Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

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.

 

 

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Longing to love

December 24, 2016

Midnight Mass – 2016

Marian Free

 In the name of God who longs to be in relationship with us and who willingly forsake power, glory and dominion to try to make that clear. Amen.

During the week I happened upon a movie titled: “Anywhere but here.” It tells the story of how two grown sons cope with the fact that their father is dying. The sons have been brought up in the Jewish faith, but have not been able to embrace its practices and beliefs. One son, Aidan, still has a connection with the synagogue because his father will pay his grandchildren’s school fees if they attend a Jewish school. As with many families there are unresolved issues and tensions that make the grieving process more complicated. At one point Aidan is compelled to go the synagogue and speak to a Rabbi. Aidan is confused because events in his life are leading him to the conclusion that God is trying to tell him something, but he doesn’t believe in God. Thankfully, the young Rabbi is wise. He asks Aidan if he ever feels “a spiritual presence”. Aidan replies that when he is showing his children the stars and trying to explain that the universe goes on forever and ever, that yes, he does get a sense of the spiritual.

The Rabbi responds: “Then think of that spirit leading and guiding you.” The Rabbi knows that Aidan has rejected the traditional ways of thinking about God and he is wise enough not to impose those ideas on him. Instead he asks Aidan to name how he knows and experiences God and runs with that.

Rejecting the God of one’s youth and yet having a yearning to connect with something deeper than the material is not unique to a person who has grown up in the Jewish faith. One of the problems that the church faces today is that there are many people who have walked away from the faith and yet have a sense of something other. There are many long to make contact with their spirituality but their search is blocked by language, dogma or ideas that offend or that no longer work or make sense to them.

If truth be told most of the ideas of God that people reject are ideas that we too reject, but it is possible for some to hear only one thing and a selective reading of the bible (by a preacher or by the reader) can give the impression of an angry, demanding, interventionist God, a selective God who expects conformity at least and obedience at best. It is relatively easy for to abandon this false idea of God, especially if that idea of God has been used to manipulate and control or to appear be remote from human affairs and indifferent to suffering and pain.

Christmas exposes that God for who and what it is – a false God based on a misunderstanding of both the Old Testament and the New.

At Christmas we are confronted, year after year with the God who is not strong or powerful, but who enters the world as a baby – vulnerable, helpless and utterly dependent. When God could not get through to us, when we had turned away from God or turned God into something that God is not, when we lost sight that God’s primary desire is to be in relationship with us, God in Christ came to us. God came among us not with lighting and thunder, waving a sword to condemn and destroy, but as a new-born child a child whom God hoped would demonstrate once and for all God’s love for all humankind – the good, the bad, the engaged and the indifferent, the kind and the unkind. That first Christmas God became powerless and impotent so that we would at last understand the depth and passion of God’s love and that we would see for ourselves God’s complete and total engagement with humanity and God’s participation in both our sorrows and our joys.

This is why we are here this and every Christmas. Our presence is not simply a result of habit or sentimentality. We are here, because we know that the child in the manger is God, that God chooses not to be remote, but to be an integral part of all that this life has to offer. The child in the manger and the man on the cross expose God for who and what God really is – an expression of the deepest love, the utmost compassion and the greatest longing to be in relationship, to be one with all creation.

 

 

 

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.

More to give – guidelines for modern living

July 18, 2015

Pentecost 8

Mark 6:31-34, 53-56

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is the source of our strength and hope. Amen.

Whether it is caring for a baby, an elderly relative or disabled friend, many of us know the stresses and strains of being responsible for someone who is totally dependent on us. We know what it is like to fall into bed utterly worn out, only to be woken shortly after by a plaintiff cry, a shrill squeal or a grumpy moan. No matter how tired we are, we manage to drag ourselves out of bed and dig deep into our reserves to provide the love and care that is required. There are times though when we reach our limits, when we are so fatigued and physically and emotionally drained that we have little or nothing to give. If at those times we do not find a way to take a break we can end up not only by doing harm to ourselves but also to the person/child for whom we care.

Today those responsible for the care of the aged or those with a disability have access to some form of respite care. The government and society in general recognises that without extended families to share the role of caring, the burden often falls on just one person – sometimes someone who is as aged and frail as the person to whom the care is being offered.

In a world without psychologists and social workers, Jesus seems to have recognised how important it is to take time out to recharge the batteries, to seek spiritual, emotional and physical refreshment and to gather strength to meet the demands made upon those who care for others.

Today’s gospel consists of two fragments; so let me fill you in on the full story. Not long before today’s scenario, Jesus has sent the twelve out on their first mission. They have returned, filled with excitement and bursting to share with him everything that they have done and taught, but such is their renown that they are no longer getting a moment to themselves, not even time to eat – let alone process their new role and responsibilities and the demands that will be made on them as a result. Meanwhile, during the disciples’ absence, Jesus has heard about the death of John the Baptist – someone whom he admired and may even have followed for a while. Apart from the grief of losing a friend, Jesus bears a double burden in that he will have been forcefully reminded that the consequence of saying and doing uncomfortable things may be a violent and untimely death.

All of them, Jesus and the disciples, need some time out to think about what has been happened, to consider how their lives have changed by becoming representatives of the possibility that their discipleship might lead to death. At the same time, if they are to keep on giving of themselves to the many who seek their help they need some time to rebuild their reserves before leaping back into the fray. Jesus recognises this need and suggests that they go to a deserted place by themselves. Rest it turns out is impossible. People who are seeking their teaching and healing notice the direction in which the boat is heading and run ahead to meet them there.

Like the 88-year-old wife who gets up at 3:00am and uncomplainingly changes the sheets that her husband has unconsciously soiled, Jesus puts the needs of the crowd before his own need for rest. It is obvious to him that the people are desperate for leadership, for healing and for teaching – they are like “sheep without a shepherd”. Just as it is impossible for most parents to ignore a crying child, so it is not in Jesus nature to turn away those who need him. He has “compassion” for the crowd and not only heals and teaches, but manages to feed all five thousand with just five loaves and two small fish.

At last, having met the needs of those who came out to him, Jesus dismisses the crowd and sends the disciples ahead of him to Bethsaida while he himself, makes the most of the opportunity and goes up the mountain to pray. Whether because of the storm, or more likely because Mark has no real interest in geography, Jesus and the disciples land at Gennesaret on the opposite side of the lake. As we have heard, they were immediately recognised and people from all around brought those who were sick to be healed.

We all know the expression: “Stop to smell the roses” and our print media is always providing advice as to how to achieve a “work/life balance”. Not surprisingly, Jesus was there long before us. The gospels are not simply the story of Jesus, a partially historical record locked in time. The gospels provide help and guidelines for modern living – even for life in the twenty-first century. Spiritually, emotionally and physically none of us can keep on going without a rest. If we are to be of use to others spiritually, emotionally or physically we need to ensure that our own reserves are well stocked up. If our prayer lives are barren and empty, we have nothing to offer those who are looking for spiritual sustenance. If we are emotionally drained, we will have nothing to draw on when others come to us seeking love and care. If we are physically spent, we cannot offer support to those who need it. For all those reasons, it is essential that we build into our own lives times for contemplation and reflection, moments that feed our hearts and our souls and times of rest to allow our bodies to recover.

As disciples of Jesus we are called to give our all and to believe that when we feel we can’t go on God will support and uphold us. But we can’t give if we have nothing left to give. Jesus invites us to come away to a deserted place and rest. Let us accept that invitation so that our reserves are not depleted and that we always have more to give.

Wadi Qelt – a certain man (Luke 10:30)

July 4, 2015

I confess that this week Saturday has crept up on me so that with or without Internet, I have not thought of this reflective piece. The dig at Bethsaida was so all-consuming and tiring that time has simply sped past. It has been amazing to be by the Sea of Galilee for two weeks and to try to get some sense of the history, to wonder about what it was all like some two thousand years ago. The Lake has many moods changing with the light and the breeze. A particular treat was to see a boat from the first century which had been hidden in the mud and which has now been restored.

Today we have driven to Jerusalem through the Negev – a barren, uninviting desert. Along the way we stopped at Wadi Qelt, the ancient route from Jerusalem to Jericho. You can see from the photo how inhospitable it is and you can imagine that Jesus got the attention of his listeners as soon as he mentioned that a man was taking that route and doing so alone. Not only was the area full of brigands, but the very nature of the land is forbidding. To take the journey without the protection of a caravan would have been to be taking his life into his hands.

Jesus is a consummate story-teller. First he grabs the attention of his audience, in this case by choosing a character who is doing something outrageous, then he uses the classic technique of using three characters. (This is well known to many of us in the way that jokes are told – there were three priests, a Catholic, an Anglican and a Lutheran and so on.) Once he has established the scene Jesus doesn’t need to explain why the other travelers are on the road. The audience know that it is a story.

Of course we know the story so well that we are no longer surprised that the man takes the route alone, nor are we surprised that the Samaritan stops to help. In fact the expression “the Good Samaritan” has passed inot common usage and many people today would not know the origin of the expression. What is lost on many of today’s readers is how shocking it would have been for a Samariton to stop and offer assistance to a Jew and that the Jew may not have been particularly grateful for that help. Such was the enmity between the two groups that Jews would walk the long way to Jerusalem so as to avoid going through the region of Samaria. Both groups claimed to be the true faith and Jews considered Samaritans to be ritualy unclean, presumably because they did not observe the same purity laws.

As I said, Jesus crafts a great story. By using the same language for both the priest and the Levite, he creates a certain expectation in the minds of the listeners. The priest/Levite is “going down”, “he saw him”, “he passed by on the other side”. Jesus’ audience are expecting the pattern to continue, but they have gone ahead believing that they know how the story will end. They imagine that Jesus will continue: “a Jew (ie someone like themselves), was going down, he saw him and he stopped to help.” In their imagination, it is they who will be the hero of the story. After all the priest and Levite have simply behaved in a way that could have been expected of them, but they, the people would surely show compassion.

Jesus takes the ground from under their feet. The hero is not one of their own, but a despised Samaritan. Now they are really listening. There is, in their mind, no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. But this of course, is exactly Jesus’ point. By categorizing and judging others, by expecting them to behave in a particular way we are limiting ourselves and determining who is and who is not our neighbour.

The question of the lawyer is not really answered. What Jesus does though is to expose the prejudices that most of us hold. So long as we fail to see and recognise the good in those whom we fear or distrust, we are unable to love our neighbour as ourself. It is not a problem to care for those in need, but that is not the meaning of the parable. The shocking reality that Jesus exposes here is that a Samaritan can be good and that our values no preconceptions mean that we fail to see the goodness in others.

Whom do we despise or fear. Can we allow this parable to challenge our preconceptions and open us to the challenging idea that those who cause us anxiety may in fact be those who are most willing to show us love and compassion?

Who gets to judge?

November 22, 2014

Christ the King

Matthew 25:31-46

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is known and served in various and many ways. Amen.

I’d like to begin with two stories that reflect a particular faith perspective and way of interpreting scripture. Some twenty years ago I attended a funeral of someone who had been the former treasurer in the parish and was respected and loved by all. His nephew who had spent many of the previous years as a missionary conducted the funeral. During the sermon the nephew said something that took me completely by surprise, but which was welcomed by many of those in attendance. What he said was: “At this point in the service, I often have the difficult task of telling the family that the deceased person hasn’t made it.” By this I think he meant that this is what he would say if the deceased had been an unbeliever. To this day I hope that he was using poetic licence and that he wouldn’t really have used those words. That if that statement represented his theology, that he might have had the discussion with the family before the funeral and as a result might have refused a Christian funeral or better still, that he might have reminded himself that it is God’s place to judge not his.

The second story relates to a conversation with a Parish Administrator whom I’ll call Sarah. Sarah arrived at work one morning in a very distressed state. The previous night she had watched a documentary about teenage homelessness. One of those interviewed was a young girl who was living on the streets to avoid a situation of abuse that included sexual abuse. In order to eat, she prostituted herself and in order to dull the pain of her past and her present she took drugs. In the process this girl was damaging her health and reducing her life expectancy. Sarah’s question was: “If the girl doesn’t come to faith before she dies, will she go to hell – hasn’t she suffered enough?” I suspect that Sarah hadn’t thought much about the issue of judgement until then. As a result of what she had been taught, she thought, presumably based on John 14:6, that only those who accepted Jesus were eligible for eternal salvation. Confronted with the reality of this young girl’s plight, Sarah was questioning her certainty about this position, but she had no tools to help her to find an answer. Her compassion for the girl was competing with her belief that only those who believe in Jesus go to heaven.

Today’s gospel suggests the solution to Sarah’s dilemma and a point of view that the nephew of the deceased may have overlooked. Most of us hear the parable of the sheep and the goats as an account of the judgement of believers, of God separating Christian from Christian on the basis of good works. Yet the text doesn’t say this at all.

In terms to the two scenarios above a number of things are worth noting. First of all, in this account, none of those who are gathered before the king are believers. They are all non-believers – some of whom receive eternal life and others of whom who are cast into everlasting punishment. The idea of a separate judgement for those who are non-Jews has an Old Testament precedent and the concept that those who are not Jews can still know God is consistent with Paul’s argument at the beginning of Romans. What is being described here is not a separation between those who believe and those who do not.

A second point is related. If those who have been assembled are not believers, then faith in Jesus or lack of faith is not the criterion according to which they are being judged. This leads to a third point. According to this narrative, the criterion on which one is judged relates to what one has done or not done to the “least of these” – whoever they are. Good works are not sufficient. It is the beneficiaries of those who deeds which is the pertinent issue.

When Matthew uses the expression “the least of these” elsewhere, he is referring to Christians – whether they are missionaries or disciples. For example, earlier in the gospel, Jesus is reported as saying: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” The argument then is that those who do not believe in Jesus will be raised to eternal life if they provide relief to Christians who are thirsty, hungry or in prison even if they do not realise that that is what they are doing. For those who do not believe, genuine compassion for and consideration of others – without any thought of reward – is the key to a good outcome at the judgement. If a person acts generously they may well be generous to a disciple of Christ without recognising that that is what they are doing. (You will notice that those who are commended by the king, are as surprised as those who are condemned. They were not acting out of self-interest, but out of genuine concern for the suffering of another.)

Fast-forward two thousand years – if this is not a story about doing “good works” what does it mean for us today? In the light of the two stories with which I began, may I suggest that the parable is a warning for us not to be too hasty to judge others or to presume to know the mind of God. In the light of the parables that precede this one, it is better that we ensure that we are prepared to face the judge than to become absorbed in worrying about the fate of others.

We will all come before the judgement seat – Christian and non-Christian. Let us not make the mistake of presuming ahead of time, that we are in a position to predict the outcome.


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