Do your worst. I still love you.

April 15, 2017

Easter – 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

 

 

Placing our life into the hand of God

April 13, 2017

Good Friday – 2017

Marian Free

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.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker

Good Friday – 2017

Marian Free

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

“Wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”

At first glance, Elliot’s poem expresses a view of life that is bleak, desperate and hopeless. “Hope is hope for the wrong thing, love is love for the wrong thing. You must go by the way wherein there is no ecstasy, by the way of ignorance, the way of dispossession.” The poem expresses sentiments that are completely at odds with message of the culture of today. In popular culture, in our magazines and on our televisions we are bombarded by stories of people who insist that anyone can achieve anything as long as they set their minds to it. Popular culture gives the impression that a person’s future is entirely in their own hands – they just have to have a positive attitude, believe in themselves or work hard enough.

Elliot, a Christian, knows that the reality is very different. The poem expresses an understanding that ultimately we have very little power to determine the course of the future. All of us, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable are subject to the instability of the planet, the frailty of our bodies, the ever-present threat of disease, the carelessness of others, the cynicism of politicians and the greed of those who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others. In reality each of us has very little control over every aspect of our lives. The only certainly, the only still point in a world that is beyond our ability to direct is God. God alone knows how the future will turn out, God alone can see us through whatever this temporary, unpredictable life has to offer.

Ironically, the only way to achieve anything meaningful and eternal is to surrender control, to cede all power to God, to allow God to determine and direct our path, to trust that God will bring us through to wherever it is that we are meant to be. Only by surrendering ourselves completely to God will we discover the direction in which we are intended to travel. Only when we give ourselves completely to God will we be sure that we are hoping for the right thing, loving the right thing. Only a life totally aligned with God can be a life that is truly godly.

These are the truths that Jesus’ life reveals. As the Son of God, Jesus could have done anything, been anyone. Jesus could have ruled the world, sought glory, riches and power. Instead Jesus chose to surrender himself completely to God, to do only those things that he believed were of God. So completely did Jesus trust in God’s direction that he endured the shame of arrest and trial, the indignity of flogging, the torment and pain of the cross, the emptiness of death and the uncertainty of where it would all end.

Only complete and total surrender “to the way wherein there is no ecstasy”, brought Jesus to where he was truly meant to be. Jesus’ surrender of himself led to his victory over death – not only for himself but for each one of us. The horror of the cross was transformed to the joy and triumph of the resurrection.

We cannot know what lies ahead. We do know that we can trust God.

Let us, with Jesus, surrender control, step into the unknown and place our lives completely and utterly into the hand of God.

 

Intercessions

God whose Son surrendered himself entirely into your hands, open the eyes of all who “hope for the wrong thing” – those whose desire for power and control, for wealth and security disempowers and impoverishes others. Help us and all humankind to surrender ourselves entirely to your will so that the world might become a place in which all people live in freedom and peace and in which all have an opportunity to reach their full potential.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

God who turns despair to hope, defeat to victory, death to life, give to your church such confidence in you that it will not fear for its future or seek to protect its position in the world, but to understand “that the faith and the love and the hope are in the waiting”. May we surrender our desire for certainty to the knowledge that all things are in your hands.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

God whose love for us knows no bounds, give us the skills we need to be bearers of that love to others – especially to those who betray and abandon us, who hurt us and let us down. May the dispossessed and powerless experience the life-giving power of your love.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

Jesus who became vulnerable even to death, support and uphold all whose lives are beset by illness and strife, give courage to the dying and hope and confidence to the living.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

Jesus who took “the way in which there is no ecstasy”, give us the courage and confidence to surrender ourselves wholly to you, that we with you might pass from death to life eternal.

Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…

Feet – dirty, calloused, smelly, caressed, loved

April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday 2017

 Marian Free

In the name of God who stoops to wash our feet. Amen.

Feet come in all shapes and sizes. There are large feet and petite feet. There are smooth feet and calloused feet. Feet that have seen a lot of hard work and feet that have led a reasonably charmed existence. Toes can be long or short, crooked or straight, misshapen or not. Feet in sandals are prone to get dirty. Feet in shoes are likely to be sweaty (and sometimes smelly). For these and other reasons, many of us don’t like our feet to be exposed. We are uncomfortable about allowing others to see what we consider to be imperfections or defects, we feel uncomfortable about anyone seeing them, let alone touch them.

It is an enormous privilege to be able to wash the feet of another person. It is an action of intimacy and touch that demands confidence, trust and humility on the part of the one who is willing to allow their feet to be seen and held and caressed with water and with towel. It demands that the recipient of the washing allow themselves, or at least their feet, to be exposed.

When Jesus takes a towel and washes the feet of the disciples, we are for the most part tempted to emphasise his humility, his willingness to serve – and certainly that is how John interprets the action. Peter’s response however shows the other side of the equation. It would seem that despite his discipleship, Peter has not yet learnt what it means to accept Jesus’ love. He is not willing to believe that a central aspect of faith in Jesus means receiving the gifts that Jesus has to offer. He does not understand that what is required is not the humility of thinking oneself unworthy, but the humility of accepting that unworthy though he may be, that does not put him outside the reach of Jesus’ love. Peter is self-conscious and uncomfortable with the intimacy that a relationship with Jesus involves.

He represents all those of us who do not believe that we are loveable and therefore cannot believe in God’s love for us.

Throughout Lent I have challenged you to consider how much God loves you, to believe that if God thinks you are worthy of God’s love that it must be true, and to understand that in the warmth of God’s love we can allow even those parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed, to be completely exposed and laid bare.

Knowing ourselves loved frees us to give ourselves wholly to God.

If like Peter we are still holding something back, perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves what it is and why we are holding on.

 

Intercessions

Loving God,

On this night, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, demonstrating that nothing was beneath his notice, and no one unworthy of his love. Give us a true sense of our worth, that we may see worth in others and so build a world of compassion, tolerance and love.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Holy God,

On this night Jesus demonstrates true humility and a willingness to serve. May we your church have a sense of proportion as to our own importance and truly understand what it means to serve the world around us.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Gracious God,

On this night Jesus washed the feet even of Judas who was about to betray him. Help us to love and accept the unloved and unlovable – even those who do us wrong.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Comforting God,

On this night, Jesus gave himself completely into your hands. Enable us to trust in you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Eternal God,

On this night Jesus began a journey from life to death, a journey that became a journey from death to life. Give to us the same confidence in your guiding hand, that we may submit entirely to your will, and knowing that we are already yours, enter with joy our eternal rest.

Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray.

Our Father in heaven…

God doesn’t not lose faith with us

April 8, 2017

Lent 6 – Palm Sunday, 2017

Matthew 26:14-27:66

Marian Free

In the name of God, who overlooks our faults and who restores us again and again so that we can take our part in the story. Amen.

In the latest issue of Liturgy News David Kirchhoffer reflects on the nature of sainthood. He reminds us that sainthood is not a matter of one-size fits all and that there is no simple definition that incorporates the diversity among those whom his tradition elevates to the status of saint or martyr[1]. “They all have stories, “ he comments, “their own all-too-human stories. Among the saints there are emperors and paupers, young and old, ascetics and hedonists, masters and slaves, colonizers and colonized, reformers and conservatives, and certainly more than one who, by today’s standards, probably experienced some sort of psychological disorder.” David’s point is that rather than being “shown up” by the saints, we actually find ourselves in very good company. The people who are deemed to be most holy by the church are as human and as flawed as the rest of us. Rather than making us feel inadequate and unworthy, the lives of the saints remind us that they are not so very different from us and that our faltering efforts to be holy and faithful are in fact good enough.

If we are in any doubt as to God’s ability to overlook our deficiencies, we need look no further than this morning’s gospel, which among other things is a tale of the whole world’s being at cross purposes with God. It is not only the chief priests and elders and the Roman authorities who try to destroy Jesus and his mission. It is those in Jesus’ immediate circle – his disciples and friends – who hand him over to the authorities, misunderstand their role, sleep when Jesus most needs their support, desert him, deny him and leave him alone to face trial and death.

Of course, not all of the characters in this account are numbered among the saints, but twelve of the those in the drama are Jesus’ most intimate friends, those with whom he has shared the highs and lows of his mission, those whom he has authorized to preach and teach and heal and those whom he has prepared to continue on his work after he has gone. These are the men with whom Jesus has chosen to spend what may be his last night on earth, those with whom he will share the most significant evening on the Jewish calendar. Without exception each of the twelve will let Jesus down before the night is out and yet Jesus refuses to condemn them or to exclude even Judas from the company.

Judas, who, even before the preparations for the dinner had begun, had received thirty pieces of silver to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Judas who, when Jesus announces at the meal that one of the disciples will hand him over, reveals what it is that sets him apart from the other disciples[2]. Whereas the eleven address Jesus as “Lord”, Judas addresses Jesus only as“Rabbi” (teacher). Jesus knows that it is Judas who will hand him over to the authorities and yet when he says: “Take eat, this is my body”, he places the bread in Judas’ hands. When he says: “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins,” Judas is not excluded from the covenant or from the promise of forgiveness.

Jesus knows that despite Peter’s protestations to the contrary, Peter will deny him – not once but three times. Even so Peter too is given the bread and the wine – Jesus’ body and Jesus’ blood. Of the eleven who remain with Jesus after the meal, not one will find the strength to stay awake with Jesus even though Jesus has shared with them that he is “grieved unto death”. Still, on this, his last night on earth, Jesus will share with them his very self and he will do so lovingly, not reproachfully, with grace and not with disappointment. Jesus knows their limitations. Before it comes to pass he knows how each will respond to the events of the night but he does not abandon them as they will abandon him.

Of these twelve, men who made promises that they failed to keep, all but Judas are included among the saints. Far from being ideals of holiness, courage and piety they are revealed as men who have feet of clay, who put their own safety before their loyalty to Jesus and who flee at the first sign of danger. They have said that they would die with Jesus but they cannot even stay awake, let alone accompany him on the journey to the cross.

Betrayal, abandonment and even opposition are the tools that God uses to turn arrest, false accusations, torture and death into something extraordinary and marvelous – Jesus’ resurrection, the defeat of death. Even though by human standards the disciples have failed not only as disciples but also as friends, they are not censured, punished or rejected. After the resurrection, it is as if God had not even noticed their cowardice, their desire for self-preservation and their failure to keep their word. Instead of condemning them for their lack of loyalty and their abandonment of Jesus, God not only restores and elevates them and gives to them the task of taking up what Jesus has been forced to leave off – preaching the good news of the kingdom.

As God overlooked the flaws and inadequacies of the disciples so too God will overlook our weaknesses, our lack of self-confidence and our tentative efforts to serve.

Though we lose faith in God, God will never lose faith in us, but will raise us up time and time again so that we too will have our place in God’s on-going story.

 

[1] Liturgy News is a publication of the Roman Catholic of Brisbane.

[2] I am indebted to Judith Jones whose commentary on the gospel was challenging and insightful. http://www.workingpreacher.or

So easy it seems hard

April 1, 2017

Lent 5 – 2017

John 11:1-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who love us beyond our wildest imagining. Amen.

“If only” must be among the saddest words in the English language. They express regret, disappointment, a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are and a yearning for things to be different. They suggest an unwillingness to accept that life is beyond our control and that it includes the good and the bad. They represent a failure to live in the present and a striving for what is probably an unrealistic and ideal future. Or, as in the case of today’s gospel, “if only” expresses a desire that God would behave in the way that we expect.

There are, as is often the case with John’s gospel, a number of things going on in today’s gospel. Jesus’ life is in danger. The Pharisees have been trying to stone him, which means that for Jesus to be anywhere in Judea, let alone near Jerusalem, is extremely dangerous. According to John Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem. Apparently while there he chooses to say with his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whose home in Bethany is only a couple of miles from the city. The siblings are more than friends with Jesus. They share an intimacy that would allow Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet and to wipe them with her hair, and that gives the women courage to tell Jesus that “the one whom you love is ill.” Not only are they close friends, but Martha and Mary have confidence in Jesus’ ability to bring about healing.

When Lazarus becomes ill, they send a message to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t come. The sisters don’t have the advantage that we have. They don’t hear Jesus’ discussion with the disciples. What they know is that a friend who loves them not only doesn’t come, but fails to even to send a word to explain the delay. One imagines that the sisters are disappointed and confused by Jesus’ behaviour. His failure to honor their friendship and to come to their aid must have taken them by surprise.

No wonder both women reproach him when, long after Lazarus has died, Jesus finally turns up. “Lord if only you had been here our brother would not have died,” they say. We could have been saved this trouble and this grief – “if only you had been here.” Their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal is unchanged. They simply do not understand why he would choose not to save their brother.

The reaction of the women is often overshadowed by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, or overlooked because of Martha’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but it is important to notice the reproach and to recognise that, despite their friendship and love, the women are not afraid to let Jesus know that they feel he has let them down. It is probably because the sisters know Jesus so well that they feel free to tell him just what they think.

Both the Old Testament and the New are populated with real people who have real feelings and real failings, both of which are essential to their relationship with God. When we read the bible we don’t get the sense that the various characters on the pages are trying to be something that they are not. We are not given the impression that if a person is less than perfect that God will have nothing to do with them. We learn that from Abraham to Martha and Mary, those who are close to God, those who have a strong relationship with God have no problem in either being themselves or in letting God know exactly what they think. Abraham takes God on when God threatens to destroy Sodom, Moses suggests that God will look foolish in the eyes of the nations if God destroys Israel, the woman at the well was not afraid to tell Jesus that it was the Samaritans, not the Jews, who were the true believers, and Martha and Mary have no qualms in greeting Jesus with a reproach.

These characters have one thing in common – an open and honest relationship with God/Jesus – a relationship in which they are not afraid to tell God/Jesus exactly how they feel, in which they are comfortable to have their doubt and uncertainty, their frustration and disappointment exposed for all to see. They didn’t care if they appeared foolish or uncertain and they had no problem letting God/Jesus know just what they thought. When they were face-to-face with God/Jesus, they were not overcome with embarrassment, self-consciousness or shame. They were comfortable enough in their relationship with Jesus to have their flaws and doubts laid bare.

Over the past four weeks we have met characters who, in conventional terms have been anything but model Christians, let alone perfect human beings. Nicodemus is timid and uncertain, the woman at the well had had five husbands, the blind man came to faith only in stages and Mary and Martha reproached Jesus for being late. During this time, we have observed people who were not confident that Jesus was who he said he was, whose self-interest led them to misunderstand what he said, who took their healing for granted and who scolded Jesus for not responding in a timely manner.

We learn from these characters that if we want our relationship with God/Jesus to grow, it is important that we are completely honest – about ourselves (our strengths as well as our weaknesses), about our questions, our doubts and yes, even about our anger and disappointment. We can take the lead from those in the bigger story that it is not only OK, but that it is healthy to enter into debate with God, to voice our concerns and express our frustration. Our relationship with God is like any other relationship. It cannot grow if there is dishonesty, fear and anxiety, but only if there is openness, respect and trust.

My hope is that this Lent you have learned something of God’s boundless love for you, that you have gained confidence to be yourselves – knowing that God’s love will not be withdrawn – and that you understand that the best relationship with God is one that is honest and true, one in which nothing is hidden and in which we are so sure of our place in God’s love that we are not afraid to let God know what we think, to ask the difficult questions and even, as did Martha and Mary to question God’s reaction (or lack of action) in regard to issues that we think are important.

Being a Christian has nothing to do with being good and everything to do with being in a relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. It is only because it is so easy that it sometimes seems so hard

There are none so blind as those who will not see

March 25, 2017

Lent 4 – 2017

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes so we might know God. Amen.

By and large people believe what they want to believe – often despite evidence to the contrary. At least 10 years ago, Andrew Denton produced a documentary called: “God is on our side”. It was a report of a conference that is held annually in the Southern States of the USA. I found it all rather disconcerting. A major part of the gathering was the marketing of Christian artifacts books, pictures and movies a central theme of which was the “rapture” the belief that when Christ returns the dead who are to be raised, will join the living in a rapturous ascent to heaven, while everyone else is thrown into hell. Most frightening however, was the preacher who was addressing an auditorium filled with at something like 5-10,000 people and who proclaimed Cold War style that Russia intended to invade Israel. Those who attended were lapping up this out-dated and fear-inspiring version of the state of the world as if it were real. Books that supported the preacher’s argument were available for sale, reinforcing the “truth” of the matter. For those who accepted his authority, his reality became their reality.

Social media promised to make the facts more readily available to more people. It is increasingly evident that social media can be employed equally effectively to promote “fake” news. Many people who have no other source of information will believe what they are told, or what they read – especially if it is on the news, in the newspapers or spoken by someone in a position of authority.

As the old proverb goes: “There are none so blind as those that will not see.”

There are several layers of blindness in today’s gospel – the physical blindness of the man who is healed and the metaphorical blindness of almost every one else in the story. The disciples are blinded by tradition or folklore – physical deformity is evidence of sin. The man’s neighbours are blinded by the information that they currently have – the man whom they knew was blind – the man in front of them is not – he cannot be the same person. The Pharisees are blinded by their fear of change, and their desire for power. If people are allowed to believe that Jesus comes from God, their influence will be severely diminished. Finally, the parent’s of the once-blind man are blinded by the anxiety that if they claim to understand their son’s healing, they will be thrown out of the synagogue. Even the man born blind takes some time to fully comprehend the implications of receiving his sight.

The story of the man born blind takes a long circuitous route. He does not come to Jesus seeking to be healed. In fact it is only because the disciples ask Jesus about him that Jesus restores his sight. There is no suggestion that the man had faith, nor that his cure led to faith or caused others to believe. Not is there any suggestion that the man is surprised. He appears to take his newfound sight for granted. Those who knew him are surprised, so surprised in fact that they refuse to believe that it is the same man whom they knew as a beggar. The Pharisees on the other hand are threatened by Jesus’ power. They try to persuade the man that Jesus cannot possibly be from God implying that his power comes from elsewhere. Their antagonism has the opposite effect from that which they intended. Their assault on the once blind man and their disapproval of Jesus pushes the blind man to think about what has happened and to come to his own conclusion about Jesus – surely he is a prophet. In the face of such negativity, the man begins to understand the implications of his healing. It was not a random event but had a purpose and a meaning. Not only has the man received his physical sight, he is gaining insight and coming to faith.

When the Pharisees fail to intimidate the man, they take on his parents. Unlike the neighbours they recognise and own the man as their son, but they refuse to enter into any debate as to the person who healed him. To suggest that Jesus is from God would lead to their being thrown out of the synagogue. Finally the Pharisees attack the blind man one more time and when he refuses to give up what he has learned they throw him out of the synagogue. It is only then that Jesus seeks him out and reveals himself to him.

Over the course of the story, the man’s sight and his insight have been gradually sharpened. Despite opposition, he has held on to his sense of self, discerned the self-interest that led to the false teaching and the blindness of the Pharisees and has gradually discovered that Jesus the healer, is Jesus the prophet, is Jesus the Son of Man. He has learned the truth about Jesus because he was not bound by tradition, limited by what he thought he knew, not determined to maintain his place in the world and not imprisoned by the fear of what others might do to him. His openness to the truth gave him courage to hold his ground in the face of opposition and his willingness to learn brought him to faith. He has gained his sight in more ways than one.

As today’s gospel illustrates, God is patient. God will reveal the truth at a pace at which we are able to grasp it. God will give us courage to stand against those who would mislead and confuse us and will in time bring us to fullness of faith.

Lent is love. God’s story includes the timid, the questioning and those who come to believe one step at a time. No matter what holds us back – “fear or doubt or habit”[1] God will open our eyes and give us time and space to find our way to the truth and to take our place in the story that is without beginning or end.

 

 

[1] To quote hymn writer Elizabeth Smith.

Dignity and worth

March 18, 2017
Chester Cathedral

Jesus and the woman at the well.

Lent 3 – 2017

John 4

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whose eyes we have infinite worth, no matter what our life-style, our choices or our achievements. Amen.

During the week I read the extraordinary story of Bhenwari Devi an Indian woman from a low-caste potter Kumhar community. In 1992, at dusk, while Bhenwari and her husband were working in the fields, five men from the higher Gujjri caste (the most affluent and influential in her village) attacked them both. Two of the men attacked her husband and restrained him, the other three took turns in raping Bhenwari. As the news over the past year has informed us such attacks are not unusual. In India women and girls of a lower caste and especially untouchable women and girls are often raped and sometimes killed by those who come from a higher caste background, sometimes in retaliation for a perceived slight, and sometimes just because they are there. The shame and stigma associated with sexual crimes make it difficult for women such as Bhenwari to speak about their experience or to seek justice. Their gender and their lowly position in society only serve to exacerbate the situation.

When Bhenwari reported the rape, she was accused of lying. Her assailants told police that there had been a dispute but that the pair were not attacked. The police did not take the assault seriously, did not give her a thorough examination until the next day and ignored her cuts and bruises. Because she reported the crime, Bhenwari was seen to have brought shame on her community. She and her husband were shunned by their neighbours, who would not sell them milk or buy their pots. Their own families did not invite them to family weddings. For twenty-one years Bhenwari took her battle to the courts and while justice may have eluded her, her case has seen the government introduce legislation to prevent further such cases.

I’ll leave you to read the rest of the story for yourself[1].

It can be difficult for someone to hold their ground in the face of so much opposition, especially when they feel disadvantaged by gender, race, creed or their position in society. Even in relatively affluent and educated countries such as our own, there are those whose voices are more respected and those whose opinions hold little to no weight – the poor, those with a disability, victims of domestic violence to mention just a few. It takes courage and confidence to refuse to let such factors be a reason to stay silent.

In today’s gospel we meet a woman who would not be silenced. Like many of the New Testament characters, the “woman at the well” has no name. Never the less we know a great deal about her. This woman is triply disadvantaged. She is a member of the despised Samaritans, she is female and, probably because of her sexual activity, she is ostracised by her community – (which is why she is at the well in the middle of the day). Coming to the well at this time allows her to escape the censure and derision that would be levelled at her if she came earlier when most of the villagers would be gathering water for their families.

On this particular day though she cannot avoid Jesus. Jesus ignores all the social norms that would prevent him from speaking to the woman and he asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked, but not overwhelmed. She challenges Jesus: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” As the conversation continues the woman refuses to let her cultural disadvantages hold her back. She questions Jesus, confronts him on questions of faith (where one should worship) and finally is so convinced that Jesus is the Christ that she convinces her fellow villagers – those who despise and condemn her – not only to believe in Jesus but to persuade him to delay his journey for two more days.

Bhenwari and the woman at the well are examples of people who, despite their disadvantages, their place in society and the ostracism by their communities have been able to maintain a sense of self-worth and a sense of dignity. Jesus doesn’t see race, gender, religion or morality. He sees a worthy debating partner. Despite their circumstances and their standing within their own communities, the woman at the well and Bhenwari have a strong sense of their own worth and refuse to be cowed and intimidated, by those who would shame, condemn and exclude them.

We, of all people, should know our own worth. After all, didn’t Jesus die for us proving once for all God’s boundless, unconditional love and that we are worthy of that love?

Lent is love. The unbelieving, timid Nicodemus is given a place in God’s story and the despised and ostracised Samaritan woman is given a voice. The stories of their encounters with Jesus remind us that there is no standard that we have to reach to take our own place in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people. It remains for us to believe in God’s love for ourselves, which in turn enables us to believe in ourselves and to understand that if God overlooks our shortcomings, then we also ought to overlook our shortcomings. Above all, it means that God’s opinion of us matters more than the opinion of those around us and that we should not allow our lives or our faith to be determined or limited by self-doubt , by our position in the world or by the attitudes of others.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39265653

Imperfect though we are, we are part of God’s story

March 11, 2017

Lent 2 – 2017

John 3:1-17

Marian Free

In the name of God overlooks all our shortcomings and believes that we have the potential to develop and grow. Amen.

As I said at Rodney’s farewell, none of us will forget Christina the Astonishing – who rose from her coffin and ascended to the ceiling of the church because she couldn’t stand the stench of human sin. Our hagiographies (our stories of saints) are filled with examples of apparently ordinary people who do extraordinary things or who bravely endure unbearable suffering. Think of Joan of Arc who not only led the armies of France in the 100 year war against England, but who with great courage faced being burned at the stake for heresy. Or of Francis of Assisi who gave up comfort, wealth and security to live a life of poverty. Or of Catherine of Alexander whose torture on a cartwheel gave the name to a whirling firework.

In our own time we have the examples of Mother Teresa who gave up everything and who untiringly worked with and for the poor and abandoned on the streets of India. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who saw the evil of the Third Reich and chose to risk his life to confront it. May Hayman and other New Guinea martyrs who chose to stay with their communities in the face of the Japanese advance in WWII rather than return home. Or Janani Luwum who was murdered by Idi Amin simply because he was an Anglican Archbishop.

While some of us might aspire to reach such exalted heights or believe that if it came to it that we would be prepared to give ourselves, our lives for our faith, most of us I suspect do not think that we will come anywhere near the deeds and courage of these and many other holy men and women.

The good news is that we do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s on-going story. We will encounter a number of characters during Lent who will prove that to be true. Nicodemus who is too afraid to meet Jesus openly, the woman who has had five husbands, the parents of the blind man, and the sisters of Lazarus who thought that Jesus had left his visit too late. These flawed, timid, unbelieving people have made it into the story of Jesus, into our Holy Scriptures despite, or perhaps because they are not perfect.

In John’s gospel Nicodemus is the first flawed person whom we meet. He is a leader of the Pharisees – a member of that sect within Judaism that placed weight on the oral tradition when it came to the interpretation of the law. There is a great deal of ambiguity in the account of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, but a few things stand out. In John’s gospel, the Pharisees are depicted as the enemies of Jesus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night that is at a time when no one can see him. We can’t be sure if this is because he is curious, or afraid or whether he has come to challenge or outsmart Jesus on a point of law or to learn from him. What we do know is that Jesus doesn’t turn his back.

Another element to the story is the imagery of night and darkness both of which are important symbols for the author of John’s gospel. If we read to the end of the chapter this becomes blatantly clear. Jesus says: “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (3:21) In John’s gospel as elsewhere night symbolises “unbelief or the wrong kind of belief” and darkness (the opposite of light) represents the forces that oppose Jesus.

That Nicodemus comes at night suggests that he opposes Jesus or at the very least is an unbeliever. Apparently, he cannot see beyond the superficial, he is blinded by what he thinks he knows. He is stuck , he knows that there is something different about Jesus but his own training and expectations do not allow him to see what it is ,nor do they allow him to really comprehend what Jesus is saying.

This does not mean that Jesus rejects him or refuses to speak to him. Jesus sees not the timorous, unbelieving Nicodemus, but the potential for growth and understanding. The double meanings in Jesus’ conversation are intended to open Nicodemus’ eyes, to help him to see the distinction between the purely earthly and the spiritual. Like all of us, Nicodemus can choose to turn his life over to Jesus, to begin on a fresh page, to enter into a spiritual existence. Jesus does not judge or condemn Nicodemus, he does not refuse to engage in conversation and most importantly he does not dismiss or deride him, instead Jesus gives him the opportunity to see the world from another point of view.

Jesus does not reject or dismiss Nicodemus and we can be sure that he will not reject or dismiss us.

Last week we learned that love liberates us to be truly ourselves. Today we discover that we do not have to be perfect to be a part of God’s story. When we know that we do not have to be flawless we are set free to accept ourselves as we really are. If we accept who we really are, we can be authentic, stop pretending and recognise that we have nothing to hide. This in turn will enable us to let go of feelings of inadequacy or a lack of self-worth. We will discover that this in itself is healing and will create a more honest and open relationship with God that will deepen our faith and lead to our being born from above..

Love sets us free

March 4, 2017

Lent 1 – 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

Marian Free

Lent is Love

             Lent is Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory and humiliation

February 25, 2017

Transfiguration – 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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