Posts Tagged ‘judgement’

Love unearned

January 19, 2019

Epiphany 2 – 2019

John 2:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity is poured out freely and abundantly on the deserving and the undeserving. Amen.

Tony Campolo a psychologist, pastor, public speaker and author travelled a lot in the course of his work. Changes in time zones would mean that there were times when he was wide awake when the rest of the world was asleep. On one such occasion he was looking for somewhere to have breakfast at 3:30am. After wandering around he found a rather seedy diner and ordered a coffee and something to eat. While he was eating, the door opened and in came several noisy and provocative prostitutes who made Campolo feel very uncomfortable and out of place. When the women had sat down one announced to the others: “Tomorrow’s my birthday!” To which the response was something to the effect of: “ Bully for you. What do you expect us to do about it?” After a while the first woman responded: “I don’t expect anything but, you know, I have never had a birthday party.”

After they had left, Campolo asked the man behind the counter whether the women came there every night – particularly whether the one whose birthday it was came every night. “That’s Agnes,” the man responded. “Why do you want to know.” Campolo explained that he wanted to throw a party. The man was so impressed with the idea that he insisted that he, not Campolo, provide the cake and his wife offered to do the cooking for the party. Somehow word got around the streets and at 3:15am the next day the diner was crowded with prostitutes. When Agnes walked in everyone shouted: “Happy Birthday!” Agnes, whose life had never been celebrated, burst into tears .”

Compare that story with a true story from my own experience. “Sarah”, also a prostitute, came to faith at a Billy Graham crusade in 1994. The counselors at the crusade put Sarah in touch with her local church which is where I met her. Sarah was open both with the Rector and myself about her profession. She was also honest about the fact that she felt that she couldn’t give up the work until she had paid off a drug debt of $5,000. Interestingly, her conversion experience had enabled her to give up drinking, smoking and drug-taking, but $5,000 does not come from thin air. Such was Sarah’s integrity that she would not be baptized until she had given up the work.

One afternoon Sarah rang me in deep distress. Her psychologist – himself a Christian and a pastor – had accused Sarah of not being committed to Christ because she had not stopped working. I was completely floored. This beautiful, honest person whose personal background had been one of neglect and abuse, was being told that she hadn’t really turned her life around, that she was not sincere in her faith because she was still working. Her psychologist hadn’t offered to pay her drug debt or promised to protect her when the enforcers turned up for payment nor had he validated what she had already given up or affirmed her integrity in delaying baptism.

Sarah was in a state of utter despair and it took the best part of an hour for me to begin to undo the damage this man had done and for her to feel reassured that she was on the right path and that God had not rejected her.

Two Christian psychologists, who were also pastors, responded to the prostitutes in two completely different ways revealing two completely different understandings of the gospel. Campolo saw past Agnes’ profession and recognized her loneliness and alienation. He responded to her with generosity and love. The second man could not see beyond Sarah’s profession and so responded with meanness and condemnation.

These two men represent the different attitudes and responses of the church to those who do not fit the mould of a ‘good’ Christian. Both may feel that they have the love of God in their hearts but one doles out that love sparingly and only to people whom he considers deserving of that love. He believes that compassion and forgiveness must be earned and that a person must achieve a particular standard in order to be acceptable to God. His view of God’s kingdom is that it only includes the worthy and that he is in a position to determine who is and who is not worthy to belong. The other, who is from what is perhaps a more conservative Christian tradition obviously reads the Bible in such a way as to understand that God’s love is expansive and inclusive, that it cannot be earned but is poured out in equal measure on the deserving and the undeserving alike. The first demanded that Sarah change in order to earn God’s love, the latter showed God’s love to Agnes without condition.

Over and over again, in his teaching and in his actions, Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is poured out on those who do nothing to deserve it and that God delights in showing that love. The lost sheep is not reprimanded, the lost son is not castigated. When the lost are found they are not made to do penance. God doesn’t wait until they have redeemed themselves, instead from the moment they are found there is a celebration, a party – not only on earth, but also in heaven.

When Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, he doesn’t say, “Go and make reparation, then come follow me.” He doesn’t demand that Zacchaeus stop collecting taxes. He simply says: “Come down. I’m going to have dinner with you.” The thief on the cross was not asked to repent but assured of his place in paradise.

God’s love is not doled out sparingly or meanly in response to what we (and others) do or do not do. God’s love is lavishly bestowed on those who have not done, or cannot do, anything to deserve it including ourselves. God does not wait till we are good enough and God holds nothing back – there is more than enough bread for those who need to be fed and more than enough wine to ensure that the wedding party does not come to an abrupt end.

Like the bread on the mountainside or the wine at the wedding, God’s love is not measured and limited but vast and abundant. It is withheld from no one, ourselves included.

The end is nigh

December 1, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 21:25-38

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love for us knows no bounds. Amen.

Many years ago, long before I was ordained, I met Leanne. Leanne was about 20 years older than I, worshipped at the same church and was a member of the Bible Study group. Sadly, Leanne suffered from depression. Despite treatment and medication, she could never shake the feeling that she was worthless and unlovable. One day Leanne told us the following story. On one particular day Leanne’s mother was coming to visit. Leanne was excited, but she knew that her mother had exacting standards. She spent the whole day ensuring that the house was spotless and baking delicious things for her mother to eat. The hour arrived and knowing that everything was ready, Leanne ran out to greet her mother. Imagine how deflated she felt when, instead of reciprocating her excitement and joy, her mother simply said: “What on earth are you doing outside with your apron on?”

No wonder Leanne struggled to believe that she had value. Throughout her life she had been made to feel that she had failed to meet her mother’s expectations. This left her feeling that no matter how hard she tried she was never going to be good enough. When I heard the story, I wanted to hold Leanne for as long as it took for all that negativity to be erased. I imagined the child, the growing girl, the young woman and the now middle-aged person before me, always trying and never succeeding, to be the person whom her mother expected her to be. No wonder she suffered from depression. No wonder Leanne struggled to believe in herself. All her life she had been held in the balance and found wanting.

For some Christians, this is how it is with God. They have been brought up to believe that God is watching and judging everything that they do; that God is somewhere with a set of scales measuring them against an impossibly high ideal. Sadly, a great number of people who claim to be Christians cannot believe that they are lovable, and they certainly cannot believe either that God is love or that God loves them. 

I know that on another occasion I told you the story of a beautiful, gentle man who, in his eighties, could not sleep at night because he was so afraid of dying. He was sure that something he had done in the distant past meant that God had withdrawn God’s approval and love. When he was a child, his well-meaning grandmother had drummed in to him the eternal consequences of bad behaviour. As he drew nearer to his death, he was certain that whatever it was that he had done in the distant past would send him to the fires of hell.   

Can you imagine going through your whole life not knowing how much God loved you? Can you imagine living in terror of God, believing that it was God’s desire and intention to destroy you if you failed to meet God’s expectations? Can you imagine spending a life-time trying to achieve some unrealistic standard of perfection in order to be loved, or to avoid being punished? I can’t. I can’t think why you would bring a child into the world in order to berate and belittle that child. And I can’t conceive of God the creator bringing humankind into being simply to satisfy some egotistical need to dominate or to be feared.

Ideas about an all-powerful, all-demanding God do not emerge from a vacuum. They are developed from imagery of the end-time such as that in today’s gospel, especially verse 34: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly”. And in 1 Thessalonians 3:13: “May you be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is all too easy, for those who are so inclined, to build a picture in which God is relentlessly demanding, unyielding and unforgiving. To do that, one also has to ignore the texts in which God is endlessly compassionate, accommodating and forbearing. One has to close one’s mind to the story of creation in which God declares humankind to be “very good”. Above all, one has to forget that in Jesus God gave Godself completely and unreservedly to and for those who had done nothing to deserve such a gift and who continue to be undeserving.

Not that I would suggest for one moment that we ignore or gloss over the vivid descriptions of Jesus’ return, or of the time of judgement. Those of us who know ourselves to be secure in God’s love must be warned from time to time that we should not take that love for granted. Those of us who have long since stopped expecting Jesus’ return need to be reminded that God will come and at a time when God is least expected. Those of us who have fallen into a cosy, comfortable relationship with God have to be pulled up short so that we do not forget that the Creator of the Universe is all-powerful, almighty and awe-inspiring. 

Today’s readings are not necessarily meant to stun us into shocked terror or to keep us in a state of heightened alertness and anxiety. But they do serve a purpose. They prevent us from falling into error, they stop us from having a narrow view of the God of the universe and they challenge us to respond with gratitude to God’s overwhelming goodness and love.

This Advent let the promise of Jesus’ return pierce the numbness and the complacency born out of centuries of Jesus’ non-appearance. 

Let it increase the anticipation, the confidence that Jesus’ coming willshatter the peace, explode the norms and reveal the world for what it really is.

Let Jesus’ coming shake us out of our comfort zones and remind us that God is so much more than our limited minds will ever be able to imagine.

God, the God who loves us so much more than we can ever desire or deserve, is an awesome, terrifying God in whose presence we will fall to our knees in holy fear. 

God willcome. Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security, but make sure that we are ready for an event that might just disturb the whole cosmos and at the very least will shake us to our core.

Forces for change

November 4, 2017

All Saints – 2017

Luther

Marian Free

 In the name of God who speaks through holy men and women in every place and time to challenge, encourage and renew the people and the church. Amen.

In the early sixteenth century in Germany, a monk of the Augustinian Order had been going through “hell”. Martin Luther was obsessed with his own sinfulness and the impossibility of remembering in his sins in order to confess them, anxious lest he forget and therefore not be forgiven. Trying to work out how to become righteous before God, Luther had tried all kinds of self-abasement – sleeping in the snow and lying almost naked in the belfry tower at night. Nothing seemed to work. Luther felt that he could never do enough to earn God’s favour. Luther could see only God the All Terrible, God the Judge, God the Divine Majesty, God the impossible to please.

Luther’s behaviour was extreme, but we have to remember the context in which he found himself. The Roman Catholic Church (THE Church) was focused on sin and judgement. The Doctrine of Purgatory was based on the idea that imperfection had no place in heaven, and that Christians had to be purged of all sinfulness before they could enter eternity. In purgatory all traces of impurity were burned away making a person fit for heaven. The greater the sin, the longer it took to purge, though prayers on someone’s behalf could reduce the time a person spent in purgatory. In such an environment it was impossible to believe in grace and forgiveness, love and goodness but only in demand and judgement, fear and anxiety about what the future might hold.

Indulgences provided an opportunity for the faithful to repent and thus to have their sin forgiven. The more sin forgiven, the less time spent in purgatory.[1] During the Crusades, indulgences were offered as a carrot to get people to join the Crusades. Over time, the practice spread and indulgences became something that could be purchased by the wealthy. A privileged few, included Luther’s own Prince Frederick, were given the authority to offer indulgences themselves thus increasing their own coffers.In this environment, Luther struggled to overcome his perceived sinfulness and achieve some sort of worth before God.

Luther was an academic and a teacher. In 1515-1516 he was teaching on the Psalms and Romans. This forced him to reflect – first of all on the suffering of Christ (God) and on Christ’s sense of abandonment on the cross, and secondly on the meaning of the righteousness of God.

In his own words: “I greatly longed to understand Pail’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience; I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped the justice of God is that the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the phrase “the righteousness of God had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ….

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.“[2]

In searching for the exact meaning of the Greek word “dikaisunē”, Luther came to understand that the word rendered “justice” in English, really meant the process by which sometimes a judge suspends the sentence, places the prisoner on parole and expresses confidence in him. (In other words it was less about being judged and more about being set free.) Further, Luther came to see that justification was not something achieved by the individual, but was God’s gift to us through Jesus. A consequence of this discovery meant that Luther was at last freed from his striving and his sense of inadequacy knowing himself secure in God’s love.

Through his study, Luther was exposed to the spirit of the age, which was demanding a return to a simple faith and in particular a reinstatement of the Bible as the sole source of authority for the faith. By now the Bible had been translated from Latin into the vernacular and many people were reading it in their own language for the first time. There was an air of renewal and reform throughout Europe, a desire to return to the heart of a Christian faith that had been over-laden with ritual, ceremony and artifacts and in which a person’s relationship with Jesus had been broken by intermediaries in the form of a plethora of saints.

In 1517, a monk, Johann Tetzel, began to sell indulgences in Germany with the goal of providing funds to renovate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now that he understood that salvation could not be bought, but came through faith alone Luther was incensed. He penned a response: “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” and, tradition has it, nailed his 95 Theses[3] to the door of the Castle Church. His ideas spread rapidly and it was not long before he was labeled a heretic, called to Rome and eventually excommunicated.

When at last he returned to Wittenberg, he discovered that his teachings and writings had galvanized a movement that was both theological and political. He himself had little to do with the movement but continued to write until his death.

Luther’s significance cannot be underestimated. His writings captured the spirit of the age and throughout Europe, reform movements sprang up and Protestantism was born. At the centre of this new movement were a firm belief in the Bible as the primary source of authority and that salvation cannot be achieved but only received.

While the Reformation took its own shape in England we as Anglicans heirs and beneficiaries of Luther’s intellect, wisdom and vision.

[1] The practice was, of course, open to corruption and could be used as a source of revenue not only for Rome, but for those whom Rome allowed to dispense indulgences themselves. In the words of the Article XXII of the Anglican Church “the doctrine concerning purgatory …. is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon not warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

[2] Bainton, R. Here I Stand – The Classic Biography of Martin Luther. Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1978, 65.

[3] http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

Smashing boundaries, confronting stereotypes

May 28, 2016

Pentecost 2 – 2016

Luke 7:1-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who welcome all those who seek God. Amen.

C.S. Lewis had the most extraordinary ability to express complex theology in a way that is easy to understand. This is demonstrated above all in his stories. The Screwtape Letters proved a light-hearted insight into the subtleties of evil and The Great Divorce reveals Lewis’s understanding of the final judgement. Perhaps his greatest achievement is The Chronicles of Narnia – children’s stories that Lewis wrote for his god-daughter. In seven short books, Lewis manages to sum up some of the central tenets of our faith in story form. From an account of creation in The Magician’s Nephew to an imaginative presentation of judgement and the end of the world in The Last Battle Lewis manages to share the faith in an adventure story that is so compelling that even on the one hundredth read is impossible to put down and that even on the one hundred and first read still has greater depths to reveal.

Narnia is an imaginary land into which children from this world are unexpectedly thrown and in which they find themselves confronting, challenging and fighting the forces of evil. In Narnia the divine is represented by a huge lion – Aslan – who appears terrible to those who don’t believe or who have gone their own way, but full of light and love to those whose hearts are open and who have nothing to hide. Because Lewis is writing from a Christian perspective, it is clear to us that Aslan represents the Trinity and in particular Jesus. Readers observe Aslan breathing the world into being, being destroyed and yet being restored to life and being present as an invisible presence and power. Aslan is welcoming, forgiving and understanding, but not without expectations of those who would be his friends. He expects the children to trust him and to show the same sort of care for others as he shows to them.

Perhaps the most extraordinary book in the series is the last. In this story, he tries to capture the theme of Revelation – a difficult enough book for any of us to grasp. Suffice to say, the story deals with the destruction of the world and the final judgement. It is impossible to summarise the plot here and I simply want to focus on one aspect of the story. The final battle is between the cruel Calormenes and the Narnians. In the course of the battle the heroes are slain and find themselves in the most wonderful land in which everything is larger, brighter and somehow more real than the land from which they came. They are not alone in this new place. All the Narnians who have fallen in battle are there with them. There too are a small group of dwarves, huddled together in terror, so bound by their unbelief that they simply cannot see the beauty and bounty that surrounds them.

Also in this new and wonderful land is a Calormene who is wandering freely and in wide-eyed wonder. Emeth, for that was his name, had spent his life faithful to the god of his own people and was deeply disturbed by what the deceptions that had brought Narnia under Calormene control. Unlike the dwarves who were blinded by their skepticism and arrogance, Emeth was open to the presence of the divine, by whatever name it went. When he found himself in the strange new land, he was at first unafraid. It was only when he came face to face with Aslan that he threw himself to the ground, certain that he – a follower of the god of the Calormenes – would be struck down and destroyed. Instead he feels the lion bend down and touch his tongue to his forehead saying: “Son you are welcome.” Despite Emeth’s protestations that he is not worthy, Aslan assures him that his life, his goodness and his desire for God were all in fact in the service of Aslan and that he belongs in this strange new place.

There are a number of surprising aspects to today’s gospel. The centurion is not only not a Jew, he is a Roman and a soldier at that. He cares for his slave almost as a father cares for his child yet, despite his authority he does not feel that he is in a position to ask for Jesus’ help directly. Instead he sends some Jews to ask on his behalf. They assure Jesus that he is worthy of Jesus’ attention however, when Jesus’ nears the home of the centurion he sends another delegation – this time his friends – to tell Jesus that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to him.

It is clear that the centurion has seen the divine in Jesus and that, in the presence of the Jesus, he is acutely aware of his outsider status, his unworthiness. He is seeking Jesus’ help even though he does not worship the God of the Jews. The centurion knows that he does not belong, that in the eyes of many he represents the enemy, the oppressor.

Jesus sees in him, not an enemy but someone who is open to the presence of the divine, someone who is not so bound by his own ideas or by his skepticism that he cannot see Jesus for who he is. Jesus sees not someone who worships another god, but someone whose life, goodness and desire for God are in the service of the one true God. In fact Jesus rather than being disturbed is amazed – even among the Jews he has not found a faith to match that of the centurion.

Unlike Jesus, there are many who are quick to judge, who believe that they know who is in and who is out, who think that they know just what faith entails and how God will judge their faith and the faith of others.

The gospels are quick to destroy the arrogance that insists that there is only one way to God and only one way to be accepted by God. Rather than creating strict definitions of who belongs and who does not, Jesus is constantly smashing boundaries, confounding stereotypes and confronting the self-confidence of those who think that they are the only ones who will be saved.

Then who will be saved when that final curtain falls and Jesus comes again to judge? Those who seek God in the ways that are known to them and whose understanding of God is not limited to a prescribed set of ideas but who are open to the presence of God in themselves and in the world, those who have the humility to recognise their own unworthiness and who do not feel that the world/God owes them anything and who understand that they do not cannot deserve Jesus’ attention. In other words salvation belongs to those who trust in God – whoever and whatever God may be – and who, instead of trusting in themselves, admit their faults and throw themselves on God’s mercy.

Preparing for eternity

December 6, 2014

Advent 2 – 2014

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

 Living God fill us with a sense of expectation and anticipation that we may be ready to meet you when you come again. Amen.

 I was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, so I knew all about being prepared. Among other things ‘being prepared’ involved carrying emergency kits in our pockets. I particularly remember this because unlike the other girls in my unit, I was unable to get all the various bits and pieces into a neat compact package. My first aid kit was twice as big as anyone else’s and my pocket always bulged unattractively. It made me self-conscious, but my kit contained only the same things as everyone else and I was prepared as anyone for almost any eventuality – snakebite, broken-glass, splinters, cuts. I had everything required for a minor medical emergency. The second kit (in my case equally bulky) contained other essentials like matches and pocketknife so that we could fend for ourselves in the bush. We were prepared for anything.

You don’t have to be a Girl Guide to be prepared. While much of our lives are routine, there are some areas that require at least some preparation. If for example, we are travelling overseas we need to check that we have passports, visas, inoculations, insurance and other such necessities. If we are going to hospital or having a medical procedure, it is essential that we are prepared – that we have filled in the correct forms, fasted for the right number of hours, advised the appropriate people of the medications we are taking or the things we are allergic to. Being prepared assures us of a safe trip, and the best possible outcome of our medical treatment.

We go to a lot of effort to be prepared for upcoming events to ensure that everything runs smoothly or works out as we have hoped. Planning for aspects of our earthly existence often comes at the expense of planning for our heavenly existence. Our concern with things temporal tends to overwhelm and overtake our concern for things eternal. Our focus on the present can mean that we do not pay enough attention to the future.

What are we doing now to ensure a good outcome at the judgement? Have we put the necessary things in place to guarantee a positive experience?

John the Baptist draws our attention to the coming of Jesus, and challenges us to be prepared, to set our lives straight and to repent of those things which might be a cause for regret.

Being prepared means more than being good. It means developing a heart and mind that are focused on the things of God. It means ridding ourselves of all selfishness and malice, all discontent and pettiness. It means being deeply at peace with ourselves and with the world. It means understanding and accepting God’s love and God’s grace. It means accepting that we are pilgrims and strangers on earth and knowing that our true home is with God.

We cannot expect to have a good relationship with God in the future if we are not developing a good relationship with God in the present. We cannot expect to recognise Jesus when he comes in glory, if we have not spent time getting to know the Jesus who came in humility. We cannot expect to be content for eternity if we have not practiced contentment now.

Advent can be an unsettling time. On the one hand it is a season that gives us reassurance that Jesus will return and take us to himself. On the other hand it reminds us of our obligation to be ready. On the one hand it focuses our attention on the love that sent Jesus into the world for our salvation. On the other hand it reminds us Jesus will come again in judgement. On the one hand it echoes a warning to “be prepared”. On the other hand it is a gentle prompt not to neglect those things that will make us ready.

The question is: “how do you want to spend eternity, and what are you doing to prepare for that outcome?”

Uncomfortable people – terrorists or saviours, threat or promise?

December 7, 2013

Advent 2 – 2013

Matthew 3:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God who is not always comfortable and benign and whose prophets are sometimes harsh and uncompromising. Amen. 

Over the past two days our airways and our print media have eulogised Nelson Mandela and rightly so. His was an extraordinary life and he belongs with the great men and women of history. That said, not everyone shares that view. When we were in Cape Town a few years ago our tour guide expressed disgust that “that terrorist” was regarded as a hero. In Fact, for most of Mandela’s early political life he was considered a revolutionary and a troublemaker. He was a leader of a banned organisation that incited people to revolt against the government. People in South Africa and abroad were divided in their opinions of him and of his means of achieving his goal. For many, he was a respected figure, working for a just cause, but for those who supported apartheid he was considered a dangerous activist who was determined to bring down a legitimate government.

In his autobiography: A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela takes full responsibility for the decision of the African National Congress to use violence in the struggle against apartheid and when the Government invited the ANC to the negotiating table Mandela refused to lay down arms as a pre-condition for the talks.  He was anything but a comfortable man.

I raise these issues to remind you that it is not always easy to make wise judgements about uncomfortable people – especially when they challenge our complacency, confront our values or threaten the stability of our way of life.  Sometimes it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we understand how easily we are deceived. Hitler – an upholder of law and order – turned out to be a monster. Mandela – a law-breaker – turned out to be a nation’s “greatest son, father of the people.” (Jacob Zuma)

John the Baptist was an uncomfortable and uncompromising person. Despite that people flocked to him from miles around. No doubt he unsettled both the religious and political leaders of his day. Those in authority are suspicious of people who can draw a crowd and nervous about the level of their influence they can exert.

Perhaps this is why the Pharisees and Sadducees ventured into the wilderness to see John and ostensibly to be baptised by him. These unlikely partners in crime would be curious to see what John was doing and teaching. Perhaps they thought they could learn something from him, in particular how they could gain the support of the people. Alternately, they might have been seeking information that they could use in order to discredit him and to regain the deference of the people. Whatever their reasons, it is clear that John saw right through them. He did not believe that they had come to repent or to learn from him. He accused them of shallowness and of duplicity. “You offspring of vipers,” he says. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

For John, it is not enough that they came out into the desert. Nor is it enough that they sought baptism. He was aware that if the Pharisees and Sadducees were not prepared to radically change their lives their baptism would have achieved nothing. Their feigned respect for John the Baptist was meaningless if they had not responded to his message and allowed their lives to be transformed as a result. John was confident that they could no rely on their heritage or their position, only a change of heart would ensure that they retained the privilege of being children of Abraham.

It is easy to be like the Pharisees and Sadducees and to live our lives on the surface, relying on our respectability and our superficial goodness. We can stand at a distance and admire and respect the John the Baptists of the past and the Nelson Mandelas of our time. However to dive into the depths of our being and to root out all that is ugly is a much more challenging and unwelcome task. Not many of us have the nerve to abandon our comfort zones and to allow ourselves to be radically changed. It takes courage to look deep into our souls and it takes a great deal of moral fibre to go against the flow, to associate with uncomfortable and challenging people and, with them, to stand up and be counted.

We do not honour Nelson Mandela by filling our Facebook pages with quotations and photos or by speaking in hushed and reverent voices about his achievements and his legacy. The best accolade that we can give him is to endeavour from this day on to recognise and to confront injustice; to rid our hearts of all bitterness and resentment; and to pray for the wisdom to discern when a person who makes us uncomfortable is a threat or a promise.

John the Baptist issued both threat and promise. He challenged the establishment and promised the coming of one even greater. He announced the judgement of God and provided a means to escape it. He saw through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees and honoured the openness of the people and their willingness to change.

If we do not wish to be censured, if we are sure that we are not the offspring of vipers, it is important that we hear John’s accusations, that we examine our motives for what we do and do not do, that we do not seek to protect what we have but to do what is right. Only an openness of heart, a self-critical attitude and a true understanding of the righteousness of God will help us to know right from wrong, good from bad, hero from terrorist. May God give us discernment, clarity of purpose and an openness of heart and mind, so that we might recognise the prophets among us, respond to their challenge and with them prepare for the coming of our God.


[1] Jacob Zuma commenting on Mandela’s death.

Contradiction

March 2, 2013

Lent 3 – 2013

Luke 13:31-35 (Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Cor 10:1-13)

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns our expectations upside down, who challenges and comforts us and who never, ever withdraws God’s love. Amen.

When you read the Bible, what are the passages that stand out for you? Are you more alert for the voice of judgement or the voice of love? Do you look out for the rules that you must not break and the specific directions that you must follow, or do you instead seek out the promises of growth and new creation? From start to finish, the Bible is full of contradiction.  In it we find both censure and approval, judgement and forgiveness, punishment and redemption, restraint and extravagance.

The Old Testament prophets threaten the Israelites with all kinds of penalties if they refuse to return to God then, almost without taking breath, they assure the people that God will never abandon them. Side by side in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea and elsewhere we have evidence of God’s frustration and confirmation of God’s faithfulness. The Gospels express similar contradictions. Calls to repent are balanced by stories of the lost being restored. Jesus’ attacks on the righteous throw into relief Jesus’ acceptance of those outside the law.

This morning’s readings are a case in point. The generosity and free-spirited invitation of Isaiah 55 stands in stark contrast with the harsh, judgmental and condemnatory sentiments of 1 Corinthians 10.

How are we to make sense of the paradox – judgement and repeal, condemnation and forgiveness, law and freedom? It is my belief that both sides of the coin are necessary to sustain healthy individuals, healthy societies and healthy religions. Freedom is essential for creative energy to thrive, for people to love and be loved, for compassion and generosity. None of these things can be forced or legislated. On the other hand, lawlessness leads to disintegration, violence and repression. Without some sort of law no one can achieve their full potential.

There needs to be some sort of balance between law and freedom.  It is not healthy to be completely unrestrained, but neither is it good to be so restrained that we forget how to live. If we fence ourselves in with rules, we reduce our ability to be spontaneous and carefree. Somewhere in the middle is an equilibrium, an ability to self-regulate, to use the rules and the threats of judgement to control our baser instincts and to trust in God’s goodness and mercy to liberate our finer, more selfless characteristics.

Interestingly, in the Bible, it is not disobedience or even the breaking of the Ten Commandments which is the source of God’s anger and the pre-condition for punishment. What causes the prophets to proclaim God’s judgement and Jesus to condemn the people of Israel is a breakdown in the relationship between the people and God.

God doesn’t expect perfection. That much is clear in God’s choice of Jacob the deceiver, God’s selection of Moses the murderer and God’s continued love for David the adulterer. That God is not looking for flawless followers is demonstrated by Jesus’ choice of disciples, Jesus’ readiness to forgive and Jesus’ easy acceptance of tax collectors and sinners.

It appears that the primary safeguard against condemnation is not so much to be law-abiding (though that is good), but to accept God’s invitation to be in relationship, to trust God’s offer of a covenant, to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, not because its citizens have failed to keep the law _ if nothing else, the Pharisees were assiduous keepers of the law.  Jesus weeps because the people of Jerusalem, the leaders of the Jews, have demonstrated their inability to put their trust in God. The Pharisees, Chief Priests and Scribes have put all their trust in the law and their ability to keep the law. They are so sure that they can achieve perfection by their own effort that they have effectively locked God out of their lives. They have so little confidence in God’s love and faithfulness that they are using the law to paper over their imperfections. They are so afraid that scrutiny will find them wanting that they kill the prophets who hold a mirror to them and to their lives. They cannot have a real relationship with God because they cannot have a real relationship with themselves.

No wonder Jesus weeps, he understands that the Jerusalemites are so sure that God cannot love them as they are, that they not only try to become what they are not, but worse, they shrink from God, they refuse God’s invitation and will not be drawn into God’s loving embrace.

How different they are from Zacchaeus who has the courage to respond to Jesus’ invitation and who finds that his life is transformed as a result. How different from the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, who could take such a risk because instinctively she knew that she was loved and accepted. “Law-breakers” and outsiders who already knew and accepted their imperfections welcomed Jesus’ love and invitation, entered into a relationship and allowed themselves to be gathered under his wings.

Law and freedom together create a necessary life-giving tension in our relationship with God. An over-reliance on law can have the effect of locking God out of our lives whereas an over-emphasis on freedom can lead us to believe that we don’t need God. It is important to relish our freedom, but to understand its bounds, to trust in God’s unconditional love, but not to use that love as an excuse to be unloveable, to recognise that law has its place, but not to use it as a replacement for relationship.

God invites us into a relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect. God offers us an unconditional love that sets us free to be ourselves. To say “yes” to God, is to say “yes” to ourselves and to know ourselves welcome in the shadow of God’s wings.

 

 

 

 

 

Being Prepared – a Reflection for Advent 2

December 8, 2012

Advent 2 2012

Luke 3:1-6

Marian Free

Woodbine Willie

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy

In the name of God who is coming to call us all to account. Amen.

I wonder how you envisage judgement day? Do you see God seated on a throne with books of your good and bad deeds laid out before him? Or do you think that when you breathe your last you will simply make an easy transition to heaven? Do you think about what you might do before that day to be prepared?

I guess that I stand somewhere between the idea of the throne and of the easy transition. I am not convinced that a God who enters the world as a vulnerable baby and allows himself to be nailed to the cross, is a God that is absorbed with thinking of ways to keep us out of heaven. Neither do I think that God keeps score, for that would rob the cross of its meaning and imply that we could achieve salvation through our own efforts. I do believe however that we are accountable for how we behave in this life and that we will stand before God to give an account.

How do we prepare for such an occasion? Do we worry ourselves sick trying to reach some imaginary high standard? Do we need to become serious, moralizing, fun- destroying do-gooders? Do we put ourselves into a straight jacket so that we can be sure that we will avoid doing those things which would lead us to hell?

I don’t think so. I believe that the most important thing that we can do to be prepared for the end is to trust in God’s unfailing love and in response to that love endeavour to be the best we can. In coming to this opinion, I have found this poem by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy to be helpful. It’s called “Well?” and it was written by Studdert Kennedy when he was an army chaplain during WWI. It is written in dialect so I apologize ahead of time if I slip in and out of the accent. It is published in a collection of Studdert Kennedy’s poems called Unutterable Beauty and can be found on the Internet if you’d like to read it for yourself. I think it speaks for itself and may give you something to think about as you prepare for the coming of Jesus.

www.poemhunter.com/poem/well-5/ (There are also recitations of the poem on You tube)

 


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