Capernaum’s child

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
23 September 2018

 

[video]

Mark the Gospel artist continues working with his palette this week.

He has crafted two powerful scenes, neither of which we have heard as we follow the cycle of readings set for us in the weekly lectionary.

In the first scene, we have Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, when Jesus lets those closest to him catch a glimpse of his divine glory.

It is an evocative episode, with echoes of a famous scene in the Old Testament where Moses spends so much time up the mountain with God that his face shines, and people are freaked out. In keeping with Mark’s theme that Jesus is not simply like Moses but greater than Moses, in this example the glory of God shines forth from Jesus himself. Indeed, in the story as Mark tells it, both Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus on top of a mountain.

Mark could hardly make it any clearer.

The God who was at work in Moses and Elijah is also at work in Jesus. Maybe even more so.

Then we have a second scene that seems designed almost to make us cringe. As they come back down from the mountain Jesus and the inner set of his followers find that the rest of the disciples have been trying—without success—to heal a sick boy. The failure of the disciples stands in marked contrast with the success, the power and the glory of Jesus. With one word from Jesus, the boy is made well and they move off before too big a crowd gathers.

Again, Mark could hardly it any clearer.

There is no stopping Jesus, but his disciples are lacklustre. Underwhelming.

Then we come to today’s Gospel passage.

We have three character sets as Mark develops his narrative.

 

First of all, there is Jesus.

Jesus is in a class of his own. We might describe him as “eyes wide open”, telling anyone who will listen—and even those who will not—that this project will cost him his life, but even death will not be the end of him.

He senses where his own faithfulness to God’s call on him will lead, and he does not flinch. At least that is how Mark portrays Jesus. One imagines it may have been a bit more complex than that, but we are listening to Mark’s way of telling the story.

 

Then we have the Twelve.

As the group has circled back to Capernaum, the Twelve have been keeping their distance from Jesus, it seems. They have been engaged in arguments with each other. No, they were not seeking to understand the significance of the Transfiguration nor to improve their clinical skills at casting out demons! Nor had they asked Jesus to explain what he meant by talking about his mission coming only at the cost of his own life. According to Mark, they were afraid to ask him!

As they reach the little stone house in Capernaum that Jesus has made his home base, Jesus is waiting for them. ‘So, guys, what were you arguing about back there on the road?’

Silence.

Embarrassment.

An awkward shuffling of the feet.

Eyes downcast.

They had been haggling over their personal status, which of them was more important and what was the pecking order within the band of disciples.

Maybe it started with the Nine wanting to know why the Three (Peter, James and John) had been invited up the mountain with Jesus? We can almost imagine the conversation: So why are you three guys so special? Who do you think you are anyway? Don’t forget how much each of us has given up to follow Jesus!

Jesus sat down and called them over to him.

“Listen up, guys! Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

 

Enter the third character set: a child.

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …

There was a child in the house where Jesus was staying.

There is a child in the story that Mark is telling.

The child has no name and we do not even know its gender. It was just a child.

That is exactly the point Mark is seeking to make.

Children were not highly regarded in the ancient world. Most of them died before reaching adulthood in any case, and they rarely feature in the stories about Jesus. Yet here Jesus takes a child and tells his followers to stop obsessing about themselves and to focus on the child.

It is always about the child, about the ‘little ones’ …

Sometimes the child is indeed an infant or a toddler. Sometimes the child is a school student. Sometimes the child is a vulnerable adult, unemployed perhaps, or homeless. Sometimes the child is a frail older person.

But the mission of God is always about the little ones, youth who are at risk, older folks who are being overlooked.

The mission of God is never about the status or the privilege of the church leaders, the clergy, members of Parish Council or the Dean of the Cathedral. It is always about the child. The little one.

Jesus saw past his own survival but his disciples could not see past their own privilege.

He takes a little child and places her in our midst. It is all about the children, he says. It is never about us.

We have seen what happens when the church overlooks that simple truth.

May we never forget the child who Jesus places on our midst.

As we treat the child, so we have treated Jesus.

 

 

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The turning point

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
16 September 2018

[video]

In today’s gospel reading we reach the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel.

I am not counting words, but describing the turning point in Mark’s overall story.

More on that shortly, but first and very briefly, let’s talk about the location of this episode.

 

Location

Mark sets this story right up in the far north corner of ancient Palestine.

Today we call the place Banias and 200 years before the time of Jesus it was known as Paneas, which gives us a clue to the significance of this piece of real estate.

We are on the southern slopes of Mt Hermon, the highest peak in the Lebanese mountains.  From a spring near the base of Mt Hermon flows a sparkling clean and extremely chilly stream, that will eventually become the Jordan River.

Mt Hermon appears often in the Old Testament, as it was believed to be the address of the gods. It was the local equivalent of Mt Olympus in Greece.

This is sacred turf and a large cave not far from the Hermon Stream was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. A temple to the Greek god, Pan, had been here for centuries prior to the time of Jesus. Hence it ancient and modern names: Paneas or Banias.

Herod the Great realised the political significance of this holy place, and erected a temple to Augustus at the entrance to the great cave. The Augusteum appears on coins minted by Herod’s son and partial successor, Philip. Philip went one better than Herod, renaming the site Caesarea Philippi, which means ‘the city Philip built for Caesar’!

In the time of Jesus this was the capital of the small kingdom ruled by Philip.

Perhaps even more importantly for Mark, this was also the seat of the surviving Jewish government led by King Agrippa II after the disaster of the Jewish-Roman War that saw Jerusalem captured and the temple destroyed. This is the same King Agrippa who appears in the Acts of the Apostles and meets St Paul.

Today when we take students and pilgrims to the site, we walk through the remains of Agrippa’s palace. Even after 2,000 years you can see the quality of the building and sense that no cost was spared.

The main street of ancient Caesarea Philippi directs people to the Augusteum in front of the Cave of Pan and the foot of Mt Hermon, the home of the gods.

This is a holy place.

This is a place of power.

 

The story so far

Up until this point in the Gospel, Jesus has been active in the north of the country: across Galilee, around the lake and even as far as the coastal areas near Tyre and Sidon. From this point onwards Jesus begins his journey south to Jerusalem, a journey from which he never returns.

Mark has been choosing the episodes to include in his story like an artist selecting colours and textures for a painting.

A lot of the time Mark makes Jesus seem like Moses 2.0.

At other times Mark makes Jesus look like Elijah 2.0.

It seems as if the ancient Bible stories are coming to life in front of their eyes!

Some people like what they see, and Jesus is attracting huge crowds everywhere that he goes. Other people are confused and hostile. Especially the leaders and the religious experts: the Pharisees and the Scribes.

Now comes the turning point in the story.

Jesus heads north with his closest followers and takes them to the villages around the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi.

They are in dangerous territory. The rich and powerful who live here destroy people like Jesus. Mark chooses his setting well. Jesus does not go inside the city that represents the highest levels of Jewish political power and the place of its ongoing compromise with the Roman Empire.

Jesus is an outsider to that world and he stays outside the city with its pagan gods.

But in that location, close to all the symbols of divine and human power, he asks his closest followers what they think of him.

Can he bring down this empire that seems so powerful and pervasive?

And how will he do it?

By force, or by seeming to be a victim of the system he has come to destroy?

No wonder Peter could not understand.

 

To be a disciple

How does someone follow a person like Jesus?

The answer may surprise, but it is highly relevant this morning as we baptise Lilly and as we welcome other children who are beginning their journey to the Eucharist.

Jesus does not ask people to sign up to a creed.

Jesus does not ask them to go through some ritual or make a pilgrimage.

Jesus does not ask them to hand over money for the church to use.

All of those things the church has done, but none of those things were done by Jesus.

He simply said: Come and follow me; do what I am doing, go where I am going.

The secret is how we choose to spend our lives.

Not looking after ourselves, but seeking to make the world a better place, a place more like God wants it to be.

Lilly starts that journey today.

Those of us who come to the Table of Jesus seek food for the same journey.

Make us like you, Jesus!

 

 

 

 

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Crumbs of compassion

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
9 September 2018

 

[video]

All three readings today revolve around the theme of practical religion.

  • Proverbs 22 promotes compassion and integrity
  • James 2 encourages generosity that pays no attention to the status of the other person
  • Mark 7 has a foreign woman giving Jesus a master class in compassion

In these ancient sacred texts, religion is about what we do rather than what we believe. And the doing which matters in these readings is not religious actions, but treating other people properly.

 

Let’s focus on the classic and surprising story from Mark’s gospel.

Jesus has gone to the coast for a break from his public routine. It seems that he wants some time off as he does not want people to know he is there. He has gone to the region around Tyre, a major city on the coast and, as it happens, the mint that supplied to the priests in Jerusalem with high-quality silver coins that every Jew coming to the Temple needed to purchase from the exchange booth, because ordinary coins were not acceptable to the priests.

Since Jesus would later cause an incident in the temple when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, I wonder whether this trip was entirely recreational or whether he had planned some kind of prophetic action at the imperial mint in Tyre. We shall never know, but whatever Jesus had planned for his few days by the coast were overturned by the persistence of a local woman with a sick daughter.

 

It is critical to this story to recognise that the woman was not Jewish. From the perspective of Jesus and his disciples, she was an outsider.

Prior to this point in Mark’s story, Jesus has broken numerous Jewish religious taboos and even treated the occasional outsider well. Remember the story of the demoniac and the pigs!

But this woman was not getting even a halfway decent response from Jesus:

Woman: I am begging you to cast the demon out of my daughter.

Jesus: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Woman: Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Jesus: For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.

 

We always need to remember that episodes in the Gospel are not there simply because they happened. If that were the case, out Gospels would be much longer documents!

These are selected stories. They have chosen and arranged to make a point. In Luke’s case, this story was left out because it did not fit the point he was seeking to make.

So we can assume that Mark chose to use this story because it addressed something that he felt his audience needed to hear.

Up until this point in the Gospel of Mark Jesus has been working mostly in Jewish communities, but in the middle chapters of the Gospel we see Jesus beginning to extend his focus beyond the Jews.

Indeed today’s reading is followed a second account of Jesus feeding a multitude, and this version happens out in pagan territory. In that story, the gentiles get more than crumbs as Jesus feeds them with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.

The transition from the feeding of 5,000 Jewish people to the feeding of 4,000 Gentile people involves this feisty mum with the sick daughter. Mark has chosen to tell the story this way. It is not simply an extract from Jesus’ travel itinerary. Mark wants his readers to get the point.

For Jesus and for his earliest followers such as Mark’s readers, crossing the boundary between Jew and Gentile was serious business.

It could be a hard step to make.

But in the end, it was about enlarging our imagination to embrace the idea that God cares about people who are different from us.

There were good religious grounds and no shortage of biblical texts to validate fear, discrimination and prejudice.

But compassion for a mum with a sick girl opened Jesus’ eyes. He saw things differently after that.

The woman did not argue about whether or not God still loved the Jews. She simply claimed a few crumbs of that eternal love for her daughter.

In doing that her girl was healed and Jesus was blessed as well.

The rest of the Gospel reading today describes Jesus going deeper into Gentile territory and not hesitating to heal a foreigner who came to him for help. In the episode that follows this healing of the man with a speech impediment, Jesus repeats the miracle of the loaves for a Gentile crowd.

 

May the courage of the feisty mum and the openness of Jesus to new insights, inspire us to ‘cross the double lines’ and go where God is calling us, rather than stay where God has been in the past.

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The secret of the grain that falls

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
The Martyrs of PNG
2 September 2018

[video]

In today’s Gospel—chosen for the festival of the PNG Martyrs—we have a classic piece of spiritual wisdom from Jesus:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25 NRSV)

This saying happens to be one of my favourite biblical texts. It has always touched me profoundly.

These words take us deep into the mystery of the truth that Jesus lived, and the truth that we are called to live as well.

To be a solitary and self-sufficient figure—even if we could do that, which mostly we cannot—is to be lonely and pointless. To survive at all costs, might mean that we die without any meaning to our existence at all.

The point of being alive is not to survive, but to serve.

This was a theme to which Jesus and his first followers returned time and again.

Here in John 12 the saying about the grain of wheat is followed by the aphorism about losing life in order to find it. Those who cling to their own existence, who prize it above all else, find that they lose what they most value. Those who dismiss their own importance and live for others, will find they have saved their own life and—in the process—fashioned a life that is worth having lived.

In the Synoptic tradition, Jesus calls on his followers to take up their cross. This metaphor does not refer to personal hardships, aching backs or broken hearts. It proclaims a terrible truth: that the path to life is only open to those who are willing to die for something bigger and greater than themselves.

In Philippians 2 we find an early Christian hymn that celebrates Jesus as the one who understands that true divinity is not about snatching power and grasping for privilege.

Each time we gather at the Table of Jesus this profound spiritual truth is acted out for us: the broken bread, the wine poured out, Jesus’ own life given to us, and through us to others.

It is not hard to see why the lectionary committee chose this passage for the feast of the PNG Martyrs, those seeds that fell into the rich soil of PNG and became a vast number of people claiming their own identity as people of God.

And here we are still in the shadow of the recent political upheavals, as people have snatched at power and privilege in our national parliament, seeking to have it all for themselves and those who think like they do. The wisdom of Jesus seems to find few ears that are willing to hear in the halls of power.

It was ever thus, of course.

Those who killed Jesus and those who demanded the death of the PNG martyrs, were powerful and privileged in their own contexts.

This counter-cultural wisdom that Jesus both lived and taught intersects with our local celebrations of Fathers’ Day here in this part of the world.

That wisdom is central to our aspirations as fathers and our expectations of our fathers.

The fathers we most admire, are men who understand this principle.

The fathers we most aspire to be, are men who live out this spiritual principle.

As it happens, I first became a father on this day in 1974. It was not Fathers’ Day that year, but my eldest daughter’s birthday and the feast of the PNG martyrs are forever tied together in my mind.

In our prayers today we shall remember the PNG martyrs but we also pray for the fathers in our community. We pray that God will grant wisdom and strength to every man who is a father to someone else: fathers and grandfathers, husbands and friends, brothers and uncles.

We are at our best as fathers when we forget our own needs for the sake of our children.

We are at our best as people of faith when we learn the secret of the grain that falls.

As a generous faith community in the heart of Grafton since 1842, we are at our best when we forget about our own survival and spend ourselves for the sake of others.

This morning as we come to the Table of Jesus to receive the life that he gives away for the sake of the world, let’s seek the grace to live for others and not for ourselves.

 

 

 

 

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Paul in his own words

As I prepare for a Dean’s Forum tomorrow with a focus on what we know about Paul the Apostle, this handout which has been prepared for participants might be of wider interest.

Rather than rely on the imaginative representation of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles—where the polemical missionary and composer of controversial letters on theological differences morphs into a more irenical figure with no mention of him ever writing a letter to anyone about anything—it seems best to rely on the occasional autobiographical comments made by Paul in those letters that are widely regarded as authentic.

The citations are all from the NRSV.

 

Paul in his own words

 

Romans 11:1–2 | A clear statement of his Jewish identity

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?

 

2 Corinthians 11:16–33 | A summary of his personal history and experiences

I repeat, let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence, I am saying not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool; since many boast according to human standards, I will also boast. For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves! For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!

But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

 

2 Corinthians 12:1–10 | An account of his own ecstatic religious experiences

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

 

Galatians 1:13–2:14| His encounter with the risen Jesus and his acceptance by the early leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us—we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles),and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

 

Philippians 3:4–6| Further details of his Jewish credentials

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

 

Philemon 1:8–16| Self-description as an old man and a prisoner

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

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Building strong families

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 12 (B)
12 August 2018

 

BuildingStrongFamilies

 

[video]

RMW-MMSPOS6RThe great lectionary diversion

As basic pattern, each year over a three-year cycle, we focus on the witness of one Gospel to Jesus:

Matthew in Year A
Mark in Year B
Luke in Year C

Mark is much shorter than Matthew and Luke, so round about this time we have a lectionary diversion as we spend a month in John 6. Right now we are at the mid-point of a 5 week series of readings from John 6.

For preachers, 5 weeks in John 6 can feel a bit like the 40 years in the wilderness. It just seems to go on forever.

There are many points of interest in these continuous excerpts from John 6, but not much that I feel drawn to preach about.

I might have preached from the Old Testament, but there we are in another series of readings as the lectionary walks us through the destructive dynamics of the Davidic dynasty. We have abuse of power, sexual abuse, assassination, rebellion, and murder. So much for the Bible teaching good family values!

There is always the NT reading, and sometimes I would choose that option. These five weeks could have been a good time for a sermon series on Ephesians!

However, today I want to reflect on some aspects of our life together as a faith community.

Bread from heaven?

Let me start, oddly enough, with the Gospel for today.

You will have noticed there was a tone of conflict in the passage we heard.

Jesus is portrayed by John as claiming to have come down from heaven, and also to have been around in the times of Abraham and Moses. Naturally, the religious leaders of the day find this to be some kind of weird mix: part nonsense, and part scandal.

For sure Jesus did not walk around telling people he was 2,000 years old, and then some. He does not do that in Mathew, Mark or Luke. It is a feature of John’s Gospel, and not a memory of how Jesus himself actually spoke.

Let’s leave aside for now the question of why John will have created this scene. Maybe we can look at this in a Dean’s Forum at some stage. For now, let me pick up the core idea at the heart of the passage: in Jesus we find a wisdom that transforms our life.

So the first question is whether we really believe that? Is this something we take seriously?

I am not asking if we take this bread of heaven language literally, but whether we take it seriously?

If we do take it seriously, then that means we actually believe that we have something of immense value for people’s lives. In Jesus, and in our faith more generally, we find the spiritual wisdom that we need to live as people of hope and compassion.

Is this wisdom some kind of secret knowledge we hope to keep for ourselves, or are we wanting to share it with anyone who might be interesting in knowing about it?

If we are wanting to share our faith and see more people joining us in the life of the church, then we are going to have to change how we do church.

Focus on families and children

One of the major changes we will need to make is to get the faith out, rather than trying to get the people in.

This is true for people of all ages, but it is especially so for families with children.

We are making ministry with families and children a major focus for our work in the next couple of years, and hopefully much longer.

As I say in this week’s bulletin, this can be done with a mix of gathered events and dispersed experiences, with the objective of increasing people’s involvement in personal religious practices and home-based spirituality.

In other words, if we can take the faith to them (using our digital technologies) then—in time—some of them will gather for occasional events to celebrate the things they have been learning and doing at home, and some of them will become more active in the life of the parish.

This will also require us to be genuinely inclusive and to modify our Sunday morning church services to be more accessible to people with very little background in the ways of the church. We have already made a start on this with the 9.00am service time, but will need to keep looking for ways to make our Sunday worship more

Providing resources for lifelong faith practices in the home and in people’s lives outside of church is a key element of this strategy. If we can develop religious practice in the home and help people to develop their own personal spiritual practices, then we become partners in their lives rather than an institution seeking their time, their energy, and their money.

The Cathedral website now provides links to selected resources to support parents in shaping the faith dimension of their families as well assisting them in the critical role of effective parenting.

building-strong-families

 

Conclusion

Making our “bread from heaven” available and relevant to people in their everyday busy lives is going to take time, wisdom and patience.

It will be the major focus of the Associate Priest (Children, Families and Youth) that we hope to appoint from January. But it starts now, because right now there are families and children and youth and adults and older people who need this “bread that comes down from heaven”.

We are starting right now with small baby steps, but with high hopes for the future.

Come with us on the journey, support us with your gifts and your prayers, and by making this Cathedral the friendliest and most welcoming place it can be.

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Abundance

Pentecost 10B
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
29 July 2018

Tabgha mosaic of fish and loaves, tb n011500

[video]

This week’s Gospel offers us one of the all-time favourite biblical stories about Jesus.

This story was so popular in the early church that we find it in all 4 gospels, while Mark and Matthew each tell the story twice!

This story is told six times across the four Gospels.

This miracle story resonates with something deep within the Christian heart.

It is especially remembered at the lakeside site of Tabgha, an ancient green spot on the western side of the Sea of Galilee where seven freshwater springs flow into the lake. Because this place stays green most of the year, in the Christian imagination it has become attached to the story of the feeding miracle.

You may recall that our Gospel today says there was a lot of grass in the place. In the earliest account of this miracle from Mark 6 there is a reference to the green grass of the location.

In 1932 a beautiful mosaic of the loaves and fishes was found in the ruins of a Byzantine Church whose existence had long been forgotten by the local people. That mosaic has become famous, and it features in altar ware as well as all kinds of religious souvenirs.

140709 Abu Ghosh Chalice

Of course, those of us who work on the archaeological site at Bethsaida will want to claim the honours for our own lakeside patch.

The reality is that competing for the location misses the point of the story.

 

Magic meals and the open table

Let’s back up a little and think more deeply about this much-loved story.

Jesus is remembered as someone who had an ‘open table’ at the very heart of his Jewish renewal movement. That renewal movement was centred on the immediacy of God’s active presence among us, an idea that was expressed in the distinctive phrase, kingdom of God.

As understood and practised by Jesus, the reign of God was expressed in various signs of renewed community among people, and especially among people who were overlooked by the powers that be; then and now.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the kingdom present among the people gathered around Jesus was the way that people shared meals, crossing social boundaries and discovering a new community of equals.

Yet when Jesus was gathering people for these remarkable and distinctive meals he worked no miracles and used no magic.

We know that, of course. But perhaps we have never thought about it.

As child, Jesus did not take over the kitchen and provide an endless supply of miraculous food for his mother.

When he accepted hospitality at the table of tax collectors and other social outcasts, Jesus did not provide supernatural nibbles.

When the disciples shared food with Jesus day after day as they travelled around Galilee they had to find their own supplies.

When Jesus was chatting with the Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples were in the village of Nablus fetching some food which they later urged Jesus to eat.

When he was arranging for his final meal with the disciples, Jesus had to book a room and send a couple of people ahead to organise the catering.

As a general rule, Jesus organised his food the same way as we do. He did not snap his fingers and invoke supernatural powers to organise the catering for his functions.

So what are we to make of this remarkable tale of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a handful of food?

 

Messianic abundance

Like the water turned into wine at Cana, the feeding of the multitude is a symbolic story, rather than a report of something that actually happened.

Like many of the parables, it is an exaggerated account. As is the miracle of the wine at Cana.

There is not just enough for everyone, but there are numerous baskets of scraps left over. In fact, there are more leftovers than Jesus started with.

Likewise at Cana: not only is there a huge quantity of wine (almost 700 litres), but it is the best wine they had ever tasted. The best had been kept to last.

Both these symbolic stories evoke the Jewish expectation of superabundance in the messianic kingdom at the end of time.

Jesus proclaims that God is generous, and calls us to be people of hope and generosity in response to that love.

As with the parable of the sower whose lazy farming techniques still resulted in an awesome harvest beyond all reasonable expectations, so the picnic lunch of a small boy can feed thousands of people and leave bucket loads of leftovers after everyone has had their fill.

The challenge for our Cathedral community is to choose hope rather than fear.

Sure the task ahead of us is immense. But we do not look around and ask “but what is that among so many?”

Rather, we take what we have. We offer it to God with thanksgiving and anticipation. We share what we have and give no thought to keeping back for ourselves in case there is not enough to go around.

When we act like that, we are eucharistic people. We are people of hope, people who know how to respond to God with thanksgiving.

We offer this city … hope.

We offer the families who bring their children for Baptism … hope.

Every time we gather for at the Table of Jesus we celebrate … hope.

 

So let us come to Table of Jesus with hope in our hearts and a determination to share the message of Jesus: God is amongst us and all will be well.

Come, take the bread and wine, as a sign of a sacred abundance that never runs short.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

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Capturing our characters

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 8(B)
15 July 2018

 

Sometimes it feels like we are drowning in words.

Words are everywhere, and especially so in church.

Big words. Rare words. Fancy words. Lots of words.

As it happens I like words. I am someone who finds it fairly easy to write essays, reports and sermons. I enjoy playing with words and even learning new languages.

But even for me there are sometimes too many words.

This past week I was required to craft a really tight statement to describe the kind of church community we seeking to fashion here at the Cathedral. We need this for the mobile app we are developing for the Cathedral, and it must be brief.

At first it did not seem too hard: 140 words. Too easy.

But then I realised the specification said: 140 characters. Maximum!

Ouch! 140 characters? That is not even a paragraph and barely a sentence.

It took a while to choose the right words to describe this place without going over that limit. I think we got there in the end and it was good to have a few friends on Facebook help me with suggestions.

While all that was happening, in the back of my mind I was aware of the service here this morning.

Apart from the obvious challenge of choosing my words carefully and having as few of them as possible, it strikes me there are some other parallels between me crafting that extremely brief community descriptor and the role of parents and godparents.

Having a strong sense of what we are about is a good starting point. But we need more.

The arrival of a baby makes us a deeply aware of the mystery of life. We do not get all the answers to the meaning of life in the baby care package, and there is no injection to add the missing wisdom, but as we hold a newborn in our arms we do sense that there is more to life than routine tasks.

A new life opens our eyes to the mystery we sometimes fail to notice when we are so busy.

This Cathedral is a bit like that at times as well.

Just by being here in the heart of Grafton it invites us to remember that there is more to life than work, mortgages, shopping, stuff, and things.

It reminds us about love, about life, about the depth dimension to life, and about the meaning of it all.

Again, no glib easy answers. But a reminder to pause and be mindful of … Life.

In among all the busy-ness of being family and raising kids, we need to pause and be mindful.

That is one good reason to be here in this Cathedral this morning. We are pausing our normal routine and reminding ourselves of the deep meaning of life.

We need to teach Ruby and Alexander how to pause, how to catch their breath and how to sense the deeper dimensions of life.

We do that best when we are families that make time for each other, time for God, and time for other people.

And it does not need lots of words.

In fact, learning just to sit quietly and think about what is happening in our lives is often all we need.

And the Cathedral—your Cathedral—is designed to be a good place for pausing, thinking, remembering and being mindful.

Aware of what is happening within us,
aware of other people in our lives,
and aware of God’s love that is always there;
like the air we breathe.

So back to that challenge I faced this week.

How can I describe this Cathedral community in 140 characters?

When you download the Cathedral app in a few weeks time you can judge whether I got it right (or see below), but as parents, godparents and grandparents we have a similar challenge every day.

How are we going to communicate with Ruby and with Alexander just how wonderful it is to be alive?

How are we going to help them become people who pause, appreciate, reflect and connect?

And how can we do it without lots of words?

We do it by our own example!

And for that we need each other as well as the wisdom that comes from God.


For those wishing to read the final version of the 140 character statement:

a generous faith community
centred on Jesus
seeking wisdom for life
acting with compassion
in the heart of Grafton
since 1842

 

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Not without honour

Pentecost 7B
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
8 July 2018
[video]

In this week’s gospel passage Jesus goes home to Nazareth.

This is another episode in Mark’s series as he sketches a Jesus who confronts, annoys, excites and irritates both his opponents and his supporters.

This time it is the hometown crowd, and there is no tougher gig.

Luke will develop this simple story from Mark 6 into a classic scene of confrontation, culminating with an attempt to murder Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Like the non-existent cliff above which Luke imagines Nazareth to sit like an oriental Athens, that scene is a figment of Luke’s imagination, but he was working with the seed of a memory preserved in the opening paragraph of Mark 6.

As a historian this is one of my favourite passages. It offers a glimpse behind the public success of Jesus, and it hints at a private tragedy. The people who knew him best did not find him all that awesome.

Think about that for a moment.

Jesus failed at home.

His own village people were not supportive of his mission. Not even his family as we saw a few weeks ago in Mark 3.

In this fascinating episode we find Jesus reflecting on the dynamics of the hometown crowd:

Prophets are not without honor:
except in their hometown,
and among their own kin,
and in their own house …

Ouch!

Not just the village, but the wider family and the folks at home. Nobody gets it!

This saying is attested across all the early gospels, and it reflects a truth known to Jesus, to his first followers and to us as well.

What was true of Jesus is true of us as a faith community, indeed a Cathedral, here in this city.

The biggest challenge for us may be to get local people here in our community to take us seriously.

They think they know us so well and they expect we have nothing special to say to them.

They know our failures and our scandals.

Some of them are people we have hurt, or ignored, or turned away when they reached out to us. Maybe we sold their family church to pay a compensation claim, or to raise funds to pay our bills?

The surprising thing may be that so many of them still feel so positively about us, even if they see little need to join us for worship on Sunday morning.

So how do we sing the Lord’s song in the ‘strange land’ of our own village?

Let me offer three suggestions, very briefly, that we can explore and unpack in the weeks and months ahead:

Plain talking
Open doors
Stay connected

In one sense this is my mission strategy for the next few years that I am privileged to be here as your priest. Let me take just the first of those three suggestions and unpack it a little now. I can come back to the others at a later time.

Plain talking

As Anglicans and as a Cathedral we have a tendency to wrap our ideas up in fancy talk.

Over the past 2,000 years we have developed a special language for talking about faith and the things that matter most to us. In some cases those terms were fashioned in moments of great controversy and we have persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, and murdered each other over their proper meaning.

Our God-talk and our church-talk do not make much sense to people outside the inner circles of the church, and we see this very clearly when we have visitors here for a baptism or some other special event.

What we do and how we talk about it simply makes less and less sense to more and more people.

As much as we can, the words we use in church need to state clearly, directly and simply what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Please have a look at the front page of this week’s bulletin. There you will see one example of me trying to find fresh and direct words to describe why we are in here this morning:

In worship we acknowledge the divine love which brought our universe into being and came among us in the historical person of Jesus. We seek spiritual wisdom to be a generous faith community centred around the person and teachings of Jesus, open to new insights from the natural and social sciences, and engaged with the wider community in compassionate action for the common good.

Those are the reasons I got out of bed and came here this morning. Those are the reasons I choose not to take my pension cheque last year and retire to play with my coin research.

What about you?

How do you explain being here to your partner, or your children?

What does what we do here mean to you, and how do we express that to the people we care about most?

How do we share our faith with the people who know us best?

We do not have to get it right, and we mostly won’t.

But Jesus could not find the words to explain himself to his own people either.

All the same, notice that Jesus mostly ignored traditional religious talk and religious practices. As we have seen repeatedly in these past few weeks as we read through Mark’s Gospel, Jesus broke the rules, upset the religious people, and spoke to people in fresh ways that started in everyday life rather than in the Bible or with some ritual.

Most importantly, he had a vision of God actively engaged in everyday life (he called it the kingdom of God) and he was especially concerned for the people at the edges of his community: the homeless, the broken ones, the sick, the hungry, and the poor.

We cannot and will not bring everyone with us, but we can resolve to talk about God in plain language, to affirm that in Jesus we find the wisdom God wants us to have for authentic lives, and a focus on sharing that spiritual wisdom with the people who already see their need for ‘something more’ in their lives.

May God help us to do exactly that.

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The book that disrupts

woman-with-an-issue-of-blood-howard-lyon
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
1 July 2018

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We are now about halfway through our series of Marking Jesus, as we pay attention to the way that the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as a figure of controversy.

Like Jesus, the Bible itself often confronts us with a fresh perspective on our long-held assumptions, as it invites us—perhaps even demands—that we move beyond our comfort zones into the new space to which God is calling us.

My preparation for this sermon started well over a week ago as I needed to draft the text for the front page of the bulletin before Roger went on sick leave. Even then this simple Sunday School story of Jesus being kind to two people—an older woman and a young girl— was drawing me into a different space, as I heard those stories in the context of violence against women.

Then a friend asked my advice about the nature of the love between David and Jonathan that we read about in the first reading today.

Bit by bit I was being drawn into deeper theological reflections about issues that really matter to everyday people in our city. I was being pushed beyond the Sunday School stories to reflect on the deeper significance of these stories for us here and now.

As my thoughts took shape I published them so others could reflect on these issues, if they wished to do that.

More on each of those stories shortly, but first a brief reflection on the ways that we use Scripture in the life of the church.

 

Using the Bible faithfully

All Christians use the Bible, although some think that calling themselves a ‘Bible-based’ church or describing their beliefs as ‘biblically based’ somehow makes them different to and better from other groups of Christians. I am sure God is tired of these games that some Christians like to play. I certainly am!

Every Christian takes the Bible seriously, even if it is good to remember that there are several different definitions of what constitutes the Bible. An Anglican Bible is not the same as a Baptist Bible, for example. We might look at that issue in a Dean’s Forum later this year.

Despite some differences about what books to include in the Bible, all Christian communities take the Bible very seriously. It shapes our lives and provides us with the language we need to explore and express our faith.

It may be helpful if I outline briefly my personal way of making faithful use of the Bible, and especially in the context of our worship.

First of all, I try always to follow the lectionary. This means that I am choosing to follow the mind of the great church rather than choose texts that reflect and reinforce my personal preferences. The lectionary is an ecumenical project, so that means the texts we are dealing with are also being read in other local church communities at the same time: Catholic, Lutheran, Uniting, etc.

Secondly, I try to focus on the forest and not count the trees. Good Bible teaching is not about amassing huge amounts of Bible trivia, but about learning to read Scripture soundly in the search for spiritual insight. We are seeking wisdom for holy living.

Thirdly, I pay attention to our own context as readers. As a historian, I could keep you entertained for hours with (hopefully) fascinating information about the biblical world, but my calling is to connect the sacred texts with our everyday lives here and now. I need constantly to be asking myself: What counts as good news for my community—and for me—in these ancient words?

Finally, I expect the Bible to disturb our usual way of thinking. This is a prophetic text, after all, and the prophets—like Jesus hismelf—confronted, challenged and disturbed their listeners. The Bible does not simply reinforce our settled opinions, not even those found in the creeds and confessions of the churches. Rather, the Bible is a sacrament of continual reformation as the Church listens afresh to hear what the Spirit has to teach us. When we domesticate the Bible and limit its meaning to what we already believe and know, then we fail to use the Bible faithfully.

 

Disturbing readings

As already hinted, the readings this week seem such nice tales and yet they invite us to think afresh about important aspects of everyday life.

These readings invite us to notice how gender shapes our lives, and at times becomes the basis for violence and discrimination.

Due to time constraints, let me focus on the Gospel passage.

As I said in my notes on the front page of the bulletin, most of us are not surprised that Jesus would respond to a request that he visit a sick girl, or that he would heal an older woman on his way to see the girl. We are not even surprised that he kept going to see the little girl even after he got word that she had already died.

We respond to these stories from our cultural context where women are (mostly) assumed to be equal with men, and from our post-Easter faith perspective.

For the contemporaries of Jesus and for the readers of Mark’s Gospel, things were very different. As they still are for Orthodox Jews today, who refuse to sit next to a woman: whether that be on a park bench or in an aeroplane.

Jewish gender boundaries were clear and rigid in the time of Jesus.

Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus included women and girls in the community that gathered around him, and he was accompanied by at least a few women as he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem. How the tongues must have wagged.

For a woman whose periods lasted 12 years and not just a few days each month, to be welcomed into the circle around Jesus was an act of amazing grace indeed. Think of all the places and groups from which she would have been excluded during those twelve years. No wonder she just crept up and ‘touched the hem’ of Jesus’ robe! Even to be there in the street was breaking the rules.

How does the good news of Jesus transgress gender boundaries in our own day?

When a young woman is raped and murdered on her way home from work in Melbourne, and another is raped and assaulted while being driven between here and Armidale, while a young girl is kidnapped at knife point and sexually assaulted in Newcastle … when a 16 year old girl near Brisbane  is killed and her body placed in a drum … what does the Gospel mean to these women and their families?

We have come a long way in tearing down the boundaries that people have erected on the basis of gender, but there remains significant work to be completed.

As church we need to be a safe and nurturing place for women and girls.

As church we need to be active in our community so that Grafton is a safe place for women.

God’s love knows no bounds, and neither can our commitment to justice and equality.

There is much more to say about our texts today, but maybe this is the heart of what the Spirit is saying to the church—to our church—in these familiar stories?

 

 

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