Posts Tagged ‘risk’

Crazy, unexpected, risky vocations

December 17, 2016

Advent 4 – 2016

Matthew 1:18-25

Marian Free

In the name of God who sometimes asks us to do the improbable and the seemingly impossible. Amen.

Most of you will know of the Australian singer Jimmy Barnes. For many years, Barnes was known as much for his drug and alcohol-fueled excesses as he was for his music. It is easy to be critical and to lay the blame for his wild behavior on the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but when you know something of his story, you will recognize that he was running as fast as he could from his horrendous childhood and using alcohol and drugs to dull the memories and the pain.

Barnes has recently published an autobiography[1]. A promotional interview on the ABC gave a superficial insight to the horror and despair of Barnes’s childhood: the book reveals the real horror and the trauma of his early years. His father was a drinker. This meant that more often than not the family had no money for food, let alone clothes and other necessities and because his father drank, his parents constantly fought. When Jimmy was nine years old, his mother decided she had had enough. One morning she simply wasn’t there. Things went from bad to worse. The house fell into disrepair and the children ran wild – no food, no clothes, no bedding, no peace.

Two years later his mother returned with Reg and took the children to live with her.

Barnes’s story is compelling, but today I am more interested in Reg. Let me read to you the section that tells how Reg came into the family’s life.

“It seemed that the Child Welfare Agency had approached my mum and told her that we were going to be taken as wards of the state unless she could provide a safe home for us. So she must have been checking up on us.

Mum told us later that she had been sitting in a work friend’s house, crying about the situation when Reg Barnes walked in and asked: “What’s the trouble love?” He called everybody ‘love’. His mum and dad did the same.

She told him her story. I need to find mysel’ a husband and I need to find a home for me and ma six kids. And I need tae dae it quick or they’ll put the kids in a home.”

“Why did you leave them?”

“I had to run away because my husband was a bad drunk and now they’re being neglected by their father.”

“No worries love” he said, just like that. “ I’ll marry you.”

“Someone has to save those poor kids.”

He hadn’t met us at this point, but he didn’t give it another thought.”

Apparently, up until that point, Reg was going to be a priest, but he gave that up to take on a woman he barely knew and six children whom he had never met and who had been neglected and abandoned.

“No worries love, I’ll marry you.”

In my mind, this is the most extraordinary story – that a man would take on the care of another man’s children sight unseen. That he would provide a home and security simply to ensure that they were not taken into care. That he would marry their mother even though he didn’t know, let alone love her. Reg had no idea what trauma the children had suffered nor how easy or difficult parenting might be. He simply saw a need and stepped into the breach.

Joseph’s story is not too dissimilar – though according to Matthew – he had the help of an angel. All the same, he had to accept that the woman who was betrothed to him was expecting a child that was not his. The other “man” in this picture might have been God but Joseph would still have had to accept that his oldest son had not been fathered by him. He would have realised that the child would have none of his family characteristics – physical or otherwise – and he would have had no idea what to expect of the child. Who would know how a child of God would turn out! Presumably this was not how Joseph had imagined his life.

Joseph has already shown his compassion and tolerance by determining not to expose Mary to shame, so perhaps it was a small step to reverse his decision and “take” Mary to be his wife. We will never know. What we do know is that Joseph laid himself open to misunderstanding, shame and ridicule in order to respond to God’s call. He faced the uncertainty of not knowing what lay ahead and when the child was born he accepted the demands that Jesus’ true father placed on Jesus.

Vocations can take many forms and we are truly blessed if we feel that what we are doing with our lives is a God-given vocation. Whether it is cutting other people’s hair or delivering their children, building bridges or being an aid worker in Somalia, knowing that we are exactly where we are meant to be provides us with confidence and satisfaction. Responding to God’s call on our lives can sometimes mean being and doing the very best that we can with what God has given us. But, sometimes, randomly and completely out-of-the blue, God asks us to do crazy, unexpected things, things that might make us look foolish in the eyes of others, things that might involve taking risks, things that do not sit easily with the culture in which we find ourselves. This might involve confronting unjust governments or legal systems, taking the part of someone whom society has rejected, giving voice to the voiceless or giving a home to the homeless. It might mean risking censure and being misunderstood and it can be unsettling and disturbing, but if God is behind it, the results will be astounding.

Like Joseph, we can be sure that if God calls us to do something – however unusual or strange– that it will be for the furthering of God’s kingdom and that if, like Joseph we put to one side our fears, our questions and our doubts, God will ensure that God’s will is achieved through us, no matter how unlikely that might seem.

 

 

[1] Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy

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Ask not what God can do for you

June 25, 2016

Pentecost 6 – 2016

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us out of our comfort zone and calls us to follow wherever we are led. Amen.

It is probably true to say that we all respond differently to different invitations. For example we might not feel as well disposed to attend our partner’s work function as we are to participate in the wedding of our best friend. We might jump at the opportunity to meet someone whom we admire, but hesitate to respond to an invitation to a function hosted by someone who is less well-known or less interesting to us. If our diaries are fully booked up we might move heaven and earth to be at the death-bed of someone we love, or to babysit a treasured grandchild, but if the invitation does not have a sense of urgency or a pull on our heart-strings we will politely point out that we simply do not have the time to attend.

Invitation seems to be at the heart of this morning’s gospel – God’s invitation to us to follow wherever God might lead.

Luke’s gospel, like that of Mark and Matthew, is broadly speaking divided into three parts – Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem and Jesus’ time in Jerusalem. Of course the divisions are not hard and fast but they do enable us to recognise that the majority of Jesus’ life and ministry were spent in and around Galilee in the northern part of Palestine. It is also useful to be able to locate Jesus’ teaching in relation to the different phases in his ministry – when he is on home turf, when he is travelling to Jerusalem and of course when he is facing danger in Jerusalem[1].

As we have seen, the gospel writers arrange their material differently. Matthew includes a vast number of Jesus’ sayings in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some of these sayings can be found in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, but the author of Luke has used much of the same material in the account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. From Luke’s text we can deduce that the Lucan Jesus uses the journey to prepare the disciples for their own ministry. So while Jesus’ teaching is rarely exclusive, there are times in this section of the narrative where Luke specifically addresses the disciples. .

Although we begin today’s gospel reading at verse 51 of chapter 9, it is clear that we are entering the second phase in Jesus’ ministry – that of the journey to Jerusalem. This means that from now until Jesus reaches Jerusalem, the primary theme will be that of discipleship and underlying that will be the tension and the threat associated with what awaits Jesus in that city.

Even in translation it is clear from the language that for Jesus going to Jerusalem is an act of will – that the journey is something that he has to do rather than something that he wants to do. When the time came Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. The Greek word στηριζω (staritzo) means to set fast, or in this context  “to render mentally steadfast”.  Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem and so he points himself in that direction despite his fear and trepidation. In other words, putting aside his own needs and desires, he responds to the call of God.

Jesus’ response to God’s invitation stands in stark contrast with the examples that follow. The Samaritans for example, demonstrate their complete indifference or even hostility by refusing Jesus hospitality. A would-be follower is warned that discipleship will be difficult and challenging (we do not know how he responds). Two others – those whom Jesus invites to follow – are willing to be disciples, but they want to put their affairs in order first. Jesus’ response is harsh: “let the dead bury the dead” and “no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”. Those who are left behind are already dead, Jesus suggests, they can take responsibility for themselves. A person who is ploughing cannot possibly plough a straight line unless their focus is on what lies ahead.

Discipleship entails courage and commitment, a willingness to leave the past behind and to give oneself completely to the task at hand. Cowardice and delay simply will not do. Jesus’ own experience tells him that the only way to follow God is to do so wholeheartedly and without delay, not weighing up the costs or being held back by indecision or personal considerations. Following where God will lead does not necessarily mean an easy existence, it may mean leaving behind what one loves and going where one does not wish to go. It might entail discomfort and risk-taking or facing hardship and even hostility, but Jesus’ example demonstrates that the rewards by far outweigh the costs.

We make a mistake if we think that faith is only about what God can do for us. It is clear from the example of Jesus and the disciples that just as often faith is about what we can do for God.

God is always leading us on, drawing us out, inviting us to take risks and suggesting new directions for our lives. Today’s gospel asks us to consider how we respond to God’s invitation. Do we pay so little attention that we do not even notice that God is calling? Do we play it safe and stay in our own little comfort zone rather than allow God to stretch and challenge us? Is our response to God’s call lukewarm and half-hearted or does it depend on what else we have going on in our lives? Do we answer “yes” but keep half an eye on what else might be on offer?

Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. Following Jesus is not just a matter of doing the right thing. It entails responding to God’s call, stepping out of our comfort zones, taking up the challenge and facing every difficulty and hardship knowing that whatever the cost, it will all work out in the end.

 

[1] The chapter and verse numbering is helpful in enabling us to quickly find a verse or parable, however they do not necessarily reflect the natural breaks in the narrative. For example, in Luke the journey to Jerusalem begins at the end of chapter 9 rather than at the beginning of chapter 10.

Living Dangerously

February 28, 2015

Lent 2 – 2015

Mark 8:31-38

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who invites us to take risks, to live dangerously and to have fun. Amen.

Over the past week or so I have been reading an interesting book entitled: “Why Men Hate Church” by David Murrow. The book addresses the obvious – the fact that in most Christian denominations women outnumber men, often by a considerable number (something which is not entirely accounted for by the reality that, on the whole, men die at a younger age than women). Admittedly I have only had a cursory look at the book[1], but from what I have gleaned it is something of a “Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus” sort of thesis. Murrow argues that men and women think differently, act differently and want different things. He suggests that even though until recently men dominated the leadership of the church; for the last 1300 – 1400 years, the church has been increasing feminised. Murrow contends that around the year 700 the church lost its edge. At that time, he claims, the church gave up the emphasis on struggle and sacrifice and replaced it with a call to passivity and weakness. The image of Jesus changed from someone who was strong and courageous to someone who was meek and submissive. This in turn, he suggests, has led vast numbers of men and some women to feel at best uncomfortable and at worst unwelcome in many churches.

Assuming Murrow’s thesis to be true, we can of course document exceptions to the rule. As ill-conceived as they were, the crusades provided an opportunity for displays of courage and self-sacrifice, as no doubt did the two world wars. Throughout the ages, Saints such as Joan of Arc, missionaries such as Graham Staines and his sons Phillip and Timothy, clergy such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bishops such as Oscar Romero have been willing to take greats risks and lay down their lives for the faith.

By and large though, the institutional church has settled down, become a part of the surrounding landscape and played it safe. It could not be argued that we at St Augustine’s live dangerously or that we take risks that might cost us our place in the community, let alone cost us our lives. Murrow suggests that this is one of the reasons why some people do not come to church – they don’t want to be safe. They want to be dangerous. Risk-takers, fun-lovers and builders he claims, do not find enough in our liturgy or our community life that is challenging or that takes them to the edge and so they stay away.

I am not at all sure that I agree with Murrow’s overall argument (among other things he is writing from a North American perspective) but his book does provide some food for thought and leads to a number of questions. Have we created a kind of mono-culture which leaves some people feeling as though there is no place for them in the church? More importantly it forces us to ask – what are we really about? Have we forgotten that the gospel is all about living dangerously, not about building a secure and comfortable place in which we can now (and forever) feel at home? Worshipping in our beautiful churches, using a liturgy with roots that are ancient, gathering with our friends week by week, have we lost sight of the fact that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head and that the early disciples were called away from all that was familiar and secure to a life in which almost nothing was certain except for uncertainty and risk. In our efforts to be part of the world around us, do we allow injustices to go unchallenged? In other words, are we really living gospel lives?

I suspect that we all suffer from a form of collective amnesia and that for the most part we put our efforts into keeping the institution of the church alive, rather than worrying about the survival of the gospel. That said, that model has served us well for centuries. As long as the community around us was predominantly Christian, the church has served the purpose of building up the community of faith. Through worship and prayer we have supported one another through difficult times and been challenged to grow in faith and faithfulness. Our faith has enabled many of us to take risks of sorts, to trust God when we have had to make difficult decisions or to step out in faith when we had no idea what the future held for us.

Times have changed. We can no longer assume that members of our local community hold the faith or that those who do will join our worshipping community. This being the case, how can we ensure the continuity of the gospel? How, in this changing world can we share with others this amazing gift of faith?

One answer is this – if people don’t come to us, we must go to them. We must ask those who do believe in Jesus Christ why they don’t join us. Is it because our culture and practice make them feel unwelcome? For those who do not believe we must explore new ways of making conversation, new ways of letting them into our secret. If the Christian church is to survive, we must be bold and courageous. We must seek out builders, risk-takers and those who are prepared to live dangerously and we must allow them to make us feel uncomfortable for a change. We must step out of our comfort zones and do things differently for a change.

Whether we like it or not, we must change or die. Or, perhaps as today’s gospel puts it, we must die to all that we are and all that we have known so that God’s purpose can be worked out through us. Jesus didn’t call us to be safe – anything but. His call to follow is an invitation to live on the edge, to let go of the past and to begin each day as if it were our first. We are not invited to be comfortable or complacent, but to be adventurous and daring, open to change and to challenge. We are only here because twenty centuries ago there were those who were brave enough to step out of their comfort zones and leave everything behind in order to answer Jesus’ call. Their courage and willingness to take risks ensured that the gospel message, not only survived but spread throughout the world?

In the twenty-first century, do we have the courage to answer the call? What are we prepared to leave behind to enter the future God is preparing for us?

[1] If you are interested, I suggest you read it for yourselves. Murrow, David. Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Embracing the present

November 15, 2014

strong>Pentecost 23
Matthew 25:14-30
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us out of fear and timidity into a life that is full, fulfilling and rich. Amen.

During the week Gail Kelly resigned from her position as CEO of the Westpac Bank. This event not only made the newspapers, but was a matter of some discussion in the wider community. Kelly’s career has been of interest since she was appointed to the position in 2008. She broke the glass ceiling in the corporate world, but more than that, during her time with the bank, she achieved what many of her peers had not. That is, she successfully steered the bank through the global financial crisis and, in what was a critical time for many financial institutions, she significantly strengthened the bank’s position.

In August, at the launch of the St George Foundation, Kelly outlined seven lessons that she had learned along the way. I think that they are worth sharing. In brief, she said: “Choose to be positive; do what you love, love what you do; be bold, dig deep; right people on the bus, wrong people off; have a vision of what you’d like to achieve; practice generosity of spirit (desire to see others flourish) and live a full (whole) life.” Two things caught my attention. First of all, Kelly’s words were not those of a cut-throat, aggressive power-hungry person, but of a pragmatic, sensible, balanced person who has taken risks. Secondly, I was intrigued by Kelly’s advice to be bold and courageous. It is easy for us to imagine that successful people are confident and self-assured at all times. Kelly says that for all her life she has had a sense of: “Gosh, I’m not good enough, I’m not adequate, I’m not going to do this well. I might fail, what happens if I fail?”

A great many of us would relate to these feelings of self-doubt and of the anxiety that doing something new and challenging can cause. Kelly suggests that in such cases we should: “pause, dig deep, take our courage into our hands and actively say: ‘I’m going to back myself.'” Self doubt hasn’t prevented Kelly from taking risks. At such times she has actively said: “there are others out there who are going to support me, there are others out there who want me to win.”

As I reflected on these words, it seemed to me that they helped to make sense of today’s parable about the talents.

It has been usual to confuse the expression ‘talenta’ which refers to a sum of money, with a person’s ability. More often than not, the parable is interpreted as meaning that we have to make the best use of our talents (abilities/gifts). However, if we understand that a “talent” represents something like fifteen years wages of an ordinary worker, we begin to see the huge responsibility that has been given even to the slave who receives only one talent. It is a responsibility that the master expects will be taken seriously. That is he believes that the money will be put to good use.

According to the parable, the first two slaves invest the money. When the man returns, they are able to return to him double what he gave them. The third slave however does not have any confidence in himself. He is afraid of his master and doesn’t fully grasp the master’s confidence in him. (He might only have been given one talent compared to the other’s five and two), but even one talent (fifteen year’s wages) is indicative of the master’s confidence in his ability to manage a huge sum of money. The responsibility paralyses the third slave such that he is too afraid to do anything. He is so fearful of taking a risk that he doesn’t even give the money to the money-lenders which would ensure some form of return. Burying money was regarded as the best form of security against theft. What is more, according to the customs of the time, it was also a way of ensuring that the slave would not be held liable if the money was stolen. The slave presumably believes that he has done what is necessary to protect himself – the money will be safe until the master’s return and even if it is not, he cannot be held responsible for its disappearance.

Unfortunately, he has misread his master’s intention in entrusting him with the money. The master was expecting boldness not timidity. By giving the slave the money, he had demonstrated his trust and his belief in each of the slaves by only giving them only what he believed they could manage. Only one slave has not lived up to that trust. It is his failure to recognise and respond to that trust that earns him the master’s wrath.

The parable of the talents confronts those who, in the present are lazy or fearful who do not understand God’s confidence in them and who do not embrace life to the full, use every opportunity that is put before them and take risks. God does not want us to live in fear of the future, but to live in and be fully engaged in the present.

God has placed His trust in us. Do we honour that trust by being fearful or by stepping out in faith confident in God’s confidence in us?

Holding firm in the face of threat

November 16, 2013

Pentecost 25

Luke 21:5-19

Marian Free

Holy God, in good times and in bad, give us the confidence to believe that you have our welfare at heart. Amen.

I don’t know if your can imagine what it would be like to come to church unsure if you would make it home alive, or what it would be like if you could not work because you professed a faith in Jesus, or how it would feel if your family, feeling that your loyalty to them had weakened, felt no need to protect you against discrimination or worse – handed you over to those who might take your life. That it is what it is like for many, many Christians in the world today.

On July 29 this year, four bombs hit two churches in Kano, Nigeria. Forty five people were killed in those attacks. Many churches in the northern parts of that country are protected by high walls and other security measures, but that does not keep worshipers safe from those who would ram vehicles laden with explosive into the gates, or from the snipers who would target worshippers as they leave the compound. Christians in Nigeria have been the targets of attacks since at least 2009. On September 22 this year a suicide bomber struck an Anglican church in Peshawar in Pakistan just as the congregation were leaving the service. At least eighty four were killed, including many children, and up to 200 people were injured.

Coptic Christians have been targeted in Egypt since the establishment of military rule because of a belief that they supported the overthrow of the President. For months now there have been demonstrations in Indonesia against the appointment of a Christian to a Government position in a largely Muslim area of Jakarta. This, despite the fact that the Indonesian constitution protects religious freedom. In all these instances, and in many others, believers have lost not only their places of worship, but also their friends and family members. It must be terrible to live under such constant threat. In such situations believers require both faith and courage to persist in the practice of their faith.

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to know that attending church may be a fatal decision. What must it be like to return home from church knowing that your wife, husband or children had been killed simply because they chose to join you in worship on that day. From our position of relative acceptability and respectability, it is difficult to conceive what it must be like to feel under constant threat because of one’s faith. Yet not only is this a reality for today’s Christians in many parts of the world it was also (albeit to a lesser extent) the reality for the Christians whom the New Testament addresses.

In the first century, the systematic persecution of Christians had not yet begun but there were many ways in which believers could feel persecuted and isolated. Their profession of faith increasingly set them apart from members of the Jewish faith and prevented them from socializing with their Gentile neighbours. A belief in one God meant that believers could not participate in worship of the Emperor which put them at risk of being accused of treason and being unable to take part in the worship of Greek and Roman gods excluded them from the trade guilds and therefore prevented them from working at their chosen professions. Early believers could feel vulnerable, oppressed, isolated and at risk.

Today’s gospel addresses such a situation. Jesus, is looking forward to the future and suggests that it holds a number of possibilities – the destruction of the Temple, the possibility of wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues, and the likelihood that those who choose to follow Jesus may experience exclusion and persecution. He suspects that the unifying symbol of Judaism (the Temple) will fall, that life will continue to be filled with trauma, disaster and conflict and that those who choose to follow Jesus can expect a life of rejection, conflict and discrimination. Even those who might be expected to protect them (their families and friends) will abandon them to their fate, or, worse, actively hand them over to the authorities.

Jesus is aware of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem and he has the foresight to warn his followers that their association with him will lead to similar consequences – betrayal, being handed over to the authorities and being put to death. He does not promise that because of their faith their lives will be saved or that God will be able to protect them from harm – just the opposite. He knows that following him will almost certainly put the disciples on a trajectory of conflict with their families, their friends, with the synagogues and with the rulers. Just as he cannot escape his destiny, so his followers must accept that their own lives may be in jeopardy if they continue on this course.

Jesus offers no false hopes, he does not pretend that being his disciple will lead to acceptance and respect. He tells it how it is. Life will remain very much the same – there will be no end to warfare and natural disaster. Believing in him will not mean that those who believe will be spared the tragedies and trials of this life. In fact, it might even make it worse. The disciples are to be under no false illusions as to what the future might hold. That said, persecution will provide an opportunity to bear witness and Jesus himself will give them words to say that not even their opponents will be able to contradict. Furthermore, and most importantly, if they hold fast they will preserve their souls. Whatever may happen in this life, their eternal life is secure. If they hold fast to God, God will hold fast to them.

The key to understanding this passage then is perseverance and promise. Life does not always work out the way we had hoped or planned. Our faith does not provide a guarantee that we will be protected from the difficulties and calamities that are part and parcel of human existence. We are assured however, that God will not abandon us, and that if we keep faith with God we will inherit eternal life. Our faith may not provide protection from the exigencies of this life, but it does give us the fortitude to accept what life throws at us and the confidence that a better life awaits us.

It is this confidence that gives our fellow Christians the courage to go on when they do not know whether the next time they worship will be their last. Those who live in places where persecution is a current reality can find the resolve to continue knowing that Jesus did not promise a life of ease and comfort but rather predicted that violence and hatred were a reasonable expectation for those who followed him.

We will almost certainly not experience persecution as a result of our faith. Our church is unlikely to be bombed and we will not be beaten up in the street. We are among the blessed, we have homes, enough food to eat, peace and security. Our tragedies are of a different kind. Believing “that not a hair on our head will be lost” gives us the courage to hold fast when our child dies, when our home is swept away by flood or when we are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Our faith does not waver in the face of disaster because we know that in the final analysis nothing is more important than our relationship with God and our eternal salvation.

Thank goodness our faith is not put to the test in the way that it is for so many throughout the world. Thank goodness we can worship without fear and go about our business unimpeded. May God give us strength and courage to face the ups and downs of our lives and may we remember daily in our prayers those whose faith places them in constant danger and whose courage and steadfastness in the face of persecution is an inspiration and challenge to us all.


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