Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us into union with God, with Jesus our Saviour and with each other. Amen.

In the wrong hands the Bible – indeed any religious texts – can be dangerous. This is blatantly obvious at present as we live with the consequences of Islamic extremism. No faith is exempt from the misinterpretation or misuse of its holy texts. We have to acknowledge that over the centuries even Christian texts have been used in ways that are punitive and even abusive. Passages from the bible have at times been used to limit and oppress rather than to liberate and make whole. Witness for example, the centuries during which it was believed that the inequitable distribution of wealth was God’s design. The poor were poor because that was how God ordered the world – not because kings and nobles taxed them beyond their means. For centuries it was taught and believed (at least by some) that the bible sanctioned violence against women and that women who were beaten by their husbands should not only endure such violence, but that they should also forgive the perpetrator thereby being forced to collude in their abuse.

In the case of today’s gospel, the final half sentence: “That they may be one as we are one” was used as a weapon in the debate about the ordination of women. Those who supported such a move were accused of being divisive and of wanting to destroy the church. Indeed the insinuation was that in seeking change they were going against the express will of Jesus in John 17:11. It was both a powerful and a manipulative strategy, designed to unsettle those who supported the ordination of women, to appealing to their core beliefs and making them feel guilty for daring to suggest change. (Interestingly, the opponents of the ordination of women did not believe that by refusing to accept change it might have been they not the others who were causing division.)

John 17:11 has been used to support unity within the church and between the churches and a quick look at the website textthisweek suggests that this is the most common interpretation of this verse and the most common theme of sermons on this passage. However, if we examine the verse in its immediate context and in the context of the gospel as a whole, we will recognise that the prayer is slanted somewhat differently.

As we saw a number of weeks ago, a key theme of the Johannine gospel is that of the unity of the Father and the Son. Over and over again, the Johannine Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. The union between Jesus and God is such that to know one is to know the other. Now we learn that Jesus is sharing with the disciples the union that exists between himself and God. Jesus prays that the lives of the disciples will be indistinguishable from that of the Father and the Son.

Chapter 17 is a part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prepares the disciples for his departure and for life without him. After announcing that he is going away, Jesus encourages the disciples to live in him (as branches attached to a vine) and he promises to send them the Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Now he prays – for himself and for them – beginning with an appeal to God that his role may be brought to completion. In John’s gospel the cross is not something to be avoided but to be embraced. It is on the cross that Jesus will be glorified, because it is here that his complete submission to God will be demonstrated, it here that he will be lifted up and from here that he will be able to hand over his spirit to his followers.

Death is merely the fulfillment of his mission: “Glorify me,” Jesus prays “with the glory that I had before the world existed”. As we learn in the very first verse of this gospel, Jesus and the Father have been united since before time began. Jesus continues by praying for the disciples. He prays that they union that he shares with God will not be shared with those who believe in him.

That Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one with himself (and therefore with God) is confirmed if we read to the end of the prayer. In verses 21-23 Jesus prays again: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The prayer concludes: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” If the disciples are united to God in the same way that Jesus is united to God then, God will be known through them as God was made known through Jesus.

At the end of the Farewell Speech, Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his work in the world. As God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends the disciples. As Jesus revealed the Father, so now the disciples have the responsibility of revealing both the Father and the Son. They cannot do this if they insist on asserting their individuality and on going their own way. The only way that the disciples can achieve union with God is if, like Jesus, they hand themselves over entirely to God and submit themselves completely to God’s will. By subsuming their own needs and individuality into the Godhead, they will allow God to be made known through them. Their union with God will in turn lead to unity with one another.

It’s all a matter of what we take as our starting place. If we begin by believing that God is insisting that we live in complete unity, we can end up chasing the wrong goal – focusing on ending our internal divisions rather than focusing on our union with God. If however we make it our primary goal to seek union with God, the end result will union with one another – in our Parishes, in our Dioceses and with the members of other churches.

 

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Keeping faith with God

October 15, 2016

Pentecost 22 – 2016

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

 In the name of God, who is patiently waiting for the world to come to its senses and to allow the kingdom to come on earth. Amen.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel as though my prayers fall on deaf ears, or perhaps more accurately that no matter how much or how regularly I pray, the world will still be blighted by greed and the desire for power that leads to oppression, injustice and war. Surely there must be millions of people praying right now for an end to the bombardment of Aleppo – and yet the shelling continues, the hospitals have been destroyed, food has run out and those who are not yet dead are injured and/or starving. Week after week we pray for the leaders of the world, for care for the environment and all for what? The world seems to go on much as before, people selfishly getting on with their own lives, heedless of the cost to others or to the consequences of their actions for future generations.

We pray, but to be honest, sometimes it feels as though we are banging our heads against a brick wall. Does it make any difference? Will the world ever change? Is God listening? Does God even care?

Luke seems to relish complex, confusing parables. Not so long ago we grappled with the parable in which the actions of the dishonest or unjust steward were commended. Today we have another difficult parable. This time God is being compared to an uncaring, obstructionist judge who only responds to injustice when he is at risk of receiving a black eye. What are we to make of such a comparison? Are we being told that God will consistently put off our requests for justice until we are finally able to wear God down? Are we being warned that we are as vulnerable and defenseless as a first century woman who has no one to stand up for her?

It is a shocking thought – an indifferent God, unconcerned with the injustices that plague the world, getting on with goodness knows what while we bang futilely at God’s door.

I suspect however, that none of us really think of God this way and that we simply put this uncomfortable parable to a side (much in the same way that we try not to puzzle too hard over the parable of the dishonest steward. It seems that Luke (or the Jesus of Luke) uses shock intentionally. It is an attempt to get our attention, to make us think a little bit differently and to ensure that we absorb and remember the point that is being made. The parable rewards us with new insights if we take the trouble to unpack it.

In this instance Luke, instead of allowing the parable to speak for itself, gives us an interpretation before the parable begins – it is about persistence in prayer.

In the wider context of the gospel, the parable follows Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus has just warned the disciples that the kingdom is not coming with signs that can be observed and that when it does come it will come without warning.

This parable then, and the one that follows, are intended to teach the disciples how to pray in the “in-between” time – the time between Jesus and the coming of the kingdom. Remember that Luke is writing sometime between 80 and 100 CE. The Temple has been completely destroyed, the Jews have been forced out of Jerusalem and those who have accepted Jesus as the Christ are experiencing a degree of hardship and ostracism because they no longer belong anywhere. Those who were Jews can no longer associate with their fellow Jews and those who of Gentile origin have likewise set themselves apart from their neighbours. It is not a comfortable or easy time to be someone who believes that Jesus is the Christ.

The world, instead of being dramatically changed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, continues much as it did before – perhaps worse for those who have chosen to follow Jesus. What are they to make of this? Surely the world be a better place as a consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Today’s parable then, is intended to help believers make sense of the present, to pray in the face of apparent inaction on God’s part and to retain their faith despite the fact that nothing seems to have changed.

So back to the widow. Widows, as I am sure you recall were the most vulnerable members of first century society. Without a male family member to support them or to speak for them, they were thrown on the mercy and charity of those around them. At the same time they were, after orphans, the ones to whom most care and compassion was meant to be extended. It is the judge’s responsibility to take a widow’s concerns seriously, to give her needs priority over those of others. His disinterest in her case serves to highlight his callousness. It is only when he becomes afraid that the widow will give him a black eye that he relents. He doesn’t want to lose face in front of everyone.

Jesus suggests that if someone as base as the judge responds to the widow’s plea, how much more will a just and compassionate God respond to us if we continue to have faith that God is listening and if, despite evidence to the contrary, we remain confident that God is active in the world, working to establish God’s kingdom.

So rather than comparing God to an unresponsive judge, who will only act when his honour is threatened, the parable encourages us to be confident that God will respond if we persist with our pursuit for justice and peace in the world. Even if it appears that nothing is happening, we are to go on praying, believing that God is acting in the world to bring about justice and peace.

In this time – the “in between” time, we are called to keep faith with God as God keeps faith with us, believing that humanity is capable of better things, convinced that humanity is indeed worth saving, and confident that no matter how selfish, unjust and hateful we are, that God will never ever abandon us, but will keep on hoping that we, with God, will continue to work and pray for peace and justice until at last God’s kingdom is established on the earth.

 

 

No right way to pray

July 23, 2016

Pentecost 10 – 2016

Luke 11:1-13

Marian Free

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

There is a story, possibly mythical, about three monks who had chosen a solitary life on an isolated island. One day the local bishop decided that it was time he paid them a visit. On arrival he asked them how they prayed. Their response was to inform him that every day at regular intervals, they recited, “Jesus, Lamb of God have mercy on us”. The bishop thought that that was good, but he also felt that their prayer life could be enhanced. To that end he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. In the evening, satisfied that he had made progress, the bishop got into his boat, ready to return to the mainland. The boat had barely pulled out from the shore when the bishop spotted one of the monks splashing clumsily towards him. “Bishop, bishop,” he called, “we can’t remember what comes after ‘your kingdom come’.” At that point the bishop realised that the monks had wisely chosen a prayer that suited them. He commended their discipline and recommended that they return to the prayer that had served them so well. Then he went on his way and the monks returned to their pattern of prayer.

In today’s gospel the disciples observe Jesus at prayer and ask him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. They probably know how to pray, but they know that it is usual for a teacher to pass on his particular knowledge to his disciples. Jesus prayed and he prayed often. Jesus’ response to the disciples was to teach them the “Lord’s Prayer” as it has become known. In these words, Jesus encapsulates all that prayer is and could be. The words acknowledge God’s extraordinary nature, our longing that the world as a whole would come under God’s governance, our utter dependence on God for all things, our need to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, our request for courage to do what is right and our belief that God will support us through times of difficulty. In other words, the Lord’s Prayer encapsulates all that we need to say in prayer.

No wonder this prayer so quickly became part of the liturgical life of the church. The Didache recommended that it be said three times a day (8:3) and our formal liturgies – the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer – gather up the prayers of the people with these words.

The importance of a regular pattern prayer was recognised long before Jesus taught the disciples. As early as the Psalms regular prayer is recommended. Psalm 119:64 suggests that we pray seven times a day including midnight (62) and the Book of Daniel recommends prayers three times daily (Dan 6:10).

Prayer is important (dare I say essential) – not because God demands it, but because our lives and our relationship with God are enhanced through prayer. Communicating with God on a regular basis is the only way of maintaining our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God not only enriches our understanding of God, but ensures that in times of trouble or distress we will be practiced at speaking with God, we will know what we can expect of God and we will be able to draw strength from our deep connection with God. Prayer strengthens our relationship with God and at the same time it reminds us of our utter dependence on God, that all that we have comes from God and that we are utterly dependent on God. It helps us to develop the humility that allows God to work in us and through us so that we might play our part in bringing peace and justice to the world.

A practice of regular prayer enables us to see ourselves as God sees us – to identify and recognise our weaknesses and our strengths, to become aware of any jealousy, bitterness or resentment in our lives (and with God’s help to deal with it.) In this way prayer not only deepens our relationship with God but also builds our understanding of ourselves and of our relationship with others.

Simply speaking, prayer is an acknowledgement of God’s constant presence in our lives and in the world. It is important to remember, as the story with which we began suggests, that our style of prayer must suit us and not be something that is imposed from outside. Prayer is not intended to be a burden but a gift and, as the story illustrates and it can be as complex or as simple, as lengthy or as short as we would like to make it. Short repeated prayers like the “Jesus prayer” of the monks are just as valid as lengthy intercessions. So we might find that repeating the “Jesus prayer” suits our temperament, or that making the sign of the cross when we wake or during the day is a sufficient reminder of God’s presence in our lives, or that a pattern of prayer just before we go to sleep might be more to our style. Our personality might suit the discipline of saying the Daily Office[1] or of setting aside time each day/each week for meditation. We might be someone who is good with words, or we might be more comfortable sitting in silence.

No one prayer or form of prayer is better than any other as long as we pray for there is no other way to keep open that channel of communication with God. Whatever and however we do it, the important thing, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is that we “just pray” – that we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives and allow our lives to be transformed as a result.[2]

[1] Most modern Prayer Books include prayers for each day of the week.

[2] The English Church has developed a website that encourages us to “just pray”: justpray.uk

 

Martha’s problem- too busy, or too unhappy?

July 16, 2016

Pentecost 9

Luke 10: 38-40

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who values and delights in each of us in our own way and desires that we are true to ourselves. Amen.

We all hate martyrs don’t we? By this I don’t mean that we hate those who are martyrs in the true sense of the word – those who have given their lives for their faith, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Oscar Romeros and so on. People such as they rightfully command our attention and our admiration. No I mean the martyrs who are martyrs of their own making. Those who demand that we notice how busy, how put upon, in short how “good” they are. I mean those who take on things that they would rather not and then whine and moan that no one helps them or that no one recognises how much they are doing/how much they have to do. Such people have no joy in the task in which they are engaged and very often suck the life out of those around them. The reasons for their taking on more than they really want to could be the result of any number of things. They might think that they will receive recognition and thanks, a sense of importance in the eyes of other for doing something no one else seems to want to do. Sadly, because they take no delight in what they are doing, the effect of their overwork is the opposite of that they had hoped for. Instead of being commended, they are seen as kill-joys at worst and attentions seekers at best.

The interpretation of the Mary/Martha narrative with which I grew up and one that has haunted more than a generation of happily busy women, suggests that because Jesus commends Mary and censures Martha, that he values contemplation more than work. How often have you heard someone (usually a woman) say rather guiltily, ‘I’m only a Martha’ as they uncomplainingly pour yet another cup of tea at a Parish function. This view has been very damaging to many women in the church who are left feeling that their contribution is somehow lacking because it is not spiritual enough. At the same time their contribution has been undervalued, because making jams for the church fete and ensuring that churches and halls are kept clean has not been seen as the real work of the church[1].

A better way to view the story is to see it as an illustration of need for balance in our lives, to understand that it teaches that our times of busyness will be more fruitful and less stressful if they are sustained by prayer, and that a healthy spiritual life is one in which time is spent with God informs and guides what we do, so that what we do is not banal and empty, but infused with the presence of God. Martha and Mary are opposites who demonstrates that action and contemplation are both necessary for a life lived in the presence of God.

A feminist view of this account identifies the fact that Luke effectively silences both women. Martha is censured for feeling burdened and Mary’s silence is commended. Neither woman is given a voice, which is interesting given that in John’s gospel both women play prominent roles in the community.

Then there is, to me, the most compelling interpretation. It is not that Martha is too busy or that Martha is not holy enough. Jesus problem is that she is not happy enough.

Jesus has apparently dropped in on the pair unexpectedly. Hospitality was an important cultural norm. The women would be expected to provide Jesus with food and shelter. That didn’t mean providing a feast, it simply meant sharing what they had. Why then is Martha so upset, what are the “many tasks” that are driving her to distraction? We can only guess that Martha is not so much focused on making Jesus at home, but on impressing him with her culinary and housekeeping skills.

Martha appears to be doing more than is required. The problem is not what she is doing, but that she is getting no pleasure from her endeavours. She has taken on too much and no one seems to have noticed or if they have, they don’t care! it appears that what Martha wants, is not just to ensure that Jesus is fed and comfortable, but for Jesus to appreciate her efforts, to commend what she is doing and to confirm what she believes – that it is she, not Mary, who is doing what is necessary.

Martha does not have the insight to recognise that both she and Mary have a choice as to how they exercise hospitality. Mary has chosen to listen to Jesus first and to worry about other details later. Martha has given other things priority and now that those things have overwhelmed her, she looking for someone to blame for her distress and is wanting to draw Mary into the maelstrom of her distress.

It is important to recognise that there is nothing wrong with being busy If no one did anything the world would grind to a stop. So the issue here is not that Martha is working rather than listening, but that what she does is driven by a sense of self-importance or a desire for recognition.

Jesus’ interaction with the two sisters is a reminder that there is not a tension between prayer and work or that one is superior to the other. Both are necessary and it is our task to find the balance that works best for us. Underlying the narrative is the reminder that our faith is intended to be a source of freedom, peace and joy. Faith is not, and was never intended to be a burden, a struggle or an imposition.

Martha’s unhappiness stemmed from a belief that she needed to earn Jesus’ recognition and regard. Mary’s better part is not so much that she prays rather than works, but that in contrast to Martha she knows without needing to be told, just how much she is loved and just how little she had to do (has to do) to warrant that love.

[1] This despite the fact that many Australian churches have been built on the sales at church fetes and many continue to rely on cake stalls for their survival.

 

Fusing our will to the will of God

May 7, 2016

Easter 7 – 2016

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

 

May we be one with Jesus, as Jesus and the Father are one and may our union with Christ result in our union with one another. Amen.

Taking two things and making them one has a number of advantages. The result of the combination can create a stronger, more durable or more flexible product. Natural fibres mixed with synthetics have all sorts of properties that the original did not have – longevity and stretch among other things. Carbon, added in various amounts to iron creates a stronger, harder metal (steel) that performs better under stress. Flour, butter and sugar can be mixed in a variety of ways to produce both savoury and sweet dishes that are vastly different from the ingredients that go to make them up. Given the correct circumstances, non-animate elements can be joined together to create something that is completely different, but which is often more useful and functional than the individual elements alone.

It is a different story with human beings. No matter how much a couple is in love, and no matter how well-adjusted the members of a family are, there is no magic formula that can turn a couple or a family into one person. True, some are better at being on the same page as others, but ultimately they remain separate beings, with distinct personalities. On a larger scale it becomes even more complicated to create agreement and uniformity. The bigger a group the harder it is for them all to think and act alike. As our political parties continually demonstrate even a shared ideology does not lead to uniformity of opinion or a common view on policy.

We hear in today’s gospel that before Jesus died, he prayed for his disciples – that they might be protected (in a world that will hate them); that they might be sanctified in the truth (in a world that is not); that they might be with him and see his glory and finally that: “they may all be one”.

The Jesus of John’s gospel experiences the world as a hostile place as we hear in the very first chapter:  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:10,11)[1]. Obviously, Jesus believes that the disciples will experience the same rejection and antagonism that he himself experienced. Just as Jesus did not belong to the world, so the disciples do not belong to the world. Given that the disciples are both in and not in the world, it is not surprising that Jesus prays that they be both protected from harm and equipped for the work that lies ahead of them. Nor is it surprising that Jesus prays that they might see his glory and be with him that his presence might give them hope in difficult circumstances.

But what does Jesus mean when he prays that the disciples “may all be one”?

In recent history, this verse (17:23) has been used in a number of ways to promote church unity – both in the ecumenical sense[2] and as a weapon to prevent dissension (for example with regard to the ordination of women).  Did Jesus expect that the disciples would somehow become indistinguishable from one another, or combined in some way to form something completely new, or did he have some other idea in mind?

I suspect that the answer is a little of all. Jesus hoped that the disciples – while remaining individuals – would be united in love, but I believe that the prayer goes further than that and shows us how that might look in practice. In fact, Jesus adds a rider to the prayer that helps us to understand how the disciples might achieve the oneness for which Jesus prays. He asks that: “the love with which you (God) have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

A consistent theme of the fourth gospel is that of Jesus’ unity with God. Jesus claims over and again that those who have seen him have seen the Father, that he is in the Father and the Father is in him, that he and the Father are one. In other words, from the opening verse “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”, the author of the fourth gospel is clear that there is ultimately no distinction between Jesus and God.

What is astonishing is this – that here in Jesus’ prayer and elsewhere, Jesus suggests that this extraordinarily intimate relationship is one that the disciples (we) can share. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so the disciples (we) can be one with Jesus and therefore with God.

Jesus is praying then that in his absence the disciples might be able to share the intimate relationship that he has with the Father, that the disciples might be sufficiently willing to allow themselves to become fused with God such that people no longer see them alone, but the presence of God in them. It is this, as much as any effort on the disciples part that will enable them to be as one. When their own needs and desires are fused with the will of God, there will be no place for dissension with one another, for the will of all will be the will of God and they will be one as Jesus and the Father are one.

Today some outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that the church is a body at war with itself. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples (ourselves) appears to be largely unanswered. It will continue to go unanswered until you and I and the church as a whole submit ourselves wholly to God and allow ourselves to be overtaken by and absorbed into the divine. Then and only then will we share the intimacy that Jesus shares with the Father, and then and only then will we truly be one.

 
[1] On the other hand, the world is the place that “God so loved” (3:16) and the world into which the disciples are sent (17:16).
[2] Today marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Feeding on Christ

August 15, 2015

Pentecost 12 – 2015

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who gives us life in abundance and desires that we share that life with the world. Amen. 

Most of you will have gathered by now that I experience a degree of frustration with regard to the focus on church growth and in particular the time spent in worrying why congregations are declining and the time and money spent on programmes designed to turn the decline around. My concern is that the navel-gazing of the past fifty years has achieved little and has caused us to become inward-looking rather than outward-focussed and that we are more anxious about the survival of the institution of the church than we are with the transmission of the gospel.

I am confident that God will survive with or without the church and will find new ways to make Godself known with or without our assistance. That said, thriving faith communities would ensure that for generations to come, that there will be a place or at least a group to whom people can come to hear the good news, to find spiritual refreshment and to be restored and made whole.

It was interesting therefore to attend the Arnott lecture two weeks ago and to be reminded by Bishop Stephen Cottrell that there are people in the wider community who are yearning for some spiritual connection, who have spiritual thirst that they are longing quench, a hunger they are desperate to satisfy and who are searching for answers in a world that can be isolating, confusing and even hostile.

Last week’s Clergy Conference focussed on Church Growth, but while its proponents did at times seem to be promoting growth for the sake of growth, they too expressed the belief that there are many non-church-goers who are seeking nourishment for their souls, an experience of life that is more satisfying than the material and superficial and a relationship with the utterly other.

The church as a community of faith is in an ideal position to satisfy this longing for meaning, search for depth and hunger for spiritual connection. So why is it that we are in decline? Why is it that those who are seeking turn to other faiths, explore other paths or simply give up the search? Is it because those who are looking for a connection with the sacred do not find it in the church? Is it because it is no longer evident that the church is the place in which spirituality is fed and nurtured? Is it because we have become so comfortable in our faith that we no longer make the effort to work on and to strengthen our relationship with God?

One of the speakers at the Clergy Conference challenged us to ask this question of ourselves and of our congregations: “Where are you with God?” “Where are you with God?” By this he means, “How is your relationship with God?” Are you conscious of the presence of God in your life? Do you nurture your relationship with God through regular prayer, reading God’s word or practicing some form of spiritual discipline? Is your spiritual life sufficiently full and rich that it spills over to enrich and enhance the lives of those around you? In other words are we feeding our own spiritual lives such that we have plenty with which to feed others?

In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that he is the bread of life and he challenges them to feed on him, to so take him into themselves, into their lives, that they become a part of him and they of him.

If we really want to turn the church around perhaps we should stop looking for external reasons for the decline in numbers and begin looking at ourselves and the way we practice of our faith. We will have to stop looking back to the golden era of our past, stop believing that the faith is somehow passed on by osmosis or hoping that the right programme, the right youth leader or the ideal priest will turn things around.

The health of the church as a whole is the responsibility of every member of the church. That means that each of us needs to ask ourselves what we are doing about our own spiritual health; to question whether we are really feeding on the bread of life, continually re-fuelling our faith, allowing our relationship with Jesus to be constantly re-energised and enlivened and remind ourselves on a regular basis not only of what we believe, but of the benefits of being in a relationship with the living God.

Are we day by day allowing ourselves to abide in Jesus and allowing Jesus to abide in us?

I believe that the church will grow because we are energised by our faith, because the joy we experience is palpable, because we demonstrate in our own lives God’s unconditional love and because our experience of Jesus as the bread of life fills our longing for meaning and inspires us to share that meaning with those in our community who hunger and thirst for something more.

As you come to the altar this morning, as you take into your very selves the life-giving presence of Jesus, allow yourselves to be changed and transformed by the bread of life, let the Spirit of God burn within you and the creative energy of God inspire you. May our lives overflow with the knowledge and love of God – the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – such that we cannot help but bring healing to those who are broken, provide direction to those who have lost their way and be a beacon of hope in a world that sometimes seems devoid of meaning.

We cannot go it alone

February 14, 2015

Transfiguration
Mark 9:2-9
Marian Free

In the name of God whose engagement with the world draws us into engagement with God. Amen.

Last week I was struck by the number of similarities between last week’s gospel and this week’s account of the Transfiguration. In both instances Jesus has been pressed in upon by people demanding his attention, seeking healing or simply desiring to be in his presence. After both occasions Jesus withdraws to a mountain to gather his strength and to reconnect with God. After the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus wakes early in the morning and goes to a “deserted place” by himself to pray. He gets little peace, because Peter and his companions seek him out. (The Greek is even stronger – it reads “hunted him”). “Everyone is seeking you”, they say. It seems that those who have experienced his ministry and his healing power do not want to let him go. They try to draw him back, to keep him to themselves. That is not possible. Jesus informs them that he doesn’t belong to them or even to their small part of the world. His role, as he understands it, is to spread his teaching to as broad a group of people as possible. His ability to heal, belongs not to a few, but to all the world. He had not come into the world to be a local miracle worker. His mission could not be restricted nor could his healing power be owned by just a few.

There are differences and similarities between this account and today’s account of the Transfiguration. Again, the crowds, recognising what Jesus can offer, have allowed him little respite. “They have been with me three days” – three days with no time to himself, no time to think! Jesus’ personal resources must have been stretched to the limit. He has fed five thousand people with seven loaves and some small fish, he has returned sight to the blind, argued with the Pharisees and had the emotionally draining experience of trying to share with the disciples what the future has in store for him. (A task made even more difficult by Peter’s refusal to understand.) As in the first chapter, Jesus’ response to the pressure is to take time apart, to go to a place where he is unlikely to be disturbed, a place in the wilderness where he can take stock and allow God to minister to him and to restore him to himself. On this occasion Jesus does not go alone. He takes with him his closest friends, those who will share the most intimate parts of his journey – Peter, James and John. In doing this, he exposes them to the nature of his relationship with God and gives them a glimpse into who he really is.

This moment is more dramatic than his quiet prayer in the wilderness. On this occasion his experience of the presence of God is not only tangible, it is transformative. Before the disciples’ eyes, Jesus is physically transfigured – his clothes become dazzling white. Even more amazing, the disciples witness Jesus speaking with those giants of the Israelties’ faith – Moses and Elijah. On this occasion too, Peter wants to hold on to the moment. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Peter and his companions want to keep Jesus to themselves. Now, on the mountain, Peter seeks to capture and contain the experience, to hold on to the moment, he does not want to let go of such a tangible, affirming encounter with the holy. “Let us make three tents” he says. Just as he did not want Jesus to leave his home town, so now he doesn’t want this amazing encounter to come to an end.

One can imagine that Jesus might have been tempted to stay, to take the easy way out, to abdicate his responsibilities, to avoid the demands of the crowds and to evade the eventual consequences of his mission. But the whole point of his being here, the purpose of the incarnation is that he share in the full human experience. So while he takes time apart to replenish his resources and while his intimacy with God is such that he like Peter might have wanted to rest in it forever, Jesus plunges back into the messiness of human existence – (to be greeted at the foot of the mountain, by yet another situation that demands his full d undivided attention, a situation, which Jesus informs us can only be dealt with because his life is sustained by his relationship with God – by prayer.)

In the wilderness and on the mountaintop, Jesus spends time with God. Here he allows God to fill him, here he ensures that he has the strength and resources that are required to meet the demands that will be made upon him, he he gives God the opportunity to strengthen him to face any of the difficulties that he might face in his life’s journey. Empowered by God he can face anything and do anything. It is God’s presence in and with him that gives Jesus the ability to share the good news of the Kingdom, to heal the sick and cast out demons.

If our lives are to be informed by and empowered by God, we too must find time to be with God, we must discover our own place apart, allow God to restore and heal us, give God room to work in and through us.

With Jesus, we must learn that our busyness and our engagement with the world must be fueled by the presence of God and that the presence of God in our lives will in turn send us back into the world to be a sign of God’s presence in the chaos and turmoil of what it means to be human. In the end, we cannot do it alone, but only in the power of God

Our prayer should inform our lives, our lives should inform our prayer.

February 7, 2015

Epiphany 5 – 2015
Mark 1:29-39
Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into relationship with Godself, but does not call us to withdraw from the world. Amen.

The 10th of December was the anniversary of the death of the great twentieth century contemplative Thomas Merton. Thomas’s story is well-rehearsed elsewhere (Try http://www.thefamouspeople.com.) In short, he was born in France, the son of artist parents. Sadly, his mother died when he was only six. Then began a life during which he lived in many different places with his grandparents in the United States and then in France with his father. He attended boarding school in both France and England. He was only sixteen when his father died. Already quite independent as a result of being left to his own devices, Merton took himself off to Europe on a walking holiday when he finished school. When in Rome, despite the fact that he considered himself to be an agnostic, Merton felt himself drawn to visit churches. At the same time he bought and read the Vulgate – the Latin New Testament. During this time in Rome, he had a mystical experience of his dead Father. This experience exposed the emptiness that he felt within and he says that for the first time in his life he felt really drawn to prayer.

It was while he was in Rome that Merton visited a Trappist monastery. Here he felt both anxiety and also a sense of belonging. It occurred to him that he would like to become a Trappist monk. Returning to the UK he entered Clare College where, by all accounts he lived a dissipated life, to the point that his guardian encouraged him to return to the United States and to his grandparents there. At Columbia University Merton enrolled in a B.A. in English Literature. This period of his life proved to be formative and set the direction for the rest of his life. He began to write, he became politicized and he discovered Roman Catholicism. An introduction to a Hindu monk whose God-centred life impressed him was also to have a lasting effect on his life providing him with a deep desire to understand other faith traditions. To Merton’s surprise, the monk, instead of encouraging Merton to become a Hindu, encouraged him to explore his own faith traditions.

In 1938 at the age of 23 Merton felt a call to the priesthood. As a consequence he was accepte into the Catholic Church and began exploring his vocation. His first point of call was the Franciscan order, who to his great disappointment, did not accept him into the novitiate. His fall back position was to take teaching job at the St Bonaventure University (a Catholic University that provided an opportunity for him to share in the life of the priests who taught there). The position also meant that he was able to go on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Here among the Cistercians he at last found a home and was able to pursue his vocation. He continued his writing and his interest in Eastern religions.

Even though the Cistercians are a silent order, Merton sought even more space to be apart from the world. He asked for, and was eventually granted, permission to live by himself for extended periods of time. Despite his need to be apart, Merton never abandoned his interest and political action in the real world and through his writing he continued to critique the injustices and the issues of his time – racism, nuclear disarmament, poverty – and to challenge his readers to work for change.

Thomas Merton came to mind when I was pondering the second vignette in today’s gospel. We are told that after Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, “the whole city was gathered around the door”. Jesus cured the sick and cast out demons. The next morning Jesus got up before sunrise
to find some time to be apart to reflect, to pray, to gather his strength before he returns to the demands of the people. The peace he seeks is short-lived. Simon and the other disciples pursue him, hunt for him and he continues with his work, allowing the demands of others to to absorb his time and attention.

Jesus knew that his strength and focus could only be maintained if his relationship with God. He knew that he could only respond to the needs of others if his own reserves were full. He understood too the need to be fully engaged with the world. It must have been tempting to take himself away from the demands of the crowd, to avoid their neediness and constant presence. How easy it would have been to make himself into a “holy person”, separate and alone in constant communication with God, to be available only to a few.

That is not the way of God. The whole point of the incarnation was to demonstrate God’s engagement with the world. In Jesus, God steps in “boots and all” into the messiness of human existence avoiding nothing and no one.

There are times when we might wish to withdraw, to avoid the crowds, to evade our responsibilities. There are times when it all seems too hard, when the problems of our life, or the state of the world threatens to overwhelm us. At such times we might take ourself apart. Jesus’ example reminds us that our times apart are only times to recover ourselves so that we have the strength once more to enter the fray. They are times when we draw on God’s strength so that it is in that strength not our own that we carry on. Both are important – withdrawal and engagement.

Our real life should inform our prayer life and our prayer life should inform our real life. Together they make us whole, together they will contribute to the wholeness of the world.

Safe in the hands of God

October 19, 2013

Pentecost 22

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who raises up the humble and puts down the mighty and who never abandons us to face our trials alone. Amen.

When the weather is good, Michael and I like to eat outside. Not only is it a pleasant environment, it also gives us a chance to observe the natural world. Among other creatures that inhabit our garden are some rather large, but harmless ants. Needless to say they are very much in evidence should anything fall from our table. On one particular day a rather large crumb was picked up by two of these ants. We watched as they moved it somewhat awkwardly across the cement amazed that they should think that the trouble was worth it. Because the ground slopes, the concrete has a large crack in it – too wide for the ants to cross. The two of them spent ages trying to manoeuvre the crumb down one side of the crack and up the other. If one ant dropped an end, the other clung tightly until the first had regained its hold – a process repeated over and over again. They did not seem to be discouraged no matter how often they had to repeat the process. It was hard to believe that one small crumb warranted such persistence – especially when there were others, more manageable, to be had.

Today’s gospel consists of two parables which, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with each other. A closer look however reveals that they are both about faith – a relationship of trust in God that persists in difficult circumstances and that is built on openness to God in prayer.

To understand the parables, we have to understand the context in which they are being told. The Pharisees have asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. Jesus’ response was to tell them that the coming of the Kingdom would not be observable by outward signs. Indeed, he says, the Kingdom is already among them. It is just that they have failed to recognise it. Jesus concedes the world is not yet perfect. It is full of uncertainty and suffering which will only come to an end when God’s rule is firmly established. Jesus warns his followers that they are to expect difficult times – and the letter to Timothy indicates that the believers do experience persecution and suffering. The disciples and the church live in this in-between time. They are aware of God’s rule in their own lives, but conscious of how far from the ideal of the Kingdom the world still is. They accept that in this still unperfected time that their life will not necessary be one of peace and ease.

The parables are told to encourage the disciples to remain faithful even in difficult times and to trust God to vindicate them against those who oppress them. Jesus is responding to the unasked question: How are the disciples to live, how are they to pray in this time after Jesus coming and before the realisation of God’s rule over all the world?

Even though it seems to be taking a long time for things to change, the disciples are to persist in prayer, confident that God will respond. They are not to abandon their faith at the first sign of difficulty, but to preserve against all odds. God is not like the judge who has to be worn down before he will act, and then only acts in his own self-interest. God’s loving goodness has the disciples’ interests at heart, and though the Kingdom seems long in coming, they are not to be discouraged even when times are tough. Jesus urges them to continue in prayer and to remain faithful, confident that even if God does not act as quickly as they would like, God will respond.

Having told this parable, Jesus tells another – about two people at prayer. The Pharisee, confident in his own goodness is keen, not so much to pray, but to tell God just how good he is in comparison to everyone else. Certainly, he is living in a way that is consistent with the law and he is observing the spiritual disciplines expected of him. However, he cannot see that even though he fasts twice a week, gives ten percent of his income away and does not earn his living by collecting taxes for the Romans, his very arrogance, self-centredness and lack of compassion place him as far from God as every other sinner. His belief in his own perfection has blinded him to his own faults and shortcomings. Worse than that perhaps, he has made himself judge, thus standing in God’s stead and doing God’s work for him! He might think that he believes in God, but in fact by his attitude he demonstrates that he doesn’t need God. He can be judge and jury all on his own.

The tax-collector on the other hand, is only too aware that by circumstance or design, he falls far short of the ideal of perfection. In fact, he is so aware of his failings, that he cannot hold his head up high, nor can he wait for God to pass judgement on himself but beats his breast as a form of self-punishment. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax-collector knows only too well how much he depends on God for anything like a good outcome at the judgement. He hopes against hope that God will overlook his present situation – his role as tax-collector – and that God will restore him to a relationship with God. The Pharisee does not need God to tell him how wonderful he is. The tax-collector, knows how much he needs God if he is ever to be declared wonderful.

This is the difference that Jesus wants us to observe, and why he commends the tax-collector who, to his contemporaries is a traitor and one of the worst kinds of sinners. What matters, Jesus implies, is our relationship with and dependence on God, our recognition that we fall far short of godliness and our belief that, despite our faults, God will vindicate us if only we trust in God and not ourselves. The widow’s persistence and faith in God teaches us to persevere and not to be discouraged. The tax-collector’s humility in prayer teaches us to trust in the mercy of God even though we are far from perfected.

Today, we continue to live with the tension that faced the first century church. Like them we might wonder why God who sent Jesus to save the world, continues to stand back, to hold his hand when a baby dies every three seconds, children starve in Syria because adults cannot agree on how to bring about peace, millions of people languish in refugee camps, Christians are persecuted and killed and people’s homes are destroyed by fires so ferocious that they are almost unimaginable. We do not and will not have the answer to this question, but Jesus tells us that we must not be discouraged, we must not give up. We must continue to pray, confident that God is not only listening, but that God has everything in hand and in God’s own time God will respond.

So we must continue to pray, and when we do, we must be honest with ourselves and with God. We must recognise that if the world is not perfect, it is in part because we are not perfect. When we ask God to change the world we must first ask God to change us.

We are to have faith in this in-between time when Jesus has come and the world is still not perfected. We are to keep the faith even in the most difficult and trying circumstances. We are to understand that faith does not consist of doing the right thing, but first and foremost consists of a relationship with God which is honest and transparent, which is open and responsive to the presence of God and willing to be transformed by that presence.

Persistence and humility are two characteristics, two attitudes that should inform and support us in a world that is far from saved. Persistence in prayer prevents despair when our circumstances seem impossible. Humility in prayer acknowledges our solidarity with (rather than our superiority over) the world around us. Both evidence a trust in God which places our future and that of the world firmly where they belong – safe in the hands of God.

Teach us to pray

July 27, 2013

Pentecost 10 – 2013

Luke 11:1-13

Marian Free 

In the name of God who taught us to pray. Amen.

 

“Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, when you pray say:

“Father, hallowed be your name,

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

There is a lovely story, probably apocryphal, about the Lord’s Prayer. The story concerns three hermits who had taken themselves off to a rather inhospitable island to spend time in prayer. One day the Bishop of the district thought that he should visit them. On arrival he asked them how they prayed. Their response was that they repeated the words: “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us.” The Bishop thought that that was good, but that he should teach them the Lord’s Prayer. Together they spent the remainder of the day rehearsing the Lord’s Prayer line by line. When at last the Bishop was sure that the three had memorized the prayer he got into his boat to make for home. He had gone only a few yards out to sea when he noticed the hermits wading through the ocean calling him to return. They had forgotten the prayer already. At that point the Bishop had to accept that the prayer with which they had become so familiar was sufficient for them. giving them his blessing he went on his way.

I imagine that for many of us, that story is a little hard to believe. For many of us the Lord’s Prayer serves as something like a mantra, words that we can repeat without thinking. It has been a comfortable easy prayer to say for as long as we can remember and because it is the prayer that Jesus taught us, it can be an excuse not to say any other prayers. Not that that is a problem if we grasp the depth and the challenge of what it is that we sometimes say so glibly.

Because I have preached on the prayer so often I thought that this Sunday I would seek some help from someone else. For those of you who will only read this on-line, I will try to give the gist of the discussion. I will call my discussion partner “May”

“Give us today our daily bread”

May began by saying how important “give us today our daily bread” was to her. For May it is a reminder of the thousands of people throughout the world who do not have enough to eat and therefore also a reminder of how fortunate and privileged we are in that we never have to think about where our next meal is coming from. More than that, May said that it challenged her to trust God – not to worry about what the future might hold. I picked up on the fact that May had understood the petition in two different ways – a challenge to care for our neighbour and a challenge to live in the present. Trusting God is not as easy as it seems. We are often consumed with events of the past or focussed on the future. Having confidence that God has our best interests at heart is liberating and allows us to pay attention to the present moment rather than to allow it to be clouded by what has gone and what is yet to come.

“Forgive us our sins”

Perhaps not surprisingly, May found this to be of great comfort. Knowing that her sins were forgiven was liberating and reassuring. However there is something about this line that is troubling to me: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. Does that mean that our being forgiven depends on our first extending forgiveness to others? But it says: “for we ourselves forgive”, May responded. Then she saw my point, the bible from which she was reading (the NRSV) does use those words, but the words which our prayer book uses are those that cause me to ponder. We were intrigued by the different translations and the different slant that put on the phrase but agreed that we needed to do some homework before we could take that part of the discussion any further.

“Save us from the time of trial”

That led us to the next phrase which caused May some disquiet. She prefers the former version: “Lead us not into temptation.” Her reason being that she does not have a dualist faith. May believes in one God who has no competition. For her that means that God (not an alternative power) is responsible for everything. I had to agree that it was a powerful argument and that there are times when we are either guilty of or in danger of giving the devil equal power to that of God, or of forgetting that on the cross Jesus defeated evil once for all. Compelling as May’s argument was I had the advantage of having recently read Hebrews chapter 12 which states explicitly that God does not lead us into temptation

Where to go from there? Neither of us accept dualism (two equal but competing powers) and both agree that people are sometimes tempted, or that we do the wrong thing. For me it comes back to creation and the fact that God gave humankind free choice. Free choice means that we sometimes (often), behave in ways that are not consistent with Godly behaviour. It could be argued that God’s gift of free choice, leads us into temptation which would support May’s view. However, the new translation: “Save us from the time of trial”, has another meaning, one which is also scriptural – that God will never allow us to be tested beyond what we are able to bear. Fortunately, for most of us in the West this phrase is never really tested but we trust that God will not let us to experience more pain, more grief or more hardship than we are able to cope with and that our trust and confidence in God will get us through the worst that life can throw at us.

That seemed like the end until I pointed out that perhaps the most powerful part of the prayer for me was the idea of God’s name being hallowed – the place at which the prayer begins. For me that line is a reminder of Moses and the burning bush, a challenge to take off my shoes in the presence of a power so awesome, so beyond my imagination that I cannot put a name to it.

Too often I think, we take God for granted, we become over familiar. We might not use God’s name in vain, but there are times when I at least am thoughtless and casual in the way I name or speak of God. I don’t always think about what I am invoking when I speak of or to God. The “hallowing of God’s name takes me back to the relationship between Moses and God, which, though familiar, was also overlaid with an awareness of the awesome power and presence of God which Moses only dared approach because he was commanded so to do. I am reminded too of the cautiousness of our forbears in faith, the Jews who refused to use God’s name but referred to God using an alternative expression which is best translated “Lord”.

 

This concept is best expressed for me in the words of an alternative “Lord’s Prayer” which can be found in the New Zealand Prayer book which seems an appropriate place at which to finish.

 

Eternal Spirit,

Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and all that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God in whom is heaven:

 

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the people’s of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom

sustain our hope and come on earth

 

With the bread that we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the power of the glory that is love. Amen.


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