Good news for some

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecosts (C)
27 October 2019

[ video ]

rich-young-ruler

That gospel reading has two episodes, and in each of them people are coming to Jesus with hopes of finding some spiritual blessing; either for their children or some piece of wisdom for themselves as adults.

In neither case do things go as expected.

For the people bringing infants to Jesus for him to touch, the minders—better known to us as ‘the disciples’—were refusing them access to the Master. That is a story to unpack someday when we have the time needed to make sense of it in a world that was very different from our own; a world where children were not valued or appreciated as they are in our culture now.

Suffice to note that Jesus challenged and overturned the attitudes of the disciples.

To be ready for the reign of God, says Jesus, we must be child-like.

There is a lot in that to explore some other time.

 

Then we get story #2, and it is a well-known story.

We probably know it as the “rich young ruler”, but that title already mashes together three different versions of the same incident in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Mark provides the earliest version. Here the key character is a man who has lots of possessions and is seeking advice from Jesus about what he must do to be sure of eternal life. This fellow is neither young nor a ruler. Very few people ever get to combine those two attributes, of course.

Matthew edits Mark’s version to remove some theological issues and, in the process, the rich person becomes a ‘young man’. He is still not a ruler, but he is a very pious Jew seeking spiritual advice from Jesus.

Some decades later, Luke makes his own set of edits to Mark’s version of the story. Luke does not follow the same line as Matthew, but he upgrades the asset portfolio of the gentleman and he also turns the rich man into a ruler. In this version, as in Mark, the rich man is an older person.

So we are dealing with a story that was well-known but which each of the three gospels chose to tweak in its own way. Later on, the church mashed all three versions into the meme of a ‘rich young ruler’, but the core issue about this person is that he is very rich.

Each of the gospels uses this episode as a lesson in discipleship, and all of them link the story with an odd saying about a camel not being able to pass through the eye of a needle.

For Luke—our key Gospel for this year—this episode occurs in chapter 18; very close to the end of the extended ‘long march’ which Luke created by devoting almost half of his storyline to Jesus making his one and only adult journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus has almost reached his destination (see next chapter) when he is approached by this wealthy ruler seeking spiritual advice.

Like the parents who brought their children to Jesus, the visit does not go as Mr Money Bags might have expected.

In fact, it ends in tears.

Maybe not actual tears, but disappointment and confusion all around.

The rich ruler walks away from Jesus. He has not found a wisdom that he is willing to embrace, and Jesus has missed out on a wealthy new member of the movement. They probably could have used his offering envelopes!

The disciples had been saying: No room for children in the Jesus movement.

But Jesus seems to say: No room for rich people in my movement.

No prosperity gospel here, and no special favours for rich and powerful supporters. This, guy—as Luke tells the story—was both exceedingly rich and a ruler. He could have been rather handy on the team.

Jesus does not promise that people who follow his wisdom will become rich (or happy or powerful or healthy), but rather the opposite. Those who want to be his followers must become poor, relocate to the edges of society, and lose all their social connections.

Tough words indeed.

Very few people in history have been able to embrace that message. But some have: Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Theresa … to name just a handful.

The disciples are shocked.

In their minds, rich people with influence have a much better chance of pleasing God than ordinary folks like them But Jesus has just turned their world upside down. It seems they had not been watching very closely during the previous few months.

Mind you, the church has not been very good at listening either during the past 2,000 years. We love influence. And we enjoy privilege. We accumulate wealth, property, assets. Indeed, we have sometimes loved those things more than the little children, as the recent Royal Commission has demonstrated so grimly.

Jesus doubles down on his message.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s empire.

He seems to be quoting an ancient Middle Eastern axiom, and perhaps it originally said ‘camel (rope)’, but over time the axiom has been exaggerated to make it even more compelling. It is not just that one cannot thread a needle with rope made from camel hair, but it would be easier to thread the whole camel through the needle than get a rich person into the kingdom of God.

No wonder the disciples are confused …

 

This is classic Jesus, the verbal poet with an ear for a great turn of phrase.

This is the same person who told people to rip out their eye or cut off their own hand if those body parts cause them to sin.

Hyperbole was one of Jesus’ favourite tools, and we certainly seem to have it in action here.

Infants are welcome, rich rulers can go to the end of the line.

Now that is good news for some, but not do for others.

It is good news for the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the refugees, the people whose lands will soon disappear under rising sea levels, and everyone who the powerful and privileged people overlook.

It is not good news for those of us who are comfortable and privileged.

Yet Luke was writing his account of Jesus for the successful people in the second-century Roman world. He wants the rich rulers to hear the good news that Jesus both proclaims and lives.

And we need to hear that good news as well.

If we have wealth or privilege or status, then that is to be spent for the sake of others. It is not to be hoarded and protected as if it somehow gives us a cosmic superannuation fund for the future.

For the rich ruler ‘giving away all that he had’ sounded like a punishment, rather than an opportunity to share the blessings around.

Yet a core spiritual principle of our faith is that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ (or we might say to share rather than to hoard).

Maybe the rich ruler realised that, at some stage, and came back to Jesus ready to share all that he had with those who had so little. I like to think so.

It would be his only hope of redemption and it may be ours as well.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 2 Comments

Two people walked into Grafton Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 19(C)
20 October 2019

pharisee-and-publican

 

[ video ]

Today’s Gospel presents two views of religion.

It is a great little story by Jesus because it captures the big story in just a few words.

Let’s tell it again in local terms …

 

Two people head into Grafton Cathedral.

They were both going to pray. Maybe to light a candle, or perhaps just to sit quietly and absorb the holiness of the place.

Then again, perhaps they had come for a baptism service … ?

 

One of them is very comfortable in the Cathedral. Knows just when to stand, sit, kneel and cross themselves.

They even know that the green book has the words of the service, while the red book has the songs.

Their name is on the roster: they welcome people to the Cathedral, they read from the Bible during the services, they say the prayers, they wear red robes and carry candles, or crosses or even incense. Maybe they clean the Cathedral or arrange morning tea after the services.

They probably volunteer in the OpShop and they work in the Bookshop.

They know this place so well.

They are respectable.

Everyone here knows them and they are very comfortable here.

 

The other person does not come into the Cathedral very often.

They are not sure what to do, or where to stand. Should they kneel? Are they supposed to sit? Take off their hat?

Maybe if they just stand in the back corner it will be OK?

Yet they always feel good when they come in here. Probably should do it more often. Maybe even come to church sometimes on a Sunday, but they are busy with family stuff on the weekend …

They hope the other person over there in the nice clothes does not think they are here to steal anything …

It is just that the Cathedral is such a special place for them, and they like to pop in briefly when they get the chance. Have been doing it ever since they were kids here in Grafton.

Those big doors just always seem to be open: come inside. You’re welcome here. God loves you. So do we.

Kind of makes them feel closer to God, which they know is silly because God is everywhere, but this is a special place and kind of feels like a gateway to heaven.

Once upon a time they had been baptised here. Over there in the corner. In the funny shell held by the angel. Not that they remember it, but they have seen the photos. And the baptism card. and the odd little candle.

Been to a few funerals here as well. Love the whiff of incense when they come into the Cathedral after there has been a funeral. God’s room freshener, they reckon.

“Hi, God. It’s been a while. Sorry not to come more often. I’m OK, thanks. Appreciate you caring about me. Sorry about the way I messed up last week. Sure wish I had not done that. I will come back soon. Promise.”

 

Now, why did Jesus tell that story?

Because some people thought they were doing just fine, and looked down their noses at some of the other people who did not come as often, or did not look so respectable.

And which kind of person does God like to spend time with?

The second person. They’re God’s kind of people.

They are not especially religious, but they have no tickets on themselves and they really do want to live their life in a way that pleases God and does the right thing by other people.

 

The prophet Jeremiah, about 600 years before the time of Jesus, said that people like them have the law of God written inside their hearts.

They do not need other people telling them how to love, they just need to follow the nudge that comes from God inside them.

 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with coming to church so often that you get to learn the ropes.

What matters is that you are honest with God, pop in here from time to time or chat with God outside. There is no place you can ever be where God is absent.

And that, my friends, is what we need to teach Chase who we are about to baptise.

Teach him to be real with God. And bring him here to this place so it becomes his special holy place as he grows up.

 

Let’s go baptise the boy …

 

 

 

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Scripture trumps Constitution​

Given continuing debates around the Anglican Church of Australia and elsewhere about the status of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and the Articles of Religion (commonly called “The Thirty-Nine Articles”) of 1571, it may be timely to publish the brief speech I gave to the 2019 Synod of the Diocese of Grafton in response to the following motion:

 

MOTION 27: STANDARD OF WORSHIP AND DOCTRINE
That this Synod affirms the authorised standard of worship and doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia as set out in the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution.

The constitution referenced in the motion is the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, and the particular clauses of the constitution seeking to be affirmed by those supporting the proposed motion appear to have been the following:

(2) This Church receives all the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation.

(4) This Church, being derived from the Church of England, retains and approves the doctrine and principles of the Church of England embodied in the Book of Common Prayer together with the Form and Manner of Making Ordaining and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons and in the Articles of Religion sometimes called the Thirty-nine Articles but has plenary authority at its own discretion to make statements as to the faith ritual ceremonial or discipline of this Church and to order its forms of worship and rules of discipline and to alter or revise such statements, forms and rules, provided that all such statements, forms, rules or alteration or revision thereof are consistent with the Fundamental Declarations contained herein and are made as prescribed by this Constitution. Provided, and it is hereby further declared, that the above-named Book of Common Prayer, together with the Thirty-nine Articles, be regarded as the authorised standard of worship and doctrine in this Church, and no alteration in or permitted variations from the services or Articles therein contained shall contravene any principle of doctrine or worship laid down in such standard.

Not only were clauses 1 and 3 of no particular interest to those supporting this motion, but they explicitly claimed that clause 2 took precedence over both clause 1 and clause 3.

While the motion referred to the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution, it was actually adherence to the Ruling Principles which they wished to promote.

Affirming the first three clauses—which the Constitution itself identified as the Fundamental Declarations of the Anglican Church of Australia—would not have served their intention, which is simply to limit the worship practices and the doctrines of the Anglican Church of Australia to those which were developed in the Church of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This is an especially odd position for the Australian Anglican Church to adopt, since neither the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 nor the Articles of Religion have that same status within the Church of England today. Nor do they have any status at all in some other provinces of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church of Scotland and the Episcopal Church (USA).

Adherence to the doctrine and liturgies of the late-1600s and mid-1700s—at which times we were literally killing each other over differences in faith and practice—is not an essential attribute of Anglicanism, but it is a requirement for ministers and other office-bearers of the Anglican Church of Australia.

In other words, the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia is a flawed document that reflects the theological factions who dominated the process when the Constitution was drafted and adopted.

All of that was too much information for a brief two-minute speech under the Standing Orders of the Synod of the Diocese of Grafton, so my speech was crafted to tease out the essential issues and urge Synod to reject this motion.

As a footnote, the motion was overwhelmingly rejected by the Synod, and even many of those who supported the motion say they did so only because they could not bring themselves to vote aganst a motion which purported to uphold the Constitution.

Of course, the motion was not about upholding the Constitution but rather was a tactical move seeking to align the Diocese of Grafton with the extremely conservative views promoted by the Diocese of Sydney and its allies. A similar motion had been brought to the previous session of Grafton Synod and also rejected.

This is part of an on-going culture war in contemporary western society, and within the religious campaign of that ‘war’ the focus is on sexuality; particularly marriage equality and non-binary understandings of gender. The battle continues in the wider domain with demands from the same groups for special legislation to ‘protect’ them from religious persecution and to allow them to discriminate against other people on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation or marital status.

My brief speech to the Synod was as follows:

Mr President, I rise to oppose this motion.

After more than 40 years of ordained ministry in the Anglican Church of Australia, I have repeatedly affirmed the Constitution of our Church including the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles.

These are not paragraphs which we have any option to amend at this point in time.

This motion, therefore, makes as much sense as our Synod being asked to declare that sun will rise tomorrow morning.

Whether we say so or not, the sun will rise tomorrow.

Whether we pass this motion or not the Ruling Principles will remain in place.

Until our General Synod agrees to re-establish itself with a new constitution, there is nothing we can do about the Fundamental Declarations. They remain in place. They define the boundaries within which we seek to live faithfully and generously as one church.

However, there is a deep problem with the existing Ruling Principles, as set out in paragraph four of the Constitution.

As this motion reminds us, those Ruling Principles elevate the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and The Articles of Religion as the standard for worship and doctrine.

Not the Bible!

In other words, those who promote this motion ask us to affirm that Scripture has less influence in our church than the BCP and the so-called Thirty-Nine Articles.

As a Reformation Christian, I find that to be a faulty view of authority.

It is a mistake.

One day—hopefully soon—our Church will replace the Fundamental Declarations and the Ruling Principles with provisions that better reflect the authority of Scripture in our Church and the diversity of worship and doctrine across the Anglican Communion.

As someone who takes the Bible seriously, I look forward to the day when the Ruling Principles are replaced. Until then, as duty bound, I submit to these inadequate words and reserve the right to advocate for their replacement.

And I look forward to the sun rising in the morning.

Posted in Reflections, Theology | 2 Comments

Faithful responses to climate change

 

In the last couple of days, there has been some controversy around the comments made by the Principal of the Coffs Harbour Christian Community School in a newsletter distributed last Friday, the last day of term three.

You can read the comments of the CHCCS Principal by downloading their newsletter from the school website.

Coffs Harbour Christian Community School was founded by—and continues to be operated as an activity of—the Coffs Harbour Baptist Church.

I became aware of this controversy when I was contacted by the Coffs Harbour ABC radio station with a request that I comment on the CHCCS Principal’s message in last week’s school newsletter.

My concerns fall under three categories.

 

Intellectual Rigour

My first concern is that the Principal seems to think that his views on climate change carry more weight than the collective research undertaken by thousands of independent scientists whose work is reviewed and assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Such an attitude would be a deep concern in any context but is especially troubling when it is promoted by someone who leads an educational institution. Schools are essentially places of learning. Wilful ignorance—whether in the form of so-called ‘creation science’, anti-vaxer campaigns or climate change denial—has no place in schools.

We need to be teaching children to think for themselves and navigate competing truth claims, rather than distract them from the best science currently available to serve some other agenda.

 

Religious fundamentalism

In this case, the CHCCS Principal appeals to the ancient myth of a giant flood, which he describes as “the first, and only, complete catastrophic climate change”. Apart from the stunning ignorance in such a claim, this is a naive approach to the Bible which reflects the biblical fundamentalism promoted by the school’s own Statement of Belief. This statement can be found on the back page of the School’s Prospectus, but—oddly—is not easily accessed from the school website.

Such an approach to the Bible ignores and demonises more than 200 years of critical biblical scholarship. CHCCS and their local Baptist owners are not unique in holding such views. Indeed their form of Christian fundamentalism has a lot in common with other forms of religious extremism which reject the insights flowing from the natural and social sciences, while appealing to ancient traditions with no intellectual credibility. Needless to say, such religious communities and their institutions, neither prepare people for the modern world nor offer safe places for gender-diverse persons. Like all forms of fundamentalism, Christians who espouse such views promote toxic forms of religion and do not represent the best spiritual wisdom of the Christian faith.

 

Vilification and abuse

The intellectual and religious objections to the views expressed in the recent newsletter from CHCCS are significant, but the final objection is perhaps even more important.

While appealing to an indefensible reading of Scripture to support his rejection of the best currently available climate science, the Principal of CHCCS went to an even darker place. Not content to ignore science and twist the biblical texts, he launched an attack on the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, as a “little girl with self declared (sic) various emotional and mental problems”.

This is unconscionable and especially so for an educational leader with a professional obligation to protect vulnerable children. Neither her small stature, her age nor her mental health are appropriate targets for such an attack by a powerful male figure. What message does it send to young children in CHCCS or in the wider community, let alone anyone living with physical disabilities or mental health issues? And all this while ingenuously claiming to be concerned about unnecessary anxiety among his students and other persons connected with the school.

 

Happily, another religious school operating in Coffs Harbour offers an example of a ‘more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Bishop Druitt College is a large Anglican school based in Coffs Harbour and serving the same region as Coffs Harbour Christian Community School. BDC encouraged students to participate in the recent school strikes for climate action. More than that, they also provided buses to transport students to and from the rally.

More recently, the Principal of BDC has issued a statement on the school’s Facebook page about the approach which his school takes on the climate change issues. I will quote just the final couple of sentences from that statement:

At Bishop Druitt College, we applaud Greta’s integrity, courage and her sense of social justice. It should also be noted that these three values are part of our set of college values.

This coming Sunday at Grafton Cathedral we will be hosting a seminar on faith-based responses to climate change, presented by the Revd Peter Moore. The seminar is open to the public and free of charge. No need to be anxious about climate change, come a learn how people of faith can respond to the crisis with courage, hope and science.

Fr Moore is an accredited climate change workshop facilitator and a member of ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change). In this session, we will be updated on the latest data as well as practical ways for people of faith to respond to the crisis our planet is now facing.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Reflections | 6 Comments

Season of Creation: 3. Storm Sunday

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

 

[ video ]

storm-port-macquarie

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

 

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

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

All those are real enough, and painful as well.

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

 

Season of Creation

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

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

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

Bring your creatures great and small that day …

 

Storms

Storms have been in the news lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spirit, wind and breath

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

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

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

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

וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם

wᵉrûaḥ ʾᵉlōhim mᵉraḥep̱eṯ ʿal-pᵉne hammāyı̂m

 

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

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

NJB: with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.

JPS: and a wind from God sweeping over the water

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

And theirs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life in all its abundance​ and diversity

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

[ video ]

creation-2-fauna-and-flora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

We have changed through this relationship and so have they.

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

All creatures “great and small”

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

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

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

According to the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From grasslands to forests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no need to argue about original sin.

Our latest sin is both foolish and self-evident.

 

Consider the lilies

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

Do not be anxious, says Jesus.

Your father knows what you need.

Relax, focus on what really matters.

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

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

 

That is not permission to ignore climate change.

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

 

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

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

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

Actually, he did say that even in Luke:

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

Or in even more direct terms:

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

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The web of life

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

[ video ]

Broken Head Nature Reserve

Season of Creation: Ocean Sunday

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

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

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

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

 

Season of Creation

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

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

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

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

 

The web of life

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

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

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

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

 

Ocean Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Job 38

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ouch!

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Luke 5

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

But this reading is very different from Job.

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

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

And that, of course, is the challenge.

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

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

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

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

 

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A great cloud of witnesses

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

 

[ video ]

A great cloud of witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

We encounter this cloud of witnesses in different ways:

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

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

What is our legacy?

 

Looking to Jesus

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

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

Just Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

This is not because he persuaded God to forgive us.

God needed no convincing!

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

And that is really good news.

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

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Heart and treasure

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

 

[ video ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today seems to be one of those Sundays!

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

 

Abraham

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

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

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

Let’s unpack that picture a little further.

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

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

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

 

Isaiah

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

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

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

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

It is quite a challenging text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Heart and treasure

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

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

 

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

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

What is the treasure we cannot let go?

What is the journey we refuse to take?

Where is our heart?

What matters most to us?

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

What do we most desire?

Where is our heart?

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For whom the bell tolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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