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

Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.

 

 

Good citizens or bad?

July 29, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 13:30-33, 44-52

Marian Free

In the name of God who refuses to be bound by the limits of the human imagination and who challenges us to go outside our comfort zone to be part of God’s kingdom. Amen.

In our society used-car salesmen and real estate agents are, in general, held in suspicion. There is a belief (based on the experience of some people) that a used-car salesman will use all his persuasive power to convince an unsuspecting buyer to purchase a “bomb” and that real estate agents will in the same vein exert pressure to induce someone to buy a home that may or may not be what they were looking for. Naïve and not so naïve buyers can find that they have spent more than they intended on a car or house that fails to live up to their expectations or that costs them more than it was worth.

Every age has stereotypes that are imposed on members of certain professions, cultures and social classes regardless of whether or not they are an accurate representation of all the people who could be included in a particular category. In every age there are those who contradict or confound the expectations of those around them. Not all used-car salesmen take advantage of their customers’ trust and not all real-estate agents behave in ways that cause alarm.

Today’s gospel consists of five parables, the first four of which have in common that Jesus uses an image that has a negative connotation and turns it around so that it says something that is positive. In order to understand the parables of the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure and the pearl, we first need to know something of the culture of Jesus’ day.

In first century Palestine, mustard was a noxious weed. Farmers would routinely pull it out of their fields. Leaven was an agent caused decay and while used correctly it could cause bread to rise, it was also an image for evil or corruption. In the absence of banks, treasure was often buried to keep it safe from robbers and marauders. The hidden money is no surprise then, but to whom does it really belong – the owner of the land or the person who has been illegitimately digging around in a field that does not belong to him? Finally, we have a merchant and a pearl. Merchants occupied the place that used-car salesmen and real estate agents occupy in our time. In other words, they would try to purchase goods at the lowest possible price and to sell them for as much as they could persuade someone to pay.

Parables that in the first instance appear to us as bland and almost self-evident, take on quite a different flavour when seen in the light of the culture of Jesus’ time. In comparing the kingdom of heaven to a weed, an agent of corruption, a thief and a merchant, Jesus is giving status to things and people that would normally be considered as contemptible. He is subverting the normal cultural view and suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is very different from anything that his listeners might have envisioned.

Can you imagine the response of Jesus’ listeners when they heard these four parables? No doubt they, like us, had in their heads some sort of idea as to the nature of the kingdom of heaven and what it might take for someone to attain it. I suspect that they, like us, associated the kingdom of heaven with righteousness and good behaviour. They assumed that it was a place (an existence) in which all corruption, unscrupulousness, dishonesty and all that was worthless had been weeded out. A place not too dissimilar to the world with which we are familiar, minus all the things that in our eyes are not “good” or not “worthy” of the kingdom.

Jesus’ parables often contain contradictions that force Jesus’ listeners to see the world and to see the kingdom in a new and different way. Wheat that can yield thirty, sixty or a hundred fold, weeds that are left to grow among the wheat, a Samaritan who is good or a father who welcomes back a son who wished him dead. Here as elsewhere Jesus turns convention on its head reminding us that no matter how hard we try we will not be able to put ourselves in God’s place or to begin to dream what God sees, what God thinks and what God plans for the future.

In other words, so long as we think according to the conventions of our time, we will be blind and deaf to the possibilities of the kingdom. Jesus is suggesting that sometimes being a good citizen of heaven means being a “bad citizen” in terms of the world. Standing up for justice, confronting evil and corruption or challenging unfair, discriminatory practices may mean putting ourselves on the “wrong side” of the law, outside the boundaries of so-called respectable society and challenging the status quo. By behaving in a way that is non-conventional, by operating in ways that differ from the standards of the world Jesus implies, we may in fact discover that we are conforming to the values of the kingdom.

Jesus tells parables, not to provide comfort, not to give us nice stories to tell our children and certainly not to help us to “fit in” to the culture of our time. Jesus tells parables to shock us out of our complacency, to challenge the arrogance of our preconceptions and to open our eyes to the endless possibilities of the kingdom, possibilities that far exceed our ability to imagine. Parables force us to ask ourselves whether, by concentrating on being good citizens of this society, by conforming to the values of the world around us and by fitting in with our culture, we are in fact squandering our opportunity to learn what it means to be good citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

 

Ending the cycle of violence

July 22, 2017

Pentecost 7 – 2017

Matthew 13

Marian Free

In the name of God who has no scores to settle, no records to keep, and who knows that goodness will have the final word. Amen.

On my father’s side my family tree is littered with convicts – transported for any number of things from petty theft, to bigamy to high treason. As was often the case, many of these men (they were all men) went on to lead respectable lives after they had served their time or were pardoned. One such man had been send to Van Dieman’s Land when he was just a teenager. As an adult, he decided to stand for Mayor in a town in country Victoria. During the campaign his opponent threatened to expose my relation’s convict past. Instead of being threatened or nonplussed by the threat, my ancestor simply said something to the effect that someone standing for public office could expect that his past would become public knowledge. This apparently silenced his opponent, who realised that if he went down this track there was a possibility that he too might be exposed to embarrassment if elements of his own past were revealed.

Trying to embarrass, intimidate or humiliate another person comes with the attendant risk that not only might it backfire, but that it might also lead to an endless stream of mud-slinging, trading of insults, character assassinations and put downs in which no one ends up a winner. By refusing to get caught up in the game, my forebear put an end to such behaviour before it had an opportunity to take root. His refusal to play the game left his opponent with nowhere to go.

Such might be the point of the first of today’s parables. If we leave aside the interpretation, that almost certainly does not go back to Jesus, we have a tale of a farmer whose enemy has attempted to ruin his crop by sowing weeds in a field of wheat.

As we see day after day on the news the Middle East is no stranger to conflict. In the first century as now, conflicts constantly flare up and grudges are held against those who cause offense – often for generations. It would have been no surprise to Jesus’ listeners that the farmer who had an enemy. In this instance the enemy is not a foreign power, but someone who lives close by. In this case it is possible that the enemy refers a member of a family with whom the farmer’s family may have been feuding for so long that they may well have forgotten what started it all[1].

In a culture bound by the notions of honour and shame, an effective way to get the better of another person was to bring shame upon them. The plan in this case is to make a fool of the farmer by planting zizinia or darnel among the wheat. This would either force the farmer to pull out the crop (wheat and darnel being indistinguishable when seedlings) or to leave both wheat and weed together until it was possible to recognise the difference. No matter what the farmer did he would be exposed to ridicule – either because he had been forced to destroy his entire crop, or because he had allowed weeds to grow up among his wheat. Jesus’ listeners may have laughed to themselves sensing that the farmer has been exposed and brought to shame.

But the farmer has the last laugh. He knows that he will be an object of ridicule whatever he does, but is confident that the wheat will be able to survive the competition represented by the weeds. What is more, if the darnel is left to grow to maturity, it will provide much-needed fuel. At harvest time it is not the farmer who looks foolish, but the enemy. Instead of causing inconvenience and embarrassment, he is exposed as the more foolish of the two. Instead of causing the farmer’s crop to fail, he has provided him with a bonus – fuel to stoke his fires during the cold of winter.

This very different look at the parable reveals it as something of a joke. We can imagine Jesus’ listeners smiling to themselves or laughing out loud at the enemy’s prank (“what a good joke”). We can guess their bemusement and confusion when the farmer refuses to retaliate or to extract revenge on his enemy, but not only goes about his business, but profits from the enemy’s actions. Seen in this way, and without the interpretation, this is a parable that confronts the existing cultural norms and that shows a way out of the vicious cycle of retaliation and revenge. By refusing to react and to pay back his enemy for what he has done, the farmer has broken the cycle of violence. He has demonstrated that a quiet confidence in himself, that does not come from humiliating, injuring or intimidating another has a greater chance of ensuring that his endeavours are successful, that his status in the eyes of his neighbours is not compromised and most importantly that by demonstrating the impotence of the enemy he has exposed the foolishness of perpetuating violence for the sake of violence.

This interpretation of the parable may seem a little far-fetched until we realise that in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-end) there are six other illustrations that show how someone can break the pattern of violence that characterized first century existence. “You have heard it said: You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer.”

Repaying evil with evil ensures that evil will continue to thrive. But if, like the farmer, we have the courage and the self-confidence to say: “Enough is enough”, we will not be condemned or shamed for our weakness, but we will be commended for our restraint. More than that, our own lives will be the richer for it, and our forbearance will have made our neighbourhood, our community and the world a better place.

[1] I am indebted to John Pilch for pointing me in this direction.

God’s wild abandon

July 15, 2017

Pentecost 6 – 2017

Matthew 13:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who with wild abandon, gives the gospel to all the world. Amen.

[To prepare, I made two copies of Matthew 13:1-9 in large print, pasted it on board and then cut out each word (a). I made another copy, cut out each word and pasted the words on card (b). Begin by introducing the gospel, and then toss one set of words (a) indiscriminately into the congregation. Call out: “catch! catch!” Conclude with “For the Gospel of the Lord”].

Props

I’m sure that you’d agree that was most unsatisfactory and not the most effective way of sharing the gospel. If I were to present the gospel in this way every week it wouldn’t be long before you began thinking of me as reckless and irresponsible and you would be right. Today, as it happens, I have a copy of the gospel that I prepared earlier. It reads like this (read Matthew 13:1-8).

The discerning among you may have noticed a) that I haven’t read what the lectionary has set down for the day and b) that that means that I have omitted the interpretation of the parable. I’ve left out the interpretation for two very good reasons. Firstly – most scholars do not believe that the interpretation originates with Jesus. Secondly the interpretation throws a very different light on the way in which the parable is heard. The allegorical explanation focuses on the way in which the word is received. In other words, it takes the responsibility away from the sower and places the emphasis on where the seed falls. When we pay particular attention to the response of the seeds to their environment, or interpret the different types of ground as belonging to different types of people we overlook the miraculous growth of the seeds. Even though the seeds are sown indiscriminately they still manage to produce a crop that is over and above even the most optimistic of expectations.

You see, in first century Palestine the usual yield of a crop was a modest seven-fold increase on what was planted. In comparison even a thirty-fold yield is extraordinary. A, sixty-fold or a hundredfold yield would be beyond comprehension! Jesus’ listeners would have been absolutely startled by what they were hearing. They would have been stunned by the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of the sower who, through carelessness wastes precious seeds. Then they would have been completely taken by surprise by the yield – grain that has been sown with wild abandon, not only produces a decent yield, but a yield that exceeds their wildest imagination..

What then is Jesus trying to say? Jesus is reminding the disciples that God does not discriminate. God throws the seed in any and every direction heedless of where it might land and certain that there is good soil in which God’s gifts will take root, grow and produce abundantly. God is not careful or sparing with the gifts that God has to offer the world, but generous and reckless, confident that the response to God’s actions will be overwhelming – beyond imagination

God showers the world with love, compassion and goodness, confident that it will land and take root and reproduce those gifts in abundance.

We have no need to worry ourselves about the future of the church, God will ensure that in one way or another people will continue to respond to God and in this way, God’s love, compassion and goodness will spread throughout the whole world.

 

For the children – something like this

The Parable of the Sower (or God’s wild abandon)

I ask the children to come forward. Toss some glitter into the air so that it lands on everyone. Ask if they all got some. Ask if I was careful how I threw it (hopefully they will say I wasn’t). Did I try to make it land on the eldest, or the cleverest or the one who was the best behaved? (Again, hopefully they will say I didn’t.)

Wonder aloud how long it will take to come off. Suggest that they will sparkle all day – just a tiny bit of glitter will catch the light. Tell them that whenever someone sees the glitter it will make them smile.

Tell them that God’s love is like that. God throws love at everyone – the good and the bad, the clever and the not so clever, the old and the young. If we know that God loves us, we will love ourselves and everyone else in the world. Just like our tiny sparkles of glitter make people smile, our love will make other people feel loved and God’s love will grow and grow and grow until the whole world is filled with love.

Not up to our expectations?

July 8, 2017

Pentecost 5 -2017

Matthew 11:15-19, 25-30

Marian Free

 In the name of God who defies and exceeds our expectations. Amen.

Some things just don’t live up to our expectations. For example, I found the musical: “Phantom of the Opera” truly disappointing. I had gone with high expectations, but the show left me feeling that something was lacking. “Les Miserables” on the other hand, has never failed to impress whether it be musical or not, stage or film.

The same is true of people. We build up a picture in our mind of someone we have never met, only to find when we meet them or come to know more about them our ideas were quite wrong. A week or so ago the TV programme Compass featured the controversial Anglican priest from Gosford. Rod Bower is known for the sign outside his church that sometimes makes it into

Example of Sign at Gosford Anglican Church

the national news and frequently features in my Facebook feeds. With no information other than Rod’s slogans, I had formed the idea that he had to be something of an extrovert. Compass began with a clip of him setting up the sign and clips of him leading and speaking at demonstrations – both of which suggested to me that he was happy to put himself out there, to engage with people and to be a public figure. However when the journalist interviewed him, he revealed himself to be intensely introverted – to the extent that he found joining parishioners for coffee after church difficult. In reality, Rod was the complete opposite of what I had expected.

It is human nature to create expectations about people and events. By and large we don’t like to be caught by surprise so we prepare ourselves. If we are traveling or attending an expensive show, we do a certain amount of research to ensure that our money is well spent and that we won’t be disappointed. If we are inviting a speaker to a conference we do a certain amount of background research to ensure that they will deliver. In the case of someone whom we have never met, we use the information to hand to create a picture in our imagination. If the person is very different from our expectations we might find ourselves either disappointed or pleasantly surprised.

Jesus found himself in a lose/lose situation. He did’t seem to fit any existing expectation. If he had behaved like John the Baptist – neither eating nor drinking – he would have been rejected as a “wowser” or a “party-pooper”. On the other hand, if he came eating and drinking, he would have been accused of being a party-animal or libertine. At this distance, we have no really clear idea what the first century Judeans expected of one sent by God. Some, it appears, thought that John the Baptist really did fit the bill. He was an ascetic, a prophet who challenged the status quo. People flocked to hear him and to be baptised by him, but the establishment who found both his message and his life-style too confronting did not accept him. Jesus on the other hand appeared to be too ordinary, too much “one of the people” to be the “holy one of God”. It is not that he couldn’t please some, Jesus felt as though he couldn’t please anyone.

Even though Paul and our gospel writers have done a great job of combing through the Old Testament looking for texts that demonstrate that Jesus does conform to the expectations of the anointed of God, their efforts demonstrate never-the-less that it is impossible to find an exact fit for Jesus. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say explicitly what the people of Israel should be looking for. In fact, some of the expectations contradict each other – the suffering Servant of Isaiah for example, is the opposite of a king of the line of David. As a result of the confusion, by the beginning of the first century there were a variety of expectations. These are evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls or other inter-testamental writings. People variously thought that God might send a king or a prophet or a priest or perhaps that Elijah would return to save the people. Even so, given their rejection of Jesus, it does seem that above all the people of Judah expected a king or at least a soldier – someone who would free them from the foreign oppressors – the Romans.

Despite what our gospels imply, there was at that time no one, fixed, expectation of the “one who was to come”. It was no wonder that Jesus was not universally accepted as the Christ, no wonder that the crowds found it so easy to turn against him when it seemed that it was all going sour.

Jesus simply didn’t fit. He was not a king, or a soldier or a priest. He was not convincing enough to gain the approval of the leaders of the faith and as a result was ultimately unable to maintain the loyalty of the ordinary citizens.

I am sometimes asked: “Why didn’t the Jews believe that Jesus was the Messiah?” The answer lies in today’s gospel – Jesus was not what they expected him to be. Despite everything – his teaching, the healings, the miracles – Jesus did not live up to their expectations or their hopes. He didn’t gather the nation together as a united front against Rome, against the Gentiles, against the hypocritical leaders or even against those who failed to keep the law in its entirety. As a Messiah Jesus was nothing short of disappointing and, to cap it off, his mission ended with his ignominious death.

Expectations – we all have them. What if our expectations of Jesus are the wrong ones? Would we do any better than the first century Jews if Jesus were to come again today or tomorrow?

Our task is to let go of our expectations and to develop a sense of openness to whatever God might do next, whenever and wherever that may be.

 

 

 

 

We are parched

July 1, 2017

Pentecost 4 – 2017

Matthew 10:40-42

Marian Free

 

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

There are many who find it very difficult to receive assistance or gifts. There are a few explanations for this. Some people feel that they do not deserve attention and so they shy away from it. There are others who do not wish to feel obligated to another. If they receive a gift or are given help in any way they worry that they have put themselves in debt to someone else. Still others are unwilling to acknowledge that they need help – older people for example who do not want their family or friends to see that they are no longer coping. Behind all of these reasons lies a degree of pride and a desire to preserve one’s independence. Being reliant on others is seen as a sign of weakness in our society, so we build up a front, an image that says: “I can manage, I don’t need your gifts or your help.”

If that describes you, you might be in real strife at least according to today’s gospel. Refusing help – especially when help might make a difference in our lives – is one way of shutting people out, of being satisfied with superficial as opposed to real relationships and perhaps worst of all of denying the giver an opportunity to serve.

Last week I mentioned that chapter 10 of Matthew is a chiasm, that is that the first and last thought are similar, as are the second and second last and so on. In this chapter Jesus is addressing the twelve as he sends them out to preach and to heal. The passage begins with Jesus’ telling the disciples to take nothing with them, in other words to be utterly reliant on the generosity of strangers. The section concludes as it began, though it is worded not from the point of view of the disciples, but from the point of view of those from whom they receive hospitality. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” In Matthew’s gospel, the expression “little ones” refers to those who believe in Jesus, members of the community. As at the beginning, it is the disciples’ dependence on others that is at the heart of the statement.

A look at the collect for today indicates that more often than not, this paragraph has been misinterpreted. The collect assumes, as do many commentators, that the passage refers to the generosity of the disciples towards those in need. However, in its context, it is quite clear that Jesus’ words must be understood in reverse. Jesus is suggesting that it is those who provide for the disciples who will be rewarded (not that the disciples should do the providing).

For many of us, this is a challenging and confronting idea. As Christians, most of us will have been brought up to believe that it is our task to alleviate the suffering of the world, and there is some truth in that. However, that is not the message of today’s gospel. Here Jesus is quite clear, the disciples are to place themselves at the mercy of others. They are to put themselves in such a position that they are completely dependent on the kindness of those around them. It is the vulnerability of the disciples that will provide others an opportunity to serve them that in turn will give them a chance to “receive the reward of the righteous”.

This is a profoundly important point – one that is often overlooked, but which is essential in regard both to our relationship with God and to our mission to the world.

In verse 39 we read “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. This is a reminder that our spiritual journey involves a continual process of letting go of control. The life we lose, is not the life that endures for eternity, but a life that relies on the things of this world – possessions, achievements, self-reliance and so on. It is only by relinquishing our independence and by recognising how much we need God’s help to achieve spiritual maturity that we are able to break down the barriers that prevent our becoming completely dependent on God. If we desire to truly be one with God, then we must give ourselves to God without reserve – holding nothing back. We must be ready and willing to accept God’s help and to accept the gifts that God so generously bestows.

At the same time this passage challenges us to provide others with the opportunity to serve us. If we insist on doing everything ourselves and if we constantly refuse offers of assistance then we deprive others of the privilege of being generous or of having the satisfaction of having made a difference in someone else’s life. In effect, by being determined to help, rather than to be helped, we lock people out of relationship with us, we deny them the opportunity to serve God through serving us and ultimately we prevent them from having a relationship with God through their relationship with us. (In other words we do the exact opposite of what Jesus is telling the disciples to do.)

By interpreting these verses in reverse – believing that we have to serve, instead of understanding that we must allow ourselves to be served – we may be participating in the greatest error that the church has made. Thinking that we have something to offer the world, it is possible that we have been blind to what the world has to offer us. By insisting on our independence and emphasising our strengths, we have attempted to cover up our weaknesses and our frailties and our need for assistance. We have become so sure of ourselves, and what we think we can provide to the world, that we have come to convince ourselves that others need us, not that we need them.

We want to serve the world, but in so doing have denied others the opportunity to find God through their service to us.

We want to give the world water to drink but have failed to realise that it is we who are parched.

 

 

What does it take to be number among the disciples?

June 24, 2017

 

 

Pentecost 3 – 2017

Matthew 10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who notices a sparrow fall and who has numbered the hairs on our head. Amen.

You no doubt know that there are tricks to public speaking that are used to gain and to keep the attention of the audience. In the first century only about 1% of the population was able to read, so the gospels were not written to be read, but to be heard – (often in just one sitting). The gospel writers did not simply pull together a life of Jesus. The gospels and their component parts are very carefully structured in such a way as to ensure that their listeners would be gripped by the story and continue to focus on what they were hearing. Because few people could write, it was equally important that the stories about Jesus’ life and teaching were told in such a way that they would be remembered.

We heard last week that the author of Matthew’s gospel carefully structured Jesus’ teaching into five sermons or discourses each of which contained material that had a similar theme. Within at least two of these discourses is an internal structure that aims to unify and emphasise a central theme.

The technical term for this structure is a chiasm. In simple terms a chiasm is the repetition of ideas in reverse around a central theme. A chiasm is used for emphasis and for clarification. It serves to draw attention to the central point that is the focus of the passage and which gives meaning to the whole. One way to think of it is an arched bridge. The footings on either side are the same and the spans on either side mirror each other and hold up the central arch. A simple example of a chiasm is found in Luke chapter 4 – Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, reads the scroll, rolls up the scroll, hands back the scroll and sits down[1]. The reading of the scroll and its content is the central point surrounded by actions in reverse order.

Matthew 10 is an example of a much longer chiasm. The chapter is complex and repetitive, but it begins to make sense when we see that Matthew draws his material together around a central point. The use of a chiasm bolsters and supports this key point in the same way as the footings and spans support the arch of a bridge.

The best way to understand what I am saying is to see what it looks like in practice.

After Jesus calls and names the disciples, the following structure unfolds

A. vv 5-15: The sending out of the disciples: how they should travel and find hospitality; how to respond to acceptance/non-acceptance

B. vv 16-23: Prediction of persecution; being brought before the courts, inner-family betrayal and encouragement in the face of these.

C. vv 24-25: This is because they can expect to be treated in the same way as Jesus.

 D. vv 26-31: Exhortation: “Have no fear.” They are worth so much to God that they can depend on God. (In this        section the disciples are told 4 times that they need not be afraid.)

         C’. vv 32-33: If they confess Jesus on earth, he will confess them.

     B’. vv 34-39 Division in families is to be expected; family loyalties must take  second place to the following of Jesus.

A’. vv 40-42 Those who welcome them will be richly rewarded because they are actually welcoming the risen Lord who is sending them, and ultimately the one – God – who send him[2].

Seen in this light, it is relatively easy to see that the central point around which the remainder circles is the exhortation not to be afraid. At the extremes we have comments about the disciples being accepted or not. The second and second last point warn of divisions (even within families) and the third and third last point stress a believers relationship with God to whom, the centre assures them they are of such value that God knows even the hairs on their head.

It is important to remember that this gospel is, as I mentioned last week, being written after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. It is a time of change and trauma, a time in which both Jew and Christ-believing Jews are trying to work out and to establish their identity in a new and vastly different environment. For those who believe in Jesus there is the added confusion and pain associated with the increasing intolerance of difference and exclusion that is directed towards them from their fellow Jews. This may well have extended to their expulsion from the synagogue. What this means is that those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Jesus are being increasingly isolated from their ancestral faith, from their fellow Jews and ultimately from their families and their friends. Ideas of acceptance and rejection and division even among families would have been extremely pertinent.

These words, addressed to the Twelve in the gospel, must have brought great reassurance and comfort to those who were experiencing the very things that Jesus predicted. To understand that they were just as likely to be rejected as to be accepted, to know that they their experiences united them to the one whom they followed, that their loyalty to him would be repaid by his to them and above all to be reassured that they had no need to fear because they were so valuable to God would have helped them not only make sense of their experiences, but would have given them the courage to stand firm in their faith and to continue to proclaim the gospel in the face of any and all difficulties.

The sort of fear that must have gripped these first Christians, may be matched by those in places such as Egypt and Nigeria today in which simply holding the faith is enough to place one in mortal danger. To know that their persecution is part and parcel of being a disciple must surely give them strength. To know how precious they are to God must help them to understand that there are worse things than death.

We who have no knowledge of such terror and who practice our faith in security and comfort must ask ourselves why it is that we do not draw attention to ourselves, why it is that we do not illicit a negative reaction from those around us. Is it because we have accommodated ourselves so well to our surrounding culture that we no longer stand out as being different? Have we watered down our faith to the point where it is no longer offensive to non-believers? Or is it just that we avoid conversations in which awkward questions might be asked or in which we might be asked to defend our point of view?

Whatever the reason, it is important to consider (20th century disciples of Christ) whether we are so far removed from the situation of the first disciples that Jesus’ instructions and words of encouragement mean nothing to us, or whether we have removed ourselves so far from the risks and dangers of discipleship that we can no longer really call ourselves disciples.

What does discipleship really mean and what will it take for us to be numbered as one?

 

 

[1] The longest and most complex chiasm is the entire book of Revelation.

[2] Adapted from Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden – Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today. NSW, Australia: St Paul’s Press, 2004, 87.

A Jewish Christian view

June 17, 2017

Pentecost 2 – 2017

Matthew 9:35-10:42[1]

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals Godself to us in many and varied ways. Amen.

Thanks to the interruption of Lent and Easter, you may be forgiven if you had forgotten that this is the Year of Matthew. What that means is that just as we travelled through Luke last year, so this year we will make a journey through the gospel of Matthew. Matthew has many distinctive characteristics that will, I hope become obvious as we work our way through the passages set for the remainder of the year. Today I’d like to provide a broad bush stroke of some of the characteristics that set Matthew apart from Mark and Luke.

By way of reminder, it is believed that the first gospel to be written is the one that we know as the Gospel according to Mark. Within a decade, Luke and Matthew put quill to papyrus and composed their own accounts. To do this both Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark extensively. They have also used a common source that scholars have named Q. At the same time Luke and Matthew include material that is unique to them. In the first 12 chapters Matthew relies heavily on Q after which he follows Mark quite closely. Material that is unique to Matthew includes the parable of the 10 maidens and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

In trying to come to grips with Matthew’s gospel it is important to understand something of the background situation. The gospel is written, we think, for a Jewish Christian community in the 80’s of the first century. That is, it is written after the Jewish revolt that led the destruction of Jerusalem and, more importantly, the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was not only a symbol of unity and the liturgical centre of the Jewish faith; it was also the place where God met the people and the place in which reconciliation with God was possible. Without a Temple, the Jews had to rethink who they were and how they would continue as a people of faith.

Fortunately, the Pharisees, with their scepticism in regard to the Temple and their emphasis on the oral law, were well placed to step into the vacuum. In fact it can be argued that without them Judaism might have fallen into disarray and eventual decline. Instead their practice and teaching led to the development of rabbinic Judaism with its focus on the interpretation of the law. One consequence of this development was that there was less tolerance of difference and this included their fellow Jews who believed that Jesus was the one sent by God for their salvation.

Matthew’s community, that consisted of Jews who believed in Jesus also had to re-think who they were – in relation to the law and in relation to their ancestral religion that no longer held them to be members. Who were they in this vastly changed environment and how would they govern their life together? This search for identity and meaning explains what appears to be an over-emphasis on the law in Matthew’s gospel. While the Pharisees were building a new look for the Jewish people based on the law, the Jews who believed in Jesus had to determine what their relationship with that law would be. In the light of their relationship with Jesus, would they abandon the law altogether, would they transform the law or would they keep the law more rigidly even than the Pharisees?

In respect to the community’s relationship with Judaism, the author of Matthew’s gospel is determined to assert that faith in Jesus is not only consistent with Judaism but that Jesus is firmly rooted in Judaism. In the introduction, Matthew’s genealogy makes it clear that Jesus is descended from Abraham (the founder of the Judaism) and of David (from whom the Messiah was to come). What is more, over and over again (explicitly and implicitly) Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises but he replaces the Temple as the way in which the people are reconciled to God.

Because the law and its interpretation take centre stage in this gospel; Jesus is presented as the new Moses – the one who gives the law and who interprets the law.

Just as significant as the setting of the gospel is the way in which Matthew has organised his account. Matthew takes the material that is available to him and arranges it in a way that sayings and stories that have a common theme are gathered together in the same place. It is possible to discern five distinct discourses or sermons each of which concludes: “when Jesus had finished saying these things”. The parables of growth are found in chapter 13, teaching about community life is located in chapter 18 and instructions for the disciples in chapter 10. Accounts of Jesus’ healing and casting out demons are concentrated in chapters 8 and 9.

Today’s reading bridges two sections of the gospel – it concludes the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry and leads into Jesus’ instructions for the Twelve, the second of the five discourses. Interestingly, the setting for this sermon is very similar to that of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus is going about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom the curing disease. On this occasion, instead of Jesus’ healing being followed by teaching, Jesus’ compassion for the crowds is followed by action, that extends his ability to respond. He summons the twelve and equips them to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and sickness. In other words, they are authorised to all that Jesus does.

The discourse continues by telling the twelve how they are to go and what they can expect along the way, but the lectionary makes us wait till next week for that.

Matthew’s gospel is a rich treasure trove to be examined and explored. It reveals an aspect of early church development that we find nowhere else and it presents a view of Jesus that is both similar to and different from that of the other gospels. For the remainder of the year we will be working our way through Matthew’s Gospel. Can I encourage you to read the gospel for yourselves, to have the courage to question it and to tease out things that you do not understand? Let us take this journey together – tell me if my explanations are not clear and share with me the parts that you find difficult or incomprehensible. As we probe the text together we will discover more about what make Matthew’s gospel distinct and why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The reading for the day is much shorter, but the sermon gives an overview of the chapter.

Love, Laugh, Sing

June 10, 2017

Trinity Sunday – 2017

Matthew 28:16-20

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, three in one, one in three. Amen.

Every now and again one comes across an image or a phrase that brings utter clarity to an idea that until that moment had been clouded or obscure. Such was the case for me when I read a poem by William Paul Young (author of The Shack). In the foreword to Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity The Divine Dance[1], Young has written a poem that, for me, shone a light on the Trinity in a way that nothing else has. It goes:

ONE alone

is not by nature Love

or Laugh

or Sing

ONE alone

may be Prime Mover

Unknowable

Indivisible

All

and if Everything is All and All is One

One is Alone

Self-Centred

Not Love

Not Laugh

Not Sing

TWO

Ying/Yang

Dark/Light

Male/Female

contending Dualism

Affirming Evil/Good

And striving toward Balance

At best Face-to-Face

but Never Community

THREE

Face-to-Face-to-Face

Community

Ambiguity

Mystery

Love for the Other

And for the Other’s Love

Within

Other-Centred

Self-Giving

Loving

Singing

Laughter

A fourth is created

Ever-loved and loving.

The contrast between One alone and three in community spoke powerfully to me. A God who is alone could be aloof and unapproachable and, without others, may not laugh and sing. A God who is two has the potential to be divisive – one pitted against the other, each competing for attention. A God who is three yet one is a God who is community – loving, playful and joyful, inviting relationship, inviting us into that relationship.

It is easy for us to imagine that a Triune God is the invention of the Christian church, that God who was one, suddenly became three when Jesus entered human history. That, of course, is nonsense. God is God. God doesn’t suddenly morph from one to three just because, in God’s great love for us, God entered into the stream of human history.

God has been in relationship from the very beginning: creating humankind in God’s image, choosing and speaking with Abraham, communicating directly with Moses and with the prophets. God the Creator gave Godself to humankind in revelation over and over and over again long before God gave Godself to us in the form of Jesus. At the same time over and over again, God has created a response from humanity, working within us in Spirit so that we might know and respond to God.

From the beginning of time then God has been known and expressed as Godself, as God’s self-communication and as God’s presence within us enabling us to respond to God. It is only since Jesus’ presence among us that we have named God as three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – only since the early days of the church that we have struggled to form a doctrine to express in words something that we have always known in our hearts, that God is Creator, Revealer and Enabler.

As the poem suggests, this is important – not least of all, because a Trinitarian God is a God in community. A creative, energizing force is not alone or competitive, but is a divine dance of love that knows no division or separation and creates, sustains and embraces us. The relationship between the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Father, the Spirit and the Father and the Spirit and the Son is such that none are separate, but all three together incorporate the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit.

A God who is relationship both demonstrates relationship – a relationship that is inclusive, self-giving and open – and invites us into that relationship so that as God is one, so we are one with God.

The Trinity is a gift and not a burden. Instead of trying to get our head around the doctrine, the how and why of it all, let us simply rejoice in a God in whose being is Love and Laugh and Sing and who includes us in the loving, the laughter and the song.

[1] Rohr, Richard with Morrell, Mike. The Divine Dance:The Trinity and your Transformation. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016, 19.


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