Doing religion

Epiphany 2B
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
17 January 2021

[ video ]

Doing religion (not just supporting it)

In these weeks between Christmas and Ash Wednesday we are in a period called “Epiphany.” It starts on January 6—the fabled Twelfth Day of Christmas— and lasts until the Sunday before Lent.

We can think of Epiphany as a kind of liturgical “unders and overs” tin. 

With Christmas occurring on a fixed date but Easter occurring on the first Sunday after the full moon which occurs on or after March 21, the numbers of weeks between these two major Christian festivals varies from year to year. Easter Day is never earlier than March 22 or later than April 25.

The length of Epiphany depends on the number of Sundays occurring between January and the date of Easter that year.

This year Easter is reasonably early (April 4), so we have just six Sundays during the Epiphany season.

The God we can know

Whether Epiphany is longer or shorter, it has the same theme each year.

Epiphany is an ancient Greek word meaning “revelation” or “manifestation.”

So, we are invited to spend the weeks between Christmas and Ash Wednesdays reflecting on the ways in which we can know God. If you prefer, ways in which God makes herself known to us.

And, yes, it does feel a lot different depending which way we say that statement!

Epiphany

The big idea, of course, is that God is made known to us in the person of Jesus. How he lived his life, what he taught and how he died is the great epiphany, the supreme revelation. At least for those of us who are Christians.

We have no need to deny that God can be known through other historical characters or different sacred texts and religious practices. We simply affirm the truth which we know to be true for us: in Jesus we see  God, and in Jesus we see our better selves.

That is what we celebrated on Epiphany, the feast of the Three Kings. In that legend we recognize that people outside the biblical spiritual tradition can still understand and respond to God in their own way.

If the Christ Child accepted the adoration of the magi, who are we to say everyone must believe like us in order to know God’s blessing in their lives and beyond this life?

Baptism of Jesus

On the first Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, which in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is known as the Great Theophany, the revelation of God. That is their name for the sacred icon depicting the Baptism of Jesus: Theophany.

There are many ways to understand the significance of Jesus’ baptism. We see that as early as the New Testament, as each of the four Gospels seeks to solve the dilemma posed by Jesus submitting to baptism by the Jewish prophet, John.

You can also see that diversity by watching a selection of sermons from last Sunday. As more parishes live stream their services we can see what other clergy are saying about each Sunday’s texts, as well as looking back in the archives to see what our own clergy said on that day in previous years: for example, 2018 | 2019 | 2021. (It seems we have no recording of the sermon from 2020)

As we tease out the meaning of this Epiphany season for us, let me offer one brief observation about the Baptism of Jesus.

This is a rare moment in the Gospels where we observe a religious experience of Jesus, rather than seeing him interacting with other people. 

In his Baptism, Jesus was participating in a religious ritual being administered by someone else and he experienced a moment of revelation in which his own identity as a beloved Child of God was affirmed and renewed.

A friend of mine (John Beverley Butcher, An Uncommon Lectionary) has expressed it this way:

The evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history! The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently.

This is not a day for me to preach a sermon about the Baptism of Jesus, but let me draw your attention to one more element we may easily overlook: the theme of the voice from heaven. In the Jewish tradition this is known as the bat qol (“the voice of God”).

Was Jesus the only person to hear the bat qol? (Of course not!)

Do we hear the voice of God in our own lives? (If only we had time to go around the Cathedral and ask everyone to share a moment when they sensed God speaking to them!)

Does the way we practice our faith assist people to discern the voice of God? Are we people in a sacred conversation with God, or do we think that is only for “special” people?

Samuel and the voice of God

In the first reading this morning we have a classic story of someone hearing the bat qol, the voice of God.

Samuel is only a child. He has not yet been fully trained in the ways of a priest. Sleeping in a room nearby is the priest in charge of the Temple of God at Shiloh. While never called “High Priest,” that is the role held by Eli. He was someone well trained in the ways of religion.

The voice of God comes to Samuel, not to Eli.

But Eli is able to guide Samuel on how to respond to the voice of God.

In that simple dynamic is the essence of Epiphany.

The voice of God does not just come to the Dean or the Bishop. It can come to any of us at any time.

On the other hand, we all share the obligation of assisting each other in hearing that voice and knowing how best to respond.

In other words, Christianity is not a spectator event.

You do not gather in this Cathedral to observe the sanctity of the Dean and bask in my reflected holiness.

Rather, we gather around the Scriptures and around the table of Jesus to help each other hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, to explore how best we are to act in response to the voice of God, and to help each other be faithful in that response.

I am not your spiritual champion, but I am your coach. And even that is a role shared with other people. Indeed, we are community of spiritual coaches. And we are all on the team: playing coaches! I am blessed to have you as my coaches as well.

How we help each other listen to God will be the ultimate test of our success as the people of God in this Cathedral community.

We do not come to the Cathedral for the fine music, the beautiful liturgies or the thoughtful sermons. 

While we aspire to offer all of those things every week, that is only because they help us to be people who hear the voice of God and assist each other in developing “ears that hear,” as Jesus would say.

Nothing else matters. Nothing.

Nathaniel

Notice how this message of direct religious experience is reinforced in the Gospel passage today as well.

When Nathaniel is skeptical that anything good could ever come out of Nazareth (!!), Philip (“who was from Bethsaida”) says to him, “Come and see.”

And when Nathaniel does come and see, Jesus said to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Come and see … listen for the voice of God … know God in your own experience …

Just imagine .. if the word went around Grafton that people who come to the Cathedral learn how to hear God speaking to them!

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We Three Kings

The Feast of the Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
3 January 2021

Matthew’s story

An early Christian author, who has become known to us as “Matthew,” was preparing an enlarged edition of the Gospel according to Mark. “Mark” had appeared a couple of decades earlier and was proving very popular in some of the Christian faith communities scattered around the eastern Mediterranean.

For his community—or more likely a network of house-church communities across Antioch and in the neighbouring rural areas—Mark was a fast-paced action story, but it lacked the solid teaching which Matthew wanted his community to have at their fingertips.

Matthew decided to combine the Markan narrative with another early Christian document, the Sayings Gospel which later scholars would call “Q”. This would address the lack of teaching from Jesus, with material such as the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew would also add a proper ending, since the way that Mark ended (with a handful women too scared to say anything to anyone after encountering an angel at the empty tomb) was hardly satisfactory. Matthew knew just what was needed: a final mountaintop epiphany as Jesus sent the Twelve out on their global mission.

But Matthew also needed a better way to start the story of Jesus than Mark offered.

Again, he knew just what was needed.

He would describe the birth of Jesus in the royal town of Bethlehem. Such a messianic postcode for the child’s birth would signal to the corrupt rulers that their day was coming. But he wanted to do more than proclaim a davidic Messiah had arrived, he also wanted to say that Jesus was a second Moses (Moses 2.0). His story would feature a man called Joseph who had dreams, and an evil king who wanted to kill the baby boys, as well as a sojourn in Egypt before a new exodus as God calls his son out of Egypt as Hosea the prophet had declared. Only after all that was done would he arrange for Jesus to arrive in Nazareth, where everyone knew he was actually from.

That would work for the Jewish Christians in the Antioch Jesus communities, but he also needed something for his Gentile membership …

… wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” … When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We all know that story, but in Antioch around 110 CE as Matthew prepared his manuscript this was a whole new version of the birth of Jesus. In fact it was probably the very first version of the birth of Jesus, although others would soon follow: Luke, then the Infancy Gospel of James and later the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Not to mention all the nativity plays and the Christmas cards!

Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus has no annunciation in Nazareth, no census, no overland trip for a pregnant Mary, no search for somewhere to stay (and a quiet corner for a birth to take place), no angels (except in Joseph’s dreams), and no shepherds.

This story which is so familiar to us was totally unknown to Paul, Peter, Mark, John, Thomas and even Luke (who says he researched everything before writing his own Gospel not long after Matthew). I dare say it would have been news to Mary and Joseph as well.

This story is not about an actual event in the first weeks of Jesus’ life, but it is very much about real life events in Antioch more than 100 years later.

Antioch ca 110 CE

The city of Antioch was one of great cultural and trade centres in the Roman world. In many ways it was the ground zero from which the Jesus movement spread throughout the empire and far beyond.

Antioch had a large Jewish population, but was also a critical location where the Jesus movement escaped its Jewish pedigree and welcomed non-Jews (Gentiles) into the community that acknowledged Jesus as their saviour and lord. Those two words sound like religious terms to us, and that is partly true as they derive from popular pagan religious cults at the time. But they were also political terms, since the Roman Emperors claimed to be divine figures (“sons of God”) and required their people to acknowledge them as sotēr (saviour) and kyrios (lord).

Matthew needed to frame his gospel with a story that would locate Jesus firmly in the Jewish world, allow for the inclusion of wise persons from the East (or anywhere else), while asserting a claim to divine status that outranked the emperors of Rome.

He includes the wise men from the East in the opening scenes, but notice how he ends his Gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “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 remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:16–20]

Matthew begins his story with foreigners coming from afar to worship the Christ child, but he ends the gospel with a command to go and make disciples of every nation, together with a claim that all authority (imperium in Latin) has been given to him in heaven and on earth.

What we glimpse in the opening scenes becomes the mission of the church in the final scene.

And both scenes are relevant to this feast of the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus to the Nations.

A truth not mortgaged to historicity

There is something very true in this story crafted by Matthew more than 100 years after the birth of Jesus.

That truth has nothing to do with the visitors who came to see Mary’s newborn son.

The truth beyond historicity concerns our love for the past, our compassion for others alive now, and our revolutionary belief that the only authority that matters is the power of divine love which not even violent imperial regimes can suppress.

Like the Jewish members of Matthew’s house church network, we should treasure the ancient traditions to which we are heirs. The past is the store shed from which a wise disciple brings out just what is needed for the occasion. Sometimes it is something old and sometimes it is something new. (See Matt 13:52)

A Cathedral speaks to that truth. This is not a temporary building. It has a long past and it speaks to a long future. There is a place for what we call “Cathedral thinking” as we imagine how our decisions right now build on the past but also prepare for a future in 50- or 100-years time. Unlike local, state and federal governments, we do not operate on a 4-year electoral cycle.

But valuing the past does not mean erecting walls between us and other people. God was doing something new in Jesus, and God continues to do new things. Let’s push the circle out and make it larger. That was a hard message for the Jewish Christians in Antioch, and it can be a hard message for Anglicans on the North Coast. But guess what: we need to do things differently. The church is going to change.

The mission of Jesus and the epiphany of Christ is not just about religion. As with sotēr (saviour) and kyrios (lord) 2,000 years ago, our beliefs have real-world political consequences. They start with addressing our own sins in the treatment of vulnerable people, but they extend to questions of justice, power, truth-telling, opportunity and the environment.

The politicians will not always welcome our eyes-wide-open engagement with these issues, but neither did the high priest in Jerusalem nor the emperor in Rome. The Cathedral is not a museum for medieval English culture, but a research and development hub for gospel values on the North Coast in 2021 and beyond.

To be all that God calls us to be we need to know and love our own tradition, we need to welcome people from different cultures and faiths, and we need to take seriously the revolutionary words of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
[Luke 4:18–19]

For further reading: Jesus Database – Star of Revelation

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Transforming a world by compassionate living

This sermon for Christmas morning at Christ church Cathedral in Grafton was inspired by a beautiful paragraph in a Christmas letter from a friend in the UK.

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Mary said, Yes

There is no written text for this unplanned and unscripted sermon for the mid-week service at Christ Church Cathedral this morning, we do have a video of the sermon …

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Marana tha

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Advent Sunday
29 November 2020

[ video ]

Well, here we are: Advent Sunday 2020.

A new church year has begun, and what a train wreck the last year has been! 

We get to beat most people to the end of year reviews and NYE resolutions, but what are we to make of 2020 and what might we hope for in the future?

Ah yes … HOPE. Our word for today, this first Sunday of Advent: hope, peace, love, joy …

2020 has not exactly been a year marked by hope, or peace or joy. Thankfully there has been a lot of love and compassion on display for much of the time.

While hope, peace and joy have been hard to find this past year, there has been an abundance of challenges that seek to eliminate any hope for a better life.

This time last year the major source of concerns were the fires. Extreme fires. Across so much of the country including areas not far from here. Our skies turned red and the air was filled with smoke. Homes were lost. Lives were lost. Billions of animals were destroyed. So much of the landscape was scorched and vegetation burnt.

Then came COVID-19.

At first just a news report about a weird virus in one part of China, then the cruise ship slow-motion horror stories, followed by the outbreaks in aged care homes, then the death rates in Italy, Spain, France, the UK and in the USA. All year in the USA. Outbreaks in Sydney. A second wave in Melbourne. Closed borders. Families kept apart from one another.

Businesses closed. Schools closed. Churches closed. Hand cleanser bottles everywhere. No singing allowed. Online streaming of church services. Face masks at the Altar.

We are so ready to say farewell to 2020 and to the Year of Matthew.

We are so ready to see things turn for the better.

Our first reading today speaks to that reality:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. [Isaiah 64:1–4]

The anonymous prophet whose words are preserved in the final section of the great Scroll of Isaiah was seeking to speak hope to a community living with fear and disappointment.

To paraphrase him, we might say: God, where are you? This would be a really good time to show yourself and let us see how well you can turn things around here!

The earliest Christians spoke Aramaic, and some of their prayers have survived even in the Greek NT. One of their most striking arrow prayers is simply: Marana tha; Come, Lord!

That is an Advent prayer, is ever there was one.

In this season of waiting, longing and preparation our hearts cry out: marana tha … our Lord, come.

In the gospel today we are offered a glimpse into the other side of our longing for the God we call Emmanuel(God with us) to come among us or, as Jesus would say, the God’s reign to here, active in our lives and in our contexts.

It is a strange kind of text as it uses apocalyptic (end-of-the-world) and dystopian imagery to reassure the readers. It was intended as a message of hope even if our first reaction to this weird material is to wonder how to make sense of the extreme metaphors. After all, we understand—unlike the ancients—that the sun cannot go dark, the moon cannot turn to blood, and the stars cannot fall from the sky and land on the earth. It may help to think of all that language as first-century science fiction, but we cannot miss the point Jesus is making:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. … And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. [Mark 13:32–33, 37]

As we get close to the end of 2020 and as we begin a new church year, what does KEEP AWAKE mean for us?

For sure it means we choose to reject fear, despair and complacency. We are never going to accept the ways things have been as good enough.

We choose not to allow the past to be the best predictor of the future, our future.

We choose to be awake and not asleep.

We choose to make our future and not simply accept what life serves up.

We choose to say YES to God and to work with the Spirit of Life to rebuild, reshape and recreate a broken, scorched and virus-ridden world.

We choose to live into the future with our eyes wide open, with courage, with compassion and with hope.

Marana tha … our Lord, come.

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The Great Feast

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 19A
11 October 2020

[ video ]

The Table of the Lord

The Table is at the centre of our faith. It is great symbol of who we are and how we become who we are. This is not so for all Christians at the present time, but it certainly has been so for most Christians through most of time during the past 2,000 years.

It is not our prayers or our songs or our sacred texts which make us unique, but the simple meal we share together around the Table of the Lord.

As we break the bread and bless the cup, we participate in an ancient spiritual practice that goes all the way back to Paul and beyond him to the followers of Jesus himself. To the last supper and beyond, to the everyday meals of Jesus with his circle of friends.

The Altar Table is the holiest object inside the Cathedral, and we treat it with immense reverence.

Tables are friendly places. We know them well. We find them in our homes, in the parks, in the restaurants, and in our churches …

They are places of gathering, storytelling, celebration, reflection, meaning, hope …

Around these tables we form communities and we tell the stories which make us who we are.

We have special rituals and taboos around food.

Our table friends are our closest friends and to betray a table friend is a shameful act.

This seems to hold true from the schoolyard to the family kitchen to the parliamentary dining room.

In the Bible it is no surprise to find that the feast of the Lord, the supper of the Lord, is a powerful symbol of blessing for Jews as well as Christians.

At our religious tables we have a taste of what is to come.

But it can all go awry, and many a family meal has been a time for arguments and conflict. Indeed, we have such a story in today’s Gospel and to a lesser extent in the OT reading as well.

Matthew and the feast

This gospel found its final form about 40 years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the meantime Christians and Jews have been drifting further apart and the hostility between them has been increasing. It is a sad and tragic story. I am sure Jesus weeps.

As Matthew tells a traditional story from Jesus about the wedding feast it takes on a decidedly anti-Jerusalem spin. 

He is living in a world where powerful men can do what they like with their women and their slaves, a world where powerful men attack anyone who oppose them or criticise them.

I am trying to describe life almost 2,000 years ago but it probably sounds a lot like life in the USA at this time, or China, or Iran or Russia or a whole lot of other countries where nothing much has really changed in all that time since Matthew.

What started as an inclusive story offering hope has become—at the hands of Matthew—a story of privilege and power, a story of pain and revenge.

Oddly enough, that has happened to the church as well.

And we see it happen so often in personal relationships.

Reading Matthew’s story of the wedding feast today

So the question for today is:

How do we read this text so that it affirms love not power, inclusion rather than exclusion, forgiveness rather than revenge?

We wrestle with the text, and we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church through such a passage. We tune our hearts for the word of the Lord. Straining to hear …

Except for those precious times of direct personal religious experiences, our faith depends on other people and sometimes they distort the message as it comes through to us. They do not mean to do this. It is simply natural and inevitable.

Meanwhile, we are living in a different reality from even just 50 years ago so that even the same message will now mean different things to us …

So to misquote a dear friend and mentor, Marcus Borg, we need to “hear this story again for the first time … “

Matthew himself has taken a simpler and more generous version of the story told by Jesus, and given it a particular “spin” as we would say.

We can see what has happened because we have two much simpler versions in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Thomas, and all three versions seem to derive from a very primitive collection of sayings which scholars call “Q”; for the German word, Quelle (source).

The International Q Project is an international group of religion scholars which has been working on the question of Gospel sources for many years. They have closely examined all the extant versions of shared material and even suggested what the original form may have been.

Their version of the Great Feast story sounds more like Luke than Mathew and goes like this:

The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests
Q 14: 16-18, 19-20, 21, 23 

16 A certain person prepared a large‚ dinner, and invited many‚ 17 And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner‚ to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. 18 «One declined because of his» farm. 19 «Another declined because of his business.» 20 … 21 «And the slave, <on coming, said> these things to his master.» Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave: 23 Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.

As Matthew decides to use that story in his gospel, he reads it through the lens of his community’s experience during the decades since Easter. Perhaps this was already how people in Matthew’s church were telling this Jesus story to one another? A simple story about God’s generosity has been turned into a symbolic story about their experiences as Jewish followers of Jesus:

• Jesus has invited people to the great feast
• The disciples went out to invite their fellow Jews
• Their mission was unsuccessful
• Jesus or God sends the Romans to destroy Jerusalem
• Now the disciples are going to the Gentiles
• There has been a huge response
• But guests need to keep the rules!

Frankly, that is not Jesus even though it has been attributed to him for almost 2,000 years.

As followers of Jesus, we do not call down divine wrath on those who oppose us or see things differently.

Instead, we choose to follow the dream that Jesus himself lived: forming and sustaining diverse communities of people who would normally not get on all that well together, but who—under the yoke of Christ—can become, in our better moments, people of compassion rather than vengeance, people of hope rather than despair, people who forgive rather hold a grudge.

We catch that vision when we gather at the Table of Jesus. 
At this table we discover that we have become a community of grace.
We are the body of Christ for we all share the one bread.
The Spirit of Jesus is within us because we all bless the one cup.
As we come to that table we share the sign of peace, even in a COVID-safe manner.

I am grateful to Matthew from reminding me of the need to stay true to the original vision of Jesus, and to set aside our natural instinct to hold a grudge and seek revenge.

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We are not alone

Fifth Sunday in Creation Time
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
4 October 2020

… to be fully alive is to appreciate our place within the web of life in all its diversity …

[ video ]

For five weeks now we have been observing the special season of Creation Time, coinciding with Spring in our part of the world.

Our overall theme has been: A jubilee for the Earth.

In this context jubilee does not means simply a 50-year anniversary, but a time for forgiveness and a fresh start.

In the biblical texts, every 50 years all debts were to be cancelled and all ancestral lands restored to the families which previously held them.

Whether or not this covenant ideal was actually practiced in ancient Israel, it is a biblical model for our relationships with each other, with the Earth, and with the diverse web of life of which we a part.

We might paraphrase it with phrases like “wipe the slate clean” or simply, “starting all over again.”

Of course, it is not that simple since we cannot just hand back land which has been devastated, forests which have vanished, species which have become extinct, or water reserves which have been wasted or polluted.

In addition to restoration we need to embrace the concept of restitution.

Restitution imposes real costs on actual people and on businesses, as well as some obligation to go the extra mile and give back even more than we have taken and destroyed.

Apart from the political controversy and the financial burdens, can it even be done?

Are we already beyond the tipping point, have we passed the point of no return?

Some people think so.

This is not the place and I am not the person to resolve that dilemma, but we all have to live with the realities of environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, land with depleted soils, insecure water supplies and creeping climate change.

We are not alone in this, since the same applies to every other creature on planet earth. We are indeed in this together. We are not alone. No matter who is responsible for the situation, we are all in this together.

That is surely one lesson we have learned during the current pandemic. A tiny virus which we cannot see, feel, hear or smell is turning our lives upside down. 

There is indeed more to reality than what we can see, although in this case we have created the tools which allow us to track both the presence of this virus as well as its modus operandi.

Maybe our best researchers will find a vaccine, but perhaps we shall just need to change the way we live in order to avoid losing many more lives and a vast number of livelihoods.

We are not alone.

We are part of an amazing web of life in all its diversity.

St Francis of Assisi seemed to sense that life is about relationships; with each other, with other sentient life forms, with the physical world, with poverty, and even with death.

Our texts and our music today invite us to see life in this way.

Not as resources over which we have some agency, but as diverse expressions of God’s own essence.

Not as threats to be avoided or defeated, but as opportunities to deepen our intentional engagement with God’s eternal work in creation.

Even Sister Death is to be welcomed as a guest who ushers us into the next stage of God’s great plan for the universe.

As Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; … [when] … creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. [Romans 8:19. 21–23]

Together with every other creature, we yearn for the day of redemption.

More than that, we are a voice for the Earth as it looks for that day of jubilee. Our prayer is for the Spirit of God to move once more upon the seething waters of creation and renew the face of the earth.

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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

[ video ]

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

[ video ]

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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