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Praying for a miracle

February 3, 2018

Epiphany 5 – 2018

Mark 1:29-39

Marian Free

In the name of God who brings us to newness of life and calls us into service. Amen.

For the last eighteen months or so, I have been praying for a miracle. A young woman of my acquaintance has terminal cancer. The best that the medical community can do is to delay the inevitable. To that end Mary, who gave birth to her child shortly before the cancer was diagnosed, is enduring endless surgery and chemotherapy in the hope that she might live long enough to see her child go to school. I have been praying for a miracle – hoping against hope and against all evidence to the contrary that somehow the cancer can be reversed, that the damage to this Mary’s body can be sufficiently healed that she can watch her child grow to adulthood, that her child can have a mother and her husband a wife. I am praying for a miracle because I believe in miracles not because I expect a miracle or understand what a miracle is or when a miracle happens. I am certain that God acts in this world in ways that we cannot begin to understand, but I am equally certain that we cannot control or manipulate God or force God to do our will. So I am praying for a miracle, but I am also praying that my friend will know the presence of God in her life as she faces whatever future lies ahead of her.

It is true that the gospels record instances of Jesus’ healing all kinds of injury and ailments. There is even evidence that Jesus raises the dead. Jesus quite clearly responds with compassion to those in need and we can be confident that he was able to perform miracles. In reporting Jesus’ miracles the intention of the gospel writers is more complex than simply presenting Jesus as one miracle worker among many. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ healing are multi-layered and are intended to expose more than the surface event. Today’s gospel reading, in particular the account of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, is an example of the complexity of Mark’s story-telling and an indication that his intention is not so much to reveal Jesus as a healer but to point to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.

Reading the story in isolation fails to do it justice. Mark skillfully works into this account for example, that the occasion is a Sabbath day (Jesus has just been in the synagogue where he has cast out a demon). In these verses, we see that Jesus moves between public and private spaces – synagogue, house, crowds, wilderness and towns in Galilee. At the same time Jesus’ fame is spreading and this serves to increase the tension not only between Jesus and the sources of evil, but also between Jesus and the authorities.

At the heart of today’s reading is the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. All the elements of this story are important. The one healed is a family member. She has a fever – something that in the first century could lead to death. As a result of her illness the woman is no longer able to function in the way that she normally would. She is unable to play her role in society. The woman is at risk of dying, restricted in what she can do and her social interactions have been significantly curtailed.

Jesus responds by taking her hand (as he does in many other healing stories) and raising her up. The Greek word translated as ‘lifted’ is in fact the word for ‘raised’. This word appears in a number of healing stories and, of course, points forward to Jesus own resurrection. As a result of Jesus’ actions the fever leaves the woman (as the demon left the man in the previous story). Restored to health and life, the woman ‘serves’ those who are present.

It is this last that is most misunderstood. Some have tried to theologise or explain away this part of the story. Others are concerned that the woman is being returned to the domestic sphere (being kept in her place as it were). What we see however is that Mark’s account of the healing conforms to the pattern that is generally used for miracle stories: the healer touches the person – who is cured instantly and who then acts in such a way that it is clear that they have been healed. The woman’s service then is an indication that she has been cured – she is doing what women do – it is also more than that. The Greek word ‘diakonos’ means to serve food or to wait on tables. (It is from Acts 6 and the choice of Gentiles to serve at tables that our ministry of the diaconate has emerged.) Mark then may be intending to suggest that Peter’s mother-in-law is exercising a form of ministry or discipleship. The word ‘diakonos’ is used for discipleship in Mark 9:33-37 and 10:43-45 and of the women who followed Jesus in Mark 15:41. Jesus’ own ministry is described in terms of service. It is possible then, that rather than confining Peter’s mother-in-law to the domestic sphere, Mark is opening up possibilities for ministry and discipleship.

For the author of Mark’s gospel miracles have a significance in and of themselves but more important is their significance for our understanding of Jesus’ mission and of our response to that mission.

I will continue to pray for a miracle, but I will do so as I have: aware that Mark reports on the miracles of Jesus, not so much as events of themselves but as a sign that Jesus can raise people from lives that are deadening into lives that are fulfilling, that Jesus restores the lost to their families and their communities and gives meaning to their existence and that those who have been raised from death to life respond through discipleship and service. Above all when Jesus raises the sick to wholeness, he is pointing forward to his own resurrection and to the assurance that no matter whether we are healed or not in this life we will all, with Jesus, be raised to life eternal.

(I am indebted to Cynthia Briggs Kettridge for some of these ideas http://www.workingpreaching.org and to Ben Witherington III for the reminder about the structure of miracle stories The Gospel of Mark a Social-Rhetorical Commentary.)

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Don’t push God away

January 27, 2018

Epiphany 4 – 2018

Mark 1:21-28 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God to whom one day we must answer. Amen.

There is a very powerful movie about the civil war in Sierra Leone – Blood Diamond. One of the sub-plots is that of a boy of 10 who is kidnapped by the opposing forces and forced to fight and kill. He like many other young boys is drugged, beaten and forced to carry out all kinds of atrocities. Amazingly, the boy’s family somehow survived the raid on his village and eventually made it to a refugee camp. Although they feared the worst, the family never stopped looking for their son. Even when they had an opportunity to leave the country to be resettled elsewhere they would not be moved determined that they were not going to leave their son behind. By some miracle the Red Cross managed to locate the boy who, by then had escaped (or been freed by) his captors.

The scene in which the father and son are reunited is heart-wrenching. Instead of running into his father’s open arms, the child holds back. He is embarrassed and ashamed. Even though he was forced to fight, in the presence of his father he feels tainted, unworthy. All that he has done, the drug taking, the killing and the cruelty stand between him and his father’s goodness. In the presence of his father, he feels exposed, he sees himself as he believes that any person would see him – an immoral, heartless killer. He is overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt. He knows what he has done and he cannot accept that anyone, even his father could overlook such heinous crimes.

So he stands aloof, awkward and embarrassed. It is only when his father steps forward, takes him in his arms and assures him of his love that the child begins to melt, to believe that there might be a future in which the past is left behind. The future may not be easy, the past may be difficult to forget, but the child has taken the first step to wholeness and healing.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Like the child in the story, the demons felt exposed under Jesus’ gaze. Somehow, when no one else knows who Jesus is, the demons, recognising Jesus’ pure goodness, know that he is ‘the Holy One of God’. To them this is not a good thing. Of all people Jesus, they knew, could see through them, could see the darkness they inhabited, the evil they had committed and of which they were capable. Like the child, they are uncomfortable. They don’t like to be exposed, they don’t want or need to have their nature or their deeds brought to light. Unlike the child though, the demons are comfortable as they are. While they might find Jesus’ presence uncomfortable and disconcerting, they do not want to be set free, they want to be left to their own devices. Jesus nature is the direct opposite of theirs and makes the contrast between good and evil even more stark. Jesus’ presence is an irritant, a reminder of who and what they are. Because they do not wish to be restored, because they want to remain unchanged and unchallenged they see Jesus, not as a healer, but as one who destroys.

The reaction of the demons poses, I believe, a challenge for us. Are there aspects of our lives of which we are ashamed? Do we have thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors that of which we are ashamed or, at the very least self conscious. Are there times when the generosity, goodness or love of another makes us feel mean or nasty or lacking in love and compassion? Are the times when in the presence of another we feel that the worst of our nature is exposed, revealed for all to see? Are there times when we feel that our very being is under threat because we are challenged to give up anger, resentment or bitterness? If there are times when we feel less than perfect, less than worthy of others’ good opinions: do we cringe with embarrassment? Or do we wish they they (the person who has engendered such feelings) would go away so that we didn’t have to see our weaknesses exposed (even to ourselves)? Do we prefer to be unchanged and unchanging rather than do the hard work or dealing with our failings and being no only a better person but a more productive member of society?

These are important questions because they not only impact on the quantity of our life in this world, but they most certainly impact of our life in the next.

I do not have special insight into the day of judgement. With regard to what happens after death I am as ignorant as the next person. But, I do believe that both in the present and at our death we must answer to God for all that we have done and been in this life. If at the moment of death I must stand in the presence of God and under the scrutiny of God’s gaze, I would like to be prepared. That is, I would like to see myself (now) as God sees me. I would like to trust in God’s unconditional love to the extent that I can allow the real me to be exposed. Having allowed myself to be exposed I hope, with God’s help, to allow myself to be transformed and while I do not for one minute expect that I will achieve any degree of perfection in this life, I hope that between now and then I will trust God enough to have no secrets, that I will know what God will see when we come face-to-face. I will know too, that like the father in ‘Blood Diamond’, that God who sees me with all my flaws will love and welcome me just the same.

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28

The demons cannot bear the scrutiny of Jesus’ gaze. We all have to stand in the presence of God. It is important to be prepared, to see ourselves as God sees us, to trust that God’s love is such that however unjustified that love will not be withdrawn, to be ourselves and allow ourselves to be transformed.

(Thoughts to be published in full when internet allows)

Ed

Free to follow

January 20, 2018

Epiphany 3 – 2018
Mark 1:14-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who redeems and liberates us, but who always allows us to chose our own way. Amen.

I don’t need to tell you that by their very nature cults are insidious, abusive, controlling and soul destroying. In most cases they are established by individuals who are seeking to somehow empower or prove themselves by gaining control over others, usually under the guise of having some deep wisdom or spirituality to impart. Followers are often drawn in by a leader’s charisma or their own insecurities. These insecurities are then played upon to the extent that the followers will do whatever the leader suggests – abuse their children, engage in sexual acts with minors, murder the innocent or take their own life. Once they have fully embraced the “values” of the cult, members will try to convince others to join the group – the group grows and the cycle continues.

The Moonies for example, seem to target the lonely and the vulnerable (often young people traveling alone) and then use forms of mind-control (lack of sleep, suggestion, manipulation, drugs) to convince them that the cult has the answers to all life’s problems. They make it clear that if a member questions the teaching or the methods used to persuade others to belong that their own salvation is at risk.

It can become very hard to leave a cult. Those who have previously subscribed to the teaching can find it extremely hard to admit that they were wrong. If they leave the group they will almost certainly lose contact with their families and their friends. They will hav no form of social support and very likely, as a result of their time out of the world, will have no means of economic support. In some instances cult members are become so convinced of the rightness of the cult, or made to feel that outside the cult they are damned that no amount of rational argument will persuade them that they are better out than in.

In Australia, the cult known simply as The Family administered LSD in its purest form to teenagers in order both to subdue them and also to gain information from them that made it easy to manipulate them. It also allowed cult leaders to bend the youngsters to their will. With the collusion of doctors, nurses, social workers and lawyers, its founder Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to “adopt” new born children and to whisk them away from hospitals without going through the proper channels. These children grew up believing that Anne was their biological mother.

What was it that made educated, professionals follow? What was it about Anne and her husband that led such people to behave in ways that were not only illegal, but that were also contrary to the ideals and codes of their professions? What hold did Anne have over educated professionals that they could justify to themselves their collusion in child abduction and in the shocking abuse of the children in their care?

What is it that makes people follow? What draws them to a particular person or set of beliefs? What leads them to forsake the norms of their society, to abandon friends and family and to accept as normal behaviors that are controlling and abusive? I’ll leave the psychologists to answer that.

It is interesting to note just how different Jesus’ approach is to that of those who establish cults. To begin with, Jesus has no intention of forming a cult (or even a sect within Judaism). Jesus’ goal is to proclaim the good news, to announce the Kingdom of God and to encourage people to ‘repent’ (turn their lives around). Jesus does not target the vulnerable, the lonely or the distressed. In fact the opposite is the case. Those whom he heals are free to continue living as they have before. (Neither the Syrophonecian woman nor the Roman centurion are urged to convert though both were in a very distressed state when they sought Jesus help.) Jesus doesn’t need followers to affirm him, to enrich him or to cover up his insecurities. Jesus’ goal is to empower and enrich others, to enable them to live life to the full. Jesus is confident enough and secure enough in his own person that he doesn’t need to resort to manipulation or subterfuge to gather followers or to subject them to his will.

Today’s version of the calling of the first disciples is quite different from that of John’s gospel that we heard last week. The call of the fishermen is the one with which we are more familiar. There was something about Jesus. Whether you take today’s account or John’s account, Jesus appears to have been able to inspire and energize others, to draw them out of themselves to their true calling. Without any attempt to pressure, without resorting to making them feel guilty, Jesus inspires Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave everything and join him in his task. Rather than take anything from them Jesus, as we shall learn, empowers his followers to do what he does. Instead of taking all the glory and power for himself Jesus shares not only his ministry, but with it the ability to teach, to heal, to cast out demons.

Rather than focusing on himself and placing himself at the centre of his movement, Jesus always and continuously points away from himself towards God.

It is true that many have used Jesus and his teaching to engender guilt, to manipulate others and to subject them to their will, but the true Jesus, the one whom we see in today’s gospel, has no need of coercion, does not seek power over others and nor does he induce feelings of worthlessness. The true Jesus recognises the strengths and weaknesses of his disciples, accepts them for who they are and frees them to be his voice in the world. The true Jesus knows us, accepts us and uses us to be his presence in the world.

Knowing our past

October 28, 2017

Pentecost 21 2017

Reformation Sunday

Marian Free

In the name of God, who remains constant and unchanging despite changes and turmoil in the world. Amen.

Today the Lutheran Church and many other churches throughout the world are celebrating Reformation Sunday. This marks the closest Sunday to October 31, the date on which Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While this is a particularly significant date for Lutherans, it is important for us to remember that our own church was formed in the turmoil of the Reformation and the political and religious agendas that were swirling around at that time.

The church of the early 16th century was very different from the church of today. The Mass was said in Latin and the Bible translated into Latin – a language that only the educated could understand. Ceremony and sacraments threatened to override the place of scripture and many intellectuals expressed dissatisfaction with the corruption of the clergy and the doctrine of the church. The saints were worshipped as intermediaries between God and humanity and there was a steady stream of pilgrims to religious shrines and a healthy trade in relics. Priests were poorly educated, often corrupt and/or absent from their parishes and they and the church was losing the confidence of the populace.

For a number of reasons an anti-papal sentiment has been growing in England from the 1300s: the pope was based in France (England’s traditional enemy); the Inquisition and its attack on the Templars had caused disquiet in England where the order was held in some regard; the heavy taxes imposed by the pope funded military and political objectives that were contrary to those of England and, to add insult to injury, sometimes the pope appointed Italians clerics to English Parishes. So great was the resistance to the interference by the papacy that long before Henry thought of marry no Anne, at least 5 Acts of Parliament were introduced to curb its power.

On a political and intellectual front, these were times of great upheaval. The Medieval Age was coming to an end and Europe as a whole was in a state of flux. Nationalism was on the rise and the Holy Roman Empire existed in name only. It was not only in England that there was resentment against the heavy taxation imposed by the papacy. Nation states across Europe were dismayed that their wealth was going elsewhere. The rise of humanism was one aspect of the intellectual change that was sweeping the world. Among other things, humanism approached the bible from an intellectual point of view and humanists sought to discover and translate the original Greek and Hebrew texts. This along with the emphasis on individual thought inspired by the Renaissance, allowed the bible to be brought into questioned in a way that it hadn’t been.

As early as 1328, people like Wyclif had railed against corruption in the church, the wealth of the monasteries and the fact that there were two rival popes. His critique of the church included criticism of its doctrines including that of Transubstantiation. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English. This meant that it could be easily read by lay people. The development of the printing press meant that new ideas spread rapidly and the laity became better educated and able to think for themselves.

In 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses captured this spirit of the age and led to a variety of movements that challenged the authority of the pope, emphasised the authority of scripture and embraced the role of grace (not works) in salvation.

Henry XIII was born in this time of great turmoil and change. He was aware of what was happening in Germany and elsewhere, but had no sympathy for the Reformers. In fact, he was so little convinced by Luther’s political and religious ideas that he wrote a stinging attack on Luther’s view of the sacraments. Such was the conservatism of Henry’s view that the Pope bestowed on him the title “Defender of the Faith”.

Henry was a gifted scholar, sportsman, musician, poet and a devoted Christian, but he was egocentric and determined to have his own way. He was able to develop arguments to defend his point of view and thereby to salve any qualms of conscience he might have. Henry had received special dispensation from the Pope to marry his older brother’s wife. When that marriage failed to produce a living heir, Henry began to ask himself whether God was punishing him for his unorthodox marriage. Well before he fell in love with Anne, he was seeking ways to annul his marriage to Katharine.

Nullify was often a formality for the wealthy and influential but, because Henry had received special dispensation to marry Katharine, the matter was more complex than it might otherwise have been. Add to this that Katharine’s nephew was the King of France and the pope’s host, it is easy to see why the Pope was unable to come to a quick decision. Tiring of the prevarication and desperate to have an heir, Henry took things into his own hands. By nefarious means he deposed Cardinal Wolsey who was been negotiating with the pope then made the clergy carry the guilt for accepting Wolsey’s leadership. They could escape punishment for this trumped up crime if they accepted Henry as ‘Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and clergy’. This was a step too far, but a compromise was reached. Having cowed the clergy, Henry the played on the anti-clerical sentiment in Parliament to legitimately sever England from Rome and to make himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. A few more Acts of Parliament ensured that he was able to divorce Katharine and marry Anne.

In England then, the immediate cause behind the break with the Roman Catholic Church was political rather than religious, it was Henry’s son Edward under the tutelage of Archbishop Cranmer who really implemented the Reformation in England. Under Henry the doctrine of the church remained unchanged and the worship of the church was as it had always been. Towards the end of his life, Henry produced a number of Articles of Religion that quashed any hopes that he might have supported the European Reformation. He did encourage the translation of the Bible into English and insist that a Bible in Latin and English be provided in every Parish.

Knowing our history can be unsettling. It is important to remember that the church is a human institution, vulnerable to the pressures and influences of the times. The church that we hold so dear was born in a time of political, religious and intellectual turmoil and change and over nearly five hundred years it has remained largely unaffected by world affairs. We should not be too surprised if once again, buffeted by movements in the social, intellectual and political world around us and captive to the whims of strong and unyielding egos, the church is caught up once again in revolution and change. Whatever happens in the church and in the world, we can be sure of one thing – God will remain unchanged and unchanging and our faith is certain and secure.

Bound to the past or liberated to embrace the future?

September 16, 2017

Pentecost 15 – 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Marian Free

 

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

 

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

He writes:

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

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

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

She replied, “I don’t believe it.”

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

She persisted: “I don’t believe it.”

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

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

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

She said, “I forgive everybody.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A relationship that endures

May 13, 2017

Easter 5 – 2017

John 14:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God in whom and with whom we abide both now and for eternity. Amen.

Some images stay with you forever don’t they? One that comes back to me from time to time is that of the actor Kris Marshall curled up in a baby’s cot sound asleep. Now Kris must be about six-foot tall so it is hard to believe that his character fit in the cot, let alone fell asleep, but it was a convincing enough image. The scene I am referring to comes from a British sitcom, My Family about the family of Ben Harper a dentist who is married to Susan who is a control freak who can’t cook. They have three children: dopey Nick (played by Kris Marshal), shallow Janey and clever Michael. Nick has no sense of direction and no career path. Janey is at University but is more interested in boys than study and Michael, who is much younger, is at school and is the intellectual of the family.

In the programme that I am recalling, Nick has moved out of home and Susan and Ben have been fighting over who will use his room and for what. Before they come to any agreement (which was unlikely anyway) Janey announces that she is pregnant.

From Susan’s point of view it is quite clear that now there is no question – Nick’s room must be turned into a nursery. Nick is devastated by the news. The room that he has decorated to his bizarre taste represents more than just a physical space. It’s black painted walls, black furniture and bedding are all a part of his identity. As long as the bedroom remained his bedroom there was a place for him to come home to. Irrationally, he feels that a part of his life is being taken away from him. All the warmth, security and sense of belonging that he associates with that room will disappear if it is redecorated and given over to someone else. Despite his protests, Susan is unmoved. The black paint is stripped, the black furniture removed and the black bedclothes are sent away. Susan spends the day happily painting and Ben spends the day struggling to assemble the flat pack cot.

The next morning, when Susan comes in to admire her handiwork and to complete the redecoration there, curled up in the cot, is Nick – making one final claim on his space and his place in the family. I suspect that it is because he seems so vulnerable that the image has stayed in my mind for so long.

For those who are lucky enough to have a room of their own, it can take on a special significance – it can be a place to escape to, a place in which to express oneself without fear of criticism or a place in which, surrounded by things a person loves, a place of safety.

It is no wonder that John 14 is such a popular reading and that it is the reading chosen more often than not for a funeral. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” or as it was once translated “in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” For those of us who have had happy homes, this image appeals to our comfortable memories and provides assurance for the future and for those for whom home has never been a happy place, it is an image that holds the promise of a home that is warm, safe and secure.

The first century was vastly different from the modern world. Most families lived in one or two room homes. A room of one’s own was a luxury that only the very rich could afford. Jesus’ followers would never have known what it was to have a space that was one’s very own so it is striking that Jesus should use this image to describe the heavenly realm as a house.

Chapter 14 begins what we call Jesus’ farewell speech. In the previous chapter John describes Jesus’ last supper with the disciples. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, announced that one of the assembled few will betray him and Judas has gone out into the night. No doubt the disciples were already feeling a little confused and uncertain when Jesus announced not only that he was going away, but also that the disciples would not be able to go where he was going. Their relationship with Jesus has provided a sense of security and a feeling of belonging. Now this has been placed at risk. Jesus is going somewhere and they will not be able to follow.

It is little wonder that Jesus seeks to reassure the disciples that they still have a place with him: “I go to prepare a place for you,” he says. Their sense of belonging and their feelings of warmth and security are dependent, not on bricks and mortar, but on the relationship that they have with Jesus, a relationship that will not be broken or changed by his going away.

One of the dominant themes of John’s gospel is that of dwelling or remaining or abiding. The Greek word μενω (remain, dwell, abide) occurs 40 times. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in the Son. Jesus says to his disciples: “abide in me as I abide in you”. In this gospel dwelling or abiding doesn’t refer to a physical space, but rather to a relationship that is so intimate and so intense that it can only be described as mutual indwelling. It is a relationship that is so close and so personal that Jesus can claim that to see him is to see God. The relationship is so intense that one cannot be separated or distinguished from the other. This is the relationship that Jesus offers to the disciples – they are to be one with him as he is one with God. They need not fear his going away because what unites them transcends time and space and knows no separation either now or in the future.

It is easy to imagine, like Nick, that our security is dependent on a particular space or a particular group of people. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the purely material to the spiritual and to find there a sense of wholeness, meaning and well-being that is not reliant on the things of this world and which endures for all eternity.

 

Surrendering our need to know

July 9, 2016

                                                                                           Pentecost 8 – 2016

                                                                                                 Luke 10:25-37

                                                                                                                                                                                             Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches, challenges and inspires. Amen.

There is a wonderful movie out of Kenya called ‘The First Grader’. It recounts the true story of an old man who, on learning that the government is offering ‘free education for all’ presents himself at the local school. The first day he is refused admission by one of the teachers on the basis of his age. Undeterred, he returns the next day, only to be told that he requires a uniform. On the third day he arrives in cut off trousers, long socks and sandals only to be told that there are simply not enough desks and that he must go home. However, his determination pays off when the head teacher allows him to join the class. Conditions are basic. The classes are large and at least one child has to sit on the floor to accommodate Maruge. The teacher is enthusiastic and passionate which is some compensation for the lack of space and equipment.

Two scenes stand out. One is that of a small boy who is asked to come to the front of the class and draw the number five on the blackboard. He does so, but writes it backwards and the other children laugh at him. The other is that of Maruge who, refusing to believe that the boy is stupid, makes a ‘story’ about the number five having a fat belly and a hat. Because the information was presented to the child in a different way by someone whose starting point was that he could learn, the boy was able to imprint the information on his memory.

All of us learn in different ways and have different ways of receiving and processing information. At its best education harnesses those abilities, develops and enhances inquisitiveness and creates a desire to continue to learn. At their best our educational institutions create not individuals who know everything but people who realise how much there is still to know. At their worst they create individuals who are locked into only one way of knowing and who believe that what they have been taught is not only all that they need to know, but that what they know remains true forever.

 A similar argument could be made for spiritual education – that is, ideally it creates an openness, an humility, a sense of awe and above all the realisation that there is so much more to know. Sadly this is not the reality for many. Instead of having their minds and spirits expanded through a growing awareness of the utterly other, they are taught rules and regulations, ‘facts’ about God. They are given the impression that faith is about what God expects of us and what we can expect of God. In those instances becomes a closed and limited phenomenon rather than an experience that is unbounded and endlessly open.

It is this latter form of spiritual education that results in fundamentalism and in the sort of arrogance that asserts that there is only way of believing and living and that this way should be imposed on both the willing and unwilling alike. It leads to judgementalism and narrowness and a belief that it is possible to determine who is good and who is bad by the degree to which people conform to established modes of conduct. The end result of such an approach is the opposite of its intent – it leads not to a healthy relationship with the divine, but to a life in which God is no longer required to provide direction or guidance. 

Over and over again the Christian scriptures challenge the view that it is possible to know everything there is to know and certainly that it is impossible to know even a fraction of all a there is to know about God. Perhaps the finest example of this is God’s response in the Book of Job. God is taunting Job, challenging him to prove his wisdom and understanding in comparison with that of God. Paul confronts the arrogance of the Roman community when he reminds them that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of humans and Jesus consistently points out the limited understanding of those who would challenge him in debate.

Today’s gospel is one such example. The lawyer asks a question, not because he wants to know the answer, but because a he wants to test Jesus. Jesus turns the question back on the enquirer, who responds with another question. Jesus’ response is to tell a parable which, with its shock conclusion, exposes the self-satisfaction of the lawyer and his narrow view of God. The lawyer, like so many of those who opposed Jesus, appears to have a fixed and legalistic view of God and of faith. They seem to believe that they know exactly what is expected of them and of others. As a result they believe that they are in a position to judge and that they can determine who is in and who is out. Their faith has been reduced to a number of pre-determined precepts and they do not have the flexibility to see beyond what they believe they know to understand what it is that they do not know.

Today’s parable is one that many of us have learned in Sunday School. It is so familiar to us that we no longer appreciate the challenge it presents and are happy to accept the conventional view that it is about doing good deeds or helping others. If we listen/read carefully, we will see that Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question. Instead of describing a person to whom one should be neighbour, Jesus challenges the lawyer to consider neighbourliness from a surprising and unexpected quarter – the reviled and despised Samaritan. Being a neighbour, accepting neighbourliness is not something that can be confined to definition, but is a concept that continually expands as we learn more about the world and about God’s inclusive love.

In this and other ways, Jesus was constantly stretching and expanding the established view, pushing people beyond conventional ways of understanding and insisting that they rely on God and the movement of the Spirit and not on their own limited understanding.

Contrary to popular understanding, faith is not something that is fixed and delimited for all time. It is a journey from certainty to uncertainty, from independence to dependence and from self-confidence to confidence in God. It is not a matter of having or needing to have all the answers but of surrendering ourselves to the infinite wisdom of God and of finding peace in not knowing and not needing to know.

The lawyer wanted to secure faith and knowledge in a concise, limited and defined format. Jesus challenges him, and therefore us, to understand that it is only possible to be truly secure when we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and trust in God to reveal all that we need to know.

Placing trust in God

July 2, 2016

                                                                                     Pentecost 7 – 2016
                              Isaiah 66:10-14c , Psalm 66:1-7,16,20, Galatians 6:14-20, Luke 10:1-12,17-20

                                                                                                                                                            Marian Free 

In the name of God who comforts us as a mother comforts her child. Amen.

When my siblings and I were children we used to be utterly amazed that, when we were travelling, our father could accurately predict when we would arrive at our destination. Often as dusk was falling my father would announce that we would reach our goal at a particular time. Sure enough we would pull into the motel at almost the minute that he predicted. It was only much later, when I had children of my own, that I recognised that this was not a unique or extraordinary talent possessed by my father but rather a simple and straight forward use of estimation based on the speed at which he was driving and the distance to our destination. I realised too that as the driver he could manipulate the speed at which he was driving to ensure that his prediction was spot on and so appear to have supernatural powers. Needless to say with that realisation came the understanding that my father was only human after all! I felt strangely cheated – apparently my father was like every other father . 

It is true for most of us I think that when we are small we trust our parents implicitly. They are for a time our protectors, the source of nourishment and the fount of all knowledge and wisdom.We rely on them to guide us as we fumble around in a world that is full of mystery and stumbling blocks. As we enter our teens not only do we have less need for protection but we also think that we have learned everything our parents could possibly teach us. In our eyes they become fallible, ignorant and restrictive and we become infallible, knowledgeable and responsible.. All our allusions are shattered and we strain to be free from their influence in and on our lives. It is only when we are older, sometimes only when we have children of our own, that we are forced to recognise that our parents are no wiser or more foolish than we ourselves and that much of what we know is due to their patience and care.

That said, the implicit trust that we placed in our parents and indeed the world is difficult if not impossible to regain once it has been broken. As grow we learn that all the love and protection they have offered cannot shield from hurt or from hardships. Once our eyes have been opened to the world as it is we cannot return to the innocence of youth. Once our naivety has been turned to cynicism it is difficult to go back. 

This is why it is so difficult to trust God. We fall out of the habit of trust and are not sure how to fall back in. We create unrealistic expectations in relation to what God can and cannot do and when God fails to deliver we are able to justify our lack of faith. We read scriptures such as those set down for today and allow ourselves to believe that they speak to a different time and place and not to us. ‘Who, in this day and age, really sets out on a journey with nothing but the clothes on their back?’ we think as  will let us off the hook.

A closer look at all the readings enables us to understand what is meant by trust and helps us to see in what way we should place our trust in God in a world that is vastly different from that of the first century Mediterranean.

In the verses from the final chapter of Isaiah we are reminded that while God cannot always protect us from harm, God is always there to comfort us – not dispassionately and from a distance, but as a loving mother might comfort her child. Jesus’ sending out of the disciples provides a warning against becoming overburdened and against placing our trust in things that ultimately cannot save us, and which only build barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others. In a culture in which hospitality is not the norm, expecting others to provide even the basic necessities is unreasonable. Applying the analogy to our own lives, trusting in the material over spiritual will not bring us the peace and joy that our hearts really desire. Only God can truly satisfy the longing in our hearts.

Finally, Paul’s conclusion to the letter to the Galatians sums up what it means to trust in God: “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” – in other words all that really matters is a relationship with, complete dependence on God.

The world is a volatile and uncertain place. There are no guarantees that God or any human being will be able to protect us from its vagaries. In this world in which so much is beyond our control, we have a choice – to try to build up walls in a vain attempt to shield ourselves from harm or to trust that in good times and in bad God will be there to hold, support and comfort us. Even if ‘we are tried as silver is tried’ ‘God will keep us among the living and will not allow our foot to slip.’

Trust in God is not a childish, sentimental, superficial and self-serving emotion, but a mature, deep, conscious and determined belief that no matter what the circumstances, God has and will see us through.

Desolation and despair

June 4, 2016

Pentecost 3 – 2016

Luke 7:11-18

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who shines light in the darkness, turns despair to hope and raises the dead to life. Amen.

There are a number of images from recent times that are seared into the minds of many of us. For example, think of the desolate picture of an emaciated child who is sitting on his haunches with his head in his hands and beside him is a buzzard just waiting for the child to die. Another picture that has haunted the world in recent times is the heart-wrenching image of young Aylan, the Syrian refugee washed up like flotsam on a lonely beach. Both children were victims of conflicts in which they had no part. Both pictures are confronting images of despair and desolation in a world in which selfishness, greed and a desire for power leads to suffering for the innocent.

I’m not sure that any of us can begin to imagine what it must be like to be a parent in a country devastated by drought or war. We cannot conceive how it must feel to know that we are unable to feed or care for our children. It is impossible to really understand what it must be like to live with the fear that hunger or disease might kill us first and leave our children alone and unprotected in a harsh and uncompromising world. Nor can we envisage the sorts of horrors that lead parents to risk their lives and the lives of their children on dangerous journeys across sea and land.

Few of us will ever know the despair and desolation that characterizes the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Thankfully we will probably never know what it is like to live in on the rubbish tips of Manilla, or to live in constant fear of Isis or Boko Haran. We will not have to live with the constant fear that haunts the slums in countless countries throughout the world. An accident of birth has ensured that we are by and large protected from some of the horrors that are the daily experiences of so many.

Despair and desolation are at the heart of today’s story. It is only in the last century, that women who had no father, husband or son to support them have not faced a life of destitution and isolation. What was true in the memory of some of us was no less true in the first century. A woman without a man in her life was entirely dependent on the charity of others.

In today’s story, Jesus is confronted with a widow who had only one son and now he is dead. She may have had many daughters, but they were no protection against the harshness of the world. If married, they would have been absorbed into their husband’s families. If still at home, they would have been a drain on whatever resources the widow still had.

We know only the bare details of the story. Jesus, for reasons unknown has travelled to Nain. There he observes a funeral procession. Even though the widow is a stranger and the funeral is in full swing Jesus finds himself unable to remain distant and aloof. He “sees[1]” the widow and has compassion on her (and her situation). He interrupts the proceedings and orders the woman not to weep. It is an extraordinary situation. Without invitation, Jesus steps into the woman’s grief and desolation and without being asked he restores the son to life and the child to his mother.

Can you imagine someone entering a church or a chapel at a crematorium and halting the proceedings while at the same time ordering the bereaved not to cry? They would almost certainly have been evicted from the building for being disrespectful and for adding to the family’s distress. This would be equally true in the first century – interrupting a funeral procession and appearing to make light of the widow’s grief would have been social suicide, demonstrating a lack of respect and a failure to understand the gravity of what is going on.

Jesus interrupts anyway. It is almost as if he is compelled to help. He cannot bear to see so much present and potential suffering – especially when he can do something to stop it. Two lives have come to an end – that of the son but also that of the mother. Jesus brings life and hope. He gives a future to the widow and life to her child.

Mass media has made us aware of the enormity of suffering in the world. It is easy to be overwhelmed, to turn off, to feel that there is nothing that we can do to really make a difference. Some issues are so complex that we are at a loss as to how to help we are afraid to interfere in case we make things worse. When suffering does not directly touch our lives, it can be easy to stand aloof – to blame the victim for not doing one thing or another, or for taking a risk that from the comfort of our arm chairs we deem to be to dangerous or unnecessary.

Jesus could not stand apart. While he could not and did not provide hope for every widow in Israel and while he could not and did not heal every Israelite who was suffering from demon possession, disease or infirmity, Jesus did what he could when he could.

You and I cannot, collectively or individually, bring an end to the suffering in the world. We cannot house all the homeless, protect the vulnerable from harm or find a cure for dementia or for cancer. That does not mean that we should do nothing. As followers of Jesus we need to find ways to bring life and hope into situations of desolation and despair. Where we can, we need to disrupt, interrupt the things that are going on around us. By our actions and our words, we need to say that so much suffering should not be the norm.

We need to have the courage to interfere and to challenge the world to follow our lead.

 

[1] In Luke’s gospel, “seeing” has particular significance. Jesus “sees” the whole person, the whole situation.

God is relationship – Trinity Sunday

May 21, 2016

Trinity Sunday – 2016

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-giver[1]. Amen.

Whilst in the process of thinking about today’s sermon, I was reminded of the debate around alternate Trinitarian language – in particular the arguments against using the expression Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in the place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The heart of the argument is this: that the relational nature of the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is lost when Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are used.

Language is important because it both describes our reality and defines our reality. That is, we use words to make sense of the world around us and those words then take on a meaning of their own, which in turn affects how we see the world.

A good example is the use of language to label other people – especially those who are different from ourselves. Up until the 1980s it was not uncommon to refer to a person by their disability. No one thought twice about referring to a person as “a spastic” or “a mongoloid”. In that way a person was defined more by their physical condition rather than by their personality or by their ability. Thankfully that use of language is by and large in the past. Today we might refer to someone as a person with cerebral palsy – acknowledging that they are a person first and foremost. The change in language use helps us to see people differently and helps them to have a self-identity that is distinct from their disability.

Despite dictionary definitions, words do not carry the same meaning for everyone. For example our experience of “Father” or “Dad” can vary from that of a loving, interested caring man, through that of a distant, indifferent man to that of an overbearing or abusive person. Our experience of our own father may determine our own understanding of what a father is. If our experience of “Father” has only been of someone who hurts or belittles us, we might find it hard if not impossible to apply that terminology to God. A woman who has been raped or sexually abused, might have the same difficulty relating to the maleness of Jesus[2]. It can be hard for such a person to believe that a man – even a man such as Jesus can really identify with the experience of a violent or unwanted sexual attack.

A greater understanding of issues such as domestic violence and rape has led the church to embrace a greater variety in the language we use for God and to a lesser extent for Jesus. This has two benefits. First of all it recognises that the bible itself refers to God in more than one way; that God cannot be confined by language; that God is neither male nor female and that while we might attribute human characteristics to God, God is anything but human. An examination of the Old Testament reveals that the language for God is not restricted to Father, but includes feminine and even inanimate language to try to capture the grandeur and ineffability that is God[3]. Secondly, broadening the language for God enables those for whom “Father” does not bring to mind images of gentleness, love and encouragement, to use language that does encompass those characteristics for them.

Of the three-persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least bound by gender-defining language. This might be because the Spirit is the most difficult to conceptualise and also because the Spirit is never named other than by its nature.

The issue of language is more complex when it comes to the Trinity. An important aspect of the Trinity is the relationship between the three-persons, a relationship of inter-connection that is both a model for and a reminder of our relationships with one another. As members of the Body of Christ, we are invited into relationship with one another and more importantly into the relationship shared by the members of the Trinity.

There are many who argue that if we are to change the language of the Trinity from Father, Son and Spirit we will lose the sense of relationship, mutuality and intimacy that this formula implies.

I am a biblical scholar, not a theologian, but it seems to me that if we understand the nature of the Trinity to be relational it is not impossible for terminology such as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier to take on a relational aspect. Surely we understand that the Creator is the person within the Godhead to whom we attribute the creation of the world, that the Redeemer is the one who entered the world and was crucified and restored to life for our salvation and that the Sanctifier is the person within the Godhead who enlivens and sanctifies us in the present moment and until eternity. It is not the language that we use so much as the understanding of that language that gives it meaning[4].

In the final analysis, the Trinity is a glorious mystery that invites us into a relationship with a God who is beyond description and of whom we only ever glimpse the smallest detail. The Trinity is a wonderful gift extended to us through the church. It is a shame to waste time arguing over words when we could be letting ourselves be caught up into an experience of God that is impossible to capture and even more impossible to describe.

 

[1] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book.

[2] There is a powerful poem written by a survivor of sexual abuse who, when confronted by the image of a woman on the cross, was able to understand that Christ knew her own experience and had been with her in her suffering.

[3] God is depicted as midwife (Ps 22:9), as mother (Is 49:13-15, 66:13, Ps 131:2, Is 42:13-15) and as giving birth (Is 42:15, Jer 31:20, Is 14:1, Ps 77:10; 79:8) not to mention as a “rock” and a “fortress” and other inanimate images in the Psalms and elsewhere.

[4] Attempts to develop inclusive language Trinitarian formulae that are also relational leads to such clumsy language as, “Parent, womb, birth-giver” or “The Parent, the Christ and the Transformer”.


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