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.