Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

November 2, 2019

All Saints – 2019

Luke 6:20-31

Marian Free

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

The concept of saint is a complex one. As I pointed out in pew sheet there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to defining sainthood. Those who have been identified as saints by the church have ranged from political to apolitical, from academics to those with no education, from cloistered to engaged with the world. They may have experienced torture and violent deaths, or they may have lived quietly till the end. Even the history of the word ‘saint can be problematic. In the New Testament αγιος (‘holy’) was used by Paul to describe anyone who had come to believe in Jesus as the Christ. He addresses four of his letters to ‘those called to be saints’ (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Phil 1:1).

This does not mean that the communities to whom Paul wrote provided examples of holiness for successive generations of Christians to emulate – far from it. According to Paul’s criteria, any baptized person was holy (άγιος – a saint). Included under this umbrella were the believers in Corinth. His first letter to that community reveals that their behaviour was both divisive and immoral – not at all consistent with the image of ‘saint’ with which we are familiar. Paul has to chide members of this congregation for competing with each other, taking each other to court and celebrating the eucharist in ways that discriminated against the poor. One of their number is said to have been sleeping with his father’s wife (a behaviour apparently condoned by the remainder of the community!) and yet Paul writes: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints.” In Paul’s world, simply being “in Jesus” made a person holy.

As time passed, and the early flush of enthusiasm disappeared and the founders – the apostles and their followers – passed into memory, the church became increasingly institutionalised and the fire and the passion of the early days settled into more of a routine. Acts of courage and steadfastness were no longer the day to day experience of those who believed and behaving in a “Christian” way came to be second nature. Despite this, there were faithful people who continued to behave in extraordinary ways, to do extraordinary things and to act with extraordinary courage – whether they took themselves off to the desert to pray in solitude or had an ability to teach or to heal or had faced violence against them. These individuals stood apart from the run-of -the-mill Christian. They were sought out for their wisdom, their teaching, or their ability to heal and they were admired for their courage and their fortitude. In the absence of the apostles, such people became the heroes of the faith and they were venerated by those whose faith and the practice of it, did not aspire to such great heights. The title ‘saint’ was no longer applied to everyone, but only to these few whose lives had been an example to all.

Not only were these saints revered in their lifetime, when they died their memory was honoured each year on the day of their death. Over time the number of people revered as saints proliferated to the point that a more formal way of identifying people as such was developed. We know process this as canonization (something we have observed in recent times in the case of Mary McKillop and Mother Teresa among others). The practice of remembering saints on the day of their death continued, but now the number was limited to those recognized by Rome. Despite the Reformation, the Anglican Church continues to honour a somewhat smaller number of saints but, unlike our Roman sisters and brothers, we have not added to that number since King Charles the 1st was identified as a saint in 1660. Instead, every province has the authority to name as “holy” those who lives stand out as an example to us but who would be unknown to people in other parts of the communion.

In Australia we remember Eliza Hassal, a pioneer of the Church Missionary Society, William Broughton, the first Bishop of Australia, Sister Emma SSA, the superior of the Sisters of the Sacred Advent here in Brisbane, Frederic Barker, bishop and pioneer of Moore Theological College, Georgian Molloy, pioneer church leader and botanist and Sydney Kirkby, pioneer of outback ministry and founder of the Bush Church Aid Society.  Our Calendar also includes women and men whose impact has been felt here, even if they have lived in other countries or belonged to other denominations. These include the martyrs of Uganda, Evelyn Underhill, spiritual writer, William Wilberforce, social reformer, Mary Summer founder of the Mother’s Union and the twentieth century martyrs including Archbishop Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

All of these are remembered on the day of their death so why, you might ask, do we celebrate today as All Saints Day? According to Denis Hamm All Saints Day began as a commemoration of early martyrs who names were unrecorded and who therefore could not be remembered on the day of their martyrdom.

Whatever its origins, today provides an occasion for each of us to reflect on the lives of all those who have gone before us, especially those whose faithfulness, courage and witness have thrown a light on our tentativeness, our timidity and our silence. It is an opportunity to examine our own faith (or lack of it) and to allow ourselves to be challenged and inspired by those who allowed nothing to stand between them and Christ, who faced danger and privation, endured solitude and misunderstanding, who stood up for what is right and who were not afraid to confront injustice and oppression.

Today we thank God for the lives of all the saints – known and unknown. We pray that their lives may influence our own and that our own will not be found wanting.

 

 

 

 

‘Second half of life’ – return to the source

October 26, 2019

Pentecost 20 – 2019

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free

 

Loving God fill us with the wide-eyed wonder of a child and free us from all our striving that we may learn to depend entirely on you. Amen.

I can still remember the first time that our daughter clapped her hands. I was hanging out the washing and she was sitting on the grass behind me. When I turned around, there she was, looking in amazement at her hands, filled with wonder that she could use them to make a noise. As I watched she sat there and clapped her hands together over and over as if she couldn’t believe that it wasn’t an accident. It was one of those magical moments of which there are many if you are privileged enough to have and to raise a child.

What happens to us that we lose our sense of joy in the small things of life, our sense of achievement in little things? When do we stop taking pleasure in what we can do and what we have and begin measuring ourselves against others and holding on to our achievements and possessions as markers of our identity?

Richard Rohr, who is one of my favourite writers on the subject of spirituality, has published a book called Falling Upward: a spirituality for the two halves of life. It is not, as I had thought from the title, a book to provide spiritual direction as we age but rather a handbook for the spiritual life in general. Rohr argues that there are two halves of life and that these are not related to physical age but to spiritual maturity. Many people, he contends, never reach the second half of life because they spent so much time building up the first half that they are unwilling or unable to relinquish those efforts in order to enter the second half.

In the first half of our lives, Rohr suggests, we need boundaries and rules so that we can learn self-regulation and so that we can live in harmony with others (much as a two year old needs to know where the boundaries are so that she or he can feel secure and find their place in the world). We begin as a blank slate so it is essential that we spend time learning who we are and discovering what we can do. Once we have developed a sense of identity, created a framework as it were then, Rohr suggests, we need to stop striving and begin to seek the contents that the container is created to hold.

In other words, in order to grow spiritually, to become complete and whole, we have to enter the second half of life. To do this we have to learn to let go of the externals that we have allowed to define our lives and begin to focus on the internals – why we do what we do, why we need recognition from others, why we need to build up material possessions. When we learn what motivates us, we can relinquish those superficial markers of achievement and give ourselves permission to focus more on those things that are more deeply satisfying and that lead us to end our striving, to recover our innocence and to rest in the deep peace of knowing ourselves loved and perfect in God’s eyes.

Some of us are jolted into the second half of life by a life-changing event – a heart attack, a diagnosis of cancer or worse – a deteriorative disease, a death of a family member or a close friend, a fire or a flood that destroys everything we own. Faced with the reality (and perhaps proximity) of our own mortality we take stock and work out what is really important and ask ourselves whether (for example) seeking wealth or recognition are as important as building relationships with our families and friends, whether striving for what we don’t have will really bring us happiness or whether should we learn to be happy with what we already have. We are forced, if reluctantly into some version of the second half of life.

While most of us accept and learn from the challenges and setbacks that life throws at us, not all of us take the initiative to embark on the discipline of giving up the hard-won markers of self that we have spent the first halves of our lives collecting and building. We want to hold on to both the positive and the negative aspects of our identity. We cling to both our achievements and our injuries without understanding that both of them hold us back. Our past efforts and experiences whether positive or negative, whether faith-related or purely secular – those things in which we have built our identity are the very things that turn our focus inwards towards ourselves rather than outwards towards God and that indicate reliance on our own resources rather than dependence on God.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Like many of Jesus’ sayings and the journey towards a spiritual existence, this saying contains a contradiction. Jesus is not encouraging us to return to childishness or to childish ways, but to recover the openness of childhood, the joy in simple pleasures, the willingness to rely on God and to the deep contentment of being just who we are which is just who we were created to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Badgering God (or not)

October 19, 2019

Pentecost 19 – 2019
Luke 18:1-14
Marian Free
In the name of God who is ever faithful. Amen.

Recently I was told a shocking story that I really hope is not true. According to my source, in a particular faith community, the Pastor assured a childless couple that if they made a donation of $50,000 to the church God would bless them with a child. When after a year the longed-for conception had still not occurred, the Pastor attributed the failure of the miracle to a lack of faith on the part of the couple. The fact of money changing hands is not something I had heard of previously, but many people report that they were informed that their answered prayers were a consequence of their lack of faith on their part.

Perhaps one of the most problematic areas of faith relates to answered (or, more particularly, unanswered) prayer. In more than one place the gospels seem to suggest that if we pray, miracles will occur. In Luke 11 Jesus states: “Ask, and it will be given you.” Later, in chapter 17 Jesus says: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It seems unequivocal – if we pray, our prayers will be answered. This view seems to be confirmed by today’s parable in which the persistence of the widow (and the threat of violence) results in  her getting what she seeks.

A proper analysis of these and other texts would require more time than we have this morning. What we can note is that these verses do not stand alone as proof texts but, in every case, are part of a larger context that fills out and provides a more nuanced meaning. (For example, in Chapter 11 Jesus implies that God, who is vastly different from the unwilling, neighbour will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask and in chapter 17 the context is disciple’s request for faith – if they pray their faith will be increased).

In today’s gospel we have two parables, I will concentrate on the first commonly called ‘the persistent widow’. Neither the judge not the widow are presented as particularly attractive people here. By his own admission, the judge neither fears God or respects humankind, and the widow’s nature is such that the judge fears that she will use violence against him (the Greek word usually translated ‘wear out’ can equally mean ‘use violence against’)[1].

We do well to remember that the parables are fiction. There is no judge and there is no widow, just a story about a judge and a widow. Further, in many instances, the parables as reported in the gospels are inserted into contexts that are almost certainly different from those in which Jesus told them and the gospel writers often insert interpretative verses. In this instance Luke introduces the parable with a statement about the need to pray always and not to lose heart and he concludes with a question about whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth. A careful reading of the parable suggests that Luke is encouraging those who suffer injustice to hold fast, to continue to trust in and to cry out to God who is just and who will at the end of time grant justice to “his chosen ones”. (Luke is not promising that God will answer all prayer.

It is clear from their context that Jesus’ sayings (parables) on prayer as recorded by Luke do not promise the miraculous. Instead they suggest that if we pray our faith will be deepened and that we will receive the Holy Spirit. We are encouraged to persevere when times are tough, confident that God will hear our cries for justice and that at the end times God will make all things right. If we are honest, we know that it is foolish to believe that we can bend God’s will to our own by continually battering at God’s door (as the widow did the judge). What is more it would be an insult to God to assume that God responds to the loudest voice or the most persistent hammering.

Howard Thurman (quoted by Richard Rohr 22/7/19) reflects: “This is the miracle, the heights and depths of wonder and awe. God reveals His Presence out of the mystery of Being. With all of my passionate endeavour, I cannot command that He obey. All of my prayers, my meditation, my vast and compelling urgency or need cannot order, woo or beg God into the revealing of His Presence. Even my need and my desperation cannot command Him. There is an overwhelming autonomy here; God does move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. But He is so full of such wonderful and heartening surprises.

In the total religious experience we learn how to wait; we learn how to ready the mind and the spirit. It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me. . . .”
Prayer is so much more than asking God for what we want. Through prayer we open ourselves to God’s presence, we form and build a relationship with God and we listen to hear what it is that God wants from us. Through prayer we learn patience and we discover how to be content with what we have and where we are. Through prayer we allow the divine within us to flourish and grow.

We persist, not because we want to force God to do what we want, but because knowing God, being formed in the image of God and finally being united with God is worth so much more than anything that is temporary, earthly and finite.

[1] It is interesting to note that Luke often uses unsympathetic characters to make a point (think for example of ‘the dishonest steward’ and the reluctant neighbor of chapter 11).

The proper place to worship

October 12, 2019

Pentecost 18 – 2019

Luke 17:11-19[i]

Marian Free

In the name of God, from whom nothing can separate us. Amen.

While it is part of a long, historic conflict, modern Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria represents some of the malaise of the modern world. In Israel, the United States and in parts of Europe, nations are building boundaries to separate themselves from their enemies (real or perceived) and to protect their interests and to provide a barrier between themselves and any kind of danger. Nations feel that not only their safety is at risk, but that their identity is being compromised and their resources stretched, so they create borders not only to bolster their own security and so that they can determine who goes out and who comes in. At the same time those whom they wish to exclude are stereotyped, demonised and excluded.

In the Hebrew world, boundaries related to personal purity rather than to personal safety. Six whole chapters in Leviticus deal with the issue of purity, the ways in which uncleanness can be avoided and the ways in which purity can be restored. Pollution or contamination could be communicated by the consumption of impure foods, the release of bodily discharges, by menstruation and childbirth and through skin disease. The first of these pertain to boundaries between the body and the external world. Approved and unapproved foods enter the body through the mouth; blood, children and bodily discharges cross the boundary of the body through other openings. “Leprosy[ii]” is a little different from other forms of contagion because it concerns an external skin complaint – a flaky, repulsive or scaly condition that crossed the boundaries of skin, clothes and walls. It was impossible for those with a skin disease to keep their contamination to themselves, so they were thrust out of their families and communities and forced to live on the outskirts of society. Like anyone who was considered to be unclean, they were also excluded from the Temple and therefor from the worship of God.

According to anthropologists, cultures that are concerned with the maintenance of safe and secure bodily boundaries, are often as concerned about societal and geographic boundaries – in part, because they risk being polluted by those who do not observe the same restrictions as they do.

We usually associate the account of the ten lepers with gratitude, but in fact it is as much about worship and about boundaries. The scene is set in an in-between place, the boundary between Galilee and Samaria. Differing views of scripture, worship and what it means to be holy had created tensions between the two peoples. Centuries of hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews meant that most people would prefer to make the much longer journey to Jerusalem rather than to travel through Samaria. Anyone travelling to Jerusalem would not want to risk exclusion from the Temple (usually the point of their journey) by being polluted by association with the Samaritans.

Throughout the gospel, Jesus has demonstrated that he finds boundaries restrictive, limiting and even inhumane. He mixes with sinners, allows himself to be touched by a woman with a haemorrhage and comes into contact with the dead. He is not afraid of pollution or contamination. Jesus’ own godliness or purity means that rather than impurity flowing from the unclean to himself, Jesus’ presence and goodness make clean, restore and heal those with whom he comes into contact. Jesus has no need to be afraid of being contaminated by the Samaritans.

He has barely entered Samaria when he is confronted by a group of lepers who dare not cross the invisible boundaries that separate them from their families, their communities and him. They beg Jesus, not for healing, but for mercy – a word that means he should meet his obligations to them! As Jews, they were “owed” membership in the holy community of Israel, freedom to return to their families, freedom to worship God in the Temple and they ask Jesus to make this possible – to break down the barriers that prevent their return. Jesus responds to their request by telling them to: “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. In other words: “Go to the Temple and worship God”.

Jesus’ instruction is all well and good for nine of the ten. Once certified as clean by the priests they will be free to enter the Temple and to worship God with other members of their community. But the tenth, the Samaritan, is caught in a dilemma. He sets off with the others but stops short. He knows will not be welcome in the Jewish Temple and that nothing the Jewish priests say or do will make him fit (in their eyes) to be a member of their worshipping community. Does he go instead to the Samaritan place of worship on Mount Gerizim and to his own priests? Where does he go to worship God? Then it comes to him – God is no longer to be found either in Jerusalem or at Gerizim. God is to be found in the person of Jesus.

The Samaritan turns back “praising God”. He bows his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanks him – using a word only used in the Greek for thanks and praise given to God.[iii] He is commended and the nine are censured, not for giving thanks, but for returning to Jesus and giving praise to God.

The Samaritan, the outsider, recognised what the others from their privileged position of inclusion did not, that God was no longer to be encountered in the exclusive space of the Temple, but in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, the boundaries between clean and unclean, sacred and profane, insider and outsider are broken-down. The barriers between God and humanity have been torn apart. Through Jesus we have direct access to God. We do not need intermediaries to intercede for us or to praise God on our behalf. We are free to worship as we are and where we are. We have no need to feel worthy enough or holy enough to worship God.

It doesn’t matter where we are as long as together and individually we recognise all that God has done for us, and that we respond with praise and thanksgiving.

 

[i] I am indebted to John J. Pilch and Denis Hamm for some of these insights. (see http://www.liturgy.slu.edu for October 13, 2019)

[ii] What we know as leprosy is not very contagious and was not known in antiquity.

[iii] “eucharistein” is used in the Greek bible only for thanks and praise given to God.

Scripture in service of abuse

August 24, 2019

Pentecost 11 – 2019
Luke 13:10-17
Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Here’s a question: “Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments and, if you did, did you realise that they differ in regard to keeping the sabbath?”

As you know, the Ten Commandments are given to Moses when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. When at last they are about to enter the promised land, Moses reminds the people of all that has happened since God led them out of Egypt. In this second version, Moses changes the fourth commandment and provides a different reason for “observing the sabbath and keeping it holy”. Unless it is pointed out to us, we might not notice the difference because, apart from a slight rearrangement of words the two versions are the same apart from the justification. So, when Moses receives the commandments the creation story is given as the basis for sabbath keeping. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8) Moses’ farewell speech as recorded in Deuteronomy emphasises the liberation of Israel from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut 5:15)

The two explanations complement rather than contradict each other. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day of creation God blessed and hallowed the day. We are not to understand that God was exhausted, but rather that God was taking the time to revel in all that God had made. The sabbath was intended to be a day of delight, a time to appreciate God’s gifts and to allow oneself to be held in and by the presence of God.

Deuteronomy recounts the tale of liberation– from Egypt, through the wilderness to the present – and God’s role in bringing the people from slavery to freedom in the promised land. Not surprisingly, the sabbath is associated with redemption. It is set aside as a constant reminder that God has set the people from free from slavery – from everything that limits or prevents human flourishing.

The sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people – a day in which to delight in God’s blessings or to remember with gratitude the freedom God has won for them. “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”.

So far so good, but around 613 BCE it seems that people began to worry about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy, in particular what did it mean to “do no work”. The attempt to define “work” produced rules and regulations that were so detailed and unwieldy with the result that, rather than being a day of rest (of delight or redemption), the sabbath became a day of anxious concern that one or other rule might inadvertently be broken.

It is in this context that we have to read this morning’s gospel. What appears at first glance as a healing story is in reality a story that primarily serves to illustrate the disagreement between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue with regard to the observation of the sabbath. (A debate that is very much in the public domain as we can see through the reaction of the observers). It appears that the synagogue leader views the sabbath commandment through a very narrow and literal lens. He believes (as Jesus points out) that an ox or a donkey can be unloosed and led to water on the sabbath, but because the law has nothing to say on the matter, he refuses to accept that a woman who is bound can similarly be set free on the sabbath in order to be able to make the most of her life.

Jesus has no such difficulty. Informed by both versions of the fourth commandment and by using the refinements that have been added to it, Jesus looses the woman from that which binds her. He liberates her from her ailment, from the ungodly power that has her in its thrall and he sets her free to stand tall and to live life to the full. Surely on this day of redemption, this is the way in which to understand the commandment. The woman is freed to delight in creation – which she does by immediately standing and praising God. The sabbath is the perfect day on which to set someone free!

It is no longer the sabbath law that is misinterpreted and misused. During the course of my own lifetime the church has been forced to acknowledge that our inherited laws had become laws that had power to oppress and even to destroy the lives of many. Battered women were sent home to abusive husbands because of Jesus’ injunction against divorce. Children have been subject to abuse because they were taught not “to talk back” to adults or worse that they had to “honour their father and their mother”. Gay men and women continue to be denigrated and excluded and denied the comfort and joy of being in relationship with one another because the bible says one thing or another.

We must always be on our guard against rigid interpretations of our faith that limit rather than encourage others. It is my belief that scripture should be read through the lens of God’s love and compassion, God’s inclusion of the marginalised and God’s desire for all people to be made whole. The lesson to be learned from today’s and other controversy stories in the New Testament is that scripture can be used as much to bind as to liberate and that the bible can be used as a tool of abuse as readily as it can be used as an instrument of compassion and respect.

Scripture is a tool for liberation and not for oppression. Let us pray that we will never find ourselves guilty of using scripture to limit, to bind or to repress, but only to encourage, to set free and to enliven.

Wealth’s capacity to destroy relationships

August 3, 2019

Pentecost 8 – 2019
Luke 12:13-21
Marian Free

In the name of God, who pours out love and mercy in abundance and who, in the end is the final arbiter. Amen.

Some of you may know the author and illustrator Pamela Allen. She has authored a number of children’s books including Who sank the boat?One of my favourites is Herbert and Harry[1]. Herbert and Harry are two brothers who get along famously until one day, when they are fishing together, they haul up a treasure chest. In the ensuing battle over the chest, Harry is pushed into the sea and Herbert rows the boat and the treasure to a lonely stretch. Fortunately, Harry is a strong swimmer and manages to swim home. Herbert, having wrested the chest from his brother, feels desperately anxious that Harry might find him and steal the treasure.  He hauls the chest into the forest, but still does not feel safe. He hides the treasure among some tree roots, but still he cannot rest. He takes the treasure further and further from Harry, the land gets emptier and emptier and the hills higher and higher.

At last he reaches the highest mountain in the land, but still he cannot sleep for fear that someone has followed him. So Herbert digs a tunnel deep into the mountain, pushes the chest in and covers the entry with a huge boulder, but even that is not enough. He decides that he needs guns, lots of them. Guns are not enough; Herbert builds a fort.

In the end, Herbert has gained no pleasure at all from the treasure. His life has been consumed by keeping it to himself and protecting it from anyone who might wish to steal it. In the process, he has cut himself off – not only from Harry, but from all possible human contact and perhaps from his own humanity. The final illustration shows him completely isolated atop his mountain holding a gun, surrounded by walls from which protrude multiple cannons. Harry, on the other hand is pictured surrounded by grandchildren. Allen concludes: “Today, Herbert and Harry are very old men. Herbert still guards the treasure in his fort on top of the highest mountain in the land. But still, he cannot sleep. While Harry, who had no treasure, has always been able to sleep soundly.

In today’s gospel, someone from the crowd approaches Jesus and says: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” In response Jesus warns that: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and he tells the parable about the rich man, who, instead of sharing his good fortune, plans to store it all up for himself. On a superficial level the meaning of the parable is quite clear: “it doesn’t matter how much you have; you can’t take it with you”. At a deeper level much more is going on here.

As Dennis Hamm (SJ) points out today’s brief parable is “a brilliant cartoon illustrating how greed destroys all the covenant relationships”[2]“with the earth, with the community, with one’s self and with God.

In order to see how Hamm comes to this conclusion, we have to examine the parable bit by bit. The parable begins: “The landof a rich man produced abundantly.” It is the land, not the rich man that has produced the abundance. This is consistent with the Jewish perspective that the earthis the source of food and that a successful harvest, like the land itself, is a gift from God. The rich man has lost touch with his relationship with the land and with his dependence on the Creator.

We read on: “And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” I have no place to store my crops. Not only has our farmer lost sight of the fact that the land and the harvest are gifts from God, but he has forgotten the wisdom that flows from this understanding – that divine gifts are not intended for one individual but that the produce of the land is intended to meet the needs of all. He has forgotten, or is choosing to ignore, his responsibility to the wider community. From his perspective the abundance is for him alone.

The farmer’s self-centredness is even more obvious in his interior monologue: “Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul [psyche], ‘Soul [psyche], you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” There is no mention of ‘we’ or ‘our’ here. It is all about me “my grain and my goods.” The comedic element of this section is heightened when we understand that “psyche” or “soul” is just as easily translated as “self”. In which case we read: “I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have ample goods – etc”.

Then God interrupts the selfish man’s thoughts. “But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life [psyche- self] is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”In the final analysis, the farmer is not the arbiter of his destiny, God is. Life itself is a gift from the Creator.

Like Hebert, the rich man gains no benefit from his wealth. In holding his harvest to himself, he cuts himself off from the land, the community, his own humanity and eventually from God.

Jesus’ point is that while wealth in itself may not be the problem, what we do with our wealth, or perhaps more importantly, what we let our wealth do to us can be problematic. In the worst-case scenario, Jesus’ implies, if we allow our possessions to control us they will separate us from the earth, from our family and our community, from our sense of self and even from God.

[1]Allen, Pamela. Herbert and Harry. Australia: Puffin Books, 1986.
[2]http://liturgy.slu.edu/18OrdC080419/theword_hamm.html

Ask and you will receive?

July 27, 2019

Pentecost 7 – 2019
    Luke 11:1-13
Marian Free

In the name of God Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.

Some time ago I met a very angry woman. She had prayed and prayed that her mother would recover from cancer and still her mother had died. She felt utterly betrayed by a God whom she had been led to believe would answer her prayers. Her anger and hatred were all-consuming – in part, because despite her deep disappointment, she still believed that there was a God. It was just that God had turned out to be very different from the picture of God that she had in her head and God had let her down at the very time when she needed God most. The death of her mother convinced her that God was indifferent to human suffering, and that God had no personal interest in the affairs of individual people. This woman could not give up her faith, but the faith in which she had trusted had failed to give her comfort when comfort was required, and she could not forgive God for that betrayal.

She is not alone in feeling let down by a God who does not seem to answer prayers. There are many good people who feel disappointed and abandoned when their prayers go unanswered.

What is it about our teaching on prayer that leads believers to have such high expectations of results and which as a consequence lets them down so badly?

There are, no doubt, a variety of answers, depending on one’s background and experience of Sunday School and church, but a great deal of the problem stems, I believe, from today’s gospel which implies first of all, that if we pray with enough persistence God will give in to our request and secondly, and perhaps more dangerously that God will give us whatever we ask for in prayer. After all Luke 11:9 says clearly and unequivocally: “Ask and you will receive.” Can we then ask for anything no matter how selfish or punitive?  I suspect not.

To understand Jesus’ teaching on prayer, we must look at Luke 11:1-13 as a whole and not take one or two phrases out of context.

In the first instance is important to note that Jesus is speaking to the community as a whole and not to individuals. Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request: “Teach us how to pray as John taught his disciples.” In other words, how do we pray together?

Jesus begins his response with the words of a prayer – the only prayer that Jesus teaches. [We could, of course spend an entire sermon on the Lord’s prayer alone, but my intention is to show that the parable of the neighbour at midnight and the command to ask are framed in such a way that it is clear what it is that we are to ask for and what it is that God will give.]

The prayer starts by asking that God’s name be sanctified by the behaviour of the community – “hallowed be your name” and continues with a desire that God’s kingdom come, that the reign of God may become a reality for the whole world. In other words, Jesus’ suggests that prayer is about giving priority to God and to the kingdom of God. When we use this prayer, we are called to recognise that how we behave reflects on God – in other words if we behave badly, we bring God into disrepute and God’s name is cheapened, not sanctified. “Your kingdom come.” Together we express a desire that the world as a whole might come under the rule of God and that therefore that all the peoples of the world might live as God intended. These are not sentiments that relate to the wants and needs of ourselves as individuals, they are words that have a universal application.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer concludes by telling us what it is that we are to ask for. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spiritto those who ask him!” We ask and receive, we seek and we find, we knock and the door is opened to us. It is clear that it is the Holy Spirit that we are to seek and for which we are to ask and who will open the door. God will unstintingly give the Holy Spirit to all who ask for it and in turn, empowered by the Holy Spirit, our prayers will, in effect be the longings of God uttered by ourselves.

Like all things spiritual though, most of us grow into prayer. We begin with “prayers of request (what we want) and move to prayers of gratitude (thanksgiving and praise) and graduate to prayers of empowerment (participation and collaboration with God)[1]”.

As our relationship with God deepens and matures, we become less focussed on ourselves and on our own needs, and more concerned with the kingdom’s becoming a reality. As we learn to listen to and to lean on God, we become attuned to what it is that God wants and what it is that God wants to us to pray for. The more practiced we are in prayer the more likely it is that our prayers will be aligned with the will of God and the more closely our prayers are aligned with the will of God, the more likely it is that they are to be answered.  When, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to sincerely pray: “Your kingdom come”, our prayers will be God’s prayers and we will ask for what is truly best for ourselves, for our neighbours and for the world.

 

From being unknown to being knownm

July 20, 2019

The Feast of Mary Magdalene – 2019
John 20:1:18
Marian Free

God of boundless love whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory the First made the assertion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. He came to this conclusion by conflating Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet before his death. In turn, Mary of Bethany was confused with the unnamed ‘sinful’ woman of Luke who interrupted a dinner party in order to anoint Jesus’ head. The problem (apart from the fact that there is no reason to think that these three women are one and the same) is, that even if Magdalene could be proven to be the ‘sinful’ woman who anointed Jesus, we are not provided with a single clue that would allow us to draw a conclusion about the nature of that woman’s sin. There is nothing in our gospels, except perhaps the suggestion that Mary was a woman of independent means, to suggest that she was a prostitute. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, it has been almost impossible for Magdalene to shake that image and for centuries Mary has been depicted as a prostitute in art and in commentaries.

Indeed, our biblical evidence for Mary Magdalene is scarce. That said, she is mentioned by name on twelve occasions which is more times than any of the apostles are mentioned! She presumably came from Magdala and, according to Luke, she was one of the three women who provided for Jesus out of their own resources (8:2-3) and one from whom seven demons had gone out (cf Mark16:9). All four gospels agree that Magdalene was one of the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and that with them she was commissioned to tell the disciples (who were men) that Jesus had risen. In John’s gospel, Mary’s role is even more significant. She goes to the tomb alone, and it is to Mary, and only Mary, that Jesus speaks and commissions. Mary’s place in the gospels then, and especially her position in the Gospel of John, implies that (whatever her demons may have been) she had a leadership role in the early community.

This view is supported by the position that Mary is given in the non-canonical writings – the most tantalising of which is the Gospel of Philip. In these books Mary’s closeness to Jesus is a cause of tension with other disciples – in particular with Peter. We read: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

And the companion of the [Lord was?] Mary Magdalene. [He?] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [mouth?]. The rest of the disciples said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

Here and elsewhere we are told that Mary is not only given information that is given to no other disciple, but that she is particularly intimate with Jesus. The closeness of the relationship between Mary and Jesus (both in the non-canonical writings and in today’s gospel reading) has led some scholars to speculate that Mary and Jesus were married. They suggest that the wedding at Cana was in fact the celebration of the marriage between Jesus and Mary. Why else, they ask, would Mary the mother of Jesus, take such an interest in the catering and presume to have authority to instruct the servants? (No one – even today – would presume to give orders to another person’s staff and a woman in the first century had no authority, let alone in the home of someone else.)

Magdalen’s role as the apostle to the apostles in John’s gospel and her significant place in the synoptic gospels, along with the references to Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip and elsewhere combine to suggest that Mary had a significant leadership role in the early community and a closeness to Jesus not extended to anyone else. It would have been easy for the gospel writers to exclude her from the story or to downplay her part in the resurrection appearances. By the time the gospels were being written the place of women in the Christian community was being substantially diminished (but that is a story for another day). The gospel writers could have easily named members of the twelve disciples as the first to see Jesus and as those who were commissioned to tell the others of the resurrection. That Mary retains this role in the gospels suggests that her position within the community and her contribution to the life of the community was such that the memory of her was still strong and that any attempt to write her out of the story would have been met with resistance.

Of course, we will never be able to properly separate fact from fiction or speculation from evidence, but there are some things that we can say with some certainty. Mary, who was possessed by seven demons, was set free. Having been set free, she not only followed Jesus, but she supported him financially. Alone, or in the company of others, Mary went to the tomb on Easter Day, and alone, or as one of three, she was instructed to proclaim the resurrection to the disciples. She journeyed from darkness to light, from exclusion to inclusion, from being unknown to being fully known, from being held captive to demons to being captivated by Jesus’ love and from being no one, to being the bearer of the good news.

Being in relationship with Jesus is life-changing. We too are brought from darkness to light, from the outside to the inside, from isolation to relationship, from captivity to freedom and ignorance to proclaimers of the gospel.

Faith is both a privilege and a responsibility. We are called into a relationship and sent out to share the good news.

Satan falling from heaven

July 6, 2019

Pentecost 4 – 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who has power over life and death, good and evil. Amen.

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Jesus’ response to the mission of the seventy is quite incredible. What was it about their actions that led Jesus to make such a pronouncement? No other gospel records the sending out of seventy disciples and no other gospel records Jesus’ dramatic, visionary exclamation. It is only in Luke that the seventy (some versions say 72) are, like John the Baptist sent out before Jesus to prepare the way for him. Interestingly, the commissioning of the seventy follows Jesus’ severe words about discipleship – “let the dead bury their own dead.” That means that those who remain understand the consequences of following Jesus. They must leave everything behind and there is no safety net.

When Jesus appoints the seventy, he gives them strict instructions as to where to go, what to pack and how to respond to rejection. The disciples are directed to take nothing except their faith to support them – no purse, no bag, no sandals. Unarmed, they are sent out as “lambs in the midst of wolves”. Now they have come back to Jesus. Not only have they have survived, they have also learnt that God is to be trusted! No wonder that they have returned with joy – amazed and elated by what they have achieved in Jesus’ name: “in your name even the demons submit to us!” The disciples are like a bunch of school children, bursting to share their adventures and successes with Jesus.

Underlying the Gospel of Luke is a cosmic battle between good and evil, between Jesus and Satan. The battle begins at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. Here Jesus has an apparently decisive victory over Satan. To Satan’s disappointment (and surprise), Jesus is not seduced by easy solutions, marvelous feats or by the promise of power. Jesus’ responses to Satan make it quite clear that he will serve God, and God alone, no matter what the cost.  Apparently, Satan is not convinced that the battle has been won, he still believes he has a chance to gain the ascendancy. He does not slink away with his tail between his legs (as he appears to do in the gospels of Mark and Matthew). Instead, we are told that he “departs from Jesus until an opportune time”. From Satan’s point of view, it is not over till it is over. As we will see, Satan appears again at the end of the story when he enters into Judas Iscariot who, spurred on by him, will betray Jesus to the chief priests and the offices of the Temple police. (Having failed to influence Jesus, Satan finds a weak link in Judas and possibly in the other disciples whom “he will sift like wheat”.)

Jesus proves more than a match for his adversary – he knows that the stakes are high, but nothing will prevent him from focusing on the task ahead. His exclamation in response to the disciple’s report on their mission may reflect Jesus’ confidence that, whatever happens to him, his mission will not fail. It is clear to him that the disciples have discovered their own role in the defeat of evil. Like Jesus, they have not succumbed to the temptation to rely entirely on themselves. From the way in which they report their experience it is obvious that the disciples understand that it is not by their own power or ability that the demons are cast out, rather is the power of Jesus’ name that causes the demons to submit. The disciples’ self-awareness and humility, their willingness to give credit where credit is due may give Jesus an assurance that his mission is in the right hands. Jesus can be sure that Satan will not regain his place in the world – even after Jesus’ death.

No wonder Jesus exclaims: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” It is a prophetic statement based on his new found evidence that the disciples are to be trusted, that they understand that God alone can defeat evil and that ministry in the service of God is not about self-aggrandisement, but about trusting in God and giving credit where credit is due.

In today’s world, in which the balance of power is shifting and in which self-centredness and greed appear to be gaining an upper hand, can we still be confident that the powers of evil have been defeated? Was Jesus prophetic statement misguided? Was his trust in we, his modern disciples, misguided? Are we tempted to rely on our own strengths to combat the power of evil or are we, like Jesus and the seventy, ready and willing to ignore our need for recognition and success so that we might truly submit to God and allow God to work through us so that evil does not and cannot get the upper hand?

May Jesus’ prophetic vision be as true now as it was when he proclaimed: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” and affirmed all that the disciples had done.

“Let the dead bury the dead”

June 29, 2019

Pentecost 3 – 2019

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to give our all, hearts, minds, souls and bodies. Amen.

The story of Father Rob Galea referred to in today’s Pew Bulletin is just one example of a convert who has carefully weighed up the consequences of becoming a Christian before taking the final step of faith.1 There are many well-known Christian thinkers and leaders who report that their coming to faith was costly or was met with a degree of resistance on their part. They have understood that giving one’s life to God is, as Father Rob recognized, a matter of complete surrender, a willingness to give up absolutely everything in order to place God at the center of one’s existence. Accepting Jesus is not a decision to be taken lightly – it could mean a complete change of direction, the relinquishing of wealth, relationships or intellectual objections to faith or, particularly in nations in which conversion is illegal, it could mean accepting martyrdom as the likely consequence of coming to Jesus.

I wonder how many of us have had this experience or whether, as those who have never known a time when we did not believe, really understand the cost of discipleship.

“Let the dead bury the dead.” Verse 51 begins a new section in Luke’s gospel. These apparently harsh words reflect Jesus’ awareness of what lay ahead of him. Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem”. Luke is making it clear to us that this is no ordinary trip, it requires both determination and resolution. Jesus is not going to Jerusalem because he wants to, but because he must. He knows that what lies ahead of him is not recognition and acclamation, but rejection, suffering and death and he is anxious that those who want to follow him understand the dangers that they will face and be prepared to take the risks that discipleship him will entail. If Jesus’ would-be followers are not fully committed, they will be disappointed. Worse, they will be wasting their time. They might just as well stay at home because if they do not understand the costs now, they will be completely at a loss when things turn bad. Jesus knows that those who will last the distance will be the people who really grasp the world-shattering nature of his mission and his message. They are the ones who will be ready to sacrifice everything, even their lives, to be a part of Jesus’ project to change the religious and social culture of which they are a part.

After Jesus’ death the lives of his disciples will be radically changed – in ways that at this point they cannot even begin to imagine. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is saying: “do not come with me if you do not think that you will make the distance.”

Jesus’ words, harsh as they sound to us, should not be unexpected. Earlier Jesus had warned the disciples of his impeding suffering and death. He has informed them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Those who follow Jesus must understand the consequences of discipleship – there is no glory to be had, only acceptance of the call and a willingness to do or to endure whatever lies ahead.

Those who are willing to give up everything and follow Jesus are not abandoned or left to their own devices. According to Luke, Jesus uses the journey to Jerusalem to teach the disciples, to prepare them to continue his mission after he has gone. For the next ten chapters – up until his arrival in Jerusalem – Jesus will share with the disciples his radical understanding of God and of the relationship between God and God’s people.

Jesus’ will undermine their traditional views of God with parables like the forgiving Father; he will expose the rigidity and hypocrisy of the Pharisees; he will remind them that earthly possessions are temporary; he will challenge them to remain focused and to expect his return at any given moment; he will demonstrate in word and action that it is the intention of the law, not the letter of the law that is important; he will overturn concepts of honour and shame; he will shock them with positive stories about the Samaritans and negative stories about the rich; he will confront their narrow views as to who is and who is not included in God’s kingdom; and he will dare them to use their gifts to the very best of their abilities. In other words, he will open their eyes to a new way of seeing and equip the disciples to teach the good news as he understands it.

At the same time, Jesus will give the disciples confidence to carry on his mission. He will empower them to do all that he can do and declare that even the demons will submit to them. Jesus will give the disciples courage to endure whatever difficulties they might face – reassuring them that even the hairs on their head are counted and letting them know that if they are brought before the courts the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say.

From now until the end of November, we will travel with Jesus and the disciples towards Jerusalem. We, with the disciples will be challenged to see the world as Jesus sees it, we will be formed for ministry and prepared to face whatever difficulties may lie before us.

Today we have a moment to stop and think: “Do we really understand the cost of God’s call on our lives?” “Have we really committed ourselves to follow where ever it is that God will lead us?” and, if push comes to shove; “Will we put our hand to the plough and not look back, no matter what temptations lie behind and no matter what difficulties lie ahead?”

Father Rob Galea stands out because he is Maltese, a singer, and he lifts weights. He explained to Meredith Lake on the ABC that his decision to be a Christian was not one that he took lightly. He had to ask himself whether he was able to surrender everything – his music (which to that point had been his means of earning an income and which had given him a degree of renown across the world), marriage and family (which included breaking up with his girlfriend of 4 years whom he had hoped to marry) and anything else that God might be asking him to give up as part of this vocation. In the end, Rob felt that in order to have the relationship with God that he desired, he was willing to give up anything and everything.

 

 

 

 


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