Archive for the ‘Matthew’ Category

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.

Do your worst. I still love you.

April 15, 2017

Easter – 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who no matter what we do never, ever gives up on us. Amen.

I can still remember the television footage of the moment when the father of Scott Rush first met his son in the prison in Bali. Scott you will recall had been arrested with eight others for attempting to bring a 1.3 kg of heroin into Australia. I imagine that at the moment of Scott’s arrest his parent’s lives will have been completely turned upside down. Their son who had had the advantages of a comfortable upbringing and had attended a good private secondary school was now facing a lengthy jail term, if not death, in a country whose culture and legal system are very different from our own. Scott’s parents Lee and Chris had had to drop whatever they were doing to fly to Bali. No doubt they incurred considerable disruption and expense in the process, not to mention the anxiety and fear that would have attended the news of their son’s arrest. Imagine the embarrassment and shame – visiting Bali as parents of a drug smuggler, facing their friends and acquaintances at home and being exposed to intense media interest.

Media reports suggest that Scott was a drug user who was already known to police and who was wanted in Australia on an outstanding warrant for stealing nearly $5000 from an Australian bank. While he may have been caught up in something bigger than he realised, he was no innocent.

When Scott’s parents arrived at the jail surrounded by TV cameras, they didn’t remonstrate with Scott. They didn’t say: “why have you done this to us?” or “what were you thinking?” They didn’t reproach him for humiliating them or berate him for being so foolish. At what must have been an extraordinarily difficult moment, Scott’s mother Chris said to the journalists who crowded in on them: “I love him”. When his father Lee comes face to face with Scott for the first time, he says, as I recall: “you’re a good boy.” “I love him.” “You’re a good boy.” In the eyes of the world, in the eyes of every parent whose child has become addicted to drugs and especially in the eyes of the Indonesian legal system, Scott was anything but “a good boy”. To his father however, he was and remained “a good boy”.

Drugs – the addiction, the temptation to make vast amounts of money with relatively little effort – show humanity at its worst. Vulnerable people are taken advantage of, dealers use violence or threats of violence to protect their patch, to extract money for debts and to prevent people from breaking free of the habit. Addicts turn to crime and sometimes to aggressive behaviour to pay for their next fix. It is a dark and shadowy world that I am glad to have no part of. Scott might have only been on the fringes of that world, but he was part of it. Yet his father can say: “You’re a good boy”.

The events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion depict humanity at its worst. The disciple who for reasons unknown sells his teacher and friend for thirty pieces of silver, the remaining disciples who promise to be with Jesus even to death, but who abandon him and deny him, the priests who fabricate evidence against him, the solders who mock him, the governor, swayed by the crowd who refuses to do what he knows is right, the lynch mob who bay for Jesus’ death, the crowds who revile him and the soldiers and fellow criminals who taunt him. An innocent man is condemned to torture and death in order to preserve the status quo and to please the crowds.

The story might have ended there. The body of Jesus sealed in a tomb and guarded by soldiers. After all that the people (friend and foe alike) had done, God might simply have thrown up God’s hands in horror and washed God’s hands of an ungrateful and uncaring humanity. God had sent Jesus into the world to save the world, instead God watches humanity spurns the gift, as Jesus endured first betrayal, then trumped-up charges and finally an excruciating death. Imagine for a moment, God’s having to watch humanity behaving in such a debased, immoral and cruel way. Such behaviour would try the patience and love of the most loving and forgiving parent.

One might be excused for thinking that God had done enough for God’s people. God chose them from among all the nations, sent Joseph to Egypt to save them from the famine, brought them out of Egypt when they were no longer welcome and remained loyal and loving despite their waywardness, their lack of confidence in God’s power to save and protect, their failure to listen to the prophets and their chasing after other gods. As a last resort God came among them as one of them in the form of Jesus but they responded by murdering him and with him all hope of salvation. If at that point, God had decided that enough was enough no one would have thought that God was being unreasonable or vindictive. If God had walked away from creation in despair most would think that that was what humanity deserved. Yet God remained steadfast, God did not withdraw God’s love but instead raised Jesus from the dead. In effect God said to the world: “you’re a good boy, you’re a good girl – I love you.”

“I love you. You have done your worst, but I love you. You have shown yourself to be weak, disloyal, fickle and cruel and yet I still love you.”

“I still love you.” The most sure and certain proof of God’s love for us is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection assures us that no matter what we do, no matter how far we stray, God’s boundless endless love will never be withdrawn.

Humanity can do its worst, but God’s love will always triumph.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

 

 

Love sets us free

March 4, 2017

Lent 1 – 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

Marian Free

Lent is Love

             Lent is Love

In the name of God whose love sets us free to be truly ourselves, to grow and to flourish and, in our turn, to love others. Amen.

St Ignatius of Loyola is well-known as the founder of the Jesuits. When he was thirty years old Ignatius, then a soldier, was hit in the legs by a cannon ball. His right leg was wounded and his left severely fractured. As a result of these injuries, Ignatius was forced to spend a considerable amount of time confined to bed. During this time of enforced rest, Ignatius came to faith and decided to devote his life to God. It was then too that he wrote his spiritual exercises – a form of discipline that was designed to assist those who undertook them to develop an understanding of the relationship with God that would enable them to live out that relationship.

The exercises are designed to be completed over a thirty-day period under the guidance of a spiritual director. They are too complex to be described here, but there are two simple elements that can enhance our own spiritual journeys – even if we never find thirty days to complete the retreat ourselves. The first is the attitude that a participant is asked to adopt before they begin. You might like to try it now. With your eyes open or shut, try to imagine God looking at you with complete and unconditional love. Sit with that feeling, allow the love to wash over you, accept that you are perfectly loveable and that you are unimaginably precious to God. Were you able to do it? How did you feel?

My experience is that this is an extraordinarily powerful, liberating and affirming practice. It is very simple and it is something  that we can do every single day as a reminder of just how much you are loved and treasured by God.

All of our spiritual disciplines should begin from this place – with the assurance of God’s love for us. God doesn’t make impossible demands. God doesn’t insist that we mortify ourselves or that we achieve unattainable standards. God simply loves us and we respond to that love by trying to be worthy of that love and by being the best that we can.

As we respond to God’s love, a second Ignatian practice helps us to develop and to grow in faith and in our practice of our faith. This is the practice known as examen or self-review. There are slight variations as to how this is done, so you might like to check them out to see if one suits you better than another. Examen is an exercise that is done at the end of the day. It requires at least five to ten minutes. There are a number of steps in the process. The first is to recall in some detail what you have done during the day. Then, after asking the Holy Spirit to be your guide, you look over the day a second time, seeing it with God’s eyes and considering whether there were times when you could have done better – been kinder, more patient or less intolerant for example. Having identified something that you’d like to change, you ask for God’s help in making that change. Finally, you offer thanks to God for God’s presence during the day.

Examen does not imply judgement, nor does it expect that we will feel that we have failed. Instead, for those who find it useful, it is a way to be open and honest about ourselves in an environment that we know to be utterly safe, because we know that whatever we do or have done, God’s love will never be withdrawn.

Love, as I’m sure you know, is a much more powerful tool for change than censure or fear. Knowing ourselves loved gives us confidence to be our selves  – even if that self is flawed and damaged. Knowing ourselves loved gives us the freedom to take risks and the courage to confess. Knowing ourselves loved allows us to stand tall and proud and to believe in ourselves. Knowing ourselves loved enables us to soar to even greater heights.

When Jesus was baptised, he came out of the water to hear a voice from heaven saying: “This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (or in whom I delight).” To our knowledge, Jesus has done nothing at this point to warrant those words, he hasn’t begun his mission or done anything out of the ordinary. Yet the voice from heaven makes it clear that God loves Jesus just as he is at that very moment.  Jesus was overwhelmed – he took time (forty days) to process that love and affirmation and to consider what it meant. God’s love empowered Jesus to teach and to heal, to love and to make whole, to challenge the structures of the church and to raise up the marginalised, and above all to trust God with his very life.

God’s love empowers us to be all that we can be, and so much more. This Lent, may we know ourselves loved, give ourselves permission to be ourselves, and from a position of confidence strive to  live into the person whom God believes us to be. Amen.

Glory and humiliation

February 25, 2017

Transfiguration – 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who can transfigure and transform those who, with Jesus, are willing to accept that the way of faith may just be the way of the cross. Amen.

The very public and tragic meltdowns of someone like Grant Hackett are a stark reminder of how difficult it is for a person whose life has been spent in the limelight and the constant affirmation that success brings, to deal with life afterwards. If their sense of identity and purpose has been tied up in their sport and their success in that sport, it may be extraordinarily difficult to forge a new life, a new identity and a sense of purpose after retirement.

“Everything that goes up must come down,” the saying goes. Most of us know that highs of life are very often followed by lows. When a great party ends and we are left with the cleaning up, or when friends who have stayed for a while leave to go home, we can be left with a sense of emptiness, a lack of direction and no way to fill our days. We would like the good times to go on forever but life is not like that.

Traditionally – from the ninth century onwards – the feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated on August 6th. When the Lectionary was updated about 22 years ago the festival was moved to the last Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday immediately prior to Lent. In this new position the feast day does a number of things. It acts as a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, it reminds us that our faith did not emerge in a vacuum, that it has its roots in the ancient stories of Moses and Elijah, it points us forward to Jesus’ resurrection and Ascension and in its context it highlights the tensions between glory and humiliation that are not only part and parcel of Jesus’ life, but which can be expected in the life of everyone who chooses to follow him.

When the Transfiguration is celebrated on the Sunday before Lent it serves as a stark reminder that Jesus’ glorification came at a cost – that of complete submission to God and of the acceptance of God’s will in his life. In some ways it reverses the account of the temptation of Jesus that we will hear next week. Just to remind you, before Jesus’ ministry began he came to John to be baptised. As he came out of the water he heard a voice from heaven declaring “This is my Son the Beloved”. It is heady stuff especially if, as the gospel implies, only Jesus hears the voice. You can just imagine what might be going through Jesus’ head at that moment. He has come to be baptised and in the process learned that he is none other than God’s Son. What could he do with such power? He could perform miracles in the way that magician would perform magic tricks, he could behave recklessly and expect that he would come to no harm or, better still he could rule the whole world! As the Son of God nothing would be beyond his power or his reach!

Amazingly, despite the temptation to do otherwise, Jesus chooses NOT to take advantage of his divinity, choosing instead to allow the power of God to work through him not for him.

The occasion of the Transfiguration is, as I said, almost the reverse. Jesus has by now begun his ministry, chosen disciples and sent them out as his representatives. According to Matthew, just six days prior to the journey up the mountain Peter has made Jesus’ identity known to the disciples: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”. Jesus’ secret is out. Here is his opportunity to shine, to share with the disciples what the Son of God can and will do, but Jesus is clear, his role is not to seek his own glory but to take the path that God has chosen – a path that will lead to suffering and to the cross. If he ever had a desire for power and glory it was defeated long ago, his role now is to convince the disciples that they too must follow the path that he has chosen.

Following Peter’s declaration, that he is the Christ Jesus goes – not to the desert – but to the mountain. Here, instead of facing the temptation to seek power and glory, he has power and glory bestowed upon him. As if it is a pledge of what is to come, Jesus is transfigured, he speaks with the prophets of long ago and once more a voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son the Beloved”. Jesus has made the right choices and has made it clear that he will follow through to the bitter end. There on the mountain and before the disciples God affirms Jesus’ choice and gives both Jesus and the disciples who are with him a glimpse of what is to come. A moment of transcendence and affirmation that will sustain them through the bitterness of betrayal and the humiliation of the cross.

For Jesus the euphoria of his baptism was followed by the trials of the desert, the affirmation of Peter by the announcement of his death and resurrection, the mountain to experience by his mundane human existence and the misunderstanding and foolishness of the disciples. If it was so for Jesus it will be no less true for us. Our lives of faith will not be lived on some exalted plateau of spiritual experience from which we never descend. There will be moments of doubt, times of anxiety and occasions of temptation and humiliation. In our faith journey, we may soar to the clouds but we may also come crashing down to earth. We may feel enveloped by God’s love and we may feel utterly abandoned. But, if we hold to our course, we will be affirmed, encouraged and ultimately transformed.

Practice makes perfect

February 18, 2017

Epiphany 7 – 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who demands perfection, but who overlooks all our faults. Amen.

One of the things about this congregation is that it keeps me on my toes! I learned very quickly that more than a few of you really paid attention to my sermons. That means, that while I have always put a lot of time and effort into my preparation, I have moved it up a notch since coming here. It can be terrifying at times to realise that what I say will be listened to intently. At the same time, it is incredibly encouraging and rewarding to be part of a group of people who takes their faith and their worship so seriously.

Last week was one such example. I made the rather broad generalization that while huge droves have not left the church as a result of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, many had left the church well before that because they felt that the church and its members failed to practice what it preached. As he left the church Brian Wilson made a comment on the sermon and then added his own observations. Brian has a few years on me, so his experience of the church (its successes and failures) extends further back than mine. It was his opinion that many people left the church after the war because they had failed to really understand (and the church had failed to adequately explain) the principles of faith, love and hope. Others he said, had an experience of emptiness, but didn’t know how to fill the hole or how to explain the emptiness. He and I agree that many of us have come to a true understanding of those principles either because we were fortunate to have a good example, a good teacher or simply because we knew that there was something more and we persisted until we found it.

A problem that I identified last week was that there has been, at least at times, a tendency to confuse faith with law, salvation with being good. This has led to an emphasis on adherence to a set of rules and a belief that if only one can manage to keep the rules, that one will be saved. There are two problems with this approach. One is that is simply does not work and the other is that it is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught. Rules alone cannot make us love our enemy and love that is forced is not love at all.

A conviction that faith is about obedience to rules is a sure-fire way to ensure that believers live with a constant sense of failure and guilt– especially when the standard is so high. It is one thing to know that we should not be angry but there are times when we are so hurt that, try as we might, we cannot rid ourselves of the anger we feel. We all know that Jesus expects us to forgive, but there are some things are really unforgivable. If our focus is primarily on keeping rules we are bound to fail and because we don’t like to fail, we are tempted to gloss over our imperfections and put on a good front. We bury our hurt, our fury and our resentment so that it cannot be seen. It is possible to bury our negative feelings so deep that we forget that they are even there. Then one day something will touch the wound and the anger and the hurt come spilling out all over again – often in ways that hurtful, damaging and unconstructive to ourselves or others. We might be successful at pushing the negativity out of sight, but that doesn’t mean that it has disappeared. It can simmer away, waiting to explode when we least expect it and the last situation is often worse than the first.

Here I believe that we can learn something from the practice of Buddhism, something I’ve been exposed to more thanks to Julie and Maria. My observation is that the teaching of Christianity tends to emphasise what a person should do while Buddhism teaches how a person can do it. For example Buddhism teaches specific practices that enable a person to redirect their thoughts around such things as anger, judgement and forgiveness. They recognise that forgiveness doesn’t just happen, that anger doesn’t always magically disappear just because we tell it do and that it can take hard work, discipline and practice to change or even reverse the way we think about a person or a situation. The practice is applied every time a negative thought or emotion comes up until it is no has a hold. In this way it is possible over time to become less angry and less judgmental and more tolerant, compassionate and forgiving.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need to become Buddhists to adopt such practices. A Christian spiritual director would be able to teach us similar skills and would give us spiritual exercises that would assist us to look at ourselves more honestly and to work on those parts of our inner life that might be less than perfect. The difference is really one of emphasis. It is difficult in our weekly one hour as a gathered community, to teach and to practice spiritual disciplines. These are left for us to discover through our reading and through retreats. For Buddhists, the emphasis it seems is much more on the practice that enables them to work on their inner life.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Loving our enemy – someone who has wronged or hurt us – does not come naturally, worse, it is the antithesis of how most of us would react. Loving our enemies requires first of all that we are honest about our own shortcomings and our own propensity to cause hurt to others; it demands that we consider what we can learn from the situation and from the other person and it expects that we will be able to find ways to be compassionate and tolerant of those who differ markedly from ourselves. None of these will come easily. Loving our enemy will require us to explore and to put into practice such things that, over time will turn hatred into love, fear into acceptance and anger into peace. Nothing less will do.

Practice makes perfect.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The impossibility of perfection

February 11, 2017

Epiphany 6 – 2017

Matthew 5:13-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who demands perfection, but who overlooks all our faults. Amen.

Most of us will have been astounded by the information coming out of the Royal Commission this week. The percentages of Roman Catholic priests and religious who are believed to have engaged in child sexual abuse are astonishing and distressing. (40.4% of all St John of God Brothers and 14.7% of the priests from Sale just for starters.) Not that we Anglicans have anything to be proud of – our percentages haven’t been published and we have escaped some of the worst excesses because we have very few religious orders and therefore fewer schools and children’s homes. What is interesting is that the revelations of child sex abuse has not led to vast numbers of practicing Christians leaving the church in disappointment or disgust. The reason for this, I believe, is that many people lost confidence in and abandoned the institution of the church decades ago.

Why then did people become disillusioned with the church? What caused them to abandon what was once a foundation of our society? It is impossible to be definitive of course and there are many and varied reasons why people no longer give up their Sunday mornings to attend church. My observations suggest there were sources of disquiet before our record on child sex abuse was exposed. Among these was the perceived discrepancy between what the church preached and how the church and its members behaved. It was not uncommon in the sixties and seventies to hear the charge of hypocrisy leveled at the church. There was a feeling among some that the church and its members did not live up to the standards it imposed nor did it live out the principles it proclaimed – “forgiveness of sins” and “unconditional love”. And there was disquiet with the way in which church applied these principles such that a woman who was abused by her husband was asked to forgive, but the abuser was not asked to stop the abuse or that a young woman who found herself to be pregnant was forced to give up her child. The church of the fifties and sixties often claimed the moral high ground when it was clear that its members were as vulnerable and flawed as the rest of society.

One of the problems, at least so I believe is the way in which the faith has been taught which in turn relates to the way in which the church assumed the role as the guardian of morals for society at large. So while it may not have been universally true, it seemed to me that the church placed an emphasis on “being good” or with keeping the Ten Commandments. There is of course no problem with encouraging goodness except that, not only does it suggest that being good is sufficient in itself and have the effect of emphasising obedience to a set of rules rather than on having a change of heart, it also indirectly suggests that it is possible, by adherence to the rules to somehow become faultless, to achieve perfection. The reality is, that while it is relatively easy not to steal, not to lie, not to commit adultery and not to murder, it is impossible for anyone to be absolutely perfect. So a person who is able to obey the rules might present an outward show of goodness or uprightness that may or may not hide an inner turmoil of selfishness, mean spiritedness or anger. Such a person is rightly called “hypocritical” because he or she makes out that they are one thing when really they are another and any discerning person can see through the surface to what lies beneath. It is this sort of double standard or false image that brings the church into discredit – a belief that what is on the surface is more important than what lies beneath.

It is exactly this sort of complacency that Jesus is challenging in the strange and disparate mixture of sayings that make up today’s gospel. It is not enough Jesus says to stop short of killing someone – anything less than unconditional love of the other is the same as murder. Not committing adultery is commendable, but if we have lustful thoughts towards someone to whom we are not married then we demonstrate that we are a long way from achieving the sort of perfection that rivals the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. In other words, there is not a sliding scale of perfection – one is either perfect or one is not.

Jesus is demanding the impossible – or at least that is how it seems. No one can be perfect except God and Jesus who is God. But that is just the point – we can’t be perfect. Few if any of us would ever be able to achieve the sinlessness modeled by Jesus and the good news is that we do not have to. What we do have to do is recognise our imperfections and acknowledge that we are no better than anyone else. Instead of comparing ourselves with others in order to reassure ourselves that we are somehow superior, instead of papering over our inner weaknesses with a superficial show of obedience and goodness, Jesus suggests that we recognise that we share the same faults and flaws as the rest of humanity. Only if we have the courage to see ourselves as we really are will we be able to change into the people God wants us to be and only if we have the confidence to allow others to see beyond the surface will they accept that we really are authentic and that even though we fail, we are struggling to live the faith that we proclaim.

God demands perfection – not because perfection is possible, but because it forces us to recognise our imperfections and to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

If we have been putting on an outward show, if we have been trying to fool ourselves and others, perhaps now is the time to be honest with ourselves, to let go of any falsehood and to realise that only if we recognise that we need to change, will it be possible for God to change us.

 

 

 

Blessed are the poor – so much we have to learn

January 28, 2017

Epiphany 4 – 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God on whom, if we dare, we can totally rely. Amen.

Some years ago, I acquired a book titled Poor in Spirit – Modern Parables of the Reign of God. Compiled by Charles Lepetit[1], it consists of a number of stories written by people living and working alongside the poor who inhabit the slums in many parts of the world. Lepetit is a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus. He says of himself: “I have lived in slums, I have known hunger, I have been in jail (oh not for long). I am an invalid. So I am at home with my brothers and sisters the poor.” The book is a compilation of true stories – stories that have been shared with him by those who are also poor, but who in his words, “share one poverty in common: that of the heart. They do not know the treasure they bear.”

Many of the story-tellers are members of religious orders. Some tell their own stories and others stories of the people whose lives have touched their own. The authors are identified only by their Christian name and by the country from which they write. So Catherine writes from Black Africa, Martin from Northern Europe, Roger from Central America, Olive from South of the Sahara, Larry from India and Nancy from North America. I wish I could share the whole book with you, the stories are powerful and confronting and challenge Western values and our dependence on material possessions.

One of my favorite stories is written by Lisa. It concerns a man who has been cruelly affected by leprosy. Most of his feet and all ten fingers were gone. Even his face was affected, but as Lisa tells it, when he smiled his whole face was transformed. Life was so hard that he had at one time tried to drown himself, “but even the sea didn’t want me,” he says. The leper made a living selling charcoal wearing his stumps raw from filling his customers’ baskets. Somehow, despite his extreme poverty, he maintains his dignity and his home as described by Liza is an oasis in the midst of a busy and noisy city. He has friend, who also has leprosy who cuts grass for sheep and sells it at the market. The two friends share what they have earned each day. One day his friend returned home with “three beautiful coins” that he had found on the pavement – an unexpected windfall in their barren lives. What to do with them? After some thought our friend says: “It is true that you need socks. But this money, we have haven’t earned it. God has given it to us. Why don’t we go to the cinema? One needs a change of scene sometimes.” “So we went to the cinema, and we had a very nice time.”

What touches me in this story is that these two had not allowed themselves to be so overwhelmed and ground down by their poverty that they could see that God might want them to have some joy and pleasure in their lives. Given the choice between the practical (socks) and the impractical (cinema) they had chosen something that would bring some happiness into their bleak and mundane existence.

A second story and one that never fails to move me is told by Dan from North Africa. Dan is stuck in a small town that he’d never seen before. He had spent a whole day trying to get a visa and faced the prospect of doing the same the following day! He says somewhat sarcastically that a “spiritual” reaction drove him to drown his frustration in a café. He was neither an Arab nor a local so needless to say he was the focus of a certain amount of interest. Dan found a seat opposite someone who didn’t look any happier than he was. No sooner had he sat down when his anger spilled out and he shared the story of his day. Ahmed (for that was the name of his companion) returned the favour. Ahmed had no work and was delaying going to home to tell his wife. They shared a few drinks when Ahmed asked Dan where he was spending the night. “Haven’t a clue”, Dan replied. “Then come to my place!”

Ahmed took Dan to a neighbouring suburb. There on top of a pile of rubbish was a little shack. This was Ahmed’s home. Inside the rickety door was a single room – not a stick of furniture graced it. Fourteen pairs of eyes greeted Dan – Ahmed’s wife, his parents-in-law and eleven children! They sat on the floor and after a while Ahmed’s wife produced a “mountain of rice on a copper plate – almost certainly their only valuable possession”. After a quick meal, and numerous cups of tea they stretched out on the floor and slept. In the morning Dan left to try again to get a visa, promising to stop by before he left. Another day wasted! Dan decided to take the bus and take his chances on getting a visa later.

True to his promise he makes a quick visit to see the family before he goes. As he leaves, a parcel is pressed into his hands. It happens so quickly and he is in so much of a hurry that he doesn’t even think about it until he is safely on the bus and here I have to use Dan’s own words: “Ah, yes. The parcel. I opened it discreetly, as my neighbours were looking at me. Actually my mind was still mostly on my visa. Suddenly my eyes filled with tears. I was going to cry, for a good half hour, completely overwhelmed by what I found in the parcel. I didn’t care now what the other passengers might think.

There in my lap was the copper plate from which we’d eaten the rice. And a little rubber camel .. the kid’s only toy.”

Blessed are the poor – who teach us to find joy in life and who, without a thought for themselves will give everything they have.

 

[1] Lepetit, Charles. Poor in Spirit: Modern Parables of the Reign of God. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1989.

Fishing for people, mining for the souls of people

January 21, 2017

Epiphany 3 – 2017

Matthew 4:12-25

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who meets us where we are, not where God would wish us to be. Amen.

Anglicans are notoriously shy when it comes to mission. Most of us are very happy for people to know that we attend church, pray, do voluntary work for the Anglican Church and so on, but when it comes to sharing the gospel suddenly our faith is a very private matter. We don’t want to intrude or to impose on others. We respect their right to make up their own minds and above all we are conditioned by the mantra that in polite society we don’t talk about politics or religion. This attitude stems in part from the religious wars of our church’s home. Consciously or otherwise our collective memory tells us how divisive religion can and has been. Some of us are old enough to remember the suspicion with which Protestants and Catholics viewed each other and know that friendships can be ruined if old wounds are opened up.

On top of all that we have to add that until at least the 1950’s it could be assumed that the majority of people professed some faith. A vast proportion of the population were attached to a church community whether they worshiped regularly or simply sent their children to Sunday School. In a Christian nation we could assume that the community knew the basics of the Christian faith. Magazines printed recipes for Shrove Tuesday and Lent, everything closed between Maundy Thursday and the Tuesday after Easter, carols in the park told the story of the Incarnation. Sharing our faith was in many ways redundant. Even those who didn’t go to church knew the stories – that the birth of Jesus was celebrated at Christmas and his death and resurrection at Easter. Most people knew some of the parables and that Jesus was a preacher and a healer. Until the end of the twentieth century we could be confident that school children had been exposed to the Christian faith through religious education.

Ever since Constantine made Christianity the faith of the Roman Empire there has been little to no need to spread the faith amongst our own. As a result, those of us in traditional churches have become complacent and out of practice. We have had so little cause to share our faith that we do not have the language for mission, let alone the experience at sharing the good news.

In recent decades as our churches have emptied and our Sunday Schools fallen silent, we have begun to think of mission as a way to rejuvenate our churches and to fill our pews. We have experimented with a variety of solutions, but our lack of success is evidenced by our failure to halt the decline.

Today’s gospel focuses on the beginning Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ call to the disciples to fish for people. As twenty-first century disciples, we can interrogate the texts to see what it can teach us.

As I see it, the gospel consists of four parts – 1. a reminder that for many the world is a place of darkness and death, 2. Jesus’ call to repentance, 3. Jesus’ calling of the first disciples and 4. Jesus’ preaching of the good news and his offering of hope and healing to the world. The gospel begins by reminding us of God’s promise to bring light to a world filled with darkness and the claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Then Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to turn to acknowledge through repentance the part they play in preventing the world from more truly reflecting the kingdom of God. Having established who is he and why he is here, Jesus calls some people to follow him – to join with him in his mission to inaugurate the kingdom. He calls fishermen to fish for people, but he might just as well have asked miners to mine for people or seamstresses and tailors to sew lives together, or miners to mine the depths of human suffering. Finally Jesus demonstrates what the kingdom might look like by bringing healing and wholeness to a suffering world.

It is important to notice what Jesus does not do – he does not send people to swell the numbers at the local synagogues. He does not preach the gospel as if it is some sort of moral imperative – “if you are not good you won’t go to heaven”. He doesn’t demand that those whom he calls should be anything other than they are. He doesn’t ask fishermen to teach or teachers to fish. He meets people where they are, acknowledges and affirms what they can do rather than ask them to do something for which they are not suited. He uses the disciples’ gifts and abilities to help him to bring restoration and wholeness to the world.

If we are to learn something from Jesus’ mission it might be this. God has promised to bring light to a world that is filled with the darkness of hardship, sorrow, pain and injustice. God’s desire is that we should catch God’s vision for humanity that the world should be a reflection of the kingdom of heaven and repent our part in the world’s indifference, cruelty and greed and that we should strive with all our being to ensure that our present reality more closely represents the reality that is the kingdom of heaven. We are to recognize and value the gifts and the potential of those around us (valuing them for who they are, not for whom we would want them to be) and through our encouragement and affirmation enable others to share their gifts with the world. And we are encouraged to shower such love and compassion on the world that the recipients of that love cannot help but be changed, renewed and restored and in their turn demonstrate such love compassion to others that the whole world will be healed and transformed and God’s kingdom will be known on earth as it is in heaven.

As we leave behind the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, and enter into the penitential season of Lent, we as church and as individuals have the opportunity repent the part we play in a world that is far from perfect and to consider more deeply what it is that we can to bring about healing and peace and thus ensure that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will will be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does Jesus need to be baptised??

January 7, 2017

The Baptism of Jesus – 2017

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose plan is, was and always will be to save the world.

Why does Jesus need to be baptised? Surely Jesus doesn’t need to be cleansed from sin. He doesn’t need to profess his faith. John certainly doesn’t think that Jesus needs to be baptised. It is important that we, with John ask the question? Why does Jesus need to be baptised? The problem is that it is easy for us to make assumptions based on the  idea that John’s baptism was like that which we received when in fact the two things are very different.

John’s baptism – that received by Jesus – was very different from the baptism that has grown up in the practice of the church. John was calling the people of Israel to repentance.  Baptism (the greek word simply means “wash”) was a sign that they were turning their backs on the way that had been living and were returning to God. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It was not intended for individuals but for all of Israel. John was calling for the renewal of the Jewish people nation. He was NOT calling for people to repent of their own individual sins. John the Baptist was preparing the people as a whole for the coming of a Redeemer.

Baptism in the name of Jesus is, at the very least a post-resurrection event. It is form of initiation and a statement of faith. John’s baptism is not and cannot have been a baptism into the Christian faith.  Jesus had not even begun his public ministry and Jesus was, and remained a Jew.

What all this means is that when we consider Jesus’ baptism we have to see it as a stand-alone event and not as something that foreshadows the practice and doctrine of the Christian church. The baptism of Jesus is not baptism in the way that we think of baptism, but something entirely different.

All the gospel writers record this event, so we can state with some confidence that it has a basis in historical fact. Jesus was baptised and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended on him. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report a voice coming from heaven (or from a cloud) that affirmed Jesus as God’s Son and indicated God’s pleasure in God’s son.

Of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, Matthew’s is the longest. This is because he alone records John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus. “I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me?” he asks. John recognised that Jesus is the more powerful than he.  John thinks that Jesus should baptise him, not vice versa. Matthew apparently agrees with John that Jesus does not need to be baptised, so in order to understand what is happening, we have to examine how Matthew explains Jesus’ baptism.

According to Warren Carter we need to pay attention to four things in order to understand Matthew’s understood if we pay attention to four things: the context, John’s baptism, the conversation between John and Jesus and the voice from heaven[1].

The account of Jesus’ baptism occurs part way through chapter three in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ ministry is yet to begin. In fact it will not begin until mid-way through chapter four (after the temptations). Matthew has been setting the scene. Jesus’ baptism is one of the way in which Matthew establishes Jesus’ identity and demonstrates the way in which Jesus is a fulfilment of God’s promises. Matthew begins by establishing Jesus’ identity and the ways in which his early life is a fulfilment of scripture. Jesus is of the line of David, conceived by the Spirit to save the people from their sins. He is Emmanuel, “God with us”. His life is in danger because he is a threat to Herod. The leaders in Jerusalem ignore his birth and yet he is recognised and worshipped by foreigners. Through Joseph, God ensures that he is kept safe from harm and finally John the Baptist prepares the people for his coming.

Matthew has made is clear that Jesus has been sent by God. His baptism by John demonstrates that Jesus both understands and accepts his role and that he intends to be obedient to God’s plan for his life.

Only Matthew records the conversation between Jesus and John – John’s initial reluctance and Jesus’ insistence. Remember that John ‘s baptism is not about individuals, but about the nation of Israel. Jesus’ sinlessness is not in question, it is Jesus’ role as the “one who is more powerful” that causes John some anxiety.  Jesus’ response is mysterious. All it really tells us is that Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism is part of God’s plan for putting everything right – the plan that John has been announcing to the world. Just as other events in Jesus’ life so far have been to “fulfil” God’s plan, so too will Jesus’ baptism. It does not make immediate sense, just as Jesus’ death will not make sense. What is important for Matthew’s story is that God has a plan and that Jesus is determined to submit to that plan, to accept his commission from God.

After Jesus has convinced John that his baptism is not only right, but also divinely sanctioned John baptises Jesus. Then, as Jesus emerges from the water, God affirms both Jesus’ identity and his mission by opening the heavens, descending as a dove and declaring Jesus to be his son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

Through genealogy and story, affirmation and fear, Matthew has established Jesus as the one of David’s line who will fulfil God’s promise to bring salvation to Israel. Now that he has made it absolutely clear who and what Jesus is, Matthew can begin his record of Jesus’ teaching, teaching that he has proven can be heard and received with absolute confidence. Those who hear and those who read Matthew’s gospel know exactly who Jesus is, by whom he has been commissioned, and what role he is to play in the history of Israel.

As we travel together through the gospel according to Matthew this, we can be sure of this that Matthew believes that: Jesus has been sent by God, to fulfil God’s promises and to carry out God’s plan. What we read and hear can be trusted because it comes from God..

 

 

 

 

[1] For the original see http://workingpreacher.org


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