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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Good News for all of life

Easter 7 (A)
28 May 2017
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
St Oswald’s Church, Broken Head

 

This morning we conclude our series of sermons on the attributes of a spiritually confident faith community in contemporary Australia.

We began by considering what we mean by “confident”.

We saw then that such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

We then looked at Scripture as an amazing spiritual resource, and deep blessing that is ours when we read in the company of other people, and do so with an attitude of faith and thankfulness. A spiritually confident church will be one that develops the capacity of its members to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, as a source of sacred wisdom for daily life.

Next we turned our attention to liturgy, that ancient well of common prayer from which we draw the waters of life for ourselves and for our wider community. We began to think of our churches and our homes as ‘thin places’, where heaven and earth are not far apart.

Last week we turned our attention to the shared life of our church community. We imagined a faith community to be like an oasis where people find sanctuary in their journey through life. A safe place to be, and a good place from which to move on when the time comes. Church as a place where the Lord’s Prayer is not just said, but lived.

Today I invite you to consider how our faith connects with and engages the whole of life.

 

A Faith for the Whole of Life

As a final hallmark of the spiritually confident faith community, let me suggest that such a church is concerned with the whole of life, and not just with the religious bits.

The church is not a franchise for tickets to heaven, or even for some esoteric personal improvement program.

Our compassion extends from the newborn infant at the font to a frail aged person in the local nursing home. We do local theology, speaking about God in the towns and farms of the Northern Rivers. We are concerned about every person and the whole person.

Following Jesus we embrace the Shema as the mission statement of the covenant people: loving God with our heart, our soul, our strength, and our minds (an addition by Jesus). The whole person is involved in our response to God, and the good news we have to share is for all people and for the whole of life.

We do not agree to be relegated as a private recreational activity for those with an interest in spirituality or alternative health practices.

Without becoming arrogant or intolerant, we believe we have good news that touches on every aspect of the human experience. We know that we have to win the right to be heard, but we do not accept being sidelined as a quaint cultural group with an interesting historical past.

Our concern for the whole of life is grounded in our incarnational theology, its roots run deep into our beliefs about creation, incarnation, and resurrection.

A spiritually confident church will affirm our belief that God is the ultimate source of everything that exists. In the ancient creation poem that we inherited from the Jewish people, we read that God calls everything into being. Day after day through the week of creation our world takes shape in response to God’s invitation: Let there be …

At the end of each day, God looks at what has been created that day and declares it to be good. It is good. That is God’s assessment of our world, and we share that assessment. We do not divide this reality into clean and unclean, light and dark, godly and godless, physical and spiritual. All is of God and all is good.

This becomes even more powerful for us at the incarnation. God immerses herself in the physical world, taking star dust from an ancient super nova to fashion the human being we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The creator blends with the creature. Immanuel. God with us, among us, as one of us.

At Easter we see God go even deeper into the divine embrace of creation. Having first made humans to share God’s own immortality, God now allows death to become part of God’s own deep immersion in the human project. We were made in God’s image, but God chooses to embrace our mortality. How else to save us from ourselves?

God entering death is like a lamp being lit in a dark room. Light shatters the darkness. Always. The deepest darkness is splintered by the tiniest candle. Death is destroyed by the willingness of God to embrace our mortality. The power of death is shattered by the gentle, loving presence of ultimate Life.

For a robust and spiritually confident church there is no part of the human experience which is out of bounds.

We embrace everything we can learn about this world from the natural sciences and the social sciences. For a spiritually confident church, science is never the enemy. Fear is the enemy, not knowledge—and perfect love drives out fear.

Such a church celebrates life, welcomes the new insights generated by researchers, encourages its members to bring the whole of themselves into the quest for knowledge, for justice, and for the healing of our fragile Earth.

 

Reconciliation Week 2017

This week we are called as a nation to reflect on the need for deep and genuine reconciliation between the indigenous people of this ancient land and those of us whose people arrived much later. It would undermine all we have been thinking about during these past two weeks if we allowed our national focus this week to pass without any comment in our liturgy today.

You may recall that I suggested a few weeks ago that our liturgy is an investment in the spiritual fabric of our community.

Today is one occasion when what we say ‘in here’ and what we do ‘out there’ hangs together.

This is one of the ways that we live the Lord’s Prayer:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

 

This week we mark 50 years since the referendum in 1967 that approved the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in the official population count. Looking back now we may be amazed that the question even needed a vote, but it did.

This year we also mark 25 years since the Mabo Case which established that traditional title to the land continues to exist for many indigenous people and was not extinguished by the British Crown in 1788.

In the last couple of days we have seen a gathering of indigenous people at Uluru, ‘the rock at the heart of our land’, as we said in our prayers just last week. It calls on Australia to find a way for the First Nations of this shared land to have a voice in our Constitution.

It is not our job as church to propose how that should be done, but as people of faith we can rejoice as our indigenous sisters and brothers find their voice. They invite us to sit down together and find a better way.

As people of faith, as people of Jesus, we will join that process and make it something for which we work and pray.

We pray first of all for our sisters and brothers from the First Nations.

Then we pray for our political leaders. They need wisdom, courage, and grace.

In addition, we pray for open hearts and minds: for ourselves as much as anyone else. May we act and speak out of love, and not out of fear.

 

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Uluru Statement from the Heart

We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs.

This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

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Oasis of shalom

Easter 6 (A)
21 May 2017
St Paul’s Anglican Church
Byron Bay

This morning we continue our series of sermons on the attributes of a spiritually confident faith community in contemporary Australia.

We began by considering what we mean by “confident”.

Such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

We then looked at Scripture as an amazing spiritual resource, and deep blessing that is ours when we read in the company of other people, and do so with an attitude of faith and thankfulness. A spiritually confident church will be one that develops the capacity of its members to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, as a source of sacred wisdom for daily life.

Last week we turned our attention to liturgy, that ancient well of common prayer from which we draw the waters of life for ourselves and for our wider community. We began ti think ion our churches and our homes as thin places, where heaven and earth are not far apart.

Today I invite you to turn our attention to the shared life of our church community.

Oasis of Shalom

I like to think of a spiritually confident faith community as an oasis of Shalom, the perfect peace that God intends for all creation.

Such a church is open, inclusive, and welcoming.

People are made welcome, and provided with the space to be themselves. Even, to find themselves.

In the ancient tradition of the desert, a stranger is made welcome and asked no questions for three days. They are not interrogated about their identity or their history. They are simply made welcome and offered a place to stay for a while.

A spiritually confident church does not need to check the theological opinions of those who cross our threshold.

Genuine hospitality is a spiritual virtue that offers deep blessings to both the host and the guest. We can be clear about our own beliefs and values without needing to impose them on those whose paths cross with ours. There will be time enough for dialogue and conversation if the guests choose to stay longer among us.

For everyone in the community—long term members, short term guests, and those seeking a new community—a spiritually confident church offers a place of safety.

Children and vulnerable adults will not be exploited or abused in such a church. Beyond that, such a community is also a safe place to experiment, and even to make mistakes. A person’s worth is not derived from their theological views or their personal achievements. They are of value because they are God’s children.

These communities nurture experiments in holy living, and the web of community life is the safety net into which we fall when we miss the mark—as we all do.

A further hallmark of such a healthy and spiritually confident faith community is the ease with which a former member may leave the community. Unlike a sect, a mature and confident church understands that some people will find it necessary to move on from that community as part of their own personal spiritual development.

Leaving the community, for whatever reason, is not an occasion for pressure or recrimination. The community exists to serve God’s mission of Shalom and human flourishing, and does not seek to extend people’s participation in the community once they have decided they wish to move on. Indeed, their capacity to move on after a period of time with the church may itself be a mark of their new health and maturity.

Living the Lord’s Prayer

If I were to try and express this another way, I would suggest that such a church is a working demonstration of the reign of God among us. Such a community is a place where the Lord’s Prayer is lived, and not just prayed.

We could take each line of the Lord’s Prayer as a key performance indicator of a spiritually confident faith community:

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

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons | 2 Comments

Confident faith in a post-Christian world

Reflections for a diocesan clergy retreat
Cathedral of Christ the King, Grafton
(17 May 2017)

In the context of this clergy retreat we have been reflecting together on the text from 2 Timothy 1:7 passage: For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

In this session, I want to explore some of the attributes of a spiritually confident Anglican faith community in a post-Christian Australia.

This is not a prescription for a healthy or successful parish.

Rather, I am seeking to name and celebrate some of the attributes of a local faith community that has some degree of healthy spiritual confidence.

As the earlier reflections by Stuart, Mike and Lyndon have already indicated, we have good reasons to be spiritually confident, as individuals, as clergy, and as a church.

Such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

What I am trying to do in this session is imagine what a local church might be like if it embraced the idea that we can put aside any sense of cowardice, and live into our destiny as communities of power (the Greek word here is dynameis), love (agape) and practical wisdom (sōphronismos). That last word is rare, and only occurs this one time in the Bible. It has the sense of making wise choices, acting prudently, exercising self-control.

A challenging context

Our recent history as a church—and the increasingly secular context in which we find ourselves—provide good reasons to be anxious about the future. While I do not want to focus on these negative elements, I think we need to name them as serious factors that impact us as people of faith and as faith communities.

As a church we face some tough realities:

  • loss of influence in society
  • shrinking numbers
  • ageing congregations
  • limited resources
  • shameful failures of care for children and vulnerable adults
  • seeming success of ‘mega-churches’

In addition to all those factors we are operating in a context that is now more complex than in the past:

  • rising levels of affluence
  • ‘time poor’ couples working to cover the mortgage and maintain their lifestyle
  • accelerating technology-driven change impacting every aspect of life
  • religious pluralism
  • rising secularism
  • advances in the natural and social sciences
  • a new concept of what it means to be alive and to be human

None of those contextual factors are likely to be reversed, and we ignore them at our peril.

The major challenge that I discern is the need for us to be nimble and innovative in our response to these emerging challenges. These changes are here to stay, and they will only accelerate in both the pace of change and the scope of their impact. Everything is changing and we had best be prepared for that.

A community that has not been given a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of dynamic power, selfless love and practical wisdom has the resources to flourish even in these circumstances, and especially in these circumstances. Whether or not we do flourish depends mostly on whether we respond out of fear or hope.

Let’s now explore some of the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities in a post-Christian Australia that needs us to be all that God calls us to be, but expects very little wisdom for the future to be found among us.

 

People of the Book

We could start at a number of different places, but let’s begin with the Bible.

A spiritually confident church will be one that genuinely values the Scriptures, without making extreme claims that reflect poorly on both the Bible and the churches. To use a phrase that is commonly heard these days, such faith communities take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

Every church talks up its respect for the Bible.

Yet not every church encourages its members to become skilled in using those same Scriptures as responsible spiritual adults.

A spiritually confident church will invest in the development of its members so that high levels of biblical literacy are found among its people.

A spiritually confident church will encourage people to read the Bible and also enable them to read it well.

Such a church will not make those familiar false steps that can be mistaken for promoting Bible knowledge among its people. Much of what passes as Bible study is more about developing Bible trivia skills, and sometimes just reinforces ignorance. Knowing fascinating micro facts about the Bible, even when they are correct, is not the same as developing the skills needed to read the Bible for spiritual wisdom.

Healthy and confident churches appreciate the Bible as an informal sacrament of the living Word of God, ever active among us. In such a Church, listening to Scripture together is a community exercise as we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.

That means not just the priest or the Parish Council, but the entire congregation needs to be skilled at using the Bible and actively engaged in small groups where they can help each other “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.

Listening to God is the quintessential hallmark of a person of faith.

Reading the Bible in the company of other people is simply the best way to do that.

The Bible is not a magic pudding of spiritual knowledge, from which we can cut slice after slice of divine answers to theological and spiritual questions. We do the Bible no credit when we encourage people to engage uncritically with this amazing spiritual resource.

Its most precious attribute, and the major reason for taking the time to develop good biblical literacy skills, is as a catalyst for spiritual wisdom. When a small group gathers to study the Bible, God blesses us with wisdom. This is true even when our questions are not ones found in the Bible itself.

Reading the Bible puts us into a sphere of grace where we are more attuned to discern what the Spirit may be saying to the churches.

We gather at the Table of the Lord to feed on his life, and we gather around the Bible to find the wisdom we need for our daily lives.

We come to Table with an attitude of faith and thanksgiving as we reach out hands to receive the Body of the Lord. We listen to the Bible with the same attitude of faith and thanksgiving as we open our hearts to hear Word of the Lord.

As always, the focus stays on the present. We are not seeking to find out what the Bible can tell us about the past, but exploring how the Bible can shed new light on today and tomorrow.

In all of this our goal is to form disciples, not train scholars. We are reading for wisdom, not offering a master class in ancient history.

A spiritually confident faith community is one that:

  • Develops the biblical literacy skills of its members
  • Draws deeply and often from the well of Scripture
  • Encourages regular Bible study by individuals and small groups
  • Has a strong preaching ministry in Sunday services, and
  • Engages with the lectionary texts.


 

Liturgy

It seems that humans have a deep need for ritual.

This may be one reason for the continued observance of ANZAC Day, even though it has also been manipulated by politicians who see benefits to them from such events. The deeper reason is surely our shared sense that as a nation we need such occasions to celebrate our identity and commit ourselves to a shared future.

This love of ritual is also seen in the big budget rituals of major sporting events, as well as in the weekly assemblies at the local primary school. In those assembles we celebrate success, we build community, and we reinforce our core values.

A spiritually confident church does liturgy well.

By that, I do not mean that it perfectly observes all the directions of Ritual Notes 9th edition, nor that it has the finest music, the most eloquent preacher, or the best sound system.

I mean, of course, that it offers a liturgy that speaks to the human condition, even if not executed to perfection.

Liturgy that connects the rhythms of our life with the mysteries of the faith.

Liturgy that becomes, in its better moments, an encounter with God.

This kind of ‘good’ liturgy is grounded in the experience and the language of the local community. It grows out of, reflects upon, and enriches our shared life with those around us.

Such liturgy draws on the long tradition of the church, but it also integrates spiritual practices from other traditions.

It need not be heavy, but it can carry deep meaning.

It is often less verbal than what often passes for Sunday worship.

And it engages the whole person and all of our senses.

The aesthetic qualities of good liturgy are powerful connectors with the participants, and time spent preparing the non-verbal elements of the service is seldom wasted.

A spiritually confident church will offer people a variety of ritual moments, and teach people how to create rituals within their personal lives. We will go beyond page 119, and tap into the rich resources of the ancient church as well as more recent liturgical wisdom.

Celtic spirituality may have much to offer here, as it names and claims so much of the everyday, connecting the familiar rhythms of our life with God’s deep presence among us and within us. That kind of spiritually may be a bridge to our neighbours who have little time for church, but a deep longing for connection with God.

A spiritually confident church will also provide ‘God spaces’ and ‘God moments’ for the wider community. I love it when I drive through Bangalow and see the sign outside All Souls’ Church: ‘Church open for prayer’.

There are no conditions on how you pray, or even to whom you pray. Just an invitation to step aside and spend some time in the company of God.

The worship we offer is not just for ourselves.

Behind our English word, Liturgy, is an ancient Greek word: leitourgia.

leitourgia was something done as a gift to the community.

When people of faith gather for worship we are investing in the spiritual fabric of our community. We uphold our community, our nation and the world in our own hearts and in the heart of God. We are standing with the angels, and aligning ourselves with God’s dream of a world shaped by love. We are investing in shalom, deep peace.

Our Sunday worship is not about keeping the Anglican brand alive in our local area.

We are calling to mind the depth dimension of life, and we are offering ourselves to serve as instruments of God’s love and peace right here and right now.

We are connecting with God, connecting with each other, and connecting with our world.

Each Sunday we come to the ancient well of common prayer, and we draw water from the well of life. We do this for ourselves, of course. We need the spiritual refreshment that this living waters provide.

But we also do this for our friends and neighbours, who may never come to this well, but may still share in the life that God gives freely to anyone who is thirsty.

Oasis of Shalom

I like to think of a spiritually confident faith community as an oasis of Shalom, the perfect peace that God intends for all creation.

Such a church is open, inclusive, and welcoming.

People are made welcome, and provided with the space to be themselves. Even, to find themselves.

In the ancient tradition of the desert, a stranger is made welcome and asked no questions for three days. They are not interrogated about their identity or their history. They are simply made welcome and offered a place to stay for a while.

A spiritually confident church does not need to check the theological opinions of those who cross our threshold.

Genuine hospitality is a spiritual virtue that offers deep blessings to both the host and the guest. We can be clear about our own beliefs and values without needing to impose them on those whose paths cross with ours. There will be time enough for dialogue and conversation if the guests choose to stay longer among us.

For everyone in the community—long term members, short term guests, and those seeking a new community—a spiritually confident church offers a place of safety.

Children and vulnerable adults will not be exploited or abused in such a church. Beyond that, such a community is also a safe place to experiment, and even to make mistakes. A person’s worth is not derived from their theological views or their personal achievements. These communities nurture experiments in holy living, and the web of community life is the safety net into which we fall when we miss the mark—as we all do.

A further hallmark of such a healthy and spiritually confident faith community is the ease with which a former member may leave the community. Unlike a sect, a mature and confident church understands that some people will find it necessary to move on from that community as part of their own personal spiritual development.

Leaving the community, for whatever reason, is not an occasion for pressure or recrimination. The community exists to serve God’s mission of Shalom and human flourishing, and does not seek to extend people’s participation in the community once they have decided they wish to move on. Indeed, their capacity to move on after a period of time with the church may itself be a mark of their new health and maturity.

If I were to try and express this another way, I would suggest that such a church is a working demonstration of the reign of God among us. Such a community is a place where the Lord’s Prayer is lived, and not just prayed.

We could take each line of the Lord’s Prayer as a key performance indicator of a spiritually confident faith community:

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

The Whole of Life

As a final hallmark of the spiritually confident faith community, let me suggest that such a church is concerned with the whole of life, and not just with the religious bits.

The church is not a franchise for tickets to heaven, or even for some esoteric personal improvement program.

Our compassion extends from the newborn infant at the font to a frail aged person in the local nursing home. We do local theology, speaking about God in the towns and farms of the Northern Rivers. We are concerned about every person and the whole person.

Following Jesus we embrace the Shema as the mission statement of the covenant people: loving God with our heart, our soul, our strength, and our minds (an addition by Jesus). The whole person is involved in our response to God, and the good news we have to share is for all people and for the whole of life.

We do not agree to be relegated as a private recreational activity for those with an interest in spirituality or alternative health practices.

Without becoming arrogant or intolerant, we believe we have good news that touches on every aspect of the human experience. We know that we have to win the right to be heard, but we do not accept being sidelined as a quaint cultural group with an interesting historical past.

Our concern for the whole of life is grounded in our incarnational theology, its roots run deep into our beliefs about creation, incarnation, and resurrection.

A spiritually confident church will affirm our belief that God is the ultimate source of everything that exists. In the ancient creation poem that we inherited from the Jewish people, we read that God calls everything into being. Day after day through the week of creation our world takes shape in response to God’s invitation: Let there be …

At the end of each day, God looks at what has been created that day and declares it to be good. It is good. That is God’s assessment of our world, and we share that assessment. We do not divide this reality into clean and unclean, light and dark, godly and godless, physical and spiritual. All is of God and all is good.

This becomes even more powerful for us at the incarnation. God immerses herself in the physical world, taking star dust from an ancient super nova to fashion the human being we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The creator blends with the creature. Immanuel. God with us, among us, as one of us.

At Easter we see God go even deeper into the divine embrace of creation. Having first made humans to share God’s own immortality, God now allows death to become part of God’s own deep immersion in the human project. We were made in God’s image, but God chooses to embrace our mortality. How else to save us from ourselves?

God entering death is like a lamp being lit in a dark room. Light shatters the darkness. Always. The deepest darkness is splintered by the tiniest candle. Death is destroyed by the willingness of God to embrace our mortality. The power of death is shattered by the gentle, loving presence of ultimate Life.

For a robust and spiritually confident church there is no part of the human experience which is out of bounds.

We embrace everything we can learn about this world from the natural sciences and the social sciences. For a spiritually confident church, science is never the enemy. Fear is the enemy, and perfect love drives out fear.

Such a church celebrates life, welcomes the new insights generated by researchers, encourages its members to bring the whole of themselves into the quest for knowledge, for justice, and for the healing of our fragile Earth.

Indeed, we say, God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Thin places and deep wells

Easter 5A
(14 May 2017)
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay

This is the third sermon in our mini series looking at the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.

We have already reflected on the dynamic of spiritual confidence, which is not to be confused with arrogance or bigotry. Rather, as we saw, it is about a deep confidence that our faith tradition offers sound spiritual wisdom for life’s journey.

Last week we reflected on the significance of the Bible, and our confidence that time spent reading the Scriptures with an attitude of faith and gratitude is an opportunity to deepen our personal spiritual connection with God. As an informal sacrament, the Bible helps us to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

This week we turn our attention to worship, and I want to suggest that we can be confident that our liturgies connect us deeply into the mysteries of our faith.

Thin places, deep wells

Come with me to that classic story in John 4, where Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman Jacob’s Well.

This icon may help you to enter that story more deeply. Pass it around as I am speaking, Feel its weight. Absorb its design. The colour. The interaction between Jesus and the woman. Hold this physical expression of deep faith in your hands. Join your heart with the elderly priest who created this icon in the crypt beside Jacob’s well.

160116 Jacobs Well Icon

First of all, notice the location of this story. This was a holy place in the time of Jesus, and it remains a holy place today. This is a quintessential ‘thin place’; a place made sacred as people have come to the site over hundreds and thousands of years, and offered their prayers.

Our modern world of gadgets and instant entertainment is in desperate need of thin places. Our liturgies and our church buildings are thin places. We just need to learn how to appreciate them.

Now, notice the well.

For thousands of years people have come to this well. Mostly they just collected water. But sometimes something deeper happened, as was the case for this woman on that day.

The woman said to Jesus, “Our ancestor Jacob gave us this well.” I want to steal her words and apply them to our Prayer Book: “Our spiritual ancestors gave us this book …” She had a bucket to draw from the ancestor’s well, and we have a Prayer Book to draw up the living waters of the holy tradition.

When we step inside this building and when we open our prayer books, we are on holy ground and we have in our hands a most amazing spiritual treasure.

Ritual runs deep

It seems that humans have a deep need for ritual.

This may be one reason for the continued observance of ANZAC Day, although I am sure that it has also been manipulated by politicians who see benefits to them from such events. The deeper reason is surely our shared sense that as a nation we need such occasions to celebrate our identity and commit ourselves to a shared future.

This love of ritual is also seen in major sporting events, as well as in the weekly assemblies at the local primary school. In those assembles we celebrate success, we build community, and we reinforce our core values.

A spiritually confident church does liturgy well.

By that, I do not mean that it perfectly observes all the directions of Ritual Notes 9th edition, nor that it has the finest music, the most eloquent preacher, or the best sound system.

I mean, of course, that it offers a liturgy that speaks to the human condition, even if not executed to perfection. Liturgy that connects the rhythms of our life with the mysteries of the faith. Liturgy that becomes, in its better moments, an encounter with God.

This kind of ‘good’ liturgy is grounded in the experience and the language of the local community. It grows out of, reflects upon, and enriches our shared life with those around us.

Such liturgy draws on the long tradition of the church, but it also integrates spiritual practices from other traditions.

It need not be heavy, but it can carry deep meaning.

It is often less verbal that what often passes for Sunday worship.

And it may engage the whole person and all of our senses.

The aesthetic qualities of good liturgy are powerful connectors with the participants, and time spent preparing the non-verbal elements of the service is seldom wasted.

A spiritually confident church will offer people a variety of ritual moments, and teach people how to create rituals within their personal lives. We will go beyond page 119, and tap into the rich resources of the ancient church.

Celtic spirituality may have much to offer here, as it names and claims so much of the everyday, connecting the familiar rhythms of our life with God’s deep presence among us and within us. That kind of spiritually may be a bridge to our neighbours who have little time for church, but a deep longing for connection with God.

A spiritually confident church will also provide ‘God spaces’ and ‘God moments’ for the wider community. I love it when I drive through Bangalow and see the sign outside All Souls’ Church: ‘Church open for prayer’.

There are no conditions on how you pray, or even to whom you pray. Just an invitation to step aside and spend some time in the company of God.

Common Prayer for the Common Good

As a spiritually confident faith community we will do our best to make our worship special.

The liturgy deserves our best: the best music we can arrange, the best preparation we can give to our different parts in the service, the best personal preparation we can make as we prepare to gather in this sacred space to begin our week in worship.

The worship we offer is not just for ourselves.

Behind our English word, Liturgy, is an ancient Greek word: leitourgia.

A leitourgia was something done as a gift to the community.

When people of faith gather for worship we are investing in the spiritual fabric of our community. We uphold our community, our nation and the world in our own hearts and in the heart of God. We are standing with the angels, and aligning ourselves with God’s dream of a world shaped by love. We are investing in shalom, deep peace.

Our Sunday worship is not about keeping the Anglican brand alive in the Bay.

We are calling to mind the depth dimension of life, and we are offering ourselves to serve as instruments of God’s love and peace right here and right now.

We are connecting with God, connecting with each other, and connecting with our world.

Each Sunday we come to the ancient well of common prayer, and we draw water from the well of life. We do this for ourselves, of course. We need the spiritual refreshment that this living waters provide.

But we also do this for our friends and neighbours, who may never come to this well, but may still share in the life that God gives freely to anyone who is thirsty.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons | 3 Comments

People of the Book

Easter 4A
7 May 2017
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
St Columba’s Church, Ewingsdale

This is the second in a series of sermons that are seeking to explore some of the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.

We began the series by thinking about what “spiritual confidence” might mean.

Now we can look at several attributes of a local church that has some degree of spiritual confidence. We begin by looking at the way such churches encourage all their members to engage deeply with the Bible.

Taking the Bible seriously

The Bible has a very special place in our faith as Christians.

While it is not the focus of our faith, the Bible exercises an extremely important role within the life of the church and without own our lives as people of faith.

Sometimes people use the analogy of a telescope and the moon. A good telescope is an essential tool for anyone who wants to study the moon. But no-one mistakes the telescope for the moon. We look through the telescope to see the moon. Likewise, we read the Bible in order to deepen our faith, but we do not mistake the Bible as the object of our faith.

Interestingly, at least in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, one does not need to believe anything about the Bible in order to be a member of the church. People wishing to serve as clergy and lay leaders need to assent to some very general statements about the Bible, but beliefs about the Bible are not core elements of our faith.

The same applies to beliefs about the church, or about the sacraments. Such matters are important, but they do not lie at the heart of our faith.

Despite that odd gap, in the Anglican Church the Bible is taken very seriously and given a place of great significance. For example, unless a particular belief can be demonstrated as having a solid basis in Scripture, it cannot be required of any member of the church. If it is not in the Bible then it is not mandatory.

Our Prayer Book is heavily influenced by the Bible. The whole of the Psalms are included in an Anglican Prayer Book, but almost every page has either direct quotations from the Bible or words that evoke a biblical passage.

I love the classic Anglican move to encourage lay people to read the Bible at the time of the Reformation. For the first time, a Bible in English was to be placed near the front of every church and anyone who could read was encouraged to read sections of the Bible out aloud for their neighbours unable to read the words for themselves.

That nicely captures the Anglican commitment to making the Scriptures available to people in their own language, and encouraging every member of the church to read the Bible as best they could.

Developing biblical literacy

“As best they could” is a key phrase in that last sentence.

Not everyone in England could read in the days of Henry VIII. So making the Bible available in English was not enough, by itself, to ensure that people were able to read the Bible.

That remains a serious challenge for the church, and a spiritually confident church is one that has found a way to overcome that challenge.

It is not so much that people cannot read these days, although that may be more of a problem than we realise. It is more than people lack biblical literacy skills to read well.

A spiritually confident church does not just talk about the importance of the Bible. It also takes steps to assist people develop the skills needed to read the Bible, and to read it well.

Research in the Diocese of Brisbane a few years ago showed that Anglicans there lacked the confidence to read the Bible themselves. I suspect we would find similar results if we did the same research here in this Diocese.

One response to that research finding was to develop the BIBLE360 project, which it was my privilege to design and implement across the Diocese for a couple of years.

The idea was simple but challenging.

In a single one-day program, we wanted to make a difference so that:

  1. people felt more confident about reading the Bible;
  2. we helped them choose a Bible and a reading plan that suited them; and
  3. they would join—or start—a small group in their parish to read the Bible together.

The Bible is different from almost any other book we will ever pick up. But with the support of friends who join us in a small group to read the Bible together, we can find immense spiritual support from reading this ‘book of books’.

The key seems to be forming small groups of people committed to getting together every week to read the Bible together, and reflect on its meaning to our context here and now.

This is not an academic exercise, even if it can be enriched by some access to the work of Bible scholars, historians, and theologians.

We avoid teaching information about the Bible—and the world ‘back then’—so that we focus on what God has to say to us about our context here and now.

To do that we need (1) some basic biblical literacy skills, (2) access to a Bible suitable for our needs, and (3) the company of a small group of friends to share the journey with us.

Why bother?

For a church to be healthy and spiritually confident, it needs to be deeply grounded in the Scriptures. That means not just the priest or the Parish Council, but the entire congregation needs to be skilled at using the Bible and actively engaged in small groups where they can help each other “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.

Listening to God is the quintessential hallmark of a person of faith.

Reading the Bible in the company of other people is simply the best way to do that.

The Bible is not a magic pudding of spiritual knowledge, but reading the Bible puts us into a mindset where we are more attuned to discern what the Spirit may be saying to the churches.

While we are primarily seeking wisdom rather than gathering information when we read the Bible in this way, it is also true that the Bible is our primary source for information about the beginnings of our faith. This is especially true for our knowledge of Jesus. Without the Gospels we would know almost nothing about Jesus.

I like to think of the Bible as a marvellous collection of memories from the earliest days of our faith, stretching deep back into the religious history of ancient Israel. It is a bit like finding a shoebox full of photographs and other memorabilia from our grandparents.

Its most precious attribute, and the major reason for taking the time to develop good biblical literacy skills, is as a catalyst for spiritual wisdom. When a small group gathers to study the Bible, God blesses us with wisdom. This is true even when our questions are not ones found in the Bible itself.

We gather at the Table of the Lord to feed on his life, and we gather around the Bible to find the wisdom we need for our daily lives.

Reading the Bible is a skill worth developing, and a habit worth forming.

As always, the focus stays on the present. We are not seeking to find out what the Bible can tell us about the past, but exploring how the Bible can shed new light on today and tomorrow.

Developing healthy Bible reading habits

If we were a movie club, we would share tips from movie critics and develop the skills of watching a move with a deeper appreciation of the film maker’s craft. If we were an art school, we would offer classes on art appreciation.

Since we are a church, we need to help our people develop their Bible reading skills.

In all of this our goal is to form disciples, not train scholars. We are reading for wisdom, not offering a master class in ancient history.

As a church we need to cover a range of issues, including:

  • Choosing the right Bible for our needs
  • Making best use of the reference tools that come with our Bible
  • Choosing a Bible reading plan
  • Forming and sustaining healthy small group to read the Bible
  • Mastering different types of spiritual reading disciplines
  • Developing a strong preaching ministry, including making sermons available in digital and print forms—maybe even live streaming
  • Engaging with the Sunday lectionary texts as the basic diet of Scripture for the church
  • Offering occasional workshops to deep our knowledge of the Bible

This all takes time, and certainly cannot be achieved during a brief locum ministry. But some of it we can do, and indeed some if it we have already been doing.

It is also something we can build into our planning for the future. As we prepare our strategic plans in the next few weeks, let’s be sure to include specific plans to develop the biblical literacy skills of our church members.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Spiritual confidence

23 April 2017
Second Sunday of Easter
St Paul’s Anglican Church
Byron Bay

My usual practice is to preach on the texts of the day, and especially the Gospel passage. However, during the extended Easter season—our ‘week of weeks’ celebrating resurrection—I want to preach a series of sermons with almost no link to the readings of the week.

There is a reason for this aberration.

In late May the clergy of our diocese will gather for a spiritual retreat together. Rather than engage a retreat leader from somewhere else, the Bishop has decided to invite a number of clergy serving in the Diocese to share the teaching component of the retreat.

The theme of the retreat is to reflect together on this text from 2 Timothy 1:7:

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,
but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

I am one of the people involved in this way, and my task is to lead a session on the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities in the twenty-first century.

So I plan to road test my ideas with you in the sermons each week for the next month or so. You can be my study buddies, as we explore these ideas together. That will assist me to form the ideas clearly in my own head, and the whole process may be helpful for us here in the Bay as we reflect on the mission to which God calls us.

As it happens, there is a vague link with the Gospel this week. The well-known story of Thomas refusing to believe the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection until he could see (and indeed touch) Jesus for himself, does at least resonate with themes of spiritual confidence and collective self-doubt.

Neither arrogance nor bigotry

First of all, let’s be very clear that we are not talking about the kind of confidence that comes across as arrogant, cocky, or bigoted. There is too much of that in some expressions of Christianity, and I think it is essential to maintain the core Christian virtue of humility as one dimension of our spiritual confidence.

Being confident that I can trust my religion tradition does not mean for one moment that I need to imagine I have the best religion or the only true religion. Again, our history as Christians has too many examples of such hubris.

Let me illustrate it this way.

I have confidence in my ageing Camry to get me safely up and down the highway. That does not mean that I imagine it is the best car on the highway. It is clearly not. Nor is it the worst car on the road. It better than some, but pretty average over all. But I trust it to get me to my destination. To date my confidence in that car has been validated.

In a similar fashion, I have confidence in my circle of family and friends. They are a mixed bunch of people, not least because I am included in the mix. My friends are not better than your friends, but they are my friends and we have each other’s backs.  My family for most part was not even chosen by me, but would I ever consider switching them with someone else’s family? Of course not. A crazy idea,. These are the people who know me best and like me regardless. I trust them. I appreciate them. I depend on them. And they on me.

Challenges to confidence

Spiritual confidence is not about superiority or exclusivity, but it does mean we can stop apologising for who we are, what we believe, and how we act as Anglicans.

There are plenty of factors to shake our confidence:

  • loss of influence in society
  • shrinking numbers
  • ageing congregations
  • limited resources
  • shameful failures of care for children and vulnerable adults
  • seeming success of ‘mega-churches’

In addition to all those factors we are operating in a context that is now more complex than in the past:

  • rising levels of affluence
  • ‘time poor’ couples working to cover the mortgage and maintain their lifestyle
  • accelerating technology-driven change impacting every aspect of life
  • religious pluralism
  • rising secularism
  • advances in the natural and social sciences
  • a new concept of what it means to be alive and to be human

Some people find these new insights enriching their faith and even strengthening their spiritual confidence. Others find their faith compromised and challenged, and especially when their own faith formation has encouraged them to live within a pre-modern worldview that is no longer sustainable.

There is no future for Christianity as a religious version of the anti-vaxers or the climate change deniers. Here, in particular, as Anglicans we have a proud history of ‘eyes-wide-open’ engagement with the best of science, and a willingness to embrace evidence-based knowledge into our faithful living.

Grounds of our confidence

It is appropriate that we are having this conversation the Sunday after Easter. Easter, after all, is the ultimate ground of our confidence as Christian people.

Easter

We can understand Easter in many different ways, but its essential message is one of hope and flourishing, divine shalom. This is not simply resetting the system and returning to the status quo ante, like a cosmic reboot. Easter is about moving on to God’s new world order, into life beyond death, towards creation as God wishes it to be.

If that is the heart of our Christian faith, then we have the most substantial grounds for deep spiritual confidence.

But the grounds for our confidence are deeper and wider even than that.

God

Easter is essentially a particular instance of what God is about all the time, in every place and in every life, and always has been. Our confidence is ultimately grounded, as the theologians might say, in the Ground of All Being, in God and God’s mission.

In the end—at the End—we can have total confidence that God will succeed in bringing to perfect fulfilment God’s own dream for all creation. This will be bigger than Anglicanism, or even Christianity. It will express the generosity of the God who calls all into being and draws all things to the perfect goal that God has had in mind since before time began.

To have even a small share in that amazing cosmic project is to have a solid basis for spiritual confidence.

it is not about us. It does not depend on us. But we get to play a part in making God’s dream come true.

Church

We can also draw some confidence from the recognition that the Church represents almost 2000 years of continuous experience of profound spiritual wisdom. Beyond that lies another 1000 plus years of Jewish spiritual wisdom, which has–of course–continued to run in parallel with Christian wisdom for the past two millennia.

In its own wisdom the church recognises that it is always in need of reform. We have done so much badly, and failed spectacularly at times. The church, it seems, is at its best when it has no political power to wield.

That alone may offer us some fresh grounds for hope, as our traditional social power vanishes. Like Pope Francis, we might look forward to a poor church that has lost most of its privileges except the privilege of serving uni rage poor.

But the church is also a treasure house of holiness. There is a legacy of prayer, spirituality, mission, compassion, philosophy, and practical wisdom that we ignore to our own peril.

The church, our ancient church that seems so out of touch with the latest trends, is a mix of resilience and flexibility. That is another source of our spiritual confidence, but not one to be confused with the tribal smugness that Anglicans sometimes exhibit in our relationships with other Protestant faith communities.

Experience

In addition to these factors, we also have own own personal experience of the church as a positive spiritual community.

We know that this has not always been everyone’s experience of the church. In recent years we have faced the darkness of those people who betrayed the trust we placed in them and abused others in their care.

But despite the horrors of those cases—statistically rare but still too frequent—we also know that the church can be, and has been, a community of grace and a place where our own lives are nourished.

Jesus is supposed to have said that where two or three are gathered, he will be in their midst. Much of that time this has been our experience. In the gathered community of the church we have experienced the Risen Lord among us.

Looking ahead

This week, I encourage you to reflect on those aspects of church that give you hope. What is it about your experience of church that feeds your spiritual confidence?

In the weeks ahead I will try to tease some of them out for you. No doubt the list could be longer than what follows, but this at least is the beginning of a list as we ‘count our blessings, and name them one by one’:

  • Bible
  • Prayer Book
  • Sacraments
  • Prayer
  • Music and the Arts
  • Education
  • Health Care
  • Social Justice

We have no grounds for fantasies of religious superiority, but we do have good reasons to be spiritually confident. However, as always, those reasons must be a mixed with a generous serve of humility.

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