800 bottles of your best wine, please

Epiphany 2C
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
20 January 2019

 

[ video ]

All around the world today, the Gospel reading in all the mainline churches today will be that story we have just heard: Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding celebration in Cana, a village quite close to Nazareth.

For Kefr Kana, this is their day.

Anyone who can do that would certainly attract a strong following.

How many “likes” would Jesus have scored on Facebook that week?

And how many letters to the editor would have demanded that he should stick to religion and stop undermining the moral fabric of the community?

The point of the story is not the quality of the wine (the best ever tasted by the MC on the night) or the staggering quantities produced: 600 litres of wine!

This is a symbolic story, a story of transformation, together with the promise that the best is yet to come (“you have the best until last”).

So let’s tease it out briefly to see what spiritual wisdom there may be for us in this ancient story today.

 

Jesus was at a wedding

A Middle Eastern wedding is a big deal and they last several days.

There was lots of catering, and the host could not run short of food or wine. Haraam, Shame, for the groom’s family in such a situation.

What I like most about this story is simply that Jesus turned up at family events and major community celebrations.

It would have been perfect for us today—as we baptise Isabella, Isabell and Ivy— had this story been about Jesus turning up at a Baptism, or at least to the party afterwards.

No shortage of wine, folks.

And he was a pretty deft hand at coming up with extras food as needed; provided you like pita bread and dry fish.

Do not get distracted by the miracle.

The headline here is that Jesus hangs out with regular people and does ordinary stuff.

As these girls grow up that is the mindset we need to share with them: Jesus is with us, even when everything seems ordinary. Especially at such times.

 

Water turns into wine

We would pack this place several times a day on Sunday if I could promise to turn your containers of water into beautiful fine wine.

A friend of mine whose kids I baptised many years ago, used to say every time we caught up at a BBQ: Fr Greg, when you get a licence on Sundays, I will be in church.

In the Gospel of John this transformation of water into wine is called a sign.

It is not about the water, or even about the wine: although it was really good wine and there was lots and lots of it. Around 800 bottles of wine!

Even the Bible says this is a sign, a symbolic story, and not something to be taken literally.

In the story, Jesus turns water into wine.

Every day, Jesus turns our ordinary lives into something else, something more.

If people really understood that we would indeed be packing this place every Sunday, because what happens here is better than any other ‘upgrade’ available around town.

Again, this is the secret to a fantastic life that we all need to share with these three girls, with everyone around us, and indeed with that toughest audience: ourselves.

We are going to share that secret recipe for a good life with them, and we are signing up for that today. All of us.

 

Keep the best until last

There is a great little punch line in that ancient story.

When the MC tastes this extra wine that has suddenly turned up at the wedding, he calls the groom over and speaks with him:

‘Hey, mate. What is going on here. Most people serve the best wine first and when folk are already drunk they bring out the cheap stuff. But you have kept the best wine until last. You are crazy man!”

Well, it was something like that. It’s a rough translation.

Sometimes we feel like our best days are behind us.

Old folks can feel like that.

So can young marrieds.

And new parents can feel like that as well.

We cannot do what we used to enjoy …

Guess what, the best is yet to come. God keeps the best until last. Now.

For the parents, godparents and extended families of these three girls the best is yet to come. There is so much more to experience, to learn, to share, to celebrate. The best has been kept until last. And last starts now.

Let’s go baptise these girls …

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

The Baptism of the Lord

Christ Church Cathedral
Baptism of the Lord
13 January 2019

 

[ video ]

Slowly Christmas is receding into the distance behind us.

The last couple of weeks have been a little like driving down the highway and seeing the places we have been becoming smaller and more distant as we move into our future.

For the next several weeks we will be in the season known as Epiphany, the time in between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. Throughout the epiphany season we are celebrating many different ways in which God becomes known by us, or if you like, is manifest to us.

As we engage with the Scriptures and reflect on our lived experience during these coming weeks we will be looking to discern different ways in which God becomes known and real to us.

 

The baptism of Jesus

We begin this series as always with the baptism of Jesus and this morning I simply want to share a series of reflections with you, with the invitation that you will take the one which most interests you and reflect on it further during the week ahead.

I want to organise these reflections as a series of progressively deeper answers to the seemingly simple question: why celebrate the baptism of Jesus?

 

Reason #1: because it happened

The baptism of Jesus is one of the most certain historical events in his life. It ranks up there alongside the crucifixion is something whose historicity we can be totally confident about. It may not strike us as such an awkward story, but the account of Jesus being baptised by John was an inconvenient truth for the earliest Christians.

To appreciate that we need to understand the followers of John represented a rival reform movement within second Temple Judaism. For the followers of Jesus to remember that the founder of their movement had started out as a follower or disciple of John the Baptist required them to acknowledge some kind of debt from Jesus to John.

This is not a topic that I want to linger over today and I have discussed it at other times, but it is worth noting that the Gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke all describe Jesus’ baptism by John while the Gospel of John offers an extended treatment of the relationship between John and Jesus, with a reference to the baptism having taken place ‘off stage’.

So we are celebrating a moment in the life of the historical Jesus, and it is a point which hints at a rather more complicated relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist than any of the early Christians really wanted to speak about.

 

Reason #2: the baptism marks a point of transition

As the early gospel writers tell the story, the baptism of Jesus by John represents the beginning of his public activity as the prophet of God’s kingdom within second Temple Judaism. This is the moment, as it were, when Jesus steps onto the public stage.

Again, I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this particular point, but it strikes me as significant that none of the canonical gospels show any interest in the childhood of Jesus or in his adult activities prior to his baptism. The nearest we get to such an interest is the unique story in Luke chapter 2 with the 12-year-old Jesus choosing to remain behind in Jerusalem and engage in conversation with the leading scholars of his time.

Generally speaking, in the biblical tradition as we also find in the creeds, Christianity has no interest in what happened to Jesus prior to his baptism by John.

Think about that for a moment.

Despite all the fuss we make at Christmas time, the New Testament never refers to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth nor to his childhood nor to his early activities as an adult prior to stepping onto the stage round about the age of 30 years. Considering that many peasants in first century Palestine barely lived that long, this is a fairly remarkable oversight.

In any case, whatever Jesus was up to as a child and a young adult, we mark a fresh beginning in his life and in his public career with his baptism by John.

 

Reason #3: the spiritual roots of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus actually takes us deep into the lived spirituality of second Temple Judaism and it has very little in common with the baptisms that we will be celebrating here in the Cathedral next Sunday morning.

What is happening at the baptism of Jesus is something which is fundamentally and intrinsically Jewish.

It is very easy for us to assimilate Jesus into our life experience including our personal spiritual practices, our religious culture. However Jesus was a person of Jewish identity and his religious practices were significantly different from our own.

Let me just list some of the things which would have been taken as perfectly normal religious practice for Jesus, mostly items we would find rather strange:

  • I keep referring to Jesus in the context of second Temple Judaism, and that phrase reminds us that the temple stood at the very centre of Jewish public life and was the focus for all of their aspirations for an encounter with God.
  • Animal sacrifices took place in that temple with hundreds if not thousands of animals being killed every day and vast amounts of incense being required as sacred a room freshener to cover up the smell.
  • Frequent ritual washings were such a central part of Jewish spirituality at the time that the presence or absence of mikvot, ritual bathing installations, is one of the pieces of evidence archaeologists assess when determining whether the site they are excavating was occupied by Jews or Gentiles.
  • In addition to the temple, Jewish people also gathered for prayers and readings in the local synagogue, most likely on Friday evening or Saturday morning.
  • In these gatherings participants were strictly segregated on the basis of gender.
  • The weekly Sabbath observance was a point of distinction between Jews and their neighbours, and it was observed with some care.
  • Strict food laws including rules about people with whom one could not ever eat were central to Jewish identity and social practice. Even though Jesus often transgressed these rules, they were very important to him and to his contemporaries.
  • And perhaps we also tend to forget that Jewish culture at this time was strictly iconoclastic with no images of humans or animals being permitted in a Jewish home or in a Jewish public space.

From that preliminary listing, you might well already be starting to think that second Temple Judaism was more like Islam than Christianity. There is indeed a significant cultural gap between Jesus and ourselves, and this is made particularly clear on an occasion like this when we celebrate Jesus’ own participation in the religious rituals of his own community.

 

Reason #4: the authentic religious experience of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus is not simply a moment of transition in his adult life nor is it simply a reminder that Jesus was an active participant in the normal rituals of the Jewish religion in Palestine in his time. The baptism of Jesus is also a story that invites us to recognise that Jesus had his own authentic personal religious experiences.

That may be something about which we have not thought very much.

We might have the unexamined assumption in the back of our minds that Jesus maintained a continuous conversation between himself and God the Father as he went through each day. However, that is probably not a helpful way to understand the humanity of Jesus and the mystery of his vocation as the human face of God.

Like all of us, Jesus would have developed a sense of awe in the face of the mystery of existence and like some of us he came to understand that the sacred dimension of life could best be understood as the God calls us into being and invites us into the future.

Just as we each have to discover our own vocation and calling, so Jesus had to grow in his understanding of himself and of what faithfulness to God was going to mean for him in his own unique particularity.

In other words, Jesus had a spiritual life and this included moments of religious experience.

The baptism by John in the Jordan River may well have been one such pivotal religious experience for Jesus. We will never know, because Jesus’ own observations and reactions are not recorded in any of the gospels. But we can use our imagination with care and self-discipline in order to appreciate some of the dynamics which must surely have been operating for Jesus.

 

Reason #5: the value of ritual

A final reflection that I want to offer this morning concerns the value of ritual.

On one level, of course, Jesus did not need to be baptised by John. Most of the Gospels make that very clear as they wrestle with the question of why Jesus would have been baptised by John.

In the Gospel of Matthew, John even asked that question and Jesus replies by saying, Let it be for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.

I think Matthew has it right when he understands that doing the right thing and being the right kind of person requires us to appreciate, to value, and to participate in ritual of various kinds.

Some of these rituals are simply the personal practices we develop in our own lives. How we begin the day, how we end the day, how we exercise mindfulness at various times throughout the day. They may extend to favourite colours or particular pieces of jewellery or any number of personal choices that we make. When these rituals are taken away from us we have a deep sense of loss.

There is another whole set of rituals relating to our home life, a life we share that intimate community of people we call family. These rituals come in many varieties and may change over time but we realise how significant they are for us when we find ourselves with another group people whose family rituals are different from our own, or when a guest from another family spends some time with ours.

In public life we know the value of ritual, whether it’s the courtesy of giving way to other vehicles as we approach the bridge or a major civic occasion such as Anzac Day. Ritual not only expresses our deepest identity and values, but can also facilitate our shared lives as a community and as a nation. Again, we often only realise how significant these familiar rituals are for us when we find ourselves away from Australia and in a place where different rituals shape the day-to-day experience of the people with whom we find ourselves.

In our religious life we also know the value of rituals, whether that be coming into the Cathedral to light a candle or participating in a major religious festival. The Cathedral itself is a piece of ritual executed in brick and standing at a prominent location in the heart of Grafton.

We like to have our West doors open despite the risk that creates, because that little act in itself says something about our openness to our neighbours. Opening the doors every morning is a ritual that reminds us to open our hearts and open our minds to those we meet that day. And for those who could walk past the Cathedral during the day, the open doors are both an invitation and an expression of trust. We are not closing our doors to keep you out. Our doors are open. We trust you. We are not afraid of you.

Of course, for Christians, the greatest ritual is the celebration of the Eucharist as we take bread and wine to participate in a meal together at the table of Jesus. It is not just the ritual at the table, but the entire shape of the Eucharist offers us a way to ritualize our lived experience during the week.

We are people who gather,
we are people who reflect on our performance and seek reconciliation,
we are people who listen to Scripture,
we are people who explore and wrestle with God’s truth,
we are people who pray,
giving thanks for God’s blessings and sharing our concerns for a broken world,
we are people who bring our gifts in the service of God’s kingdom
and out of compassion for others,
we are people who break the bread and we bless the cup,
we are people who seek to nurture the life of Jesus within us,
we are people who go out into the world transformed and inspired to be Jesus people in the city day after day.

 

At one level today we celebrate the simple event took place in the life of Jesus.

But at another level we are being invited to understand the importance of our own community of spiritual practice (which for Jesus was second Temple Judaism) and the value of ritual in so many different areas of our life.

I invite you to reflect on both those lines of thought during the week ahead.

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We three kings and then some

Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral
6 January 2018

 

[ video ]

Here we are on the twelfth day of Christmas in the West, while tonight our friends in the Middle East begin their Christmas celebrations. Antiochene Christians, Copts, Greek Orthodox, Melkites, Russian Orthodox and Syriac Christian communities begin their celebration after sunset today. For Armenians, Christmas begins on January 19.

The major celebration, of course, will be at the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the Orthodox faithful from different national and linguistic communities will gather for prayer and singing prior to the start of the liturgy.

At the centre of those celebrations will be the venerated cave where tradition says the birth of Jesus occurred. Controversy around the star on the floor of the holy cave is sometimes thought to have been a trigger for the Crimean War in 1853–56.

Both in the West and in the East, this is a day when we celebrate the legend of the wise men who—in Matthew’s Gospel—come from afar to venerate the newborn king of the Jews.

 

Midrash

Considerable energy has been spent on the historical problems presented by this traditional story which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. For those most part the message of this fictional story is completely lost amidst all the sound and fury as people debate whether such a magical star could have happened, or how these oriental visitors chose their gifts for the Christ Child.

This morning, I invite you to join me in an exercise of intentional listening to the Gospel of Matthew, so that we might discern the significance of this story which Matthew has carefully woven into his ‘midrash’ about the birth of the Messiah.

Midrash is a form of Jewish education in which a story is developed around a simpler biblical or historical moment, to explain how it happened and also to explore the deeper meaning of the event.

For example, ancient Jews such as St Paul were familiar with a midrash about the rock in the wilderness that flowed with water when struck by Moses. The midrash solved the problem about how the people got water on other days and at other locations, without leaving a trail of leaking rocks all over the wilderness—and turning the desert into a green parkland. In the midrash this technical problem was solved by the same rock magically relocating with the Israelites each time they moved. Indeed, in some versions of the story the rock went from tent to tent making home deliveries of the fresh water!

Paul cited the midrash in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5: “… for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Paul does not quote the legend, but he assumes that his readers know about it, and he extends the legend by claiming that the supernatural rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness from one location to another (which they all knew about) was actually Christ.

Midrash invites us into a story and within that story we find a deeper truth being presented, but it is a form of truth that is not mortgaged to historicity.

So, rather than be distracted by discussions over the historicity of the wise men coming to present gifts to the Christ Child, let’s explore why Matthew is telling this tale and what he is seeking to communicate with his readers.

 

The birth of Jesus in Matthew

Matthew seems to preserve the earliest written story about the birth of Jesus.

It was not a tradition found in Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark written at least a few years earlier.

And it was not a tradition that was of any interest to the contemporary Gospel of John. As we see in John 6:42 (“They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”), the Gospel of John simply assumes that Joseph and Mark were the parents of Jesus even though John also affirms most clearly the divinity of Jesus in the famous Logos hymn that serves as the prologue for that gospel.

When the Gospel of Luke is written even later, it has a very different midrash that seems to play with a parallel between the births of John and Jesus and the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus.

As we prepare to explore Matthew’s infancy midrash, we can note that the point of these birth stories was not to establish his divinity but rather to clarify his calling as the prophet of God, the one who comes to ‘save’ his people.

Matthew has crafted his story about the birth of Jesus very carefully so that it fits Jesus into the biblical drama of salvation:

He begins with a genealogy that is selective (with three sets of 14 ancestors), but traces Jesus back to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people (and of the Arabs, as it happens).

Cleverly woven into that list of male ancestors are four women, each of them with something irregular about their sexual history:

Tamar, a widow who pretends to be a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law to secure her rights within the family (see Genesis 38, but be warned this content is for adult readers only);

Ruth, a foreign woman from Moab, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David after spending the night with her future husband to secure his intervention on her behalf (see Ruth 3);

Bathsheba, who is not named here but simply listed as the “wife of Uriah”—a woman who David sexually abused and then arranged to have her husband murdered so that he could add Bathsheba to his harem (see 2 Samuel 11); and

Mary, who was discovered to be pregnant even before Joseph had slept with her.

Then we met a character named Joseph. Guess what? God speaks to him in dreams. Well, what else who happen to a guy called Joseph, a Jewish listener would say. Apart from being sent down to Egypt, which happens in Matthew 2!

This Joseph is both a dreamer, and an upright man, who seeks to treat the women in his life properly. So already the readers of Matthew are beginning to think about Joseph, Egypt and Exodus/liberation as the framework for the story of Jesus that Matthew is about to tell them.

By now Matthew’s readers have also been alerted to the idea that we do not need to have a perfect family background for God to be at work among us, and for God to use us to move God’s purposes ahead.

For many people even that wee bit of the story is good news indeed. ‘Broken things for broken people’.

Joseph is told to go ahead with his plans to marry Mary and to treat the unborn child as his own. He is even instructed on what name to give the child.

The child is not to be called ‘Joseph’, as a traditional Jew may have expected, but ‘Joshua’. Joshua was the successor to Moses and the person who—in the biblical narrative even if not in real history—conquers the land of Canaan so that the tribes of Israel can possess the ‘promised land’.

Piece by piece, Matthew is assembling his story about the birth of Jesus.

To really understand this birth, he says, think about Joseph and think about Joshua. But wait, there is more.

Like Moses himself—Jesus is the target of a murderous campaign by an angry king who orders the murder of every Jewish boy in his territory in order to eliminate a threat to his authority.

Herod actually did lots of nasty things and even murdered members of his own family to preserve his reign for almost 40 years. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he ordered the arrest of the headmen of every village with orders for them to be executed on the day of his own death, so that tears would flow on the day he died.

From this murderous reputation, Matthew has fashioned a legend within the legend, and created the story of Herod ordering the murder of the ‘Holy Innocents’, the children of Judea. Matthew turns Herod into another Pharoah so that Jesus can be seen as Moses 2.0.

So far so good, Matthew has developed a midrash which tells his Jewish Christian readership that Jesus is no threat to Judaism. Rather, Jesus is the ancient Jewish story coming to life in front of their eyes.

Even the name of Jesus’ mother helps with this project. We call her ‘Mary’, but her neighbours would have known her as ‘Miriam’: the same name as the sister of Moses.

All we are missing is the basket among the bulrushes.

 

So why the oriental strangers

Matthew could have spun this midrash, including Herod’s murderous rage, without any need to add a visit by foreign sages.

But he had more to teach his readers than the Jewish pedigree of Jesus.

Matthew was also passionate about the significance of Jesus for the gentiles, for those people without any Jewish descent. Which is most of us.

In the decades before Matthew was drafting his revised and enlarged edition of Mark’s Gospel there were occasional state visits to the Roman emperor by oriental rulers from beyond the empire seeming to establish cordial diplomatic relationships. Details of these and other parallels to Matthew’s birth narrative have been blended together by Matthew to create the spectacular scene of a visit to Bethlehem by an entourage of unspecified size (but certainly more than three individuals), bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew is not recording history here, but appealing to his non-Jewish audience. They too have a part in the story of Jesus. God’s purposes in sending Jesus were not restricted to the Jewish nation, but extend to everyone, everywhere at all times.

 

A message for all the world

How an author begins and concludes their work often reveals what is central to their concerns.

As he commences his revision of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew creates a beautiful midrash that sets Jesus into the Sacred story alongside characters such as Joseph, Moses and Joshua. Not a bad CV at all.

But time had passed. Already we are several decades after the death of Jesus. Matthew knew two things: (1) many Jews (and perhaps most) think Jesus was a traitor and a heretic, and (2) Jesus is attracting a very big following among the non-Jewish populations in cities like Antioch where is where Matthew himself is most likely based.

He needs to celebrate the Jewish pedigree of Jesus while also offering a place in the story for outsiders who become insiders.

The entourage of pagans who worship the Christ Child in Matthew—and only in Matthew—are the promise of success for the commission given by Jesus in the closing paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19–20)

There is room for everyone in the Jesus story.

Outsiders become insiders.

There is even a place for us.

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Emmanuel

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Christmas Eve
24 December 2018

 

[ video ]

Well, here we are …

In the middle of the night—when we should all be tucked up in bed—we are sitting in the Cathedral and celebrating the birth of a Jewish baby born in a very small village in Roman-occupied Palestine just over 2,000 years ago.

 

It’s a birth story

Like every other birth, the arrival of Mary’s boychild was an occasion of joy, accompanied by a sense of awesome responsibility, and profound hope.

Like us, as Mary and Joseph held their newborn baby in their arms, they must have wondered what life would be like for this wee fellow in the years ahead.

What would he be like? What gifts would he have? How would the people of the village and the wider family welcome this new person into their circle. Would he be famous? How would he make the world a better place? What can we do as parents to ensure he becomes all that God intends him to be?

Those are questions we have all asked ourselves as we hold newborn children in our arms.

The families who bring their children for Baptism in the Cathedral have similar thoughts in their minds and similar hopes in the hearts.

 

It’s the birth of Jesus

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of a most remarkable person.

Today the focus is on his birth. He was a real person. He arrived in this world the same way we all do. Incarnation. God taking flesh and entering into the stuff of this blue planet.

From small beginnings in a village in Palestine, not far from the palaces of kings and wannabe rulers, this vulnerable infant developed into an adult of courage, vision and passion.

This is not the time to talk about his death. Today we celebrate his life: his birth, his childhood and his ministry as the prophet of God’s active presence among us. Emmanuel. Through the life of Jesus God was active in our world, reconciling all things to himself and inviting us to embrace life.

Although Mary and Joseph could not imagine what was to come, this child was to have a huge impact all around the world, and during the past 2,000 years millions of people have been touched by his life and have reflected on what it all means.

In music, art, architecture, literature and compassionate action people who have been touched by Jesus has made their response to the deepest message of Christmas: Emmanuel.

God is not far away. God is here among us, within us and between us—as Jesus himself would say.

Christmas shows us where to look for God: right here and among our own circle of people we know best.

This is a simple idea, but it is also a very big idea.

It changes everything.

It is worth getting up in the middle of the night to celebrate!

 

Thin people

The child whose birth we celebrate tonight grew to become a person of the Spirit, a holy person.

When we talk about holy places, we sometimes describe them as ‘thin’ places; places where it seems the gap between our reality and the deeper reality of God has all but vanished.

We might also describe Jesus as a ‘thin’ person.

He most likely was physically thin, due to the diet of Jewish villagers in ancient Palestine and the active lifestyle of someone walking from place to place across Galilee. But I am referring to something else: his capacity to transform people.

What changed people was their discovery that when they met Jesus they also encountered God.

Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s rule.

Jesus himself was the arrival of God, present among us in a new way. Emmanuel.

In the Gospel of John this mystery is expressed in words put onto the lips of Jesus by the later tradition: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Christmas invites us to embrace the possibility that our world is really a crowd of thin people.

Others encounter God when they meet us, and we encounter God when we meet them. Emmanuel.

Of course, this also means that how we treat others is also how we treat God.

Jesus said exactly that in his parable of the last judgment. The punch line for that story is: “When you did this (or failed to do this) for another person, then you did it (or failed to do it) to me.” (Matt 25:31–46)

If we embrace that possibility in the year ahead, then our lives and our world may well be transformed.

Christmas time is an opportunity to practice how we want to act for the rest of the year. This is a time when we naturally focus on things like:

  • Community
  • Generosity
  • Compassion
  • Love

 

When we make those things central to our lives, then we are transformed, the people around us are touched, and the world draws closer to God’s dream for us all.

May that be our experience this Christmas and throughout the year ahead.

Happy birthday, Jesus

Happy Christmas, Grafton.

Happy 2019, world!

 

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Love, actually

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Advent 4 (C)
23 December 2018

 

[ video ]

Here we are on the fourth and final Sunday during Advent. We are incredibly close to Christmas as we all realise and indeed tomorrow will be Christmas Eve. We are almost there.

Over the series of Sundays during Advent we’ve been looking at the major themes associated with each of those days: hope, peace, joy and love. Today we will be focusing especially on the theme of love.

Most likely many of the earliest Christians, and especially those in churches connected with the ministry of St Paul, were not familiar with the Christmas stories that we find in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

For starters, those two gospels had not yet been written during the lifetime of Paul. Indeed, they represent a stage of early Christianity some decades after Paul: Matthew is perhaps best understood as having been written about 110 while the Gospel of Luke may have reached its final form around 150 CE.

Whatever the dates for the Gospels and no matter how widely the Christmas traditions had spread around by the beginning of the second century, early Christians were in no doubt that Jesus coming among us was a most remarkable expression of God’s love for all humanity.

In Romans 5:8 we find Paul dictating these words to Tertius, his accommodating scribe: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us …”

A little later, in Romans 8:39, Paul proclaims: “(nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We find a related description in Galatians 4 where Paul writes these words:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4–6 NRSV)

But this idea that the coming of Jesus was a direct result of God’s love for the world is most famously expressed in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Love is at the centre of the Christmas story, even when there are no shepherds and no wise men, no journey to Bethlehem and no magical star in the sky. All of these legendary elements add colour and beauty to our celebration of Christmas, but what matters, of course, is the underlying message that Jesus is the love of God for us expressed in a human life.

Not only is love at the centre of the Christmas story which we will celebrate tomorrow night, it is also at the very centre of the faith that we practice.

Doubtless we are all familiar with the summary of the law, sometimes called the two great commandments. We often read them near the beginning of our services.

This core teaching of Jesus is generated by a request by religious authorities in the first-century Jewish community for Jesus to make a ruling on what is the fundamental obligation that we have to God.

That’s quite an open-ended question, and it is therefore all the more fascinating to reflect for a moment on all the things which Jesus could have listed but chose not to list:

  • Belief
  • Prayer
  • Living a good life
  • Being compassionate
  • Attending worship regularly
  • Contributing money to the church or synagogue
  • Reading the Bible
  • Lighting candles
  • Going on pilgrimages
  • Fasting
  • Kosher food
  • Circumcision
  • Shabbat observance

 

Most of the attributes that we tend to think of as being at the core of religious practice are simply ignored by Jesus. When he’s asked to define the core obligations of humans as he understood things, Jesus famously replies:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29–31 NRSV)

Love is not just at the centre of Christmas it is also at the centre of our faith.

‘Love for God’ means not so much a romantic attachment to some divine figure, but rather us being alert to the depth dimension of life.

Our heart, our soul, our mind and all our strength are to be brought to bear on the great task of asking why are we here, and what does the Lord require of me? This task will involve our whole person (heart, soul, mind, strength), and it takes our whole lifetime to complete the work.

First things first: Love for God.

Everything else flows from that first great commitment to a life lived at depth. Without that commitment, nothing else matters. It is all hollow and empty.

But notice what does follow—not a traditional list of religious duties, but rather the simple call to love other people.

Their concerns and their wellbeing are to matter to us just as much as our survival and our own comfort.

In the car park at the shopping centre …

While merging in the traffic to get across the bridge …

When we would rather be somewhere else …

When we really do not have the time to listen to their story (again) …

 

Love is the critical DNA of the Christian person:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35 NRSV)

The benchmark for our love obligation is twofold.

In the Synoptic Gospels it is the love we have for ourselves: “love your neighbour as yourself”

In John’s Gospel Jesus is represented as raising the bar rather higher: “… just as I have loved you …”

 

So this week as we approach ever so close to Christmas, we are reminded of the primacy of love.

As we come to the Table of Jesus—the table of love—we feed on that love, we ask God to pour her love into our lives, and we seek courage to be truly loving people in the week ahead:

Loving God

Loving others

Loving this fragile Earth and all its creatures

Loving even ourselves

 

 

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Rejoice in the Lord always

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Advent 3 (C)
16 December 2018

 

[video]

As we know, each week during Advent has a particular thematic focus.

As we make our way through these four Sundays prior to Christmas this year we are considering in turn the themes of hope, peace, joy and love.

These are not only great Advent themes, they are also deeply significant elements in lives that are satisfying and deeply meaningful.

So today we are focusing on joy and we see that being reflected very clearly in today’s epistle from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ Paul says. ‘And again I will say, rejoice!’

In a moment we shall come back to tease out this concept of joy using the excerpt from Paul’s letter as the basis for our reflections, but first I’d like us to set aside some common misconceptions about joy.

So let me simply list—without any detailed discussion—a whole series of examples where joy is sometimes mistaken for something else, or conversely some other aspect of life is as mistakenly believed to guarantee joy if we can just achieve or possess it.

Joy is not the same as happiness

Joy is not the same as being amused or entertained

Joy is not always expressed in laughter or a cheery face

Joy does not mean we are carefree or untroubled

Joy is not a result of alcohol, drugs and medication

Joy is not having the latest consumer products

Joy is not about lots of sex

Based on how advertising is designed, one could be forgiven for thinking that a profound sense of contentment and well-being in all kinds of circumstances is indeed generated by one or more of these attributes. The more the better, it seems.

But we also know from own our experience—as well as from observation of those who enjoy an abundance of these attributes—that influence, power, status and wealth do not ensure joy.  Indeed, sometimes these sadly become demons that destroy lives and even drive people to self-harm.

So let’s focus on the brief passage from Philippians that we heard earlier:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4–7]

 

As we focus on this excerpt from a letter written about 25 years after Easter, let’s remind ourselves why we do this.

It is not because grabbing a few words from the Bible will provide us with a recipe for joy, or the answers to life’s questions. We are not hearing words spoken by God, but words written by Paul.

I am now going to recycle here what I wrote online a few days ago:

We read the texts not to hear what God has said in the past, but to hear how other people of faith have spoken about God in the past so that we are better equipped to listen to God in the present.

So we reflect on these words as words from Paul, and therefore words from someone with a deep insight into the dynamics of faith and life. As we do so, we are opening our hearts and minds to discern the whisper of the Spirit who makes the human words of the Bible a sacrament of invitation to live more deeply and more truly. When that happens then the ‘word of the Lord’ has been proclaimed and heard among us.

In this short paragraph, Paul offers us several ideas for contemplation. Let’s take them one by one.

 

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!

The underlying Greek word used here was also the everyday greeting when people met in the street or sent a letter: χαιρε [chaire]. It was the word on the lips of Judas as he greeted Jesus in the garden, and the words used by the soldiers as they mocked Jesus, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

As used by Paul here, we note that he adds “… in the Lord …”.

We are to wish one another—and also ourselves—happiness, health, peace, success and well-being in the Lord.

Our joy finds its roots in Jesus himself. The blessings we wish for others come from Jesus. What we hope for ourselves comes from Jesus, and is grounded in all that he means to us.

That makes joy an appropriate theme for reflection today as we get closer to Christmas Day. Joy to the world, the Lord has come!

 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 

If we have a deep sense of joy and if we are truly at peace within ourselves, then others should experience us as gentle people.

Gentle people?

That almost seems like a quaint old-fashioned idea. But it invites us to think more deeply about how we conduct ourselves.

Are religious people known for our gentleness?

Do we have reputations as gentle people among our families and friends?

Or do we kick heads and push others around, just like everyone else?

Worse still, are we seen as people trying to push our religion down other’s throats?

Are we really people who want to the right to discriminate against students and teachers in Christian schools because of their gender or their sexuality?

Paul suggests that joyful people, as people who realise that the Lord is near, will be gentle and that everyone else will recognise that about us. If only that were so!

 

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Now Paul shifts the focus: from how others experience us, to how we handle the adversities that inevitably come our way.

Note that Paul assumes ‘stuff will happen’.

When ‘stuff happens’ in our lives we are not to worry about it, but rather bring everything that is happening to God, letting God know how we feel about the situation and seeking grace to deal with it. Things that might otherwise cause us to be anxious can now become something we bring to God with thanksgiving; in an attitude of gratitude.

Paul is going beyond the “don’t be anxious” advice we find in the Gospels, and urging his readers to bring their worries to God with thanksgiving. When we can do that, then we have found a sweet spot indeed, and our trust in the Lord is sustaining us through times when we might otherwise meltdown.

We will not get this right every time. Sometimes we will complain loudly and let God know exactly how unfair life seems. And that is OK as well.

But sometimes we will get it right.

When we trust God enough to be grateful even for the bad stuff—as it is happening, and not only with the benefit of hindsight—then we are getting very close to having found real joy.

 

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul wraps up this section with words that are very familiar to us, even though when he wrote them in his short letter to the Philippians no one else had ever quite put it that way before.

When we find our deepest meaning in Jesus, the human face of God …

When others find us to be gentle people …

When we can set aside our natural instinct to worry …

When we bring our troubles to God with thanksgiving …

Then the peace of God which passes all understanding guards our hearts and minds.

 

When our hearts and our minds are guarded by God’s peace, we have joy.

May the hope and the peace that we celebrated these past two Sundays in Advent, mean that this week we find real joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope, not fear

Advent Sunday
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 December 2018

[video]

Here we are on the threshold of a new year of witness and service.

It is Advent Sunday, and Christmas is just around the corner.

Between now and then we have an opportunity to reflect on the core spiritual values that shape our preparation for the Christ Child and our mission to this city and region.

Over each of the next few Sundays we will focus on these core values:

  • Hope
  • Peace
  • Joy
  • Love

They sound strangely familiar, and yet rather out of place in our contemporary world.

Hope! Our world and our nation seem hope-less at the present time. There is clearly a hope deficit. Trust is low. Fear is on the rise. More on that in a moment.

Peace? Words fail. Violence continues to tear apart families, villages, cities and nations. Camellia will guide our reflections on peace when we gather next Sunday.

Joy. The carols are playing on the muzak but road rage in the car parks at our shopping centres indicates that joy is often only skin deep, and below the surface we are angry and aggressive. Just try merging in the traffic leading to the Grafton bridge. What joy abounds. Not.

Love. ‘What the world needs now’ is sadly lacking in so many of our everyday transactions with one another. Yet this is to be the hallmark of those who follow Jesus. We are not called to be correct, but we are called to love one another, turn the other cheek, to help the needy, and to go the second mile.

 

HOPE

Our focus this morning is hope.

Hope is an attitude of the heart and it lies somewhere between wishful thinking and certainty.

It is not whistling in the dark to keep our fears at bay.

Nor is it a cocky self-confidence that acts as if we have the answers.

It is easy enough to list words that describe the absence of hope or the opposite of hope:

  • Confusion
  • Despair
  • Disbelief
  • Doubt
  • Fear
  • Hatred
  • Pessimism
  • Tiredness

There is no shortage of those things in our world, among our family and friends, in our neighbourhood, and in our workplaces.

As Jesus people we overturn those grim realities and Advent is a time to recall that we are first of all people of hope.

The readings set for today do not really help all that much. They tend to focus on the great reversal at the end of time, and perhaps even encourage us to derive some degree of hope from our perverted anticipation of how God is going to punish those who make us afraid for the future.

That is what apocalyptic literature is designed to do: raise the hopes of victims who are suffering from more powerful opponents. But that literature trades on violence and simply imagines ‘them’ getting a serious dose of what ‘they’ have been dishing out to ‘us’.

Apocalyptic texts offer spiritual steroids for critical moments, but not a long-term dietary supplement for a healthy life.

Such violent images of divine retribution are deadly when matched with spiritual or military power. Look how the violent apocalyptic images of Revelation turned into state violence against the Jews once the Christian religion gained access to imperial power.

We do not derive our hope from imagining the destruction of those with whom we disagree.

And we do not ‘sell’ hope to ourselves and our neighbours by spreading fear.

That is not the way of Jesus.

We proclaim hope, not fear.

We invite, rather than impose our values on others.

We create safe places to explore grace, rather than define the boundaries to keep people out.

Our doors are open. Our hearts are open. Our minds are open.

Such a mindset is the ground of hope: for us and for others.

We want to multiply hope, to see it spread beyond us to others. We want to see hope go viral. We do not seek to control it, define it, limit it, or restrict it. The more people who have some real hope the better our world will be: less fearful, more compassionate, more generous and less violent.

We don’t build walls in a hopeful world. Not in Palestine and not on the Mexico border. Those walls will fall; because they represent fear, not hope. As do the off-shore detention centres.

When God’s kingdom comes, as we ask each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, there will be no room for fear or violence.

When Mary sings the Magnificat on that day, we shall celebrate that the mighty have been cast down from their thrones and that the humble and meek have been raised up. But there will be no walls and no eternal detention centres. Even Hell itself will be empty. Its gates will be ripped off by the victorious Christ, and all its inmates will be freed.

And the church will no longer exploit the fear of death and judgment to coerce compliance with its views of how other people should live their lives. The forgiveness racket will be broken.

Imagine a world like that.

Imagine a church like that.

Such is the shape and the power of hope.

So today we ask God to nurture the seed of hope within us.

Let it grow and let hope transform our lives, our church, our community and our world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on stuffing envelopes

envelopes

As a child of active church people in the 1960s and then a young church leader in the 1970s, I have filled a lot of envelopes in my time and applied a vast number of address labels.

Yesterday I was at it again—preparing a mailout to the households that are connected in some way with Christ Church Cathedral in Grafton.

Very late in the evening, indeed while still filling the final few envelopes, I posted the image above to my personal Facebook page, with this comment:

Parish dynamics in one photo. The envelopes on the right are people who come often enough for me to know their names and predict they will be at church this Sunday. The other pile of envelopes is for people who come once a year or maybe once every two or three months. What is wrong with this picture?

That whimsical post was partly a statement of “look what I have been doing today” and partly an unformed theological reflection on the missional dynamics of serving as priest to a small church community in a regional Australian city.

That post triggered an unexpected set of reactions, with some people fixated by the small number of ‘regulars’ in the short stack, while others noted the familiar dynamics of a larger base of people with lower levels of participation relative to the small number of people who I could anticipate seeing in church on any Sunday of the year.

Well, not without some trepidation, let me revisit this seemingly innocent photo of two piles of envelopes. There are several sets of ministry dynamics that might usefully be pursued in relation to this data. I will address just a few as a stimulus for conversation in various contexts.

One aspect is that even ‘regulars’ in Australian churches now mostly come to worship just once a month. This is true also of Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations. It is one reason why I had such a small pile of envelopes for the “No need to post, I shall see them on Sunday” category. The sporadic nature of participation even by our core adherents is problematic as it undermines our cohesion, reduces the capacity for faith formation, limits the people available to assist with worship, and generally gives the impression of us being a much smaller community than we really are. It doubtless also has some financial impacts as few parishes that I know about still have a strong envelope system with recording of pledges and follow up of those who are behind.

[As it happens our “cash (non-pledge) offerings” are up along with the numbers coming to church each week, even though we have a systemic decline in the number of times each month when most individuals will be in church on a Sunday.]

Another aspect for my reflections is what kind of contact with people is welcome and appreciated these days? I encounter members of the congregation in all kinds of social settings around this small regional city of about 10,000 people. One of the privileges I have as Dean of Grafton is a civic profile that goes far beyond my role as Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. I am actively seeking to develop, foster and exploit that profile for the sake of the Cathedral and the special ministry we have as ‘cathedral’ in a small city whose very status as a city largely rests on the Cathedral being here.

For sure the majority of the envelopes represent older households, for whom social media is not a major point of connection. But there are other implications related to our age profile. Increasingly our events are scheduled to meet their needs, including not driving after sunset. Younger people—and families with work and school commitments—are excluded from the few events we still have, and we offer almost nothing that suits the schedule of persons who are not enjoying a healthy retirement.

Happily, about half of the envelopes—yes, really, about half of them—represent families with young children who have overcome all the obstacles we inadvertently put in their way to ask for their children to be baptised at the Cathedral. Increasing we can connect with them via social media, but until very recently the Cathedral did not collect email addresses. We do have that data for about a third of the 100 families with young children. Typically both parents work during the week. Weekends are for sport, family time, friends, home maintenance, etc. The missional challenge that I see here is how we equip parents to nurture faith and compassionate living in the family context, rather than seeking ways to lure them into our liturgies.

This catalogue of reflections does not even touch on the challenges of rebuilding our reputation in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, or our almost total disconnect with our community’s acceptance of gender diversity and marriage equality. I am so proud that our small Parish Council has taken a courageous and generous position on the blessing of civil marriages.

Nor does it touch on the impact of secularisation and a healthy disdain for pre-modern expressions of religion that simply fail to connect with our children and grandchildren, nor even with ourselves if we are honest.

Despite all these challenges and maybe because of them, I find parish ministry absorbing and challenging. It does not require me to set aside my knowledge and skills as a critical religion scholar, but rather to hone those skills for application to the practical context of parish life, liturgical preparation, and weekly preaching. These days it even includes the obligation to craft a short daily message that goes out every morning via the Cathedral app.

The small pile on the right are my biggest supporters and they want my ministry in this community to flourish and succeed. They are backing me in.

I am also grateful for the large pile.

It gives me the names of real people who have done the hard yards in years past and now are at a stage in their journey where they cannot be so active, even though many of them wish they could be still.

That large pile also reminds me that there are many more people in the local community who value their association with the Cathedral and may just be waiting for the right moment to reconnect.

Then there are the active grandparents who are often away from church several Sundays a month because they are investing time and energy into the nurture of their adult children and the growing band of grandchildren.

And about half of that big pile represents families here in Grafton who have young kids and have not given up on the Cathedral, even though we have not been very effective at supporting them in their critical mission as parents.

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The precious in-between time

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Admission of Children to Holy Communion
18 November 2018

 

In our first reading this morning we heard the opening scene of an ancient set of stories about Samuel, one of the great figures in the biblical narrative.

 

We will not go into the whole narrative in the live sermon, but for those reading the online version of this sermon the following graphic might be of interest.

Telling-stories-about-Samuel

In that table, I am mapping the stories about Samuel prior to the story of Saul, with which Samuel’s story overlaps. I am applying to the opening chapters of 1 Samuel a proposal by Old Testament scholar, Thomas Thompson, about one of the ways in which ancient Israel constructed complex stories by linking episodes of traditional material together like a chain.

[see Thompson, T. L. (1987). The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The literary formation of Genesis and Exodus 1–23(Vol. 55). Sheffield: JSOT Press.]

In brief, Thompson suggested these ‘chains’ often began with a set of three episodes that establish the basic direction of the story, indicate a problem or challenge, and hint at the final resolution. This opening triplet is then followed by a series of episodes which develop the story, before a final climactic episode in which everything is resolved in a manner that echoes the hints in the third of the opening episodes. While Thompson developed his proposal for Genesis and the first half of Exodus, I have found that this model can also be applied to many other narrative texts in the great ‘primary history’ of ancient Israel: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. It is way of ‘seeing the forest’ and not simply the trees.

 

This opening scene in the story of the prophet Samuel begins with a poignant personal situation.

A woman named Hannah (Anne) is married to a man named Elkannah, and she is having trouble conceiving her first child.

 

Again, as an aside for those reading this text rather than listening to the sermon, we need to note that Elkannah had two wives at the time. We note in passing that ‘biblical marriage’ rarely involved one man being married to one woman, and that there are many different forms of sexual relationships described in these ancient stories. But this text is not offering us a model for marriage. Its focus lies elsewhere.

Of course, in the nature of things, the other woman was not having any trouble producing several children for their shared husband. This is not just a meme from some TV soap opera, but is also a familiar motif in several OT narratives. For the ancient storytellers—and their audiences—such a detail in the story tells us nothing about the gynaecological health of the women. Rather, it is a ‘sign’ that God is at work, and that the child who will eventually be born to the woman who struggles to conceive naturally is going to be a very special person when he grows up.

Just as the ‘three bears’ into whose house Goldilocks stumbles is not a number but a plot scheme, so the barren woman is a set up so that the storyteller can proceed to tell us how God solved that little problem and brought this very special person into the world. So, back to the sermon …

 

There are a couple of unusual features of this story that we might note in passing before we focus on the main point I want us to consider today.

First of all, this is essentially a woman’s story. That is unusual in the Bible, where most of the stories are told about men and told by men.

Hannah’s story has been shared and remembered by women, no doubt surviving in the oral tradition.

Like the story of Ruth that we have listened to during the last couple of weeks, this story reminds us that women have always had their own perspective on the God story, and men mostly are unaware of it or else undervalue women’s perspective on life and faith.

Hannah not only tells her story but gets her name into the tale. Again, that makes her different from many of the women whose names were not remembered along with their stories. Hannah demands that we hear her story and that we know about her.

Secondly, this is not only a story about and by a woman, but it is about a matter that is central to female identity.

Yes, Hannah has a husband. But he plays a very minor role in the story. She is in charge of her fertility and he is depicted as surprisingly tender and supportive for a Middle Eastern patriarch. This is ‘herstory’, not his-story.

Again, issues of fertility and rivalry with other women rarely get named in church, even though they are a significant part of the lived experience of many women.

So this story of Hannah and her precious baby, Samuel, is unusual and we pay close attention to it for that reason.

Hannah wants a child.

Many people can relate to Hannah’s dilemma.

Increasingly couples in our society are struggling with fertility. All of us have friends who have wrestled with this demon and perhaps pursued IVF as one option to resolve it. Some of us here may have been down that road. We may even be ‘IVF babies’ ourselves.

There were no fertility clinics in Iron Age Palestine, so women went to holy places and holy people, seeking a solution. Indeed, they still do, as William Dalrymple records in his beautiful book, From the Holy Mountain (1997). One of the most poignant stories he tells is about the Muslim women from one region in Syria who come to an ancient Christian monastery to pray for the blessing of a child when they seem unable to conceive.

Hannah goes to the national shrine at Shiloh, a site not far from Jerusalem.

There is an old priest serving there.

Eli lacks critical pastoral skills, and perhaps should have been sent off for a Clinical Pastoral Education course. But he is wise enough to listen to the distressed woman he had mistaken as drunk and disorderly. In chapter three he will prove to be a wise mentor when Samuel needs some spiritual advice, but here he is dealing with a distressed woman. And a strong woman. And a woman with her own faith. She will not be turned aside.

So Eli sends Hannah home with a blessing. She falls pregnant. She gives birth to a baby boy, who she named ‘Samuel’, a Hebrew word with a vague pun on the idea that God listens.

 

Once again, for those reading the online text, the explanation of the name works better if the child is named, Shaul/Saul. Some scholars think that the birth legend of Saul has been hijacked by scribes who preferred Samuel the prophet over Saul the failed first king, but we can set that fascinating historical and textual morsel aside for now, and just go with the final version of the story as we have it in the Bible.

 

Picking a name for a child is a significant moment, and sometimes a long and complex process. Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment. Do we know why our own parents chose our name for us? Have we shared with our children the reasons why we chose the names they now have?

Faith at home can be built from sharing such simple yet profound stories.

Then Hannah does something we might not expect and would hopefully never choose to do ourselves. While praying in the temple she made a deal with God: give me a child and I will give him back to you.

This is not to suggest you might like to donate your children to the Cathedral! Even if that is a tempting option at times when the going gets tough. For those times we have CVAS and Mr Oates!

There is a deeper truth in this twist to the story.

Hannah senses that her child is a gift from God.

That is a simple and profound truth for us all.

Our children are gifts. We nurture and shape them, but they do not belong to us. They are bound to us and we to them, but we do not own them.

As parents we are preparing our children to leave—and to become all that God has in store for them; in addition, we are also preparing ourselves to let them go.

We have perhaps seen the tragedy of a person whose parents could never let them go, never let them become free agents living into their own destiny. With God’s grace we can avoid that mistake.

Finally, I want us to think about the in-between time for Hannah and Samuel.

Samuel’s birth will have been a unique and special moment for Hannah and her husband. It is for each us when we hold a newborn in our arms, and wonder what the future holds for this precious little person.

Sooner than any of us, Hannah lets Samuel go. He moves into the life to which he has been called by God and to which his mother releases him.

I am at that point right now with my youngest child, who has just finished her university studies and landed her dream job. It is a poignant moment. A moment of deep joy and hope for the future.

But what about the in-between time, the time between the birth of the child and the departure of the young adult?

During that in-between time we nurture, we love, we shape, we support, we educate and we empower our children so that they can become all that God offers them and all that we wish for them.

What we are doing here this morning is one step through that ‘in-between’ time.

As they claim their place at the Table of Jesus, we celebrate the journey they are making and we rededicate ourselves as parents, family, school and church to be there for them as they become the people God is calling them to be.

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A sure and certain hope

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
All Saints & All Souls
4 November 2018

 

[video]

At some time in the past twelve months almost everyone here this morning will have heard a priest say these words:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, you have given us a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. In your keeping are all those who have departed in Christ.

In my reflections this morning, I would like to tease out a little what we might mean by those familiar words.

For the most part, I suspect they are not matters we spend a lot of time considering. Our culture is so death-averse that conversations about dying and serious thinking about ‘resurrection’ are rare things.

But today death is on the agenda because we are here to remember loved ones who have died, and especially those who have died in the past year. These departed ones still matter to us. They continue to be part of who we are. We are shaped by their impact on us during their lives.

Like most humans throughout the 300,000+ years that our species has been on this planet, we find it impossible to believe that what emerges seemingly from nowhere simply ends up nowhere.

The fact that we exist is perhaps the greatest miracle of all, and it gives us ground to think that nothingness is not the final state. If it were, this world would most likely not exist even for a short 15 billion years!

The God who calls the universe into being has also called us into being, and God will continue to call us into life even on the other side of death. Such is the nature of God. She cannot help herself.

When we carefully examine the biblical texts, it is clear that this confidence took some time to develop. But for us as Christian people it has been crystallised at Easter. Our hope for the future is not derived from natural processes or philosophical reflection. It has a simple base that we rehearse in this and every Eucharist:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

We can reframe that statement of the core mystery of the faith so that it reads:

We all shall die.
We shall all be raised.
We shall all come again.

When we place ourselves inside the Christ experience, we acknowledge the reality of our deaths—but we also claim the truth that God’s loving purposes for us is not yet complete, and that in God’s keeping our continuity is assured.

We exist—and we shall continue to exist—because that is the essence of God’s character.

You may have noticed that I am choosing my words carefully here.

In the first place, we really do not have words for whatever it means to continue forever in God’s love on the other side of death. Our carefully crafted words are like the burning bush that caused Moses to go aside and see what this strange thing might be. We have to use words, but the words are never adequate to the task.

Secondly, most of the traditional Christian images for life after death no longer work for us. Let’s recall some of the most common images:

  • Up there … and perhaps even an ascension (or a rapture) to get us there
  • Pearly gates, and streets paved with gold
  • Paradise garden
  • Banquet that lasts forever
  • Large house with space for everyone
  • Never ending church service (!!!)

Interestingly, the second reading this morning offered us a very different image for renewed and reconstituted life on the other side of death and destruction.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; …

Rather than imagining a damaged and decaying world being left behind, John the Seer has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Life as we know it is renewed, not replaced with some ethereal spiritual existence outside of our bodies.

Such a vision is a renewal of creation rather than a shift to some other kind of reality.

Of course, this too is a metaphor, an image. But notice how this unfamiliar image works.

Rather than encourage us to discount the value of life in this world, this vision invites us to imagine our world renewed and something even more significant: God relocates from heaven to earth.

This world matters.

Our life here matters.

How we care for and sustain this world matters.

Even after our death, our future is inextricably linked with the future of this world.

Our future in the presence of God is not because we escape this world, but because God chooses to make this world—and our company—the place where God is to be found.

Yes, this is just another metaphor, another image.

But metaphors shape the way we see reality, and I hope this metaphor changes the way you think about our loved ones who have already gone before and also changes the way we think about how we choose to live here and now.

We do not treat the world as a single-use plastic bag, but as a precious thing called into existence by love, sustained every day by the love that pulses at the very heart of the universe, and beloved by God who chooses to become a part of this word: Emmanuel, God with us, God among us.

That is a truth to live by, on both sides of death. Emmanuel.

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