Posts Tagged ‘Dependence’

We are parched

July 1, 2017

Pentecost 4 – 2017

Matthew 10:40-42

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whom we live and breathe and have our being. Amen.

There are many who find it very difficult to receive assistance or gifts. There are a few explanations for this. Some people feel that they do not deserve attention and so they shy away from it. There are others who do not wish to feel obligated to another. If they receive a gift or are given help in any way they worry that they have put themselves in debt to someone else. Still others are unwilling to acknowledge that they need help – older people for example who do not want their family or friends to see that they are no longer coping. Behind all of these reasons lies a degree of pride and a desire to preserve one’s independence. Being reliant on others is seen as a sign of weakness in our society, so we build up a front, an image that says: “I can manage, I don’t need your gifts or your help.”

If that describes you, you might be in real strife at least according to today’s gospel. Refusing help – especially when help might make a difference in our lives – is one way of shutting people out, of being satisfied with superficial as opposed to real relationships and perhaps worst of all of denying the giver an opportunity to serve.

Last week I mentioned that chapter 10 of Matthew is a chiasm, that is that the first and last thought are similar, as are the second and second last and so on. In this chapter Jesus is addressing the twelve as he sends them out to preach and to heal. The passage begins with Jesus’ telling the disciples to take nothing with them, in other words to be utterly reliant on the generosity of strangers. The section concludes as it began, though it is worded not from the point of view of the disciples, but from the point of view of those from whom they receive hospitality. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

“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.” In Matthew’s gospel, the expression “little ones” refers to those who believe in Jesus, members of the community. As at the beginning, it is the disciples’ dependence on others that is at the heart of the statement.

A look at the collect for today indicates that more often than not, this paragraph has been misinterpreted. The collect assumes, as do many commentators, that the passage refers to the generosity of the disciples towards those in need. However, in its context, it is quite clear that Jesus’ words must be understood in reverse. Jesus is suggesting that it is those who provide for the disciples who will be rewarded (not that the disciples should do the providing).

For many of us, this is a challenging and confronting idea. As Christians, most of us will have been brought up to believe that it is our task to alleviate the suffering of the world, and there is some truth in that. However, that is not the message of today’s gospel. Here Jesus is quite clear, the disciples are to place themselves at the mercy of others. They are to put themselves in such a position that they are completely dependent on the kindness of those around them. It is the vulnerability of the disciples that will provide others an opportunity to serve them that in turn will give them a chance to “receive the reward of the righteous”.

This is a profoundly important point – one that is often overlooked, but which is essential in regard both to our relationship with God and to our mission to the world.

In verse 39 we read “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. This is a reminder that our spiritual journey involves a continual process of letting go of control. The life we lose, is not the life that endures for eternity, but a life that relies on the things of this world – possessions, achievements, self-reliance and so on. It is only by relinquishing our independence and by recognising how much we need God’s help to achieve spiritual maturity that we are able to break down the barriers that prevent our becoming completely dependent on God. If we desire to truly be one with God, then we must give ourselves to God without reserve – holding nothing back. We must be ready and willing to accept God’s help and to accept the gifts that God so generously bestows.

At the same time this passage challenges us to provide others with the opportunity to serve us. If we insist on doing everything ourselves and if we constantly refuse offers of assistance then we deprive others of the privilege of being generous or of having the satisfaction of having made a difference in someone else’s life. In effect, by being determined to help, rather than to be helped, we lock people out of relationship with us, we deny them the opportunity to serve God through serving us and ultimately we prevent them from having a relationship with God through their relationship with us. (In other words we do the exact opposite of what Jesus is telling the disciples to do.)

By interpreting these verses in reverse – believing that we have to serve, instead of understanding that we must allow ourselves to be served – we may be participating in the greatest error that the church has made. Thinking that we have something to offer the world, it is possible that we have been blind to what the world has to offer us. By insisting on our independence and emphasising our strengths, we have attempted to cover up our weaknesses and our frailties and our need for assistance. We have become so sure of ourselves, and what we think we can provide to the world, that we have come to convince ourselves that others need us, not that we need them.

We want to serve the world, but in so doing have denied others the opportunity to find God through their service to us.

We want to give the world water to drink but have failed to realise that it is we who are parched.

 

 

Under the influence

October 22, 2016

Pentecost 23 – 2016

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks that we place our trust in God alone. Amen.

“Under the influence” is an apt description of someone who is an alcoholic. It reflects the reality that their lives are determined by something external to themselves, that they have ceded power over their lives to another. Addiction is like that. It can completely take over a person, often making them utterly unable to think of anything other than the next hit, the next drink, the next bet. Sometimes they are so focused on whatever the perceived benefit of the addiction is, that they are unable to see the effect that their behaviour is having on those around them.

It is only possible an addict to escape the hold of addiction if they recognise it to be a problem. Breaking a habit, giving up substance abuse, takes an enormous act of the will. It means learning to depend on/place one’s trust in someone or something else. “Recovery” will involve will power, grit and determination and the support of others. Some people will never break the habit, they will continue to engage in the destructive behaviour even if it threatens to cost them their jobs, their families and their lives. Nothing else exerts the same power and influence over their lives and in the end, many of them give everything away, because they cannot stop themselves having one more drink, one more bet.

There are of course success stories. Some addicts do realise that they have a problem. They enter rehab programmes, join A.A. and other support groups and they follow the advice that they are given. With appropriate support systems they are able to sever their relationship with their addiction and replace it with relationships that are less destructive and disempowering.

If you have ever known anyone in the grip of addiction, you will know that it is a terrible thing that overcomes all rational thought and decision-making. Whether it be gambling, drugs or alcohol, the addiction takes such a firm grasp that the sufferer can find it almost impossible to break free. They are seemingly able to tolerate their ability to hold a job decline, their health deteriorate and their family fall apart rather than give up whatever it is that has them in its thrall.

Addiction is fairly easily recognised and most of us can feel smug that we have never allowed ourselves to be caught in its grip. In reality though many of us allow all kinds of things to control our lives, some are physical and relatively easy to identify, others are emotional and can disguise themselves in a variety of ways. We can be bound by a need to be in control or by a need for security. It is possible to allow anger, fear, resentment or bitterness to take over our lives, to determine how we live, how we interact with others.

Dependence on anything – drugs, relationships, gambling, wealth – can be limiting and life destroying, (metaphorically and physically). It means ceding control of one’s life to a substance or habit, rather than taking control and making decisions that are life-giving, liberating and empowering. What is more, dependence on substances, activities, possessions or even on our emotional needs for security are a clear sign that our relationship with God is superficial and dependent on much as outward show as it is on a deep and abiding trust in God’s love and care for us.

A first reading of today’s gospel can lead us to think that the story about the ruler is all about money. After all, don’t those who enter the religious life give everything away, didn’t the disciples leave everything to follow Jesus, doesn’t Jesus command the ruler to sell his possessions and to follow him?

It is easy to believe that Jesus’ words to the ruler apply to all of us, but that would be to miss the point. Luke is reporting a conversation between Jesus and one other person. The ruler has come to Jesus with a specific question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

On examination Jesus discovers that the ruler already keeps the commandments – the most obvious way to attain eternal life. Despite this however, the ruler appears to be aware that something is missing from his life and his faith. That is why he has come to Jesus – not to boast in what he is doing, but to discover what it is that he is not doing. Jesus’ reply is specific to the ruler. He has in effect asked what is lacking in his faith and in his life, and Jesus recognises that it is his dependence on his possessions that is keeping him from feeling secure in God’s love, that is filling him with doubts about his worthiness to inherit eternal life. Jesus discerns that the ruler will only be truly free to accept God’s love, if he is to stop trusting in his possessions and to trust in God instead. If in the present he is not sure of God’s love, how will he be able to trust God with eternity?

The problem for the ruler was not so much that he was rich but that he couldn’t imagine life without his wealth, and without his possessions. They had such a hold on him that he could not let go. His desire for eternal life was not so strong that he was able to let that desire determine how he lived. He was so dependent on his possessions that he could not and would not exchange them for dependence on God.

When Jesus orders the ruler “to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and to come follow him”, Jesus is helping the ruler to identify his dependence on his possessions that prevents him placing his dependence in God.

In response to the gospel there are questions that we can ask ourselves: “Where do we place our trust?” “What are we unwilling to let go?” “What habit, emotion or fear has us in its thrall? And would we give it up for the surpassing power of knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?”

 

 

Placing trust in God

July 2, 2016

                                                                                     Pentecost 7 – 2016
                              Isaiah 66:10-14c , Psalm 66:1-7,16,20, Galatians 6:14-20, Luke 10:1-12,17-20

                                                                                                                                                            Marian Free 

In the name of God who comforts us as a mother comforts her child. Amen.

When my siblings and I were children we used to be utterly amazed that, when we were travelling, our father could accurately predict when we would arrive at our destination. Often as dusk was falling my father would announce that we would reach our goal at a particular time. Sure enough we would pull into the motel at almost the minute that he predicted. It was only much later, when I had children of my own, that I recognised that this was not a unique or extraordinary talent possessed by my father but rather a simple and straight forward use of estimation based on the speed at which he was driving and the distance to our destination. I realised too that as the driver he could manipulate the speed at which he was driving to ensure that his prediction was spot on and so appear to have supernatural powers. Needless to say with that realisation came the understanding that my father was only human after all! I felt strangely cheated – apparently my father was like every other father . 

It is true for most of us I think that when we are small we trust our parents implicitly. They are for a time our protectors, the source of nourishment and the fount of all knowledge and wisdom.We rely on them to guide us as we fumble around in a world that is full of mystery and stumbling blocks. As we enter our teens not only do we have less need for protection but we also think that we have learned everything our parents could possibly teach us. In our eyes they become fallible, ignorant and restrictive and we become infallible, knowledgeable and responsible.. All our allusions are shattered and we strain to be free from their influence in and on our lives. It is only when we are older, sometimes only when we have children of our own, that we are forced to recognise that our parents are no wiser or more foolish than we ourselves and that much of what we know is due to their patience and care.

That said, the implicit trust that we placed in our parents and indeed the world is difficult if not impossible to regain once it has been broken. As grow we learn that all the love and protection they have offered cannot shield from hurt or from hardships. Once our eyes have been opened to the world as it is we cannot return to the innocence of youth. Once our naivety has been turned to cynicism it is difficult to go back. 

This is why it is so difficult to trust God. We fall out of the habit of trust and are not sure how to fall back in. We create unrealistic expectations in relation to what God can and cannot do and when God fails to deliver we are able to justify our lack of faith. We read scriptures such as those set down for today and allow ourselves to believe that they speak to a different time and place and not to us. ‘Who, in this day and age, really sets out on a journey with nothing but the clothes on their back?’ we think as  will let us off the hook.

A closer look at all the readings enables us to understand what is meant by trust and helps us to see in what way we should place our trust in God in a world that is vastly different from that of the first century Mediterranean.

In the verses from the final chapter of Isaiah we are reminded that while God cannot always protect us from harm, God is always there to comfort us – not dispassionately and from a distance, but as a loving mother might comfort her child. Jesus’ sending out of the disciples provides a warning against becoming overburdened and against placing our trust in things that ultimately cannot save us, and which only build barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others. In a culture in which hospitality is not the norm, expecting others to provide even the basic necessities is unreasonable. Applying the analogy to our own lives, trusting in the material over spiritual will not bring us the peace and joy that our hearts really desire. Only God can truly satisfy the longing in our hearts.

Finally, Paul’s conclusion to the letter to the Galatians sums up what it means to trust in God: “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” – in other words all that really matters is a relationship with, complete dependence on God.

The world is a volatile and uncertain place. There are no guarantees that God or any human being will be able to protect us from its vagaries. In this world in which so much is beyond our control, we have a choice – to try to build up walls in a vain attempt to shield ourselves from harm or to trust that in good times and in bad God will be there to hold, support and comfort us. Even if ‘we are tried as silver is tried’ ‘God will keep us among the living and will not allow our foot to slip.’

Trust in God is not a childish, sentimental, superficial and self-serving emotion, but a mature, deep, conscious and determined belief that no matter what the circumstances, God has and will see us through.

God and slugs

December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015

Some thoughts

Marian Free

 In the name of God who could chose to be anything and yet chose to become one of, one with us. Amen.

 From time to time, I dip into a collection of daily readings that uses the writings of C.S. Lewis[1]. Recently, in the readings for December, I came across this statement: “The Eternal being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab[2].” I have to admit, that as much as I have pondered the nature of the Incarnation, I had never grasped the enormity of God’s decision as clearly. Lewis’s comparison really puts the concept of the Incarnation into perspective. In fact, as I absorbed the new point of view, it occurred to me that the difference between divinity and humanity is so vast that even Lewis’s distinction may not be sufficient to capture the chasm that exists. In fact it is almost certainly impossible to come up with an image that does the notion justice, but it might be more useful to consider our becoming an amoeba, a mould or some other microscopic life form.

It is beyond imagining that a human being would voluntarily trade their human form for something so base and so insignificant as a single-celled organism. Is there any circumstance under which a human being would make that choice? Is it conceivable that there would be a situation that would draw out the sort of love and compassion that would compel a person to make such a radical sacrifice?

I suspect that there is no way that any one of us would willingly choose to give up our independence, our rational thought, our self-determination. There is no imaginable state of affairs that would cause us to make a choice that would leave us completely at the mercy of the elements, adrift in the world with no power to change our position or to influence the direction that our lives might take. Human beings can and do make enormous sacrifices for others, but it is hard to imagine any human being giving up their humanness for any cause whatsoever.

Yet, God, the source of life and love, God who could and can do anything, who could choose to be anything at all and who could determine any number of ways to save the world, made the choice to fully and completely enter our existence. There were no half measures. God did not appear to become human. Jesus was not merely similar to us. God took on human flesh with all its frailty. God abandoned power and glory, imperishability and immortality to fully enter the human race. In so doing, God exposed Godself to all the indignities associated with being human. God sentenced Godself to all the restrictions, all the limitations of the human form – the spewing, mewling, incontinent state of infancy and old age, the vulnerability to disease and accident, the risk of being emotionally abused or abandoned.

We cannot come close to envisaging the cost of God’s abandoning the glories of Paradise for the uncomfortable realities of life on this planet. We cannot take lightly God’s love, commitment and compassion for the human race.

This is what the Incarnation, what Christmas is all about. God’s desire that we should be saved that is so powerful and so overwhelming, that what to us is an unimaginable decision becomes a realistic solution. God could see no other way to demonstrate God’s love and to bring us to our senses than to share our existence and to show us our real potential. I have no desire to become an amoeba or even a slug, but I will for this life and the next be overawed and filled with gratitude that God should love so much that God would become one of us.

 

Christmas 2015

Family service

If you could be anything at all when you grow up, what would it be?

(Take responses and comment – something like there are some pretty ambitious and amazing goals there. I hope that you work hard enough to make them a reality. If there are no outrageous comments, mention some that came up at our grandson’s Kindy graduation – princess, batman, Prime Minister)

God can do or be anything that God wants, and what did God decide to be? (Wait for answers or simply provide the answer.) Yes, God decided to be a baby. God could be anything at all, and yet God became a baby – a baby that cries, that needs its nappy changed, that throws up after it is fed. Yuk! Why would God want to become a baby? Why? Because God loves us so much, that God will do anything to get our attention. Why? Because God knew that we wouldn’t really trust God unless God became like us and that if God was to become like us, then God had to be just like us – starting as a baby. Why? Because God knows that everyone loves a baby and God hoped that if we loved the baby, we might learn to love God.

So Christmas is all about the baby, and the baby is all about love – God’s love for us that is bigger than anything we can begin to imagine.

God loves us, and hopes that we will learn to love God.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] In C.S. Lewis. The Business of Heaven. Ed Walter Hooper. Great Britain: Fount Paperbacks, 1984.

[2] op cit 300.

Becoming as a child

October 6, 2012

Pentecost 19

Mark 10.13-16  St Francis’ Day

Marian Free

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

What is it about children? Mark has used a child as an illustration three times now. A child is used to confront the disciples’ ideas of grandeur. The disciples are urged not to do anything that would hurt the faith of “these little ones” and today’s gospel suggests that unless the disciples welcome the kingdom of God as a little child, they will not enter it. It seems that Jesus is using the example of a child to confront the arrogance of the disciples, to emphasise their responsibility towards the vulnerable and to teach them how to accept God’s gifts to them.

From a twentieth century standpoint the obvious conclusion from today’s gospel is that Jesus is encouraging us to re-capture the wide-eyed innocence of our childhoods, to be open to the mystery and wonder of the kingdom rather than approaching it with jaded and cautious minds. There may be some element of this in what Jesus is saying, but given the unwarranted self-assurance of the disciples, their competition with each other and their desire to exclude others from their number, it is more likely that Jesus is referring to the lack of social status and the dependence of children.

According to the rabbinic tradition children were a waste of time – like drinking too much wine or associating with the ignorant. One saying reads: “Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the people of the land put a person out of the world (M Abot 3:11). Children were not only a waste of time, but they were owed nothing. A child had no claim on anyone and could have no expectation that they deserved anything from anyone – including their parents. If they were treated well it was due to the love and generosity of their parents, but no expectations or obligations were placed on parents.  Children were completely dependent on the adults in their lives and good treatment was a matter of luck rather than a right. As a consequence, anything good that a child experienced or was given was received as a gift which they had done nothing to warrant.

Even in today’s world in which children are generally valued and in which their rights are enshrined in law, a child is still dependent on the adults in their lives for the quality of their care, for affection, for food, clothing and shelter, for education and medical care. Most of us spend our lives trying to escape this sort of dependence on others and few would make dependence rather than independence a life’s goal.

Yet it is precisely this that Jesus is recommending to his self-absorbed disciples. He is reminding them that they should understand that entry into the kingdom is not a right or something that they should take for granted. Entry into the kingdom of God is not earned by proving that they are better than one another. It is not the role of the disciples of Jesus to determine who is in and who is out. Instead, they need to adopt the position of children to their parents and understand that they completely dependent on God’s love and mercy and that everything that they receive is a gift that is unrelated to anything that they do or do not do.

For many, including Jesus’ disciples, the gift of God’s undeserved grace is almost impossible to accept. It is easier to think that there must be some sort of entrance criteria for membership in the kingdom, that only those who behave in a certain way or achieve a certain standard can earn the right to enter into the Kingdom of God. It is difficult to accept that those who are least worthy, those who have no legal status or right are not only welcome in the kingdom, but show the rest of us how to graciously receive God’s free gift.

Such was the problem that faced Francis in the thirteenth century. Francis was born in Assisi in 1188, the eldest son of a wealthy textile merchant. He, like many wealthy young men of his day lived a dissolute sort of life spending his Father’s money on fine clothing and on carousing and drinking with his friends. In a time of inter-city wars and rivalry, Francis had dreams of grandeur of becoming a military hero – a knight who would win the heart of a fair lady.  An opportunity came for him to join the forces of Prince of Taranto and to fight for the Pope in the south of Italy. He told his brothers that he would return a knight. However, within a day he had returned home having heard a voice from God. Once home, having no clear sense of what God intended for him, he returned to his former lifestyle, though it held none of the attraction that it had had before.

Gradually, Francis changed his life. He became more and more concerned for the poor, more and more determined that he should share the poverty of Christ, and more and more determined to give up his extravagant lifestyle and embrace a life of prayer. At first Francis remained at home, living more simply and giving generously to those in need. He showed compassion to all and especially to those suffering from leprosy who were not only destitute, but who were also excluded from society because of their disease.  Eventually Francis gave up all his wealth, renounced his inheritance and adopted a simple life in the countryside around his hometown. He wore a robe in the shape of a cross and in warm weather and cold wore only sandals on his feet. Like a beggar he became completely dependent on the goodness of others. Like the disciples of Jesus he went from town to town proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.

In time he was joined by others, who like him had become aware of the hollowness of their lives.  Despite this Francis was haunted by a sense of his sinfulness. How could he possibly be worthy of the Kingdom? On one occasion when he was oppressed with grief and worry, he had a vision of Jesus weighed down by the cross struggling up the hill of Calvary and he remembered the words of the fourth Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He understood at once that it was not anything that he had done, but that it was what God had done that had secured his entry into the kingdom. At that point he knew that he didn’t have to compete with others, to achieve a certain standard or to be part of the in-group. He simply had to accept what God had done in Christ and to allow himself to be completely dependent on God’s mercy.

This simple, child-like trust in God determined the remainder of Francis’ life. He was able to let go of his need to be in control and to place his life in God’s hands. He finally understood his total dependence on God’s mercy, his need to receive the kingdom of God as a child.

In our individualistic, achievement driven world, the idea that child-like dependence is something to be valued is utterly incomprehensible. And yet, Jesus tells us that dependence is the very criterion that entrance into the Kingdom of God demands. God who owes us nothing has given us everything. The gift of the Kingdom is ours for the taking. All that we have to do is to swallow our pride, let go of our independence and gratefully reach out our hands to receive what is offered.

 

 


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