Following God as if nothing else mattersm

March 16, 2019

Lent 2 – 2019

Luke 13:31-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who is our all in all. Amen.

The mini series “The Cry” is a psychological thriller that moves between the past and the present in a way that is quite confusing and also terrifying. It begins with a courtroom scene is which a young woman is on trial. As the story unfolds we learn that the woman is a sleep-deprived mother of a child who refuses to settle. When the child disappears, our immediate thought is that the distraught woman had something to do with the disappearance and we leap to the conclusion that this is why she on trial. Our suspicion is confirmed (or so we think) when we discover that the child is not missing but dead. As the story vacillates between the past and the present we are taken on a tortuous journey during which the truth is gradually revealed. Only at the very end do all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place and we learn why it is that the woman is in the dock.

Writers, including script writers, use all kinds of techniques to pique our interest and to maintain our attention through the course of a story. Giving the audience or the reader a preview of what is going to happen is just one way of keeping them engaged, of maintaining the tension, or of building suspense.

Luke appears to be doing just this in the gospel and in particular in the five verses we have before us this morning. First of all a sense of imminent danger is created by the warning of the Pharisees who tell Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. This is followed by Jesus’ statement that a prophet cannot be killed outside Jerusalem. The threat posed by Herod and Jesus’ insinuation that he is going to Jerusalem to die intensify a sense of foreboding that has hung over this gospel since Simeon’s prophesy that Jesus would be a sword that would pierce Mary’s soul (2:35); since Satan departed to return at an opportune time (4:13); since the people of Nazareth threatened to drive Jesus over a cliff (4:29); since Jesus so infuriated the Pharisees that they discussed what they might do with him (6:11); and since Jesus’ obscure sayings about the Son of Man being killed and then raised.

We are so inured to story and so familiar with its happy ending, that we do not always hear the threat that lies just beneath the surface nor do we see the sword that hangs over Jesus’ head from the beginning. The reality of the resurrection deafens and blinds us to the way in which tension has been building throughout the gospel and is so evident here.

These five verses make it abundantly clear that Jesus is heading into danger. Twice Jesus mentions a three day time span: “today and tomorrow and the third day”, “today and tomorrow and the next day” which provide the reader with an ominous reminder of the passion predictions. Herod is planning to kill him and Jesus feels that he must go on to Jerusalem for it is there (and only there?) that the prophets die.

The reader cannot help but wonder why Jesus insists on continuing the journey. We find ourselves willing him to turn back, to change his stride and to stop antagonizing those who have the power to destroy him. Surely he has some sense of self-preservation!

It is clear that Jesus knows what is at stake and yet he will not be deterred. His response to the reports that Herod wants to kill him is that he still has work to do. The fact Jerusalem will not welcome him but will murder him is no reason for him to interrupt or to abort his journey, but only gives him cause to continue. He has a mission and a goal and not even the worst threat or the most dire of consequences will deflect him from this task. God’s call on his life is inviolable. For Jesus, life and death have no meaning if they are not in accord with God’s plan for him.

The massacre in Christchurch on Friday reminds us that we live in a world that is filled with unforeseen risks and dangers and that even in our places of worship we are not safe from the horrors of irrational hatred. Christians in Egypt, in Nigeria and elsewhere have long been aware that the practice of their faith places them in great danger. Yet the threat of attack does not prevent them from engaging in corporate worship and the death of church leaders and even of family members does not weaken their faith let alone cause them to lose faith. God’s place in their hearts and God’s call on their lives is such that violence, hatred or disparagement have no power to distract them from what is at the core of their being.

In this season of Lent we are challenged to consider the distractions in our lives, the things that grab our attention, the things that inhibit or interfere with our relationship with God, the things that prevent us from truly heeding and responding to God’s call on our lives and the things that reveal our timidity and our desire for self-preservation. Today’s reading provokes a number of questions: do we waver in our faith when the going gets rough? would we hold true to our course in the face of danger? would we turn aside if we thought our lives were at risk? Are our eyes firmly fixed on God or do we have one eye focused on what is going around us? How much do we trust God with life itself?

Our faith will almost certainly not cost us our lives, but that should not stop us following Jesus as if nothing else mattered.

Advertisements

Authenticity

March 9, 2019

Lent 1 – 2019

Luke 4:1-15

Marian Free

In the name of God who, in Jesus, became totally vulnerable and totally accessible. Amen.

For a while there was a trend among writers and journalists to write searingly honest accounts about parenthood. Articles and columns were written, and books published by new parents, mostly mothers, who took it upon themselves to debunk the myths around parenthood. As I remember most of the authors were people who came to parenting later in life. They had established careers, bought homes and developed reasonably comfortable lifestyles and patterns of existence. None seemed to expect the enormous disruption that a new born child would bring. They had been led to believe all the positives – the flood of love that threatens to overwhelm you and the delights of watching as your child reveals her personality. They had bought “sales talk” of being able to establish a routine, the ability to work around baby’s naptime and the notion that if you do everything right your beautiful baby will fit right into your lifestyle!

When confronted with the reality of babies who don’t settle, whose crying interrupts dinner with friends and who refuse to settle into any sort of fixed pattern, such writers discover that their lives are completely upended and that, among other things, continuing their writing is near impossible. As a consequence of their surprise and unpreparedness they put pen to paper to share their experience and to prepare any other unsuspecting parents-to-be.

(At least this is how I imagine the events that lead to the articles.)

In some way the authors of these biographies felt that their families, their friends and society at large had undersold the difficulties of child-rearing, had put on a positive face despite the difficulties they themselves had confronted and had created an image that a baby would only enrich one’s life and that any down-sides were easily managed if only one used the right techniques.

I can understand how such false views are perpetrated and, if I am honest, I can own my own part in creating an image of trouble-free parenting. As a first (and second) time mother I attended my local playgroup with a number of my peers. Topics of conversation included sleeping through the night, potty training, and other riveting topics. In that situation, in which everyone else seemed to be succeeding at parenting, I found it difficult to admit that my elder child was not yet toilet trained and that my younger child screamed for two hours after every feed, no matter what I did. In that situation, observers could have been excused for believing that I was coping with motherhood and that my children were behaving in the same way as the other children in the group. Of course, unknown to me, there may have been another mother in my group who had difficulties of her own. If I had had the courage to be vulnerable and imperfect, I would have given her permission to acknowledge her own frustrations and concerns.

In the poem “Ash Wednesday” T.S. Elliot prays:

“Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood”

“Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” Elliot recognises that self-deceit, self-delusion is an impediment to authentic relationships. Deception leads to hurt, mistrust, confusion and even anger. As long as we endeavour to hide our real selves and our real experiences, no one will trust us with theirweaknesses and we build a society based not on the truth, but on a collective myth which results in everyone is trying to be someone whom they are not.

Honesty and authenticity inspire trust, allow others to be vulnerable and create relationships which give permission for each person be open and transparent about their own struggles and imperfections. In situations of trust we can share with each other our difficulties in parenting, our anxieties in the work place or even the violence of our spouses. The world would be a better place if we broke down the images of perfection that we try to create and, by being vulnerable ourselves, make a space in which others can own their imperfections.

When we feel that we have to put on a face, when we are tempted to create a positive image of ourselves or to “be strong” in the face of adversity, we do well to remember that Jesus was open to his weaknesses. After forty days of isolation and fasting all kinds of ideas came to him. After all, he was the Son of God! There was nothing that he could not do! He could turn stones into bread, jump off a cliff with no fear that he would come to harm OR he could use his God-given power to rule the world! Whether we attribute these ideas to an external power (Satan) or to Jesus’ own thought processes, they tell us that Jesus was open to temptation and, though he resisted, he was not so perfect that such ideas did not occur to him. He was vulnerable either to Satan’s influence, or to his own desire for recognition or power. That the story of the temptations is recorded, tells us that Jesus had made it known. Jesus was not afraid to let others know that he too had moments of vulnerability and weakness.

It was Jesus’ humanity that made Jesus so easy to relate to – he got tired, he was frustrated with the disciples’ lack of understanding and he was infuriated by the practices of the Pharisees. In turn the disciples felt free to be themselves – confused, foolish and seeking to be first.

Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and theirs with him was authentic and real. Jesus was fully himself as were the disciples. Neither thought less of the other for having human failings and fears, doubts and confusions.

“Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” Self-deceit not only damages and limits our relationships with one another, it also restricts our personal development and constrains our spiritual growth. As long as we delude ourselves as to who and what we are, we make it impossible to have a relationship with God that is meaningful and real, impossible to learn from our mistakes and impossible to realise our full potential.

This Lent, may we have the courage to relinquish our fear of being exposed, may we trust God and those around us with our true selves and create relationships with God and with one another that are honest and real, life-giving and life-sustaining and in so doing grow into our true selves and enable others to do the same.

 

How good, Lord to be here.

March 2, 2019

Transfiguration – 2019fullsizeoutput_133a

Luke 9:28-36

Marian Free

In the name of God, transcendent yet immanent, awesome yet comforting, distant and yet as close as a breath. Amen.

“How good Lord to be here!” Whenever I choose the hymn with which we began this morning, I think that we should sing it every week! How good it is to be here! You may not realise this, but Michael and I have now been a part of this Parish for over eleven years – eleven years. That is long enough for you and I to be comfortable each other, way past the time when I might do something unexpected or surprising. With some exceptions, we do the same things week after week, year after year. We sing more or less the same hymns and we have the same preacher. It would not be surprising if, after all this time, our weekly worship might just be “more of the same”. Not at St Augustine’s! One of the real joys of serving this community is that more Sundays than not, at least one person leaves the church saying something to the effect of, “that was wonderful this morning”. To which I reply: “It always is.”

What a privilege and joy to be part of a community that finds our regular, repetitive Anglican gathering uplifting and joyful! How good it is to be here!

Why is it so good? It is good I believe, because in this place and at this time, we are transported out of our day-to-day lives into an experience that is transcendent and transformative. From the moment we enter the church we are confronted by the beauty and grandeur of the building and of the windows. It is obvious that we are in no ordinary place. Even someone with no faith at all cannot fail to be overwhelmed by the soaring roof, the warm timbers and the glorious colours. St Augustine’s is magnificent but in no way is it imposing or unwelcoming. Many who see the interior for the first-time comment on the beautiful feeling that seems to emanate from the walls. We are blessed to worship in a space that is both transcendent and familiar, in which we are both filled with awe and made to feel at home.

How good it is to be here. While our corporate worship might be formal and uplifting it is also comfortable and relaxed. Individually and corporately, we experience the presence of God through our hymns, our readings and, of course, through the Eucharist. Our familiarity with the words and with the pattern of the liturgy does not blunt our awareness of what it is that we do, nor are we allowed to forget that the God whom we worship is both here with us and yet just beyond our grasp. Our worship is moving, uplifting, informative and joyful. It is comforting and reassuring as much as it is awe-inspiring.

Yet though we might be transported by the beauty of our surroundings or deeply moved by the experience of worship, we are also grounded and in touch with the world from which we have been drawn. This helps us to maintain the balance between the transcendent and the immanent (to use the technical terms), to remember who we are and who and what God is. We have to be careful that we are not so enchanted with the experience of God’s presence, not so caught up in the transcendence of the moment that we lose sight of our mission to the world. Our experience of worship may seem to take us to another dimension but that must not cause us to lose sight of the fact that God is as present in our day-to-day living as God is present in our “mountain-top” experiences.

In today’s gospel it is Peter who says: “How good for us to be here!” Peter, with James and John has accompanied Jesus up a mountain to pray. Before their very eyes, not only is Jesus transformed, but Moses and Elijah appear and speak with him. It is as if heaven itself has opened up and gathered the disciples in. Peter’s awe-struck response is to try to capture the moment, to freeze it in time so that he with James and John, can spend the remainder of their lives caught up in this extraordinary moment – never again to have to engage with the nitty gritty of everyday existence.

Peter has yet to understand the reality of Jesus’ ministry, a reality that will be played out in his own life of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus, he will learn, is not to live one’s life on an exalted spiritual plane but to be fully engaged with the human experience. Peter will come to know that moments of transcendence such as this are not to be held on to, but are to inform and energise the mundane, difficult and sometimes dangerous day-to-day work of being a follower of Jesus.

This morning’s hymn ends: “How good, Lord, to be here, yet we may not remain; but since you bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.”

However good it is to be here, our call is to take our knowledge of God into the world, to fully engage with everyday realities, both good and bad. We come here week by week for our mountain-top experience. Consciously and deliberately we bring ourselves into the presence of God. For this one hour we focus intentionally on our relationship with God. In this time and place we allow ourselves to be inspired, fed and nurtured so that reinvigorated, renewed and transformed, we can go into the world and live lives that are infused with the presence of God and the knowledge of God’s presence.

Upside down, back-to-front Kingdom of God

February 23, 2019

Epiphany 7 – 2019

Luke 6:27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks from us only what will serve our own sense of well-being and wholeness. Amen.

Some forty years ago there was a movie about the life of Jesus. It is so long ago that I cannot remember the name of the movie or on which gospel it was based. I do remember two things. One, the language used in the film was that of the King James Bible which sounded clumsy and archaic. The second is the way in which the movie portrayed Jesus teaching the parable of the sower. Time has probably clouded my memory somewhat, but as I recall, Jesus was speaking as he walked through a crowded market. What that meant was that those who heard the beginning of the parable didn’t hear the ending and those who heard the ending had no idea how the parable began. The image jarred at the time, and it jars now as I recall it. The gospel writers don’t describe Jesus walking and talking. Mark depicts Jesus teaching from a boat. In Matthew’s gospel the bulk of Jesus’ teaching occurs in the Sermon on the Mount and in Luke Jesus’ teaching is presented in the Sermon on the Plain and during the journey to Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus is teaching, he appears stationary.

That said, while those who were present would have been able to hear the beginning and the end of the story, if Jesus teaching consisted of a string of sayings such as we have in today’s gospels, I imagine that the crowds would have scratched their heads and wandered away in confusion. Just as Jesus almost certainly did not walk as he taught, so too, it is unlikely that he stood up before a crowd and presented a series of unconnected aphorisms such as we find in today’s gospel. The gospels indicate that Jesus was a good teacher. He able to gain and hold the attention of the crowds who surrounded him, and he taught in such a way that many came to understand that he was the anointed one. No proficient teacher would include such diverse and unconnected material in one lecture as we have before us today.

Love your enemies, give your coat and your shirt, don’t complain if someone takes away all your goods, lend to those who can’t pay you back, forgive, don’t judge and give generously. No doubt, over the course of his ministry Jesus said a number of things in a variety of different contexts – over meals, as he and the disciples walked along and at times when Jesus was teaching a crowd. He may have been responding to a question from the disciples, commenting on the behaviour of the Pharisees, making an observation or simply repeating Old Testament wisdom. What is almost certain is that Jesus didn’t say all of these things at the same time.

After Jesus’ death, his followers will have recalled and repeated Jesus’ teachings. At some point, and being anxious to keep Jesus’ memory alive, someone has gathered his sayings together and created some sort of order. For example, today’s gospel suggests that the collator of the material has grouped similar sayings together – the sayings about non-resistance are placed with sayings about love of enemies, the saying about being merciful is connected with that about not judging and the saying about giving more than what is asked is put in the same context as that of giving abundantly.

This means that we don’t have to insist that the sayings in this morning’s gospel fit together neatly nor do we have to worry about their relationship one to one another.

Like the beatitudes which on the surface are counter-intuitive, the sayings reverse our usual way of thinking. Jesus insists that poverty, grief and persecution are to be seen as a blessing not as an affliction, that they are life-giving and not soul-destroying. Jesus goes on to demand that we live in ways that are counter-cultural, non-reciprocal, non-judgemental, selfless and generous. In other words, we are to behave in ways that are contrary to our natural instincts and which have the potential to set us apart from the society in which we live. Like it or not, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to give to those who can give us nothing in return, to refrain from retaliation, to forgive and not to condemn.

Contrary to expectation, applying these values to our lives does not leave us impoverished, down-trodden, taken advantage of or abused – just the opposite. Self-sacrifice, love of those who do not love us and generosity towards others rewards us in ways we cannot begin to imagine. If we live according to these principles, we will discover that instead of being small and petty, jealous and judgemental, we become expansive and open-handed, gracious and understanding. We are not called to make sacrifices for the sake of sacrifice. We are called only to let go of those things that limit us and to relinquish those things that have us in their power. God does not make demands that are burdensome and life-denying. God seeks only our well-being, our development and our wholeness. Indeed, when we learn to graciously accept what life throws at us and when we focus more on others than on ourselves, our world-view is enriched and enlarged, our anxieties are diminished, our hearts are expanded and our sense of satisfaction with our lives and our place in the universe is increased beyond our imagination.

In the upside down, back-to-front kingdom of God what we give up is more than compensated for by what we get back.

Not our our watch?

February 16, 2019

Holy Innocents – 2019

Matthew 2:13-18

Marian Free

In the name of God who uses love, not force to ensure obedience and trust. Amen.

Some of you will have seen the recent movie, “Mary, Queen of Scots”. Mary was the legitimate daughter of James the V of Scotland, but more importantly, she was the great, granddaughter of England’s Henry VII, and, after the childless Elizabeth, she was the legitimate claimant to the English throne. Mary who at only 6 days old was declared Queen of Scotland as a consequence of the death of her father, was sent to France for her education. At eighteen Mary, a Roman Catholic, returned to a Scotland that in her absence had embraced Protestantism and did not welcome a papist Queen..

Her troubles in Scotland were one thing, but it was the fact that Mary was a threat to Elizabeth’s reign and and the fact that her presence might be the catalyst for civil war or war between the two nations, that led her to her imprisonment and finally to her execution. As long as Mary was alive, she could be a focal point for dissent in the realm and beyond, and Elizabeth’s grip on power was weakened as a result.

The history of the British monarchy is littered with stories of intrigue – of people seeking favour with the king (or queen) to increase their wealth or to bolster or secure their power; or of competing heirs to the throne who must be destroyed lest they pursue their claim by force or become figureheads for those who want to depose the crown. As a consequence, the queen (or king) learns that no one can be trusted, that power must be maintained by force and that any and all opposition must be eliminated so that they no longer pose a threat.

Given our own history, it should come as no surprise to us that Herod, whose position is entirely dependent on his relationship with Rome and his ability to maintain control over a people who despise and reject him, should be agitated when he learns from the magi that a king has been born and not only a king, but the legitimate king of the Jews. The child presents a double threat – he could become a focal point for the unrest that was always just below the surface or he could raise an army and make a claim for Herod’s throne. From Herod’s point of view there is only one way to avoid conflict and loss of face (not to mention loss of power). The child has to die. The problem, in this instance, is that Herod has no way of knowing when the child was born, so just to be safe, he kills all the boys who were born in Bethlehem in the two years before the magi’s visit.

There is no external historical proof that Herod did in fact slaughter the children of Bethlehem, but history has demonstrated time and time again that despots deal with threats to their power in only one way – by ruling tyrannically and by ruthlessly crushing any hint of opposition. Those who challenge, resist or protest oppressive and unjust regimes are usually arrested, tortured and killed – not only in the distant past but also in our present time.

News reports tell us in Venezuela today – a country in which inflation is out of control, medicines are impossible to source and food is scarce – the military is sent to into the slums to quell unrest, with violence if necessary. Protesters who are arrested simply disappear. In Turkey in 2016, an attempted coup against the government led to the imprisonment – not of students, and rabble rousers, but of lawyers and judges and military personnel. Anyone who was critical of the government or who was perceived to be a threat, was arrested and imprisoned. According to a CNN report, more than 110,000 people have been incarcerated since – a number that includes 200 top Turkish court officials. Many have been taken into custody despite the fact that there is no evidence that they had any involvement in the coup. The President was not and is not taking any risks.

In any time and place leaders who do not have the support of their people use repressive and violent means to suppress and eradicate opposition. Stalin’s Russia, Hitlers Germany, Apartheid South Africa, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the list goes on and on. Brutal repression of revolt, the silencing of dissidents, and the scapegoating of those who are different is justified by the need to keep law and order and it gains support by the vilification and denigration of those who dare to expose injustice and oppression.

So, is Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the innocents simply a commentary on the abuse of power or – does it have something to say to those of us in twenty first century Australia who have the right to choose who governs us and the freedom to criticise our leaders and to protest decisions that we feel to be unreasonable or unfair?

I suspect that we have to recognise that there is a little bit of Herod in all of us, concern for our own welfare, fear of the unknown and a desire to maintain the status quo and in every age there will be those who abuse their power.

It is important that we do not become complacent. We have to be careful that our silence does not give legitimacy to acts of cruelty and torture, that our need for stability and security does not lead us to shore up unjust systems and oppression governments, that our own need for security and peace does not make us indifferent, or worse, deaf and blind to the legitimate complaints of others and that our desire to protect and preserve what we have does not make us fearful of the claims others might make on us.

In other words, let us be on our guard and let us do all that we can to ensure that the innocent are not slaughtered on our watch.

Try again

February 9, 2019

Epiphany 5 – 2019

Luke 5:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges us to go our of our depths to see who, with the help of Jesus, we can be. Amen.

The most popular attraction in Israel is, perhaps surprisingly, a first century fishing boat. The boat in question was discovered by two brothers from Kibbutz Ginnosar who used to trawl the shore of the Sea of Galilee looking for artifacts. On one such occasion they discovered the outline of a boat. The story of raising and preserving the boat is fascinating and, thanks to the care taken with it’s restoration, we have an almost complete boat from the time of Jesus. It could hold up to fifteen men and their catch. The one located and preserved at Ginnosar had been repaired on many occasions during the course of its life and archeologists have identified a huge variety of timbers that, over time have been used to repair the boat. While the archeological significance of the discovery is immense and adds a great deal to our understanding of the craft of boat building in the first century, the discovery has the added weight of giving us a truer idea of the sort of vessel into which Jesus might have climbed in today’s gospel.

As with many of the accounts in our gospels, the story of the miraculous catch can be read in a variety of ways and on many different levels. We can notice the difference between this version of Peter’s call and that of the author of Mark, or we can compare the story with the post-resurrection catch of John’s gospel. Time could be spent comparing Peter’s reaction to Jesus with that of the prophets who, in the presence of the divine, recognize their limitations and frailties and protest their unworthiness. What did Jesus teach from the boat and what does it mean to ‘catch people alive’ we might wonder? Why does Peter address Jesus as ‘master’ before the catch and as ‘lord’ after the catch? And why does Luke use the language of ‘catching people alive’ (or enthralling them) when Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus commissions the first disciples to ‘fish for people’.

These eleven verses, that on the surface recount the call of Peter, James and John, are filled with meanings and nuances that are both obvious and subtle. It could take hours for us to unpack the various complexities of the scene!

Today, I’d like to explore the possibility that the the story of the miraculous catch is a metaphor for our own time, that Jesus urges us to try again when we have lost hope and when feel that we have done all that we can.

We live in an age in which many of have grown weary of trying to win people for Christ and in which too often we fall into despair at the decline in church attendance and at our our inability to prevent the church’s slide into irrelevance. It is a time in which religion is often used to defend conservative values at the cost of compassion and to the detriment of the gospel message of love and in which the political and social landscape is undergoing great change. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the hopelessness of our situation and to simply give up.

Peter, James and John were, according to Luke, professional fishermen. They owned their boats and were in a business partnership. Almost certainly their fathers were fishermen before them and from an early age they would have understood the lake and the times at which the fish were most likely to be running. After an unfruitful night they would have been tired and frustrated and possibly anxious about the loss of revenue and in no mood to have another go. There would have been no reason for them to respond to a tradesman from Nazareth who knew nothing of the ways of fish or of the sea. Yet Jesus’ word is authoritative enough to persuade Peter to go back to the deep and to try one more time. He is rewarded with a catch so large that it begins to break the nets and Peter is forced to call for help.

The world of Peter was no more benign or settled than our own. Peter, James and John were not carefree fishermen, plying their trade and selling their catch. Rome overshadowed all their lives. The state would have demanded that they pay a tax or a levy for the right to fish and Rome’s representatives may have demanded a proportion of the catch. Life would have been difficult and the conditions oppressive and there would have been no reason to imagine that the situation was about to change. Tomorrow would be more of the same, but the certainty of their lives, hard as they were, would surely have more allure than the uncertainty of trusting in let alone following Jesus.

Jesus approached fishermen who were disillusioned and tired and he told them to try one more time. He ignored Peter’s protestations that he was a sinful man and without so much as a ‘by your leave’ he assured Peter that from now on he would hold people enthralled.

Many of us in the church are exhausted and disheartened. We feel that we have done all that we can to bring about growth in our congregations. We are conscious too, that collectively we are tainted by scandal, blemished by the compromises we have made and held in scorn because we have been unable to change and adapt.

When we feel that we have reached the limit of our reserves, Jesus comes to us, takes his place with us and says: ‘Try again. Take heart, go out once more into the midst of a world that is complex and hostile. Throw out your nets one more time. You will be amazed at what I can do with you – sinners that you are. Don’t be afraid, with me you will hold people enthralled.’

Spoiling for a fight?

February 2, 2019

Epiphany 4 -2019

Luke 4:21-30

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges cultural norms and who asks us to see the world in a different way. Amen.

The movie Once Were Warriors depicts in very graphic terms a family caught in a cycle of violence, unemployment and neglect. It could be about any society but in this instance it is about a Maori family – hence the title. The husband loses his job, the wife is abused and, partly as a consequence of the dysfunction in the family, a son ends up in jail. There is worse, but I will spare you that. One particularly confronting scene is that in which the wife goads the husband until, unable to bear it, he lashes out at her.

What is it that causes some people to spoil for a fight? Why would one person try to so antagonize another that the other would respond with force? I can only guess that in this case the woman was trying to expose her husband’s weakness. That she seemed to think that if she could get him to hit her it would prove to them both that he was less than a man. In other words it was her way of putting him down and perhaps of building herself up. He beat her because his masculinity was threatened. Ironically, by using violence he proved her right.

There are all kinds of reasons why people deliberately antagonize another. One is to prove moral superiority. Another is just the opposite – if a person can get someone to attack them (verbally or otherwise) it reinforces their own low-esteem. They can think: “Of course they would attack me – I’m worth nothing more.” People who are very sensitive to criticism are always on the defensive. They are spoiling for a fight because that they feel that if they can get in first, they will have the upper hand in any argument that results. Someone who is angry might be looking for a fight just in order to release the tension that has built up inside them. If they have been put down or criticized by someone they might pick a fight with the next person they see in order to release the anger they feel or to restore their own sense of worth.

Others provoke fights in order to demonstrate their own strength in comparison to someone else. (I think for example of the shortest boy in my year at high school. He was forever egging on the taller boys so that he could engage them in battle and show that, even if he was small, he was at least as strong or as tough as they.) Similarly, someone with low self- confidence might try to prove themselves to their friends by seeming to take on someone else. Some of us may have been in the uncomfortable situation of having a complete stranger call out: “Hey, what are you looking at?” when we didn’t think we were looking at anything at all.

A rash response to a perceived threat or a desire to big-note oneself in front of one’s friends can have tragic results – especially if the person concerned is under the influence. So called ‘one punch’ attacks are usually brought on by someone consciously or unconsciously looking for a fight.

What, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with today’s readings?

If you look or listen carefully you will notice an apparent disconnect between what the people say of Jesus and his response to them. In verse 22 we are told that all “the people spoke well of Jesus and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his tongue.” Jesus’ response though is not one of quiet pleasure – just the opposite. He goes on the attack. He says: ““Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

What has caused this outburst from Jesus? Is he, as it appears, spoiling for a fight?

To solve the problem of Jesus’ harsh reaction we have to seek the help of social scientists .

The highest form of social currency in first century Mediterranean society was that of honour. Honour was something that was bestowed by birth and could only be increased by taking honour from another (by putting them to shame). One’s honour had to be protected at all costs.

This appears to be the issue here. Jesus is not spoiling for a fight – but he senses that his listeners just might be and he tries to cut them off at the pass. You see, Jesus hears what we do not. He understands that the words of praise are qualified by a subtle attack: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask – simple words that contain an underlying anxiety,

Jesus’ honour, his place in his community, was determined by that of his father, and by extension the community to which he belonged. The cultural norms of the time dictated that Jesus should follow in his father’s footsteps and that he should not seek to change his place in the world. No wonder Jesus’ self identification as a prophet causes great consternation in his home town. Jesus’ claim to more honour than that which is his due inevitably diminishes the honour that is available to his fellow villagers – an increase in his status leads to a reduction in theirs. In a world in which honour is a limited and precious resource this is in fact a matter of life and death.

Jesus’ apparently unwarranted aggression may in fact be evidence that Jesus wishes to avoid the fight that his listeners want to bring on. This view is reinforced by Jesus’ refusal to fight back when they attempt to drive him over a cliff. Indeed the remainder of the gospel will demonstrate most vividly that, rather than seek status honour for himself, Jesus does those things which bring him into disrepute. He mixes with outcasts and sinners and submits to the most shameful of deaths.

Here, at the start of his ministry, he refuses to give his listeners satisfaction. He will not contend with them for honour. In life and in death Jesus will show that the kingdom of God operates according to different standards and measures a person’s place in the world by different norms.

Jesus will not be drawn into the narrow confines of their way of thinking, he will not be controlled by the restrictive cultural norms of his day. He slips through the crowd who threaten him and goes on his way proclaiming the good news of a kingdom that is not governed by human limitations.

Knowing our audience

January 26, 2019

Presentation of Christ in the Temple – 2019

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who has no beginning and no end. Amen.

Consciously or not, we all use rhetoric to ensure that our point of view is heard or that others are brought around to our way of thinking. The use of rhetoric in the modern world is perhaps most obvious in politicians and preachers whose futures may depend on their ability to sway their listeners. In ancient Greece rhetoric was highly prized and there were many schools of rhetoric and a vast number of books on the subject. Assessment in the subject was pass or fail. A student who had complete the course would be sent to their home town to give a speech. If they convinced their friends with their argument, they received a pass, if they did not, they failed. This was not as harsh as it sounds. The life of a philosopher was not an easy one.  They wandered around the countryside peddling their particular view of the world. Their success or failure depended entirely on their ability to command an audience and to persuade them that their arguments were valid. Success would ensure that they would have a bed for the night and food for the journey. It might even mean that they would secure a patron who would supply their every need.

Paul was a skilled rhetorician as were the gospel writers. In the first century the stakes were high. Those who followed Jesus were convinced that faith in him was the means to salvation, a source of liberation, peace and joy. They didn’t want to simply tell people about Jesus, they wanted their audiences to believein Jesus. It was not easy, they often came under attack and had to defend their faith. One way to do this was to demonstrate to their critics that the faith was rational, that it did not emerge in a vacuum but had a solid and respectable history. (In rhetoric terms this is known as an apology[1]– not in the sense of being sorry for something, but in the technical sense of mounting a defense.)

Luke uses this skill subtly, but to great advantage.

The third gospel is addressed to Theophilus who may be a high official in the Roman Empire, ora generic personage who represents Gentile (non-Jewish) readers. Either way, this and other clues suggest that Luke’s gospel was directed at a gentile audience. For example, in today’s gospel Simeon claims that Jesus is “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” and the Lucan Jesus is the Saviour as the world, not of the Jews alone[2]. Only Luke’s gospel includes the parable of the Good Samaritan and only in Luke do we have the account of the Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks. Luke’s inclusion of these stories ensures a receptive hearing among Luke’s gentile audience.

The author of Luke must do more than prove that Gentiles have a place in the faith. If he wants to convince people to give up their ancestral religions and practices to embrace faith in Jesus, he must also establish the credentials of the Christian faith – to demonstrate that this is not a religion that has sprung up from nowhere, but which has a deep and respectable place among the religions of the world[3]. Luke manages to weave these two goals seamlessly into his story.

Luke defends the gospel’s Jewish heritage in a number of ways. Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke begins and ends the gospel in the Jerusalem – the centre of the Jewish faith and worship. At the start we find Zechariah in the Temple when the angel appears to him and at the conclusion instead of returning to Galilee (as they do in the other gospels), the disciples remain in Jerusalem which is where Jesus appears to them. Zechariah and Elizabeth both come from long established priestly families and Mary and Joseph are shown to be pious Jews – Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day, presented at the Temple “when the time came for their purification”, and taken to Jerusalem every yearfor the festival of the Passover (2:41). It is on one of these occasions that Jesus stays behind in the Temple and impresses the teachers with his answers. More than in other gospels, Jesus is found teaching in the synagogues.

In this way, Luke makes it clear that the faith he propounds is not new and superficial but is connected to one that has a long and noble heritage. In other words, Luke’s gentile readers can trust what he is saying.

Our world is both less complex and more complex than that of the first century. In the first century, those who preached the gospel, did so against a background of multiple competing gods and philosophies and had to claim a place, indeed a priority among the religions and ideas of the ancient world. In our day, the panoply of gods has shrunk but there has been an increase in indifference, agnosticism, atheism, scepticism and even antagonism towards faith in general and the Christian faith in particular.

From the writer of Luke’s gospel, we learn that if we believe that our faith is worth sharing it is vital that we understand the context in which we preach. It is essential that we know our audience and how to engage and persuade them, that we understand our history and that we are equipped to tell our story convincingly and well.

Ours is a great story, a transformative story. Our task is to understand those among whom we find ourselves so that we can tell that story in ways that are compelling and convincing and that show that we have taken the trouble to know those to whom we speak.

 

 

[1]It is not a recent publication, but Guerra’s book provides a comprehensive discussion of apologetic and its use in the New Testament. Guerra, Anthony J. Romans and the apologetic tradition: The purpose, genre and audience of Paul’s letter.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, SNTS 81.

[2]This become even more obvious in Luke’s second volume: The Book of Acts in which the gospel spreads in concentric circles from Jerusalem to Rome (the end of the world).

[3]Matthew, who we believe is writing for a largely Jewish audience, establishes the faith’s credentials by demonstrating the ways in which the life of Jesus fulfils OT prophecies.

Love unearned

January 19, 2019

Epiphany 2 – 2019

John 2:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity is poured out freely and abundantly on the deserving and the undeserving. Amen.

Tony Campolo a psychologist, pastor, public speaker and author travelled a lot in the course of his work. Changes in time zones would mean that there were times when he was wide awake when the rest of the world was asleep. On one such occasion he was looking for somewhere to have breakfast at 3:30am. After wandering around he found a rather seedy diner and ordered a coffee and something to eat. While he was eating, the door opened and in came several noisy and provocative prostitutes who made Campolo feel very uncomfortable and out of place. When the women had sat down one announced to the others: “Tomorrow’s my birthday!” To which the response was something to the effect of: “ Bully for you. What do you expect us to do about it?” After a while the first woman responded: “I don’t expect anything but, you know, I have never had a birthday party.”

After they had left, Campolo asked the man behind the counter whether the women came there every night – particularly whether the one whose birthday it was came every night. “That’s Agnes,” the man responded. “Why do you want to know.” Campolo explained that he wanted to throw a party. The man was so impressed with the idea that he insisted that he, not Campolo, provide the cake and his wife offered to do the cooking for the party. Somehow word got around the streets and at 3:15am the next day the diner was crowded with prostitutes. When Agnes walked in everyone shouted: “Happy Birthday!” Agnes, whose life had never been celebrated, burst into tears .”

Compare that story with a true story from my own experience. “Sarah”, also a prostitute, came to faith at a Billy Graham crusade in 1994. The counselors at the crusade put Sarah in touch with her local church which is where I met her. Sarah was open both with the Rector and myself about her profession. She was also honest about the fact that she felt that she couldn’t give up the work until she had paid off a drug debt of $5,000. Interestingly, her conversion experience had enabled her to give up drinking, smoking and drug-taking, but $5,000 does not come from thin air. Such was Sarah’s integrity that she would not be baptized until she had given up the work.

One afternoon Sarah rang me in deep distress. Her psychologist – himself a Christian and a pastor – had accused Sarah of not being committed to Christ because she had not stopped working. I was completely floored. This beautiful, honest person whose personal background had been one of neglect and abuse, was being told that she hadn’t really turned her life around, that she was not sincere in her faith because she was still working. Her psychologist hadn’t offered to pay her drug debt or promised to protect her when the enforcers turned up for payment nor had he validated what she had already given up or affirmed her integrity in delaying baptism.

Sarah was in a state of utter despair and it took the best part of an hour for me to begin to undo the damage this man had done and for her to feel reassured that she was on the right path and that God had not rejected her.

Two Christian psychologists, who were also pastors, responded to the prostitutes in two completely different ways revealing two completely different understandings of the gospel. Campolo saw past Agnes’ profession and recognized her loneliness and alienation. He responded to her with generosity and love. The second man could not see beyond Sarah’s profession and so responded with meanness and condemnation.

These two men represent the different attitudes and responses of the church to those who do not fit the mould of a ‘good’ Christian. Both may feel that they have the love of God in their hearts but one doles out that love sparingly and only to people whom he considers deserving of that love. He believes that compassion and forgiveness must be earned and that a person must achieve a particular standard in order to be acceptable to God. His view of God’s kingdom is that it only includes the worthy and that he is in a position to determine who is and who is not worthy to belong. The other, who is from what is perhaps a more conservative Christian tradition obviously reads the Bible in such a way as to understand that God’s love is expansive and inclusive, that it cannot be earned but is poured out in equal measure on the deserving and the undeserving alike. The first demanded that Sarah change in order to earn God’s love, the latter showed God’s love to Agnes without condition.

Over and over again, in his teaching and in his actions, Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is poured out on those who do nothing to deserve it and that God delights in showing that love. The lost sheep is not reprimanded, the lost son is not castigated. When the lost are found they are not made to do penance. God doesn’t wait until they have redeemed themselves, instead from the moment they are found there is a celebration, a party – not only on earth, but also in heaven.

When Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, he doesn’t say, “Go and make reparation, then come follow me.” He doesn’t demand that Zacchaeus stop collecting taxes. He simply says: “Come down. I’m going to have dinner with you.” The thief on the cross was not asked to repent but assured of his place in paradise.

God’s love is not doled out sparingly or meanly in response to what we (and others) do or do not do. God’s love is lavishly bestowed on those who have not done, or cannot do, anything to deserve it including ourselves. God does not wait till we are good enough and God holds nothing back – there is more than enough bread for those who need to be fed and more than enough wine to ensure that the wedding party does not come to an abrupt end.

Like the bread on the mountainside or the wine at the wedding, God’s love is not measured and limited but vast and abundant. It is withheld from no one, ourselves included.

Expect the unexpected

January 12, 2019

Jesus’ Baptism – 2019

Luke 3:15-22

Marian Free

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

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

As the author says in the introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]Working Preacher


%d bloggers like this: