Posts Tagged ‘Trust’

Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free


In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.


Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free


In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.



Held in the hands of God?

December 10, 2016

Advent 3 – 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free


In the name of God who sees us through our darkest moments and brings us safely to the other side. Amen.

I am sure that many of you will have heard the expression “the dark night of the soul”. It originates from a poem written by John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic of the 16th century. John’s poem, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, describes the journey of the soul towards God. The dark nights (John does not add “of the soul”) refer to times of purification that are necessary on a journey that is a joyful experience of being guided by God. Over time the phrase lost its original meaning and was extended to the expression “the dark night of the soul”. This latter rather than referring to a necessary and joyful time of purification, came to refer to a time of spiritual dryness, a time when God’s presence was difficult if not possible to discern. Many deeply spiritual people experience this absence at some time or another during their lives. For example, Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun had moments of bleakness centred around doubts about the afterlife and we are told that for most of her life Mother Teresa experienced an emptiness and dryness in her spiritual life.

But, as I have said, John of the Cross, does not see dark nights as a negative, but as gifts from God, as opportunities for spiritual growth. His hope is that the person on a spiritual journey will take advantage of these times and rather than trying to fight them or to solve the problem will allow themselves to rest entirely in God. He writes, and I paraphrase[1]:

“DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense – God effects the change of which we have spoken, drawing forth the soul from the life of senses into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation. In this situation the soul no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God. As a result, those on this journey suffer great trials, not so much because of the emptiness, but because they fear being lost on the road and worry that all spiritual blessing is over for them. They feel that God has abandoned them because they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavour (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate on some spiritual practice that used to bring them blessing thinking that their efforts will make a difference and that by failing to do this they are doing nothing.”

He goes on to point out that at these times it is the doing nothing that is important. It is only when they stop striving to do things themselves that they will really be able to experience what God is doing for them. In fact, according to John of the Cross the suffering that a person might experience in this dark night results not from the darkness, but from their trying to escape it. It is their resistance to the gift that God is trying to give them that causes them to experience aridity instead of peace. Instead of trying to learn from the experience, such people struggle to find a way out and it is in the struggle (not in the darkness) that their suffering lies.

As I reread today’s gospel and the poignant account of John the Baptist’s anxieties and doubts, I wondered if, in a later age, his namesake John of the Cross might have identified the Baptist’s experience as a “dark night”. I have always wondered why, when John has so confidently announced Jesus as the one whose “sandals he is unworthy to untie”, should now need to ask if Jesus is the one who is to come. What happened to the John who could, without fear of reprisal call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “vipers”? How could someone who was so sure of his mission and purpose in life, now have doubts? Could it be true that someone who saw himself as a prophet be surprised that he was at odds with the authorities – so much so that he was now in prison?

It was as I pondered these questions that I began to consider the “dark night of the soul” and to ask if this might explain John’s sense of doubt and insecurity.

John seems utterly confident. He preached repentance because he believed that the kingdom of heaven had come near. His message was so powerful that even the Pharisees and Sadducees came out from Jerusalem to hear him. His vision and foresight was such that he identified Jesus as the one “whose sandals he is not worthy to carry”. More than that, he has had the privilege of baptising Jesus. It must have been heady stuff. He must have felt so close to God. He was the mouthpiece of God, he was announcing the coming of the anointed one.

Now however, John is in prison. He is utterly powerless, isolated from what is happening in the world. His has lost confidence in his mission. He is not sure that Jesus really is “the one who is to come”. From prison, John needs reassurance that he has not misunderstood. He needs to be reassured that Jesus is the one and that the kingdom he proclaimed is indeed in the process of becoming a reality.

In his “dark night” John is unable to rest in God, to trust that God has all things in hand. John needs to take action. He needs to be in control. He needs to fight against the darkness instead of letting the darkness hold and transform him. He can’t let go of his sense of mission and purpose and that means that he can’t trust God. He can’t be sure that he was right.

Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. But for me it answers the question as to why John is now filled with doubt. His spiritual journey has taken an unexpected turn and he is not ready. He presumably thought that he had reached a pinnacle in his relationship with God. His confidence in his mission has led to a confidence in himself and a failure to recognise that he still has much to learn. As he is unprepared for this change in direction and, filled with self-doubt, begins to doubt God.

It is this moment that signifies the difference between Jesus and John. John, despite his courage and his prophetic qualities is at this point in his life and spiritual journey unable to let go of his sense of purpose and to completely trust in God. Jesus on the other hand, allowed God to take him to the cross. He was not sure what lay ahead, but trusted that whatever it was, God would have everything in hand and that if he, Jesus, place his trust completely in God, he would come out the other side radically transformed by whatever it was God had in store for him.

Like life itself, our spiritual journeys do not always take the route that we expect. In the light of John’s story, the question that we have to ask ourselves over and over again is this: “Do we really trust God?” and if we do, will we have the confidence and courage to rest in God even when our lives take a direction that we did not expect and that seems to have brought us to a dead halt.

God has our lives in God’s hands. Are our lives in the hands of God?




[1] The original reads:

“DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense (wherein God effects the change of which we have spoken, drawing forth the soul from the life of sense into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation—wherein it no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God, as has been said), spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavour (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate their faculties with some degree of pleasure upon some object of meditation, thinking that, when they are not doing this and yet are conscious of making an effort, they are doing nothing. “




Looking backwards and forwards on Advent 1

November 26, 2016

Advent 1 – 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

 In the name of God who was and is and is to come, who has loved, does love and will love. Amen.

If you have ever had a medical procedure you will know that you will usually receive a list of instructions telling you what you must do to prepare. Some blood tests require you to fast before hand and others do not. A visit to an obstetrician will often require you to produce a urine sample. An appointment for a breast screen will come with instructions as to what to wear and the insistence that on that day you do not use talcum powder. A booking for surgery will come with pages of instructions – don’t drink alcohol, do not eat or drink for a specified period, do not bring valuables to the hospital with you but do bring your method of payment. And as for having a colonoscopy – let’s not even go there! (Those of us who have had the experience know what is involved and those of you yet to have the pleasure, will find out soon enough.)

The point is that there are many things in our life that require careful and thoughtful preparation – travel, meals, study, buying a house, getting married and so on. While some of these need more attention than others, they are all relatively easy in the sense that the guidelines are clear, others have done it before us and by and large we know what is expected or where to go for information or advice.

Preparing for eternity is a very different proposition from preparing for surgery, travel or a job interview. For a start, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it is like or to give us specific instructions as to exactly how to get in. No one, that is, except Jesus and he did not give a straight forward, easy to follow list of directions or instructions. Instead he left his followers to make sense of his teachings and to put them together in ways that made sense to them.

Preparing for eternity or for the return of Jesus, is the most important thing that we will ever do with our lives, but it is easy to put it off because it seems so remote, so far into the future that we imagine that we have plenty of time to put our lives in order. Alternatively, it is possible to become complacent, to believe that we have already done all that is necessary to enter into eternal life.

I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort into our preparation for eternity as we do for other aspects of our lives. Do we have a check list that we refer back to see how ready we are? Are we really clear as to what is required? Have we put some effort and research into the subject or do we think we already know all that there is to know?

Many of us were brought up with a Christian faith that taught us to be good, that entrance into heaven required sticking within some prescribed guidelines – most notably the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we have learned that Jesus does not want simple obedience to a set of rules. In life, he consistently chose those who did not conform to the societal view of what does or does not constitute “goodness”, he criticized those who placed weight on outward appearances, and he constantly revised the commandments in such a way as to make it clear that it was a person’s attitude to and relationship with God that was the key to eternal life. In other words, Jesus shifted the goal posts and cast us adrift from the safety of clear rules and codes of behavior and left us to find our own direction.

Jesus knew that it was possible to do the “right thing” but to do it for the wrong reasons. He exposed the hypocrisy and shallowness of those whose outward show of goodness hid a lack of love and compassion, a self-centredness and self-congratulatory attitude that blinded them to their own weakness and frailty. Jesus sought out those who knew their own sinfulness and who relied on God’s love rather than their own efforts.

If Jesus were to offer advice for living or guidelines for attaining eternity, he would probably encourage us to seek self-awareness rather than self-righteousness, to recognise our imperfection rather than aim for perfection and to understand that we are no better than the next person rather than striving to outdo them with our “goodness”.

In the final analysis, Jesus’ incarnation demonstrated that our salvation does not depend on anything that we do for ourselves, but on what God does for us. Salvation is entirely related to God’s love for us – love that entered into our existence, challenged our concepts of right and wrong, of power and weakness, of judgment and acceptance, love that endured the worst that we can throw at it, and which loves us still. Love, that on the cross overcame evil and death so that nothing might stand between ourselves and life eternal.

On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we are urged to both look backward to Jesus’ coming in love and forward to Jesus’ coming in judgement, to place our lives in the balance and to see how we measure up.

Are we living in such a way that demonstrates our awareness of God’s love and our inability to deserve that love? Have we thrown ourselves completely on God’s mercy or are we still holding something back – in other words do we completely and utterly trust in God’s unconditional love or does some part of us still believe that we have to do something to deserve it?

Christmas is a celebration of God’s incomprehensible yet unmistakable love for us. Advent is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether or not we trust that love and whether that love has translated into love for ourselves and love for others.

Perhaps, after all, we are better not to prepare, but instead to ensure that we fully accept all that God in Jesus has done for us, such that Jesus’ return will be time of rejoicing and not a time of fearfulness and that we will be truly ready to rest in God’s love for eternity.



Under the influence

October 22, 2016

Pentecost 23 – 2016

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Placing trust in God

July 2, 2016

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

                                                                                                                                                            Marian Free 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust and doubt

December 19, 2015

Advent 4 – 2015

Luke 3:39-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who inspires our trust. Amen.

I once saw a sign outside a church that read: “When all else fails pray!” At first it took me aback, then I realised that it was an accurate description of the relationship that some of us have with God. Maybe I am speaking just for myself, but I suspect that I am not the only person who tends to rely on my own resources first and remember God second. On a day-to-day basis, I think that I place my trust in God. I certainly believe that God directs my life and that I don’t have to be concerned about the future. However, I have to admit that there are times, especially in times of crisis, when my first reaction is to think of solutions rather than to commit the situation to prayer and trust that God will provide me with an answer.

How far do you trust God? Do rely too much on your own resources or do you have complete confidence in God? Or – do you like most of us – vacillate between complete and utter trust and an anxiety that if we don’t do it ourselves nothing will happen. Most of us have a deep trust that God is with us, but that doesn’t meant that there are not times when we act on our own.

In this tension between trust and doubt we are not alone. Abraham left everything to set out on a crazy journey to a place that he had never heard of, led by a God who was not the God of his fathers. Yet he did not trust God to fulfill the promise of a son and took matters into his own hands. The people of Israel followed Moses into the wilderness only to waver when they got to the Promised Land. Elijah, who put to shame the priests of Baal, had moments when he thought that God had abandoned him. John the Baptist who, we are told, saw the Spirit descend on Jesus, still needed to ask Jesus if he was the one to come. The disciples, who at first so readily followed Jesus, had times of doubt – most visibly demonstrated by their absence at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and their lack of direction after his death.

Few of us it seems are able to completely let go and let God, few of us are able to surrender ourselves entirely into God’s care. At some points in our lives we find ourselves wanting to take control. We pray: “Your will be done” and then exercise our own will.

Part of the eternal struggle is our unwillingness to trust God and our determination to go our own way. We wonder why the world is as it is, yet fail to see that time and again, we take over instead of allowing God to take charge of world affairs. The story of Eden is played out every day as human being compete with God for control as our desire for independence leads to decisions that have disastrous consequences – for ourselves and for others. When Abraham and Sarah took things into their own hands, it had disastrous consequences for themselves and for Hagar and Ishmael. When the Israelites were too afraid to trust God to lead them into the Promised Land, they sentenced themselves to forty more years in the wilderness. When Peter didn’t accept that Jesus had to suffer, he was accused of being Satan. When we take things into our own hands, it can lead to disastrous consequences. When we act on our own behalf we interfere with and subvert God’s plans for us, we delay fulfillment of God’s promise and damage our relationship with God and very often with those around us. When we fail to place our trust completely in God, we prevent God from directing our lives in ways that lead to contentment and peace, for ourselves and for the world.

Trust exists when one person is willing to rely on another to the extent that they abandon control over the actions performed by the other and thereby risk a certain amount of uncertainty with regard to the outcome[1]. Trusting in God means handing over control and accepting that even though things don’t go the way we hope, God will be with us in the process and God will see us through to the end.

In Mary we have one example of trust outweighing doubt. Mary was deeply disturbed, agitated even by the angel’s announcement to her and her response was to challenge and to question how such a thing might be possible. Yet despite her fear and anxiety, Mary was able to stifle her incredulity and to accept not only that she would have a child, but that somehow in her conservative, closed society that God would find a way to protect both herself and her child.

Mary’s trust was not without cost. Almost from the beginning she had to let go of her promised son. Jesus caused anxiety by staying behind in Jerusalem to dialogue with the priests. On another occasion, he refused to see her claiming that those who believed were his mother, his sisters and his brothers, and all the time in the back of her mind is Simeon’s prophecy that: “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Finally, Mary has to accept and endure Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion.

Like us, Mary could not read God’s mind. When she said: “yes” to God, she did not know where it would lead her. She did not know that Joseph would still marry her, she did not realise that parenting her child would be painful and difficult, she could not have imagined that God would allow her son to suffer a slow and agonizing death and she certainly could not have imagined Jesus’ resurrection and the movement that grew up following his death and resurrection.

Like Mary, we cannot read God’s mind. We do not know what God has in store for us. We will, like her, have moments of uncertainty and doubt. But through it all we can be sure of one thing, that if only we hold fast to God’s promise, if only we have the courage to surrender ourselves entirely to God, not only will our lives work out for the better, but our very surrender to God will contribute to the salvation of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom.

[1] A paraphrase from Wikipedia.

Lovers or Vipers?

December 12, 2015

Advent 3 – 2015

Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into a relationship that is honest, mature and above all, life-giving.  Amen.

Relationships – with family, with friends and with lovers -can be complicated. They require a delicate balance between giving each other enough space and taking each other for granted. Healthy relationships rely on mutual trust and respect, a recognition of difference and a willingness to encourage each other to grow. All relationships require a certain amount of effort, of consideration, of good communication.

Perhaps the most difficult relationship to manage effectively is that of marriage. Marriage is the relationship in which we place the highest expectations, in which two people are thrown together for the greatest period of time and in which we can be confronted with extraordinary stresses and strains. Those who enter into matrimony do so with great anticipation. They are so full of love that they believe that nothing will weaken the bonds between them. In most cases each partner is sufficiently confident in their affection to promise that their commitment to each other will weather all kinds of changes in circumstance including sickness and health, wealth and poverty. Sadly, for a great many people, this does not prove to be true.  Statistics tell us that in 2014 alone, 46,498 divorces were granted in Australia and in America almost 50% of marriages end in divorce.

There are many reasons why relationships do not last. Surprisingly, according to Dr Mark Dombeck, a primary cause of marriage break-up is familiarity. He suggests that over time passion diminishes and at the same time couples become more used to each other. If this continues without some attempt to address the issue, couples can find themselves drifting apart and taking each other for granted. Situations such as this can lead to resentment or to one or both partners being tempted by the attentions of others and falling into an affair. Longevity in marriage cannot simply be taken for granted.

At the other extreme are partnerships in which one or the other is unable to truly believe that they are loved. They simply cannot take the love of the other as a given and as a result either smother their partner with attention or demand evidence that they are loved and valued. Unfortunately, nothing can satisfy their need and their unrelenting attention or their constant need for reassurance may wear away the patience of their partner who may seek solace in being with someone who is more secure and less demanding.

What is required of a good relationship is holding the tension between being over-confident and lacking in confidence such that there is mutual trust and a mutual commitment to keep the relationship alive.

When we think about relationships – what makes them strong and what causes them to break apart – it is not often that our relationship with God is included in the mix. This is unfortunate, because the Bible in its entirety deals with our relationship with God. The Old Testament in particular describes God’s reaching out to us and God’s desire for a relationship that is honest and whole, mature and responsible, loving and confident.  At the same time, the Old Testament describes God’s frustration and anger that humanity consistently goes its own way either taking God and God’s gifts for granted, or its failure to trust in God’s love and believe that God will be true to God’s promises.

Into this mix comes John the Baptist urging God’s people to rethink and renew their relationship with God, to stop taking God for granted and to stop selfishly going their own way.

As Steve Godfrey says: “John must have missed the Seeker Sensitive Message”.[1] Instead of commending those who have come out to listen to him and be baptised, he attacks them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

What John is really saying is that the restoration of relationship requires more than just outward show. John can see what we cannot – that those who have come to him, still think that being a child of Abraham is all that it takes to win salvation. They are reliant on their heritage and do not understand that their relationship with God requires some effort, some commitment on their part. For John, it is not enough that the crowds have come to the wilderness seeking baptism. They must intend to change their lives. They must demonstrate their love for and gratitude towards God, they must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” they must stop taking God and their relationship with God for granted.

At the same time John, is anxious not to frighten the crowds. He cautions that a healthy relationship must maintain the balance between doing enough and doing either too little or too much. When asked: “What shall we do?” his response is measured. He suggests that there is no need to go over the top, no need for them to be so lacking in confidence that they feel a need to earn God’s love. They don’t need to work themselves into a frenzy or to worry themselves sick about doing enough to please God. Maintaining a healthy relationship he suggests is a simple as not taking advantage of others, not practicing extortion or blackmail and not holding on to more than one needs but being content with what one has.

John the Baptist reminds us that our relationship with God cannot be taken for granted, it requires openness and honesty, trust and respect, and above all a constant re-examination to see whether on the one hand we are doing all that we can to keep the passion alive and to avoid the over-familiarity that would allow us to take God (and God’s love) for granted and on the other hand that we ensure that remain sufficiently confident in God’s love for us that we do not fall into the error of failing to trust God and that we are able to resist the temptation to over-compensate by doing those things that we mistakenly believe will make God love us.

Our relationship with God is the most important relationship that we have and yet for many of us, it is the one into which we put the least effort. Perhaps this Advent is the time to reconsider how much we take God for granted and to ask ourselves would John the Baptist include us among the brood of vipers?

[1] “Brood of Vipers”

Gospel Truth?

May 23, 2015

Pentecost – 2015

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who has entrusted us with God’s very word. Amen.

Occasionally I watch an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s: “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. If you are unfamiliar with the programme, Miss Fisher is apparently an independently wealthy woman turned private detective. Phryne (yes, that is her name) has a personal assistant named Dotty. Dotty, under Phryne’s tutelage, assists her employer in the art of detection. Both women are unusually independent and intrepid for their time and place and both take risks that even today some of us would consider foolish. One of the on-going sub-plots is a growing affection between Dotty and a junior Police Officer, Hugh. Like most men, then and now, Hugh is protective of Dotty and would prefer that she keep herself out of danger.

When I caught up with the show last week I discovered that Dotty and Hugh are engaged. Dotty is a practicing Roman Catholic so Hugh needs to adopt Catholicism before they can be married in the Catholic Church. At first, Hugh is hesitant, but his enthusiasm grows when he discovers that a Catholic wife must obey her husband. (Remember it is the 1920’s!) Having clarified with the priest that he has understood this aspect of the faith correctly, Hugh becomes much more engaged in the process. An obedient wife, he thinks, will have to take his concerns and his cautions seriously, an obedient Dotty will stop taking risks and stop engaging in amateur sleuthing.

Unfortunately for Hugh, Dotty is not to be so easily restrained. In a private conversation with the priest, she happens to mention that Protestantism has a lot to offer – implying that if the priest insists on her obedience, she will leave his congregation for another. Poor Hugh is completely nonplussed when, at their next meeting, the priest points out that of course, times have changed, and that in the modern world one needn’t take the obedience clause absolutely literally!

I don’t have to tell you that in the Anglican tradition many things that were once held to be sacrosanct have been softened or even abandoned. It is almost impossible to believe that only fifty years ago people who were divorced could not be remarried in an Anglican church, children of parents who were unmarried were refused baptism and women were not admitted to holy orders. The debates that accompanied these changes were often fierce and uncompromising because those who opposed change found support for their position in the Bible and were unable to see things any other way.

It is tempting to think that there is such a thing as “gospel truth” but the reality is vastly different. What was “true” four thousand years ago for a nomadic Middle Eastern tribe cannot always be applied in a digital, technological twenty first century world. No one today would take all of the Old Testament literally. Medical science has come to the conclusion that circumcision can be detrimental rather than beneficial. The development of refrigeration means that the health risks of eating shellfish have been significantly reduced and I think that I am safe in saying that none of us believes that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death.

Even Jesus did not seem to think that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were immutable. Where the Old Testament counselled: “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” Jesus taught “love your enemy”. Where teh Old Testament demanded “an eye for an eye”, Jesus said: “Do not resist an evildoer”. Where the Old Testament allowed divorce and remarriage Jesus claimed this to be adultery[1]. Just as Jesus did not feel utterly bound by the Old Testament, later New Testament writers did not feel obliged to follow absolutely the teaching of earlier writers. Colossians and Ephesians, then the Pastoral letters seriously altered Jesus’ and Paul’s inclusive view of the role of women. And over time societal values change. Both Jesus and Paul took slavery for granted, something that we find abhorrent today.

It is impossible (when human writers are concerned) to be completely dispassionate and not to allow one’s own views to permeate what is written. It is equally impossible to imagine that someone writing four or even two thousand years ago could envisage and therefore write comprehensively for a situation so far removed from their times as ours. Our scriptures – Old and New – have a great deal to say about love, forgiveness and compassion and about the care for the weak and vulnerable, but they have nothing to say about climate change, genetic modification or IVF. On many of the issues of our time, we are left to our own devices. Rightly or wrongly God expects us to work through the ethical issues of such things as stem cell research and to come up with answers that are right and just. Rightly or wrongly God has given us responsibility to determine how far we should take genetic engineering and other medical advances.

Because nothing stays the same and few things are true for all time, God has given us minds to use and hearts to feel. Far more importantly God has blessed us with the Holy Spirit. Three years were not nearly enough for Jesus to prepare the disciples and thus the church for every possible eventuality. He does not leave them/us unresourced but promises to send the Spirit who then, as now will guide them/us in all truth.

God who sent Jesus, Jesus the sent one, and the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent empower us (the church) to think and act as God the Trinity would act. It is an awesome responsibility and one that requires of us a union with God – Father, Son and Spirit – such that their mind is our mind and that decisions that we make are in accord with decisions that they would have us make. In a complex and ever-changing environment, God has entrusted us not only with God’s word, but also with the power and the resources to interpret that word across time and space.

History has shown that time and again we have abused that trust, yet God has not withdrawn it. In our time and place let us demonstrate that we are worthy of God’s confidence and whatever the cost, let us give ourselves entirely to God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit so that all our decisions are wise, compassionate and just and consistent with God’s desires for us and for the world.

[1] Albeit to protect women from arbitrary abandonment.

Embracing the present

November 15, 2014

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?

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