Season of Creation: 3. Storm Sunday

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Season of Creation, 3: Storm Sunday
15 September 2019

 

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storm-port-macquarie

A thick storm cloud over Lighthouse Beach shows rain falling over Port Macquarie and Bonny Hills in 2017. Photo: Ivan Sajko (Ocean Drive Images)

 

As you will have already noticed, in church today we are paying attention to the theme of storms: real ones.

We are not talking about personal crises, tough times in relationships, or ‘storms in a teacup’.

All those are real enough, and painful as well.

On this third Sunday in the Season of Creation we are talking about those wild weather events that trigger emergency alerts, threaten to destroy homes, and can even take away our lives.

 

Season of Creation

If you have not been here for the last couple of weeks (or even longer) you may need a brief heads up.

During September we are observing a special series of services, the season of creation, as we explore various aspects of the web of life; that complex and subtle web of relationships between all of us and all of existence.

So far we have had Ocean Sunday and Fauna & Flora Sunday, with the focus today turning to storms. Next Sunday we will go bigger with the Cosmos as our chosen theme. On the final Sunday of the month, we wrap up the series with the blessing of the animals in the Cathedral gardens at 10.30am.

Bring your creatures great and small that day …

 

Storms

Storms have been in the news lately.

Last weekend the focus on the fires really grabbed all our attention, but the week before that we were watching with awe as a massive storm—Hurricane Dorian—bore down on the Bahamas and then headed towards the US east coast.

We have had some massive cyclones in this part of the world as well as seeing them active in other places.

Right now, when it is all so dry, we are desperate for rain. But we can also remember those times when the rain and the wind have been so bad that we just wanted them to stop.

In their own way, even the fires of last weekend were storms, as their ferocity and speed were partly driven by the winds that were blowing so strongly.

There is a huge difference between a fire on a calm day and a fire when a storm wind is whipping things up.

We might admire the power of a storm from a safe distance, but they have a way of putting us in our place. They remind us that we are small-scale life forms, and very vulnerable to major natural events.

  • Cyclones / hurricanes
  • Hail storms
  • Thunderstorms
  • Lightning storms
  • Tornadoes and twisters
  • Snowstorms and blizzards

 

Spirit, wind and breath

In ancient times we see that people were fascinated by the dynamic relationship between breath, wind and spirit.

In fact, often we find the same words being used in the ancient Hebrew or Greek text, and only the context telling us which English term to choose.

Perhaps the classic example is in Genesis 1, the great creation poem which opens the Bible.

There we read that the “spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”

וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם

wᵉrûaḥ ʾᵉlōhim mᵉraḥep̱eṯ ʿal-pᵉne hammāyı̂m

 

Depending on the Bible translation you pick up, that line may be translated as:

KJV: And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

NJB: with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.

JPS: and a wind from God sweeping over the water

NRSV margin: while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.

 

In the next chapter of Genesis, God will breathe into the nostrils of the new Earth creature that has been created. When the breath of God comes into the Earthling, then the first human is alive and has become a living spirit.

This life force that we know as storm we also meet:

  • in the first breath of a newborn child
  • in a pleasant summer breeze
  • in a bracing blast of winter wind, and
  • in the destructive power of a cyclone

 

As we baptise Alexis and Hudson this morning we celebrate the life force which hovered over the waters of creation at the beginning of time, and we open ourselves to the eternal power of God who can be gentle as a dove or fierce as a storm.

We need to learn to live in sync with this spirit/storm, while Alexis and Hudson look to us to show them how to do that, how to bend with the wind that is God at work in our lives.

And theirs.

There is a beautiful hymn that draws all these threads together so very nicely, and since we are not singing it in this service let me read it to you now as we say YES to the wind that blows where it will and transforms all who it touches:

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.

Enemy of Apathy
John L. Bell (1949–) and Graham Maule (1958–)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life in all its abundance​ and diversity

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Creation Sunday 2: Fauna and Flora
8 September 2019

[ video ]

creation-2-fauna-and-flora

During this special series, the season of creation, throughout September we are exploring various aspects of the web of life; that complex and subtle web of relationships between all of us and all of existence.

Last week we reflected on the oceans, that vast body of waters from which all life has emerged.

This week, our focus moves to fauna and flora, the animal kingdom and world of plants found in all their abundant diversity across our glorious planet.

In the ancient Hebrew poem which opens the Bible, we observe a symbolic symmetry between the creation of dry land, the sea and plants on day three, and the creation of animal life (including humans)—creatures who live on the dry land and eat the plants—on day six.

All animals depend on plants, not least for the oxygen they generate. Sea creatures, birds, land creatures are all connected in the fragile web of life.

The Bible encourages us to see all of this as God’s design.

The Scriptures also affirm that this is all good. Every aspect of creation is assessed by God and pronounced to be good, while on Day Six we are told that God saw everything that s/he had made and “indeed it was very good”.

 

Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! (Psalm 148:100

It is often easier for us to recognise our affinity with the animal kingdom.

As sentient beings, we discern a kinship with the animals that is reinforced by our knowledge of evolution, by the study of our skeletal structures and—more recently—by DNA research.

For many thousands of years, humans have shared our lives with some animals more than others: dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, camels, goats, sheep and cattle among many others.

We have changed through this relationship and so have they.

  • Companion animals
  • Wild animals
  • Working animals
  • Production animals
  • Dangerous animals
  • Scary animals
  • Pests

All creatures “great and small”

The diversity of animal life is one of the great ecological assets of our world, and yet that diversity is threatened by our collective actions.

A recent UN report advised that one billion species at risk of extinction.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina)

According to the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson:

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The scientists tell us that it is not too late to turn things around, yet we may wonder what all this has to do with religion.

In fact, for people of faith the future of the planet has everything to do with religion.

It is not just we humans who are beloved by God and for whom God has a dream of a blessed future in perfect harmony and peace. That vision extends to all God’s creation: all the animals, all the plants, the earth itself and the oceans as well.

When we understand our role in the scheme of things, we see ourselves stewards of creation.

If we take our creation theology seriously then we must do all we can to save the planet from the catastrophe that is about to befall us.

 

From grasslands to forests

There is a similar diversity among the plants, but we tend not to relate to our plants in quite the same way we engage with at least some of the animals.

They mostly seem not to be sentient beings, although some avid gardeners insist that their plants respond to more than light and water.

From the beauty of a delicate new bud to the grandeur of a mighty rainforest, the plants evoke a response of awe, admiration, connection and presence.

Some of them have a brief life cycle that makes us seem like the ancient of days, while others live for such a long period that we seem insignificant beside them.

They feed us and they provide the oxygen we need to survive.

Yet we have cut them down, cleared them from the land and set them ablaze … almost always in the search for commercial gain.

We have sold our soul, and what have we achieved?

As the ancient forests of the Amazon blaze with fire we are not just burning down the house, we are giving the animal kingdom a massive case of emphysema.

We are destroying the living creatures who create and purify the air we need.

There is no need to argue about original sin.

Our latest sin is both foolish and self-evident.

 

Consider the lilies

Well might the sage of Nazareth urge us to consider the lilies, to reflect on the ravens … to look beyond our own insecurities and see the bigger picture.

Do not be anxious, says Jesus.

Your father knows what you need.

Relax, focus on what really matters.

Let God take care of those things we really do need.

Focus our best energies on the things where we can make a difference.

 

That is not permission to ignore climate change.

But it is an invitation to stop and smell the roses, to see the staggering diversity of creation that we mostly rush past in our glass and steel cages, or with our faces turned to our smartphones.

 

If Jesus were here today, perhaps he would revise those words from Luke?

Maybe he would say, “There is a good kind of anxiety and a bad kind anxiety.”

It is right to be anxious about creation, but it is wrong to be anxious about our accessories and our comfort.

Actually, he did say that even in Luke:

“Do not keep striving for what you are to eat … and wear;
… instead, strive for God’s kingdom …”

Or in even more direct terms:

“Stop stressing about your first-world problems,
and look at what is happening in the world around us!”

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The web of life

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
First Sunday of Creation: Ocean
1 September 2019

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Broken Head Nature Reserve

Season of Creation: Ocean Sunday

Well, we have no shortage of themes to consider here this morning:

  • For starters, it’s Fathers’ Day (at least here in the southern hemisphere).
  • In addition, it is the first Sunday of the season of creation and a day when we celebrate the ocean (even though we are many kilometres from the sea).
  • It’s also a day when we will be baptising little Ruby and celebrating her presence among us and all that she is going to become in the wider world.
  • And it’s a day when the family of Jim Harper has gathered so that we can lay his ashes to rest in the memorial garden beside the cathedral.

Yes, we pretty well have it all today — without even thinking about the topics to be covered in the dean’s forum at 11 AM.

I want to keep our primary focus on Ocean Sunday but weave into that line of thought various other connections as we go along. So buckle your belts and get ready for the ride.

 

Season of Creation

The season of creation is a recent ecumenical and international initiative. It reflects a growing awareness of the ecological dimensions of our faith and also of the religious dimensions of the earth, and our deepest character as Earthlings.

For those of us in the southern hemisphere, one happy outcome from this initiative is that for once in the year what we’re doing inside the church with our liturgies reflects what is happening outside the church in nature.

For most of the year our liturgical cycle is based upon the northern calendar, but for the next few weeks what we’re doing inside church reflects what is happening outside in the garden as new life breaks through the soil, plants blossom and many creatures welcome their new offspring.

Of course, the choice of dates for the season of creation was not made for the benefit of Aussies, Argentinians, Kiwis, or South Africans. Rather, the timing of the season is based on the annual celebration of St Francis of Assisi on October 4. We simply work back the four or five Sundays during September to carve out this special opportunity to celebrate and to reflect upon our place within the web of life.

 

The web of life

We are becoming more familiar with the concept of the web of life.

This idea has deep theological and philosophical roots, and these have recently been validated and extended by scientific discoveries relating to DNA more generally and the human genome in particular.

We now have a whole new appreciation of our deep connection with other people as well as with all of the life forms on this fragile planet.

This sense of deep unity with one another and with all creation is something that we celebrate in the Holy Communion liturgy each and every time that we gather around the Table of Jesus.

 

Ocean Sunday

On this first Sunday of Creation we pause and reflect on the ocean, where all life began. We appreciate our intimate connection with oceans, seas, lake and rivers. And we reflect that our own lives took form in the secret ocean of our mother’s uterus. Before the waters broke.

When we stand on the seashore and watch the immense ocean flowing up to our feet, we are in a sacred space; just as when we hold a new-born baby in our arms. On the edge of mystery. On the edge of the deep.

For those of us who are fathers, we are conscious of being in a line that stretches back into the distant past and beyond us into our children and their children.

Our fathers and grandfathers held us in their arms as our life began, and we gently place their remains in the ground after their lives have ended.

The web of life. We are all connected. We are all one.

All this and more is swirling around us today as we celebrate Ocean Sunday.

But our Bible readings this morning nudge us to engage with these dynamics in some different and particular ways. Let’s turn to them now.

 

Job 38

The first reading this morning was from the book of Job, one of the classic texts of western civilisation.

As the story goes, for more than 30 consecutive chapters (chs 3–37) in that book, God has been listening to Job’s complaint. Life is unfair. He has been treated badly. Job is the ultimate good person to whom really bad things have happened. He wants to ‘shirt front’ God. He has had enough.

Starting with the passage we heard just now, God ‘spits the dummy’. God, for her part, has had enough of Job’s complaints. Enough already! Halaas!

Note the opening lines from chapter 38 as God calls Job into the conversation which he has been demanding the right to have:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” (Job 38:1–3 NRSV)

 

Ouch!

This does not sound like a gentle conversation, and indeed that it how it unfolds …

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.” (Job 38:4–5, 8–11, 16–18 NRSV)

 

In the ancient text Job remains silent in the face of this divine barrage, but on this Ocean Sunday I suggest we can actually be bold enough to answer God: “Yes, we were and yes, we are!”

In saying that we are not speaking as particular individuals born in the very recent past.

But when we understand who we truly are—beings comprised of ancient atoms from the stardust of the big bang at the beginning of time— then we can claim our true identity and respond to God, “Yes, we were there and yes, we are able to plumb the depths of the sea. She is our mother.”

At the risk of a bad pun, on Ocean Sunday we appreciate the depths of our own existence.

We—that is, the universe finding its voice in us so late in time—we are 15 billion years old. We come from the first nano-seconds of the cosmos. We were conceived in the oceans. We are not just Earthlings, we are also sea creatures.

So today—as we baptise Ruby, and as we, celebrate fathers, and as we inter Jim’s ashes—we remember our deep and ancient roots. We appreciate our true selves, and we celebrate the amazing web of life of which we are integral parts.

 

Luke 5

Our Gospel reading was—most appropriately—a fishing story. A story set on the lake. A story that celebrates a deep intuitive knowledge of the ways of the sea.

But this reading is very different from Job.

God in the person of Jesus asks a very different question. Jesus is not asking, “Were you there?” rather, Jesus is asking, “Will come with me into the future?”

Will you trust my guidance and let down your nets into deep?

And that, of course, is the challenge.

We have some idea of where we have come from, but we have little idea of the future.

We had no choice about arriving here, but the future is ours to choose.

As we baptise Ruby this morning we are making a choice to let Jesus guide us into that future which is known only to God, and we are promising to teach her how to live that way as well.

Let down your nets … the future calls us on this Ocean Sunday.

 

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A great cloud of witnesses

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

 

[ video ]

A great cloud of witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

We encounter this cloud of witnesses in different ways:

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

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

What is our legacy?

 

Looking to Jesus

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

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

Just Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

This is not because he persuaded God to forgive us.

God needed no convincing!

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

And that is really good news.

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

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Heart and treasure

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

 

[ video ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today seems to be one of those Sundays!

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

 

Abraham

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

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

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

Let’s unpack that picture a little further.

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

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

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

 

Isaiah

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

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

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

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

It is quite a challenging text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Heart and treasure

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

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

 

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

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

What is the treasure we cannot let go?

What is the journey we refuse to take?

Where is our heart?

What matters most to us?

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

What do we most desire?

Where is our heart?

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For whom the bell tolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary the Tower

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

Lamentation of the Christ by Botticelli (1445–1510)

 

 

[ video ]

The Magdalene

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

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

 

Bad press for the Magdalene

History has not been kind to Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Searching for the historical Magdalene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wisdom from the Tower

That is one very impressive CV!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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No purse, no bag, no sandals

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 4C
7 July 2019

 

[ video ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a fascinating bunch of people.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Being sent

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

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

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

 

Simplicity

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

They were to travel light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had few resources and there was no infrastructure.

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

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

We need to learn afresh how to travel light.

 

Program

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

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

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

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

 

And us?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Ending spiritual and emotional violence towards LGBTQI+ persons

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not need to have that debate here today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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with all that I have

Third Sunday after Pentecost
Christchurch Cathedral, Grafton
30 June 2019

 

[ video ]

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Loving God with our strength

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

This is an interesting concept.

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

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

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

Nothing is excluded.

Nothing is exempt.

Nothing is held back.

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

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

Wow!

That is a truly radical call to discipleship:

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

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

This is not asking for 10%.

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

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

This is the wisdom of St Francis of Assisi.

This is the wisdom of Saul of Tarsus.

This is the wisdom of Jesus.

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

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

 

The way I deal with it is like this.

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

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

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

There must be an element of sacrifice.

No pain no gain.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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