Many years ago, I think 2006, I attended a seminar presented by the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem (ARIJ) on the environmental damage being perpetrated – and indeed, perpetuated – by Israel as it pursues its Zionist dream.
This weekend there is a report along similar lines in Haaretz, perhaps best represented by this extract:
Poor planning and neglect can be found in other countries, too. But they compensate for it with spectacular wild landscapes and architectural gems. Not so in Israel. Once there was a delightfully beautiful country here, but no longer: Zionism has wrought irredeemable destruction on it. In the long term, this is the principal legacy of the Zionist project. Political regimes will come and go here in the future, as they have done in the past. But eons will be needed to undo the ecological and aesthetic harm we have inflicted on the earth. A limestone hill truncated by bulldozers is now gone forever. A lizard that has become extinct will never exist again. If it would take a few million years for the world’s flora and fauna to rehabilitate themselves from the damage wrought by humanity to the planet, undoing the damage caused by Zionism will take twice as long.
Ofri Ilany, Haaretz, 12 May 2022
At the heart of all three Abrahamic religions is a mandate for humans to care for the earth, the khalifa principle in Islam has parallels in Jewish thought and in Christian theology.
To devastate the biblical lands with such ferocity and trigger such long term consequences is an ecological Nakba that compounds and extends the violence of the historical Nakba of 1948.
Long after there is a free Palestine from the river to the sea, providing full citizenship and authentic freedom to all its people, the land will suffer the consequenecs of these few decades of self-indulgent and destructive Zionism.
Having recently retired, I have a number of long time book friends who are seeking new homes. We are all very sad about this but also seeking to be mature as we contemplate new relationships, and especially as I focus on numismatic and archaeological research projects.
A selection of academic books in the field of Biblical Studies, History, and Liturgy is available for acquisition by interested people who are willing to make a donation to the CCCRH Foundation, at a value which they determine as a reflection of the value of the books to them, plus covering any costs in transporting the books to their new home.
Donations to CCCRH Foundation can be made by cheque or direct deposit. Bank details will be provided at the time that the re-homing arrangements are finalised.
To assist people in doing this, the following links provide access to the total set of around 400 books which are originally available for distribution, as well some subsets of the books for people interested in books related to particular subject areas.
As the number of books diminish, these links will be updated to reflect just those items still available for distribution. Categories which have already been depleted are not listed. Please note that some books will appear in more than one subset.
Third Sunday of Advent St Mark’s Church, Casino 12 December 2021
You may recall from last Sunday that we have a special focus on John the Baptizer in these two middle Sundays of Advent.
Last week we reflected on the role that John played in the Jesus story.
Far from being a lesser figure sent ahead of Jesus to make the arrangements, John was the spiritual master and Jesus was his disciple.
That describes their relationship around the time that John was arrested, but it does not properly describe how things developed from that point onwards.
You may even recall that I finished with the invitation that we each reflect on three questions during the week between then and now:
Do we have a John the Baptizer in our lives?
Are we a John figure for other people?
Do we allow ourselves (and them) to move in new directions?
This week we shift our attention from the role that John played in Jesus’ life and give some thought to what he was saying, and more especially what people understood him to be saying.
What John was saying
We are on less certain grounds when it comes to what John was saying than when we considered the role he played in the spiritual development of Jesus.
The reason for that is very simple.
We only get to hear John’s words through the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in other words as told by followers of Jesus. It is impossible to tell how accurately they represented the message of John and we simply do not know if John would have agreed with the way that followers of Jesus (some of whom may once have been his own followers) described his message from their vantage point on this side of Easter.
From the later perspective, John was preparing people for the coming of Jesus.
We would add that he was also preparing Jesus to step into the limelight once his own time had passed.
Even so, in the excerpt from Luke 3 which we read just now (and we have a parallel account in Matthew 3, both drawn from the early Q Sayings Gospel) we find John mapping out a rather different program from the one that Jesus would later pursue.
John did not share meals with people. He was more of an ascetic and solitary figure.
John did not move from village to village. People came to him at the place he chose.
John was not a healer and did not cast out demons.
John did not tell parables.
John did not forgive sins.
John did not send his disciples out in pairs to extend his program farther afield.
On the other hand, we do find John calling on people to get ready for the next big thing in the covenant history of the Jewish people:
John was more like an OT prophet
John condemned the temple hierarchy
John foretold a major upheaval which was about to occur
John denied that he is the Messiah when pressed into that role
John demanded that his listeners undergo a ritual bath used to convert Gentiles
John taught people to fast and pray
John demanded integrity in personal and public life
John condemned Herod Antipas for his divorce and remarriage
People knew what John was on about, and his criticisms of Antipas led to his arrest and eventually to his execution by the Roman puppet ruler whose job was to keep things calm in that corner of the Empire.
Word gets out
While we cannot be sure just what John was hoping to achieve, it is clear that he made an impact. Word got out. People heard about this weird guy down by the river and they formed an opinion about him.
A few years later, when the Temple hierarchy were conspiring to get rid of Jesus, the legacy of John and his reputation with the people (even though he was dead) remained strong:
As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” [Mark 11:27–33]
Word gets out.
That is equally true here in Casino, of course.
Word gets out.
What is the story about St Mark’s Church that is going around in the community here?
For that matter, what is the story about Casino Parish going about in the Diocese?
Is that a story about a group of people who take their faith seriously but treat each other gently?
Do we have a reputation as regular folks who simply treat people as Jesus would do?
What about the people who used to come here but now stay away? What story about St Marks do they carry in their hearts and tell each other?
What is the story about this church which our kids and grandkids tell each other?
What story about us do the parents of the babies baptised here tell one another?
When people come to our OpShop what story (what experience of grace) do they take with them as they leave the store?
And what about the kids who break windows in the Hall every few days? What is their story about us? And how would Jesus respond to kids smashing up the place as they do? Would he add more metal grills or would he spend time with the kids and find a way to bring healing and hope into their lives?
It is easy enough to ask questions like this, but much harder to answer them; and even harder to answer them well.
But maybe that is the Advent task for this church in this town as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the festival of Emmanuel; the God who is with us.
So once more I finish with three questions for your reflections this week:
What is the story we want people to tell about us?
What is the story they are telling about us?
And how do we replace the bad story with the good story?
Second Sunday of Advent St Mark’s Church, Casino 5 December 2021
This week and next Sunday we focus on John the Baptizer. That means half of the Sundays during Advent are allocated to this character on the edges of our tradition.
This week we focus on the person of John the Baptizer.
Next week we focus on the message of John the Baptizer.
So we have an opportunity to reflect on someone who plays a significant part in the story of Jesus, but only a minor role in our own faith.
Let me offer some perspectives on John for you to reflect on during the week …
When we pause to think about the historicity of the character of John and his relationship with Jesus, this gets a very high score.
This does not mean that we know much about him or even anything that he said (more on that next week), but it does mean that the idea that Jesus started out as a follower of John ranks almost as certain as the idea that Jesus was killed by crucifixion.
No one would invent either story as they detract from the status of Jesus for his own followers.
In the case of John, no follower of Jesus would ever make up a story about Jesus himself starting out as a student of someone else. A careful reading of the Baptism stories in all 4 gospels shows us that people struggled with this idea and even go to some pains to clarify that John was preparing the way for someone greater than himself, rather than Jesus coming to learn from someone more advanced in the religious life than him.
So we are on firm historical ground when we think about John as the original teacher and mentor for Jesus.
John is one of very few figures in the Bible who we know about from sources other than the Bible itself. Usually the characters who feature so large in the Bible story are actually marginal figures in the larger history of the region, but John gets more than a passing mention in the historical books written by Josephus about 55 years after Easter.
In other words, John has a role in the history books beyond the NT story about Jesus.
He had his own brand, we might say.
People were still talking about him decades after his death because he was a key player in some of the events in and around Jerusalem just before Jesus himself began his public career.
In fact, Josephus talked about John more than he talked about Jesus.
Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls
About 75 years ago the famous Dead Sea Scrolls first came to light, and in the time since then we have learned quite a bit about the Yahad, or intentional community, living on the edge of the desert at a place we call Qumran.
It turns out that John was not the only strange character living in the desert and eking out an existence without relying on the town markets in nearby Jericho or Jerusalem.
We cannot tell whether John ever joined the Qumran Yahad, or—if he did—why he left it to become a solitary religious figure. But they had many similarities, including a fierce opposition to the priests who were running the Jerusalem temple in their time.
Although they lived in the desert, the breakaway clergy who ran the Yahad at Qumran practised ritual washing, offering another parallel with John the Baptizer. Where they dug cisterns and constructed complex water channels to harvest every drop of precious water, John used the free-flowing waters of the Jordan.
And actually, it seems John was not such a solitary character after all. We learn from both Josephus and the Bible that John was attracting crowds of people, including the despised priests and other public officials from Jerusalem, as well as forming a smaller group of followers; his own Yahad.
Jesus was one of them and, according to the Gospel of John, so were people like Andrew, Peter and Phillip.
The Jordan River was probably not only chosen by John because it offered a good supply of fresh water. It certainly did that, but it was a significant holy place in the biblical imagination.
This was where Joshua led the tribes of Israel across the river as they finally entered the promised land, according to the Old Testament.
It was also where Elijah had ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot. Since people were expecting Elijah to return when God was ready to save his people from their enemies, John was evoking all these associations when he based himself at the southern end of the Jordan River.
John had chosen a location that was intended to get people wondering. Was Elijah about to arrive? Was John perhaps Elijah? Is the Messiah at hand?
A mentor for Jesus?
Finally, let’s reflect on the idea that John was a mentor for Jesus, a spiritual Master from whom Jesus learned before he commenced his own mission only after the arrest of John.
We have no idea what Jesus learned from John, or how long they spent together, but it is clear that Jesus felt free to pursue his own sense of calling in a different way from John.
So I want to finish these reflections today with three questions:
Do we have a John the Baptizer in our lives?
Are we a John figure for other people?
Do we allow ourselves (and them) to move in new directions?
Our Gospel today has the dramatic scene where Pilate and Jesus engage in a private conversation inside the private residence of the Procurator, and away from prying ears.
More about that in a moment.
This passage was chosen for the feast of Christ the King this year as it teases out what Jesus being some kind of a king might actually mean in the real world of power and privilege.
As the storyteller creates this fictional scene, we are invited to imagine the representative of imperial Rome engaging with a peasant preacher from Nazareth about the meaning of life. The man who seems to have all the power, actually has no power at all. The man who seems powerless and is soon to be executed, holds all the cards.
It is a wonderful piece of ironic fiction.
Powerful imperial representatives do not spend time in conversation with people who have no status and pose no threat their own privilege. The messy details of executions and state violence against the population are left in the hands of lower ranks, as we also see in other parts of this story.
Such a scene never happened, but we have learned not to mortgage truth to historicity.
We are not reading a transcript of the trial, but listening to John’s narrative which seeks to explain what these events mean. Not what happened, but what it all means that when God came among us in human form the response from human power systems was lethal violence? In what sense is the cross that point in time where sacred love meets human power in all its ugliness?
And who wins—in the end?
As our selection ends, we hear Jesus saying to Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”
What we strangely do not hear in the excerpt chosen for today is Pilate’s response in the very next sentence: “What is truth?”
As we come to the end of another year of mission and ministry, I find myself asking once more: what have we learned about Jesus? What is the deep truth about Jesus, ourselves and our community to which we have been exposed week after week in this second year of the COVID pandemic?
To paraphrase another voice from the Johannine community:
“what (have) we heard, what (have) we seen with our eyes, what (have) we looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1) this past year, and indeed these past four years?
Upwards, inwards and outwards
It may be helpful this morning to think about this deep truth from three angles: upwards, inwards and outwards
I use this spatial metaphor with some hesitancy, but truth to tell we have very few human words to describe our sense of the deep reality which pervades yet exceeds everything we experience, observe and imagine. Rather than speaking about looking upwards for God, we might just as well speak of delving deep within ourselves or far below the surface in search the depth dimension to reality.
Whatever form of words you find most helpful, the point is that the great truth at the heart of our identity and our mission is the reality of God. The sacred Other. The Holy beyond all that is familiar. The Name beyond all names. The Truth beyond all creeds. The Still-Point we can so easily overlook in our busy schedules.
Christ Church has been in the heart of Grafton since 1842, but the deep truth at the heart of Christ Church is an awareness that it is not all about us.
We have learned to call that ‘something more’ “God,” and we have come to appreciate Jesus as Emmanuel, “God with us.”
If we ever lose sight of that deep truth we lose our reason for being here.
As a Cathedral community we are a community that points to something more, something deeper, something beyond.
Just as “upwards” may not be the best term to describe our sense of the Sacred beyond us, so we may need a better term than “inwards” to identify another key dimension of truth: the quality of our life together as a community of faith.
The dynamics of our life together as a community of local people also matter.
They matter first of all because we need to walk the talk.
How we live—individually as collectively—matters.
How does our sense of God impact the way we live? Is it reflected in the way we do business? Are we a safe community?
I came across one very down-to-earth way to express this some years ago, and I have always found it a powerful question: If people went through our garbage bins would they find any evidence that we are people of faith, or would our trash look just the same as everyone else’s?
So take care of each other and the live the truth we have come to know.
Be there for each other, but also remain open to the new people who wish to join us.
As I was preparing this sermon I came across a message left on our website in January this year. It was sent by someone who had started to attend the Cathedral and was so grateful to find a community which was welcoming, friendly and safe.
That message left on the web page is a reminder that we must also be people who look beyond our own comfort zones and past the people we already know so well.
We have a mission to the wider community and they look to the Cathedral for practical advice grounded in spiritual wisdom.
This is all about compassion.
We claim no monopoly on truth, holiness, virtue or wisdom. But we are committed to the common good, and we seek the welfare of the towns and villages in this valley.
When the prophet Jeremiah was writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon he offered them this advice, which also good advice for us:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jeremiah 29:5–7]
We are not preppers, forming a sect while we wait for the end of the world. We are not selling fire insurance for the next life. We are not waiting to be beamed up to a better world away from here.
We are grateful for this world, which is the tangible expression of God’s love for us. We promote harmony and goodwill among our communities. And we seek always to act as people of compassion.
As I step aside from my role as Dean of Grafton, I am grateful for the privilege of these past four years.
I am confident that we can keep looking beyond the obvious to the deeper reality which really matters, persist in building an authentic faith community centred on Jesus, and continue to be engaged compassionately with our wider community.
Like our Cathedral building, as members of this Cathedral community each of us also points people to deeper reality, we invite them into community centred around Christ, and we respond their needs with compassion and care.
As we do that, then Christ will indeed be the king and his prayer will come true: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven …”
Today we pause to acknowledge all of those who have gone before us in the faith.
Some of them are people from long ago.
Many of them are people from far away.
Others are people we have known; who we remember with love and appreciation.
It is because of them that we are who we are.
It is because of them that the faith has been passed across 2,000 years.
It is because of them that the faith is expressed in every human language, within every culture and across all parts of this world.
Had they been unfaithful, the faith would not have survived.
Had they forgotten the story of Jesus, it would no longer be told among us.
Had they not travelled far and wide, the faith would not be found in every part of the world.
Had they not been people of courage, the flame of faith may well have been extinguished.
Had they lost hope, how would we ever had heard the good news?
We walk in their footsteps, but also need to find our own path.
We carry the candle of faith in a very different world.
Our challenge is not so much to imitate them as to replicate them.
It is not that we do exactly what they did, but that we seek to achieve the same goal.
The mission remains the same, but the operation may be rather different.
A new legacy for those who come after us
In our own time we are also creating a legacy for those who will come after us. In time they will look back at these times in the life of the church, and they may wonder why we were so concerned about this issue or that, yet remained oblivious to something else which they find central to their concerns.
Just as we need not imitate those who went before us, so we cannot presume to imagine that those who come after us will keep doing things the way we do them now. And that is OK.
Our task is to be faithful here and now; encouraged by the past and open to the future.
Since 1842 Anglicans have been present in Grafton, seeking to serve God and their community.
At first our faith community had a simple timber chapel, just across the street and beside the Deanery. Forty years later work was underway to build this Cathedral, which was a remarkable project in a town of just 1,500 people.
Once upon a time this Cathedral was packed most Sundays and we had several services a day. Those days have long passed and we are still trying to find the best way to be Jesus people in this community at time when being “at church” does not matter to most of our family and friends.
In a way, the Cathedral itself is a parable, hinting at the challenge before us. We have much from the past for which we are grateful, but the way forward is not so easy to discern.
The heart of the matter
We cannot imagine what the church will be like in the years to come, but the heart of our faith and our mission remains the same even when expressed in different ways at different times:
Intentional – We are people who seek to follow Jesus with our eyes wide open. We are not drifting along with church life because it is the accepted thing that “everyone around here” does. No, we make a conscious choice to pay attention to faith, to seek God and to take the spiritual quest seriously.
Centred on Jesus – There are many ways to respond to God’s call on our lives. We accept and affirm the faithfulness of people in other spiritual traditions who are also intentional about their desire to say YES to God, however they understand that sacred reality. We especially acknowledge the faithfulness of Jews and Muslims, with whom we share so much yet differ so profoundly over just a few points. Yet for us, it is all about Jesus. For us, Jesus is the way that leads to God, and for us Jesus is God among us in human form. Emmanuel
Compassion – As we seek to follow Jesus, the hallmark will be compassion. It matters little whether we are right or wrong, if we fail to be compassionate. One classic text which captures this truth so well is found in 1 Corinthians, the great hymn to love.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. [1 Cor 13:2]
That will be as true in the future as it is now, and ever has been in the past. If we fail to be people of compassion then we have nothing to offer the world.
Justice – Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. (Matt 5:6). Or as the great Covenant Code we call the book of Deuteronomy expresses it: Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you. [Deut 16:20] The church has a prophetic role in society, whether it is welcomed or rejected. It is the work of God to defend the weak and speak for those without power. Those with power hate us doing that; mostly because in their heart of hearts they know we are right and they are on the wrong side of history.
Hope – we are not selling fire insurance for the next life, but we are affirming that in the end—as at the beginning— it is all about love. The love that brought our universe into existence will ensure that—in the end—what is right does prevail, life defeats death, the mighty are cast down from their seats, the hungry are fed, and the rich are indeed sent away empty. God turns everything upside down, and that is why we are people of hope even when it seems everything is so dark.
This is what we have learned from those who went before us.
This is the truth we seek to live in our everyday lives.
And this is the legacy we leave for those who will come after us.
Sometimes we are so captivated by the details in front of us that we do not notice the large reality of which that item is but one part.
In everyday speech we say that someone cannot see the forest for the trees.
They are so concerned about the details that they do not see the big picture.
In today’s readings, the “tree” is the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar named Bartimaeus at Jericho.
I suspect many sermons will be preached today about this otherwise unknown minor character in the Gospels. But in talking about this one character in the story that Mark is telling, they may perhaps miss the forest which Mark has been carefully tending in the background.
Standing back from the tree to see the forest
We are now almost at the end of a year spent listening to the way Mark tells the Jesus story.
What have we learned?
The Gospel according to Mark was the first of those 4 gospels included in the New Testament to be written. He seems to have done something which no one else had tried before, and as best we can tell he was doing this during the last quarter of the first century after the Romans had suppressed the Jewish revolt and destroyed Jerusalem along with its fabled temple.
Mark provided the basic storyline for Matthew and Luke, when they each prepared their own versions of the Jesus story sometime later. But Mark is a very different story from theirs. It has no birth legends and no resurrection stories; just an empty tomb and some frightened women.
One way of reading Mark is to see him addressing two major questions:
Who was Jesus?
How do we follow him?
During the first half of his document, Mark develops the idea that Jesus is like some supercharged combination of both Moses and Elijah. Jesus, for Mark, unites the covenant legacy of Moses with the prophetic power of Elijah, and then more so. He is something else again.
The second half of the Gospel according to Mark has two very clear sections. In the final section (chs 11–16), we are in Jerusalem and Jesus is about to be crucified. The conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities is reaching its climax.
But before we get to Jerusalem, Mark has an extended section that teases out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: 8:22 to 10:52.
Two blind men see, while 12 sighted men fumble
That section begins and ends with Jesus healing a blind man. And in between times Jesus seems to be dealing with a bunch of disciples who cannot see even though their eyes appear to be working!
This middle section of Mark opens with a strange scene where Jesus seems to have trouble healing a blind man who is brought to him at Bethsaida. You may remember the story.
Jesus normally heals people with just a word, rarely even a prayer. But in this case Jesus makes a paste by mixing some dirt with own spit and placing it on the man’s eyes.
It partly works.
When asked, “Can you see anything?” (itself a strange question for Jesus to ask!), the man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
This time Jesus looks intently at the man and lays his hands on the guy for a second time.
Now the man’s sight was fully restored, he could see clearly; and Jesus sent him home. We are never told his name.
During the rest of chapter 8 and through chapters 9 and 10, the disciples seem to be a lot like that man!
They can see, but nothing is clear to them.
Over and again Mark collects stories where Jesus talks about the nature—and the cost—of discipleship. And the Twelve simply do not get it. Not ever.
Mark even has Jesus tell them no less than 3 times in two and half chapters that he is going to Jerusalem, he will be killed there by the authorities, but that after three days he will rise again.
Then they reach Jericho and Jesus encounters another blind man.
Bartimaeus is excited to hear that Jesus is passing by, and when Jesus asks what Bartimaeus wants from him, he is very clear: “I want to see again!”
No more mud paste this time, as Jesus assures him that he will regain his sight because his own faith has made him well.
But notice what happens next:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:52)
Can we see the forest?
Bartimaeus does not go home, but walks the way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross.
Finally, Jesus has a disciple who sees clearly and is willing to follow him.
We never hear of Bartimaeus again, but he is the archetype of discipleship.
He does not ask to keep his wealth. He does not seek a powerful role in the kingdom of God. He does not ask Jesus to wait while he buries his father or arranges his business affairs. He does not jostle for recognition and status. He does not criticise those who believe differently. He simply follows Jesus in the Way.
He sees what he has to do. And he does it.
That is the forest: to be a disciple, someone who walks the Way of Jesus.
All that we have experienced and learned during this past year is for this one simple purpose: Can we now see more clearly that the one thing which matters is whether we choose to walk the Way of Jesus?
As we come to the Table of Jesus in a few minutes we are saying, “Yes, I will walk the way of Jesus.”
This morning we were to baptise two children, but sadly COVID restrictions of one kind or another have meant that both families had to postpone the Baptisms to a later date.
But what a great set of readings we have for a baptism, and especially the Gospel reading.
O LORD my God, how great you are!
The OT book of Job is one of the great spiritual classics of the world.
That does mean it is an easy book to read. Far from it! This is a book which wrestles with the existential question of why bad things happen to good people
At 12,674 words—all of them in Hebrew—this is a complex discussion as the lead character (Job) is beset by a series of disasters which take away his health, his family and his wealth.
To make things worse, Job has a set of three very religious friends who turn up to comfort him. However, their idea of comforting Job is to lecture him about his faults, which must surely be the explanation for these disasters. They are more interested in defending God than in helping their friend. In other words, they are protecting their own belief systems rather than offering compassionate solidarity to Job.
They take turns to lecture Job, and he defends himself. Finally, the three older friends are silenced and a younger associate takes it upon himself to show Job and his three friends where they all have it wrong.
By this stage we have reached chapter 37 of Job!
Finally, in today’s reading, God shows up and begins to put everyone in their place. That will take another four and a half chapters, before Job gets his health, family and wealth restored.
That happy ending, which we have in our readings next week, is the least satisfying part of the whole discussion in Job. But we need not worry about it today. And perhaps not ever.
In the snippet of Job which we read this morning, we are reminded of the awesome nature of the universe in which we live and of which we are a part:
“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? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
In biblical terms, Job is confronted with the awesome glory of God. In our terms, we face the awesome scale, age and complexity of the cosmos. We are blown away by the immensity of Life, as well as our own vulnerability and insignificance.
More than Melchizedek
Our second reading today is from the most Jewish of all the documents in the New Testament: the Letter to the Hebrews.
In this book Jesus is imagined as a Jewish priest, which of course he was not. This book is a reminder that truth should not be mortgaged to historicity.
The spiritual truth of the Bible does not depend on the historicity of Job or the priestly lineage of Jesus, but on the underlying themes of faith and doubt, courage and fear, failure and forgiveness, which run throughout the Scriptures.
For the author of this anonymous letter to Jewish believers, Jesus was like a particular mysterious character, Melchizedek (King of Righteousness) who appears at a couple of places in the Old Testament. He also appears in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls much closer to the time of Jesus, which probably explains why this figure is mentioned in Hebrews. But that is a topic for another day! [ Melchizedek texts ]
Note, however, that as this author sketches out what Jesus was like, he describes Jesus in very human terms:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
So, alongside the awesome otherness of God proclaimed in Job, we have the ordinary humanity of Jesus as the beloved Son, Emmanuel, God-with-us, God-as-one-of-us.
The mysterious and awesome Other in whose shadow we shrink from view, is also the familiar Jesus who comes alongside us, as one of us, beset by our challenges, and crying out to God for rescue.
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,
Drink from the cup of Christ
How do we respond to this One who comes among us and invites us to walk his way, to follow his path?
The suggested answer is in the second half of Mark 8, which is another classic; this time a classic of discipleship.
Notice how James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus for a special favour: We want the best seats in the kingdom!
And notice Jesus’ reply to them:
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Are you able to drink the cup that drink?
Are you able to be baptised with the baptism that I am going to undergo?
Those are awesome questions, and they echo across 2,000 years to us here in the Cathedral this morning.
Are we up to “this Jesus thing”? As individuals? As a Cathedral community?
A couple of years ago when I tried to describe the mission of the Cathedral here in Grafton for the website, I expressed it this way:
a generous faith community centred on Jesus seeking wisdom for life acting with compassion in the heart of Grafton since 1842
Is that the cup we are prepared to drink?
Is that a path we are prepared to walk?
Is that a baptism through which we are willing to pass?
In case we are wondering what that looks like in real life, Jesus helpfully continues:
“… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
While our worship offers us a glimpse of the awesome God, may we never lose sight of the radical humility of the Holy One who comes among us and offers us the privilege of drinking from the same cup that he has also chosen to accept.
We are not just asked to believe things about Jesus.
The call to discipleship goes far deeper than that!
Rather, we are asked to walk the way of Jesus in compassionate humility for the sake of others.
On 1 September that year, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I proclaimed that date as a day of special prayers for creation by members of the Orthodox family of churches throughout the world.
In the 32 years which have passed since that proclamation, the idea has spread and developed further.
The World Council of Churches embraced the idea but extended the Season of Creation through to the feast for St Francis of Assisi on 4 October.
In his 2015 encyclical—Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you, my Lord”)—Pope Francis invoked the words of the famous Canticle of the Sun composed by Francis of Assisi:
Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.
The encyclical is well worth a careful read, but at more than 40,000 words is far too lengthy and complex to read during a church service. I draw your attention to the link in these sermon notes, and encourage you to reflect on the wisdom of Francis; both the saint and the Pope.
God saw what happened and it was good
Our first reading this morning was the opening words of the Bible: Genesis chapter one. We only read as far as verse 25 because we shall read the following verses next Sunday when we reflect on humanity as part of creation.
The opening lines of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures imagine the creation of the universe as a process spread over a week.
It is a carefully crafted text, with actions on days 1-2-3 paralleled by developments on days 4-5-6. As is well known, on the seventh day (Shabbat), there is no more creating to be done and God rests.
We are invited to share that sacred rest, and indeed that may be the ultimate point of the opening chapter.
We tend to read it as an account of God making everything, but in reality it is a poetic invitation to join God in observing Shabbat. The point of creation is not activity (staying busy), but resting mindfully.
Along the way we see the harmony of creation and its intrinsic goodness. At the end of the each of the six days of creative activity, other than day 2 when God simply creates the sky, we read: “And God saw that it was good …”
We miss the point of this classic spiritual text if we mistake it for a description of how the world was made. This “story,” as it is called in Genesis 2:4a, is about who made everything (i.e., where does the universe come from) and the character of the universe (it is good) and the point of it all (resting awe).
Creation matters to God
In the ancient world and even in some forms of Christianity today, there is an idea that the physical world is somehow inferior to the physical world, and that this life does not matter as much as the life to come.
Our biblical texts today make it clear that such ideas are mistaken.
Rather than being a distraction from God’s core business, the universe is a sacrament of divine presence, power and truth.
The universe exists because God wished it to be so and it derives from God’s inner love seeking self-expression.
To love nature and care for creation is to worship God.
Indeed, for Christians, God not only created the world but became part of the world in the person of Jesus.
As theologian Sally McFague has reminded us, we can (she would say “must”) think of the world as God’s body.
As Christians we are not really into abstract ideas and disembodied spirits. Our metaphor for afterlife is “resurrection of the body” and not—as many Christians mistakenly think—immortality of the soul. That idea is never found in the Bible, but comes from Greek philosophy.
Let’s conclude this brief reflection for the first Sunday in Creation Time with the soaring theology of John chapter one.
This hymn of the Logos is clearly a riff on the creation poem of Genesis.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1–5]
This Logos that brought the universe into being is also at work in us; if we accept his activity within us:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. [John 1:9–11]
And note especially the stunning final stanza of the Logos Hymn:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]
The Word became flesh and pitched his tent with us …
There is no essential divide between matter and the spirit.
We care about the world—and we care for our Planet Earth—because they are not only gifts from God, but also because these are ways for us to express our love for God.
I finish with these words from St Francis:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
touches on how faith is done outside the walls of the Cathedral
but also concerns the essential spiritual DNA of the Cathedral
We are a place of prayer:
our bricks call people to imagine there is more to life than the everyday
we point to eternity
we invite people to connect
Our readings today all refer to prayer:
Dedication of the temple in Jerusalem
Paul urges his readers to pray for him
Jesus attends synagogue in Capernaum
But this is also a day when churches are calling on the nation to pray
we might wonder why now and not much sooner than now
but today is the chosen date
should we join in?
will it make any difference?
If prayer worked
So, I start by asking, Does prayer work?
Imagine if it did!
droughts would vanish
floods would not happen
bush fires would not wreak havoc on creation
wars would disappear
peace would break out everywhere
hatred, fear and xenophobia would vanish
the Queen would live for ever
all illness would disappear
cancer would not steal our loved ones from our arms
we would have the politicians we need rather than the ones we deserve
and every lapsed grandchild would come back to the faith
If prayer worked in the ways we pretend that we expect it to work, then the Cathedral would be packed every Sunday. And probably every day during the week as well! People would be banging on our doors and flooding our email account, asking us to teach them how to pray.
However, prayer is not a formula; it is an attitude.
God is not enmeshed in our transactions, and she is not interested in cutting a special deal for us! No matter what we promise to do afterwards if God would just do this little thing for us … right now!
BTW, we cannot escape from this moral challenge by invoking, “God knows best” when our prayers are not answered.
If God actually knows best, then why do so many bad things happen all the time?
And what kind of God are people imagining when they even speak about God in such terms?
Looking at this from another angle: God’s perspective
We often think about prayer from our human perspective:
we are asking for things that we cannot achieve by ourselves
in our better moments, prayer is attentive appreciation for life
for advanced souls, prayer is simply choosing to be in the presence of the sacred
But have we ever thought about prayer from God’s perspective?
can we imagine God praying for something?
Jesus could and I do
for Jesus, God’s prayer is called the commonwealth of God
it is expressed in the creation of our amazing cosmos in all its diversity
God has a dream (a prayer, a hope).
Like our own prayers, God’s prayer also seems mostly to go unfulfilled
But do we imagine that God ever stops praying? Indeed, in the NT we are asked to imagine Jesus praying for us without ever taking a break!
So, prayer is not really about outcomes but about inputs.
So we choose prayer
We choose to pray.
We do that not because it is a get-out-of-jail card. Rather, we pray because that engages us in the reality about which we are praying.
If we pray about the poor, we find that we start to care about them. Or perhaps we do already care about them and that is why we pray. Perhaps it is a circle with care growing deeper as we pray more, and those prayers combined with compassion generating action to make a difference … then more prayer, more compassion, more action … more prayer …
You can repeat that paragraph with peace, refugees, climate change, or COVID-19 … in place of “the poor.”
But never forget that it is the poor who always suffer most, as we are seeing repeatedly in Western Sydney these past few weeks.
It is the poor who are central to God’s own prayers, and it is no surprise that they were right at the centre of the ministry of Jesus.
There is no situation which is not improved by prayer when those prayers draw us into compassionate solidarity with those for whom we pray and compel us into action to set the world aright so that God’s prayers can be answered. By us!