What to wear?

October 14, 2017

Pentecost 19 – 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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October 7, 2017

Pentecost 18 – 2017

Matthew 21:33-46

Marian Free

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 29, 2017

Pentecost 17 – 2017

Matthew 21:23-32 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who is ultimately beyond our understanding. Amen.

 It wasn’t until I became the proud owner of chickens that I really understood the concept of “pecking order”. Of course I knew what it meant, but to see it in practice among my fowls was an eye opener. I inherited my chickens and it was clear at the time to see that Tracey was the dominant one and that poor foolish Lacey was at the bottom. When new chickens were introduced they took the lowest place in the order. Over time as the original chickens were replaced I have observed that the pecking order can change even when the chicken population remains stable. So for example, when one chicken goes off the lay, another steps into her place and one that appears to be on the outer can, for reasons unknown to me, suddenly become one of the crowd again. I’m sure that a little bit of research would enlighten me as to the behavioural codes that determine the way in which the pecking order is arranged, but today I just want to make the point that there are certain codes that determine a chicken’s place in the world.

Humans are very different from chickens of course, but we are still very interested in our place in the world. This was particularly true in the culture of the first century Mediterranean. Concepts of honour and shame were at the centre of social life and Maintaining one’s place in society depended on observing a complex code of interaction. There is not the space here to go into detail. A person (man) had to behave in such a way as to avoid coming into dishonour and to some extent to prevent causing dishonour to another by, for example, putting them in his debt. A person’s honour could be enhanced if they were able to put down or dishonour another. Honour was in limited supply and if one gained honour, he did so at the expense of someone else

This is the social context in which we have to view today’s gospel. The literary context of the exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is that of an extended series of controversy stories that start at the beginning of chapter 21 and go all the way through to the end of chapter 22.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his “cleansing” of the Temple have caused great consternation among the leaders of the Jews. The reaction of the crowd and Jesus’ own behaviour threaten to undermine the authority of the leaders. Having spent the night at Bethany, Jesus has returned and now he appears to be establishing himself in their Temple – their place of authority and power. In order to reestablish their own position the chief priests and elders need to bring Jesus into disrepute, to expose him as a fraud and to undermine his authority. They issue five challenges in total (Matthew 21:23-32, 22:15-22, 22:23-33, 22:34-40, and 22:41-46) but they unable to discredit Jesus and the section concludes: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” Jesus has not only held his ground, but as a consequence has further undermined the authority of the leaders and as a consequence their status and their honour has been diminished. It is no wonder that they seek to put Jesus to death – they have been utterly humiliated and, being unable to best Jesus in argument, there appears to be no other way in which they can regain lost ground

In today’s gospel first of the challenges, is about authority – the priests are sure that their authority comes from God, but from where does Jesus’ authority come? Jesus doesn’t answer, but instead turns the tables on them by asking a question of his own. It is evident that John has drawn many people to him, to repent and to be baptised, including members of the establishment. How do the chief priests explain his authority? The question, as we see, places the chief priests and the elders in a double-bind, whatever answer they give will have negative consequences. They will either be accused of failing to believe someone sent from God, or they will risk the displeasure of the crowds by claiming John to be merely human – either way they lose. They are forced to admit that they don’t know, thereby losing face in the presence of the crowds.

Many of us, at some point in our lives, make the mistake of thinking that we know better than God that if we ran the universe things would be different. The controversy stories remind us that while we can challenge and argue with God, in the end, God cannot be bested.

It’s not fair – the injustice of God

September 23, 2017

Pentecost 16 – 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity overlooks our faults and opens the gates of heaven to all who believe. Amen.

Imagine this scenario: Ever since you were a small child you had one ambition – to swim at the Olympics. To achieve your goal you got up at 5:00am every morning – summer and winter – and trained for at least an hour before school. After school you would be back at the pool for more training before going home and completing your homework. As you grew older your social life was non-existent. Your friends were all out partying, going to movies and forming relationships, but your life was focused on swimming. Swimming dictated almost every aspect of your life, how much you slept, what you ate, how much you exercised. And it was not only training that took up your time. There were also the competitions – local, state and national – that not only ate into your holidays, but also required you and your family to raise enough money for transport and accommodation.

Never mind, all your hard work and sacrifice has finally paid off. You have made it to the Olympics. You come first in the heats, first in the semi-finals and now you are ready for the finals and, you hope, for gold. The gun sounds, you are off to a good start. You know that you are swimming well, keeping to the plan. You can’t be sure, but it feels like you are ahead of the others in the race. You make the final tumble and put everything you have into the last lap and yes! when you raise your head from the water the swimmer closest to you is only just reaching for the end of the pool. It’s yours! the gold medal that you have worked for most of your life. You are already imagining yourself on the winning podium, wearing the medal and proudly hearing the national anthem fill the stadium.

You get out of the pool grab your towel and head towards the waiting journalists when your daydreams are interrupted by a “special announcement”. “We are pleased to announce that for the first time in the history of the Olympics we are going to recognise the hard work of all the competitors in this event. Everyone is a winner. Everyone will take home a gold medal!” Such largesse is extraordinary and unheard of, but you find it difficult – no impossible – to feel happy for the other competitors. Their gain is your loss. The moment you have dreamed of for so long. All your hard work was for nothing. It’s simply not fair.

Even thought two thousand years have passed, this parable still hits a nerve. We, who live in quite a different time and place, still bristle with indignation – the injustice of it all! Of course this was Jesus’ intention. He wanted his listeners to sit up and take notice. The last will be paid as much as the first. God can do no less.

To understand this parable, we have to go back a few verses to the question asked by the rich young man: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19:16) This man mistakenly thinks that he can earn eternity, that if he only meets certain criteria he can be assured of eternal life. The disciples seem to have the same view. Peter says: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27)

In order to set the record straight, Jesus tells the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. He is hoping to shock us into seeing that it is not a matter of how much we have done compared to others that determines our place in the kingdom. What matters is that we have done something. Whether we have worked all day or only part of the day, the outcome is the same.

There is not a sliding scale. Heaven, (or whatever eternity is) not incremental or fractional – it is all or nothing. A person cannot inherit just a little bit of heaven. Having just a portion of eternity is simply a nonsense. We either inherit eternal life or we do not. And that is just the problem with our human sense of fairness. We want to think that somehow if we have lived a better life than someone else that our reward will be greater. The problem is that there is only one reward, and like the labourers, we either receive it or we do not no matter how much or how little we have ‘worked’.

It might offend our sense of justice that those against whom we measure ourselves will receive the same reward, but what if we think of the situation from the point of view of those whose goodness and holiness far and away exceeds ours? What if we compare ourselves not with those whom we consider to be less worthy, but with those whom we recognise are far more worthy than we will ever be – the Joan of Arcs, the Catherines of Sienna, the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Francis’s of Assisi?

Going back to the parable, can you imagine arriving in heaven (thinking that you have lived a life worthy of such a reward) only discover that over to one side are a host of disgruntled saints wondering why on earth you deserve the same reward as them? Can you imagine Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Catherine of Sienna, Francis of Assisi and the myriads of saints and martyrs – instead of being pleased for you – complaining indignantly to God: “He/she has done nothing compared to us and yet you have made them equal to us.”

Suddenly the parable makes sense. There is no sliding scale. There is only eternity and God chooses to give it to whomever God will. If the parable make us indignant, if we bristle with the injustice of it all, then we like those who have worked all day demonstrate that we just don’t get it, we like those who have worked all day haven’t yet realised that God’s generosity works to our advantage.

God is unfair, because will almost certainly reward us (with the saints) with eternity. If God’s unfairness works to our advantage, how dare we begrudge God’s extending that generosity to others?

 

 

 

 

 

Bound to the past or liberated to embrace the future?

September 16, 2017

Pentecost 15 – 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose power to forgive knows no limits. Amen.

 

There are many powerful stories of forgiveness. A couple of weeks ago I came across this, a true story, told by Richard Rohr remembering his mother’s last hours[1].

He writes:

She was lingering on the threshold, and for several days she had been talking about “a mesh” she couldn’t get through.

I was sitting by her bed, telling her how much I would miss her. She said she wanted to hear that from my father, whom we always called “Daddy.” Of course, Daddy had been telling her that for weeks.

So Daddy came over and effusively told her, “Oh, I’m going to miss ya.”

She replied, “I don’t believe it.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! I said, “Mother, you’re a few hours from death. You can’t say that!”

She persisted: “I don’t believe it.”

Daddy redoubled his efforts: “I ask your forgiveness for all the times I’ve hurt you in our fifty-four years of marriage, and I forgive you for all the times you’ve hurt me.”

I said, “Mother, isn’t that beautiful? Now say that back to Daddy.” And suddenly she clammed up. She didn’t want to say it.

I said, “Mother, you’re soon going to be before God. You don’t want to come before God without forgiving everybody.”

She said, “I forgive everybody.”

I said, “But do you forgive Daddy?” and she became silent again.

Then Daddy jumped in and said, “Honey, I never fooled around with any other women.”

We all knew that. She even said, “Well I know that, I know that.”

My siblings and I still don’t know how Daddy had hurt Mother. But any married person knows there are many little ways a couple can hurt one another over fifty-four years.

Then I said, “Mother, let’s try this. Put one hand on your heart, and I’m going to pray that your heart gets real soft.” I placed one of my hands on hers, over her heart, and held her other hand and started kissing it.

After about a minute she said, very faintly, “That melts me.”

“What?”

“When you kiss my hand like that, now I’ve got to do it.” After a pause, she continued: “I’m a stubborn woman. All of my life I’ve been a stubborn woman.”

“Well, Mother, we all knew that,” I said. “Now look at Daddy and you tell him.”

So she looked over and she didn’t call him “Daddy,” as she usually did. She spoke to him by name: “Rich, I forgive you.”

I prompted her again: “Mother, the other half—I ask for your forgiveness.”

She started breathing heavily and rapidly. Then she summoned her energy and said, “Rich, I ask your forgiveness.” A few more moments of labored breathing, and she said, “That’s it, that’s it. That’s what I had to do.”

I said to her, “Mother, do you think that was the mesh?”

She replied, “It’s gone! The mesh is gone! And, God, I pray that I mean this forgiveness from my heart.”

Then she said, referring to my two sisters and my sister-in-law, “Tell the girls to do this early and not to wait ‘til now. They’ll understand a woman’s heart and the way a man can hurt a woman.”

Mother was so happy then, and fully ready for death.”

 

That’s a long story, but it is not uncommon. I have heard many stories of people whose last hours (or last years) and have been dominated by unresolved issues, often an inability to forgive or an unwillingness to let go.

The inability to forgive is at the centre of today’s gospel. The servant who has been forgiven the huge debt seems unable to believe his luck. He just can’t understand that the king would wipe his slate clean and not demand any recompense. There must be a catch. It is either that, or the servant has got it into his head that he had somehow done something to deserve the king’s action. His heart has not been touched by the king’s overwhelming generosity. He remains fearful and anxious that he has lost control. He takes out his anxiety on the second slave thus (in his own mind) regaining control of his life.

The parable ends with the servant’s being thrown into prison, but the reality is that he is already imprisoned by his lack of understanding and his unwillingness and inability to accept the love and goodness that has been offered to him.

The story and the parable provide stark reminders of how easy it is to hold on to our own sense self-righteousness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; of our need to be in control instead of trusting that God will make everything right in the end. We hang on to hurts (perceived and real) and fail to see that our small-mindedness, our bitterness and our failure to forgive is as great a sin if not worse than any harm done to us or any offense that we experience. We make up our own minds about our own righteousness in comparison with others instead of allowing God to measure the state of our hearts. The result of such is a narrow, resentful and self-absorbed life that is never able to be truly open, truly free and truly generous. We are as Rohr says: “Frozen in the past.”

The main point of the parable is not that we will be punished if we fail to forgive, but that if we cannot forgive, our lives are already impoverished. If we cannot forgive, we reveal that we simply do not appreciate how much God has already forgiven us, how little we deserve that unreserved (and undemanding) forgiveness and how much more God will forgive us.

If God can forgive us, broken, flawed and undeserving as we are, surely we can extend that to others who are equally broken, equally flawed and equally undeserving.

We forgive, not because we are afraid of hell. We forgive because we recognise our own imperfections and are overwhelmed by the fact that God is able to overlook them. We forgive because holding on to grudges only makes us bitter and warped, mean and hard. We forgive so that the past does not hold us in its grip and we forgive so that we are free to embrace the future in this world and the next.

[1] www.cac.org (Meditation for August 27, 2017)

Fighting is not the solution

September 9, 2017

Pentecost 14 – 2017

Matthew 18:10-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who, through Jesus shows us a way to confront wrongdoing without causing embarrassment or shame. Amen.

I would not be surprised to discover that more than a few of us have been made quite anxious not only by North Korea’s testing of a hydrogen bomb but also in relation to the world’s response to that test. An escalation of threats on one side has led to an escalation of activity on the other and so it goes on – a never-ending cycle in which each side tries to cow the other. It is difficult to see how the situation can end well. North Korea fires a bomb, the United States and others urge more punitive sanctions. North Korea threatens to bomb the United States, the United States threatens a massive military response and so on. Neither party wants to back down. Backing down would be a source of embarrassment and would be seen as a sign of weakness[1].

A willingness not to use force to solve a conflict and not put down the other party not only leads to a different outcome, but provides a solution in which neither party is made to look weak or is exposed to embarrassment or shame. On Friday, Richard Filder interviewed Jonesy – a single mother, truck-driver, trainer and company director. Heather Jones drives enormous B-double, or B-triple trucks in Western Australia. A few years ago, Jonesy was called in to mediate in a situation that looked as though it was going to get out of hand. A woman from Ballina had taken it on herself to expose truck drivers whom, she had concluded were all dangerous and irresponsible drivers. “Bothersome Belinda” as she became known, set up a website asking for people to dob in a truck driver. Her campaign caused distress among all the truck drivers who drove responsibly and carefully and who often put their own lives at risk to avoid accidents. Jonesy was called in by her fellow truckies to see if she could help – single mother to single mother.

At the first meeting, Belinda’s body language said it all. Her views were fixed: truckies were the enemy and she was not ready to give an inch. Jonesy was not deterred. Over a number of meetings she continued to reach out to Belinda until the point that they became good friends. The eventual outcome was that the offending website was taken down and, to Jonesy’s surprise, Belinda got her truck license and came to work for her.

Two quite different ways of dealing with offense and two quite different results!

In a culture governed by notions of honour and shame and in which aggression and tit for tat was a way of life, Jesus showed that there was another way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made the stunning claim that: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Blessed are the meek”. He not only counselled against aggression, he also gave practical examples of ways in which his listeners could end disputes without exposing the other person or oneself to shame or dishonour. He said: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

This is a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. Jesus refused to meet violence with violence, he refused to grandstand, to promote himself at the expense of others, and finally he submitted to violence and death rather than respond to hostility with aggression.

In today’s gospel Jesus provides a practical example of how conflict or sin within the Christian community might be dealt with without exposing the offender to embarrassment and without creating a situation that would lead to an escalation of the problem. Jesus does not appear to think that conflict is something to be avoided at all costs. It will occur in the Christian community as in any other. When it does, the matter should be addressed, but it should be addressed in a way that does not expose the offender or cause the offender to lose honour in the sight of the community. Jesus suggests three strategies that can be used if tensions arise, or if someone hurts someone else or behaves in a way that is contrary to the values of the community.

In the first instance the one who is sinned against is to speak quietly to the offender – thus causing no embarrassment. Only if this doesn’t work are others to be involved. The second stage involves witnesses, which suggests that it is more of a legal process. Again, the problem is dealt with privately so that the offender does not lose honour. Only as a last resort is the offender brought before the entire community. If the offender still refuses to acknowledge his or her fault, they have demonstrated that they do not really belong and, at least in the short-term, must be designated as an outsider – in the same class as a tax-collector or a Gentile.

I am not naïve. History has demonstrated that sometimes the only way to confront and to stop evil behaviour has been to react with force. What Jesus is suggesting is that this should not be a way of life. Confrontation and violence should never be the starting point, but rather dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding. Only when these fail should we begin to seek out other means of resolving the tension.

Within the Christian community relationships are likely to be tested, people are going to rub up against each other in the church as in other situation and people are going to fail to live up to everyone’s expectations. What is important, is not that conflict is avoided, but that when it does occur it is dealt with in such a way as to avoid exposing people to embarrassment and shame and that it follows an orderly process to try to resolve the issue and, as we shall see as the chapter progresses, the Christian community should be more ready than other communities to forgive – not once but over and over and over again.

[1] To be fair, imposing sanctions has been used as a way of avoiding conflict and war, and it may be difficult to have conversations with the leadership of North Korea.

Winning isn’t everything

September 2, 2017

Pentecost 13 – 2017

Matthew 16:21-28 (Romans 12:9-21)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks for nothing less than our whole selves and who gives us more than we can imagine in return. Amen.

 During the past week I became aware of an event that occurred at the Special Olympics held in Seattle. The story relates to the 100-yard dash. “The nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled were assembled at the starting line.  At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but keen to run the race to the finish and win.  All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry.  The other eight heard the boy crying.  They slowed down and looked back.  Then they all turned around and went back.  Every one of them.  One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.”  Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line.  Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes.  People who were there that day are still telling the story.”[1]

In that race no one was a winner in a convention sense. Not one of the nine children had abandoned the others to streak ahead for the glory of a gold, a silver or even a bronze medal. Yet, as the applause demonstrated, everyone in the race was a winner. Each participant experienced (and shared with the crowd) the joy and privilege of coming to the help and rescue of another, of working together to achieve a common goal and of sharing, rather than competing for, the victory. The actions of these special children reversed the usual expectations of the Olympics, the Par-Olympics or the Special Olympics which is to pit contestants against one another, to separate out the winners from the losers and to measure people by their achievements rather than by their character.

From the time Jesus began preaching, he advocated an alternate view. He confronted the values and norms of the world and challenged the disciples (all who would follow him) to live by the values of the kingdom – values that are very often diametrically opposed to the values of the world. In this Jesus was uncompromising. In the Sermon on the Mount he announced: “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. To those people who are set on achieving wealth, fame such values make no sense at all. To those who want to see justice done by exacting retribution Jesus’ values are appear as weaknesses that leave one vulnerable and unprotected.

The implication of Jesus’ teaching is that wealth or fame that are achieved at the expense of the welfare of others provide only temporary satisfaction; that those whose happiness or sense of identity depends on externals such money, recognition, or success may find that they are never satisfied but are always struggling to stay on top, striving to be ahead of the game and constantly measuring themselves against others. Jesus (in his teaching and his life) made it clear that vengeance does not put an end to violence, but only creates a never-ending circle of violence.

In today’s gospel Jesus informs the disciples that the road ahead leads to suffering and death. In a direct reversal of the disciples’ expectations, Jesus was not going to Jerusalem to claim a crown, to gather an army or to confront the authorities. He was going to Jerusalem so that they could kill him! Peter’s response indicates that for the disciples, this was not only unexpected, but unacceptable! It was impossible for Peter to believe that the one whom he has just identified as the Christ has come only to suffer and die! Jesus had turned Peter’s hopes on their head – a Saviour who doesn’t save makes no sense at all! Nothing has prepared the disciples for a Christ who is weak and vulnerable, a Christ who would suffer and die. The one whom Israel expected was meant to take charge and to be in control. He was not supposed to be someone who ceded that power to others.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. Jesus did not allow the disciples to process what he has said about himself before he made it clear that following him meant that their lives, at least metaphorically, must be modelled on his. In order to be fully alive in kingdom terms the disciples must relinquish what, up until now, they have considered as the norm. From now on they must live according to the upside down values that Jesus has preached and will continue to preach. Only by living in such a way will they be truly alive, truly content, truly at peace. The life that they will lose is only a half-life and the life that they gain will give them all that they need in the present and in the future it will give them life for all eternity.

That Paul (and the early church) understood this principle of reversal is evident in Paul’s letters and we see it expressed in our reading from Romans today: “Bless those who persecute you”, “do not repay evil for evil”.

It comes down to this: are we governed by what God thinks of us or what others think of us? is our happiness determined by being better than others, having more than others or by exacting what we consider is our due from others? do we get more satisfaction from winning at all costs or from ensuring that others have an opportunity to achieve their goals (whether it be success in their careers or simply providing for their families)?

It is in giving up our striving and allowing ourselves to be weak and vulnerable, dependent on others and, more importantly, dependent on God that paradoxically will we find ourselves to be most truly alive, most satisfied and most joyful. By learning to rest in God in the present, we will be preparing ourselves to rest in and with God forever.

 

 

[1] From a sermon by Br David Vryhof, SSJE, https://www.ssje.org/2007/02/11/blessings-and-woes/

Doubt and authenticity

August 27, 2017

Pentecost 12 – 2017

Matthew 16:13-24

Marian Free

 In the name of God who respects our doubts and welcomes our questions. Amen.

Some time ago I met a man who was, I think, in his fifties. We were at a conference on spirituality in the workplace and after dinner we were discussing the opening paper. I mentioned that I was disappointed that the speaker used the platform to sideline the Christian faith (while at the same time using some of Christianity’s key concepts to make his point). My conversation partner (Jack) defended the speaker and in doing so shared something of his own story. He had, he said, attended an Anglican boarding school in country Queensland. At age fifteen Jack had asked a teacher to explain the virgin birth. The teacher’s reply was that the boy had to accept the virgin birth by faith. As Jack recounted the story, his eyes welled with tears. He had been a young person who was keen to understand and desperate to believe. The response of his teacher left him feeling that he been fobbed off, not taken seriously. Worse, Jack felt that questions were out-of-place and this led him to query the depth of his own faith – which, the teacher had implied, was in some way lacking.

Obviously this man had been a serious and thoughtful young man seeking for answers. A consequence of the teacher’s dismissive and unsatisfactory response was that my new friend abandoned his search for truth within the Christian faith and over, the course of his life had explored alternative ways to meet what was obviously a deep spiritual need. Some thirty years later, his tears clearly indicated his feeling of betrayal and the pain that he had experienced as a result of the dismissive reaction to his questioning and exploration.

I still can’t think of Jack’s story without a sense of grief – for Jack and for the church that has lost so many people because they have been made to feel that they do not belong. A common mistake from both within and outside religious traditions is to confuse faith with certainty. It is sometimes assumed that people who confess a particular faith adhere to if not rigid, certainly to reasonably fixed ideas. From this point of view doubt and or questioning can be interpreted as a lack of faith. Confusing faith with certainty and questioning with a lack of faith has served to exclude and alienate many who, with a little encouragement might have come to see that while there are sometimes no easy answers that asking questions can be the beginning of a deep and satisfying experience of the relationship with God.

The idea that faith and doubt are incompatible is incompatible with a great deal of scripture, the Old Testament is very clear that God doe not reject those who question God. In Genesis Abraham challenges God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom () and as we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jacob struggles with God all night. Moses is constantly questioning God’s response to Israel’s unfaithfulness and more than one of the prophets questions God’s wisdom. In the New Testament, in the gospels in particular, doubt and faith seem to go hand in hand (Matthew 28:17).

What is clear is that neither in the Old Testament or the New does God revile or reject those who dare to question, those who are not satisfied with simple or simplistic answers.

Two weeks ago when we looked at the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water (August 13) we saw that, rather than demonstrating Peter’s faith, the story revealed Peter’s doubt, his unwillingness to believe unless he had absolute proof. We saw too that Peter’s language: “If it is you”, put him in the same category as Satan and Jesus’ opponents. According to today’s gospel, it is Peter who claims that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus calls Peter “the rock on which he will build his church” and gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom. However, within moments Jesus is accusing Peter of being Satan because, once again, Peter demonstrates that he simply does not understand the sort of Christ Jesus is to be.

Jesus calls Peter out, but he does not reject him nor does he hold him to account. Jesus accepts Peter as he is with his doubts, his questions and his need for absolute proof. If that is not an indication that doubt and questions are an acceptable part of the faith journey, I don’t know what is.

Faith and doubt are not so easily separated. Peter’s struggle to believe demonstrates that the two can be held in tension. Our questions and our struggles are often necessary to bring us to a deeper understanding of and a closer relationship with God. When we refuse to take things at face value we are led beyond the obvious and the superficial to find meaning in the things and issues that puzzle us. We are free to engage in the sort of exploration that is content with the journey itself and that understands that ultimately God will always elude us. As T.S. Eliot expresses the mystery: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Peter’s doubt does not exclude him from a relationship with Jesus, but rather demonstrates the sort of authenticity that reveals an openness and a trust that allows the relationship to grow and develop. Rather than isolate him from God, Peter’s freedom to be himself, to question and to challenge, eventually leads Peter to believe with such conviction that he will willingly give his life for what he believes.

 

 

Everyone has a place at the table

August 19, 2017

Pentecost 11 – 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

Marian Free

In the name of God whose goodness and mercy include all who seek it. Amen.

Movies/TV shows are a great way to learn about the culture of another country without having to go there. For example, there is a movie simply titled “Water”. It is set in India and follows the lives of two widows – one who appears to be only twelve years old and the other who seems to be in her twenties. In Hinduism widows are reviled; their husband’s assets revert to his family and any assets the woman might have had become the property of her family. As a result, widows find themselves destitute. At the same time they are considered to be bad luck – as if their husband’s untimely death has somehow tainted them. It is little wonder that, when it was legal, some widows willing threw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Those who choose life are confined to an Ashram in which they are expected to live a religious life and never to remarry. They are totally dependent on the charity of others and often live in quite impoverished circumstances.

The older of our two widows is very beautiful, even in her simple white garment. It is hard to imagine that she is an object of disgust who must be avoided at all costs, but this is her fate. One of the more confronting moments of the movie occurs when someone accidentally brushes up against the young woman, immediately recoils and hurls a string of abuse at the widow whose responsibility it seems is to remain invisible and to steer clear of those who do not share her despised status. (It is her job to ensure that she does not contaminate them, not theirs to avoid her.)

It is easy to cast judgement on what, to us, appears to be the inhuman and insensitive treatment of widows and indeed of the caste of “untouchables” within the Hindu religious and cultural system. But before we pat ourselves on the back for our “enlightened” attitudes it is important to remind ourselves of our own heritage. Most cultures and religions have holiness or purity laws that serve to distinguish and separate people and things into holy or profane. This was certainly true of the Old Testament people and of the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born. Some of these regulations are spelled out in the book of Leviticus that identifies the holy and profane, the clean and unclean. This was important in a religious sense because those who were contaminated by the unholy and unclean could not enter the Temple (the place in which God met with the people of Israel). In some instances that which was profane or unclean were considered to be in some way contagious – that is that contact with the person or item rendered the other profane or unclean[1].

Fear of contamination explains why, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and Levite avoid the injured man. If he is in fact dead, they will become unclean and will have to purify themselves before they enter the Temple (to which we presume they are walking). Gentiles (non-Jews) were considered to be unclean and to have unclean practices. This was the reason that their inclusion in the new community caused so much dissension (as is attested especially by Paul’s letters to Galatia and to Rome).

Purity and holiness laws served to set the Jews apart. By observing the rules and by engaging in prescribed behaviours and by avoiding those who did not observe them Jews in the first century could maintain their sense of difference and their belief in their own distinctiveness and holiness. When Jesus enters the picture he blows all those constructs apart and makes it clear that holiness is not a matter of external behaviours, but is entirely dependent on the state of one’s heart.

We can see this in the context of Matthew’s account of Jesus encounter with the Canaanite woman. Matthew places the story immediately after the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus with regard to what is clean and unclean. In response, Jesus redefines the concepts making it clear that it is not externals that make a person clean or unclean, but their acceptance of and faith in Jesus. That Matthew’s placement of the story is not accidental is suggested by the fact that Jesus (without any particular justification)– Jesus travels from wherever he is into what is very clearly Gentile territory – the region of Tyre and Sidon. The woman who approaches Jesus is clearly (from the Pharisaic perspective) an outsider who is also unclean. Jesus doesn’t recoil. Engaging with the woman will not contaminate him. Instead (after initially ignoring her) Jesus allows the woman to engage him in debate and then accedes to her request. The woman’s recognition of Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”, confirm to the reader that no matter how the Pharisees might view her, she is no longer an outsider and as such no longer unclean. Following this meeting, Jesus returns to Galilee (of the Gentiles) where he heals, without discrimination, all those who are brought to him. Like the woman they too make it clear that they are no longer outsiders by praising “the God of Israel”.

Through the way in which he has organized the material available to him, Matthew seems to be describing a progression from a ministry and mission that was directed solely to Israel (10: 6, 15:24) to a ministry and mission that is directed towards and fully inclusive of the Gentiles (28:19). An essential part of this programme is a re-framing of the concepts of clean and unclean, holy and profane. In the new economy, the barriers between the sacred and profane have no meaning and the divisions between Jew and Greek have been broken down.

From the genealogy, through the coming of the magi, Matthew has been making it clear that through Jesus the rules have changed – the definitions of holy and profane have been recast. Holiness no longer refers solely to those who were born Jews, to those who observed the purity laws and maintained a comfortable distance from the unclean and the profane. In the new economy, holiness/purity knows no boundaries. Inclusion is no longer determined by race or gender, class or skin colour. Everyone who recognises Jesus as Lord has a place at the table.

[1] (The use of iron tools to cut a stone altar made it unfit or unholy – Exodus 20:22, contact a corpse would exclude a person from the Temple until they had purified themselves and so on.)

We are not meant to walk on water

August 12, 2017

Pentecost 11 – 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who dares us to believe and refuses to perform tricks to prove that God exists. Amen.

Recently Michael and I watched the movie “War Machine”. It features Brad Pitt as a gung-ho Four Star American General who is a veteran of the war in Iraq. He is sent to Afghanistan to bring an end the war or at least to find a way to bring the troops home. In order for him to do this the General, Glen McMahon, has been given wide-ranging powers. He is convinced that he, not those with years of experience in the country, knows just how to bring the Taliban to heel. He decides (against his explicit brief) that with more troops he can take Helmand Province, an area which in fact has little strategic or political value and which is a notoriously difficult area in which to carry out any sort of military operation. McMahon uses some underhand methods to gain public support for his plea for more troops and launches his offensive with disastrous consequences – for civilians, for his troops and for the war effort as a whole.

The movie is a good depiction of the sort of self-absorbed person who believes that they and only they are the solution to a problem and who will do anything to prove their invincibility. McMahon is so self-obsessed and so determined that he can do what is required that all objections and rational discussions are swept aside. The accepted wisdom is meaningless to him because he is sure that he knows better.

It is important to have people who challenge the accepted wisdom of their time. Without such people we would not have landed on the moon, explored the depths of the sea, discovered electricity and developed life-saving and life-changing surgery. We need people who see the world differently to provide leadership, to push-boundaries and to ensure that we do not stagnate. At the same time questioning the existing situation simply for the sake of seeking glory, in order to prove someone wrong or simply for the sake of it can expose the character of the contender, lead to harm to some if not many and may put a movement or discovery back years or decades.

Peter was many things – he was impetuous, thoughtless, he didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions and it took him a long time to accept that Jesus’ ministry was not about dramatic miracles and interventions, he wasn’t going to be particularly extraordinary and nor was he going to present as some sort of heavenly being. Today’s gospel is a good example of this aspect of Peter’s character. It demonstrates his overwhelming desire that Jesus be something special or that prove himself to be who he says he is. He couldn’t accept things as they were. He needed to push the boundaries to provide himself with some sort of evidence that Jesus really was who Peter hoped him to be.

Because Peter cannot simply accept things as they are, he puts God (in this case Jesus) to the test. In so doing, Peter reveals his lack of faith, need for absolute proof, and worst of all, his propensity to share the view of Jesus’ opponents that if Jesus is really the Christ, he should demonstrate it in such a way that it would be clear and easy for him to accept.

It is early morning – somewhere between 3:00am and 6:00am. The disciples have been on the lake all night. No wonder their tired, unsuspecting eyes believe that the figure walking towards is a phantom. When they cry out in fear Jesus tries to reassure them. He says: “Take courage, I AM, do not be afraid.” The expression: “Take courage” is one that Jesus has used twice before (9:2, 22) and “Do not be afraid” is an expression that is often on Jesus’ lips in Matthew’s gospel. “I AM” may simply mean “It is I”, but it is also the language used for God in the Old Testament. Eleven of the disciples appear to be satisfied with this response – the familiar language and the “I AM” statement assure them that this is no phantom, but Jesus coming towards them. Peter is not so easily satisfied. He cannot accept things at face value. He challenges Jesus to provide proof of his identity. “If it is you,” he says. “If it is you.” These are the words that Satan uses when he challenges Jesus in the wilderness (4:3,6). They are the words used by the High Priest at Jesus’ trial (26:63) and the words of those who mock Jesus at the crucifixion (27:40). “If it is you[1].” Even before Peter has even left the boat, he has put himself in the same league as Satan and Jesus’ earthly opponents all of whom demand: “Prove yourself, show us what you can do, demonstrate that you are not like the rest of us, and then maybe we’ll believe”.

Peter leaps out of the boat into the waves, not because he trusts Jesus but because he doesn’t trust Jesus. Peter sinks, not because he loses focus but because he didn’t believe it was Jesus in the first place. He puts himself at risk in the hope that Jesus will rescue him and that his doubts about Jesus will be put to rest.

The problem for Peter is that Jesus is not a conjuror. He doesn’t perform miracles to prove himself or to gain status and power. Satan couldn’t persuade Jesus to win over the world by doing astounding feats; Jesus will not perform miracles to win over the High Priest and he will not free himself from the cross just to attain temporary glory. Jesus will not put God to the test by doing something stupid like jumping from the top of the Temple and hoping that God will send angels to catch him.

We are not meant to walk on water, nor are we to take heedless, pointless risks in order to prove to ourselves, or to others, that God exists, or to test whether or not God will get us out of difficult and dangerous situations. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or to manipulate. We have simply to accept that God is, and no matter what happens around us, to hold fast believing that God will come to us over the waves and the winds that buffet us will cease.

 

 

[1] I am grateful to Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman for these insights. workingpreacher.org


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