The blessing of diversity

First Sunday in Creation Time
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
6 September 2020

St Francis of Assisi and the Canticle of the Sun

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Spring has arrived, at least for those of us in the southern half of the world.

We can feel and see and hear urge of creation to renew itself and bring forth new life in all its abundance.

This is a good time to pause and reflect on creation—as we do in this annual season of Creation Time.

A time of jubilee

The theme for the Season of Creation in 2020 is: A jubilee for the earth.

In the Bible, there is an ancient Jewish tradition that all debts were to be forgiven every fiftieth year; the year of jubilee. We have no texts which describe that actually happening, but it remains a key concept for people of faith as we think about the baggage and bad debts we acquire over a lifetime. 

There comes a point where we need to let go of the past.

In this case, the jubilee is because 2020 marks 50 years since the first Earth Day events in 1970.

After drought, fires, floods, pandemic and climate change we might well be ready to settle the accounts with Mother Earth and set things back to how they should be.

It is clear that humanity has been mortgaging our lifestyle against the reserves of the Earth. We are deeply in debt and this may be a good time to declare a year of jubilee for the Earth, a time for a fresh beginning.

Biodiversity

Each Sunday during Creation Time has its own theme:

Biodiversity (today)
Land (next Sunday)
Water (the week after)
Climate Change (last Sunday in September)

Like me, I am sure you were appalled to learn of the massive death rates among animals and insects during the apocalyptic fires that raged across our ancient land last summer.

The numbers are staggering.

More than one billion animals, and that does not count large populations of insects and other species, or the ongoing impact due to loss of vegetation in burnt out areas.

This is not the time and place for a science lesson, but we have all noticed that our cars are not plastered by as many insects as used to be the case after a night-time drive in country areas.

Biodiversity is essential for the planet, for the well-being of the web of life, and indeed for our own survival as well.

Since one of the five marks of mission for Anglicans is to “safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth,” this is part of our work as people of faith.

We recall that the opening chapters of the Bible give humans the role of stewards of God’s creation, called to care for and tend the planet.

Our task is not simply to share the good news with other people, but to work towards the redemption of all creation. Hear what Paul says in Romans 8:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. [Romans 8:19–21]

Paul is saying that all of creation is to be caught up into the great redemption and to share the glorious freedom of the children of God. The whole of creation. In all its glorious diversity.

Now that will be the jubilee to end all jubilees!

Social diversity as well

As we celebrate biodiversity, let’s also consider other forms of diversity even within our own social circles.

There are various ways in which we need to celebrate and protect diversity:

Churches—we seem increasingly afraid of diversity, and we split off into sects of like-minded people who pray in certain ways, like particular styles of music, prefer one theological orientation over another. Congregations are becoming less representative of the theological diversity that exists within the kingdom of God. Worse still, the people found inside the churches rarely represent the diversity of the community around them. We need to recover the inclusive DNA of broad-minded Anglicanism and halt the slide into sectarian irrelevance.

Community—we see the struggle over diversity and social inclusion in the wider society as well. This is a challenge across the nation, but it is especially evident in regional areas. On the rare occasion when I see someone from another culture walking towards me at Grafton Shoppingworld, I feel a surge of delight welling up within me. My life is blessed by the diversity they bring into our community. But I wonder how easy they find it to claim a place in our community, and whether they feel ‘at home’ amongst us.

Family and friends—if all my friends look like me, speak like me, enjoy the same food as me, vote like me and enjoy the same recreational activities as me, then something is awry. There is a deep lack of diversity in such gatherings of clones. We become culturally inbred and our humanity is diminished.

So let’s be passionate about the need to protect and increase biodiversity, but let’s also use these next few weeks to reflect on the diversity of our church, our community and our personal circle of family and friends.

Reach out someone who seems different from yourself, and see what blessings may come from building relationships beyond our comfort zones.

The world will be a better place.

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A G*d beyond any words

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton 
13th Sunday after Pentecost 
30 August 2020 

Mosaic of Moses at the burning bush, St Catherine's Monastery, Mt Sinai

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This is one of those Sundays when the lectionary offers more than one really attractive pathway for a preacher.

In the Old Testament reading we have the classic tradition of Moses encountering God at the burning bush while in the gospel we have Jesus calling on those who would be his followers to take up their own cross and come after him.

Each of those readings offers us some really good material to work with this morning, but I am going to go with the first reading: Moses and the burning bush.

If the custodians of Saint Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai are to be believed, then I have seen that very bush with my own eyes. During one of several visits to Mt Sinai about 30 years ago, I went into the Chapel of the Burning Bush which is inside the walled compound of the monastery. There inside the Chapel we were shown a small bush growing up against the interior wall and we were told this was indeed the bush through which God had spoken to Moses. When we asked our hosts how the bush came to be growing inside the church building rather than beside a wadi where a shepherd might take his father-in-law’s goats, we were assured that the bush had once been outside but had been trained to grow inside the building by the monks over many hundreds of years. 

I am really not all that interested in the historicity of the exodus traditions including the stories about Moses in the desert prior to his return to Egypt to liberate the Hebrew slaves, and I am even less interested in the pedigree of the little green bush inside the chapel at Saint Catherine’s monastery. 

What does interest me is, first of all, the way that God is spoken about in this story and secondly, the kind of religious experience or perspective which this brief passage in the Old Testament has promoted over the past millennia.

The history of both Judaism and Christianity has been largely a story of people seeking to capture, define, and control how God is best understood and also how God is best experienced. 

We have taken this very seriously. It really mattered to us.

We have written millions of words in theological documents and church liturgies to ensure that there can be no ambiguity about what is expected—whether in belief or action—and no deviation from the approved interpretations of religion. 

Indeed we took this all so seriously that we broke into factions, we persecuted each other, and we even killed each other over differences in theology and prayer.

All this is to our shame and must never be forgotten when we criticise other people for the religious violence to which they are sometimes drawn in our own time. 

Let’s go back to Moses and his amazing combustible shrub, a bush which was ablaze with fire but apparently was not being consumed by the flames.

Even that description, of course, uses symbolic language. We are not dealing with history in this passage, but with one of the most important texts in the western religious tradition. 

The importance of this text is not what it says about Moses but rather what it says about God and about us.

As the story goes, God has a pretty amazing project for Moses to undertake. Moses is to leave his wilderness sanctuary—where he fled to escape the consequences of his own violent rage which caused the death of another person—and he is to go back to Egypt and indeed into the courts of pharaoh no less, to demand the release of the Hebrew slaves.

Again, it’s important to remember but this is a story and not an historical narrative. Leaving aside the fact that Moses is said already to be 80 years of age before beginning his life’s project, it is equally true that he would neither have secured the release of the Hebrew slaves nor evaded incarceration himself had he returned to Egypt. 

So let’s put aside the larger story in the book of Exodus and just focus on this amazing episode in which the character of Moses in the exodus tradition has a life-changing encounter with God. 

First of all, we notice at the outset, that Moses does not even know God’s name.

Actually, none of us know God’s name. This is not to say that we do not have names for God or for “the Sacred,” but is to remind ourselves that we can never know God and in ancient terms, that means none of us know the name or the identity of G*d. 

G*d is always beyond any name.

We can never capture G*d by pronouncing a magic phrase which will bind G*d to wait upon us and serve our desires. That kind of God would be a house elf from Harry Potter on steroids.

Secondly, we notice when asked for a name, G*d evades the question. G*d is not be defined by the past nor constrained by some label in the future.

I AM who I AM
Ehyeh asher ehyeh
I shall be what I shall be

Finally, God gives Moses a name—Yahweh—derived from the same verb “to be” (EHYEH) that was pronounced twice over in the theophany at the burning bush. The meaning of this mysterious new name is to be inferred from the words of revelation which are simultaneously words of evasion, open-ended terms, possibilities beyond our comprehension.

The name which eventually given is not an answer to the question, but an invitation to enter the mystery of who God is, and what God shall become.

This divine freedom is the third thing I want us to reflect upon from this classic story.

When the haunting Hebrew words EHYEH ASHER EHYEH were first translated into koine Greek not long after the time of Alexander the Great—as with every translation of every phrase anywhere at any time—something was “lost in the translation.” 

As these words passed through the filter of Greek language and culture, divine disclosure itself changed as well. Instead of “I AM who I AM” or “I shall be what I shall be.” in the Greek version (the so-called Septuagint), we find: “I am THE ONE who IS”

The focus moved from action to being, from relationship to ontology.

And even that ancient attempt to define God fell short.

In this ancient tale of the Great Encounter—the encounter between a human and the divine—we don’t find a lot of words. Moses is mostly silent as he takes off his sandals to acknowledge that he is in the presence of the G*d beyond all words.

It is good for us to be silent in the presence of the mysterious divine Other.

But we have filled our liturgies with words, words, words.

In many forms of contemporary Western Christianity, it seems that everyone needs to be talking at once and in some places all the time. So much noise. So many words. So little attention to the Sacred Other who will not be defined by any of our words or any of our rituals.

In this pandemic period as our songs are silenced and our actions are more limited, there may be a fresh opportunity to recapture the inner essence of worship.

We are not here to chatter about G*d or assail the heavenly court with lists of requests.

At its best, worship is a time when we discover ourselves to be in the presence of G*d, and practise doing so in order to recognise that same sacred presence outside of worship in everyday life. It may not require many words, and the words used need not be passing our own lips.

Silence is golden.

Use the silences that occur in our Cathedral liturgy to draw close to the G*d beyond all words.

As the cantors sing, rest in your own silence and float on their cadences. The choral pieces are an invitation for us to be still and discern beyond all the noise of our lives that there is a Sacred Other who we can never capture, but who comes to us in Jesus, Emmanuel. Not in words, but in a courageous and compassionate human life.

We can never capture G*d with our words, but in the silence we may allow ourselves to be captured by G*d, the One who will be whatever They wish to be, and chooses to take us into the future blessing as well.

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The prophet and the Lebanese mother

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
16 August 2020

[ video ]

It was the rostered day off for Jesus and his team.

They had headed to the coast for a break, near the famous cities of Tyre and Sidon. 

These days they could not get there due to the Israeli border fences, but in those days it seems people could move around more freely. Indeed, I have friends in Palestine who speak of catching the train from Jaffa to Beirut or Damascus to see a show and have a dinner. That was pre-1948, of course.

The geography is just one of the unusual things about this story.

It first appears in the Gospel of Mark (7:24–30), where the woman is correctly described as Syro-Phoenician. Today we would say Lebanese.

Matthew changes her ethnicity and calls her a Canaanite, evoking the hostile attitudes to the indigenous people of Palestine that we find in the Old Testament. That little twist sharpens the dilemma posed by this woman’s request for help.

The visit to Tyre and Sidon also evokes the old traditions (1 Kings 17) about Elijah having been sent to the same region when there was a famine in Israel. He found hospitality, after a hesitant initial reaction, from a widow who—along with her son—was close to death herself.

There is yet another twist to this fascinating tale.

In Jewish traditions from around the time of Jesus (Lives of the Prophets), the widow’s son is none other than Jonah, who had settled in Sidon with his mother, after returning broken-hearted from his all-too-successful preaching campaign against Nineveh. Having ‘failed’ in his wish to see the enemy destroyed—because his preaching was so successful that everyone in town repented (even the cattle put on sack cloth according to the book of Jonah)—he could not bear the shame of seeing the Assyrian capture his land. So he packed up his widowed mother and relocated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, only to have the prophet Elijah come and stay with them for an extended visit. First the sea-monster and now Elijah.

Jonah’s hometown, according to the tradition, was a small village between Cana and Nazareth, modern-day Mashhed. That connection may be why Jesus spoke about needing to pay attention to the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’ if people were really going to understand him and his mission.

This is starting to sound like Alice in Wonderland …

Whether or not Jesus ever went to southern Lebanon, people of faith like to tease out what God is asking of us by telling stories, connecting stories, reshaping the stories.

We have a meme here.

Prophets from the Galilee understood their mission to be to their own people, but they sometimes found themselves needing R&R in Gentile territories outside the kingdom of Israel.

Elijah finds lodging with a widow from Zarephath near Sidon

The widow is later understood to be the mother of Jonah

In Luke 4 Jesus reminds his hometown crowd that Elijah was sent to the widow at Zarephath and not to any of them; just before they try to throw him off the cliff!

Jesus himself seeks some ‘time out’ in Tyre and Sidon, as Mark says in the original version of this tale:

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice … (Mark 7:24)

So the runaway prophet meets with a local lady from the region of Tyre and Sidon.

We can almost sense the first-century audience thinking, “Ah, just like Elijah …”

Like the widow that Elijah encountered, this Lebanese mother has a needy child. 

This Lebanese mother has heard that Jesus is a prophet who can heal people.

She finds out where he is staying and disrupts his vacation time!

The prophet … the mother … the sick/dying child …

Yes, we have a meme.

And the disciples are irritated. Send her away, they ask Jesus. But this woman is not for sending away. She has a sick daughter and she believes that Jesus could fix that situation. She will not be shooed away.

Finally, the woman is right there in Jesus’ face … “Help me, Lord!”

Jesus responds with cruel words, harsh words, that offend our ears but invite us to appreciate him as a person of his own time, culture and religion: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This Lebanese mother has chutzpah, a Hebrew term for extreme self-confidence or audacity. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In the original version of the story, found in Mark, Jesus replies: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29)

Matthew seems to feel the need to find some religious basis for Jesus’ agreement to assist her distant daughter, so he reworks the moment this way: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew 15:28)

The temptation for preachers and theologians is to ‘over think’ this scene.

Let’s just stay with the Jewish meme of prophet-goes-to-Lebanon-meets-woman.

Like the car chase scene in a movie, we know how such a meme has to end. In this meme, always people are healed, rescued, kept alive, blessed and transformed.

As we hear this story and as we engage with the ancient meme it reflects, we give thanks for the God who meets us in the guise of other people. Sometimes we are the prophet to them, other times they are the prophet to us. Always God is at work. Always good things are happening. 

Love drives out fear.

Light overcomes darkness.

Compassion trumps religion and tribalism.

And for that we say, Thanks be to God.

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Dreamy Joe

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
9 August 2020

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For our first reading today we have the OT passage about young Joseph. You know, the precocious little guy with the fancy jacket and a fawning father. And the dreams! What an attitude this kid had.

In the Bible the Joseph story stretches across 14 chapters of Genesis: 37 to 50. It comprises about one-third of Genesis and is clearly a major topic of interest for the storyteller.

Our lectionary gives us two small bites of that very large cherry. Today we have the murderous scene where his older brothers conspire to get rid of the dreamer. Next Sunday we have the scene from Genesis 45 when Joseph, now the de facto ruler of Egypt (as if), reveals his identity to the starving men who once plotted to murder him.

We can perhaps understand why the lectionary committee chose those two scenes, but where is spiritual wisdom to be found in such texts?

The lectionary snippets do not do justice to the biblical text.

The selections are usually short and convent, and they do not slow us down too much, but our hearts need more than ‘drive-through’ spirituality .

Worse still, as read in church, they affirm and validate violence and exploitation. By the time we get to the happy ending in Genesis 45, Joseph has already been messing with his brothers’ heads by a series of tricks worthy of both his father and his younger self. It seems he never did gain wisdom.

Sometimes the Scriptures need to be read in lengthy extracts and not consumed as the spiritual fast food that is served up in the lectionary. 

Do yourself a favour and read all 14 chapters of the Joseph story this week. Better still, find someone to read the whole story out aloud so you can hear it being performed and not simply consume the letters on the page.

As you do that, ask what the Spirit is saying to the church—and to me—through a text such as this?

The answers will differ, but let me suggest some that you might come up with.

You may notice—and I think this what the biblical narrator probably wants us to sense—that there is a bigger divine plan beyond our own personal agenda for life, and wisdom consists of ensuring that our lives fit with that plan. I am certain that is what the editor of Genesis had in mind, and it was certainly what the writer of today’s Psalm (Psalm 105:12–22) had in mind.

We might look at that story with all its bad bits, and sad bits and loving bits and notice that God is all to weave all the bits of our lives together so that everything is OK in the end. That’s a Romans 8 kind of interpretation: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

As some people read this story and reflect on it, they will notice how things that could have been disastrous actually end up turning out for good. Indeed, at the end of the story, Joseph says to his brothers: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:19–21)

Depending on what sort of family you come from, you might take some encouragement from the knowledge that dysfunctional families are actually quite common, quite normal, and even happen in he Bible. This is certainly one dysfunctional family.

You might notice that is also a story about reconciliation of broken relationships. In the end, finally, Joseph and his brothers are indeed reconciled. Maybe that gives us hope when we are living and working with broken relationships.

As you read the whole narrative, you might realise that this is a story not dissimilar to the blowing up of the port in Beirut on Tuesday. This is a story in which the people who live in Palestine, Canaan, have lost their food supply and gone down to Egypt because they have heard there is food in Egypt.These are refugees. These are people who have been hit by a natural disaster and they are going to their neighbours for help. We might wonder whether Australians have an obligation to help our neighbours as they go through tough times; whether that is CVID-19 or wider issues of violence and poverty.

And certainly we would notice, as we read the whole 14 chapters, and perhaps reflected on the experience with a friend, that Scripture is an amazing gift to us and an incredible spiritual asset.

We don’t get that from the fast food drive-through lectionary experience that we typically get in a Sunday morning service.

The meanings that we see in the Scriptures will, of course, be contextual. It always is and it always must be. The meaning depends on who is reading the story, what is happening in their lives at the time and with whom they are reading the story; either actually with them or who they are taking with them in their heart as they read the sacred text.

So I invite you to get into the story of Joseph this week. Not because it is the best story ever told, and not because it actually happened historically, but because it makes up a third of the book of Genesis. It is a really important part of what the Bible has to tell us about wisdom for life, and it is an invitation from God—and from those before us—to think deeply about where we might see God at work in our everyday relationships.

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It’s complicated

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 8A
26 July 2020

[ video ]

Another Sunday and another text that portrays women as reproductive pawns in the game of life played by men.

In this case we have a powerful old man (Laban) trading his daughters like chips in a card game.

“Yes, I know you wanted the younger one. She is pretty. But I need to marry off the older one first. Hey, son, spend a week with her and then you can have the other one as well. But you will need to work as my unpaid farming assistant for an additional seven years.”

Not quite two for the price of one, but two women being traded away by their father as part of a deal with the man they will share as husband.

And no one thought to ask the women? Either of them!

And at the end of the reading we said:

Hear the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

This week at least our hermeneutical bacon is saved by a disclaimer tucked away in the Gospel reading:

… every 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.

Matthew 13:52

That is a little word picture that has always resonated with me.

It is unique to Matthew and is probably not something that Jesus ever said.

But I wish he had.

And I am glad that Matthew did.

As people who are trained (schooled, educated, equipped) for the reign of God, what do we do with a story such as today’s OT passage in the storehouse of faith? Do we hide it away in the back of the shed, or do we bring it out as a model for life today?

Let’s think for a moment about the two sisters trapped in this love triangle.

Assuming it is a love triangle, and not a power pyramid.

Leah

Leah – senior sister, overlooked wife, matriarch. 

What we know best about that Leah is that Jacob preferred her younger sister, Rachel. Always.

Yet Leah was a survivor in a male-dominated world. She played her part in their father’s scheme to outfox the schemer himself, Jacob. 

She was living in the shadow of her younger sibling’s beauty, but flourished in a family system where her husband had to be shared with a young sister, who he clearly preferred.

 It was complicated. Life sometimes is. Often, actually.

Check out Genesis 30 for a snapshot of family worthy of a TV drama series. 

Perhaps we can rescue this text by hearing it as a call for us to honour women trapped in unhealthy relationships, not all of whom have the resilience of Leah to manage their circumstances to their own advantage. 

Let’s also pray for anyone enmeshed in society’s powerful messages about what constitutes beauty and who wish they looked different, spoke differently or had a different body shape.

Rachel

Rachel, the beloved, the beautiful. 

A man would happily work 14 years just to gain her as his wife. 

In the end, Rachel was the mother of both Joseph and Benjamin, the two favourite sons among Jacob’s many children. 

Tragically, she died in childbirth. 

A tomb in Bethlehem remembers her but has itself become a place of violence and oppression. 

I am left wondering …

Did Rachel love Jacob as much as he loved her? 

What value do we put on passionate romance? And what makes the beloved other so beautiful in our eyes? They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder …

Householders all

Week after week, day by day, it is our task to bring out from the storehouse of faith some treasure—some piece of wisdom—that is just right for the challenges we face in everyday life.

Sometimes the Scriptures tell us what to think or how to act.

More often than not, they invite us to judge (to discern), like Solomon of old.

What is wisdom?

How shall we act?

How do we life justly?

What does salvation look this like in this particular situation?

Yes, it is complicated.

But the core principles are simple:

Do no harm.
Love our neighbour as ourselves.
Choose life.
Stay humble.

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Peter and Paul

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Feast of St Peter & St Paul
28 June 2020

sts-peter-and-paul

 

[ video ]

Around the year 55 CE Paul wrote the following words near the start of his letter to the rather ‘high maintenance’ Christian community in the port city of Corinth:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1Corinthians 1:10–13 NRSV)

Back then Peter and Paul were leaders of different factions in the early Church and at least once they went head to head in a very public argument, as Paul himself describes:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11–14 NRSV)

According to tradition, they both ended up in Rome and both died there as martyrs. For decades after their deaths the early Christian community was divided over their respective legacies, with Paul being ‘on the nose’ in many circles although his side eventually carried the day as we get to around the middle of the second century.

I wonder how they feel about having to share a feast day on 29 June each year?

Our task today is not to trace their personal stories or reconcile the differences between, but rather to seek spiritual wisdom for our own lives today.

They were very different characters, and that may actually be the major piece of wisdom we take away from this reflection. We each have to be our own selves, rather than seeking to fit in with how other people expect us to think, act or worship.

Their life experiences were about as different as two Jewish men could in during the time of the Roman Empire.

Peter

Peter was a Galilean Jew from the village of Bethsaida, but may have already relocated to Capernaum when he encountered Jesus.

Like many others in the area, he was fisher. It was a major economic activity in the NW corner of the Sea of Galilee at the time. And Jesus seems to have targeted the fishing workers. But that is a whole other sermon for some other day.

Peter was uneducated and of low social status.

Yet Jesus identified him as a leader, and he is always named first in list of the apostles.

We tend to call him Peter, but that was a nickname given him by Jesus. His original name was Simeon. His nickname means “Rocky” and it seems to have stuck, as even Paul refers to him by an Aramaic form of that name: Cephas.

Peter, of course, is among the first witnesses of the resurrection; one of those to whom Jesus first appears in the Easter tradition.

He had never been to school, but he knew more about Jesus than we shall ever understand.

Peter was there. He was the leader of pack in Jesus’ eyes.

We just heard a beautiful legend about a beachside chat between Jesus and Peter after Easter.

 

Paul

Paul was a very different kind of person.

Not a Galilean, but a Jew from the Diaspora with a highly developed religious identity:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4–6 NRSV)

Paul had a first-class Jewish pedigree and may even have enjoyed Roman citizenship.

He was an outsider, and seems never to have seen, heard or met Jesus.

He became an insider—and in many ways the greatest Christian leader of all time—because of a religious experience in which he believed that he had encountered the risen Jesus. That turned his life around.

Paul considered himself just as much an apostle as Peter, James and John.

The faith we have is greatly indebted to Paul and bears hardly a trace of Peter.

 

Peter & Paul

Peter’s great asset was that he knew Jesus from before Easter. He could say things like, “When Jesus and I discussed this …” or “That time when Jesus and I went …”

Paul, on the other hand, appealed to Scripture and to his own religious experience of Jesus as a spiritual presence after Easter.

Peter was more likely to stay within the ancient Jewish traditions, while Paul was prepared to throw away the traditions; even though he was deeply trained in them as a Pharisee.

Peter tells us what Jesus was like, where Paul tells us what difference Jesus made.

We need both those voices, and—I suggest—we especially need the voice of Peter to keep Paul a little more grounded in reality.

One of the fault lines in contemporary Christianity is between those who prefer to shape their lives around Jesus in the Gospels, and those who say that it is the voice of Paul which we most need to hear.

Perhaps what we need most is to stay engaged with both those conversations.

We need to be exploring the meaning of God in Christ, actively reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Without that edge, our faith becomes a historical society devoted to an interesting person from 2,000 years ago.

But as we go deep into the mystery of what Jesus means, we must never lose sight of the real human being who proclaimed the presence of God’s rule in everyday life, and did so in ways that made sense to fishermen, housewives, farmers and homeless beggars.

We need a bit of Peter and a bit of Paul in each of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hagar the Egyptian

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
21 June 2020

[ video ]

Sometimes the lectionary offers us a set of biblical texts that welcome us into a space where we can explore and celebrate the sacred love at the heart of the universe.

This is not one of those days!

Other times the Bible invites us to struggle with the text, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the LORD by the Jabbok River in Genesis 32.

That is the kind of Sunday we have this week.

For sure there are ways to avoid the struggle.

We could get lost in the baptismal theology of Romans 6. A preacher can easily spend 15 or 20 minutes in there, sound very religious and avoid engaging with reality. But that is not the call of the Spirit which I discern this week.

I am drawn to the figure of Hagar.

The black slave ‘owned’ by Sarah and Abraham, and used by them as a surrogate mother to provide them with a child so their dreams of a future could be secured at the cost of her present suffering.

As I searched for a graphic to place on the front page of this week’s liturgy book, I was captured by this haunting image of a homeless mother and child cast adrift by a world which has no compassion for people like her or her child:

 

homeless-mother-and-child

Let’s focus on that image for a moment.

Look at the young woman … and her child.

Hear again the harsh words of the woman of privilege (Sarah, ‘princess’ in Hebrew):

“Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)

 

For the women here today: Would you choose to be in the position of that young woman?

For the men here today: Have we stood by the women we love?

For all of us here: Do we see our children and grandchildren in the face of that child?

 

The story of Hagar

As the Bible tells the story, Hagar was a young Egyptian woman who had become a slave within the household of Abraham and Sarah. We are not told, how that happened.

Slave!

Abraham and Sarah owned slaves?

And that is OK by us? And by God? Really?

And the irony of a Hebrew family with an Egyptian slave!

Life is complicated.

Truth is twisted.

Justice is crooked.

 

As we know from African slavery in the USA and indigenous slavery in our own land, female slaves are sexually abused by their ‘owners’ – by the people who presume to imagine that they can possess another human being.

It wasn’t just the women.

The boys and the young men were abused by privileged ‘owners’ as well.

 

Hagar is given a task to fulfil for her mistress, Sarah. Go and have sex with the old man, Abraham, and get yourself pregnant. But the baby you conceive will not be yours. It will belong to me. I am your mistress. I am your owner. You are nothing. Just a baby machine. Do as I say.

If you do as I tell you then will be safe. We will protect you.

A familiar lie!

 

BTW, Hagar was probably black.

And it is clear that black lives seem not to matter—at least in the eyes of people of privilege—as much as white lives. Our lives.

And all this is in the Bible!

 

But it does not end with the enslavement and sexual abuse of a young woman of colour from Egypt.

 

When the privileged mistress does have her own child, then both the slave girl and her child are expendable. Worse, they are a threat to the privilege of the ‘owner’ and her child.

They need to go.

Where?

Who cares, just get them both out of here!

I don’t want to see them, either of them, ever again!

 

And all this hatred from a woman who had once claimed that child as her own …

 

Abraham is no paragon of virtue, even though the Bible excuses his lack of compassion. Worse still, the Bible shifts the blame to God.

How many times have we seen racists claim divine sanction for their hatred?

How many times do people of privilege claim that their power over others is a gift from God and not something they sought to attain for themselves?

 

 

Where is the Good News?

In the corner of this ‘text of terror’ there is a small scrap of good news.

Both Hagar and her son, Ishmael, survive their expulsion … because God intervenes to save them. The child grows and his mother finds him a wife from Egypt. In the tradition he becomes the ancestor of the Arabs.

But God mostly does not intervene to rescue people when they are abused and exploited.

The injustice is neither addressed nor redressed.

It just happens.

 

As Jesus people, where do we find good news—healing, salvation—in such a terrible tale?

As we wrestle with Scripture, what news of freedom and liberation and hope do we find in such a story?

How long has Hagar had to wait for the crimes against her to be recognised?

And not just Hagar the Egyptian, but all the black women and all black boys who have been abused and exploited by people of privilege in our culture, in our society and even in our religion?

Justice for Hagar comes when we see that what happened to her was not OK.

Redemption for Hagar and her child comes when our hearts break at their treatment.

Restoration comes when we honour Hagar as a great woman in the story of faith.

Good news is found when we stand with Jesus and proclaim the words of Isaiah 61:

 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favour …

 

 

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Black Lives Matter to Jesus

This post was first published as an opinion piece for A Progressive Christian Voice Australia.


There is an age-old divide among religious people about just what God—however understood—wants of humans.

For the better part of 3,000 years in the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditions, there have been those stressing the need for purity (often expressed through codes about sex and food) and those who focus on justice for the victims of structural evil.

Recently, Martyn Iles, the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby has stoked the kind of controversy that appeals to their base and drives their fund-raising efforts with a claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is “anti-Christ”.

This is theological ‘dog-whistling’, and especially in the deliberate evoking of the biblical term ‘Antichrist’.

In the current context of global protests and persistent systemic discrimination against people of colour, this claim is highly partisan. It is also ‘tone-deaf’ to the cries of the oppressed which ascend to the God who has promised to hear them.

The intention to provoke (opponents) and alarm (supporters) was clear when—rather than apologise or retract those comments—Martyn Iles doubled down on them by producing a special podcast session with a 20-minute tirade again BLW as another example of radical secular Marxism seeking to destroy Christianity.

Despite his self-description as a “lover of law, theology and politics” (Facebook – About), Martyn Iles has no formal theology qualifications. His only listed qualifications are in the law. That lack of formal training in theology is evident in his public statements.

Iles espouses a fundamentalist form of Evangelical Christianity, with a fascination on apocalyptic eschatology. He has recently announced a new YouTube channel dealing with questions about the ‘End Times’.

The problem is not his naïve use of the complex texts which constitute the Bible, nor his total disconnect from critical religion scholarship. Both those things are typical of Australian Evangelicals. Rather, what concerns me most is the way that he ‘verbals’ Jesus by imposing his own concept of Christ onto the biblical texts.

The domesticated Jesus promoted by Martyn Iles does not engage in political action, so I presume he would neither support nor join the ACL.

His Jesus only cares about ‘saving souls’ and did not care about feeding the hungry, healing the sick, or letting the oppressed go free (fact check that claim against Luke 4:18–19).

Such a Jesus would not have bothered himself or his disciples with a campaign against a religious discrimination bill; or indeed opposed legislation for same-sex marriage. He just came to save souls.

This kind of Jesus crosses to the other side of the road when he encounters a victim lying wounded in the ditch. Nothing can be allowed to distract from saving souls.

He would not have protected a woman from death by stoning at the hands of a self-righteous religious mob. He would have invited the lady to accept Jesus into her heart but done nothing to address the immediate danger of killing by the authorities.

It seems that Martyn Iles frets over a secular Marxism that he sees in the DNA of every social movement, but is blissfully unperturbed by the multiple structural injustices which have promoted white prosperity at the expense of black lives, not to mention indigenous Australian lives.

He notes the correlation of black deaths with crime rates in black neighbourhoods, but he does not question why we have black neighbourhoods nor why poverty is allowed to continue in the wealthiest societies we have ever seen on the planet.

That myopia must be convenient.

Secular Marxism is a special worry to Martyn Iles.

He recycles the nonsensical idea that a secret KGB operation created liberation theology (apparently an especially virulent form of secular Marxism) to subvert Catholicism in Latin America, while simultaneously infiltrating the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Some people do love conspiracy theories.

It seems that Martyn Iles has no idea that liberation theology occurs spontaneously any time that an oppressed person reads Scripture (not just the Gospels) through the lens of their own experience.

They may be peasants in Latin America, blacks in South Africa or the USA, Palestinians languishing under decades of illegal military occupation by Israel or—an LGBTQI Christian in a Sydney Anglican congregation.

Such is the power of Scripture when the Spirit of God moves in the heart of a reader.

However, as already mentioned, the deeper problem with the analysis promoted by the ACL, is its self-serving blindness to systemic evil.

Possibly the ACL members need to spend some time reading the prophets of ancient Israel. They make up quite a large section of the Bible, actually. Anyone who reads these texts could hardly miss the prophetic denunciation of injustice, poverty and exploitation.

Never mind the prophets, even Deuteronomy is crystal clear about what is expected of those who might seek God’s blessing on them:

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

If it is too much to ask dedicated Christians who support ACL to read the biblical prophets, perhaps they could find the time to reflect on the earliest version of the Lord’s Prayer and notice the raw edges of poverty in that prayer before we spiritualised it:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(Luke 11:2–4)

As a sequel, let me recommend Luke’s version of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
(6:20–21,23–25)

If even these brief epitomes of the central message of Jesus are too much for the ACL supporters to absorb, perhaps it would suffice for them simply to take to heart the words of the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

 

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A bountiful harvest

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Second Sunday after Pentecost
14 June 2020

harvest_time

 

[ video ]

It is so hard to pass by the iconic story from Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah offered hospitality to three strangers only to discover—with hindsight, as always—that it had been God who was at their table all the time.

Actually, perhaps we do not have to entirely pass that story by.

Maybe we can park that idea to one side as we reflect on the theme of the bountiful harvest and the need for more workers if the harvest is to be finished. Hold that thought for a bit.

 

A plentiful harvest

How many sermons have we heard over the years about the potential harvest out there, if only we had enough people and enough resources to go fetch it?

In my experience as a child raised within the life of the church, this theme was developed especially with reference to missionary work (“the great harvest” to be found in faraway lands). To a lesser extent, it was applied to local evangelism as well, with our neighbours and friends imagined as a field ripe for harvest.

Both those common ways of using this theme, at least in my own experience, have tended to be about finding ways to persuade other people to see things our way.

When used in a more appropriate manner, it becomes a sense that there is so much good to be achieved for God, for our human community and for the earth herself that it would be tragic were it left undone or incomplete.

Too often, I fear, it becomes a passion to “save souls” from something terrible rather than a desire to achieve wonderful things for the benefit of everyone.

How big do we draw the circle of blessing?

Is it a tight circle enclosing a small group of rescued sinners, or do we have a sense that we exist to be a blessing for others? Not just for some, but for everyone?

Now that would be a bountiful harvest!

 

Only a few workers

As the preacher describes the size of the harvest, they usually lament the lack of people to go gather it in.

As church membership shrinks and participation rates collapse, this sounds familiar.

The workers are not just clergy, but people willing to serve on Parish Council, school boards, cleaning rosters, serve in the OpShop, teach Sunday School, lead youth groups, etc, etc

But today’s Gospel reading subverts that response, based as it is on fear for the future; and a sense of loss when we compare things now with the past.

Interestingly, having spoken about the need for more workers to be sent by the master of the harvest, Jesus sends out just 12 people. That’s right: 12!

The truth is, of course, that even a small group of passionate people can achieve amazing results.

Twelve uneducated men from Galilee. Maybe Matthew (Levi) was able to read and write. None of them was well-connected or had any kind of serious social status. No physicians, engineers or artists in this group.

Only Peter was to make an impression on the memory of the church, and almost everything we know about him is legend.

The others all disappear from the stage of history and leave no trace of their efforts.

But almost exactly 300 years later (in 325 CE) a Roman emperor called Constantine would convene the first Church Council in the city of Nicea to approve the first draft of the creed we say in this Cathedral most Sundays. The emperor had become a follower of Jesus a few years earlier and before long Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

That may not actually have been a good thing, but it still demonstrates what an amazing result can be achieved by a handful of ordinary people whose hearts have been possessed by a big idea.

Maybe we do not need to ask for more workers, just a few workers with bold dreams.

 

The lord of the harvest

Who is the lord of the harvest? and what are his instructions for the workers gathering the harvest?

In the Gospels it is God, but for us—in a sense—it is Jesus himself.

Our gospel reading began with Jesus active in the work to which God had called him, and later sending out his twelve disciples to keep doing the same stuff.

What was Jesus doing and what did he send the others out to do?

CONNECT – went about from village to village, engaging with people where they were. He did not try to persuade them to come to him. He went to them

TEACHING – Jesus offered practical wisdom, spiritual wisdom for everyday life. It was not arcane religious knowledge or philosophical speculations. It was wisdom to live by. Daily bread indeed.

HOPE – Jesus gave people hope with his talk about the coming kingdom of God and he encouraged people to start acting as if the reign of God was already here.

HEALING – as Jesus did all that people were finding healing, they were being saved, their broken lives were being put back together.

COMPASSION – Jesus embodied (literally) the compassion of God

 

That is the work of the harvest as understood and practised by the lord of the harvest.

 

Conclusion

If we are struggling to recruit people to help us could it be that we are working in the wrong paddock, seeking to gather the wrong harvest?

Are we driven by compassion for them or by our need for their assistance to keep the church going?

If it is not the former then there will be no blessing s from the lord of the harvest.

Jesus did not send the twelve out to repair, maintain or expand the synagogues.

Jesus did not ask for money: “You received with payment, give without payment!”

Jesus transformed lives, communities, society and the world.

That is our mission as well.

If we focus on that mission, we will find we have all the people we need to achieve the most remarkable results.

 

We started with a brief reference to Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers to their tent. They shared what they had with these strangers who had walked into their lives. They did not ask for anything in return. But they later discovered that God had been among them.

May that be our story and the story this town as well.

 

 

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The eighth day of creation

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost. Sunday
31 May 2020

Hurricane_Isabel_from_ISS

[ video ]

 

Everything begins in chaos
Darkness

Tohu vabohu, writes the ancient Hebrew poet

Formless
Empty
Immense swirling oceans (the Deep)
No light at all from any source

Then something happens:
ruach elohim

 

Christians like to translate that phrase: ‘Spirit of God’
Jews prefer to say: ‘a wind from God’
I suggest we read it as: ‘a powerful wind’
In everyday terms we might say “a hell of a storm”

All that we are today has its origins and its explanation in those ancient words that open the Bible we share with our Jewish friends.

To paraphrase:

God was there at the start
God created everything
It was a mess
An amazing storm came through
Hovering above the formless empty chaos
Then there was light!
God had spoken.

 

That is not just a description of our origins.
It also describes our present reality
And it indicates our destiny

TODAY is Pentecost, sometimes called the Eighth Day of Creation
TODAY we celebrate the disturbing and renewing presence of the Spirit
TODAY we pray for the Spirit to hover over our chaos until the light appears

As we observe this Great and Fiftieth Day of Easter, let me offer a simple paradigm for understanding the meaning of Pentecost:

The presence of the spirit of Jesus among us
is the proof of the resurrection
Equally, our commitment to compassionate action
is the proof that the Spirit is among us.

 

The spirit of Jesus among us

This was a major theme in the way that Paul understood the gospel.

He hardly ever refers to the life of Jesus and almost never quotes any teachings from Jesus, but he repeatedly refers to the Spirit as the real, lived experience of the risen Jesus active in the church.

One familiar example, often used in services today, is this:

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

However, I think my personal favourite, might be this line from a little later in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)

For Paul and for us, the Spirit present among us is the proof that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us into God, into the future, into eternal love.

Indeed, Paul never mentions an empty tomb. Rather, we find that in the Gospels, all of which were written long after Paul is dead.

For Paul what matters is to have been drawn into the Easter life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, which has been given to us.

For that reason, Pentecost is indeed the Great and Fiftieth Day of Easter.

Easter does not end with the discovery of an empty tomb nor an ascension into heaven.

Easter has really only fully happened when we have a community of people where the Spirit is found: hovering over our chaos, absorbing our darkness, shaping our formlessness, illuminating our darkness, filling our emptiness.

Today, on the festival of the Spirit,  we know the meaning of Easter; and in our experience of the Spirit of Jesus among us we know the reality of his resurrection.

 

Acting with compassion

In our mission statement on the Cathedral website, we speak of ourselves as “acting with compassion in the heart of Grafton since 1842”

When that description is true, then we have proof that the Spirit of Jesus is indeed active among us.

Jesus was, first of all, a person of compassion: he healed the sick, he cast out demons, he made the blind see, he fed the hungry, he proclaimed a time of liberty and salvation, he had time and compassion for those on the margins of their own communities.

As Jesus people, his Spirit of compassion will be evident among us as well.

Paul one time described this as the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23)

This does not mean that we always get it right.

Nor does it mean that when we mess up we should beat up on ourselves.

But it does suggest that when we get it right, this is what the presence of the Spirit of Jesus among us looks like: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”

We should expect to see evidence of the Spirit of Jesus at work among us.

And we do.

We saw it during the fires during summer.

We have seen it in the care and support during the pandemic.

We see it in the OpShop volunteers.

We see it in the Cathedral Pantry.

We see it in every act of compassion and care.

 

May the disturbing and renewing presence of the Spirit continue to be our experience so that we never doubt the resurrection of Jesus and never lose sight of what it means for us to be Jesus people here and now.

God was there at the start
God is here now
God will be here in the future
It may be a mess
But an amazing spirit-storm is around us
Hovering above the formless empty chaos
There will be light!
God has spoken.
Alleluia!

 

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