Lady Cancer, Holy Sophia

Three weeks have now passed since my urologist visited my hospital bed to share with me the results of the biopsy on the tumors he had removed from my bladder some 36 hours earlier. Almost a week has passed since I sat in his consultation room to review the diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

The details matter only to me—along with my family and closest friends—so I shall not review them here.

However, I would like to offer a personal reflection on this new phase in my life.

In doing so, I draw partly on some of the journal entries I have made in the past three weeks.

Lady Cancer has moved in with me.

Turns out, for some time now she has probably been quietly setting herself up in a corner of my ‘house’ to which I have paid little attention. In any case, she has now announced her arrival and it falls to me to respond to this uninvited companion.

Following a chance conversation with a colleague while attending the Australian Anglican Deans conference in Bendigo over the first weekend of August, I have been reading, Die Wise, written by  Stephen Jenkinson. This is not a review of his book. I may write a review at some stage, but there is already a thoughtful review on the Seven Ponds web site.

Jenkinson has spent decades working in palliative care, in the ‘death trade’ as he puts it, and offers a distillation of his own insights into what constitutes a good death within the wider context of the human story and the story of Earth.

Once upon a time folk would have looked to the church for wisdom on dying well. These days the churches have mostly lost their confidence to speak about such topics, and joined the conspiracy of silence in our death-denying culture. Those believers who remain confident to hold forth on the topic of death have mostly shredded their credibility on the subject by exploiting fear of death as a lever for doctrinal conformity and moral compliance.

Early in chapter two, Jenkinson points out that dying is something we do, and not something that happens to us. In English it always occurs in the active voice, and never in the passive voice. Too bad that we do not have a middle voice in English!

In a sense, a cancer diagnosis is an invitation to embrace the awareness that I am dying — even if I continue to live, and continue to enjoy life, for many more years yet.

Death changes from a theoretical possibility for someone else to become a personal existential reality for me.

Once we know that we are dying, then we can become an active, aware and morally responsible agent who participates in our own dying. This does not mean that we hasten our death, but rather that we live each moment deeply engaged with others, with the world around us, and with our own dying — even if our death may be some considerable time away.

The certainty of my own death is now firmly on the agenda of my life.

That changes how I choose to live. It will now permeate my ministry as a priest and scholar. And it informs how I hope to die.

The challenge, the opportunity and the privilege of being a dying person is to live each and every day from now on in such a way that the joy of being alive is affirmed, the meaning of life is explored, and the reality of my own death serves to magnify and sharpen the delight of being alive.

I expect to live for many more years yet, while also knowing that may not be the case for any number of reasons (many of them unrelated to my recent diagnosis).

I want to spend those years living with and for the people that I love. But I feel that the cancer diagnosis has been a wake up call. And for that I am grateful.

Like everyone else, my days are limited. One day I shall die. It may not be immediate, but it is ‘soon’ and inevitable.

‘Lady Cancer’ has moved into my home, and she will never leave. She will be my companion on the journey from now until my death, and her arrival makes me aware of my dying as well as inviting me to choose how to live my dying in the meantime.

I choose not to repel her as an unwanted intruder. She has every right to be in my house.

For me, Lady Cancer is not draped in the garb of the Grim Reaper. Rather, she is the incarnation of Lady Wisdom, Holy Sophia, who we find in both the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament.

Here is one of many beautiful texts that speak of Lady Wisdom:

Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant girls,
she calls from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
[Proverbs 9:1–6]

As a Christian, I encounter Holy Sophia in the humanity of Jesus, the sage of Nazareth, the prophet of God’s irresistible reign, and the human face of God. He lived a life that was holy and true. His death reflected the character and quality of his life. He died well. As his disciple I aspire to do the same.

However long it proves to be, I intend to live this time of my dying with hope, with gratitude, with courage, with compassion, and with love for those who have a special place in my heart.

This is a declaration of life and love, and not a resignation into death.

Posted in Lady Cancer, Reflections | 3 Comments

Dreams, nightmares and well-being

Pentecost 10 (A)
13 August 2017
Byron Bay Anglican Parish

The readings set for today invite us to explore corners of our faith practice that sit uncomfortably with the prevailing outlook of our culture.

This is often the case, and mostly it is a good thing.

Being asked to imagine reality from a different perspective to that offered by our consumption-obsessed world is almost always a first step towards deeper wisdom.

But sometimes the cognitive dissonance is harder for us to manage, and for some people that may be the case with both the first reading and the Gospel today.

For different reasons they challenge how we see the world.

For another set of different reasons again they also invite us to see the world as a place of immense mystery and complexity.

 

Joseph the dreamer

The lengthy reading from Genesis 37 is one of the classic stories of the Bible.

At its heart are two fundamental principles that millions of people have lived by in years past, but which we may find hard to embrace:

  1. The underlying idea is that God is in charge of all that happens, good and evil, and is weaving them together for the sake of some larger purpose of salvation.
  2. The second principle embedded in the Joseph tale as a whole, and seen in the opening scenes of this chapter, is that dreams can be a means of spiritual insight into God’s purposes.

The first principle seems hard to maintain on this side of the Nazi deaths camps in Europe, or the killing fields of Kampuchea, or the madness of a nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

We struggle with the idea that good and bad derive from God, and that he weaves them all together in some way for the greater good.

If only that were so, we pray.

And yet God seems mostly to be missing in action.

As for dreams, we prefer hard data rather than fleeting impressions on the screen of our sleeping mind.

Yet there are those who find that paying attention to their dreams is a discipline that helps them live better lives, holier lives, more grateful lives.

There is wisdom in these ancient practices that we too often discard with a cocky sneer.

 

Nightmare on the lake

The Gospel offers a different invitation to wisdom despite our misgivings over the material in the text.

The experienced sailors familiar with the Kinneret are all at sea.

They are trapped in a fierce storm, and it seems their small craft is about to sink. Then their nightmare turns even worse as they see what seems like a ghost walking across the lake towards them. Once convinced that the ‘ghost’ was Jesus, Peter leaps out of the boat and attempts—unsuccessfully—to walk towards Jesus on the sea. as Jesus climbs into the boat, dragging Peter with him, the storm abates and all is at peace.

Now here is a strange thing.

People cannot walk on the waves, and yet we find such traditions in different parts of the world and in different religious contexts.

This tale is a paradox, and it invites us to look again—and more deeply.

Where is the truth in this story? And how might it take shape in my own experience?

On a lighter note, my personal favourite echo of this theme is a sign I once photographed on the shore of the Sea of Galilee:

 

No Walking on Water Sign

 

Deeply true even if they never happened

The stories we are offered today may never have happened, yet they are deeply true.

Theses stories offer us truth to live by and wisdom for a holy death.

The persistence of dreams in the spiritual toolkit of the human race, reminds us to look beyond the obvious and the superficial.

We can explain so much, yet we understand so little.

We travel far and wide, but do not go very deep into the mystery of life.

Our candles, dreams, icons, holy oils and rituals are not the answers in themselves, but they may invite us to go deep into the open-ended mysteries of this amazing world, and even the deep complexities of our own selves.

We may never find the answers.

But we live better when we face the questions.

As and when we have the courage to embrace that journey into the unknown, then we find a mysterious yet familiar figure walking towards us through the storm and the haze.

That is the role of the Saviour: to come alongside as needed and draw us to safety.

We do not have to believe impossible things to be a person of faith.

We simply have to trust that God is always with us: not because of our virtue, but that is the very nature of our God, of Emmanuel.

If we can imagine Emmanuel then we can find the courage to be, the courage to hope, the courage to live, and the courage to go deeper and deeper into the eternal mystery which is our life and our world.

In the final scene of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his followers—some of whom even then are questioning who he is and what is happening—I am with you you always, to the end of the world.

May that be our experience, and may it enable us to live lives that are holy and true,

 

 

 

 

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Treasure, Pearls, Fish and Scholars

Pentecost 8 (A)
30 July 2017
Byron Bay

 

We have four more parables this Sunday as we complete our series in Matthew 13. Not one of them involves farmers, so George can relax this week.

  • Buried treasure (casual passer-by)
  • Pearl of immense value (merchant)
  • Fishing net (fisher folk on the lake)
  • Scribe trained for God’s rule (scholar, rabbi)

These are three of my favourite parables, along with one that I could easily skip in its canonical form.

This set will wrap up Matthew’s parable collection, so please indulge me while I reflect on the three parables that speak most powerfully to me from this set.

 

The Fishnet

First a brief comment on the Parable of the Fishnet.

It evokes the earlier Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, but the action has been translated from field to the lake.

Jesus spent a lot of time around the lake. He observed the fishers at work and included several of them among inner circle of 12 disciples.

We know that Galilean fishers used nets: small casting nets, larger nets dragged behind boats, and nets walked out into shallow areas then back to the shore. All such methods result in a mixed haul, like the shark nets installed on beaches recently.

Our task is to prepare the nets, repair and maintain the nets, and to deploy them in ways to gather in the largest haul. In other words, our responsibility is to fish and it is the Master’s role to sift and sort afterwards.

 

ASIDE: Allegory kills the parable

One of the problems with parables is how we use them.

Parables mostly designed to be heard as a whole. They work because the story subverts common sense. They tend to cut across the grain of conventional wisdom, but the people after Jesus were mostly not as adept as he was in using open-ended stories. They felt the need to explain everything and limit the potential meaning of the parable. At times they even undermined the point Jesus was making.

One strategy that they used was allegorization. In this way they could convert the parable into a moralistic story. They attributed moral and spiritual significance to each detail of the story. Such interpreters also tend to present the story in context of the great day of judgment in the distant future. Where Jesus called on people to live NOW as children of a generous a God, later tradition tended to use fear of the FUTURE as a discipline on morals.

We see all these in The Fishnet. At its core is a genuine saying of Jesus, but already by Matthew’s time it becomes an allegory as the simple story is elaborated with horrific scenes from the day of judgment. This parable does not occur in Mark, which was Matthew’s major source. He has found it somewhere else, and we can also find an earlier version in Thomas 8 – where there is no interpretation such as we find in Matthew. Most likely Matthew has created the judgment scene interpretation, a theme we find several times in his Gospel.

 

Three More Parables

Buried treasure

This brief and simple story indicates the essence of the parable.

Here, God’s Kingdom / reign is like … the accidental discovery of a hidden treasure trove. The lucky finder disposes of everything else in order to acquire that field and gain the rights to the treasure trove.

No moral issues are entertained, just the excitement of discovering the treasure; the joy of passion; and the folly of enthusiasm.

The Pearl of Great Price

Next we have a similar story, this time featuring a merchant: someone always on the lookout for a bargain. Today he finds the bargain of his lifetime: a pearl of immense value.

Like the lucky treasure hunter he sells up everything he owns. Now he can possess the precious pearl.

This is a parable where we see the humour of Jesus at work. Think through this story.

The merchant has sold all he possessed: his house, his merchandise, his animals, any servants or slaves (and maybe even his wife and children).

So now he has his pearl. But what is he able to do with it?

This was folly: impulse purchasing at its worst. Jesus is not giving financial advice, but describing how God’s reign takes hold of us. This is not about success, not about respectability, and not about traditional family obligations.

Rather, this is about a passion for God, a passion for the ‘pearl of great price’, a thirst for
the spiritual wisdom we draw from the well of faith.

A Scribe Trained for God’s Kingdom

Now we come to one of my favourite parables. The central character is a scribe, a Bible scholar, in our terms a theologian or a priest. The scribes were usually seen as the opponents of Jesus, but the early Jesus movement must have included some. They were needed to write gospels, etc and also to copy and study the Old Testament,

So what is such a godly scholar like?

This is the part I especially appreciate: he is like the manager of a household who knows what to fetch from the shed as needs arise. Sometimes it will be something new, but other times it will be something old. Such is my vocation as a priest and a scholar.

That is a role we are all called to fill at times and one of those times will be at Parish Council later today. As we engage in our mission planning process we need the wisdom to blend the old with the new.

 

Conclusion

We finish our three weeks of parables now.

They draw us deeply into the mystery of God. They encourage us to be excited by mission. They invite us to take foolish risks for God. They demand that we stop critiquing others and learn how to blend the old with the new.

Here in the Bay these parables resonate with our context. We are called to move beyond the safe spaces and to venture out to risky places. We do that knowing always that God is already there: EMMANUEL is not just with us, but also ahead of us.

Thanks be to God.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Feral weeds and rotting yeast

Pentecost 7 (A)
23 July 2017
Byron Bay & Broken Head

Today’s readings offer us another serve of Jesus as the master of the parable.

This is the second of three Sundays that we spend in Matthew 13.

The lectionary wants us to focus on just the one parable this week: both the earliest tradition with the core parable, and also the later tradition with its allegorical interpretation. In the first we discern the voice print of Jesus, in the latter we sense the calcification of the tradition as the challenge of the kingdom’s Prophet is domesticated into personal piety and good living.

In the process, the lectionary wants us to skip over two other brief parables that occur in between these two lengthy paragraphs. However, I propose to focus on all three parables and leave the interpretation or some other time.

The church has turned the parables into (safe) earthly stories with a (pietistic) heavenly message, but the art of the Storyteller from Nazareth was such that these stories still have power to challenge, provoke, and transform. Even after 2000 years.

The parables are not ‘nice’ stories for children in Sunday School or Scripture classes. Rather, we should think of them as theological booby traps thrown into our hearts by the Master Teacher, the Galilean Sage. These parables tease us. They stretch our minds. They open our hearts. They dare us to think differently about God, the world and ourselves.

These ‘inconvenient truths’ echo across the millennia despite the best efforts of the church to lower the voltage of the Jesus legacy so that our lives are less disrupted by the poetic wisdom of the Nazarene.

Three parables from the Master

Each of these parables draws on daily life in rural Palestine: one is from the field, another is from the garden, and the last from the house.

  • In the first, a farmer sows his field—seemingly with more care than the farmer in the parable of The Sower that we had last week. In this there is no problem with seed falling on the pathway, among thistles, or in shallow soil. The planting process seems to have gone well, but then weeds come up—all over the place. There are so many weeds they cannot be pulled out without risking the crop. All is good says the farmer. Let them be until the harvest time.
  • In the second parable, someone plants mustard seeds in the garden. That makes us much sense back then as planting nut grass in the blue couch lawn today. Once mustard gets into the garden it will never be eradicated. It is a pest. It gets out of control.
  • A similar idea seems to be at work in the third parable, but with a twist. God’s reign, says Jesus, is like a woman who hides a tiny amount of yeast in a very large amount of flour. ‘Three measures’ does not mean ‘three cups’. It is more like three sacks. Around 100 litres of flour is permeated by this small amount of yeast. Yet yeast is something unclean for the Jewish audience.

Three parables.

Three seemingly simple stories.

But each of them confronts and subverts how we think of God.

Church is not a place where we need to hunt down those with different views and drive them from our midst. We are more like a paddock with crops and weeds growing side by side. Time will tell what has sprung from the good seed, and what has sprung from the bad seed. It is not our job include some while excluding others. All are welcome here.

Jesus says God is just like the feral mustard that runs amok in the garden. Once God gains a toe-hold in our lives there is no getting rid of her. God’s presence expands and multiplies and permeates and changes—everything.

God (says Jesus) is like the rotting yeast whose decay penetrates a huge quantity of flour. God’s reign will work its way through our lives, through our community, through our church, until—in the End—God is everywhere, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It cannot be stopped. It spreads everywhere.

Holy things for holy people, broken things for broken people

As the Priest calls us to the Table of Jesus we often hear these words:

The gifts of God for the people of God.
Holy things for holy people.
Broken things for broken people.

These words invite us to bring together two aspects of life that we often seek to keep apart: holiness and brokenness.

The parables mix these up and claim everything in life for God’s kingdom.

In our lives we live with brokenness and wholeness, side by side.

The people of God are broken people, and the broken people are the holy people.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

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Comfortable words, challenging words

Pentecost 5A
9 July 2017
Byron Bay

 

The readings set for today each have their own logic, but taken together they fail to cohere in the way that we sometimes experience. We could pursue anyone of these three readings, and with sufficient time we would find that each offers us profound spiritual wisdom. Indeed, we did a little of that in our discussion last Wednesday morning.

The first reading from Genesis 24 continues the story of Abraham, and today we see the beginning of the transition from Abraham to Isaac. As always, the Psalm serves as a response to some aspect of the first reading: in this case to the experience of a young woman who is leaving her family of origin to join the family of her new husband, a man she may not even have met prior to the marriage being arranged. That whole scenario triggered some interesting reflections on family, culture and faith when we explored these texts last Wednesday morning.

In our second reading, we hear Paul at his most vulnerable. In this section of his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of his personal distress as he finds himself unable to live up to his own expectations as a person of faith. Again, this is a passage that triggered some significant reflections as we discussed Paul’s words last Wednesday morning.

Today’s gospel reading presents Jesus engaged with people whose response to his own ministry and his own actions was very mixed. We sometimes think how wonderful it would have been to hear and observe Jesus directly during his life in the first century. Surely, we think, it must have been so much easier to respond with faith when Jesus was right there in front of us. Not so it seems. Today’s gospel invites us to explore more deeply our response to God’s call.

Already you can see that each of these readings invites us to explore different aspects of faith. But we only have time for one sermon, and the sermon can only go down one track. So let’s focus on the gospel this week, having spent a considerable amount of time with the Old Testament readings over the past couple of weeks.

 

Take my yoke upon you

In today’s Gospel we find these words on Jesus’ lips:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. [Matt 11:28–30]

For Anglicans who grew up with the old prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, these are very familiar words. They form part of the so-called comfortable words which generations of Anglicans heard just before coming to communion:

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith
unto all that truly turn to him:

Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden,
and I will refresh you. 

Long before the BCP, these words will also have sounded familiar to Jewish ears in synagogues across the Middle East. Similar things were said by Lady Wisdom as she invited people to embrace the demands of Torah and find their burden was light, and the yoke was easy. Here are three examples from the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (written about 180 years before Jesus):

Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,
and those who work with me will not sin. [Sir 24:19–22]

 

Draw near to me, you who are uneducated,
and lodge in the house of instruction.
Why do you say you are lacking in these things,
and why do you endure such great thirst?
I opened my mouth and said,
Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under her yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your own eyes that I have labored but little
and found for myself much serenity. [Sir 51:23-27]

 

Listen, my child, and accept my judgment;
do not reject my counsel.
Put your feet into her fetters,
and your neck into her collar.
Bend your shoulders and carry her,
and do not fret under her bonds.
Come to her with all your soul,
and keep her ways with all your might.
Search out and seek, and she will become known to you;
and when you get hold of her, do not let her go.
For at last you will find the rest she gives,
and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense,
and her collar a glorious robe.
Her yoke is a golden ornament,
and her bonds a purple cord.
You will wear her like a glorious robe,
and put her on like a splendid crown. [Sir 6:23-31]

 

You may recall that Matthew was writing his account of the Gospel to address the needs of Christians with a strong Jewish background. In his Christian community in Antioch around the end of the first century such people needed to know that following Jesus did not mean they were rejecting their spiritual legacy as Jews.

When Matthew chooses these words from the wider oral tradition of the early church, he is inviting his readers to link Jesus calling them to discipleship with the older traditions of Lady Wisdom inviting people to take her yoke upon themselves, and discover that the religious life is not a heavy burden, but rather a source of joy and strength.

Such words were familiar to people in the past, but the recent national census data suggests that they would be rather unfamiliar words to most of our neighbours.

Accepting the yoke of religion is not something with broad appeal these days. Yet maybe this ancient wisdom still has something to teach us today. Maybe it also speaks to the matters we shall be engaging with in our mission planning session directly after the service ends?

What might it look like for us as a faith community to accept the yoke of Christ?

At a time when fewer Australians want religion of any kind, what if we choose to be different?

What did the yoke of Holy Wisdom look like to ancient Jews and to those first Christians? And how might it look to us today?

COVENANT – at the heart of Judaism and Christianity there is a deep sense that we are in a covenant with God. That covenant is initiated by God as an act of grace, and we respond to that divine initiative by choosing to live within the covenant; by accepting the yoke. To put that in more everyday terms, we experience life as a profound gift, and we choose to live with a mindset of gratitude. One reminder of that dynamic in the life of faith is that our distinctive act of worship is the Eucharist, a Greek word that means thanksgiving.

COMMUNAL – our response to God is communal. We need others to travel with us on the path. We do not make this journey alone. Our religion is not about solitary achievement, but about shaping and sustaining healthy and grateful communities. Further, as a ‘church’ rather than a ‘sect’, our sense of community is large and inclusive. Everyone is welcome. We have soft boundaries. People can come and go. It is OK.

EARTHED – as grateful beneficiaries of God’s goodness, we are deeply connected with the earth and the intricate web of life in which we participate. We are not seeking to escape from this world, but to live faithfully and gratefully within this world. The ancient Hebrew creation story captures this well with its delightful pun: the earth creature (adam) is fashioned from the earth (adamah). As people of the earth, we have work to do: whether we still work the soil or now create digital content. We are engaged in the web of life as stewards of creation. It is our destiny and our vocation. And our joy.

COMPASSION – hard wired into our stories of faith is the idea that we are people of compassion, people who care about justice, people who welcome strangers, people who protect the vulnerable (‘widows and orphans’ in biblical terms). When people of power exploit others, drive them into poverty, and force them into slavery then people of faith speak truth to power, often at great personal cost. Jesus is our model. The symbol of our faith is a cross, not a rocking chair.

RITUAL – we know the power of ritual to express our gratitude for the gift of life and to sustain our commitment to lives of justice and hope. Yes, our worship can become jaded and our rituals can degenerate, but good liturgy enlivens and transforms. We need more than words because humans are more than word processors. We need colour, music, movement and incense. The whole person needs to be caught up in our grateful response to the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

 

Later this morning we shall devote some time to discerning what taking up the yoke of Christ looks like here in the Bay, and how that may unfold in the next few years.

I do not know what ideas will emerge from this process, but I am confident that as we take up the yoke of Christ and send our roots down deep into our local community here in the Bay, God will use us to make a difference in the lives of other people.

First we shall make Eucharist together, and then we shall seek the wisdom of God for the task before us.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

An unacceptable tale

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
Byron Bay & Ewingsdale
2 July 2017

As you may guess, by choosing to offer my sermon directly after the reading from Genesis 22, something is afoot.

In our Wednesday morning Bible study group we reflected on this passage, and discussed how best to deal with it in today’s services.

We had a number of choices:

  1. Read it like any other passage and allow it to pass more or less without comment.
  2. Choose not to read it at all, and simply avoid the problems it presents.
  3. Read the passage, but offer immediate comment to assist with its reception.

As you can see, I have opted for the last of those three choices.

 

Context

Context is always import when we engage with Scripture:

  • the context in the ancient texts
  • the context in which we hear the passage
  • the context of our own lives

When the international lectionary committee chose the readings for this week, they could never have guessed what else would be happening in our context here as this passage was read aloud in all the major churches across Australia today:

This week we have seen the data from last year’s national census. Among other things the census demonstrated a continued decline in the number of Australians who identify as Christians (now just 52%), while a record high number of people (30%) reported they do not have any religion at all.

Then, at week’s end, came the announcement that Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, has been charged with historical child sex offences and will face court later this month.

While George Pell must enjoy the presumption of innocence until a court determines otherwise, and while it is hardly news that fewer of our neighbours still share our faith, both those stories about religion in the national media this week sit very awkwardly alongside today’s reading from the Old Testament.

Genesis 22 is a ‘text of terror’ and it resonates darkly with the major religious headlines of the past few days.

 

Texts of terror

The phrase ‘texts of terror’ was coined by American biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, in her book of that title first published in 1984. It refers originally to texts that involve “abuse, exploitation, and violence against women,” but can be extended to includes stories, laws, and apocalyptic texts that promote genocide, ethnic cleansing, tribalism, and dystopian visions of reality.

Today’s reading is certainly a text of terror even though it was not included in the original study by Trible.

Let me briefly sketch the layers of terror and horror in this central biblical narrative:

God is portrayed as testing Abraham’s faith by demanding his son Isaac as a human sacrifice: “your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac”. God allows this cruel test to proceed to the point when Abraham has a knife poised over his son’s neck. Only then does God rescue Isaac and relieve Abraham of his tragic mission.

Abraham not only accepts that God might make such a demand, but goes along with the request—revealing his murderous intention neither to Isaac nor to Sarah.

Isaac is the one figure to emerge from this despicable tale with his character intact. Having unwittingly assisted in the plot for his own murder, he is rescued at the last moment. He too, it seems, accepted that God could make such a demand and is prepared to submit to the abusive authority that controlled his fate.

Sarah makes no appearance in this story, but is a secondary victim to the psychological and physical abuse that Abraham is inflicting on her son—all in the name of religion. A few episodes earlier she was punished for questioning her capacity to conceive Isaac in her late 90s, but now Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to murder their son a few years later.

Truly this is a text of terror.

Imagine what the media would make of such a story if it were read out in a mosque this morning.

Imagine how respect for the church and openness to the ancient wisdom of our spiritual tradition would be impacted if our neighbours realised what we are reading in church this morning.

Imagine the impact of this biblical text on women and children who have been abused by men with a distorted sense of religion and a confused understanding of male privilege as something endorsed by God.

As we discussed all this last Wednesday morning, I remembered that I grew up with a father and later a stepfather who tried to kill me and my sisters, and who would both slip into dark and violent rages. That knowledge had slipped from my mind but was lurking in the shadows of my psyche.

Discussing this story on Wednesday morning revived those memoires.

How many other people hearing this story or reading the news reports these past few days will also have been reminded of violence and abuse in their own families, even in religious homes and in families who are leaders in the local church?

 

Communities of healing and hope

Last week I said the following:

… when read in our context, [this] is a story that challenges us to recognise and name the abuse of vulnerable women and children even within families of faith. Such abuse happens not just in our institutions, but also in our homes.

Wherever such abuse occurs, we need to name the abuse, protect the victims, and deal with the perpetrator.

We must name and reject abuse and violence, even when it is found in the Bible—and especially when it is projected onto our understanding of God.

The God we see in Jesus challenges us to reject the dark and violent depiction of the divine in this and other biblical texts.

The God we encounter in Jesus invites us to form communities of hope and healing, where the victims of violent abuse find safety.

The God who comes us in Jesus is never to be found among the violent and abusive, even when such people drape themselves in religion and claim to be doing the will of God.

So now let us stand to hear the Gospel, the Good News, after which we shall sing our Gospel acclamation:

Alleluia, the Word of God is living! Alleluia!
The Gospel is among us! Allleluia! Alleluia!

[©2004 Richard Bruxvoort Colligan]

 

Suggestions for further reading

(1) For those interested in more detail about the receptionn history of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) tradition from Genesis 22 within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I have previously published some notes about the Akedah tradition online.

(2) Another aspect of the reception history of the Akedah tradition is the idea that this was the last and most challenging of ten tests that Abraham had to overcome to demonstate his total loyalty to YHWH. All 10 are not found in the OT, but complete lists (albeit inconsistent) occur in much later Jewish tradition. Here is a link to an essay by Prof. Scott B. Noegel (University of Washington) that outlines this post-biblical tradition in some detail.

(3) Here are 2 versions of the Ten Trials of Abraham (from chabad.org):

There are actually a number of schools of thought about this. Here are some.
 
Maimonides lists them as follows:
 
1. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. G‑d tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
10. G‑d tells him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.
 
Note that all of the tests in Maimonides’ list can be found clearly in Scripture. Most other lists include events that are recorded only in midrashic accounts. For example, the following list is brought by Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro. Notice that the first event listed—Abraham’s being thrown into a furnace—is one that is not recorded in the Bible, but is known to us only by way of midrashic traditions.
 
1. He is thrown into a fiery furnace.
2. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
3. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
4. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
5. He faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
6. He is told by G‑d that his children will be strangers in a strange land.
7. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
8. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
9. G‑d tells him to send away Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
10. Abraham is told by G‑d to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.
 
Should you want to do more research, you can find more lists in Midrash Tehillim, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, and the commentary of the Meiri on Ethics of Our Fathers.
[http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1324268/jewish/What-Were-Abrahams-10-Tests.htm]

 

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Losing life, finding life

Third Sunday after Pentecost (A)
Byron Bay & Broken Head
25 June 2017

 

This week’s lectionary texts invite us to reflect on the stark reality that life can be challenging, and that even being a person of faith is not a ticket to a trouble-free life.

So much for the ‘prosperity gospel’ much promoted by certain groups of Christians.

The simple fact is that when we choose to live as people of faith we still find that our lives are often challenging, and even really hard at times.

Faith is not a ‘get out of jail’ card for the Monopoly game of life.

Faith is our response to the call of God on our lives.

We are disciples of Jesus because we can do nothing else.

We are not entering a private arrangement with God to acquire privileged access to the good life.

 

Dysfunctional families among the faithful

Our first reading today is part of an extended series of readings from Genesis. These ancient narratives describe the origins of the Israelite people, as they focus on the legendary characters from whom all later Israelites (and all modern Jews) trace their descent.

The tribal ancestors are presented as a series of generations from Abraham to Joseph, and their lives are recounted with varying amounts of detail. These are mostly tales about men, but women figure in the stories from time to time—as we see in this week’s passage.

These traditions about the ancestors of the tribes who eventually formed the people of Israel around 1,200 BCE were gathered together at a much later stage. They form a kind of prologue to the great story of redemption in the book of Exodus, when YHWH rescued the Hebrew slaves from their desperate situation in Egypt.

(We shall come to that story around the end of September.)

We might expect the storytellers of ancient Zion to depict their ancestors as examples of faith and paragons of virtue. But that is not the case. As we see in this week’s episode, Abraham is not portrayed as someone whose example we should emulate. Similarly in last week’s reading, his wife Sarah is not presented as a model for faithful living.

In this week’s episode we have Abraham expelling his elder son, Ishmael, into the desert along with his mother—all at the behest of Sarah, Abraham’s senior wife. It is a nasty and shameful episode in the story of Abraham, and not one of his better moments.

As it happens, when read in our context, it is a story that challenges us to recognise and name the abuse of vulnerable women and children even within families of faith. Such abuse happens not just in our institutions, but also in our homes.

Wherever such abuse occurs, we need to name the abuse, protect the victims, and deal with the perpetrator.

Within this story, that is exactly what God does. God protects Hagar and Ishmael, and ensures they survive despite their shameful treatment by Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael will eventually become the ancestor of the Arabs, and a major figure in Islam.

 

Faithfulness in troubled times

There is much more that could be said about Abraham and Hagar, and their son Ishmael. But let’s now turn our attention to the rather disjointed collection of bad news we were served in today’s Gospel (‘goods news’) reading.

It may be helpful to have a sense of when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and why someone took the trouble to gather these particular traditions together in the form we find them in Matthew.

Sit tight for a rapid-fire BIBLE101 introduction to the Gospels, with a focus on Matthew.

All of the gospels are anonymous.

None of them are dated.

Scholars date them by trying to establish the relationships between them, and especially between Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Most scholars (almost everyone, in fact) agrees that Mark was written first.

This means that—each in their own way—both Matthew and Luke are revisions of Mark, that expand and correct the earlier document.

Matthew, in particular, is really a second edition of Mark, revised and expanded to provide extra information about the teachings of Jesus, and also to address more directly the challenges faced by some of Jesus’ followers in northern Syria around 100 CE.

Most likely Matthew was published within a 15 year window either side of that date. Most scholars still prefer 85 CE, but more recent studies are suggesting around 110 CE.

When we compare Matthew with both Mark and Luke, it is clear that Matthew is writing for a Christian community with a very strong Jewish element. This is very different from the mostly Gentile (Greek) audience for Paul’s letters some 75 years earlier.

In particular, followers of Jesus were increasingly being harassed by their Jewish neighbours and relatives as the divisions between Jews and Christians became deeper around the end of the first century.

The early Christian leader who prepared the Gospel according to Matthew was seeking to reassure his readers that they were not betraying their Jewish heritage by following Jesus, and also to remind them that Jesus himself had suffered abuse and hostility from his Jewish neighbours and even from his own family members.

Now back to this morning’s reading!

Matthew has gathered together material from various oral and written sources to provide a reminder that following Jesus may mean that his readers can expect to experience criticism, hatred, hostility, and rejection. Even martyrdom is a possible outcome for those who choose to live faithfully in a context that opposes all they hold sacred.

For the original audience these were words that described their own lived experience.

For subsequent generations of readers, these words have been a reminder that Jesus calls us to faithfulness rather than success, to courage rather than celebration, to sacrifice rather than prosperity.

 

Beyond consumer religion

The so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ promoted by some Christian communities is a deep betrayal of Jesus, and of his earliest followers.

We do not promise answers to life’s questions, but spiritual wisdom to live with the questions.

We do not promote healing from illness and disease, but the assurance of God’s presence with us in every situation.

We do not promise wealth and prosperity, but a community of pilgrims who share what we have so that everyone has sufficient for today.

Neither Jesus nor Matthew were promoting a religion that offers benefits to a privileged few.

As today’s NT reading makes very clear, at our Baptism we are united with Christ  in his death and in his resurrection. That death was a cruel and painful experience. There was no First Class option for Jesus, and there are no exemptions from real life for any of us.

Those Christian communities who promote faith as a ticket to health and wealth, to happy families and successful marriages, are distorting the heart of our faith.

They may be attracting big crowds, but are they forming healthy communities of people committed to walk the way of Christ, no matter what it costs?

Perhaps if such communities paid more attention to the Lord’s Prayer (which they hardly ever say) and less attention to multimedia gimmicks, Christ would be better served, lives would be truly transformed, and the world would be a better place.

In the end, that is the challenge for us as well.

We are disciples of Jesus not to gain some personal benefit, but because that is how we best respond to our experience of God at work among us, and especially at work in the person of Jesus.

We need to be communities of faith that not only recite the Lord’s Prayer, but also put it into practice.

Let me finish with some words I used a few weeks ago:

Our Father in heaven …
we are all children of the universe, brothers and sisters of Jesus

Hallowed be your name …
May everything we do, and how we do it, reflect your character and purpose

Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven …
Our priority is serving the mission of God in the world

Give us today our daily bread …
May we find bread for the journey, and the grace to share it with others on the way

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us …
Make our generosity to others the measure of your treatment of us

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil …
Break the power of evil and let us know your Shalom

 

 

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Communities of the Triune God

Trinity Sunday (A)
11 June 2017
Byron Bay

 

As we transition from the Great Fifty Days of Easter to the long season of ‘Ordinary Time’, we pause to observe Trinity Sunday: the Feast of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.

One of the ways in which this holy day differs from almost every other religious festival, is that it commemorates a doctrine rather than an event or a person.

This commemoration is observed differently in the East and West of the Church.

For those of us in the West, its contemporary observance stems from the decision of Pope John XXII (1316–1344 CE). It tends to have the character of a philosophical and theological puzzle. A religious Rubik’s Cube. Is anyone in the room smart enough to solve this puzzle?

In the Eastern Church—and especially in the Middle East—this is more of an existential challenge than an intellectual puzzle.

For Christians in Jerusalem and Nazareth this is something that cuts to heart of their identity. As Christians, as communities of the Triune God, this is a core belief that defines who they are, where they live, who they may marry, and where they will be buried—as well as much else in between. This doctrine marks them as targets for ISIS as well as the victims of hate attacks by Jewish extremists.

For me this is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have learned about God in the months since Advent Sunday. What have we learned about Jesus in that time? What have we learned about the Holy Spirit? How has our understanding of discipleship matured and changed?

If we tried to express this as mathematical formula, it may look as follows:

Advent + Christmas + Epiphany + Lent + Holy Week + Easter + Pentecost = x

The doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian variable after all we have experienced in this series of religious observances over several months in the first half of the Christian Year. From the perspective of Christian faith, the ‘value’ which equates to all these moments of revelation and religious experience is the realisation that we can best speak about God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.

Such a formula does not resolve all our questions, but it is the best we can do in light of the Christian mystery. To say anything less about God would be to deny one or more aspect of revelation and experience during these past several months.

 

God the Father

As I reflect on what we have experienced of the divine mystery these past several months, I am conscious of a deep immersion in the truth of Immanuel (“God with us”, in Hebrew).

Not only God with us, but also God for us. Indeed, God as one of us.

And more than that, God-not-faraway, distant and remote. But rather, God deeply embedded in human experience. Perhaps better: humanity enmeshed in the web of life, with God at its eternal heart.

As Christians, we can no longer think of God apart from Jesus who taught us to imagine God as our father.

Jesus has changed how we think of God.

We cannot imagine God apart from Jesus, and we cannot think of Jesus apart from God.

 

God the Son

Just as Jesus changes how we think of God, so we find it impossible to grasp the significance of Jesus without using God language.

This, of course, is where we part ways with Jews and Muslims.

Their experience of revelation and grace does not require them to think of God when they consider the significance of Jesus, nor to acknowledge Jesus when they think of God.

But we do, as that is the necessary result of our Christian experience of revelation and grace in the person of Jesus.

As Christians, we have a particular experience of God, and it centres on Jesus: the first-century Galilean Jew who we have learned to recognise as the ‘human face of God’.

 

God the Holy Spirit

The earliest Christian communities discerned a shared experience of the Spirit of God. This was what made them communities of hope and transformation, and this is the core religious experience at the very heart of our faith as Christians.

In the end, we are not simply people with particular ideas about God. Nor are we essentially people who appreciate the wit and wisdom of Jesus.

Either would be a good basis for a life lived with integrity and holy intention. Together those two orientations powerfully shape lives that are ‘holy’ and ‘true’.

But the heart of the Christian faith is much more.

It is a shared experience of the Spirit of God, the Spirit that penetrates and animates everything that exists. And it is always and necessarily a shared experienced, a community event. It always ‘we’, rather than ‘me’.

Like us, most of the earliest Christians had never met Jesus and knew almost nothing about him as a person. What they had in common was not knowledge about Jesus, but a shared experience of the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life.

This is the profound mystery referenced in the familiar words of The Grace:

“… and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you …”

This sacred Spirit at work among us, between us, and within us, is nothing less than the Spirit of God that brings all life into existence. But it is also the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the Risen Lord among us: as Paul says in a mostly overlooked section of 1 Corinthians 15:

“… the last Adam became a life-giving spirit …” (1Cor 15:45)

 

The trinitarian circle is completed by the dynamic presence of the Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of Jesus, and who is also the risen Lord among us.

For that reason, we are people of the triune God. We can do no less.

God remains always beyond our words.

But God is never absent from our hearts, nor from our shared experience of the depth dimension of life.

 

 

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Jesus people, Spirit people

Pentecost Sunday
4 June 2017
Byron Bay

On this fiftieth day after Easter we conclude our ‘week of weeks’ during which time we have been reflecting on the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.

In our celebrations today we focus on the bottom line of Easter.

Where is Jesus?

He is here among us, and the Spirit of Jesus that we experience in our own lives turns out also to be the Spirit of God that hovered over the deep waters in the ancient Creation poem of the Jewish faith.

Because we are Jesus people, we are also—and necessarily so—Spirit people.

Jesus embodied the Spirit of God, and so do we.

This is one of the deep truths we proclaim later this morning when I baptise George at St Columba’s Church, Ewingsdale. That ritual is not about expunging some stain of sin from his perfect three year old life, but rather celebrating his participation—with us—in the Spirit of Life.

The dance goes on, and the Spirit is both the rhythm and our intimate partner in the dance.

Imaging the Spirit

Let me now offer you some ideas that will invite you to reflect on how we imagine the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, to be active among us, between us, and within us.

Let me present—ever so briefly—a series of seven metaphors for the Holy Spirit, and invite you simply to embrace those that touch you most deeply for your reflections during this coming week.

Wind / Breath

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This one of the most primal metaphors for the Spirit.

Spirit as wind, as breath, as the catalyst for life itself.

As the Psalmist wrote so long ago: When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the Earth. (104:30)

Flame

Fire heartOn Pentecost Sunday we naturally think about the tongues of fire, but there are more ancient examples of fire as an encounter with the purity and power of the sacred which lies at the very heart of our existence. One of my favourite images is the burning wish theophany in the Moses story. What ground is not holy? Is there any place where we should not take off our shoes in awe at the holy Other?

 

Fountain / Well / Stream

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As Paul says in our reading this morning:

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

 

Dove / Mother Hen

e85828aca912bea6fc25282d6aed566fThis one of the more familiar metaphors, and churches around the world today will be decorated with doves on liturgical banners.

The dove is mostly a sign of peace (shalom), but I also like Stanley Spencer’s image of God as a mother hen protecting her chicks.

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Fruits of the Spirit

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The natural result of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives will be to generate outcomes that reflect the character of God, and express God’s hopes for our world.

I like the tropical flavour of this image, which speaks to our local context here.

 

Gifts of the Spirit

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These are not the gifts listed in today’s NT reading, but they are great qualities to have in our toolkit for living lives that are godly and true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intimate Presence

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How do we express the intimate presence of the Spirit who knows us better than we know ourselves?

Paul was geting personal when he wrote these words:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit …
(Romans 8:26–27)

 

 

Enemy of Apathy

As we conclude these reflections, I invite you to read hymn 418, “Enemy of Apathy” by John Bell and Graham Maule:

She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters,
Hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day;
She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.

She wings over earth, resting where she wishes,
Lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies;
She nests in the womb, welcoming each wonder,
Nourishing potential hidden to our eyes.

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
She is the key opening the scriptures,
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.

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Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton

151113 SGC DeanBishop Sarah Macneil, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton, has announced that the Reverend Canon Dr Gregory C. Jenks has been chosen as Rector of the Parish of Grafton and Dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ the King.

The official announcement is being made this morning in the Cathedral Parish and in the Parish of Byron Bay, where Canon Jenks is currently serving after returning to Australia from Jerusalem earlier this year.

Dean Jenks will take up his appointment as the eighth Dean of Grafton later this year, and will continue to serve as the locum priest for the Anglican Parish of Byron Bay until that time.

The Cathedral of Christ the King has both local and diocesan mission responsibilities. The Cathedral is the parish church for the Anglican Parish of Grafton, which includes the northern half of the city as well as two nearby rural centres: Copmanhurst and Lawrence. At the same time, the Cathedral has a prophetic mission to the city of Grafton, and within the Northern Rivers more generally, as well as its ministry within the wider life of the Diocese.

Greg Jenks is married to Eve James, who is manager of the Roscoe Library at St Francis Theological College in Brisbane. They have two adult daughters. Greg also has two other adult children, and two grandchildren.

For Canon Jenks this is a return to his roots in the Northern Rivers, as he was born and raised in Lismore.

Dr Jenks is a Canon Emeritus of the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem, and was previously the Dean of St George’s College in Jerusalem. Prior to his appointment in Jerusalem, Dr Jenks was Academic Dean of St Francis Theological College  and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University.

Canon Jenks values his close links with Palestinian Anglican communities in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Haifa. He looks forward to developing mission partnerships and pilgrimage opportunities between the Cathedral and these faith communities in the Holy Land.

Dr Jenks is a co-director of the Bethsaida Archaeology Project in northern Israel, where he also serves as the coin curator for the dig, and is also the founding director of the Centre for Coins, Culture and Religious History. His research interests focus on the coins from the Bethsaida excavations, as well as other coins that illuminate the role religion has played in shaping human culture.

Dr Jenks is the author of several books and numerous published essays. His most recent books include Jesus Then and Jesus Now (2014) and The Once and Future Bible (2011).

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