A great cloud of witnesses

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 10(C)
18 August 2019

 

[ video ]

A great cloud of witnesses

Once again this week, I am going to break with my usual practice and start the sermon with the second reading: another passage from Hebrews chapter 11.

That reading comprised the final verses of chapter 11 along with the opening few lines of chapter 12.

After finishing a long catalogue of heroes of the faith through chapter 11, the next chapter begins with these stirring words:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. [Hebrews 12:1–2 NRSV]

Let’s pause for a moment and think about the great cloud of witnesses that surround us:

  • Biblical characters
  • Church history heroes
  • Pioneer Anglicans locally
  • Family
  • Friends

We encounter this cloud of witnesses in different ways:

  • Biblical characters – lectionary
  • Saints & martyrs – calendar
  • Pioneers – in stained glass windows and other memorials (including the Cathedral dolls)
  • Family & friends – in shared life experiences

And—of course—when we pause to think about it, we in turn are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” for other people. We shall either give them reasons to be people of faith, or we shall gives them reasons to reject faith. It is up to us what kind of witness they perceive.

What is our legacy?

 

Looking to Jesus

Meanwhile, the anonymous author of this early Christian ‘open letter’ wants us to look behind this vast crowd of witnesses to the one person who really matters to us as Christians:

  • Not to the Bible
  • Not to Paul or any other biblical character

Just Jesus

  • Not to any of the saints and martyrs
  • Nor to the Prayer Book
  • Not to the Thirty Nine Articles
  • Not to the Dean!

We look to Jesus as we find ourselves ‘running the race’ with all those other people now in the grandstands, as it were, cheering us on.

He is the source of our faith, and benchmark for our own faithfulness to God’s call on our particular lives.

The text describes Jesus as the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith”.

It is his faithfulness which reveals God’s eternal compassion and love for us all.

This is not because he persuaded God to forgive us.

God needed no convincing!

Rather, Jesus is the key for us because in his faithfulness we see the eternal character and disposition of God to all people, all the time, in all circumstances.

And that is really good news.

An insight into the way the universe is structured that is well worth sharing,

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Heart and treasure

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 9 (C)
11 August 2019

 

[ video ]

Each week the lectionary serves up a selection of texts for us to explore as we seek spiritual wisdom for everyday life.

Most times those readings are not chosen for their connection with one another. However, there is a logic to the choice of readings, as you may know.

For a whole year at a time we listen to one particular gospel: Matthew in year A, Mark in year B, and Luke in year C . This year our focus is the Gospel according to Luke.

The first reading is selected on an entirely different basis. During most of the year this reading will come from the Old Testament. We work our way through consecutive portions of various ancient texts, rarely reading the entire document but hopefully gaining a sense of its purpose and flavour.

The Psalm which we sing or read each week is chosen for its ‘fit’ with that first reading. It is not so much a reading in its own right, but rather a reflective response to the reading which has preceded it.

Typically, we also have a reading from the letters of St Paul or one of the other apostles from the early church. Most often it is Paul although this week it is from the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews.

As always, the first task when preparing a sermon is to listen, to read, to sit with the text and see what lines of reflection emerge. What is the Spirit saying to the church through this set of texts?

There are some Sundays when the readings cohere and the sermon almost writes itself. On those days it is often very clear what line the sermon might take.

There are other Sundays when the readings do not seem to converge at all. On such Sundays the preacher has a more challenging task.

Today seems to be one of those Sundays!

As you may have noticed, I tend to focus on the gospel since our core task is to be followers of Jesus. However, today I want to start with the middle reading, the passage from the letter to the Hebrews.

 

Abraham

In Hebrews chapter 11, we have a series of characters who are presented as examples of faith.

In this context interestingly — and unlike the authentic letters of Paul — faith seems to mean a mysterious confidence in providence, perhaps grounded in some secret information revelation, rather than the faithfulness of Jesus which demonstrated in both his living and his dying.

In any case, Abraham is clearly represented as a model for the person of faith.

Let’s unpack that picture a little further.

In the Abraham story we find a character who feels compelled to leave behind everything and everyone which he is familiar, and to embark on a journey into the unknown. The destination is never revealed to Abraham but the consequences of the journey are described.

When Abraham goes on this journey he will discover a new relationship with God and he will also learn that the people amongst whom he then lives count themselves blessed because of his presence among them.

Abraham is to leave his comfort zone in order to discover the place of deep blessing: for him and for others.

 

Isaiah

At this point I want to bring in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz. Isaiah appears to have been a senior official in the royal government in Jerusalem prior to experiencing his own call. We find that described in Isaiah chapter 6.

Like Abraham, Isaiah was being pushed by God to move out of his comfort zone. The journey was not across a great distance, but rather to set aside his privileges as a government official, and to become that crazy person who insisted on telling the king what the king did not want to hear.

Such characters are both necessary and unpopular. This was to be true of Isaiah as well.

But let’s focus simply on the excerpt from Isaiah chapter 1 that we heard this morning.

It is quite a challenging text.

The prophet is calling out his peers because they have got religion—indeed life itself—entirely back to front.

The conventional wisdom said the best way to keep God onside was to be very religious. Lots of prayers. The very best music. Valuable livestock being burned by the wagon load as a gift to God. Beautiful vestments. Wonderful liturgies. Powerful rituals.

Isaiah’s journey from privilege and comfort included the lesson that this was entirely the wrong way to nurture a relationship with the love that is at the heart of the cosmos.

We heard the words earlier, but let me repeat them:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:11–15 NRSV)

What God requires is something very different, and much more challenging:

Wash yourselves;
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16–17 NRSV)

 

QUESTION: How do we deepen an authentic relationship with the Sacred?

ANSWER: Not by intense religious activity, but by being a compassionate human being.

 

Heart and treasure

Let me wrap this up with a brief mention of today’s Gospel from Luke 12 where we heard these words:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32–34 NRSV)

 

The takeaway from these readings today may simply be to reflect on that final statement by Jesus: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Like Abraham and like Isaiah we are compelled to reflect on what matters most to us.

What is the treasure we cannot let go?

What is the journey we refuse to take?

Where is our heart?

What matters most to us?

As we come to the Table of Jesus for Holy Communion we seek God’s help to set aside privilege and influence, comfort and security, and to pour ourselves out in compassionate action for the sake of others.

What do we most desire?

Where is our heart?

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For whom the bell tolls

quote-ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls-it-tolls-for-thee-john-donne-36-55-88

Almost 400 years ago, John Donne penned the words which became a modern proverb, and have proved with the passing of time to be prophetic as well:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
[Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII]

The language sits awkwardly on our modern ears, but the sentiments in this text from 1624 resonate with many of us alive today.

None of us are islands, complete and self-sufficient. From our shared genetic material to our cultural and social identities, we are part of a larger reality; the web of life.

When we lose one person from our community due to death, each of us has lost a part of ourselves. Even if we did not know the person. Even if we did not like the person.

In times past the bells of the village church would sound when someone was being buried. We still do that at Grafton Cathedral. Each time we conclude a funeral the Cathedral bell tolls.

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” says Donne. “It tolls for you!”

Just before midday today the Cathedral bell will ring continuously for twelve minutes. The same thing will be happening at other cathedrals and churches around the country.

Today the tolling of the bell is not to mark the death of a local person, but to alert us to the imminent death of our Mother: Planet Earth.

This date has been chosen because it is the point in the year when we exceed the capacity of the earth to provide or replenish the energy we are consuming by our lifestyle choices.

If this trend continues, the “overshoot day” will occur earlier in the year. If we begin to make a positive difference then the overshoot day will move closer to 31 December.

We are each diminished by the failing health of the planet, and we are each called to action in the brief window of opportunity that remains for us to reverse the sustained depletion of the Earth, whose children we are and without whom we have no future.

The well-being of our fragile blue planet is a challenge for us all, but it evokes a passionate response from people of faith.

Christians, Jews and Muslims all understand ourselves to have been placed in the world to serve and nurture creation. Many other religions also promote a deep respect for—and a profound sense of affinity with—nature. Some theologians have even urged us to see the world as the body of God, and many ordinary people with little time for organised religion describe profound experiences of the ‘holy Other’ as their hearts are touched by the beauty and the complexity of nature.

Today the bell of your Cathedral will be tolling to call us to action. One minute of bell ringing for each of the 12 years left during which time we may yet turn things around.

Without a healthy and sustainable planet, we are not just diminished; we are doomed. But it is not yet too late to turn things around. As we save the planet we rescue our future.

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Mary the Tower

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Feast of the Magdalene
21 July 2019

Lamentation of the Christ by Botticelli (1445–1510)

 

 

[ video ]

The Magdalene

Today we are celebrating the feast day for Mary Magdalene, who has been everyone’s favourite disciple and saint at various times in history and especially in recent times.

From Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970s to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in the early 2000s and the movie, Mary Magdalene, released last year and now available on DVD, there has been a surge of interest in this distinctive character among the first followers of Jesus.

 

Bad press for the Magdalene

History has not been kind to Mary.

Or—to be more precise—the church has not been kind to Mary.

She was overlooked and pushed aside as early as the time of Paul, never being included among the apostles let alone as one of the pillars of the early Jesus movement.

She was written out of the story by the second and third-century church leaders (all males, of course). In some cases, texts with her name were changed to substitute a more pliable woman into the storyline.

Then Pope Gregory I (590–604) determined that she had been a sex-worker before Jesus rescued her from a life of shame, except that in the Pope’s eyes the shame never quite got removed.

Some of the confusion around Mary is even seen in the hymns we are singing at the Cathedral today!

At least three different women seem to have been combined to create the common picture of Mary as a sex worker who was never quite redeemed from her life of sin:

  1. The anonymous ‘sinful woman’ who anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36–50)
  2. The wealthy female disciple from whom seven demons had been driven out (Luke 8:1–3)
  3. Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who is also remembered as anointing Jesus with oil a few days before his death (John 12:1–8)

 

Searching for the historical Magdalene

There are a few points to note, but I shall just mention them very briefly:

Mary was not from a village called “Magdala” and is never described that way in the Gospels.

Mary probably joined the Jesus movement after being healed of some kind of mental illness.

Mary is always listed first among the women, just as Peter is listed first among the men.

Mary was one of several wealthy women who funded the Jesus movement.

Mary travelled around the countryside with Jesus and the male disciples.

Mary was among the group of women who accompanied Jesus on his trip to Jerusalem.

Mary must have been at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane even though the gospels do not mention her.

Mary stayed by Jesus as he died, while the men ran away.

Mary came to the tomb early on Easter Day to complete the burial process.

Mary was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after Easter.

Mary was sent by Jesus to tell the guys that he was alive after all.

Mary was probably not the wife of Jesus but seems to have been a close and intimate female friend—perhaps rather like Clare of Assisi and St Francis

Mary was given a nickname by Jesus, just like the other three (men) from the inner circle. They were called ‘Rocky’ (Simon/Peter) and ‘Sons of Thunder’ (James and John). Her nickname was Migdal, the Magdalene: ‘Tower’.

 

Wisdom from the Tower

That is one very impressive CV!

Mary’s story is the story of so many women in the church over the past 2000 years.

Drawn to faith. Touched by Jesus. Supporting the mission and encouraging other people. Pushed aside by the men. Written out of the story. Overlooked. Slut shamed if they dare to speak up.

We can do better, and the Magdalene offers us a better path of discipleship.

That is the path into which we baptise Kai this morning.

We pray that he will grow to become both a follower of Jesus and a brave soul like Mary the Magdalene, the Tower.

The church needs people of passion and wisdom if the legacy of Jesus and Mary is not to be lost in our generation.

As his sponsors, Kai’s parents and godparents have a huge job ahead of them.

Hang tight with the community of Jesus people, take the wisdom of Jesus into your heart, and let the feistiness of the Magdalene rise up from your gut.

 

 

 

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No purse, no bag, no sandals

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 4C
7 July 2019

 

[ video ]

Today we going back into the lectionary cycle after several weeks when we have stepped aside from the lectionary to focus on the key phrases in the great commandments: Love God with all our hearts, with our souls, with our minds and with our strength.

The passage served up in the lectionary this morning happens to be the mission charge as Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to extend the reach of his own ministry and activity.

This offers a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of the activity of Jesus himself; as well as the activity of those disciples of Jesus who were based in the Galilee and continued to do the ‘Jesus thing’ in the first few years after Easter.

We have two versions of the mission charge, the version here in Luke 10 and a parallel version in Matthew 10. They are very similar. In fact, in places they are word for word the same.

Were Matthew and Luke students handing in essays at a university they would be up on a charge of plagiarism, since they have clearly used a common source – or perhaps copied from each other.

This takes us back into the earliest transmission of the gospel traditions, to an ancient version of the Gospels which scholars call simply ‘Q’, from the German word Quelle, meaning source.

These days this ancient source is more commonly referred to as the Q Gospel, and the people who produced it unknown as the Q community.

While it is hard to name any individuals who were part of that earliest community of Jesus followers in the Galilee after Easter, we can learn quite a bit about them as we read between the lines of the Q gospel.

To reiterate, these were people who lived in the Galilee in the years immediately after Easter and were followers of Jesus. Many of them knew Jesus personally. They had seen him at work in their villages and towns. They had heard him speak. Perhaps they had shared a meal with him. Maybe he had healed them or another member of their family, or at least somebody from their village. One of them was probably the little boy with a basket containing five loaves and two fish, for sure another one was Mary Magdalene.

What a fascinating bunch of people.

How we wish we could have a conversation with them and gain an insight into their experience of Jesus way back in the first century.

These Q people, the very first followers of Jesus, were essentially overlooked and written out of the story as the Christian church developed and gained a foothold in the Gentile world around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. After Easter, we never again hear of the Jesus people from Galilee.

But their voice is heard in the Q Gospel, an ancient source which was used by Matthew and later by Luke as they prepared their expanded and updated editions of the gospel according to Mark.

Enough of that for now! This is not the time and place for a lecture on the earliest Christian communities or the formation of the new Testament Gospels!

 

But what I do want to do is to draw your attention to the dynamics which are preserved for us in the mission charge.

These people remembered Jesus as acting in certain ways, and it seems they continued to act in precisely those ways themselves in the first years and decades after Easter.

 

Being sent

Like Jesus, the early Q communities had a strong sense of being sent by God to share good news. They had something to share, they had something to say, they had things they could do which would make a difference in people’s lives.

So the first question for us today is whether we can describe ourselves and our Christian community in similar terms?

Do we have a sense of being sent by God to share some good news which is going to make a real difference in the lives of other people? Do we have something to share? Do we have something to say? Do we have some contribution to make to the well-being of our community, our neighbours and our families?

 

Simplicity

It’s clear from the example of Jesus himself—as well as the example of Paul and the other early apostles—that the instructions given in the mission charge reflect the actual practice of Jesus and his earliest followers.

They were to travel light.

They were to carry no purse, they were to carry no bag, they were to wear no sandals and they were not to be diverted from their missions by others they might meet along the way.

When they reached the village or an isolated farmhouse, they were to greet the residents and seek a place to stay.

Wherever they found hospitality was the right place for them to be.

They need not look for somewhere else. Somewhere better. More comfortable. More amenable to their lifestyle.

They were not TV evangelists or megachurch pastors. Not even cathedral Deans.

They were not to move from house to house, but to stay for a short period with the one householder before moving on to the next village.

They had few resources and there was no infrastructure.

This is the pattern we see in many of the saints, in the founders of religious communities, and in the pioneer clergy who established church in this valley.

Our institutions have grown complex and wealthy, but our impact has diminished.

We need to learn afresh how to travel light.

 

Program

The program of Jesus and of his earliest followers was quite simple and yet it was radical. It changed lives, it transformed communities, and it turned the world upside down.

PEACE: they came proclaiming the arrival of peace, Shalom. Not power, not conquest, not empire building of any kind, but the ‘kingdom of God’, the reign of God experienced in their own lives and in their own communities. Shalom indeed. Your kingdom come …

HOSPITALITY: at the heart of so many gospel stories there is the experience of shared generosity. Some scholars have joked that Jesus ate and drank his way across Galilee, and that flippant remark captures one aspect of the earliest Jesus movement. This movement took root in those times and at those places where ordinary people gathered for meals: in homes, in the marketplace, beside the road, by the lake, out in the fields. At its heart, the Jesus program was simply for people to share what little they had and discover it was more than enough.

HEALING: both Jesus and his followers gained a reputation as healers. But they were not healers who set themselves up in a sacred grove and waited for the sick and suffering to come to them, charging a fee for their prayers and their potions. Rather, Jesus and his followers were healers who spent their time out amongst the broken and the sick. In the ancient world to be sick was to be excluded. In the absence of effective medication, a simple public health measure was to isolate the person with a disease. The individual was sacrificed for the sake of the herd. Jesus and his followers invited people back into the community, declared them clean, and offered them hospitality. Followers of Jesus were a community of outcasts, desperately poor and socially excluded. As they found healing they also discovered community.

 

And us?

We’ve come a long way. And it is not all good. The distance between the practice of Jesus and the practice of the church gives us pause to stop and think.

As we rediscover what God is calling us to be and to do in a post-Christian secular Australia, these three fundamentals from Jesus and his earliest followers in the Galilee may well represent ancient wisdom that we need to embrace afresh:

  • Travel light
  • Do good
  • Share (whatever you have)(all of it!)

 

This is the call of God on us as individuals, as families, and as a cathedral community.

May God give us the courage to do what has to be done.

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Ending spiritual and emotional violence towards LGBTQI+ persons

A speech to the Synod of Grafton Diocese on Sunday, 23 June 2019, when moving the following motion (shown in its final amended form):

That this Synod encourages the 2020 General Synod:
(i) to authorise Anglican clergy to participate in civil weddings;
(ii) to move towards providing optional provisions for the blessing of civil marriages; and
(iii) to move towards providing an optional liturgy for the solemnization of Holy Matrimony where the parties to the marriage are of the same gender.

 

Mr President, I am honoured to move the motion which stands in my name as item 24 on our business paper.

Synod members may be surprised to hear that I have hesitated to present this motion, due to a desire to avoid pointless conflict. However, I have been persuaded by other members of Synod who assisted in the drafting of this motion that, first of all, this motion needed to be presented for debate and secondly, that I should be the person who moves it.

I also share the hope expressed by David Hanger that we can engage in this debate with courtesy and respect. Perhaps at the end of the day we shall be even better friends than we are now, since each of is seeking to be true to Scripture and the call of God on our lives.

Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and intersex sisters and brothers continue to experience emotional and spiritual violence within the church as well as in other spheres of life.

While ever the letter of our church law excludes and discriminates that emotional and spiritual violence will persist.

Until and unless we open every aspect of church life to LGBTQI+ people, including the right to marry and to have their intimate relationships celebrated and blessed within the life of the church, this emotional and spiritual violence will continue.

In brief, that is why this motion is being brought to the Synod today.

As everybody will agree, I am sure, this is a question of our core values as people of faith.

To paraphrase — and respectfully misquote — our Lord, people were not made for marriage, but marriage was made for people.

Do people come first, or does a strict reading of the tradition prevail?

The New Testament provides ample evidence of the way both Jesus and Paul would answer such a question.

This motion is not seeking a protracted debate on the doctrine of marriage or the issues around same-sex relationships. All that has been canvassed extensively in recent years and especially during the debates leading up to the postal plebiscite in 2016.

Indeed, I note that the arrangements for General Synod next year have recently been modified to provide up to 3 days for an extensive discussion precisely on the theological and pastoral issues relating to human sexuality.

We do not need to have that debate here today.

It would interesting to glance back over the history of marriage within the life of the church, but the time available to me is too short for that.

However, I note that while marriage occasionally serves as a metaphor—among other metaphors—for the relationship between Christ and the church in Ephesians, it attracts little comment in the New Testament and certainly no mention in the creeds of the Catholic Church, and even in The Articles of Religion.

Further, until around 1200 CE there were no church laws relating to marriage.

For more than 1,000 years after Easter, marriage tended to be a private matter and required simply an exchange of vows between the two persons, without even the presence of any witnesses.

Around 1200 we see the Western church beginning to introduce canonical requirements to ban secret wedding vows, to require the presence of witnesses and in due course, to require a priest to be present and make a written record of the marriage.

Indeed, it was not until the Council of Trent in 1546 that marriage was defined as a sacrament of the church.

Our understanding of marriage has continued to change and evolve over time.

  • It is no longer seen as the transfer of one vulnerable woman from the control of her father to the control of her husband.
  • We no longer expect women to promise obedience to their husband.
  • Married women can own property and pursue careers.
  • We no longer understand marriage is primarily about procreation.
  • We have come to appreciate marriage as a blessed relationship in which two people find deep companionship and create a home in which children may be born and raised, but also as a small community of love through which a much larger circle of people find blessing.
  • We have come to terms with the reality of marriage breakdown and divorce. Despite the clear teaching of Scripture to the contrary, our church allows divorced persons to remarry and to do so with the blessing of the church.

Much has changed. But some important work remains to be done.

Around the Anglican world, many churches have begun to address the need to change our definition of marriage and provide for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

At last count, the Anglican provinces which have moved in this direction include the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Wales, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Episcopal Church USA, the Episcopal Church of Brazil, and the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Other churches with which we have full or partial communion and who have moved in this direction include the Union of Utrecht (look it up) as well as a large number of Lutheran communities in Europe and North America.

For most Anglicans this is not a core issue of faith and order.

The motion before us is carefully drafted to focus on the advice which we might reasonably offer to the 2020 session of General Synod.

This is especially pertinent given the changes to that Synod’s schedule to allow extended discussion—in conference mode—of precisely these matters.

This motion does not commit our diocese to act unilaterally, nor does it ask the Bishop to approve the blessing of same-sex marriages or to issue a liturgy for the marriage of same-sex persons.

However, this motion does offer a way for our Synod to express our mind and to contribute intentionally to the ongoing national discussion of these matters within our church.

As I commend this motion to the Synod, I am conscious that not everybody here will agree with the proposal.

Indeed, there are some people here who should vote against this proposal.

Anyone who thinks that LGBTQI relationships are intrinsically sinful, disordered and evil should certainly vote against this motion. Their decision to do so will be respected.

Similarly, anyone who thinks that the literal text of the Bible must always be followed may well find that they need to vote against this motion. Again, their decision to do so will be respected.

On the other hand, all of us who voted to support motion 23 earlier in the session will be inclined to support this motion.

Those who believe that compassion trumps doctrine will want to vote for this motion.

Those who believe that it is essential that our church engages with issues of concern to our neighbours, to our friends, to our families including—our children and grandchildren—will want to support this motion.

Those of us who want to see an end to the long tradition of emotional and spiritual abuse of LGBTQI+ persons will, of course, support this motion.

This is the right thing to do, and now is the right time to do it.

Thank you, Mr President. I commend the motion to Synod.

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with all that I have

Third Sunday after Pentecost
Christchurch Cathedral, Grafton
30 June 2019

 

[ video ]

 

Through this past month of Sundays we have been reflecting on the inner dynamics of our lives as Christian people.

  • What are our core values?
  • What is our mission in a nutshell?
  • What are the elements of faith which are non-negotiable and draw us into the future where God awaits?

 

During this series we have been focusing on some key phrases from the familiar words of the great commandment:

Shema Yisrael; Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, [with all your mind,] and with all your strength.

 

On the first Sunday this month we reflected on the significance of loving God with all our heart. We saw that this means moving beyond any sense of compliance with external requirements, as we acknowledge our relationship with God as fundamental to our identity and our purpose. This stuff matters to us. We care about spiritual work.

The following week, we reflected on the significance of soul: who we are in our innermost selves as creatures in whom the spirit of God is present and active. We saw that loving God with all our hearts is to make God the most important priority, but we also saw that to love God with our soul is to recognise that a relationship with God lies at the very heart of who we are as living creatures. Spirit people. Living souls.

When Jesus was quoting the words of the Shema Yisrael to the lawyer who asked his advice, he took the liberty of adding one additional element. We tend not to notice this because we are so familiar with the version from the Gospels.

The original version in Deuteronomy 6 refers to heart, soul and strength, and in today’s sermon we will be reflecting shortly on the significance of that final term. However, it is both interesting and significant that Jesus is remembered as telling his questioner that it is also absolutely essential that we love God with our minds.

There is no place for intellectual laziness within the spiritual life. We do not mistake information for wisdom, nor do we value answers over questions. But we are called as people of faith to use our brains and to love God with our minds.

When Camellia helped us to explore this idea a couple of weeks ago, we were observing Trinity Sunday. The concept of God as Trinity is an excellent symbol of the need to move beyond simplicity and naivety, towards a more nuanced and sophisticated faith. Loving God with our minds!

 

Loving God with our strength

So this week we turn to the last of the four phrases: loving God with our strength or, as we used to say the old translation, with our might.

This is an interesting concept.

Loving God with our heart invites us to think about the priorities in our life. Loving God with our soul invites us to reflect on our innermost identity and spirit people. But loving God with our strength—or our might—takes us to a very different place.

The Hebrew word in Deuteronomy 6 is מאוד, which is really an adjective rather than a noun. Indeed, I have מאוד on the outside of a coffee cup that I purchased from a coffee chain in Israel several years ago: מאוד. In the context it means exceptional.

In the context of Deuteronomy 6 as also in the context of Mark chapter 12, where the Greek word is ισχυςis used, the focus is on everything we have.

Nothing is excluded.

Nothing is exempt.

Nothing is held back.

Every resource and every asset and every ounce of energy which we have at our disposal is brought to the task of loving and serving God.

So, instead of saying love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength we should perhaps translate it as follows: love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with everything that you have.

Wow!

That is a truly radical call to discipleship:

Remember the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler: “sell your goods, give everything to the poor then come follow me.”

Remember the comments of Jesus when he saw a widow putting her last two small coins into the collection box at the Temple. Her gift was more precious than the bags of coins being offered by wealthy people, because she gave everything that she had.

This is not asking for 10%.

This is not negotiating any other intermediate benchmark for splitting our assets between God and ourselves.

This is a demand that everything we have—the whole lot—be given over to God’s purposes!

This is the wisdom of St Francis of Assisi.

This is the wisdom of Saul of Tarsus.

This is the wisdom of Jesus.

The call of God on our lives invites us to see everything we have—every asset over which we have control—as entrusted to us by God for the sake of mission.

So how do we manage this radical demand when it comes to distributing our assets, and particularly the discretionary funds which are available to us after we have filled our primary obligation of providing for our family and ourselves?

 

The way I deal with it is like this.

If the amount of money which I allocate each week has no impact on my capacity to do whatever I want to do, then I have not given enough.

Let me say that again as it sets a different kind of benchmark.

If the amount of money which I allocate each week has no impact on my capacity to do whatever I want to do, then I have not given enough.

There must be an element of sacrifice.

No pain no gain.

 

On the other hand, if I find that there are some things I would like to have done but can no longer afford to do because I allocated a significant chunk of my disposable cash to God’s work, then I have a sense that I am beginning to love God with all my strength, with all that I have.

 

So I will never tell you how much money you should put into the offering plate or how much money you should contribute to this charity or that charity.

For some people, 10% is way too high because what is then left is simply too small amount on which to live. On the other hand, for some people 10% is way too low, because their 90% is still so large a sum that there has been no sacrifice at all when they surrender even 10% of their disposable assets.

Again, remember the widow’s and the two small copper coins.

There is a challenge, a sting at the end of the tail, as we hear the words of the great commandment.

Yes, we will make God the most important thing in our lives; loving God with our heart.

Yes, we will live out of the recognition that our innermost selves express the presence of God deep within us; as we love God with our soul.

Yes, we commit to have minds that are always open to new truth; loving God with our minds.

And yes, we will love God with everything that we have even when that means that some of the things we would have liked to do we can no longer afford to do, because we are choosing to love God with all that we have, with our strength and with our might.

That’s a tough call, but it is the call Jesus makes.

And wouldn’t be great if the Cathedral had a reputation around town for our generosity. Those people (us) make such an impact because they are so generous with their time and their money. They give it all they have!

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Spirit of the living God

Pentecost Sunday
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
9 June 2019

 

[ video ]

Last week we started a series of sermons that will extend across the five Sundays of June. During this month we are exploring the core of our mission, what I have called “Mission in a nutshell”.

There is a famous story in the Talmud about Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus:

A pagan came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

 

That Jewish story is very much like Mark’s story about Jesus being asked (this time by a Jewish religion scholar) for a brief summary of the Law:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.” (Mark 12:28–34 NRSV)

 

Last week we focused on loving God with our HEARTS, but this week we focus on loving God with our SOULS.

Let me suggest that the difference between last week and this week is not very big, and yet absolutely huge.

The HEART refers to what we most value, what we most care about.

The SOUL refers to who we are, our innermost selves.

Today we observe Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit.

This is the last of the Great Fifty Day of Easter. It marks both the and a fresh beginning.

It is also the perfect time to be thinking about our SOUL or our SPIRIT or our INNERMOST SELF.

Let’s go back to the ancient Eden myth in Genesis 2.

Unlike the poetic drama of chapter one, in Genesis 2 we find God rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty as she fashioned the first human from the soil, from the earth. In the Hebrew text the term is ‘adamah, and the earth creature is called ‘adam (Adam).

But then notice how the story describes this clay doll becoming a living person:

“… then the LORD God formed the earthling(ha-‘adam) from the dust of the ground (ha’adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living soul (nephesh).” (Genesis 2:7 NRSV)

 

In that ancient myth, it is only when the spirit of God is breathed into the nostrils of the earthling that the human becomes a living soul.

What a powerful word picture for us on Pentecost.

Here we are, seeking to love God with all our soul, with our innermost selves.

But our distinctive character as a living soul is itself the result of God’s Spirit already being at work in us, pulsing throughout our whole being.

We are who we are because of the Spirit animating us.

When we love God without innermost self, our soul, we are not only offering to God our most authentic selves, we are also returning to God the very gift of life itself.

Last week we were invited to ensure that we value God above everything and everyone else.

This week we are asked to go deep inside and check that our innermost self, our soul, is receptive and responsive to the enlivening presence of the Spirit of God.

In doing this we are embracing the true meaning of Easter.

For the earliest Christians, the Spirit was Jesus himself, alive and ever present with them and within them. Let me end with these powerful words from Paul:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18 NRSV)

 

 

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First things first

Easter 7C
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 June 2019

 

Mission-nutshell.jpg

 

 

[ video ]

At its last meeting, Parish Council agreed that we would use the five Sundays during June to reflect on our core mission as Christians: first of all, to love God, and secondly, to love other people just as we love ourselves.

We plan to do that by paying attention to some very familiar words, what we call the Two Great Commandments:

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Jesus said: ‘This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

 

The sermons during these five weeks will focus on loving God with our hearts (this week), loving God with our souls (next week), then loving God with our minds and with our strength, concluding with love for other people.

So today we ask, where is our heart?

Jesus famously invited people to think about where our hearts are because, as he observed, where our hearts are focused is where we will find our deepest meaning. That will also tend to be where we allocate as much of our resources as we can spare, and sometimes even more than we can spare.

This invitation is a good place to begin as we reflect on God’s call on our lives during these five Sundays.

Is our faith something at the very core of who we are, or simply a vague interest to which we turn our attention where there is nothing more pressing on our minds?

Australians tend to default to a mindset that leaves God out of the picture, unless and until there is some crisis that causes us to refocus on our faith.

Yet the call from Jesus, who was simply echoing the traditional Shema of ancient Israel urges us to make love for God the most important thing in our lives.

Here is the original Jewish version of that great commandment:

Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

 

That was the divine call which Jesus accepted for himself, and he invites us—indeed he commands us—to make this obligation our own.

A life centred around love for God cannot be a selfish life.

We choose no longer to live for ourselves, but for God—and thus for others.

Imagine how different our city would be, our nation would be, and our world would be, if people were driven by their love for God and then looked for ways to express that commitment by compassionate action towards other people.

Notice, however, that Jesus is not asking people to be more religious.

He is not asking for more actions that impress other people with our investment in religion or in personal development or in spirituality.

Ever the radical prophet, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He demands that we love God, rather than act more religious.

This is clear from the context of this statement by Jesus, which we rarely hear when these familiar words are read in church.

In the Gospel, Jesus has just been asked about the one religious obligation that a good Jew should be sure to observe.

There were a variety of possible answers:

  • Observe Sabbath
  • Keep the Ten Commandments
  • Pray at the temple often
  • Bring offerings: lots of them and big ones
  • Give charitable assistance to the needy
  • Keep a kosher kitchen
  • Avoid sexual immorality
  • And more

 

Jesus declines to pick any of these external religious observances.

Instead he cuts to the core of the issue and demands just one thing: Love God with your heart …

From the very centre of our being, make God our first priority.

Not the church …

not the family …

not the career …

not the reputation …

not the hobby …

 

Just get this one thing right and the rest will sort itself out: Love God.

Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 Jesus makes the same point but in very different words:

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [Matt 5:33]

 

In the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing that we actually ask is that God’s kingdom will come … we seek that blessing before we ask for our daily bread, forgiveness of our sins, or protection from temptation.

First things first …

First, we seek for the kingdom of God.

Your kingdom come …

Everything else we need will come in its own good time, if we can just get that basic orientation of our innermost self right in the first instance.

Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart …

… strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well

 

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Wisdom has set a table

CVAS Junior School Worship
26 May 2019
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton

 

[ video ]

The Table stands at the centre of our worship today.

It is always so for Christians.

We have lots of symbols, but the Table is the one that is distinctively Christian.

Not a book to be mastered, but a Table at which we each have a place.

Not even the cross. The bread and fish of the Eucharist are much older symbols for Christians. The cross comes to prominence only after the Empire has co-opted the Church for the sake of power.

The Table is a sign of community, a sign of hospitality and a sign of abundant life. 

We are people who are learning how to say YES to God, YES to life, YES to hope, YES to love. The Table calls us to the lesson, and the Table provides an opportunity to practice our capacity to accept their gift of life, to share it with others, and to live life to the full.

During the last two terms, our Year Four students have been exploring the significance of the Table: the Table of Jesus, the Table of the Lord.

Today several of them will claim their place at the Table of Jesus.

 

The table of the universe

I love the imagery of our first reading.

Lady Wisdom has built a house and prepared a feast to which we are all invited. 

What a beautiful way to speak about creation. About life itself. The mystery and wonder of being here, of being alive. Of the whole universe: it is a palace built by wisdom for us to inhabit.

That is not a scientific explanation, but it is certainly an evocative poetic word picture. 

God has built a house and set a table for a massive banquet. 

We call that banquet: “life”.

Life is good. 

We are invited. 

All of us. 

Not just a chosen few. 

 

The bread we bless, the cup we share

Our second reading invites us to notice what is on the Table.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

The universe can be imagined as a marvellous house designed for our delight, a table groaning under the weight of good things for us to enjoy.

What is served up for us at the Table is nothing less than the life of Jesus.

Again, and as always, we are working with poetic symbols. But they are symbols of generosity and abundance, of life and love, of hope and compassion.

As Christians, we experience the irresistible love of God most clearly in the person of Jesus: who he was, what he said, and how he acted.

God’s love is not limited to Jesus, but that is our path into the compassion of God.

So the bread and wine that we take and bless at the Table are symbols of Jesus himself, his body and blood as it were, being placed in our hands and taken into our very selves.

Again, poetry.

When taken literally it turns to dust, and especially so when we hate other people because they understand the mystery of the Table differently.

But when accepted in faith as a sacred symbol, the bread and the cup are (as St Paul wrote almost 2000 years ago) a way for us to participate in the life and the character of Jesus himself.

At this table, we find our identity 

At this table, we find our unity.

At this table, we find the grace needed to live with hope and compassion.

 

The multitude fed

Our Gospel today is one version of a much-loved ancient Christian story in which Jesus fed a huge crowd of people with just a Junior School lunch box.

Again it is a poetic story.

We miss the point if we ask, “Did it happen?”

We get the point if we ask: “What does this mean?” That is a much better question.

In the story Jesus has a huge crowd of people with him some distance from a convenient market town: 5,000 men according to Mark; 5,000 men, not counting the women and children, according to Matthew. Even 5,000 hungry men is a catering challenge. But Matthew is suggesting a vast number of hungry mouths. 

So what does it mean that the only miracle story to occur in all four Gospels is Jesus feeding a great crowd of people?

What does it mean that Jesus did not first check their beliefs, or their intimate relationships, or their social media history, or shake them down for a donation to the Cathedral heritage fund?

The open table is the ultimate Christian symbol of God’s generous love for us all.

The love that brought the universe into being in the first place.

The love which continues to pulse at the heart of creation.

The love which invites us to flourish and be fully human, fully alive.

The love which is the ultimate reason why the Cathedral set up CVAS 21 years ago.

The love to which we can all say YES, at some stage in our lives, when the time is right.

The love which the Table of Jesus represents, and to which it is never too late to say YES.

As we welcome several of the Year Four students to claim their place at the Table of Jesus this morning, we join them in opening our hearts—our innermost selves—to that divine love which we see in Jesus and, in our better moments, which we see in each other.

Come to the Table.

Take the bread. Drink from the cup. Claim life. Reject fear.

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