need do nothing in return. Through our baptism we have been made children of God. It is incumbent on us to behave as such. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom had come near. We, his followers, are called to live as Kingdom people– recognizable as members of that kingdom through all that we do and say.

Advent is a reminder that Jesus will come again and that we will have to answer to him for all that we have done and not done in this life. We will be called to be accountable for the way in which we have used or misused the gifts that God has given us. We will be challenged to consider whether we have taken God’s love and forgiveness for granted or whether the knowledge of God’s love has encouraged us to grow into the people God believes that we can be.

Even though John’s primary role in our faith was to prepare the ground for Jesus’ coming, his words echo down through the generations. We cannot afford to be complacent – repent, be cleansed of your sins – get ready for God to break into the world in judgement!

 

 

 

 

[1] Whether or not this was a direct continuation of John’s ministry is not clear.

Are we drifting apart?

November 30, 2019

Advent 1 – 2019

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

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

I heard a tragic story the week. It concerned a young man, Brandon Richard Webster who is in Australia as a Fullbright Scholar researching how to use drones to assist farmers. Given his traumatic childhood, Brandon may never had made it this far. He only lived with his mother for the first eleven years of his life and as he tells it, the relationship was particularly toxic. For reasons that he does not understand, his mother did not want him to be happy and found the cruelest ways to make his life miserable. His only respite was a weekly visit to his grandparents and even then, they had to say that the visit was to give his mother (not him) a break. He was still quite young when his mother’s drug habit saw him spending hours alone in the houses where she bought and used the drugs. He often missed school and was frequently starving. At age eleven he took his mother to court. She lost custody and he has not seen her since (1).

Physical and mental abuse are just two reasons why relationships break-down. Tragic though the circumstances are, ending such relationships is usually the only way that the abused person is able to move forward and have any chance of happiness. Other reasons that relationships fall apart are nowhere near as dramatic and include such mundane things as ‘drifting apart’, ‘not communicating’, ‘the pursuit of different goals’, ‘having different values’ or simply ‘losing touch’.

Relationships, whether they are a marriage, a family or a friendship require an effort from both parties – taking an interest in what the other is up to, listening to their concerns, being there when times are tough, keeping in touch and ensuring the channels of communication remain open – especially when there has been a difference of opinion. Each relationship has its own peculiar properties. Marriage has to move from the heady days of first love to the building of a solid working partnership. Parenting has to shift from being in control to allowing increasing independence. Friendships must weather changes in occupation, marital status and address and must face the intrusion of partners and children. All relationships need to navigate carefully changes in circumstance especially when those circumstances involve loss or disappointment.

The break-down of a relationship – particularly of a marriage or between parent and child can be devastating. For some there is a sense of failure, for others a concern that they are being judged and for most the grief that something that once was so strong and so full of potential and hope has come to an end.

Today’s Gospel consists of a number of sayings relating to the coming of the Son of Man and two exhortations to be watchful and to be ready. The passage itself is just one small part of Matthew’s discourse on the last things which begins with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple and concludes with three parables which reinforce the need to be prepared for Jesus’ return – the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Without the wider context of the gospel, these sayings and parables would be enough to put one constantly on the alert, living in terror of Jesus’ coming and of being found wanting.

That may well have been Matthew’s intention. He is writing some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first disciples have died, and it would not be surprising if the initial enthusiasm for the gospel had waned. Most of those in the community would be a second generation of believers who had not known the intensity of a conversion experience. Their opponents and the sceptics among their friends may well have been challenging them to explain why it was that Jesus has not yet returned. Matthew’s apocalyptic discourse may be just the shot in the arm that this community needed. However if, in our day and age, these chapters lead to a belief that God is a distant and demanding God who is just waiting for us to put a foot wrong in order come down on us like a ton of bricks then we have completely missed the point of the Incarnation – God’s presence among us in Jesus. God is nothing like the fickle, unkind mother in Brandon’s story. God, as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrates is always reaching out to us with love. God is longing to be in relationship with us.

The key is relationship.  Our relationship with God requires as much nurture and labour as any other relationship if it is going to weather the passage of time and if it is to develop and grow. Our relationship with God is at much at risk of drifting apart if we do not put the time and effort into maintaining it.

On this the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year, we might take time to stop and ask ourselves how our relationship with God is going. Are we in danger of losing touch? Have we stopped communicating or at least stopped communicating in a meaningful way? Is our relationship with God stuck in a rut, unable to move forward because of some barrier or another that we have put in the way? Or is our relationship with God limited because we are failing to grow and mature in our faith?

I can’t answer for you, but I would not want to come to the end of time or the end of my life only to discover that I no longer had anything in common with God, that I had neglected our relationship to the point of estrangement, or that I had become stuck at a certain point in my faith development so that I had only a stunted and partial relationship rather than one that was rich and meaningful.

In the end it is all about relationship – God’s with us and ours with God. It is about God’s constantly reaching out in love to us, our willingness to be embraced by that love and our desire to enter into a relationship that grows and matures such that nothing, not our death and certainly not the end of time will be able to separate us from the God who has given us everything, even God’s very self.

 

  1. Brandon says that if he were to see his mother again, he would tell her that he forgives her.

Will the real king stand up?

November 23, 2019

The Reign of Christ – 2019

Luke 23:33-43

Marian Free

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

 I imagine that even the royalists among you have been disturbed by the recent BBC interview with Prince Andrew who, in the process, revealed himself as self-centered, thoughtless and completely out of touch with the values of today’s world. This is not the first time that members of the Royal family have demonstrated that at times they are completely removed from the real world. Remember when Princess Diana died. The Queen it seems believed that as an ex-mother-in-law that it was inappropriate for her to have a part in the public outpouring of grief, but in fact, she (or her advisors) had completely misjudged public expectation and by keeping her distance, appeared as unfeeling and aloof. News media and social media as well as a growing distrust in our institutions, mean that in our times members of the Royal family can be scrutinized by all and sundry. Whereas there may have been a time when they could be protected by their position, the palace walls and by their minders, today their behavior – good and bad – is on display and open to critique.

We live in a time in which the public awareness of the damage caused by abusive sexual and other relationships has risen. The public are less inclined to turn a blind eye to the inappropriate behaviour of the rich and famous – particularly when that behaviour is exploitative or abusive. Our attitudes have changed dramatically in the last few decades and our expectations of public figures has risen. In today’s world even sporting stars are not only held to account for their behaviour off the field, but also to be a model of behaviour that their fans can emulate. Likewise the once powerful figures in the film industry have been called to account and those who once turned a blind eye to exploitative behaviour and the misuse of power are now more likely to call them to account.

Whether it is a consequence of his wealth, his position or his privilege, the BBC interview exposed Prince Andrew as having at best a lack of awareness and at worst a lack of regard for the well-being of those who do not share his social status. He may “regret his friendship with Epstein”, but his continued association with that man after he had been convicted of sex-trafficking shows a blatant disregard and a failure to grasp the suffering of people who are exploited and abused.

How different from Jesus who, as Son of God, could have made many demands on his contemporaries – rich and poor alike – but who took no advantage of the power that was his, but instead put himself at the service of others. This, despite the fact that Herod was keen to know him and I am sure that many others among the rich and powerful would have been delighted to count him among their friends. Jesus, however, chose to relinquish any privilege or influence that he could have exercised. Jesus did not live in isolation from the harsh realities of the world, but immersed himself fully in the lives of the poor and the vulnerable, the exploited and the abused. What is more rather than associate himself with the rich and powerful, of with those who took advantage of or turned a blind eye to the suffering of the weak and friendless, he confronted their heartlessness and alienated himself from those who had the power to protect him.

Jesus’ first century followers did not attach themselves to Jesus because he had power and privilege and they did not follow him because he could in some way advantage them or improve their status. He had none of the external indications of authority. He did not live in a palace. He did not have command of servants or soldiers and nor did he have wealth with which to buy allegiance from those less powerful than himself. Jesus had no obvious external authority. All that he had was himself and his confidence that he was doing God’s will. Despite this people were drawn to him – not through any use (or abuse) or power but through his wisdom, his compassion and his understanding. It was his own personal characteristics that made him a leader of people, that led them to recognize him as king.

It was not Jesus’ given authority that disturbed the Jewish and Roman leaders but his innate authority that drew the crowds to him and that therefore threatened their own hold on power and their ability to control and manipulate the crowds. This man – by all accounts a peasant from Galilee – presented a real and immediate danger to the powers and authorities. When the religious leaders failed to unseat his influence or to expose his ignorance through argument they were reduced to the use of force. If they could not discredit him in debate, they would make a public spectacle of him in the religious and civic courts and ultimately, through the degrading and painful death by crucifixion. By debasing and disarming Jesus, they would, they thought demonstrate their own power and reclaim their influence over the people.

The taunts and mockery by the soldiers, by the religious leaders and even by one of the criminals were intended to humiliate Jesus and to expose his presumption before the people: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” “let him save himself if he is the anointed one”! The sign over the cross completed the picture – The King of the Jews would not be hanging on the cross dying like a common criminal. By all accounts Jesus’ power has been neutralized.

Rome, assisted by Jerusalem, had done all that they could to strip Jesus of his own power and influence. Yet their attempts to shame and embarrass Jesus backfired. Their taunts, rather than diminish Jesus unwittingly revealed the truth and reinforced the power and authority that came from no external force – King – but not of this world. One of the criminals crucified with him articulates this when he says: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, demonstrated that true leadership is that which aligns itself with those whom one is called to lead, that lifts up and does not crush the vulnerable and which wins the loyalty and allegiance of the people, through wisdom, compassion and understanding.

 

Endurance is not a virtue

November 16, 2019

Pentecost 23 – 2019

Luke 21:5-19

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves us unconditionally, who forgives our worst offenses and who offers redemption in this life and the next. Amen.

I have my own, slightly unorthodox, précis of the faith for the uninitiated. Though it does not include the Trinity, it sums up what I believe to be some central tenets at the core of the Christian faith and does so in such a way as might make it accessible to those who have no knowledge of it or to those whose experience has been negative or destructive. The wording came to me at a time when I was teaching a multi-level class at Grandchester, west of Rosewood. The year had been particularly rewarding for me, because these children, aged from 9-12, who might never see the inside of a church, had been insightful and challenging. I wanted to be able to leave the Year Sevens with something simple and affirming. In other words, if they knew nothing else about the Christian faith, I hoped that they would remember that: “God loves us unconditionally, that there is nothing that we can do that cannot be forgiven and nothing so bad that it cannot be redeemed.” In my mind this covers the Incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

On reflection, I realised that this basic statement needed a rider. As someone who lives in the first world, I had had blinkers on when I wrote the last phrase. I was thinking of my own experience. I live in a wealthy, first world country in which it is possible to rebuild one’s life after a disaster and in which there are resources to help most of us weather difficult times. I had failed to remember that there are millions of people throughout the world who live lives of unrelenting hardship, poverty and grief; who are subject to war, famine and terror and who are oppressed, if not by their governments, then by unscrupulous money-lenders, employers or people traffickers. For such people redemption or resurrection in the present is an impossible dream. Survival is all that they can hope for. So I have adjusted my mini-creed to: “God loves us unconditionally, there is nothing that we can do that cannot be forgiven and nothing so bad that it cannot be redeemed, if not in this world then in the next.”

I mention my little mantra today, because the excerpt from Luke 21 ends in the middle of Jesus’ reflection on what the present and immediate future might hold. It suggests that Christians are to expect unrelenting suffering and persecution. Worse, read out of context, today’s passage seem to imply that endurance is some sort of Christian virtue. Our reading ends: “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” which gives the impression, that as believers, we are simply expected to put on a smile and to hold on no matter how difficult the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

It is one thing to continue to trust in God when the world is falling down around us, or when we are experiencing unimaginable hardship or grief; however, it is quite another thing to believe that endurance – perhaps for a lifetime – is a quality desired or demanded by God. Such a view of the faith can lead to an attitude at best of resignation and at worst a smugness and self-righteousness. (‘I am suffering so much everyone must know that I am virtuous’.) When endurance is seen as a necessary concomitant of faith, it suggests that God is responsible for our suffering or even that God inflicts suffering on us so that we have an opportunity to demonstrate how well we cope.

As I have said before, and no doubt will say again, when we are reading the scriptures it is important to see our passage in context. Holding fast when the world is falling apart around us not a bad thing in and of itself but when it takes on a life of its own it can become onerous and destructive. Endurance alone does not offer hope – only more of the same which, apparently, we are to accept with grace. Thankfully verse 19 is not the end of Jesus’ saying. Today’s passage, which began with a discussion of the Temple and which lists a number of occurrences that are bound to happen is a preliminary to the main event – the coming of the Son of Man. In verse 27 we read: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Endurance is not an end in itself, but a way of standing firm in the chaos and disruption of this life as we wait with eager anticipation for the world to come, a world in which all of us (no matter the circumstances of this life) will be set free from those things that have bound us, damaged us and impoverished us and will be raised with Christ to a life that is free from grief, from pain and from all that limits us.

For all those who labor under unrelenting hardship and pain, the future resurrection is their only hope for release.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is not extolling endurance for endurance sake, nor is he suggesting that negative circumstances are sent ‘to try us.’ Rather he is reminding us that this world simply is a place of uncertainty, violence and natural disasters. At the same time he is pointing forward, reminding his listeners that there is always hope – if not in this life then in the life to come. When things seem impossible to bear “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”


%d bloggers like this: