Expect the unexpected

January 12, 2019

Jesus’ Baptism – 2019

Luke 3:15-22

Marian Free

In the name of God who is beyond our wildest imaginings. Amen.

Some of you will know the books “Animalia” and “The Eleventh Hour” by Graeme Base. The former consists of extravagant and alliterative illustrations of the alphabet including Diabolical Dragons Daintily Devouring Delicious Delicacies or Lazy Lions Lounging in the Local Library. The paintings are so filled with detail that the “reader” has to be given hints so that they know what to look for. The pages can be examined time and time again and still the “reader” will not see everything that there is to be seen.

As the author says in the introduction:

“Within the pages of this book
You may discover, if you look
Beyond the spell of written words,
A hidden land of beasts and birds.

For many things are ‘of a kind’,
And those with keenest eyes will find
A thousand things, or maybe more –
It’s up to you to keep the score…”

For a long time, I have thought of the Bible as an elaborate picture book. Even though it does not contain a single illustration it seems to me that its content is so complex that I will never see all that there is to be seen. Each time I read it or read a commentary on a passage or a book of the Bible I discover something new. Sometimes this happens even as I am reading the gospel as a part of the liturgy – a word or a piece of information will jump out at me and I will wonder why I never saw it before. (For example, it wasn’t until someone pointed it out, that I saw that there were children in the Temple when Jesus overturned the tables Mt 21:15.) As is the case with a picture book, once I’ve seen or been alerted to something new, I will see it every time.

I have known for some time (and preached to this effect) that Jesus’ baptism by John was controversial. Why did Jesus need to be baptised? Why indeed did he need to repent? The gospel writers deal with this difficulty in different ways. Only in Mark and Matthew are we explicity told that John baptises Jesus. Even then, in Matthew’s gospel John initially refuses to baptise Jesus only to be told that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). John’s gospel has John identify Jesus, but we are not that Jesus was himself baptised. It was only this week that the Lutheran scholar, Karoline Lewis[1], drew my attention to something I should have noticed before now. In Luke’s gospel too, John does not, indeed cannot baptise Jesus. I have been so used to the idea that Jesus is baptised by John that I had not noticed that when Jesus is baptised in Luke’s gospel, John is absent.

According to Luke Jesus was baptised after everyone else was baptised what we are not told is by whom he was baptised. Up until now the story has been about John so we (or at least I) simply assume that it was John who baptised Jesus. Lewis alerts us to the fact that that may not be the case. John in fact is nowhere to be seen – he is in prison. He has so offended Herod that Herod has locked John up! It is possible that the mention of John’s imprisonment is just a literary aside but, given Luke’s overall agenda, that seems unlikely.

Through the introductory stories of John’s and Jesus’ conception and birth Luke makes it very clear that, of the two men, John is the lesser. John is given credibility and status only because he points the way to Jesus. He has no other role in the story and so, when it is Jesus’ turn to shine, John can be dispensed with. His imprisonment beforeJesus’ baptism removes him from the picture all together. John is no longer a part of the story; his time has ended, and Jesus’ time has begun.

The fact that, more often than not, we overlook John’s absence at Jesus’ baptism reminds us how much we miss when we read our scriptures and how much we read into the story that is not actually there. For example, because the disciples are all men, we fail to see the role that women play in the story, because that is what we have been told. We think that because both Matthew and Luke tell the same parable that it means the same thing in each gospel. We do not notice that Jesus’ travel sometimes makes no sense and that our minds create order where there is none.

The Bible is not a picture book, but it isfull of hidden depths and unexpected surprises. There are gaps in the stories and silences that speak of deliberate or accidental omissions. Puzzles and contradictions abound; and the same story can be told in several different ways. When we read the Bible, we need to learn to read with fresh eyes – looking for things that we have never seen before and noticing the things not said as much as those things that are spoken.

Like God, the Bible really has no beginning and no end. There is much that we can learn from what we “see” and “hear” and “read” and “experience”, but there is so much more to be learnt from what is unseen, unheard, unreadable and beyond our experience. No matter how often and how deeply we immerse ourselves in our scriptures we will never see all that there is to see or know all that there is to know. What is important is that we do not settle, that we do not content ourselves with what is obvious or become comfortable with the “truths” that we hold, but that we always strive to see beyond the merely superficial, always expect to be surprised and even shocked and always remember that the subject of our scriptures – the creator of the universe – is forever beyond our grasp.

[1]Working Preacher

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Loyalty to God alone

January 5, 2019

Epiphany – 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God who holds all people in God’s embrace and longs only that they allow themselves to be held. Amen.

Last week there were shepherds and a stable. This week there are kings and a house . The differences between Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and that of Matthew are striking and tell us something about the perspective of the authors. Luke, as we shall see throughout this year, emphasizes Jesus’ concern for and identification with the poor and the marginalised. No room can be found to house the pregnant Mary and the only visitors are shepherds (the lowest rung of the social ladder). Luke’s shepherds bring no gifts. The author of Matthew has different interests. He is more concerned with the fulfillment of prophesy and with Jesus’ place within Judaism. In Matthew Jesus’ visitors are respected Magi – of such significant rank that they receive an audience with King Herod and they present the child with rich gifts. Matthew makes it clear that this is no ordinary child but a king. The Magi go to the palace to ask Herod where they can find ‘the King of the Jews’ and Herod’s grip on power is so tenuous that the thought that there might be competition fills him with terror.

In the context of today’s gospel, it is interesting to note the contradiction between, but also within the two accounts of Jesus’ life – especially in relation to the inclusion of those who were not Jewish by birth. Luke’s gospel makes it clear that faith in Jesus is open to those outside the Jewish faith – the Gentiles. For example, in both the parable of the Good Samaritan and in the account of the ten lepers, it is a despised Samaritan whose behaviour shows up that of Jesus’ own people. In contrast, Matthew appears to believe that faith in Jesus is a logical – indeed foretold – continuation of Judaism. Matthew emphasises the Jewish law and the keeping of that law which, of course, is only relevant if you are Jewish. It is only in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus instructs the disciples to “go only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

At the same, even though Luke’s gospel is much more inclusive of non-Jews, the author is at pains to establish Jesus’ Jewish heritage and the devoutness of Jesus’ parents. Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the Temple – the centre of Jewish religious practice. Matthew, whose gospel appears to exclude non-Jewish believers, both begins and ends in a way that implies the inclusion of Gentiles. Here at the very beginning of the story, it is the non-Jewish Magi who not only recognize Jesus but worship him – while the Jewish authorities (represented by Herod and the priests) and terrified of his existence. At the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel Jesus insists that the disciples “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. Matthew’s very Jewish Gospel is opened wide to all people

Both gospels, but that of Matthew in particular, reflect a contradiction that exists already in Judaism. From the time of Abraham onwards, the religion of the Hebrews was unique in that it promoted belief in one God who had a special and exclusive relationship with God’s chosen people – Israel. The children of Abraham were a people set apart for God and who had, in response, to set themselves apart from the nations around them – nations who believed in multiple gods and whose practices did not match the high standards that God expected of those whom God had set aside as God’s own. In order to ensure that the Israelites did not become contaminated by those who did not belong, God gave very clear instructions including ordering the genocide of the inhabitants of the Promised Land and a directive that the children of Abraham were not to marry men or women of different ethnic backgrounds.

Despite this, despite God’s obvious preference for Israel, there is a thread that runs through the Old Testament that makes it clear both that the relationship between God and God’s people is not entirely exclusive and that in the future all nations will worship the God of Israel. To give just two examples – the book of Ruth informs us that Ruth, a Gentile, is to become the forbear of David – Israel’s most beloved king and in turn the forbear of Jesus. The book of Jonah makes it quite clear that God has compassion on the Gentile Ninevites and will not destroy them if they acknowledge their fault. In more than one place we are informed that there will be a time when all nations will stream into Jerusalem to offer worship to God.

These contradictions, which continue in the New Testament, remind us that God, who is the creator of all, and the God above all Gods is a jealous God who demands absolute loyalty and insists that God’s people set themselves apart as God’s holy people yet at the same time is the God of every nation who cares for and longs to include all of humanity in God’s embrace.

The visit of the Magi to Jesus cautions us not to think too highly of ourselves in comparison with others. It was outsiders who saw the signs, those who did not belong who sought out Israel’s king and those who belonged to a very different faith who fell down and worshipped the infant Jesus. The people who should have been alert to the signs, the people whose king had come to birth and who should have been first to offer homage had stopped expecting a king. They took for granted their status as the people of God and had accommodated themselves to their situation as servants of Rome. Jesus was seen, not as a king to be welcomed, but as a threat who needed to be destroyed because he would expose the compromises they had made and return power to God and not the Empire.

May the visit of the Magi remind us that we should never be complacent and self-satisfied about our place in the kingdom, that we should always be alert to the signs of God’s presence and that we should not be in the all to the powers and values of this world but remember that our first and only loyalty is to God and to God alone.

Jesus – truly one with us

December 29, 2018

Christmas 1 – 2018

Luke 2: 41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God whose human existence was real and gritty, not superficial and sanitized. Amen.

Prior to the 1960’s there were no such things as shopping malls in Queensland. All the department stores were in the central city so, when it came to Christmas shopping, it was to the city that my mother took us so that we could spend our pocket money on gifts for each other. On one such occasion – I think I was about five years old – I became separated from my mother. I have no recollection of being anxious or frightened. What I do remember, is that when my mother found me, I was safely ensconced on a trestle table that was being used by a group of women to sell Christmas craft. Then, as now, society in general took it upon itself to take responsibility for children in such situations. The primary goal being to care for the child and to reunite the child with his or her parents as expeditiously as possible..

There are societies, those of the New Guinea highlands and our own indigenous culture for example, in which children are the responsibility of all the members of the community. Mothers can let their children roam free confident that everyone will see it as their responsibility to keep the children safe. The sort of ownership and personal responsibility that we feel for our children would be unknown. I’ve been told of an Australian family who, having come to Townsville from Darwin for a funeral, arrived home without one of their children. Instead of being mortified that a child had been left behind, or angry that the child had stayed behind, this family was utterly confident that the child was safe, would be well-looked after and would rejoin them at the next opportunity. (Thankfully, The Department of Children’s Services understood that this was a cultural practice and took no action against the family whose child was reunited with them as soon as it was feasible.)

It is against this sort of background that we have to read the account of Jesus in the Temple. Mary and Joseph were not careless parents who had failed to check on their child’s whereabouts when they left Jerusalem. No doubt they had travelled from Nazareth with a group of friends and relations to attend the feast. When it was time to return home, they would have simply trusted Jesus to have joined the group when everyone was ready to leave – after all he was nearly a man. They would have assumed that he was with cousins or friends whose parents would have treated him as one of their own. In this context there was no need for them to look for their son until the evening when, presumably, he would have joined his immediate family for dinner. Only then did they begin to worry.

Luke, at least in the beginning of the Jesus’ story, does not allow us to forget that this is an account of a real human situation. Jesus belongs to a real family that has the same hopes and dreams, the same flaws, the same irritations and the same anxieties. It is intriguing that across the four gospels we have only one story of Jesus’ childhood and it is the story of a rebellious teenager, or at the very least, of a young man testing his limits – letting his parents know that he is now an adult who can make his own decisions and that he has a vocation to fulfill in which they have no part. His stinging response to Mary’s anxious reproach is to wonder why his parents did not expect him to be in h

‘his Father’s house’. It is the sort of exchange that might occur in any modern household with teenage children.

Later accounts of Jesus’ birth like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas could not cope with such a messy, earthy, ordinary human start to Jesus’ life. For example, in some accounts, just prior to Jesus’ birth, time stands still, midwives appear apparently out of nowhere, the cave is unnaturally lit – by both the child and by Mary’s face. Mary experiences no birth pangs and the child is born completely clean. The birth does not affect Mary’s virginity and the hand of the skeptical midwife withers. In the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the family are taken into the home of a brigand. There, Jesus is bathed and his bath water bubbles up into a foam. The brigand’s wife keeps the foam and uses it to heal the sick and the dying. As a result the family become rich. In these later accounts not only is Jesus’ birth attended with miracles, the escape to Egypt is facilitated by the miracle of a spider’s web and the young Jesus performs miracles and even strikes dead a child who offends him! These later writers could not bear to think that the child Jesus was any less powerful, capable or wise than the adult Jesus.

The absence of somewhere to stay, the insalubrious surroundings of a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the teenager stretching his wings in the Temple are all reminders that we should not isolate Jesus from his very human beginnings or elevate him to the position of a superhuman being. Luke’s Gospel could not spell it out more clearly – Jesus is fully human, fully immersed in the messiness of human existence, susceptible to the same desires as any other human being and subject to some of the same fears. Luke brings Jesus down to earth, reminds us that in Jesus God fully immersed godself in the mundaneness of human existence and that despite being God, Jesus was not insulated from the reality of being one of us.

Jesus/God knows what it is to be one of us and shows us that it is possible for us, mere human beings, to become as he is. We just have to believe that this frail human body with all it’s complexities and this weak, indecisive mind is capable of great and extraordinary things. One of the messages of Christmas is that Jesus became one of us so that we could become one with him. Let us celebrate our human existence and try to live it to it’s full, divine potential.

Sleeping through Christmas

December 24, 2018

Christmas-2018

Luke 2:1-20

Marian Free

May the child in the manger open our eyes to see God’s presence in unexpected places and in unlikely people. Amen

Our Christmas cards and our imaginations give us a romanticized view of shepherds in first century Palestine. This view is enhanced by images of God as shepherd, and of David as the shepherd king. The reality was in fact quite different. In the time of Jesus shepherds were social outcasts, classed together with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers and camel drivers. Theirs was an occupation for which there was no respect. They had no land of their own and their work kept them away from home at night which meant that they were unable to protect the honour of their wives and daughters (if indeed they could afford to have a family). What is more, because they grazed their flocks on land that did not belong to them they were considered to be thieves. In fact many of them were thieves. They were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy – dishonored and despised – certainly not the sort of people you would welcome into your home or seek to associate with. Yet it was to the shepherds that God revealed the birth of Jesus, it was the shepherds who were the first to respond and to see Jesus and it was the shepherds who were the first to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Extraordinary as all that is, it is consistent with Luke’s view of the world that God would chose a woman of no social status or wealth to bear God’s son, that the son of God would be born in a stable and that God would reveal Godself to a disreputable group of shepherds with no social standing whatsoever. What is even more extraordinary and inexplicable is that, despite the cacophony of a multitude, an army of the heavenly host and the glory of the Lord that attended them, no one else saw or heard anything.

The townsfolk of Bethlehem might be excused for not noticing Jesus’ slipping into their midst, but how could they have been blind and deaf to a sky illuminated by the heavenly host singing praises to God? It almost defies belief. In this instance, God’s presence is not subtle or discrete, but bland at and obvious. Even so the presence of God goes unnoticed by all except a bunch of disreputable shepherds, who not only notice but who act on what they have seen and heard. What is more, having seen for themselves that the what the angel had told them was true, they spread the word and caused amazement to all who heard them.

Christmas is layered with sentimentality – the hay in the stable is clean, the shepherds are respectable, Jesus is worshipped. Beneath the sentiment however, we find rejection, apathy, blindness and even outright hostility (if we add Matthew’s version of events).

Only the angels greet Jesus with the appropriate fanfare and even then no one notices. The great irony of the gospel is that God is fully present among humankind and only a few people (and then not the ‘religious people’) even recognize that God is there.

It is easy for us to fall asleep, to allow ourselves to be complacent– satisfied with our relationship with God, confident that we know right from wrong and certain that we would know Jesus when he returns. The problem is this – if we fail to pay attention, if we stop noticing what is going on around us, if we begin to take God and God’s presence for granted we will find that we, like our first century brothers and sisters are blind and deaf to what is really happening around us. We will miss God’s presence in the unusual, the underestimated and even in the disreputable. We will fail to see God in the manger and God in the cross,

Let us not be like those who, not only through Jesus’ birth, but who failed to be stirred to wakefulness by a whole choir of angels.

Listen, process, change, share

December 22, 2018

Advent 4 – 2018

Luke 1:39-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who overwhelms us with goodness and love. Amen.

Do you remember tumbling in the door after school bursting with news of the day? Or bringing home a special purchase eager to share your pleasure with whoever might be there? Or waiting anxiously for a partner to return from work so that you can tell them the amazing news about your infant’s triumphs during the day? When we have good news we can’t keep it to ourselves. Somehow the joy is intensified by the sharing of it. We also have a need to share bad news, but then we are hoping that the pain will be lessened if someone else knows how we are feeling.

Mary has news. She may not really know if it is good news or bad news. It is certainly momentous news, news that she simply can’t keep to herself. If Luke is to be believed, on hearing the angel’s words, Mary sets out at once for the hill country to share the news with Elizabeth. We will never know exactly why she does this. It is possible that Mary wants to avoid the prying eyes, snide suggestions and pointed questions that will surely meet her if she remains at home. Mary might be worried by the censure of her extended family and the potential for violent attack if her story is not believed. Elizabeth lives far enough away that Mary could find refuge until things settle down at home. Furthermore, Mary can expect if not a warm welcome, at least some understanding from her cousin who, like her, has experienced what God can do, and whose news was, almost certainly, met with suspicion at worst and confusion at best.

Perhaps Mary needs time to process the news, to work out what it means to be pregnant. Her body will have begun to change – tender breasts, morning sickness, aversion to certain foods and a longing for others. In a small village Mary may know what the other women go through and not be surprised by the changes, but for her the pregnancy is unexpected and she may not be entirely ready. We have to imagine that Mary will also need to process what it means to be the mother of the Son of the Most High, who “will inherit the throne of David”. Unlike us Mary does not know the end of the story. Who knows what is going through her mind. Does she imagine that the child will be a mighty warrior who will wage war against the Romans or that in the same miraculous way that she became pregnant, her child will simply find himself crowned king? Is her mind filled with images of royal palaces, power and wealth or is she simply curious as to what this all might mean for her?

It is equally possible that Mary, filled with amazement and joy wants to share that feeling with someone who will really understand, someone who, like her, has had the most extraordinary experience of God. Their age difference melts away. God has blessed the one with a long-awaited child and the other with a totally unexpected child. Both children have a role to play in the coming of God’s kingdom.

All that is simply speculation we don’t know what Mary thought or why she raced off to see Elizabeth. Luke’s beginning is designed to set the scene for what is to come – John’s place in the story, Jesus’ Jewish credentials and the place of the Holy Spirit in the coming of the Kingdom. Luke wants us to know that the angel speaks to Mary and Mary responds – by saying ‘yes’ and by sharing the news.

If we pay attention we will know that God speaks to us in many and varied ways. Sometimes the news will be momentous and at others times a gentle nudge. We may be asked to move beyond our comfort zone, to take on a difficult task or simply to let go of a behaviour or attitude that is preventing our growth.

When God asks something of us we need time to think about how the change in our life might impact on or affect those around us. We might wonder what others will think of us and whether we have the courage to pursue the course. We will probably need time to process the impact a change of direction will have on our lives and to consider what changes we need to make in order for it happen and we will want to share the news with a trusted friend or a spiritual director – if not with the whole world.

Advent challenges us to be alert to God’s presence and to be ready to respond.

Listen, process, change, share.

Wake up – before it is too late

December 15, 2018

Advent 3 – 2018

John 3:7-18

Marian Free

You snakes, you brood of vipers! What are you doing here? Is this your insurance policy against death? Do you presume that coming to church will save you from the wrath that is to come, that your baptism alone makes you right with God? Not so! Faith does not consist of outward observance, sticking to the rules or belonging to the church. Your whole lives need to be turned around. You must turn your back on the world and worldly things and give yourselves entirely to God. God is not taken in by externals. God knows the state of your hearts. God can discern the godly from the ungodly.  You must do all that you can to be counted among the godly for God is surely coming and God will know whether you are sincere or whether your faith is purely superficial. Repent and believe in the gospel!

I imagine that you are pleased that I don’t begin every Eucharist by attacking your sincerity, your faith or your behaviour. You will be equally pleased to know that I believe that you are here because you want to acknowledge your dependence on God, express your gratitude for all that God has given you and, in the company of those who share your faith, worship God and deepen your understanding of and your relationship with God. In truth I do not question your authenticity, nor would I dare to cast aspersions on your behaviour.

John the Baptiser had no such qualms. He was very happy to attack the crowds who came to him seeking to be baptised. It didn’t concern him that those who came to him were not the religious leaders but ordinary people, including soldiers and tax-collectors most of whom would have travelled a considerable distance, across sometimes difficult terrain, to seek baptism from this wild man on the banks of the Jordan. How could he question their intentions? The only reason that anyone would have come all this way into the wilderness would be to repent and to seek John’s baptism for forgiveness.

Yet, instead of welcoming the crowds, John attacks them. He challenges their sincerity and suggests that they have come to him out of a sense of self-preservation rather than from a genuine sense of remorse and a desire to change.

But the crowds are sincere. They do not stamp away in high dudgeon, offended by John’s insinuations. Instead they hold their ground and engage John in conversation: “What should we do?” ask the crowds. “What should we do?” ask the tax-collectors. “What should we do?” ask the soldiers. Their desire to turn their lives around is real, John’s rudeness and insolence will not deter them. Because they stay, because they seek to know more, John is forced to accept that their desire to repent is authentic. Their questions demonstrate that the crowds (including the tax-collectors and soldiers) understand that intention must be accompanied by action and that repentance is meaningless unless it is lived out in changed behaviour. “What should we do?” they ask.

And how does John respond? He tells the crowds: “Don’t do just enough – do more than enough.” To the soldiers and the tax-collectors he says: “Don’t use your position to take advantage of others or to treat them badly. Don’t behave in the ways that others expect you to behave – surprise them by refusing to act according to the norm.” To everyone he says: “Don’t conform to the world around you, conform instead to the values and demands of the kingdom. Demonstrate in your lives that you belong to another world, that you belong first and foremost to God.”

It is easy to relegate the story of John the Baptist to history, to believe that his words, his attack on insincerity and hypocrisy belongs to his time and place – to the ingenuous, to the hypocrites and to the unbelievers of the first century. But to make that assumption would be a mistake. John speaks to the crowds, to those who have sought him out. John is addressing people who, like you and I, are trying to do the right thing and to live out their lives faithfully and true. John’s assault on the crowds is like a test. It is intended to shock them into thinking about their lives and to examine their motives. Do they mean what they are doing or is their presence at the river only for outward show? Are they there because they really intend to change or are they there for the circus that is John’s strange appearance and behaviour?

In our age his words challenge us to ask ourselves similar questions. Does our outward behaviour truly represent the state of our hearts? Do we do things for show or because we really mean them? Do we do just enough or do we go over and above to serve God and serve our neighbour?

“You brood of vipers!” the voice of John the Baptist is a wakeup call for us all. In the time before Jesus comes again, John insists: “Don’t take God for granted. Don’t imagine that just because you keep the Ten Commandments and go to church that your place in the kingdom is guaranteed. Don’t allow yourself to think that just because God has set you apart that God can’t and won’t choose others. Examine yourselves and ask whether or not you need to turn your life around.”

Advent is a wakeup call. It is reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent and that we cannot make assumptions about what God will and will not do. It is an invitation to rethink our relationship with God and to ask ourselves whether or not it is in the best shape possible.

Wake up! Repent! Advent is here! Jesus is coming! Are you ready??

Speaking truth to power

December 8, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 3:1-6

Marian Free

In the name of God who is not separate from, but fully engaged with world. Amen.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, ardent sports fans argued that politics and sport had nothing to do with each other – a point of view that failed to see that politics ensured that the majority population of that nation were excluded from representing their country. Similarly, we are often told that the church should not be involved with politics – that is the church should refrain from commenting on or critiquing government policies even when they disadvantage the poor and the vulnerable. The argument is usually raised when the the church speaks uncomfortable truths to power. I’m not a sociologist or a social historian but my superficial, uneducated observation suggests that, in recent times, the waters have become very muddied and confused on this score . If I were to put a finger on the reasons I would suggest that the wider public are disappointed with and disaffected by politics as it is currently playing out. I offer two examples. With regard to the question of refugees we have, on liberal side of the equation, those who feel strongly about off-shore detention and who, when the church takes action, as for example with the Sanctuary movement, are all too willing to support the church’s stand and challenge government policy in this area. With regard to gay marriage the government seems anxious to try to appease the more conservative members of the community and branches of the church by trying to enshrine in law the freedom to not employ gay teachers. In other words on some issues the community supports the church’s interference in politics and on the others the government appears to accept the interference of the church.

In reality it is impossible to separate church and politics. For one thing we live in a society which, while increasingly secular (and even anti-religion), has been formed and shaped by the Judea-Christian tradition. For another, the church has a clear imperative to speak out against injustice and corruption. It is equally foolish to believe that the church itself has not been shaped and influenced by the community – social and political – in which it finds itself. For example, it was Christian women who led the struggle for the vote and later it was a changing attitude to the role of women that led to the church admitting women to the ordained ministry. Rubbing shoulders as we do, living side-by-side means that (at least for the present) the state influences the church and the church influences the state.

The impact of the political situation on the emerging faith was not lost on the author of Luke’s gospel. From the very beginning of the gospel Luke provides us with the the political and religious context in which the Christian faith emerged. He tells us that the story is set in the time of King Herod and he makes sure that we are aware of the Jewish pedigree of Elizabeth and Zechariah – both members of priestly families going back even to Aaron. The reader, (in particular Theophilis), is to infer that this is a story set in the heart of Judaism and in the shadow of the empire. As we begin the story proper the situation is spelled out even more clearly. Luke tells us that it is the “fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Lk 3:1).

Apparently Luke does not believe that the story of Jesus cannot be told in isolation. It has to be understood against the political and religious currents of the time. Luke’s lengthy introduction to the story of John not only alerts the reader to the fact John and Jesus are “players on the world stage” but also creates an air of foreboding. The Emperor was known to be cruel and unpredictable – a person so insecure in his position that he destroyed anyone me whom he deemed to be a threat. Tiberius was also the Emperor who had exiled the Jews from Rome in 19CE. Pilate, Tiberius’ representative in Judea, also had a reputation for cruelty and oppression. Herod, as we know, was the ruler who would order John’s beheading. While Philip and Antipas were more benign figures, the effect of the long list of rulers is to show how thoroughly Judea is under the power of Rome. Finally, the high priest, though a representative of the faith, was himself was a Roman appointment – answerable to the Empire.

It is in this hostile political environment that the lives of John and Jesus will be played out. Vulnerable leaders with a tenuous grasp of power will do all within their means to stifle and destroy any hint of opposition and John and Jesus will forfeit their lives by refusing to conform. Speaking the truth to power will cost them both their lives.

We who follow in Jesus’ footsteps must not abrogate our responsibility to promote the values of the kingdom, to take the side of the poor and the oppressed and to question laws that are unjust and we must acknowledge that our freedom to worship and to live lives consistent with our faith may be challenged and even curtailed by unsympathetic powers.

Centuries ago Luke recognized that it was impossible for people of faith to exist in isolation. We are affected by and must recognize and work within the constraints and protections of our political, social and religious context.

The end is nigh

December 1, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 21:25-38

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love for us knows no bounds. Amen.

Many years ago, long before I was ordained, I met Leanne. Leanne was about 20 years older than I, worshipped at the same church and was a member of the Bible Study group. Sadly, Leanne suffered from depression. Despite treatment and medication, she could never shake the feeling that she was worthless and unlovable. One day Leanne told us the following story. On one particular day Leanne’s mother was coming to visit. Leanne was excited, but she knew that her mother had exacting standards. She spent the whole day ensuring that the house was spotless and baking delicious things for her mother to eat. The hour arrived and knowing that everything was ready, Leanne ran out to greet her mother. Imagine how deflated she felt when, instead of reciprocating her excitement and joy, her mother simply said: “What on earth are you doing outside with your apron on?”

No wonder Leanne struggled to believe that she had value. Throughout her life she had been made to feel that she had failed to meet her mother’s expectations. This left her feeling that no matter how hard she tried she was never going to be good enough. When I heard the story, I wanted to hold Leanne for as long as it took for all that negativity to be erased. I imagined the child, the growing girl, the young woman and the now middle-aged person before me, always trying and never succeeding, to be the person whom her mother expected her to be. No wonder she suffered from depression. No wonder Leanne struggled to believe in herself. All her life she had been held in the balance and found wanting.

For some Christians, this is how it is with God. They have been brought up to believe that God is watching and judging everything that they do; that God is somewhere with a set of scales measuring them against an impossibly high ideal. Sadly, a great number of people who claim to be Christians cannot believe that they are lovable, and they certainly cannot believe either that God is love or that God loves them. 

I know that on another occasion I told you the story of a beautiful, gentle man who, in his eighties, could not sleep at night because he was so afraid of dying. He was sure that something he had done in the distant past meant that God had withdrawn God’s approval and love. When he was a child, his well-meaning grandmother had drummed in to him the eternal consequences of bad behaviour. As he drew nearer to his death, he was certain that whatever it was that he had done in the distant past would send him to the fires of hell.   

Can you imagine going through your whole life not knowing how much God loved you? Can you imagine living in terror of God, believing that it was God’s desire and intention to destroy you if you failed to meet God’s expectations? Can you imagine spending a life-time trying to achieve some unrealistic standard of perfection in order to be loved, or to avoid being punished? I can’t. I can’t think why you would bring a child into the world in order to berate and belittle that child. And I can’t conceive of God the creator bringing humankind into being simply to satisfy some egotistical need to dominate or to be feared.

Ideas about an all-powerful, all-demanding God do not emerge from a vacuum. They are developed from imagery of the end-time such as that in today’s gospel, especially verse 34: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly”. And in 1 Thessalonians 3:13: “May you be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is all too easy, for those who are so inclined, to build a picture in which God is relentlessly demanding, unyielding and unforgiving. To do that, one also has to ignore the texts in which God is endlessly compassionate, accommodating and forbearing. One has to close one’s mind to the story of creation in which God declares humankind to be “very good”. Above all, one has to forget that in Jesus God gave Godself completely and unreservedly to and for those who had done nothing to deserve such a gift and who continue to be undeserving.

Not that I would suggest for one moment that we ignore or gloss over the vivid descriptions of Jesus’ return, or of the time of judgement. Those of us who know ourselves to be secure in God’s love must be warned from time to time that we should not take that love for granted. Those of us who have long since stopped expecting Jesus’ return need to be reminded that God will come and at a time when God is least expected. Those of us who have fallen into a cosy, comfortable relationship with God have to be pulled up short so that we do not forget that the Creator of the Universe is all-powerful, almighty and awe-inspiring. 

Today’s readings are not necessarily meant to stun us into shocked terror or to keep us in a state of heightened alertness and anxiety. But they do serve a purpose. They prevent us from falling into error, they stop us from having a narrow view of the God of the universe and they challenge us to respond with gratitude to God’s overwhelming goodness and love.

This Advent let the promise of Jesus’ return pierce the numbness and the complacency born out of centuries of Jesus’ non-appearance. 

Let it increase the anticipation, the confidence that Jesus’ coming willshatter the peace, explode the norms and reveal the world for what it really is.

Let Jesus’ coming shake us out of our comfort zones and remind us that God is so much more than our limited minds will ever be able to imagine.

God, the God who loves us so much more than we can ever desire or deserve, is an awesome, terrifying God in whose presence we will fall to our knees in holy fear. 

God willcome. Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security, but make sure that we are ready for an event that might just disturb the whole cosmos and at the very least will shake us to our core.

Powerlessness is power

November 24, 2018

Christ the King – 2018

sJohn 18:33-37Marian Free

In the name of God who in Jesus demonstrates that true power and authority lie in service and not in domination. Amen. 

It is not difficult to observe that the balance of power in the world is shifting. The United States is increasingly looking inward, relinquishing at least to some extent its role as a mediator, peace-keeper and influencer on the world stage. At the same time China, through its belt-road, its aid programme in the Pacific and through the purchase of property and land beyond its borders is ensuring that its role in the world is being vastly enhanced. Elsewhere, ISIS which is suffering military defeat and the loss of territory has unleashed an ideology whose effects and violence extend far beyond its geographic reach and its direct control. For those who have grown up in a reasonably stable world, the current political situation is unsettling and disturbing. We have grown used to power being wielded by one nation and do not know what the world will look like if power is exercised by another government or nation.

Power according to Max Weber is the ability to exercise one’s will over others (Weber, 1922). Sociologists point out that, “power affects far more than personal relationships; it shapes larger dynamics like social groups, professional organizations, and governments. Similarly, a government’s power is not necessarily limited to control of its own citizens. A dominant nation, for instance, will often use its clout to influence or support other government or to seize control of other nation states[1].” Power is sought and secured by individuals, companies or nations who wish to demonstrate their “status”; to gain control over resources – physical, geographic or technological; to exercise control over people and the actions of people; to amass wealth or even to build their own self-esteem.

Power is usually gained by force and therefore must be maintained by force. Those who are disempowered by the actions of another person or another state rarely cede what is theirs willingly or graciously. In order to maintain their power over others the “victor” must use force and/or the threat of punishment to ensure submission and obedience.  

In the first century, the chosen method of suppression was crucifixion. Anyone who threatened or was seen to threaten the supremacy of Rome was publicly crucified in the belief that such an horrific death would deter others from challenging the conquerors.

Today’s gospel is all about power[2]– its exercise, illegitimacy and its ultimate futility. At his trial before Pilate, Jesus demonstrates most fully what he has been trying to impress upon the disciples – that power overothers is ephemeral and temporary and that it is based on a false premise – the assumption that the person exercising power is in some way superior to those enslaved to his or her rule. For Jesus true power, legitimate power, power that is lasting, is the opposite of the worldly view. Real power, Jesus preached – (and now demonstrates in his life) – lies in service. Enduring power comes not from lording it over others but from raising them up. Empowering others, giving them a sense of their own worth, draws from them loyalty and respect that cannot be bought and that certainly cannot be enforced. 

Only a person who is secure in themselves and who does not feel the need to prove anything to anyone, can put themselves last and others first, can face false accusations and not feel a need to defend themselves and can endure cruelty and abuse without losing anything of themselves. Such a person can, from their own position of strength (not power), draw out of others their strengths and their gifts and enable others to develop and grow and to reach their full potential. Those who are thereby affirmed and encouraged know themselves to be blessed and enriched. In turn they acknowledge the gift and the one who so generously bestowed it with a deep sense of gratitude, a desire to please and a loyalty that cannot be bought or enforced. 

Power that derives from service need not be enforced, because it is power that is not desired or sought or enforced but bestowed by those who understand how much they owe.

Pilate does not and cannot understand Jesus because Jesus does not conform to the world with which Pilate is familiar. Jesus does not play the games that Pilate plays – he has no need to compete, no desire to prove himself to others, no longing for recognition. In Pilate’s eyes Jesus is a conundrum. He is accused of claiming to be a king, yet he submits to the indignity of arrest and trial and makes no effort to defend himself. Pilate, who is constantly needing to assert himself and his authority is at a loss. In fact, Pilate is powerless. By refusing to be cowed and by refusing to contest the charges brought against him, Jesus deprives Pilate andhis accusers of their power over him.

Today we affirm that Jesus is king – but Jesus is a king like no other king – a king whose power comes from his empowering others, from putting himself last and others first and whose absolute trust in God ensures that he can remain true to himself in the worst of circumstances. 

Would that we all had such confidence in ourselves and such faith in God that we, like Jesus, would have no need to assert ourselves, that we would seek the well-being of others before our own and that we would have the faith to face the worst that life had to offer without complaint and without a struggle. Then, and only then, would there be balance in the world, accord between all peoples and a peace that endured.


[1]https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/power-and-authority/

[2]As becomes clear in 19:10-11

“Fake News”

November 17, 2018

Pentecost 26 – 2018

Mark 13:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges us to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents, both trusting and sceptical and always open and expectant. Amen.

Before the 2016 American Presidential election a group of young Macedonians took to Facebook to release sensational ‘news’ stories with headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump”. Such extraordinary and unlikely “news” went viral which meant that advertisers wanted to cash in. This, apparently, was the goal of the creators of the “news” – not to disrupt the American election but to attract Facebook advertising dollars. As a result of this and similar activity someone coined the expression “fake news”. After the election legitimate news outlets started using the expression and it was not long before Donald Trump and others began to apply the term to any news (or news reporters) whom they did not like, or which threatened their position, their politics or their world view.

Naming something as “fake news” allowed them not only to dismiss information that they found unpalatable, but also to deceive and confuse the consumers of such “news”. Dictators all over the world have adopted the phrase to throw into question reports of their (or their government’s behaviour) – anything that reflects negatively on them – and to discredit the purveyors of such information. 

The advent of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have given us greater access to events as they occur. We can see for ourselves what has happened and form our own opinions. For example, footage and reports of the recent Burke St attack were posted on Social media as the attack was taking place – well before local news channels had time to get reporters to the scene. Social media has allowed us access to information that oppressive governments might otherwise suppress and has given us an insight into what is really happening around the world. Photos taken by people on the spot do not have to face the hurdles of censorship that journalists might have to face.

Social media can give us direct access to the facts, but these platforms have also made it much easier to spread misinformation. Any one, pushing any agenda, can publish their views – no matter how far from the actual truth and however damaging and divisive such views might be. And, because not many of us go to the trouble of verifying the facts or researching the issues, false information can very quickly become the truth for at least a percentage of the population. 

The internet hasmade it much easier and quicker to spread misinformation but “fake news” did not originate with social media. Over the course of history various leaders and individuals, and in recent times traditional news outlets have not been above presenting information in such a way as to ensure support, increase sales or to influence an election result. The church too is not and has not been exempt from this sort of behaviour. At various points in history, it has promoted one or other interpretation of scripture to ensure compliance, to promote causes or to raise income.  

In chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel, of which today’s gospel is a part, Jesus warns believers not to trust in “fake news”. He is responding to a question from the disciples who are keen to know the timing of future events. Jesus does not give them an answer. In fact, he seems to be cautioning them against the desire to know. Even he, Jesus, does not know when the end will come, only that it will come. In the meantime, he is concerned that the disciples should exercise caution and not be deceived by those who falsely claim to be him or by those who insinuate that they know what lies ahead. 

Jesus’ warning is at least as valid now as it was 2000 years ago. So much time has passed that it is easy for us to be complacent. The apocalyptic language in which Jesus’ warning is cast appears over dramatic and unbelievable in our day and age and, if Jesus hasn’t come in the thousands of generations since he walked the earth, it seems very unlikely that he will come in ours. 

As we approach the end of the church year our gospel readings warn us once again that Jesus will come and that his coming will not be at a time of our choosing. Jesus’ warning is as much for us as it was for his disciples. We, like they, are vulnerable to changing circumstances and to those who make exaggerated claims and who promise us the world.

In the in-between time, in the absence of Jesus, we are challenged to protect ourselves against false information and false teaching. We have to exercise caution so that we will not be misled and so that we will not be swayed by those who falsely claim to be Jesus or to know exactly what he would do or say in any given situation. 

Jesus is warning us, as he does his disciples, not to settle for anything less than the real thing – not to be so blinded by our preconceptions or by the images to which we have grown accustomed to that we are unable to tell the difference between Jesus and those who pretend to be him. He is cautioning us not to become so comfortable with our faith and with our lives that we allow ourselves to believe that we have done and are doing all that we can to be faithful followers.

Whether Jesus is returning tomorrow or in hundreds of years’ time, we are all at risk of being misled, of following false trails or of closing our eyes to the truth. If we are to avoid being deceived – by the times, or by those who would claim to have a monopoly on the truth, we must constantly look beyond the surface, open ourselves to the presence of God and take the risk of truly knowing and being known by the Risen Christ.


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