Posts Tagged ‘abundance’

Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.

 

 

God’s wild abandon

July 15, 2017

Pentecost 6 – 2017

Matthew 13:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who with wild abandon, gives the gospel to all the world. Amen.

[To prepare, I made two copies of Matthew 13:1-9 in large print, pasted it on board and then cut out each word (a). I made another copy, cut out each word and pasted the words on card (b). Begin by introducing the gospel, and then toss one set of words (a) indiscriminately into the congregation. Call out: “catch! catch!” Conclude with “For the Gospel of the Lord”].

Props

I’m sure that you’d agree that was most unsatisfactory and not the most effective way of sharing the gospel. If I were to present the gospel in this way every week it wouldn’t be long before you began thinking of me as reckless and irresponsible and you would be right. Today, as it happens, I have a copy of the gospel that I prepared earlier. It reads like this (read Matthew 13:1-8).

The discerning among you may have noticed a) that I haven’t read what the lectionary has set down for the day and b) that that means that I have omitted the interpretation of the parable. I’ve left out the interpretation for two very good reasons. Firstly – most scholars do not believe that the interpretation originates with Jesus. Secondly the interpretation throws a very different light on the way in which the parable is heard. The allegorical explanation focuses on the way in which the word is received. In other words, it takes the responsibility away from the sower and places the emphasis on where the seed falls. When we pay particular attention to the response of the seeds to their environment, or interpret the different types of ground as belonging to different types of people we overlook the miraculous growth of the seeds. Even though the seeds are sown indiscriminately they still manage to produce a crop that is over and above even the most optimistic of expectations.

You see, in first century Palestine the usual yield of a crop was a modest seven-fold increase on what was planted. In comparison even a thirty-fold yield is extraordinary. A, sixty-fold or a hundredfold yield would be beyond comprehension! Jesus’ listeners would have been absolutely startled by what they were hearing. They would have been stunned by the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of the sower who, through carelessness wastes precious seeds. Then they would have been completely taken by surprise by the yield – grain that has been sown with wild abandon, not only produces a decent yield, but a yield that exceeds their wildest imagination..

What then is Jesus trying to say? Jesus is reminding the disciples that God does not discriminate. God throws the seed in any and every direction heedless of where it might land and certain that there is good soil in which God’s gifts will take root, grow and produce abundantly. God is not careful or sparing with the gifts that God has to offer the world, but generous and reckless, confident that the response to God’s actions will be overwhelming – beyond imagination

God showers the world with love, compassion and goodness, confident that it will land and take root and reproduce those gifts in abundance.

We have no need to worry ourselves about the future of the church, God will ensure that in one way or another people will continue to respond to God and in this way, God’s love, compassion and goodness will spread throughout the whole world.

 

For the children – something like this

The Parable of the Sower (or God’s wild abandon)

I ask the children to come forward. Toss some glitter into the air so that it lands on everyone. Ask if they all got some. Ask if I was careful how I threw it (hopefully they will say I wasn’t). Did I try to make it land on the eldest, or the cleverest or the one who was the best behaved? (Again, hopefully they will say I didn’t.)

Wonder aloud how long it will take to come off. Suggest that they will sparkle all day – just a tiny bit of glitter will catch the light. Tell them that whenever someone sees the glitter it will make them smile.

Tell them that God’s love is like that. God throws love at everyone – the good and the bad, the clever and the not so clever, the old and the young. If we know that God loves us, we will love ourselves and everyone else in the world. Just like our tiny sparkles of glitter make people smile, our love will make other people feel loved and God’s love will grow and grow and grow until the whole world is filled with love.

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

March 12, 2016

Lent 5 – 2016

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes” to God

August 17, 2013

Pentecost 13 (Mary, Mother of our Lord)

Luke 2:1-7

Marian Free

May our “yes” to God, be a source of transformation for ourselves and in turn, for the world. Amen.

It must be absolutely amazing to see the desert in bloom after the rain, or Lake Eyre teeming with bird and fish life when the waters from the north fill it to the brim. To watch the dry and barren earth respond to the rain, slowly turn green and then to blossom with flowers of all different shapes, sizes and colours must be truly magical. Our spring is not as spectacular as that of cooler climes, but it is still possible to discern the changes and to observe new shoots, on trees like the frangipani as the bare winter branches respond to warmth and light. In temperate climates of course, the change is more dramatic – trees that are bare and apparently lifeless, spring into leaf, then bud and flower and sometimes even fruit. Snow covered ground parts to allow the spear-like leaves of snowdrops, daffodils and jonquils to push through, dotting the white with green until the flowers of yellow and white provide carpets of colour on a background of green grass. Nature simply opens itself to the changes in light, water and warmth and wonders result.

A pervasive image associated with God’s (positive) relationship with Israel is that of fertility  (even fecundity). The nation without God is described as barren and desolate, but its return to God will be so life-giving, that it will be like the desert blooming. The message that the prophets proclaim in many and varied ways, is that existence without God is dry, bleak and empty, but that with God, life is rich, fruitful and full. God’s love is bountiful, extravagant and limitless, for with God there are no half measures, God gives everything that he has and God gives without restraint. The Old Testament prophets insist that in order to receive that love and the abundance that God offers, Israel needs only to give up its striving for independence and to accept God’s sovereignty instead of going its own way, serving other “gods” and resisting the God of their forebears.

God’s loving goodness, while a powerful force for change, simply cannot break through a wall of resistance and stubbornness. Love needs a welcome before it can make itself at home and effect the transformation promised by the prophets.

And so it is we come to Mary who, at the turn of the eras, opened herself – heart, mind and body – to the presence of God in her life.  Mary who, despite her youth, instinctively knew that no matter the risks and the potential costs, life with God would still be infinitely better and richer than life without God. Mary, whose “yes” to God two thousand years ago, is an exemplar for our own “yes” today. Mary, whose ready submission to God’s will is a model for the surrender of our own lives to God. Mary, whose acceptance of God’s life within her, succeeded in giving God a body in which to be physically present in the world and which in turn succeeded in bringing salvation to every nation.

Beginning with nothing but Mary’s welcoming heart, God burst forth into life, taking the world by surprise and opening up new possibilities for relationship with God. What Mary illustrates and Jesus demonstrates, is that a life completely given over to God is not a life of servitude that is limited and constrained, but rather a life of freedom, fulfillment and satisfaction. What they teach us is that surrendering our all, leads not to the loss of our selves, but rather to the discovery of our true selves, the self made in the image of God, free from the impurities of our frail human existence and enlivened by the Spirit. When we give our wholehearted “yes” to God, God makes a home with us. When we give ourselves fully to God we are not thereby condemned to a life of dry, dull compliance but to a life filled with abundant joy, extravagant love and endless possibility, a life in which we are liberated to reach our full potential.

If we have not yet experienced that fullness of life that results from God’s presence in us, it may be that, unlike Mary, we are still holding something back. If we have not experienced God’s profligate love, it is perhaps because we are insisting on holding on to our independence, resisting giving our all or unwilling just yet to allow God to fully inhabit us.

God asks to come in, but will not force himself on us. It remains our choice to welcome God or not, our choice to align our lives with God, our choice to participate in God’s future hopes for ourselves and for the world.

When Mary offered God a home and opened her heart to God, she risked everything – her relationship with Joseph, her reputation and even her life. At the time, she could have had no real idea of how her life would pan out, no concept of the joy and the pain that would ensue, no inkling of the significance of her action for the future of the entire world, but, confident of God’s goodness and grace, Mary said “yes” and as a result the possibilities for the whole of humanity were expanded and enhanced.

If Mary’s “yes” made such a difference to the history of the world, who knows what our “yes” to God – collective or individual – might mean. If we have the courage to wholeheartedly say “yes” to God, the desert might bloom, injustice cease, poverty come to an end and peace reign on earth. Just one word from us might make all the difference.

Jesus at a wedding

January 19, 2013

Epiphany 2, 2013

Wedding at Cana – John 2:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who showers us with abundant blessings and reveals himself to us through his Son Jesus. Amen.

 

I don’t need to tell you that I know a great deal about weddings. Not only do I conduct numerous weddings but I had a hand in planning my wedding and have been involved in the planning of my children’s weddings. Even quite simple ceremonies take quite a deal of planning. A bare minimum requires the signing of the Notice of Intent at least one month before the ceremony, arranging a celebrant a venue and two witnesses. Anything more elaborate also involves deciding on the number of guests, sending invitations, choosing music, booking a reception centre, selecting a menu, organizing a cake, making or purchasing a dress, hiring or buying a suit, buying shoes and flowers, planning the seating arrangements, thinking of and inviting someone to be an MC and hopefully planning a honeymoon. For those who want to go to more trouble cars need to be hired, a photographer booked, wedding favours made or purchased, bridesmaid’s dresses made or bought and the list goes on (and on).  No wonder people find it stressful, I’m exhausted just listing what needs to be done!

Weddings in the first century were quite different, but I presume that they also required a great deal of planning. From what we can re-create from the literature available, it appears that in the first century all of the village would have been invited and the festivities would have lasted for seven days. The celebrations would have started, not at 3pm at an appointed time, but whenever the friends of the bridegroom arrived with the bride. One can only imagine the sort of organisation that would go into such an event. Feeding a large crowd over a number of days would involve a considerable amount of preparation – beasts would have to be chosen, slaughtered, prepared, and cooked, bread and sweets would have to be made and enough wine procured. Other arrangements such as dowries would have had to have been settled long beforehand.

It is interesting that the first event in Jesus’ life that is recorded by the author of John’s gospel is that of a wedding not a healing. What is more, the story raises a number of questions – not least of which is why the hosts ran out of wine. Were the groom’s parents really so unprepared as to not have enough to drink, or was it, as some suggest, that Jesus and the disciples did not observe the tradition of bringing a contribution to the festivities? Other questions arise: Whose wedding was it? Why was Mary concerned about the lack of wine if she was not the host? Why does Jesus address his mother in such an abrupt way: “woman”? Scholars have had a field day with the question of Mary’s interference in the festivities. It is this story that has led to the theory (used by Dan Brown) that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. If this were the case, it would explain Mary’s concern with the wine – she is the host of the celebration. It is her responsibility to have catered adequately for the party, it is her reputation that will be harmed if she proven to be an inadequate host. This is why Mary notices the shortfall and looks to Jesus for a solution.

Commentaries on John’s gospel provide answers to some of these questions, but the real key to the story lies not in the specific details, but in the evangelist’s purpose in recording it. The heart of the account is not Jesus’ relationship with his mother, nor is it the miracle itself, nor even the vast quantity of wine that results. The last line of the story tells us that its primary purpose is the revelation of the person of Jesus – to the disciples who are present and to those who will read the account later.

From start to finish, the author of John’s gospel is intent on making known that Jesus is the one who is to come, the one sent by God to bring salvation to the world and eternal life to those who believe. As we learn in chapter 20, John’s gospel is written: “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” So the purpose of the first of Jesus’ miracles recorded by John is to bring people to faith in him.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels which begin with Jesus’ healing the sick and casting out demons, John begins with a wedding and a miracle of abundance. What is not readily obvious to us will have been clear to Jesus’ disciples and would certainly have been plain to those for whom the Gospel was written. Through the use of symbol and allusion, John portrays Jesus as the one who will bring the redemption promised by God. For example, as today’s reading from Isaiah indicates, marriage is a sign of the restoration of Israel – the people will be the bride and God the groom, their shame will be taken away and they will be able to hold their heads high among the people. A wedding and a feast imply that Jesus is the one who was to come.

Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of the danger of putting new wine into old wine skins. Wine replacing water is suggestive of a new and different era replacing the old. Lastly, the water to which Jesus refers is stored in stone jars, jars which because they were not porous and could not be contaminated, held the water used for the ritual of purification. John’s readers would have understood the illusion – Jesus’ salvific action replaces the need for repeated ritual purification. Through Jesus, the people have been put right with God for all time.

In the written account at least, and possibly in the actual event, all of these images would have spoken to the disciples of the fact that God, through Jesus, was doing something new. Something that has been pointed to by the prophets was now a reality in the life and presence of Jesus. Through allusions to OT expectations John presents Jesus as God’s answer to all that has been promised. He suggests that through Jesus the relationship between the people and God has been healed, the promised banquet has begun, the forsakennness of Israel has been supplanted by marriage and that because of Jesus the need for purification has become redundant.

So you can see, there is so much more to this wedding than a miracle. The wedding allows Jesus glory to be revealed which in turn leads to the disciples’ belief in him. The revelation of Jesus in John’s gospel has one purpose and one alone, that those who see and those who hear come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

A miracle-worker does not change the world. Someone who turns water into wine does not bring about the salvation of humankind. The extraordinary thing about Jesus, as John’s gospel will make clear over and over again, is that he and the Father are one and that through him, the world is redeemed and the relationship with God is restored.


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