Happy Songs for Sad Times – Christmas Day, 2017.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home and his own people received him not.” — John 1:10-11
One of the joys of ministry this year has been the Chant Group that our newly-wed music director set up over a year ago. We learnt some great music, and being such ancient music, it usually has quite a lot of history to go with it. One of the hymns we learn was the Veni Creator Spiritus, an ancient hymn from 9th C. In our group repertoire, that’s almost yesterday.
But it was also used in a very famous moment of history in Paris, that most elegant city. During the Revolutionary Reign of Terror from July 1793 to July 1794 religious and royalists were rounded up for death. One group arrested were sixteen nuns of the Compiegne Carmelite convent, situated fifty miles north east of Paris.
As they were approaching the place of execution on the Place de la Revolution, now known as the Place de la Concord, the nuns could be heard over the snarling of the mob, especially the sounds of the “September Mothers,” a gang of screeching women stirred up the crowd; the nuns could be heard singing the Salve, Regina and the Veni Creator Spiritus, and the Regina Coeli Laetare: hymns to the Virgin and to the Holy Spirit. Veni Creator Spiritus was also the hymn that was sung at the time religious took their vows, and it was fitting as they had vowed to be faithful to those vows even to death. They continued to sing from the scaffold itself, and every time the guillotine fell the sound of song became fainter, until there was only one voice singing, which stopped abruptly with the thump of the blade; but in that moment of silence the Veni Creator Spiritus began again, pure and clear from the very midst of the September Mothers, a little voice, strange and unnerving. Then the mothers found Blance de la Force, and trampled her to death.
“He came to his own home and his own people received him not.”
This story is told in Francis Poulenc’s opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a novel by the French writer Georges Bernanos, based in turn on a short German novel by Gertrud von Le Fort, published in 1931, on the eve of the Hitler’s reign of terror, and called, The Song at the Scaffold.
Why do I give you all this literary and musical history? It’s a lot of fun, and look it up on YouTube one day. Also, it reminds us, at Christmas of the power of weakness.
Blanche de la Force is a noblewoman who joined the convent as a girl. She found that she could not live the demanding life of the Carmelite order and left the convent in some disgrace and more self-disgust. The cause of this failure was her overwhelming fear. She clearly had mental problems that we currently would call paranoia, bi-polar disorder, or something else, but she believed that she had been chosen to share the fear of Jesus, which he suffered because he bore the dark horror of all human sin. Hers was an acute case of sharing the sufferings of Christ.
“But to all who received him he gave power to become the children of God.”
Blanche received him at the most difficult level of his being and became his child, and in the end her fear bore witness to her faithfulness.
So, let me at last deliver the Christmas message. Our access to God is proportionate to our vulnerability. We must be open to God and to others, and that means being willing to suffer with or for others, to be dependent on others and therefore to be vulnerable to them. Yes, vulnerable even to their fears. Only in vulnerability to others will we become strong in ourselves, because it is the other who gives structure to my one. The phenomenon of one alone is less than one, while the phenomenon of one vulnerable to the other becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and it turns fear into fortitude.
Blanche’s name de la Force means “from strength,” which in the light of her behaviour of abject fear seems to be a cruel irony, until we discover that she had more fortitude than most, being able to inhabit the agony of Christ and to witness in a way that exposed the pathetic weakness of the power of the guillotine. She showed the force of vulnerability, the power of openness and risk, and the true meaning of that much-misused word “love.”
God took the risk of love when he laid himself in our human arms as a defenceless baby. Many of us hand him back, or refuse to take the baby in the first place, but those who do take him become the children of God. They accept the Son of God become the doers of love, accept responsibility for the other in openness and vulnerability, and thus become the strong few by whose fortitude in the face of love’s risk and the pain of rejection, help us fear-ridden fortresses survive, not fully human to be sure, but not utterly bereft of love either.
Dear friends, as usual we have not done more than scratch the surface of the Christmas truth, but rejoice nevertheless, because love is making yet another appeal and another offer; take me in your arms and care for me, and you will discover love, which is simply the description of how much we need each other, just to be, who we are. We cannot carry the key to our own identity in our selves; someone else has to carry it. Ultimately this baby carries it, so take him.
“He was in the world and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” John 1:10, 14.).
Based party on a sermon by Robert Hamerton-Kelly.
The Christmas Story – Christmas Midnight, 24th December, 2017.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The Gospel according to Luke starts the account of Jesus’s birth with those words. Saint Luke is painting his story about Jesus by making contrasts.
Let’s think about Augustus. He is the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in that world. So powerful that one of his titles is “Son of God.” Acting as the Son of God, Augustus declared that his whole realm should be counted, measured, an act of control and power coming out from Rome. And it causes Joseph, poor old Joseph, his little subject, to go to Bethlehem, which was nowhere. You have this juxtaposition of all this Roman power and these two, simple people who go to this out-of-the-way place, and there the saviour of the world is born, and born into a lowly situation: “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” This is the gospel in miniature. This is why we are here tonight. There’s three things here about the birth that tell us everything about the gospel:
(1) There’s no room in the inn. It’s in the nature of Our Lord, the Messiah, that he is always the one left out. He’s the stone the builders rejected. That there’s no room in the inn is not incidental to the story; this is what the Messiah, Our Lord Jesus is. There’s no room in Rome, so go to Israel. There’s no room in Israel, so go to Nazareth. There’s no room in Nazareth, so go to Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go out to the shed where the animals are. Out, out, out, out…. Our Lord is the one left out. The real truth breaks in on you when you recognise the stone the builders rejected that becomes the cornerstone. Our Lord continually lives on the outer, and we find him most easily when we explore those reasons, in grief, or pain, or poverty.
(2) Who first gets wind of this? The shepherds. We have to shake free of those nice Christmas cards scenes. Shepherds in the first century represented something like bikers, socially. They were the unwashed, unscrupulous. People locked their doors when they came into town. They had the social mark of gypsies, with a very low social status. Luke always turns the social order on its head: Luke is always interested in the women, the outcast. And so the angel appears to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”
(3) Shepherds can find the child by two signs: swaddling clothes and a manger. Think about those swaddling clothes: culture. They bind and hold a new born baby: I saw a picture just this week of a new born baby wrapped up so tightly that you could not see any thing but a little pink head. The bands of cloth were used to shape the child physically, a way of physically forming the child. When we say that Jesus takes on human form, this story shows us that it includes being enculturated. Culture shapes us spiritually. Jesus, too, was a product of culture and not just nature. It is not like today in which we apologise for culture. Mary wouldn’t look over to Joseph and say, “Well, maybe we should let him decide for himself. Let’s not cram anything down his throat.” We think that somehow the blank slate is preferable. Jesus himself is swaddled; he’s enculturated. He’s a baby of that time and place.
Then that manger, that feeding trough, a place where the animals come to eat. At the end of the gospel the disciples of Emmaus find Jesus in the breaking of bread, at an eating place. Where do you find him? These shepherds will also find Jesus in an eating place. Easting is such a human, such a necessity of life. Jesus will always be here for us, and relevelled in joining us for the most basic human things such as food.
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I always like how she pondered them in her heart, not head. The heart is the base of emotion. The head is that of intellect. The Gospels are not superstition, nor are they dry logic. With Our Lord, you always need to ponder him in your heart. In the end, there is no dry logical answer. Nor is they just pure emotion. Belief in Our Lord has to be a continual pondering in our hearts. We sometimes assume that there’s an end to pondering, a point at which you have things figured out. With Our Lord, there is no conclusion to the pondering. Pondering is a way of life that is synonymous with faith. That’s what the Good News is all about. Pondering, pondering and pondering and finally finding out, that behind it all is just the love of God who wants to come to us. Comes to us by being a child, comes to us by being vulnerable, comes to us tonight, if only we are humble enough to let the humble child into out lives.
Humility – Advent 3, 17 December, 2017.
It’s Rose Sunday today. That’s why these magnificent vestments are being worn, in this lovely shade of pink. That’s why there are roses embroidered all over them as well, in reference to this day. We only get these colours out twice a year, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which we call Mothering of Laetare Sunday, and today, the third Sunday of Advent, sometimes called Guadete Sunday. The Latin names are just the first words in Latin of the entrance antiphon that is sung when I come in, which means Rejoice.
Why do we have it? Well, is our holiday break in Advent, when we are meant to lighten the mood, away from the sombre themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. Its origins of way, way back to before Christ, to the habits of the ancient Roman Republic. This time of the year there is winter, when there was not field work, and in Rome this was the time that the elections were held for all the public offices, like consuls and tribunes, as this was the time that an agricultural society could take off and electioneer. So, when the church arrived in Rome it adapted to the custom of the early Roman Empire, by that stage, which still had elections at that time. In the early church the members of the congregations elected the clergy: and that term meant then not just priests and deacons, but also the lesser offices of lectors and doorkeepers, there were seven in total. So it was done at this time, before the midwinter feast, which became for us Christmas. Elections should not be done in a sombre mood, so Mother Church lightened the mood for the day, so off with the purple and in with the pink rose to show the change of pace. Hence the antiphon, rejoice that is sung at the start of high mass.
But back to the readings. Today we tackle John the Baptist. If you ever go into an Orthodox church you will see a screen separating the nave from the chancel, usually it’s covered with icons, and as a result is called the iconostasis there is always one of John the Baptist there at the right of Jesus. In the Orthodox rubrics, he is always placed there because he was the prodromos, the one who pointed the way to the Messiah. “I am not the Messiah,” John said. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” And then John went even farther in saying of the one for whom he prepared people, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
There is something to be said about knowing your place. In politics or in business, underlings, even those with distinguished titles, sometimes forget their job description and say things or cut deals which only their superiors are allowed to do. It’s fun watching the underlings of President Trump playing this game saying in a comment something which seems to say what the U.S. President has not yet said, or worse, might not want to say. John the Baptist did not have this problem. According to tradition, he was a first cousin of Jesus, yet there were no problems with jealousy or confusion of role. As a forerunner, he challenged people to think about their moral failures so that when Our Lord appeared on the scene they could appreciate his message of forgiveness and love. Because John understood his role, the need for Jesus was advanced.
Humility gives more than it asks
John’s role in today Gospel is therefore worth our consideration. John so depreciated his status that historically he seemed to disappear from the stage once Jesus arrived. That’s how John saw his role as forerunner or herald, but some who had come to appreciate his charismatic personality may have thought otherwise. Groups of John’s followers are documented in a variety of early Christian settings.
Not only was that not John’s stated intent, however, but there is much to be said for that quality in humility that gives more than it seeks. John describes his humility in servant-like terms. He isn’t worthy to untie the thong of his master’s sandal. The sandal, usually a flat, undyed piece of leather, was in constant contact with the dirt and it was the one spot where touch could show the unworthiness of the disciple for the master.
There are many humble gestures that Christians might be called upon to use in order to demonstrate their own humility before Our Lord in a John-like way. Touching feet clad only in sandals made dirty by dusty roads may be symbolic, but washing them and putting body lotion on them is an ancient custom familiar to us from Our Lord washing Peter’s feet and Mary’s anointing of Our Lord’s feet. However, such humility, in our shoe-clad society, encourages us to ask with what measure of love we might reach out to show our appreciation for others rather than calling attention to ourselves. The Advent-Christmas season often has us sharing cards, gifts and foods with friends, neighbours and relatives. However, it’s one thing to be caught up in the spirit of the season, and another regularly to ask, “How might I be a forerunner/ambassador to Christ every day?” The mark of John’s humility was that he pointed away from himself and to the Messiah. We might ask ourselves how our actions could encourage someone to consider Jesus. A cousin of mine sends out a short, daily, online devotional thought. Sometimes It’s a question that a prodromos should ask: What did I do or say today that made a person ask about Jesus?
It was St Francis who captured the essence of this humility is assuring that “in giving we receive” and it was his Master who taught us that in giving to others we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Mt. 6: 3-4) The essence of Christian humility lies in giving more thought to how another may discover Christ through our words, actions and shared feelings. The essence of Christian humility lies in keeping our focus on Our Lord, and looking for him in the face of a stranger.
This does require a reversal in our all-too-human need to see ourselves first and to consider how a caring action may affect our personal need, our wallet or our comfort level.
John, however, on the occasion in our Gospel lesson, not only recognized the importance of pointing others away from himself and to the Lord. He also knew that having found the Lord who alone could forgive, love and free him, he was happy to play second fiddle.
So, we to, must continue to learn the lesson of humility, to rejoice and wear our pink roses, and learn to be a prodromos, and point others to Our Lord and Saviour.
The Good News – Advent 2, 10 December, 2017
Well, we have started our new Church year last week, with the Gospel according to Mark, and today we even start at the start of Mark, chapter 1, verse 1. Typically for Mark, we get no padding – no nice stories of Jesus’ birth, but straight into the core of the story. Mark is the shortest Gospel, and the writer does not go in for padding.
So Mark starts with what he sees as the important first thing – John the Baptist. John is not a cuddly thing to start with, dressed as he is in camel hair and leather, eating locusts and honey, preaching his message in the wilderness. He was not a comfortable figure and his message was not always easy – I suspect most people rather regarded him like we regard those preachers in the Mall – a bit of a pain. At least he did not have a megaphone.
So why did Mark start off with the message of John the Baptist? To those who would listen to the whole story of the Gospel, (and perhaps this Gospel was originally told in one session as a story, or even a play), the listeners would learn that a sticky end was in store for John. His preaching put the powerful off side, and eventually he would be put in prison for his condemnation of those powerful, and finally be beheaded. He was not a success.
Yet the start of the Gospel today has him at his peak, with people, we learn, from the whole Judean countryside, (who could be counted as country bumpkins perhaps), and even all the people of Jerusalem, (the city sophisticates), were going out to hear him and being baptised. This is John at his best and most popular.
Yet the Gospel would then chart his fall.
However, the Gospel story would then take up with the ministry of Jesus, a story that would have echoes of John’s ministry, with a similar impact at first, but then a gradual loss of popularity, until Jesus too would be arrested and all would flee leaving him to be condemned and to die, on a cross with only the women watching: another story of failure in the world.
Yet we are here – we who believe in Jesus and are members of his Church.
So why do we remember failure? In Mark, more than the other three Gospels, the failure of disciples to understand and to follow is starkly put. Furthermore, we suspect that originally the Gospel ended with the news of the resurrection, but the last disciples, the women, who had stayed to the end, did not respond with joy and proclamation, but instead ran and hid, ad even did not tell others the news. Mark keeps on telling the Gospel, the Good News, as a message of human failure.
Yet the church is here today.
The Gospel story that Mark wants us to understand, the Good News, is that people fail – but God doesn’t. The disciples failed, but the Church grew. We don’t make the best of our lives, we aren’t the perfect people, we aren’t the super wonderful people that we should be. Instead we get carried away, we join in the latest thrill, like coming out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness, but when the going gets tough, we are not even in the category of the tough.
However, if you listen to the end of Mark to the last failure, you realise that this story is told by those who had failed. The Good News is told by failures, those who did not stay by the Lord. The Good News is that people find forgiveness and move on. Jesus comes not because we are perfect, but Jesus comes because he knows we have our failures and need to learn to live and overcome that failure. To overcome failure we need to practise forgiveness. The Good News is that forgiveness is part of Christian living. Then the Holy Spirit moves and things happen.
One call of John the Baptist is to make straight the paths of the Lord. John’s preaching and our Lord’s ministry will all be about how to live a path for the Lord, that is here called straight, and also called narrow. That path is the one we learn to follow between moral bankruptcy that occurs when we no longer make any moral striving to live better lives. The other side of that narrow path is the rigidity of applying rules and regulations, and ignoring the gift of grace and freedom that Christ offers us John certainly told his listeners about both failures! But John and Our Lord teach us a way of living in grace and love to keep us on our narrow path where we can experience and deepen our spiritual life. Deepening that spiritual life takes time, effort and a lot of grace. That’s why we are here, to receive the grace of our Lord’s presence in the sacraments and to deepen that love.
That is part of the reason why we are baptised. We are baptised because we want to have that power of being forgiven from that love. To become a child of God is to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives to learn to exercise and receive the power of forgiveness. The world does not work because we are perfect – the world works because we learn to deal with error and sin and forgive and get on with it. The ability to forgive and receive forgiveness is what marks us out as followers of Christ. Don’t become a Christian to be perfect – become a Christian to live with our own imperfections. Then we learn to be tolerant and loving we will let the Holy Spirit work in the world. God succeeds, and that is the success we need.
Facing Death – Advent 1B, 3 December, 2017.
Today we start on the fun topic of death. Now just normal death, but Christian death with joy. Just in case you had forgotten this is Advent 1, when we talk about the four last things we all must face, death, being the first. I will be interested to see who remembers the other three things at the door: judgment, heaven and hell. The last three I will leave for your own reflections, as they flow on from death, and we have enough to ponder about death. By the way, taxes as one of the last things don’t appear on the Christian list. Now, the majority of people don’t cope very well with death. They also don’t cope well with the idea of growing old. We are obsessed about youth and living rather than a Christian life which is about living with the gift of the moment and preparing to face death with joy. Our culture continually reinforces our desire to be young, healthy and wealthy. Death is treated as a failure.
Now, what I mean about facing death with joy is that we believe as Christians that death will give us to Jesus, our hope, and that we believe in the resurrection of the dead so we will meet again our loved ones and find the purpose and reason of life in God’s love. In the Litany which we sing here in Lent and there was one line in the 1662 BCP version, in particular that asked us to be saved from a lot of dreadful ends, such as “lightning and tempest, from plague, pestilence and famine, from battle and murder, and from sudden death:” it is now much more simply “from famine and disaster; from violence, murder and dying unprepared, Good Lord deliver us.”
Now many of us would love a sudden death, just going to sleep one night and never waking up. We fear the indignity of long drawn out death, the hanging around in hospitals while we lose control over our bodies. So why was the litany including sudden death as something to be avoided? The reason why sudden death is included in the list of nasty ends is that the framers recognised the old problem of dying suddenly and, also, unprepared.
Being unprepared is something that we should not be. That’s what Advent is about in part. Part of our prayer life is our nightly prayers where we ask God to look after us during the night, and if we die, for God to accept us in love and mercy. Being unprepared for death is that we have left the world in a state of deliberate sin, with grudges and failures for which we know we should ask forgiveness. Sudden death was the death that gave us no time to make our peace with the world and God. So often when we wait at the bedside of the dying we find that the person is waiting for someone still to come before that person can let go and die. Dying in peace is the ability to let go, to say our farewells and to make our amends so we can face God.
Dying prepared is also the ability to recognise forgiveness. I run across people who accuse Christians of hypocrisy because of one reason or another. Often what they fail to realise is that the Church is the hospital of sinners who need Jesus’s love, and as a result we are filled with the oddest people who sin and fall and rise again. Our acceptance of so many people who don’t do what they should is seen by outsiders as hypocrisy. What it often is, is the working out of forgiveness, of knowing that God loves us so much and is always ready to forgive. Thus the Church is filled with the proud, the greedy, the lustful and all the sinners of the world. As it should be: but with one crucial difference: these people have seen the power of forgiveness and are trying to do something about their sins and failure. We do this so they can face death with the assurance of forgiveness and love.
So many in our culture these days find life incredibly boring. The same routine, the lack of feeling worthwhile, the feeling that al we are doing has no worth. Yet the gift of life is the great gift of God to us, to have intelligence and a soul to see the good or evil we do each day. The facing of death, to be prepared for death, paradoxically gives meaning to life. By seeing each day as our last, when we may need to face judgment for our lives, gives an immediacy to what we do now. Grudges cannot be borne and carried on indefinitely when life is about to end. Putting off the need for change and repentance cannot be done when we face our end of lives. Death is the great trumpet that calls to us not to dally, but live each life in the love and hope of God. God gives to each of us this day, this time: death confronts us with the choice and judgment of how we use it.
This is not to belittle death either. All death is hurtful for us, no matter how old or poor the person is. We all mourn those whom we love and share no longer. Yet the love of God assures us that there is life offered after death, and tears will be wiped away with Jesus’s loving hands. Our grief has the assurance that death is not the end but Christ waits for us with love. That’s the difference, and that’s why we have Advent.
Sheep and Goats – Christ the King, 26 November, 2017
I have had fun putting together the sermons for the last few weeks. Often the readings for these three weeks seem so comfortable, the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents and the judging of the sheep and goats.
But I’ve also been reading a lot of the newer theology that has been coming out that looks at how Jesus came as the ultimate victim, the scapegoat, that attracts the anger of the world so he becomes the perfect victim. By doing this, he removes our ability to justify scapegoating. We, as Christians, cannot pick on others and victimise them to make ourselves feel superior. Jesus is the victim of all times, and it is our duty, and a result of our love of Our Lord, that makes us stand with those who are victimised: the poor, the refugee, the prisoner, the weak.
We have now come to the end of the readings that form the last teachings of Our Lord before his arrest. We heard the parable of the foolish virgins, when I suggested that the meaning here was that the foolishness was in not trusting to wait for the bridegroom to enter into the wedding feast. Last week we had the parable of the talents, where I suggested that this was not a parable where you should see the Master as God, but rather a warning about entering into unjust systems, like the Master’s unjust ways of reaping where he did not sow.
Now we have the separating of the sheep and the goats. This is another text that is well used, particularly in the protestant tradition where we see the judgment of God at the end of time vindicating or sentencing each one of us. It’s a justification of many a hellfire sermon.
But like so many texts it is worth looking at more closely. Remember this about the ancient world first: they thought more in terms of groups rather than individuals. The Church has always remembered this, that we are together the body of Christ, and we do not flourish as prickly individuals, but rather as a community, the body of Christ, with different members and skills.
So, let’s look at the beginning. This is no parable: this is a clear statement of what Our Lord tells his disciples’. The Son of Man will be in his glory, the nations will gather before him, and he will judge. The problem is with our translation today, what he will judge will not be the people, but the word used is ‘them’, referring to the nations. The Son of Man will judge the nations for what they have done. This is a judgment on how nations rule, not on individuals, a theme so beloved from our late mediaeval pietism. Furthermore, it is not in some far distant time at eh end of the world: Our Lord appears before Caiaphas, the high priest, in Chapter 26, just after this section, he tells Caiaphas that from now on, not some never-never future time, but from now on, he will see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of God and coming in glory. This is a judgment that is being made now about the nations, not so final personal judgment at the end of the world.
So, what is being judged? It how we treat the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. These are all told to be members of our Lord’s family. It’s a list very similar to the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, those who are the blessed. The nations who do this will be the sheep and sit at his right hand, those who do not will be the goats on the left and enter into punishment. As Our Lord finishes his public teaching, Matthew refers it back to the Beatitudes at the start.
Judgment should be defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgement here is presented in terms of how our society, human relationships, acts towards victims: those who hunger, who thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood this, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them. It is the crucified and risen victim of Jesus who is the judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim.
Then we have the fire-and-brimstone language. But remember Our Lord used it to warn his countrymen about the catastrophe of following their current road, a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned; it will produce only more violence. If his countrymen persisted in their current path, Jesus warned, the Romans would get revenge on them by taking their greatest pride, the Temple, and reducing it to ashes and rubble. The Babylonians had done it once, and the Romans could do it again. That was why he advocated a different path, a rough and narrow path, of nonviolent social change instead of the familiar broad highway of hate and violence.
Belief in the afterlife, it turned out provided a benefit for those who wanted to recruit people for violent revolution. They would promise heaven to those who died as martyrs in a holy war. That connection between death in battle and reward in heaven helps explain why the Pharisees joined with the Zealots and became leaders in a rebellion against the Roman empire in AD 67. Their grand scheme succeeded for a time, but three years later, the Romans marched in and crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was devastated. The temple was reduced to ash and rubble.
And history has taught us time and time again that the false promises of eternal life are used to justify holy violence.
After that failed revolution, the Pharisees charted a nonviolent path of teaching and community building. They paved the way for the development of Rabbinic Judaism, which undergirds the various traditions of Judaism today. Their story demonstrates that neither groups nor individuals should ever be stereotyped or considered incapable of learning, growth, and change.
That’s the real purpose of Jesus’s fire-and-brimstone language. Its purpose was not to predict the destruction of the universe or to make absolute for all eternity the insider-outsider categories of us and them. Its purpose was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.
This passage should not be read as our personal judgment at the end of time. Jesus is the God of love, and never frightens people into loving him. This is a warning for the nations, for how we build our societies.
In the Beatitudes blessedness entails living a deliberately chosen and cultivated life not involved in the power and violence of the world. Of course, this makes the one living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into a victim but that too is blessed. In this week’s famous sheep and goat passage, judgment centres on how we relate to those blessed in the Beatitudes. Ignoring them continues the pattern of human division and separates us all from wholeness and joy; a kind of eternal punishment. In Our Lord’s story those who understand that culture creates victims yet choose to stand with them find themselves serving Christ though they did not know it.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Where the world makes sheep and goats, Our Lord makes disciples and lovers.
The Third Slave – 18 November, 2017
Now remember: for the Church the calendar starts with Advent. So today and next week are the last Sundays of the old year. For this, in our three-year cycle, we are doing the last teachings of Jesus in Matthew before he is arrested. Last week today and next Sunday all form part of one chapter.
Last week we looked at parable of the foolish virgins, and I suggested there that the foolishness may have not been not having enough oil but in running off at the last moment to get more instead of trusting the bridegroom to take them in as they were. Today we go on with the next parable, the parable of the talents.
The parable of the talents is a tricky parable. Like the last parable, it can be taken in different way.
The usual way is to take the parable meaning with the master being the image of God. The master gives the slaves the different talents, and goes away, then returns and makes an accounting. Those who did well with the talent get rewarded, and the third slave, who hid it in the ground, gets punished.
The lesson that is taken from this parable is that we should use our talents and take the risks to make more for our Master, who is God. The English word for talent is taken from the usage here in this parable, and now means our skills, and not just money.
However, there is another way of looking at this parable, which is also interesting. Most of the parable is not taken up with the first and second slave who do the right thing, but with the third slave who hides the money then explains his lack of action on the basis that he knows his master is a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he does not scatter seed. The slave is not afraid of losing the money, but of the master. The master does not deny the charges, and proceeds then to judge the third salve harshly and throws him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In one way this reminds me of the parable of the wedding, when the wedding guest comes without a wedding garment, and is also thrown out by the king. In both these parables, one is left feeling rather uneasy that the master and king are not very nice characters and a strange reflection on how we see God.
There is also another theological problem in this parable: the suggestion that the talent should have been at least left with the bankers to raise interest. Interest from money loans was usury, and was forbidden for Jews, and even Christians for the first half of our history. Why would the master, if that is God, suggest usury, which is immoral?
With today’s parable we should also consider that the originally hearers probably would have identified most with the third slave. Masters were commonly grasping and unjust, trying to get their last bit of value from their slaves. Why take risks and make more for such a master?
It is also worthwhile to note that most of the length of the parable revolves around the third slave, indicating that this is the relationship we should concentrate on, not the first two slaves.
The alternative way of looking at this parable is that is a parable on the unjustness of the present world. The master is unjust. We do not have to see the master as a God-figure in this parable. The first two slaves buy into the system and do what they expect the Unjust Master wants. It is the third slave, who does not enter into the system, who confronts the master who is the hero. The heroism here is not making the money for the master, but by standing up and telling the master that he is unjust and returning his money unused.
Matthew’s addition that the third slave is to be cast into the out darkness is also a clue. If the third slave is the hero of this parable, then what is the purpose of the darkness here? Well, the same word for darkness reappears the very next time in a few chapters on, when Jesus is dying on the Cross and darkness (the same word in Greek) covers the whole land. This is the darkness where people weep and gnash their teeth because Jesus dies. So the slave here is being represented as a disciple of Jesus who faces the unjust structures of the world by confronting the master with his harshness – it is he who is the hero of the story, not the two slaves who conform and take part in the master’s plans. The master is the unjust world of the now that exploits, not the Kingdom of God.
This interpretation means that what we are being taught is not to put our best skills to work – but rather to think about how our skills are being exploited by others. This is not nearly as easy to ponder. We all take part in a world that does exploit and uses its wealth. We live in ease and comfort because most of the world does not. Our continuing need for a high standard of living and our exploitation in the past has created our privileged position. How are we being bold to face our unjust system and denounce it?
Earlier this year I also mentioned a 20ht C American theologian William Stringfellow. He challenged Americans to not be complacent about their capitalism, and the way that many Americans saw it as a sign of God’s favour. Instead he talked about how we are subject to the powers and temporalities of the world, and we are all partakers of unjust systems. As Christians we have to take a jaundiced view of how we live. We are the wealthy few of a rich country in a world that is hungry and poor. We cannot afford to be complacent. In the same way, perhaps we need to re-read our parables, and see them as not supported our need for approval for useful ways we have used our wealth, but instead as a warning that we are taking part in unjust systems that exploit others.
Who’s Foolish? – 12 November, 2017.
The problem when you hear a familiar parable like today is that you don’t hear it any more. You have heard the story time and time again, so that its ability to surprise you has disappeared, and it just washes over you like an old and comfortable blanket.
Well, the Parable of the Ten Virgins today is a bit like that. We have heard it time and time again, about the five who waited with their lamps ready and spare oil and the five who were foolish and were not prepared. The bridegroom comes, and the five prepared ones go in with him and the five foolish ones rush away to find oil and come to late and are turned away by the bridegroom.
Now, before we tackle the actual parable it’s worthwhile looking at where this falls in Matthew’s Gospel. We are in Matthew 25, and as Matthew only has 28 chapters you know we are coming to the end of his teaching ministry. These are his last days teaching, and now Our Lord is no longer teaching the crowds, he is teaching the disciples. Matthew wants us, who are also disciples, to listen to these parables as Our Lord’s final instructions to us on how we are to live as his disciples in the world. It’s an important teaching period.
Now let’s look what is around it. Chapter 25 has three sections and we are going to be dong the next two sections during the next two weeks. Today it’s the parable of the foolish virgins. Next week it’s the parable of the talents and then the judgment of the sheep and goats. In each of the parables there is a division between those who do right and those who do wrong.
Now today the division is between the wise and foolish virgins. Our translation we use here has them as bridesmaids, but the original Greek just calls them virgins. The translators have decided that since the bridegroom is the one they are waiting for, they must be bridesmaids, a fair enough call. But it leaves us with one big problem: why are the so-called bridesmaids waiting for the groom?
Now, in every wedding you are likely to go to, there is a clear gender division. The groomsmen wait on the groom and the bridesmaids wait on the bride: men with men and women with women. It was the same as far as we know in the ancient world. No bride wants the groom to come with competition of other women. The bride watches over the completion by having them look after herself. Bridesmaids do not go out to meet the groom.
So when you start to talk about ten virgins going to meet a groom, your alarm bells should be ringing. This is no normal wedding.
Now, we don’t really know what these virgins are meant to signify. The word virgin is only used in relation to the prophecy to Mary, that a virgin will conceive and bear a child. In the Old Testament virgin women were considered a bit of a failure by not having children. So are the ten virgins, meeting the groom, honoured women or desperate wallflowers trying a last catch?
Now let’s consider why five were foolish and five wise. We know what happens, the five wise had enough oil, but would not share it with the five foolish who did not have enough. We tend to read the parable in that the foolish were foolish for not having enough oil, as they rushed away then to find oil and as a result they did not meet the groom.
But, there is another way of reading this. Remember, the groom did not know the virgins beforehand. Let’s think of them as wallflowers wanting to go to the party to meet eligible men, a sort of biblical bachelor party. Those virgins are waiting outside because they want to go to the party and the bridegroom is their only way of getting a ticket inside. So what’s the foolishness here?
The foolishness may not be that they did not have enough oil, but they did not trust the groom to take them to the party as they were. Because they rushed away trying to be perfect catches with a good store of oil they missed the introduction to the groom going to the party and therefore missed the chance to go in with him. The foolishness is not in not having enough oil but in not trusting the groom to take them as they are. The parable is trying to teach the disciples in that they have to trust in the Lord, the groom, whether they are prepared or not.
Now the other way of taking the parable is that the foolishness is not in being prepared with enough oil. But, you see, when you take it that way, it becomes a rather smug parable. We are left in identifying with those virgins who are always prepared and not going to waste their oil on foolish virgins who ask for some spare. I rather find those virgins rather smug and self-satisfied. But think about how it teaches you to be Christians. You must be well-prepared and if not, then God’s going to throw you out of heaven. It’s a rather self-satisfied view.
The reality about Christian life is that we are never well-prepared. That’s the point. The point is that Our Lord died for us as sinners, badly prepared and doubting people, not as perfect people. The point is that we are not perfect, we don’t have our oil supplies ready. What we need to do is to just trust the Lord. You can’t trust other people, they are going to be like the virgins who are generous enough to share their oil. We are waiting for the groom to take us into the party. When the groom comes we just have to trust he will take us in, not try and make ourselves better prepared. If we try and make ourselves perfect at the last moment we are going to miss the ride to the party. That’s the point. Our Lord is coming at a time we do not know. But when he comes he will take all who wait for him, weather ready or not. We don’t earn our way into heaven. We don’t have to have the oil ready. All we have to do is to be there. Waiting for the Lord is enough.
Principles and Laws – 29 October, 2017.
I have some history, you know. Once, I studied law at Sydney University and was eventually admitted as a solicitor, proctor and attorney of the Supreme Court of NSW. Nowadays they just call them, much more commonly, legal practitioner, but there was a reason for the way to admit us with these three titles. For a proctor practised ecclesiastical law, which includes admiralty and probate, while solicitors practiced in the court of equity and attorneys in the courts of law.
Now this distinction, between solicitors and lawyers, touches what I want to preach about today. For the Courts of Law were governed by what is often called black letter laws: either the acts of parliament or the common law, that is the customary law of the land or court. This was a question of interpretation – you had the act of parliament or an older case for the common law, and the court just interpreted if it applied or not. However, the problem, with lawyers, is that we can get stuck into some rather odd interpretations, and sometimes what is applied can be archaic or even unjust.
To deal with this problem of unjust application of laws, people could throw themselves on the King’s conscience – that is, to make a personal plea to the Crown, as the King was considered the source of all justice. The Monarch delegated this hearing of legal appeals to a Chancellor, who in early times was often the King’s confessor, who acted on what was fair, rather than the strict interpretation of the law. So, for example, if a person committed fraud or duress in having a contract drawn up, the person would find himself bound by the legal terms, but could have the contract voided in equity as unjust.
For this is always the problem with any society or body of laws: you have rules and regulations, but they are not always just or current. Times change: new technologies happen or new ways of people living, and people and societies have to learn to adapt and work out new rules. For example, identity fraud, of either one’s credit details or internet account, is a problem that did not exist thirty years ago. We usually find that there is someone who has done something that seems to be wrong, but there is no legal bar – so there is a hurried rush of legislation to catch up and cover this offence.
Now the same thing happens with religious rules. You can make as many rules as you like, but they are not going to cover every situation. As long as people change (and history teaches us that they always do} then the ethical problems will change as well. No system of rules is going to cover everything.
That is why the rules of religion need to be reduced to a shortened ethical principle. The Ten Commandments are the summary of the Torah for the Jews. However, they are seen as not covering everything. The passage today makes two principles that can be applied to ethical situations – it is the core principle that can be the basis of any system of law. The two great commandments create two fundamental ethical principles that we can apply in life: what does God want us to do here – to love God in this situation and to love our neighbour as ourself.
It is interesting that Jesus says that on theses commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In Jewish thought, particularly Hassidic thought, the world hangs on the Torah, The Law. (The Hassidic Jews arose in the area we would roughly now call the Ukraine, and developed a wonderful theology of a personal God communicated through their Rabbis.) By this the Hassidic Rabbis mean that the world is a manifestation of the principles of the Torah. The basis for this is that God’s Law is the fundamental reality that the world, coming later, is only a manifestation. The world operates, and the earthly rules of the Torah operate, on the universal deep Torah, the existence of God himself.
But Jesus does not say this: he says instead that on the two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets; that is all the core writings of the Old Testament. These two commandments are the basis that cause all the Old Testament to be manifested – they are applications of this foundation. So instead of the world being founded on the full set of the Law, the Torah, the Old Testament is the manifestation of these two ethical principles. Principles, not a complete law, are the basis of Scripture. In Jesus’s eyes, once you understand this, you understand why the Law can be set aside by Jesus in favour of the deeper application of principle. The reason: because love is always more powerful than rules, and loves is the core of these two principles.
These two principles then, loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself, are what God wants us to do. From this we can form the whole of our relationships in the world. But it is also a reminder to us, that all laws are just manifestations of principles. A law is only just when it conforms to these principles – if the law does not conform to these two we are to reject it.
That is why in traditional English Law, Equity, with its principles of justice, always overcame the Common Law. Principles must be more important that rules. For us too, we must base our lives to answer the question, what does God want us to do: with the answer of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
Rendering Our Image – OS 29A, 22 October, 2017
This Sunday we come across one of those phrases that has had a lot of usage. We heard the Gospel passage today as: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Many of us there will know it in the older and more poetic form: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Now, for many places this is a good introduction to the notion of giving, of particularly money, but this is not a good point to start with, for the passage has many more implications. Look at the context. A coin, a denarius, is what Our Lord asks to see. This is the Roman coin, adapted from the earlier Greek version, with the image of the Caesar on it. If it were a newly printed coin, it would be marked, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest”. Below these words, the image of the emperor is pressed into the metal. To any good Jew, the coin itself was an abomination. It violated the first commandment by claiming that Caesar had divine pretensions, and it violated the second commandment by containing an image of this false god. It was cursed.
Look at the people who are there, too. Two important political groups in Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the Herodians, are ganging up on Jesus. It’s a strange partnership; the two groups didn’t like each other at all, but Matthew in his gospel loves to double up people and groups. First are the Herodians; they were supporters of Herod, the puppet King of Israel who was nothing more than a Roman lackey. Herodians would have a great investment in obeying Roman laws and paying Roman taxes. Then we have the Pharisees, who, as religious purists, would object strongly to paying taxes to any pagan king and especially to a king who, like Caesar, claimed to be of divine lineage.
At the same time, the crowds, who were watching the debate, also had a stake in this. They didn’t like either the Romans or their taxes, and they frequently showed their dislike by rioting. They would be very unhappy at any answer that seemed to approve of the taxes.
Next, there are the soldiers, who were watching the crowds. They were Romans who were paid by the taxes in question. They didn’t much like the crowds, who had a penchant for rioting and whose rioting they had to control. Finally, it was Passover time—the most likely time of the year for a good riot about religion, the emperor, Rome in general, and Roman taxes in particular.
In other words, this was not an abstract debate about either political philosophy in general or the relationship between Church and state. It was a perfect set-up, a very clever trap. The intent of the question was to ensure that Our Lord was either arrested for treason by the Romans, discredited as a false teacher by the Pharisees, reported by the Herodians, or lynched by the crowd as a traitor to his own people.
Now, note how OurLord asks the disciples of the Pharisees, the ones who asked him that curly question, to bring him a coin used for the tax, not anyone. So those who bring him the coin, are the ones who have it, the disciples of the Pharisees. So it is they who are technically in breach of the Law, by carrying a coin with a graven image. Our Lord likes to wrong foot the perfectionists out with their own game. If you play at being perfect, expect to be caught out – as always, it is the sinners, those who know their own imperfections who come to Jesus for solutions who get the blessings, not the picky ones.
This is why Our Lord makes the point: whose head is this, and whose title – the older translations talks whose image and whose inscription, which captures the command against images in the Old Testament. The Greek word uses “eikon,” from which we get our word icon. Now an icon is more than a painting, and carries the living presence of God or of the saint – not just a photo or likeness but a window in to heaven, a presence of that person. That’s why images are traditionally banned in the Jewish and Muslim traditions, they carry another likeness of a created being into worship. However, Christians have set aside this prohibition, because as Christ came down to become one of us so he has sanctified our image, the very image that God created in the beginning that God declared to be good. We accept images in worship because Christ has sanctified images, as long as we reserve worship to God alone.
Now this is the point: when Our Lord asks whose image it is on the coin, he uses the same word in the Greek as in Genesis, icon – when God made humankind he created us in his own image. The image is of a ruler, but the image is only of a human being, one made by God.
So, when Our Lord then replies to their answer that the image is of Caesar, he says, in the old translation, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” He is once more making them feel deliberately uncomfortable. Last week we talked about the parable of the wedding feast, and how it can be read that the Temple is now occupied by the good and the bad, that all who were listening to him in the Temple area were compromised by living under Herod and the Romans. Once more, those who carry around the Roman coin with an idolatrous image are living in a compromised world: saying they obey the law but technically in breach.
Our Lord is saying again to the people listening in the Temple area: that they all live in a compromised world. They live in a world where there is the holy and the profane, the Temple and Caesar, and there is no escape. The problem lies in He is not saying don’t pay the Temple tax, he is not saying using another coin, he is not neatly dividing the world into the secular and religious world.
The solution lies in that word, image, icon. Caesar is made in the image of God. Jesus was always critical of false distinctions between the world and the Temple, remember the purging of the money changers. Religious rules should not be unnecessarily burdensome. It does not really matter what is on the coin, as long as the intent is right, and even Caesar is made by God.
Our Lord is always looking for a deeper relationship to exist between us and God. One that is not hampered by rules: one that is characterized by love. It’s not a matter of paying tithes or so much of our income that puts us right with God. That’s just quibbling. What is the point is how we are with God. We are the ones in the image of God. We have printed on our souls the waters and cross of baptism that mark us the coinage of God. What are we to render to God – our love, that very same love stamped on us by our Creator making us in his own image.
So instead of thinking of how we pay off God with money, we have to look to our lives how we honour that image, that icon of God in us. This can only be done by a life lived in Christ, a life centred in love, a life centred in the Body of Christ, his sacraments, his Church. This can only be done by praying and sacrificing – unless we learn to give of ourselves so it is a sacrifice than we just tip God. That’s our challenge in life. God has given us a gift in these lives of ours – what we do with our lives is our gift back to God.
The Parable of the Guest Without the Wedding Robe – 15 October, 2017
Today we have another parable. Often it is read as the King being God, who invites people to the wedding banquet for his son, Christ, but they don’t come, so he then invites all and sundry, so eager is he to have his hall filled with guests. Then he throws out the man who does not come prepared, as a warning that we must prepare ourselves for God.
But there are always a few problems with this way of looking at the parable. The king is not so nice, he murders the first lot of guests who don’t come, the son never appears and the whole thing with the wedding guest who does not wear the right clothes is a bit odd.
Let’s look at this again with a bit of history of the time. First, peasants of that time did not think that kings were automatically the good guys; from bitter experience. Then there is a particular piece of history to recall. Herod the Great is a character known to us from the birth of Jesus. He was a nasty piece of work. The Holy Land had been ruled by descendants of the Maccabeans, who were pious Jews, and had some independence. However, in the century before Christ they had become under Roman indirect rule, and one ruler was replaced in a revolt by a man called Antigonus. Herod obtained the support of the Romans, became engaged to wed Antigonus’ niece who was also a granddaughter of a high priest and returned to claim Jerusalem offering forgivingness and preservation of the city if they accepted him. However, the Jews in Jerusalem rejected Herod’s claim, saying he was only a half Jew and not a proper king. They ignored him, however, to their peril, for Herod then came with the Roman army, laid siege to the city and took it in 37 BC with a suitable massacre. During the siege, he went to Samaria and married his bride, returning as a newly-wed husband to finish the siege. Poor Antigonus surrenders to the Roman general who was going to send him to Rome, but Herod intercedes that he be killed in order that his new kingdom will be safe for Herod’s sons. So Antigonus is sent to Antioch and killed there. Herod then murders his rivals and appointed his own cronies as High Priest. Herod was a lavish builder, and the place where Jesus is said to be saying this parable was the part of the Temple Mount built by Herod
So, when Jesus starts to talk about a king, it’s easy to think that his hearers would think about Herod who had built this section of the Temple. This parable starts differently to the others here, we heard is as “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who…”, but it can also read “the kingdom of heaven may be made like a king who..”
So let’s think of how this parable can be read. The king here is not God, but the usual nasty Herod. Herod had come to Jerusalem inviting them to take him king as he married a member of the royal house. However, the people of Jerusalem declined the offer and rejected him. Then King Herod, like in the parable, comes and burns and destroys the people of Jerusalem. He then fills Jerusalem with his own people, similarly to the parable.
Now if you think of the parable in these terms then the rest of it starts to become clear. The new people of Jerusalem are like the good and bad in the parable, who have been forced to come to terms with living under Herod, and then the Romans. They have compromised. They are like those who have been forced to come to the wedding feast. Here they were those who came to Jerusalem after the wedding of Herod to his token bride.
Then we come to the passage:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.
Who is this man that does not have a wedding garment? What the king is annoyed about is how someone has come and not shown respect to his forced wedding banquet. The speechless may not been that he could not talk, but rather that he did not speak. So, the guest who came and showed disrespect by not conforming did not answer back to the king. The king then, in Herod’s typical way binds him and throws him into the darkness.
Now the prior ruler, Antigonus, was also bound as a captive and taken away to Rome. But think ahead also to what Jesus does. He also does not answer the chief priests when he is before Pilate, he too is silent. When Jesus dies on the cross, there is darkness over the land, just as the king throws the guest into the outer darkness.
So, let’s consider what this parable is saying on this interpretation. The kingdom of heaven has here been like what has happened to Jerusalem. It has been taken by force. The rightful kings are gone and now false kings, Herods and the Romans rule. The people here are forced into celebrating this like a wedding feast, where the guests were “invited” but forced by the slaves to come. The guest without the wedding robe then becomes someone who challenges the king, hence the rage of the king towards him and why this section is so long in the parable. This is Jesus, who challenges the legitimacy of the compromise that those in Jerusalem have made.
It’s interesting that the very next part of the Gospel, which we will look at next week, also talks about divided loyalties with the coin with Caesar’s head.
This parable can be read not about the generosity of God who invites everyone, but also murders those who spurned his invitation and throws the unprepared into darkness, but about the powers of the world who attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by force. Matthew also refers in 11:12 how: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matthew is showing us a Jesus who condemns the world for trying to pervert the kingdom of God which should be about love and forgiveness, and instead create an unjust world where people are forced to obey. It is a kingdom of Heaven that has been seized by force. However, it will be challenged by those who reject the demands of conforming, in this case the guest who does not wear the wedding robe, by Jesus who will become the perfect victim. Others may be frightened and conform: but Jesus will challenge and be killed. However, we know then as Christians that we too find our power to resist by knowing the power of resurrection.
The Unexpected Harvest – OS27A, 8 October, 2017.
As we come to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, which has been our main Gospel during this season after Pentecost, we are forced more and more into an encounter with Our Lord. The passage today lays things out quite plainly. The story of the vineyard, based on an old song which we heard part of in the Isaiah passage, has become an allegory in which things stand for something else. The vineyard has become God’s people; the vine-dressers are the religious leaders; the son and heir is the Gospel message of Our Lord; the murder his rejection; the threat that the kingdom of God will be given to others bringing forth fruits of the Kingdom, an indictment against the church.
The challenge in hearing this passage is to decide where we would place ourselves in the story. With whom would we identify most closely? Our Lord could be bringing good news or bad, depending on your point of view! If we are a loyal person in the pew hearing this story, we could feel troubled, especially if our church seems to be in decline. We could wonder, is God is really working more with other churches than with ours? Are the things we value the wrong things to be concerned about?
If we are a member of the clergy, this parable could bring doubts to our mind. What have we done to deny the Gospel, and how have we avoided those who perhaps needed the Good News of Jesus most, but somehow didn’t quite fit in?
Perhaps you can identify with Jesus being the rejected heir. Have you ever been told you’re not needed anymore? Have you been ignored or left out of a group you really wanted to be a part of? Then you have felt the kind of rejection Our Lord experienced when he came to his own people and they spurned him. You could not be in better company!
And today everyone is awed by the rapid growth of the Church in other parts of the world. While developed nations in the West seem to be losing strength in the established churches, thousands of converts come to Christ every day in Africa and Asia. Is God really giving the Kingdom to others because our Western culture in its race to wealth and success is unable to embrace it anymore? Things are, however, different from the way they were in Our Lord’s time.
Despite what we would like to believe, the church has very little influence in our culture today. Religion is seen as private matter, and the Churches are little sway.
We are people called to proclaim Good News, to tell the story of Jesus and introduce others to him. That is primarily done by the way in which we live, the ethics we have, and the moral behavior we demonstrate.
Our difficulty may be that we’re still trying to be the faith of the culture; we aren’t; and the sooner we accept that the freer we will be. Church is much less a social custom than it was just a few decades ago. People who become Christians today are more likely to do so out of conviction than custom.
We are seeing the collapse of the old parish system. In the cities now people travel to churches to choose the one that suits them. Some churches grow, many others are in decline.
While there are individual reasons why each of these churches is growing, the point is that some are; and they are located in very different parts of the Western world. People are hearing the Gospel, it is transforming their lives, and they are inviting others to join them.
Now let’s return briefly to that parable of the wicked vine-dressers: If they stand for religious leaders, they stand for those who would benefit their own circumstances from religion. They would be people who seek power, wealth, and recognition through the Church. They would be men and women who have the answer to every question, never encouraging the faithful to struggle with Jesus for their own understanding. They would be leaders who want to take over others’ lives and tell them how they should live. There are plenty of examples in modern culture, from cult leaders to corrupt evangelists-and some church officials.
The point Jesus is making in this parable, however, applies to everyone. We are entrusted with the Gospel, and whenever we forsake the Gospel it will be given to others to share.
The honesty and integrity of our faith is based not so much on whether we do or do not do certain moral behaviors, but whether we have shared the Good News with others. The judgment of Jesus will be based on the fruits of our faith, not on our personal purity.
If the Gospel were really transforming our life, wouldn’t we want to offer it to everyone else? By our baptism we are vine-dressers as well. Our Lord is asking us to apply the Good News in our life so that others will see it; and Our Lord asks us to share it with those whom he has given us as friends.
The Other Angels – 1st October, 2017.
This morning we celebrate the feast of St Michael and all Angels. It’s an ancient feast of the Church, to remind us that we are not alone as God’s creatures, that there is another mysterious plane of life occupied by the Angels.
Now angels have had their ups and downs in history. You will, no doubt, be very familiar of some beautiful images from the Middle Ages. In the 18th C it was the Age of Enlightenment, and angels had a bad press as being superstitious. Then the Victorians loved them in the Romantic movement, and our cemeteries are littered with images of weeping angels. Since the rise of neo paganism and the ebbing of the Age of Enlightenment angels are now everywhere.
But today I would like to talk about another aspect of angels. St Paul in Romans 8 talks about how nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, not even powers or temporalities. For there are not only good angels out in the world, but also other creatures as well.
In the second half of the 20th C there was an American theologian called William Stringfellow who was also, at times, an Anglican, or Episcopalian as we are called in the USA, who developed a theology around the theme of powers and temporalities. He examined what life was now like in the 20th C. that century saw the rise of new forms of capitalism, especially after the WWII, with the growth of American power. Industrialism in the 19th C had started the urbanisation of our culture, so by the 20th C the majority of people were no longer living in the country but instead working and living in cities. As a result, the normative for most people was not small farms but working for some sort of corporation. If I asked most of us here today what you worked for or had worked for, it would be law firms, schools, or companies, some sort of corporate structure.
Yet from my conversations with so many of you, most people hate especially the politics of corporations. The endless regulations and controls that stifle our enjoyment and creativity, the paperwork and reporting that are a drudgery. In the huge industrial corporations, the 20th C saw the rise of unions that helped to negate the worse of capitalism, but still left many a worker frustrated by a lack of independence and creativity.
Stringfellow identified these corporations as the powers and temporalities of Scripture. He believed that these bodies were part of the world and although many good people worked for them, ultimately they are part of the culture of death and sin. By this he meant that these bodies ultimately do not exist for our salvation, but exist instead for money or power. They promote greed, or youth, or delusion in one form or another. They promise life to us in some way: more money or freedom or beauty or grand finals, but in the end, they use us up and throw us away. They are the evil powers and temporalities of the world that chew us up with false promises.
Now this is a very negative view of our culture. But Stringfellow did not want us to see angels as cuddly things with wings, but also the other side, the dark angels of power that exist in our world. He did not see American culture as being God’s promise to all people, but instead as part of the struggle of good and evil. When you consider some of the great corporations of history, we know that in the end greed or change sidelines them. Where is the East India Company today? What happened to the computer companies such as IBM or Wang? Remember the State Bank? Eventually these bodies fail because they are not linked with the eternal values of God. Some bodies last a lot longer, such as charities that run schools or even churches, but in each of these we battle the world and the nature of powers and temporalities that are not godly.
Now that leaves all of us in a bind, because we all work for these bodies. But Stringfellow is telling us that we must not be taken in by the false promises of these powers: they are not given by God. They cannot give us eternal life and the love of God.
So, what do we do then?
Stringfellow argued that our problem is that we do not have a sense of vocation. Now this is different from work. We all work, we need to work to make money to exist in our culture. But work in one sense has to be unimportant as Christians. We are called to be Christians, to love and serve the Lord in whatever we do. What is important in life is not what we do, but what we are. We are loving people, we are forgiving people, we are Christians. This is what our vocation is, to learn to live as the children of god wherever we may be.
Therefore, we live in this culture and work within these powers and principalities, and are not to be hoodwinked by their false values. These are the evil angels that mislead us. We will never find satisfaction with their values.
Instead Christians are called to find vocation. Now vocation comes from the word to call in Latin, vocare – to call. Therefore, how we live our lives in our workplaces is far more important. Are we showing Christina values in how we share our lives there? Are we living with our colleagues in love and forgiveness? As people called to love and forgiven it may be far more important to be nice to someone in the tearoom than make money that day. We may need to model the virtues of selflessness to those who work under us or are taught by us. We are called to be Christians, we live lives in response to that vocation. The workplace is where we live out that vocation.
Now Stringfellow also had a lot to say about the churches how we had lost our power to shine in the world as places where Christians could be inspired. He argued that the churches had become refuges for escape from the world instead and had lost the voice of prophecy. That’s another big issue. In one sense, it comes down to angels again. The archangels like Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are lights that shine out to us of the love of God and god’s concern for the world. That’s what the churches should be. That’s what we should be. The dark angels, the powers and temporalities of this world are the ones who hide their evil with rules and regulations and a culture of death. That is part of the nature of evil: it is hard to separate it, to see it clearly, to understand its intent. Instead we are caught in a web that makes each of us complicit in its plan.
One last point: in legend, the Devil is also called Lucifer, and he too was once an archangel. But he fell from heaven and now rules this world where we struggle. The name Lucifer means light bearer. Now we no longer see him as light, but he conceals himself in darkness and we do not see or understand how evil works. He is the father of lies, as another title, and his name is now a parody of what he should be, a clear light to lead us. So in the world we will struggle with darkness and struggle to find the path of God. But on this day when we remember the creatures of light, the holy angles who join our worship, we must also be aware of the nature of the evil angels, the powers and temporalities, that also exist around us. We escape them by living lives of vocation where we hear the call of God, and not ones of work that serves the designs of death.
Our Lady of Walsingham – 24 September, 2017
This is a story of a place and the Mother of Jesus, Mary. Throughout history, Mary has appeared to people in different places, usually out of the way places, a bit like Nazareth which was a small and unimportant town in Our Lord’s time. Anyway, in the eleventh century, when this part of the story begins, the village of Little Walsingham was a thriving place, located mid-way between Norwich (then England’s second city) and the wealthy town of King’s Lynn.
Richeldis de Faverches was a Saxon noblewoman, married to the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham Parva. He died leaving her a young widow with a son, Geoffrey.
At this time there was a great deal of interest in the Holy Land and people undertook long and often dangerous pilgrimages there. Christian armies were soon to be engaged in a number of Crusades to liberate the holy sites from Muslim control and it is believed that Geoffrey eventually joined one of those Crusades as an expression of his Christian faith.
For Richeldis, however, the life of prayer and good works was rewarded by a vision in the year 1061. In this vision, she was taken by Mary to be shown the house in Nazareth where Gabriel had announced the news of the birth of Jesus. Mary asked Richeldis to build an exact replica of that house in Walsingham. This is how Walsingham became known as England’s Nazareth. This small house, not much bigger than our little oratory here, became the Holy House. Mary also told her:
“All who are in any way distressed, or in need, let them seek me there in that little house you have made at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succour. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when St Gabriel told me I should through humility become the mother of God’s Son.”
Around this small house her son Geoffrey left instructions for the building of a Priory in Walsingham. The Priory passed into the care of Augustinian Canons somewhere between 1146 and 1174.
It was this Priory, housing the simple wooden structure Richeldis had been asked to build, which became the focus of pilgrimage to Walsingham.
Pilgrims travelled all over the then known world during the later Middle Ages, which was a golden age for this travel. They went to Jerusalem; they went to Rome; they went to Spain, to Santiago de Compestella. But those places for the English were very expensive, and many who could not afford to do that went to Walsingham, “England’s Nazareth,” for the representation of the holy house of Nazareth brought the Gospel home to the people.
Royal patronage helped the Shrine to grow in wealth and popularity. The first king to come was Richard the Lionheart. He came there to honour God, to seek the prayers of the Mother of Jesus, and to drink of the water from the spring that had appeared at the time when the Holy House was built. The last was Henry VIII, who finally brought about its destruction in 1538. It then stayed in ruins and time went by the village of Walsingham, which became a backwater.
God, however, is not mocked. In God’s good purpose, that shrine of Walsingham which meant so much to the culture and the religion of England for five hundred years, has been restored.
Fr Hope Patten, appointed as Vicar of Walsingham in 1921, ignited Anglican interest in the pre-Reformation pilgrimage. It was his idea to base a new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham on the image depicted on the seal of the medieval Priory.
In 1922, this statue was set up in the Parish Church of St. Mary, and regular pilgrimage devotion followed. From the first night that the statue was placed there, people gathered around it to pray, asking Mary to join her powerful prayer with theirs. This work of intercession continues to this day. For those of you who have been there, it is deeply moving to see the written prayers of the countless visitors.
Throughout the 1920’s, the trickle of pilgrims became a flood of large numbers, for whom eventually a Pilgrim Hospice was opened and in 1931, a new Holy House encased in a small pilgrimage church was dedicated, and the statue translated there with great solemnity. In 1938 that church was enlarged to form the Anglican Shrine.
After nearly four hundred years, the 20th century saw the restoration of pilgrimage to Walsingham as a regular feature of Christian life in England and beyond.
Our part in the story comes with our statue here. After Fr Wise retired in 1940 the school here had a problem, money was short and there was the war. So, Fr Morellee, the priest, asked the sisters of the Community of the Holy Cross to come here from Broken Hill and teach in the school. This they did for a few years until the Mother, Monica, died, and the order disbanded. However, they brought with them their beautiful statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, and left it here for us when they departed.
We are not sure when this stature was carved, but we think it may be the earliest, or even the first, one outside England. It certainly is one of the most beautiful. But since it has been here, people have asked the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham, and Mary has joined those prayers to her son for healings and help. For the hearts of the ordinary people of God are crying out for the sort of faith and personal warmth they can find by associating themselves with the prayers of the holy Mother of Jesus.
Indeed, at this time in the history of our Church in Australia we desperately need those prayers, and we must ask her to join her prayers to ours for our Church. We need the touch of the divine as we are bogged down in the dullness and banality of life and the lack of vision that comes from a people who no longer see God. Places like Walsingham and the countless other shrines of Mary help us to reach beyond the evil blandness of life to the joy and hope of a God who does unexpected things, who sends his Son to us, who asks a girl called Mary to be the bearer of the promise of love and forgiveness.
Pray at this shrine for families that are being torn apart by domestic violence in these days when courtesy is not known, and children grow up in a social jungle where the law of tooth and claw seems to be able to prevail.
Pray at this shrine that Jesus may be presented to us, to our own hearts, and to the hearts of those who do not yet believe.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Conflict – 10 September 2017.
There is an old saying that the first fight happened in the church when Jesus chose the second disciple. When we read the New Testament, we are certainly made aware that the apostles didn’t always get on well together, and Paul spent a lot of time ticking off the churches he founded.
Conflict is part of human nature, sadly. Peace is a precious gift that all too often flees. In the last few weeks we have been watching again the ramping up of tensions in Korea. The battle on the ground there finished in 1953, well before quite a few of us were born. Yet no peace treaty was every signed and we have been living with an armistice ever since, and it still has the potential of escalating into full conflict again.
In Matthew’s text for today’s Gospel, Our Lord addresses personal conflict by urging people to resolve their differences directly first, and then, if necessary, to bring others into the discussion. We aren’t given details or examples. Our Lord’s mission is to create committed communities of believers that will witness God’s love to this world.
There are some basic premises at work here: One is that Our Lord teaches that God loves all God’s children and that our need to be right is not always helpful. This reminds us that all of us, have a Higher Power who is not taking sides.
Churches are communities of people. They usually function well. Some have very strong central authorities, and others work better with leadership by consensus. And all of them, from time to time, have conflicts that arise between members. Sometimes, there is no solution sadly. As a priest, here, I feel that shame deeply.
Sometimes conflict in the Church is not on a local level. This week our General Synod has been meeting in Queensland. I always like how conferences in winter meet in Queensland not Tasmania. It has been looking into a number of conflicts such as how we ignored the conflict about child abuse for far too long. We all realise that now to our sorrow.
There were some boring things at General Synod. There were also some very good things. The General Synod passed an apology on how it had treated gay and transgender people. It looked at a way of developing a conversation about allowing same sex marriage – far too late for any relevance to the public debate. Yet the next motion then went on to condemn the Scottish Church for allowing same sex marriage and that the Scottish Church has put itself out of communion with us as a result as its actions are “contrary to the doctrine of Christ.” At least it was watered down to the “teaching of Christ” in one part and did not declare that they had put themselves out of communion with us. However, it’s very hard to have a conversation about same sex marriage in the Church when you already have declared your opinion about the doctrine of Christ in the next motion.
Our Lord today is emphasising the continual need for meeting and talking. We need to be able to listen to those who are different to us, and not jump into condemnation. It’s the sign of health in a parish and diocese.
There are countless ways to evaluate the health of a parish or diocese, and some are better than others. Every place has its own style of life that is built into its identity and history, and it can be difficult to change if it is unhealthy.
The passage from Matthew for this Sunday concludes with a well-known teaching: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” This is always heard as a reassurance that God desires us to be in community, whether small or large. Being alone is not necessarily bad, but it can lead to isolation and arrogance. The Divine Trinity is a God of relationships, a dynamic force that empowers our spirituality and grounds us in faith. The Trinity models what our relationships are to be: fully in unity and desiring of diversity.
Depression in parishes or dioceses often comes from our tendency to allow only like-minded or similar types of people into the community of believers. Things become static and nothing challenges us to grow and become more like what God desires the Church to be. The healing of depression comes when new relationships are formed. Vitality comes when new people enter the scene, new ideas are introduced, and we listen and explore together. The same can be said for workplaces or families.
Our Lord does not envision the Church to be a place of contention and conflict. But we know stories of his disciples and from the Book of Acts that the early Church experienced a lot of tension and disagreement, even among its apostolic leaders. However, as the church expanded into the Greco-Roman civilization in the West, it had to take on and embrace different norms and customs, as it does even today. The challenge for the Church will always be to find and implement new ways of proclaiming the Good News. When we are engaged in that enterprise, when we are more concerned about serving others than survival, there will be less conflict and more delight in the people that God sends to us and sends us to. The health of any parish rests on its sense of mission, and its willingness to be flexible and welcoming, as Christ welcomes each of us.
Images of God – Dedication Sunday, 3 September 2017
Let’s go back in history today to the 8th C of Our Lord. In China the great Tang Dynasty was at its zenith, a period of expansion and prosperity that had succeeded the Han Dynasty. In Europe things were different. The Roman Empire had fractured in the 5th C, with the Eastern part becoming rejuvenated and is known to us as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, also known as Byzantium, but the Western part had collapsed into what is sometimes, and unfairly, called the Dark Ages. England was about to enter a period of chaos with the arrival of the Vikings at the end of the century, burning and looting and destroying the small kingdoms of England.
But in Byzantium, another controversy had arisen. The Empire had been under pressure with the rise of the new Arab Caliphate, based at Damascus, preaching their religion of Mohammad. The Empire was under attack: Egypt had fallen a century before and now all Africa along the Mediterranean was in Muslim hands. Then the Arabs moved north threatening the borders of what we now call Turkey.
So why did this happen? The Empire was Christian, and believed they ruled with God’s approval. Had God withdrawn his favour? What had they done to offend God?
Now, one of the things that separated Christians from Muslims, and Jews, was how Christians dealt with the second commandment, the prohibition against images. Christians in the East had developed a devotional life around icons, pictures of Our Lord and the saints. In contrast Muslims and Jews had no such images. Was God angry with the Empire because they used images, and gave victory to the Muslims because they didn’t? The Emperors moved against the use of icons, destroying many and prohibiting their use. The controversy about this went on for about a century before it was finally decided that Christians could use images: Our Lord had taken on human form and therefore used our human image himself, so we could use such images as a way of worship and veneration.
Now, all this seems a long, long time ago. But it deals with an issue that is still at the heart of our worship – how do we use things in honour of God? After all, God is so remote in one sense, that any depiction is really just a pale shadow of the reality. If we are an imageless religion, we are like the Muslims, who in their strict form have no images at all in their mosques and worship towards a niche facing Mecca. Mosques are open clear spaces where everything can be seen, in contrast to the darker Orthodox churches with their hidden spaces. In Mecca there is the stone, enclosed by a cube, covered with black, a symbol of God. No other image exists – even the house of Mohammed was pulled down by the extremists a century ago in case it became a distraction. It is this distrust of images that still drives the IS extremists to destroy any other image.
Now consider this: we still live in the pull between those who believe God can have no representation and those who believe we can use representations. There are good Christians who believe that the best way to worship God is without any distraction that can lead the mind away, for that is idolatry and a breach of the 2nd Commandment. Then there are those who rejoice in the use of our skills in the glory of God: hands up, St George’s Goodwood.
In one sense in comes down to how we regard ourselves. Now we can see ourselves as separated from God. But we can also see God reaching out to us to bridge that gap, most notably in the person of Jesus, who comes to us in human form. Jesus sanctifies our humanity, and takes our humanity into his divinity. Therefore, what ever we do for the glory of God is accepted by God as a sign of our love.
But there is more than just this: it is also the realisation that God uses our symbols and works to show God’s own glory. This is the point of God coming to us in human form: God reaches us through our humanity and our human works. God wants us to explore the symbols that we use to see something of the depth of God. Symbols are important because God uses them. That is why, for example, Matthew tells in his Gospel that God sent dreams to tell messages: dreams can point to divine revelation. We do not need to stand naked and alone before God: God clothes us with symbols for our delight.
In a Church then we deliberately use these symbols to touch God. Through sacraments we find God, but also in the beauty of our worship, the music, the liturgy and our prayers, we proclaim a God who is holy and loving. But there is another point about how we use the image of our Church – it is God wanting us to be involved. God gives us all this creativity and skills and asks us to use them for the glory of God. Every voice, every skill is here for God. We can be terrified before God: we can dare make no image worthy of that divine image. But then we forget that God has sanctified our efforts by becoming one of us and invites us to use these skills.
A church is therefore one of those strange meeting places of God and us. It is a place more than anywhere else we try our best for God to show our love. Every little bit helps. We build in beauty and we also dust and keep clean to show our love. Our voices sing of his glory and our hands polish the pews. In all and everything we show our love for God. Here we see in a place well loved some of that love that God has for us as well: of music and beauty and good order. Our church also reflects the mystery of God: it is not an open barn where all is seen in one glance, it needs to be explored and lived in, like our understanding of God.
After a century of conflict the iconoclastic controversy in the empire resolved itself and images were embraced as a means of seeing God. The Orthodox still celebrate this day in Lent every year with a Sunday called the triumph of Orthodoxy. It is still a choice for us: do we embrace our skill sand lives as a means of glorifying God or do we regard them as suspect and unworthy of God? Do we treat our churches as a convenient place to come together or of a place that reflect the presence of God, full of beauty and life?
Our Faith inside the Boat – 2 August, 2017.
Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Our Lord calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and side-tracked Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. If we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.
Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the Church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box.”
No doubt Our Lord wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.
But is that really what Our Lord really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.
So, I wonder if when Our Lord says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”
The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the Church, and no wonder. Even the word “nave” which is this section of the church, comes from the Latin word for ship, “navis.” The roof of the nave sometimes, like here, looks like an upside-down wooden boat. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, sailing is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbour. Christians have long treasured this image of the Church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.
In today’s gospel it says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.
But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Our Lord doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their Scriptures. Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”
There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, good old Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course, you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”
Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.
That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives to them a promise, all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Our Lord has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.
There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Based on a sermon by Chris Sikkema.
The Gamble of being a Disciple – OS17A, 30 July, 2017.
Today we tackle one of those pesky parables of Jesus. Parables can be hard at times, probably because we listen to them with dull ears, having heard them time and time again. Also, they use images that are not common to us, things like mustard seeds, treasures in fields, pearls and fishing are not things we do every day.
But think of it to those who first heard theses stores, the congregation of Matthew all those centuries ago, living in a city close to the needs of the world. They would have been the farmers, fishermen and merchants that easily made sense of what they heard. I wonder if Jesus came today he would tell us parables of the vacuum cleaner, or mobile phone, using those day to day objects that shape our life.
Firstly, a little about the structure of these parables. They follow the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, which present Jesus giving a new way of living, like Moses coming down the mountain to give the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Then we are presented with seven parables, a number of perfection in Scripture, like the seven days of creation.
Now let’s look at the images he uses. A mustard seed comes first: here it’s a type of weed, no one would sow it willingly yet this is what Jesus says here. Yet out of this crazy act comes this tree where birds will nest, which by the way are not there as beauty objects but as good bush food. Then we have the leaven being hid in the flour, turning the flour into good bread. Then we have the treasure being found in a field: it’s like winning Lotto you want to own that field, like you would want to own that winning ticket. Then the wonderful pearl that the merchant wants to own. Note for both of these two they have to see everything they own to buy the field and the pearl: the kingdom of heaven means giving up everything to take the chance. Then finally we have those fish: everything is sorted out at the end and the good separated from the bad.
Now there are a few things that the parables are teaching here. One is that the weirdness of life. Bad seed like mustard seed can bring forth good things like nice food in birds. Weird things like leaven, whose operation was not understood, can make flour turn into great bread. Our Lord is saying we don’t understand how life works. But that’s not to worry us. God will work out the good and the bad at the end of time; just let it be and it will work out. The second parable in this series, which we miss this week, tackles that as well, with the command to let the good what grow with the weeds until the harvest at the end of time when the angels will do the sorting. We are not to go around trying to paint things evil and things good and making our decisions. God knows what is good and bad, we are to live our own lives and not go around judging others.
The next thing is that the Kingdom of Heaven involves a risk. The farmer has to sell everything he has to buy the field and the merchant his goods to buy the pearl. Learning to follow Jesus involves a risk, we have to learn to give up what we have at times to take on God’s work. That’s not easy. What if the farmer went back to the field where he hid the treasure and it was gone? What if the merchant went back to buy the pearl and it was already sold? There is risk and the need to hurry to take the chance of getting the great treasure or pearl.
Let’s also think about what the risk means for us. There is always a risk in being a Christian. Today it means that people just thinking you are mad or supporting an institution that is involved with prejudice and worse. How many people think you are mad or worse because you come here on Sunday morning? Or even worse, it you are found out that you come here for a mass on a day that is not a Sunday. Reputation is a risk for us.
Finally, there is a little sting at the end of these parables. We have the passage that the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. It can also read that every scribe who has become a disciple of the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a master of a household who throws out his old and new treasure. Now remember that Matthew was probably one of the rabbi class, one of those Scribes, who often are coupled with the Pharisees as the opponents of Jesus. Perhaps here Matthew is having a sly dig at people like himself, who had learnt the old wisdom of the Scriptures and the new wisdom of the age, who now had to risk everything to learn the new way of following Jesus. Matthew continually tells us that Jesus came not to abolish the Scripture but to fulfil it, so that the new way of following Jesus is not just the old way of the Law, or just a new way, but a completion. Perhaps Matthew is trying to teach his church that to follow Jesus is to take a risk always, a preparedness to let go of things we have to accept new ways. Perhaps it is also a challenge to learn to live with what we see as evil in our midst and let God work it out at the end of time. That must have been especially hard for those who understood certain people to be unclean under the old laws, but then every age has those we think of as unsuitable. Finally I think Matthew was trying to tell his people that we had to let go of all treasure, old and new, to take in the new wealth of following Jesus – yes, it is a risk, but only by doing this can we truly be disciple.
What’s in a Name – Sermon for the Ordination of Richard Burr to the Priesthood,
29 July, 2017
I’m rather fond of saints. I would also like to say that I rather hope that also, saints are rather fond of me, too. Saints are great inspirations for ministry. When I started my ministry at my present parish of St George’s Goodwood, I had several saints’ days around the time for my induction. There was St Catherine of Siena, mystic and teacher who died in 1380: she famously told the pope that it was time he had to move back to Rome. The good archbishop decided against that day, perhaps because he didn’t need any more people telling him what to do. Then a few days later there was the feast of St Athanasius: a good Egyptian saint who did in 373. He famously was outlawed by the Emperor several times because of his unbending orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the Archbishop didn’t like that date either. What he plumped for was the feast day of Julian of Norwich, mystic, teacher, who died around 1417: a lovely woman whose most famous words were “and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a mantra I have found very useful in parish life and meetings.
But today we have Martha, Mary and Lazarus, a good inspiration for any priest, I think. Let’s think of Martha: the one who famously asks Jesus to reprove her sister for not helping her in the kitchen. Dear Father, you will endlessly be a Martha in your ministry. The gifts of the Holy Spirit that you have received will be stretched not only by tenderly anointing the dying, giving forgiveness and healing through absolution, but also by washing the dishes in the hall after morning tea and sweeping the hall after a parish function when everyone else has gone home. Martha was also a great cook. Our good Lord’s ministry is so marked by eating; in some parts of the Gospel he seems to do nothing else but go from one meal to another until he becomes the bread of heaven himself: and your own ministry will be marked by learning to given hospitality, to serve the outcast and unwanted. Dishes have to be done Father, and you will need to say a few prayers to Martha.
Then Mary, lovely Mary, who wanted to sit at our Lord’s feet and listen. A priest is a person who listens, a person who listens to God. So much of ministry will seems to be about forms and duties, annual returns and emails, mission statements and rosters, sermons and pew sheets. But Our Good Lord never asked us about paperwork, but he does ask us to listen. At times, you need to just sit and listen to Our Lord. Sometimes that will mean remembering to read that book that should be read so you will stay fresh of ideas, sometimes it will mean sitting in a kitchen with an old parishioner and listening to her life and bad breath. Sometimes it will even mean listening to your bishop telling you things you need to hear. We are called to be listeners, Father. This will not always be understood. Your churchwardens may want you to run from place to place with a mobile phone that never stops. Make space in your life Father for time to listen. Make space in your life for prayer in church. Ask the prayers of Mary to give you the strength to sit and listen.
Then we have Lazarus. This feast is sometimes commemorated as only Marth and Mary, but Lazarus has gradually crept in. I’m mightily pleased he is here today for you Father. We need to remember Lazarus. Lazarus is sometimes talked about as a sign of the resurrection of Christ, but we when we do we can forget that Lazarus was not resurrected. Lazarus did not rise to a life eternal. Lazarus was called from the dead to live and die once more. We even learn in John that the authorities planned to put Lazarus to death because people were believing in Our Lord because of what had happened to Lazarus. He was brought back to life to become a creature of notoriety, a man wanted by the authorities so they could put him to death again. Father, the bad news is that you will die many times in ministry. There will be situations that despite all the best will in the world things do not work out. There will be times when it is your own silly fault. At times your body may just give up and you cannot go on. But today you are being made a priest: it’s called an indelible spiritual character, which is like a stain you can’t get out in the wash. What happens today marks you as a priest forever. No matter what happens, you will be always a priest: and you will learn that means dying many times and learning to listen again to the words of Our Lord to Lazarus: come out! Come out from the disappointment, come out from the disaster, come out of the tomb. When Lazarus came out, he found that Our Lord and his family were there for him. Ministry is like that: we die at times, but if we believe we will hear the voice of Our Lord calling us to come out of the tomb we have entered. Ministry surely is the triumph of hope over experience, that Our Lord will take us to a new life. We never know where that ministry will call us: and we can be continually surprised where that ministry will lead us. Lazarus is a good saint to have Father, for those hard moments in ministry, because Our Lord will never give up on us, and each time we die we will have the chance to hear the voice of Our Good Lord calling us again. Pray to Lazarus as well Father. Then Father, we can come out and go on to new life, new ministry, new hope. Lazarus is the sign of hope in our ministry; we can live again.
Finally, Father, there is another name to remember for this feast day. This is your day, Father, it is Richard’s day. For the rest of your life you will have this day to remember and give thanks to God. You cannot, nor can anyone else, undo this day. As sure as the saints are entered into the heavenly host you too are entered into the priesthood. You will grow and question, you will slave like Martha and listen like Mary, you will die like Lazarus and rise again: but in all of these things you will be called to live the Gospel life. In your retreat, Father, I asked you to remember one word: focus. Focus is the Latin for the hearth, the fire of the home. A fire in an ancient house was the centre, the place of cooking and warmth that could never be allowed to go out. When people travelled they took a little piece of the fire with them: when they discovered a frozen stone age man in the passes of the Italian alps a number of years ago they discovered he was also carrying, wrapped carefully in leaves, a little ember from the last hearth, fire, ready for the next time he stopped. Your focus now is the fire of God given to you in this special way through being ordained a priest. You will take this focus with you through your ministry and question in all things: how am I here a priest of God in this place where I am? How am I Martha; how am I Mary; how am I Lazarus; but most importantly how am I Richard the priest of the church of God?
Father, you are now to be made a priest. You are called to occupy that strange hinterland between the secular and sacred, the temporal and the eternal, acting as an interpreter and a mediator, embodying and signifying faith, hope and love. You will be both distant and immediate, remote yet close. You will be called to close the gap between God and the world. You will be called to be a man of the world and a citizen of heaven. You are called to be a focus for your people, a fire of God, a Martha, a Mary, a Lazarus and most importantly, Richard, the priest of God.
In the interests of being a guest preacher and making sure I don’t give too short a sermon, Father, I give you this poem by Reginald Askew for your ministry:
Give us a man of God
Father, to pray for us,
Longed for, and insignificant,
But excellent in mercy,
And ordain him
Someone who loves the mystery of the faith
Whose conversation seems
Credibly to come from heaven
A poor man, a hungry man
Whose hospitality is endless.
Give us a preaching man,
Father, who doesn’t know how to fake,
A free man, on holiday
In this parish, a still man
Good as an ikon
With a heart full of treasure;
Someone to talk to
When death comes here,
A fellow countryman of birth and death
And the dynasty of our family,
Whose eye has missed nothing.
Give us a man without sanctimony
Father, to handle what is eternal,
A private citizen among miracles
Not his, modest
Capable of silence
Someone who reminds us now and then
Of your own description
And another kingdom
By the righteousness of his judgement
Or some grace in what’s done
In laying down his life even
For his friends.
Wheat and Weeds Growing Together – Pentecost 7 23 July, 2017
We are all aware that there is evil in the world. The nightly news makes that all too clear. Despite unparalleled prosperity of the last century there is still poverty, civil war and terror in the world. Even in our own suburbs people live in fear, of being cheated, or attacked.
There is very little calm as a result. Even the Church has evil within, our own sins that have tarnished our public image, or just the besetting sin of bureaucracy turning the kingdom of God into reporting agency.
So why does it happen? What do we do about evil?
The gospel today is about sin in the world. The wheat is sown, yet as it grows weeds are seen in the crop. When the servants ask the master how the weeds came, they are told that an enemy has been and thrown in the weeds.
The response to the servants is that they want to go out and collect them immediately. The problem is that the weeds are hard to tell from the wheat. So the Master says to leave it there till the harvest.
Note that the servants are not aware of how the weeds arrived. It’s the same in the world – we don’t know how the evil often arrives – we are suddenly aware of the evil in the midst, but by that time it is too late. The origin of evil is one of the mysteries of the world and of faith. Living as humans just doesn’t give us the perspective to understand the origin of evil. There is no way to understand the way evil starts. How can fully explain the origins of so much of the evil in the world today? We are left with the bland statement that it is the work of an enemy. Evil at the end cannot be explained away. All we can do is acknowledge that it is there.
The problem is to tell the difference between good and evil. In the wheat field the Master tells it is hard to distinguish wheat and weeds. So the Master says to leave both till harvest.
The servants had wanted to purge the field, but the damage they would have done would have damaged the crop. Good wheat would have been destroyed along with the weeds – good would have suffered with evil.
That’s so often the result in the world – the problem is that evil is often not clear. It’s hard to work out at times what is evil until its fruit is clear, let alone work out who is evil. The when we tackle evil we have a tendency to paint people as evil, rather than actions. We demonise people and then we react by treating the people as evil, rather than the cause. I am saddened by how people are maligning Cardinal Pell, as though he were already guilty. Yes, the system has its faults, but no matter what one thinks of the Cardinal, and I am not a fan of his, he deserves a presumption of innocence. People are demonising him.
The end result of the parable is that the Master tells people to wait, to look after the field and wait till the harvest when the weeds will be separated. It is not an easy answer. It tells us that ultimately, the separation of evil from good must be left to God.
So what to we do when we are confronted with evil? All we can do is to be clear that it is evil: to state what we believe; to distinguish between wheat and weeds. The servants watched the field and saw the weeds, in the same way all we can do is to acknowledge a weed when we see it: to look at the evil, not at the person.
Part of the reason for this is that evil has a way of being very hard to distinguish at times. We can point to evil; then it disappears until next time. In the end all we can do is to see the evil, point to it, but leave judgment to God. Never become fixated that something is evil – be prepared to let things change and good come through.
An example of this can be seen in Jesus’s ministry. Consider the disciples who would have been there while Jesus gave this parable. Judas was there as well. Yet Jesus never excludes Judas, for he too had a part to play in the story of the cross. If Jesus were in no rush to weed out Judas, then who are we to be in a rush to exclude what we see as evil. There is no such thing as a totally evil person – as long as they live they is the hope of good coming through. That is why judgment of what is good and evil belongs to God, and to the time of judgment when God will decide.
Furthermore, in ourselves we always have to recognise the presence of our own evil that lurks in us waiting for a moment to strike forth. When we see evil in others, then remember: that but for the grace of God there we could be.
Let us not be in a haste to paint people as evil. Judgment belongs to God, all we can do is to state when we believe we see evil, and try and help to allow change. That’s not an easy answer, but evil does not have an easy solution. Just trust God to work things out.
The Right Yoke – Pentecost 5, 9 July 2017
When you look at the Gospel passage today there are two themes in it that I would like you to ponder: the children in the market place and the yoke.
I’ll deal quickly with the children in the market place, because it’s a fascinating passage. The word used there, paidon, is more than little children, it can mean young adults, and what may be happening there is that they are young actors in the market, doing dramas. That’s why they are playing flutes, dancing and wailing. The significance for us is that is how some scholars think the first gospel, Mark, arose, from a market drama. It’s only a theory, but that’s how the sayings of Jesus may have first been put together as a drama piece for performance. Our Lord is making the point about people: they see life passing by, in this case the witness of John the Baptist, but they don’t enter into it, but treat it like a drama. It’s always a problem: we see the spectacle of Jesus’s life and death and life shown here week after week, but we become spectators, complacent; and don’t enter into it as life.
Anyway, then we come to the next passage I want to deal with, the line “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s a great passage that is used a lot of times. But it does capture such a bigger picture that I am going to break one of my rules and concentrate on it.
But let’s zero onto two words: “yoke” and “easy.” If you remember anything from this sermon I want you to remember these two.
Yoke is number one. Now when the old Jewish scholars talked about the Law of Moses they often called it the yoke. It’s a good word, because the old Law had a world of rules to show people how to live their lives. It gave a certainty in working out what was right and what was wrong, the ability to do things that God would want you to do. Now yokes are those wooden harnesses they like to put on oxen that allow a few bullocks to work together and pull the plough. Remember that in ancient times and in fact well into the Middle Ages most ploughing was done by oxen, not horses. When you harness oxen together you unite their strength and allow them to work as a team. So it is with the Law. By everyone following the Law we live in a society that follows God. The thing that Our Lord did not like about the Law was that it had become too full of laws that were too restrictive and finicky, the Law was no longer filled with love and freedom.
So Our Lord wants people to take on his yoke, which will give rest for our souls. Our Lord is teaching us that there are new ways to live that free us from becoming scrupulous about rules and regulations, but instead are to all about love. We are to learn from him, for Our Lord is gentle and humble in heart and we can find rest for our souls. Jesus does not want us all up tight trying desperately to be good: Jesus wants us to love and be gentle, and find rest in our lives.
Okay, that the first word of “yoke” done. Now let’s look at the second word, “easy.”
Now the first thing to learn about the word “easy” is what it is not. He does not mean that is easy like when we say a test was easy, or the road was easy. That’s not it at all. The word here is “chrestos” which means sort of good or kind. This is where you need to think like a farmer. Yokes are easy not because they are light or something like that, but because they fit well. Have you ever tried to wear a dress or shoe that is too tight? Well, that’s what’s going on here. If a yoke is made badly it’s not easy because it doesn’t fit properly, it likes trying to wear a bathing costume a size too small. A yoke is easy because it fits properly.
Now this is where we need to think what does a well-fitting yoke means. It means a yoke that is designed for us. Our Lord is telling us to look at what we are burdened down with in life. Are we having a badly fitted life, with responsibilities which we are not coping with because we are not meant to carry them? Or are we doing the opposite, not taking on responsibilities that we should? For the proper yoke is easy and the burden is light: God has made us and knows the burdens we are meant to have in life and never, never gives us more than we can bear. It’s our own silly selves that take on the wrong jobs or avoid the responsibilities that God wants us to have.
Now being a Christian is not easy, easy in the sense we normally use it. That’s why I hate the wrong use of this passage. Being a Christian can be very difficult at times. Why – because if you really believe that God has made each and every person in God’s own image you have to weep over the folly of people and the world that distort and ignore the precious gifts of souls. You have to weep over the torments that people put themselves and others through. But the only things that makes sense of it all is the belief that Our Lord has taken on this world with all it’s pain and knows and shares that pain and still loves each and every person.
The yoke is easy and the burden is light because Jesus makes it uniquely for each one of us. The only way we can work out what that yoke is for each of us is to learn to pray and listen to God. That’s why there is a little pun going on here with the word “easy.” Remember: the word in the Greek is “chrestos.” That’s a whole lot similar to “Christos,” Christ. It’s hard to listen to the difference in Greek and it’s meant to be hard: chrestos, Christos, chrestos, Christos – it’s meant to sound the same and that’s why a rather obscure word is used, in fact it’s only used a few times in the whole Gospels. The only way we find what is well fitting, easy, is Christ.
Then there is another little thought to think about: Jesus was a carpenter. One of the jobs a carpenter would have had to do for those farmers so long, long ago was to make yokes, and a carpenter could only do that by knowing the ox and shaping and carving that yoke till it fitted properly. Well, think then of the Son of God, Jesus doing that in Galilee so many centuries ago. You know what: Jesus is still doing that now for our yokes now so that they are easy and the burdens are light.
Welcoming – Pentecost 4, 2 July 2017
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”
Just so we get this straight: whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes your friend or neighbour or family member or work colleague or politician or mother-in-law or next-door neighbour or chatty seat companion on a bus or the grocery checker or barber or the kid who hit your new car with a ball…and so on and so forth…welcomes God? We could have fun with this! But would there ever be an end to such a list of those who are welcome? If there is an end to such a list of who is welcome, what does this mean? And if not, well- what does that mean?
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes any one of us welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.
The message we hear in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew was important enough to Jesus and to the early church that some variation on this theme shows up in each gospel, and often more than once. Also in Matthew’s gospel from chapter 18 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” and from chapter 25 “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, …you did it to me.’” Mark includes similar verses. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares that “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The Jesus in John’s gospel, in true poetic style, declares in chapter 13 “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
There are numerous other examples and variations throughout the New Testament record. The bottom line emphasis seems to be on inclusion, reciprocity, welcome and doing for others – all those things it takes to build up community, to include the stranger as neighbour. If we can believe the record of today’s lesson and so many other passages, Jesus and the early disciples and later apostles put a high value on welcoming and proclaiming the presence of God thereby.
Pause for a moment and think about what we’ve been hearing about the dangers of Moslems and to the present day about division, exclusion, keeping people separated, kicking people out.
There may be legitimate and compelling reasons to consider the economic impact or national safety issues in such things, but if an inhospitable, exclusive attitude goes along with these ideas, then they are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality.
Hospitality is a primary ethic of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East even now. There is joy in welcoming, there is the belief that it is desired of God, the welcoming of strangers who are strangers no longer, but beloved friends, believing that in welcoming people into one’s home they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do in welcoming the living God among us.
Such an understanding of hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates back to well before the time of Jesus. It was a matter of survival and community health which translated into the religious understanding of what God wants of us. Where and how do we experience such welcome today?
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”
Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and repudiation?
So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the world stage and in the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in a variety of television shows with comments about the increase in bullying not only among children in our schools, but flowing out into our neighbourhoods, showing up in stepped-up immigration strictures, among other things.
Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him?
Last Thursday was the celebration of the feast of Peter and Paul. They did not agree on many things, didn’t get along well at times, and went their separate ways in the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter insisted that the early believers must follow Jewish ways, must be circumcised, must hold to the Law. Paul’s vision led him to distant lands proclaiming faith in a risen Christ and urging believers to conform their lives to that faith. What they had in common, though, was the conviction that God had visited humanity in Jesus, and that Jesus had brought something new and remarkable to humankind demonstrated in a way to live, a way to relate and a way to witness to God’s love, and they both understood that the welcome of God was an invitation to a place in God’s kingdom.
This week we also saw the results of the last census of last year. We are becoming a less religious society. We are also becoming more diverse as people come here not just from the UK, but India and China. Let us also ask ourselves what Jesus meant in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).
We may believe differently about the details of faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians are wont to do. We may understand what being Australian is differently; we have always held a variety of opinions on things.
But for us as Christian Australians or Australian Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighbourhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes? For we are Christians first, as citizens of God’s kingdom, living that faith in a context of privilege and challenge.
Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he pretty clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as Australians, we have to grapple with what it means to live in a country that is less Anglo-centric and less Christian.
Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. Can we at least agree on that?
As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware.
Based partly on a sermon by The Rev’d Machrina Blasdell of Park University, USA.
Sermon on the 170th Anniversary of the Consecration of Bishop Short of Adelaide
25 June, 2017
Archdeacon Emeritus Michael Whiting
Our gospel today is part of the second discourse in S. Matthew of Our Lord to his disciples concerning their mission in and to the world; a mission not just to the people of Israel but in time to the Gentiles as well… and the guiding thought of that mission? Have no fear…are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one will fall to the ground apart from your Father… so do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
If God cares for seemingly insignificant animals, Our Lord is saying, how much more so will God care for human beings. For all of us called to take our faith to others there is often a justifiable reticence and sometimes fear. This is so until we recall that at every moment we are accompanied by Our Lord. As in verse 39 of today’s gospel – Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. We are to trust, for our actions in mission can only ever be for the glory of God, and for no other purpose.
This gospel reading is most apt at this time. Next Thursday, 29 June, is the Feast of St Peter and for this Diocese a day of some significance. It will be 170 years, on that day, since the inauguration of the Diocese of Adelaide in Westminster Abbey. On the 29 June 1847 Augustus Short was ordained and consecrated as our first bishop. The creation of the new Diocese was only possible because a young heiress, Angela Burdett Coutts, donated the necessary funds.
A few months earlier, in January of 1847, on a bleak winter Saturday morning, while at breakfast, Short had received the invitation to a colonial episcopate frm Archbishop Howley of Canterbury. Short often referred to Providence in his life — the grace of God opening his path ahead – and no occasion was more unexpected, nor more intriguing, than this invitation. Providence was calling him, (as he later described in 1882); and following the principle I had previously acted on in life, viz., to follow the path opened to me rather than “choose my way”, he consented because trust in God was fundamental to his faith and its practice – I wrote to the Archbishop to accept the see of Adelaide — I prayed that I might do right & tho’ sorely tried with evil & backsliding I prevailed and have had no misgivings since — on the contrary have felt holy courage and firmness of faith in Christ & trust in God’s Providence such as I never felt before.
During the 1830s and 1840s there was much revival and reform in the United Church of England and Ireland; not least, in the rapidly changing ecclesiastical landscape, was the astonishing expansion of the British Empire. As settlers from the United Kingdom spread across the globe, the issue of church organisation and continuity became paramount. Bishop Blomfield of London led the cause for new bishops for the colonies and on that day in 1847, four new bishops were consecrated together: Augustus Short for Adelaide, Charles Perry for Melbourne, William Tyrell for Newcastle and Robert Gray for Cape Town.
This was a momentous occasion for the English Church and its colonial life, and the scene was described with some enthusiasm in the Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal (‘Consecration of Colonial Bishops’ 1847). The Abbey had been selected for this service because it was ‘decided that the Consecration should be public, and in the face of the Church’. Sixteen hundred tickets were issued thus ensuring as grand an ordination service not seen in London for generations.
It is impossible to convey the interest and the heart-stirring felt by those who witnessed it. Our strong feeling was that it was a day worth having lived to see: — to have lived to see four additional Bishops sent out to lands far off, partly by the piety of one member of the Church [a reference to Miss Burdett Coutts] — partly by the self-denial of a Prelate, himself for some years labouring in a distant colony (a reference to Bishop Broughton of Sydney who offered half his stipend for new bishoprics) — partly by the devotion and aid of the members of the Church — this was much to be thankful for. But to see these Bishops set apart for their high office in the face of sixteen hundred persons — to witness the devout earnestness and reverent attention of that great congregation, and to partake with nearly eight hundred persons of the Holy Communion — was a comfort, a privilege, and a blessing, which, as we have said, could be fully appreciated only by those who were present.
Bishop Blomfield preached and he addressed the mission of the four men as they went forth:
Who are the men whom our Church sends out, to tend and to feed the distant corners of her fold? Are they not those, who are in the actual enjoyment of competency and comfort here, with the prospect, it may be, of a reasonable share of those rewards which the Church has to offer to the learning and piety and diligence of her ministers? And what is there to tempt them to enter the work to which they are called — that of the most arduous and responsible of all offices — invested with no dignity but that which is purely spiritual; clothed with no prerogatives but those which carry with them a preeminence of labour; endowed with no measure of this world’s goods but that which may barely suffice for a maintenance?
Augustus Short was forty-five. He and Millicent had five children, and had experienced the deaths of two others. He was a foremost scholar from Christ Church Oxford yet knew lonely a ittle of colonial South Australia. Just over two months later, on 1 September 1847, the family embarked for the sea voyage to their new world. Short’s own diary conveys a final word: 1 Sept … embarked at ½ past one. It was a serious & solemn moment but I was not moved to tears of parting. The ladies had tears in their eyes but the greatness of the cause would not let me cry. I felt even cheerful. The world was all before me & Providence my guide. On board the novelty of the situation drew my thoughts from separation — so passed the first evening at Spithead.
Bishop Short was small of stature but became a giant of South Australian history, and the Anglican Church in Australia. He laboured for an amazing thirty-four years as our bishop only retiring in his eightieth year when ill-health was taking its inevitable toll.
Short fulfilled the instructions of Our Lord in today’s gospel – he showed little fear, he held to a deep and abiding trust in God, and he did in so many ways lose his life for Our Lord’s sake, then found it anew in a mission that endures for us today – we see it in schools, churches and parishes, in a cathedral and a theological college, and in farsighted financial and organisational arrangements. He could easily, after a reasonable time, have returned to England and the comforts of the established Church. Instead he chose to lose his life `for the sake of Our Lord’s mission in South Australia, and in the process, he was to find it anew.
Augustus Short often spoke of Providence in his life. He grew to believe that his destiny revolved around obedience to God, trust in His Providence, and assurance of His love.
So now, with obedience, trust and love before the One God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due, all glory, majesty, authority and power, now and forever. Amen.
Seeing the Reality – Corpus Christi 18 June 2017
Things change a lot over time as we grow older. Every day when we look in the mirror and think back a few years, or decades, we are very much aware that we don’t look, or move, like we used to.
I’m also dealing with a mother at this time who is slowly suffering from dementia, and learning to live with the changes that involves. Many of you have had similar things with parents, husbands or wives, as we deal with loving a person who is no longer the same. The person changes and starts to lose memories of who I am, but we still recognise and love the person as we see past the dementia to the person we love.
Here we face the classical definition of what makes a being. We think of a person in two ways, who they are and what they look like, the substance or essence and the appearance. Both can be subject to change. Anno Domino, the course of time, will change our looks. Sometimes accidents also do, rather violently. Most of us may have suddenly been faced with a person after many years and don’t recognise the person at all. It’s only after a while, perhaps, we remember and recognise the person from who they are in their substance, their character.
Then there are the times when their substance changes: maybe through a stroke that alters the personality in some way, or through drugs. We sometimes say that they are not the person they were – yes, they look the same but we have recognised a change in whom they are as a being, in the substance. It’s often a more disturbing change, it worries us more, for we tend to count this as more integral to whom we think that person is.
Now let’s think about dealing with Our Lord. Jesus came to us and lived as one of us. He had an appearance and a character, a personality, a substance, which his friends recognised as their friend. At times they found this appearance changing, such as the transfiguration when he became whiter than everything else. Then after he was killed he appeared again, but at times they found his appearance very disturbing; they did not recognise him at first, or he appeared with wounds that had been part of his torture but did not seem to cause him pain any more. Sometime they wondered if he was a ghost, someone without a true body, so he invited them to touch him and he ate in the presence to prove he was a real body.
Yet after all this he told them he had to leave them so they could receive the Holy Spirit. Now that Spirit, by definition, was not going to be a person, a substance that they would see and touch. But he also promised them that they could eat his body and drink his blood and be part of him: physical impossibilities and also revolting. Yet he seemed to place immense importance on this; that they had to be part of his body in this way. Then, when he knew his life was coming to an end, on the very night he was to be arrested and the day before he would be killed, he took bread and wine and said that this was going to be his body and his blood and they we were to take this and do it in his memory. To make the point even clearer, on the road to Emmaus, he kept his friends from recognising him, of recognising his appearance or substance, until he took bread and broke it. Then they recognised him in the breaking of the bread (not at the breaking, but in it itself) and his physical form disappeared. The substance of how his friends recognised him was now in the bread and wine.
Now this truth on how to see Our Lord and friend Jesus is immensely important. We are challenged to learn to see him not by appearances but by the deeper reality of substance. That’s why we have this feast today, which we call Corpus Christi, the Latin for Body of Christ. It’s a time when we think on how we see our Lord Jesus. We are being asked to see the world in a different way, not to judge it and understand it just by its appearance: that’s too shallow. After all, it’s not how we deal with our friends. We really deal with people by recognising their substance. So God calls us to understand that this is the truer reality and makes this permanent sign in our midst by being presence in the substance of the wine and bread. God saying to us; don’t be taken in by appearances, don’t judge a book by its cover, all those truisms we hear. Because the reality is much deeper and stronger when we see the real presence in the substance, the spiritual reality beyond what time and matter dresses it up in our world.
Now, once we start to understand that appearances are just a passing fashion we then start to understand that we are to look more deeply into all life. We start to see Jesus in other ways, in Scripture we listen to, in the beauty of the world, in the silence of prayer, in the joy and tempo of music; all these things point to God in our midst. We also start to seek Jesus in those around us, in our families and love, in our friends, and even in the poor and misfit who teach us the tolerance we need so we understand the tolerance that God deals with us.. So many lessons await us when we start to loo beyond what things look like in appearance. But this calls for a deeper way of living, and that’s why we need our sacrament here so we become, by taking the bread and wine, eating his body and blood, part of his true body beyond any appearance.
On earth there can be nothing more precious to us than this bread and wine because it is the body and blood of Christ. That’s why we worship with all the beauty we can muster. That’s why we offer this as many times as we can, not only on a Sunday but every day. It’s the only way we can escape the delusions of appearances in the world and find the true heaven behind. That’s what we celebrate today.
Now I don’t know if my mother’s dementia will reach the stage when she no longer recognises me, but it may. But I pray that we will meet again in heaven when we will not recognise each other by what we look like as flesh and blood but as the full divine creatures God wants us to be. But until that day the only way I can learn to see the reality of what lies behind this appearance is to take this bread and sine and find in it the true presence of the body and blood of my God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The Trinity – 11 June 2017
Theology is sometimes thought to be hard, and sometimes it is. But let’s start by saying that theology is about understanding who we are at our deepest level, as children of God. But in the end theology is about living it. Consider parenting: parenting may be hard to explain but you never get a certificate to practice it, you live it out in families.
What you need to know about the Trinity is really straightforward. Revelation has shown God to be three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They instead of diving into how that all works out, go instead to think about how it holds together. The Trinity is best approached by how it moves, rather than breaking it down into parts. It’s like a car: what you see it how it moves, and for most of us we never care how it works until it doesn’t. For what holds the Trinity together is the love of each for each other: God the Father loving the Son and Spirit and so on. It’s that loving dynamic that gives movement to God and vitality. Too often we think of God as something static, some strange set of thrones sitting endlessly in heaven. But God’s all about movement, the movement of love, sometimes called the dance of life, that makes God explosive and active in pouring out love. It’s love which is the key: the love of God outpouring so much that it creates the universe and life to share that love. Evil is the two opposites: chaos or rigid uniformity, both of which we need to fear; God is instead a dynamic order, endless different and creative, that comes from the movement of the three in one.
Another way to think of the Trinity is by a dance: not one of those dances where everyone bobs up and down by oneself, but one of those folk dances where everyone holds hands and goes round and round. The dance is made by everyone together, not by individuals. Or another way from St Bonaventure, a mediaeval Franciscan, is that of the water wheel. The wheel, carrying three buckets, fills and empties, fills and empties unto eternity. There is the constant emptying of the God-self and the constant filling up, world without end, Amen.
Now that we have done the hard bit, let’s look at the consequences: how does the Trinity affect who I am and how I pray? This is far more immediate. There is a great gap between how we look at our spirituality and how we often approach the rest of the concrete world. If you are going to do the shopping you get organised: you have a list and transport. If you are going to train or go to the gym, you have goals: better health and less weight perhaps. But in our day-to-day life we set goals and tests to achieve what we want to do.
When we come to spirituality, however, we are often aimless. Many people never have a disciplined life of prayer, a regular time to pray, because they can’t see the purpose of it. The reason why people don’t pray is because they don’t see the need. But instead, let’s think what is the purpose of having a spiritual life and prayer. Now we can give many reasons: we can say the purpose of prayer is to make us more like the person God wants us to be. That’s a mouthful. But let’s just think about that in terms of the Trinity and god. If the core of action in God is love, then the purpose of prayer is to make us more loving.
Now this is a good test: for often we get caught in other patterns of life: to be wealthier, to achieve more, to look better. But, if the real test of who we are, is the test of the Trinity, then we have to ask ourselves: how am I better showing God’s love? How does love pour out from me I the manner that love pours out from the Trinity?
Then we get a reason for spending time in prayer every day. We start by loving God, the basis of any prayer, to just think about God. Prayer always has to start with God. Then how have we failed that test of God, how have we failed in love? That makes confession obvious. How have we not loved God and our neighbours. Then we can start to bring people to God in love: those on our hearts; our families; our friends in need; our departed ones. Prayer is always about love, that core of the Trinity. But prayer is also an active thing, which is what God is about.
But another point about spirituality: it’s not about us. The nature of God being Trinity is that God is three persons in love. In the same way, prayer is all about building our love for others, for building that relationship of love that mirrors that of the Trinity. Then you start to see how prayer transforms itself into action: it’s not good enough just to sit there and pray, eventually we have to take our love out and do something with it. This means service, helping the poor, fighting evil. It’s all about action, which is all about God. That’s why it’s important to think of the Trinity in not the terms of what it is, but what holds it together. It you concentrate on the love of God then you start to have a dynamic way of infusing your spirituality.
So prayer is just the working out the essence of the Trinity: that we are to live more deeply in the love of God and show that love. We show it by seeing how we have fallen short of love, bringing those we love to God, and bringing that love we have to others in action. It’s all about love, which is all about the trinity, which is why we are here today. So we don’t need to worry about how God the Father relates to God the Son and God the Spirit nor the controversies about if the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father. That’s all the mechanics. It’s like a light globe: you can find out how it works with electrons or you can just turn it on and enjoy its light. Well that’s the secret of the Trinity as well: don’t get bogged down in how it works: just let its love light you up.
Pentecost – 4 June 2017.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, which by its name points to something to do with 50. Well, it is the 50th day of Easter, and it celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit and the foundation of the Church.
However, when we hear the reading from Acts, it is clear that the day is not a new creation, like Christmas, but an already established festival in the Jewish calendar. In the Jewish calendar it the week of weeks, that is, the completion of seven times seven plus one, making of course fifty. It starts with the Passover, when the lamb is offered in remembrance of the passing over of the angel of death, and for us Good Friday, the offering of the spotless lamb Jesus. The Passover was also the offering of the first barley at the start of the harvest, when the barley is beaten and made into the first bread. Then for Pentecost the Jews celebrate two things again: the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Sinai and the completion of the barley harvest. So the third layer of meaning, that we celebrate, the giving of the Holy Spirit, is built upon the foundations of the giving of the Law and the conclusion of the barley harvest.
However, to make things even more complex, Luke in the Acts of the Apostles clearly builds upon a number of stories from the Book of Genesis, and in the passage today one underlying reference is to the story of the Tower of Babel. Now in that story the peoples of the earth come together to make with one language to make a name for themselves, in contrast to the name of God, who then confuses their language and to stop them making all things possible. Two of the stories in Genesis have the theme of God stopping humans becoming gods – the first, the expulsion from Eden least they eat the fruit of the tree of life, and here, at the Tower of Babel, least they make their own name and stop at nothing. The story of the Tower of Babel is about humanity wanting to become gods, to have their own name and be in rivalry to God.
However, Luke, the master storyteller, is also touching upon another theme from Genesis. When the world was created the spirit hovered over the face of the deep, and when man and woman were created from the dust of the earth God breathed into them the breath of life. Breath and wind are the same words in the Greek. So the coming of the spirit refers back again to the story of creation in Genesis.
But Luke does not stop there, the whole passage is full of references. Mary is present, as a symbol of the Ark of the covenant, for as David leapt before the Ark in the Old Testament so did John the Baptist leap before her in the womb of Elizabeth – the word is the same in Greek. The House is filled with fire, and the Temple is usually referred to the house. The tongues of fire are divided upon them, an odd word in Greek but refers to a prophecy of Zechariah. It goes on and on, and shows that a fulfilment of prophecy has been accomplished. The Spirit that comes is the Advocate, who reveals the old prophecies as a truth that points to the new way.
So with all these references echoing we come to the story of the first Christian Pentecost today. Those group of frightened disciples, the eleven and others, including Mary, in a locked room are filled with the Spirit, and go out with courage and conviction and change the world. Creation breaks forth again with a new breath, the new law is given to them in the Spirit and Babel is undone – a common understanding of tongues reverses the fragmentation of that tower of mythic memory.
When I reflect upon Pentecost I think we need to do a bit of linguistics. Pentecost was a time, an event, in History. But we, as Christians, need to think of Pentecost as a verb. We need to be pentecosted. That’s what happened in that locked room so long ago.
Like the disciples, we the church can sometimes crave the safety of locked doors, locked hearts, and locked minds. Behind locked doors, we can find comfort in the familiar, but if we truly seek to follow Jesus, we know that no locked doors will keep him from appearing in our midst and compelling us out in the world. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,” are words of promise if we are open the moving of the Spirit in our lives, in our church, in our world: if we are pentecosted we can change and say, “Come Holy Spirit.”
Being pentecosted is dangerous because it means that we must be open and vulnerable, willing to be challenged and changed so that we can seek and find Jesus in the ones we serve. “Come Holy Spirit” means that we must become open to the transforming power of God in our lives. It means that we will find ourselves standing with those on the margins, on the edges, on the outs.
Our simple prayer, “Come Holy Spirit,” is the first step towards saying “yes” to God’s desire in our life, to being pentecosted.
But do we really want to be pentcosted? Jesus, after his Baptism, found himself driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness, where things happen, where we are forced to face ourselves laid bare. Do we really want to be filled with that Spirit? The Holy Spirit makes things happen, compels us out into the world to find Jesus present in our sisters and brothers. She opens our eyes to more clearly see Jesus in those we would rather keep at arm’s length, the ones we are more comfortable serving from a distance, from behind the security of locked doors and the safety of a comfortable life.
Now I don’t know how God is calling you, how God wants each of you to be pentecosted. But I do know this: God never gives up on any person, and is continually calling us and moving us from safe places to God’s places. The continual calls of prayer and forgiveness are hard lessons we will be called to listen to as we are pentecosted. We can refuse and walk away. God always gives us the choice. Or we can listen.