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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)

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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”.

We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves

April 30, 2016

Easter 6 – 2016

John 14:23-29

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who gives us that peace that the world cannot give, so that we might give peace to the world. Amen.

When I was confirmed my priest suggested that I, along with the other candidates, create a rule of life. It was his hope that, having been confirmed, we might all become people who took our spiritual growth seriously. The problem with this approach was that we were twelve years old. Many of the children in the group were being confirmed because it was the thing to do, rather than because they were making a commitment to the Christian faith. His idea was destined to fail, either through lack of interest or because it was an ambitious task to impose on children about to enter high school and their teenage years. I did take the idea seriously. I remember trying to accomplish what I set out to do and giving up early because I failed spectacularly. That said, it obviously made an impact on me, because I still remember writing the rule for myself.

A rule of life is a monastic principle and it involves making a commitment to a number of spiritual disciplines – prayer, bible reading, giving and so on. It is “an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.[1]” The reason for taking on such a rule is that it helps us to work on and to dRule of Lifeevelop our relationship with God, to create a rhythm to our days that enables us to focus on the presence of God in and around us, to be nourished by the grace of God and to be transformed more closely to the image of God.

A Rule of Life then, is intended to be a help not a hindrance, a pleasure not a burden. Just as physical exercise improves our physical health, so spiritual exercises are designed to improve our spiritual and emotional health. We take on spiritual disciplines to ensure that we grow and develop spiritually. A rule of life therefore has to be tailored to the individual. What works for one person may not work for another, what one person needs will not be the same as what someone else needs. What is life-giving for one person, might be stultifying and limiting for another so it is important for each person to discern what might and might not suit them, what will assist growth as compared to something that over time will become an empty practice.

It is clear that the fact of being baptised does not in and of itself infuse us with holiness. Few of us from birth truly embody all the characteristics of divinity that were displayed in Jesus and that are, ideally, are required of us. It is too easy for most of us to get caught up in the distractions of the everyday, to be absorbed by our own needs and bound by our own fears. Surrendering our lives entirely to God, allowing our lives to be completely directed by the Holy Spirit, freeing ourselves to be transformed into the image of God takes practice and discipline. This is why we use expressions such as “practice”, “exercise” and “discipline” when we are talking about something as indefinable as spirituality.

Prayer, bible study and spiritual reading all draw us closer to God, but the ways in which we can become aware of the presence of God in our lives and allow ourselves to be transformed are many and various. They include silence, attention, gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, being present, being compassionate and developing an attitude of openness to God’s abundant love and goodness. Such practices are not always part of our daily life or of our nature. For this reason it is important to identify those aspects of our lives that we need to work on and then adopt a practice or a habit that enables us to change. We may find that we need to learn for example how to stop and listen or to find out how to forgive or how to show compassion. There is no magic formula. If we want to truly reflect the image of Christ to the world, we must discipline ourselves to become like Christ. Just as we practice to become a better cook, a more competent cyclist or a more knowledgeable doctor, so we must practice those things that make us a better, more competent, more knowledgeable Christian, so that our lives are transformed and that Jesus can known through us.

It is not all hard work – we do not develop a rule of life or take on spiritual exercises to mortify the body or repress our God-given human nature. Spiritual exercises include play and rest, an appreciation of beauty and moments of pure joy, time to build relationships and time to dream. Our practices have to be onerous or time-consuming. I have heard of someone who places a coin on a lintel in her home. Every time she passes through that door, she remembers to be thankful. Another makes the sign of the cross before he gets up each day as a simple reminder that he belongs to God. Whatever we chose to do, it is important that it is achievable. Starting small and building up is much more likely to succeed than being too ambitious then failing and giving up.

In today’s gospel we hear the familiar words of peace. Jesus bestowing on the disciples that peace that the world cannot give.

The peace that Jesus offers is not a peace that ends world strife, or family discord. It is a peace deep within that transcends whatever is going on around us, a peace that enables us to be calm in the midst of the storms of life, a peace that fills and surrounds us no matter what else is going on. Sadly there is far too little evidence of this peace in a church that continues to argue and posture on issues such as theology, the ordination of women and the marriage of homosexuals.

It is easy to despair, to wonder what we can do in the face of what sometime seem to be insurmountable odds. True, we can’t change the world or the church, but we can change ourselves – by adopting spiritual practices, by working on spiritual exercises and by disciplining ourselves to be constantly aware that it is what we do and what we say that determines how non-believers make up their minds about God.

[1] The CSLewis Institute – http://www.cslewisinstitute.org. Other websites provide information about a rule of life: http://www.northumbriacommunity.org, http://www.westcott.cam.ac.uk are a few. A physical example can be found at https://ruleoflife.com/2015/03/10/paul-clarks-rule-of-life/. Images for Rule of Life provides an interesting example of how different Rules of Life can be.

No easy answers

March 26, 2016

Today we meet, not only in the shadow of an act of terror over two thousand years ago, but also in the shadow of events in our own day. We draw comfort from the knowledge that God in Jesus shares our suffering. We know too that in Jesus God wrought victory from defeat, joy from sorrow and life from death and we believe that good will triumph over evil and that love will conquer hate.

 

Service of the Passion

and

Recognition of the Cross

 

The contradiction of the cross

The contradiction of    the cross

 

 

(On this most solemn of days we would invite you to enter
and leave the church in silence.)

 

Procession with cross:

Hymn: 349 in the cross of Christ

Greeting:

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

 

Let us pray:

God of contradiction,

give to us wisdom and understanding,

patience and humility,

and the courage to live with uncertainty,

so that we may hope for the right things

and arrive at what we do not know[1].

We ask this through your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.


Poem: T. S. Eliot – from The Four Quartets

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

 

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before. I shall say it again,

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

 

In the name of God who suffers for us and with us, and who longs for us to turn and be made whole. Amen.

“And what you do not know is the only thing that you know.”

Shortly after five pm on Tuesday the world was shocked by the news of yet another act of terror – this time in Brussels. At least thirty people were dead and more than two hundred wounded many seriously. For those of us in Australia this news followed a grueling day in which, through the inquest into the police response, we revisited the final moments of the Lindt Café siege and the deaths of two hostages. At times like this, it is difficult not to ask: “Why?” “Why now?” “Why them?” As the story of the Brussels explosions unfolded, we learnt that a simple decision such as not buying a coffee made the difference between life and death, between being in the line of fire and being a safe distance away from the explosions.

Times like these remind us that there is a fine line between life and death, and that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why one person lives and another dies, why some people live lives seemingly unfettered by grief or disaster and others live lives of quiet desperation, burdened by pain, sorrow or misfortune.

This side of the grave there are no easy answers. Life as we know it is vulnerable and fragile – susceptible to disease and constantly exposed to hazards and dangers – known and unknown. At the same time, humans are complex beings – capable of acts of great selflessness but also of unfathomable depravity, capable of great love, but also of immense hatred. We live in a world in which the good do die young, and the bad sometimes escape unpunished, in which only chance determines the country of our birth or the quality of our parenting, whether we stop for coffee or go straight to the departure gate. In this life, nothing is certain. We cannot predict what joys or heartache lie ahead.

There are two possible responses to this awful uncertainty – we can resist with all our might, refuse to take risks and try to force the world to conform to our expectations. This road will lead to frustration and disappointment, anger and bitterness. Our lives will be narrow and constrained and there will be no guarantee that we will be spared the pain of suffering and loss.

Alternately, we can willingly surrender. We can accept that life is filled with risk and uncertainty and choose to live boldly, courageously and confidently – no matter in what circumstances we find ourselves. This road will not be free of pain, but it will leave us open to joy and laughter, to adventure and hope. We will be able to ride out the bad times because we know that they will come to an end and that it is the good and the bad together that make life worth living.

Jesus chose the latter course. He willingly gave in to the future that was his. He surrendered himself completely to what life had in store. He submitted himself to the humiliation of a kangaroo court, the indignity of a flogging and the certainty of death of the cross. He did not ask: “Why?” or “Why me?” He simply walked the path that was his to walk, believing that somehow, in some way, God would give him both courage and strength in the present and that in the future, it would all begin to make sense. Jesus faced the cross not knowing what lay on the other side. As a consequence he learnt that through death comes life, that joy can be wrought from sorrow and victory from defeat.

Life is filled with uncertainty. The best that we can do is to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands and trust that in this life God will give us courage to face whatever it is that life throws at us and that in death, God will raise us to life eternal.

Reflection:

An abandoned God;

a dying God

confronts our sense of decency

and at the same time opens us to new possibilities –

to new ways of understanding God and ourselves.

 

Collect:

 

Holy God,

who teaches us that this day

which is so bad, is good.

Help us to live with incongruity

to know how much we do not know,

that understanding our limitations,

we may be open to the wisdom that comes from you alone. Amen.

 

Ministry of the Word

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

Hear the word of the Lord,

Thanks be to God.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me:

            why are you so far from helping me

            and from the words of my groaning?

My God, I cry to you by day, but you do not answer:

            and by night also I take no rest.

But you continue holy;

            you that are the praise of Israel.

In you our forebears trusted:

            they trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried and they were saved:

            they put their trust in you and were not confounded.

But as for me, I am a worm and no man:

            the scorn of all and despised by the people.

Those that see me laugh me to scorn:

            they shoot out their lips at me

            and wag their heads, saying,

“He trusted in the Lord – let him deliver him:

            let him deliver him, if he delights in him.”

But you are he that took me out of the womb:

            that brought me to lie at peace on my mother’s breast.

On you have I been cast since my birth:

            you are my God, even from my mother’s womb.

O go not from me, for trouble is hard at hand:

            and there is none to help.

Many oxen surround me:

            fat bulls of Bashan close me in on every side.

They gape wide their mouths at me:

            like lions that roar and rend.

I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint:

            my heart within my breast is like melting wax.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd:

            and my tongue clings to my gums.


My hands and my feet are withered:

            and you lay me in the dust of death.

For many dogs are come about me:

            and a band of evildoers hem me in.

I can count all my bones:

            they stand staring and gazing upon me.

They part my garments among them:

            and cast lots for my clothing.

O Lord, do not stand far off:

            you are my helper, hasten to my aid.

Deliver my body from the sword:

            my life from the power of the dogs;

O save me from the lion’s mouth:

            and my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will tell of your name to my companions:

            in the midst of the congregation will I praise you.

O praise the Lord, all you that fear him:

            hold him in honour, O seed of Jacob,

            and let the seed of Israel stand in awe of him.

For he has not despised nor abhorred

the poor man in his misery:

            nor did he hide his face from him,

            but heard him when he cried.

The meek shall eat of the sacrifice and be satisfied:

            and those who seek the Lord shall praise him –

            may their hearts rejoice forever!

Let all the ends of the earth remember

and turn to the Lord:

            and let all the families of the nations worship before him.

For the kingdom is the Lord’s:

            and he shall be ruler over the nations.

How can those who sleep in the earth do him homage:

            or those that descend to the dust bow down before him?

But he has saved my life for himself:

            and my posterity shall serve him.

This shall be told of my Lord to a future generation:

         and his righteousness declared to a people yet unborn,

         that he has done it.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Hear the word of the Lord,

Thanks be to God.

 

Hymn: 339 O sacred head sore wounded

 

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John Chapter 18 beginning
at verse 1.

Glory to you Lord Jesus Christ.

For the Gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Hymn: 341 My Song is love unknown.

(During the hymn a collection will be taken up for the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem)

 

Intercessions:

Living, loving God, help us to relinquish our confidence in ourselves and our desire to go it alone;

to accept the vagaries of life and to let go of our need to be in control;

to recognise that we do not and cannot have all the answers and to understand that our knowledge is only partial and our insights limited by our humanity.

God when our hearts are aching,

Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

Give us grace to acknowledge that life consists of the good and the bad and that our lives are enriched as a result;

to admit that hatred and fear only limit and bind and that love frees us to be fully alive

and to learn that it is only in your that true peace and joy are to be found.

God when our hearts are aching,

Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

 

Be with all those whose lives are marred by violence, terror and war,

and with those who perpetrate acts of cruelty against others.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world

Support and encourage those whose lives are restricted by poverty, ill-health and disability,

and challenge those who have the means to help but do not.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world

Be a friend to those who are overlooked and discounted

and open our eyes to the suffering of those around us.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

Help us all to reevaluate our lives in the light of the cross and take our place among those who live life to the full and who make a difference in the lives of others.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

 

Lord’s Prayer: Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who taught us to pray.

            Our Father in heaven,

                        hallowed be your name,

                        your kingdom come,

                        your will be done,

                        on earth as in heaven.

            Give us today our daily bread.

            Forgive us our sins

                        as we forgive those who sin against us.

            Save us from the time of trial

                        and deliver us from evil,

            for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours

                        now and forever. Amen.

Confession:

Our God whose love knows no bounds

comes to you – naked, weak and bleeding,

holding out holey hands, holy hands and asking only for your love in return.

 

Let us offer our hearts to God, confessing our sins – the barriers that separate us from each other and from God.

Suffering God,

who gave everything for us

forgive us our arrogance and presumption,

our greed and self absorption,

our neglect of the vulnerable,

our carelessness with the world’s resources,

our unwillingness to trust in you

and our failure to accept and to share your love and compassion. Amen

 

Absolution:

God whose love knows no bounds

forgives you and sets you free

to love God and to love one another.

Forgive others,

Forgive yourself. Amen.

Recognition of the cross:

730 Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.

(Recognition of the cross – you may like to place a flower at the foot of the cross, as a reminder that today is a day of contradiction, a reminder that God continually overturns our expectations so that we might rely on God and not ourselves. Alternately you are welcome to sit or stand in quiet reflection.)

Blessing: May the God who died for you, inspire you to live for God,

and the blessing of God almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier be with you now and always. Amen.

 

Hymn: 262 When pain and terror

 

Please leave the church in silence

 

 

Copyright: Marian Free , 2014 (revised, 2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANZAC DAY

There will be a service to commemorate Anzac Day

Monday 25th April – 8:00am

 

(If there is anyone for whom you would like us to pray,

Please add their name to the list at the back of the church.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rector:          The Rev’d Marian Free: m) 0402 985 593

  1. e) staugust@bigpond.com

 

Curate:                 The Rev’d Professor Rodney Wolff,

  1. e) staugust@gmail.com, 0426 287 283

 

 

Parish Office:       3268 3935 / Fax 3268 4245

Office Hours:       Monday, Thursday & Jumble Wednesdays

                               9.30am – 12.30pm

 

staugust@bigpond.com

www.staugustineshamilton.com.au

 

Sermons:            If you would like to read the weekly sermon,

                                 go to the home page and click on sermon.

 

            St Augustines Anglican Church

 

@StAugustines

 

Music Director:      Lesley de Voil: 0418 561 663 or

                                         lesleymdv@gmail.com

 

Service Times:      Sunday 7:30am & 9:30am

                               Tuesday & Thursday 7:00am

Wednesday 10:00am

 

Columbarium:      Robin Loan: 0417 799 400 or

                                 r.loan@optusnet.com.au

Columbarium Service: First Saturday of the month 7:30am

 

 

 

[1] “For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” “In order to arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.” T.S. Elliot from “East Coker, The Four Quartets”

A matter of love

March 19, 2016

Palm Sunday – 2016

Luke 22: -23:

Marian Free

 

A matter of love

May God whose love for us knows no bounds, free us from all those things that prevent us from accepting that love. Amen.

Love is an extraordinary motivator. It can enable people to go to extraordinary lengths to make a difference for those whom they love. Parents of children with severe handicaps invest hours of their time and all their financial resources to not only ensure that their child has the best quality of life that is possible, but also to defy the medical staff who have advised them that the child has no future. Siblings of cancer sufferers cycle around Australia or complete other such feats to raise awareness of the disease and raise funds for research. Husbands or wives refuse to turn off life support machines, believing that the one whom they love has a future.

The love and determination of a spouse means not only the difference between life and death, but also the difference between simply being alive and having some quality of life.  Only last week I read the account of a young woman Danielle. At just 23[1] Danielle had married the love of her life. Only months later her husband, Matt he seriously injured in a cycling accident. As well as numerous fractures, he had sustained a serious traumatic brain injury. A team of doctors advised Danielle to turn off his life support.

Danielle trusted the doctors and thought she would agree to end Matt’s life. After a sleepless night she thought: “Matt is my husband. If he stays in a coma, of if he needs looking after for the rest of his life, I will be the one taking care of him.” Instead of conceding that the doctor’s were right, Danielle knew if a flash that she could do it. She felt that God was telling her to take a chance, that this was her path in life. Danielle was not going to let Matt die. That was 2011. What followed was a battle to bring Matt out of the coma, battles with the medical staff who wanted to put him into a nursing home and twenty four hour care, once she got him to her mother’s home. Caring for Matt meant changing nappies, checking feeding tubes, giving sponge baths, administering up to 20 different medications, turning Matt every two hours and single handedly doing all the physical therapy that was required.

Danielle’s journey is a long way from over and Matt may never be the same, but he sings to Danielle and writes her poems and tells her every day that he loves her.

As is the case with Danielle, the cost of love is often enormous – emotionally, financially and in terms of the time that is involved. Yet the lover (parent, sibling, friend) thinks nothing of that, only of ensuring that their beloved is loved and cared for, has the best life that is possible in the circumstances and that they know that they have not been abandoned.

This Lent, it has seemed to me that the readings have focused on love – God’s boundless, unconditional love for all of humanity. We have seen that God reaches out for us in love, refusing to give up on us no matter how much we disappoint, frustrate and even enrage God.  God does not/cannot stop loving even when we blindly go our own way, when we put up barriers between ourselves and God’s love or when we behave in ways that are damaging to ourselves or to others. God’s love for us is a love that never gives up, no matter how broken or beyond repair we might be and it is a love that never counts the cost.

Today and throughout this week, we will witness God’s love played out in Jesus’ journey to the cross. We cannot know what was going through Jesus’ head when he set out for Jerusalem or when he incurred the wrath of the Jewish leaders by entering the city as a King, by challenging their views and by being high-handed in the Temple. What we do know is that at any point Jesus could have turned back. At any point, Jesus could have decided that it was all too hard and simply given up. At any point, Jesus could have chosen to do what was right for him, rather than what might be right for others.

But as relentlessly as the forces of evil lined up against him, Jesus doggedly continued on the path that was before him, the path that would ensure death for him and life for the world.

This is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us – God, in Jesus entering our world and pouring out love and compassion on an ungrateful world. God demonstrates God’s love for us in Jesus’ giving himself completely to and for us – doing whatever it would take to enable us to live our lives as fully as we possibly can.

God cannot and will not stop loving us. It remains for us to accept that we are loved and to discover that it is only by surrendering to God’s love that we will find fulfillment, freedom and peace. It remains for us to abandon ourselves to God and to thereby see that it is only in God we have all that we want or need.

[1] Reported in the latest Marie Claire Australia magazine (April 16, 2016, p104-106).

Abundance not sacrifice – Lent is God’s gift to us, our gift to ourselves

March 12, 2016

Lent 5 – 2016

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God whose outpouring of love is more than we can ever imagine.  Amen.

It is just possible that I am turning into a grumpy old woman or it may be that I am by nature someone who tends to take the world and faith seriously. Whatever it is, I have found myself being irritated or disappointed by the attitude that some people (particularly via social media) have taken towards Lent. There have been posts on Facebook by people bemoaning the fact that they are saying “goodbye” to beer or wine or some other treat for forty days as if Lent is a burden imposed upon them rather than something taken up freely. Other people have posted cartoons, which again make it seem that Lent is at worst some interminable punishment or at best a trial that has to be endured. To be fair, I am sure that most of the posts are from people who do take Lent seriously and who assume that their friends will understand that they are simply making light of it not expressing how they really feel.

It does concern me however that the negative messages about Lent, give the wrong idea – not only about the practice of Lent but about the Christian faith – to the non-Christians who hear or read them. Those who are not in on the secret could be forgiven for thinking that Lent is a period of misery expected by an exacting and demanding God instead of seeing it as a time of self-imposed abstinence that will liberate us to know more fully an indulgent and affirming deity.

The readings for the first four weeks of Lent have encouraged us to turn our lives around and to remove the barriers that separate us from the overwhelming abundance of God’s love. John the Baptist urged us to “repent” (literally – turn around), the parable of the fig tree reminded us that we share with all of humanity its frailty and imperfections, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem gave us an insight into the sorrow experienced by God because of our refusal to accept God’s love and the parable of the two sons demonstrated God’s utter refusal to exclude us from that love and at the same time reminded us of the ways in which we place ourselves beyond the reach of God’s affection.

Today, as we approach the end of our forty days, we are confronted by a description of an act of intimacy, extravagance and tenderness – not of God towards us, but of Mary towards God. At first the gospel seems out of place an action of such beauty and lavishness seems to conflict with a time of fasting and self-denial.  But today’s gospel is a perfect fit – not only with the gospel readings that have preceded it, but also with the central purpose of Lent. In conjunction with the gospels of the past four weeks, today’s gospel sums up what Lent is about and what we can hope to achieve.

We discover, if we plumb the lectionary offerings, that Lent is primarily about ensuring that we are in the best condition possible to accept God’s love for us. We allow ourselves a period of prayer and self-examination to reflect on our lives and in particular to consider whether or not we are truly open to the love that God is constantly pouring out on us. Fasting and self-denial are not intended to be a way of  “mortifying” or denying the flesh” but a means of identifying and ridding ourselves of the obstacles that we place between ourselves and God – obstacles which are just as likely to be emotional and psychological as they are to be physical.

When we strip ourselves bare, when we purge ourselves of all the things that prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love, we will be simply overwhelmed by the outpouring God’s grace and the generosity and the bounty of God’s affection. We will be astounded that God could love us so much and we will be acutely aware of our little we deserve that love.

Lent is a lesson of love, God’s extravagant, unconditional and boundless love, which is ours for the taking. The disciplines of Lent are not intended to weigh us down, but to prepare us to receive God’s love without question and without hesitation.

This is where Mary fits in. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, responds to God’s love with an extravagance that matches Jesus’ own. Mary is the perfect example of someone who has allowed herself to be stripped bare, who has opened herself completely and unreservedly to God’s scrutiny and in so doing has discovered not judgement but compassion, not condemnation but understanding, not rejection, but complete and total acceptance. Mary responds in the only way possible – with a demonstration of her deep and humble gratitude.

Even by today’s standards, Mary’s actions open her to disapproval – the loose hair, the public and intimate display of affection, the extravagance and waste. Yet for Mary there is no other response that will adequately express her reaction to God’s love for her. Mary throws caution, propriety and decorum to the wind. She has no thought of what others might think of her only that she must express her own love in a way that matches her experience of the love of God.

Lent then, is not so much about sacrifice as it is about abundance, not so much about self-denial as it is about self-acceptance, not so much about being unable to measure up, but about realizing that there is nothing against which to measure ourselves. Lent is less about sacrifice and more about abundance – about discovering the abundance that emanates from God and not from the world. Lent is less about will power and more about letting go – for it is only when we truly let go that we are able open ourselves to the wealth that is ours for the taking.

During Lent we identify and shed the obstacles that separate us from the love of God – a love so overwhelmingly abundant that it calls for a response that is extravagant, intimate and tender a response like that of Mary sister of Lazarus.

Forty days is not much to ask – in fact it almost seems far too little to give when we gain so much in return.


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