Comfortable words, challenging words

Pentecost 5A
9 July 2017
Byron Bay

 

The readings set for today each have their own logic, but taken together they fail to cohere in the way that we sometimes experience. We could pursue anyone of these three readings, and with sufficient time we would find that each offers us profound spiritual wisdom. Indeed, we did a little of that in our discussion last Wednesday morning.

The first reading from Genesis 24 continues the story of Abraham, and today we see the beginning of the transition from Abraham to Isaac. As always, the Psalm serves as a response to some aspect of the first reading: in this case to the experience of a young woman who is leaving her family of origin to join the family of her new husband, a man she may not even have met prior to the marriage being arranged. That whole scenario triggered some interesting reflections on family, culture and faith when we explored these texts last Wednesday morning.

In our second reading, we hear Paul at his most vulnerable. In this section of his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of his personal distress as he finds himself unable to live up to his own expectations as a person of faith. Again, this is a passage that triggered some significant reflections as we discussed Paul’s words last Wednesday morning.

Today’s gospel reading presents Jesus engaged with people whose response to his own ministry and his own actions was very mixed. We sometimes think how wonderful it would have been to hear and observe Jesus directly during his life in the first century. Surely, we think, it must have been so much easier to respond with faith when Jesus was right there in front of us. Not so it seems. Today’s gospel invites us to explore more deeply our response to God’s call.

Already you can see that each of these readings invites us to explore different aspects of faith. But we only have time for one sermon, and the sermon can only go down one track. So let’s focus on the gospel this week, having spent a considerable amount of time with the Old Testament readings over the past couple of weeks.

 

Take my yoke upon you

In today’s Gospel we find these words on Jesus’ lips:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. [Matt 11:28–30]

For Anglicans who grew up with the old prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, these are very familiar words. They form part of the so-called comfortable words which generations of Anglicans heard just before coming to communion:

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith
unto all that truly turn to him:

Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden,
and I will refresh you. 

Long before the BCP, these words will also have sounded familiar to Jewish ears in synagogues across the Middle East. Similar things were said by Lady Wisdom as she invited people to embrace the demands of Torah and find their burden was light, and the yoke was easy. Here are three examples from the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (written about 180 years before Jesus):

Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,
and those who work with me will not sin. [Sir 24:19–22]

 

Draw near to me, you who are uneducated,
and lodge in the house of instruction.
Why do you say you are lacking in these things,
and why do you endure such great thirst?
I opened my mouth and said,
Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under her yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your own eyes that I have labored but little
and found for myself much serenity. [Sir 51:23-27]

 

Listen, my child, and accept my judgment;
do not reject my counsel.
Put your feet into her fetters,
and your neck into her collar.
Bend your shoulders and carry her,
and do not fret under her bonds.
Come to her with all your soul,
and keep her ways with all your might.
Search out and seek, and she will become known to you;
and when you get hold of her, do not let her go.
For at last you will find the rest she gives,
and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense,
and her collar a glorious robe.
Her yoke is a golden ornament,
and her bonds a purple cord.
You will wear her like a glorious robe,
and put her on like a splendid crown. [Sir 6:23-31]

 

You may recall that Matthew was writing his account of the Gospel to address the needs of Christians with a strong Jewish background. In his Christian community in Antioch around the end of the first century such people needed to know that following Jesus did not mean they were rejecting their spiritual legacy as Jews.

When Matthew chooses these words from the wider oral tradition of the early church, he is inviting his readers to link Jesus calling them to discipleship with the older traditions of Lady Wisdom inviting people to take her yoke upon themselves, and discover that the religious life is not a heavy burden, but rather a source of joy and strength.

Such words were familiar to people in the past, but the recent national census data suggests that they would be rather unfamiliar words to most of our neighbours.

Accepting the yoke of religion is not something with broad appeal these days. Yet maybe this ancient wisdom still has something to teach us today. Maybe it also speaks to the matters we shall be engaging with in our mission planning session directly after the service ends?

What might it look like for us as a faith community to accept the yoke of Christ?

At a time when fewer Australians want religion of any kind, what if we choose to be different?

What did the yoke of Holy Wisdom look like to ancient Jews and to those first Christians? And how might it look to us today?

COVENANT – at the heart of Judaism and Christianity there is a deep sense that we are in a covenant with God. That covenant is initiated by God as an act of grace, and we respond to that divine initiative by choosing to live within the covenant; by accepting the yoke. To put that in more everyday terms, we experience life as a profound gift, and we choose to live with a mindset of gratitude. One reminder of that dynamic in the life of faith is that our distinctive act of worship is the Eucharist, a Greek word that means thanksgiving.

COMMUNAL – our response to God is communal. We need others to travel with us on the path. We do not make this journey alone. Our religion is not about solitary achievement, but about shaping and sustaining healthy and grateful communities. Further, as a ‘church’ rather than a ‘sect’, our sense of community is large and inclusive. Everyone is welcome. We have soft boundaries. People can come and go. It is OK.

EARTHED – as grateful beneficiaries of God’s goodness, we are deeply connected with the earth and the intricate web of life in which we participate. We are not seeking to escape from this world, but to live faithfully and gratefully within this world. The ancient Hebrew creation story captures this well with its delightful pun: the earth creature (adam) is fashioned from the earth (adamah). As people of the earth, we have work to do: whether we still work the soil or now create digital content. We are engaged in the web of life as stewards of creation. It is our destiny and our vocation. And our joy.

COMPASSION – hard wired into our stories of faith is the idea that we are people of compassion, people who care about justice, people who welcome strangers, people who protect the vulnerable (‘widows and orphans’ in biblical terms). When people of power exploit others, drive them into poverty, and force them into slavery then people of faith speak truth to power, often at great personal cost. Jesus is our model. The symbol of our faith is a cross, not a rocking chair.

RITUAL – we know the power of ritual to express our gratitude for the gift of life and to sustain our commitment to lives of justice and hope. Yes, our worship can become jaded and our rituals can degenerate, but good liturgy enlivens and transforms. We need more than words because humans are more than word processors. We need colour, music, movement and incense. The whole person needs to be caught up in our grateful response to the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

 

Later this morning we shall devote some time to discerning what taking up the yoke of Christ looks like here in the Bay, and how that may unfold in the next few years.

I do not know what ideas will emerge from this process, but I am confident that as we take up the yoke of Christ and send our roots down deep into our local community here in the Bay, God will use us to make a difference in the lives of other people.

First we shall make Eucharist together, and then we shall seek the wisdom of God for the task before us.

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An unacceptable tale

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
Byron Bay & Ewingsdale
2 July 2017

As you may guess, by choosing to offer my sermon directly after the reading from Genesis 22, something is afoot.

In our Wednesday morning Bible study group we reflected on this passage, and discussed how best to deal with it in today’s services.

We had a number of choices:

  1. Read it like any other passage and allow it to pass more or less without comment.
  2. Choose not to read it at all, and simply avoid the problems it presents.
  3. Read the passage, but offer immediate comment to assist with its reception.

As you can see, I have opted for the last of those three choices.

 

Context

Context is always import when we engage with Scripture:

  • the context in the ancient texts
  • the context in which we hear the passage
  • the context of our own lives

When the international lectionary committee chose the readings for this week, they could never have guessed what else would be happening in our context here as this passage was read aloud in all the major churches across Australia today:

This week we have seen the data from last year’s national census. Among other things the census demonstrated a continued decline in the number of Australians who identify as Christians (now just 52%), while a record high number of people (30%) reported they do not have any religion at all.

Then, at week’s end, came the announcement that Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, has been charged with historical child sex offences and will face court later this month.

While George Pell must enjoy the presumption of innocence until a court determines otherwise, and while it is hardly news that fewer of our neighbours still share our faith, both those stories about religion in the national media this week sit very awkwardly alongside today’s reading from the Old Testament.

Genesis 22 is a ‘text of terror’ and it resonates darkly with the major religious headlines of the past few days.

 

Texts of terror

The phrase ‘texts of terror’ was coined by American biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, in her book of that title first published in 1984. It refers originally to texts that involve “abuse, exploitation, and violence against women,” but can be extended to includes stories, laws, and apocalyptic texts that promote genocide, ethnic cleansing, tribalism, and dystopian visions of reality.

Today’s reading is certainly a text of terror even though it was not included in the original study by Trible.

Let me briefly sketch the layers of terror and horror in this central biblical narrative:

God is portrayed as testing Abraham’s faith by demanding his son Isaac as a human sacrifice: “your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac”. God allows this cruel test to proceed to the point when Abraham has a knife poised over his son’s neck. Only then does God rescue Isaac and relieve Abraham of his tragic mission.

Abraham not only accepts that God might make such a demand, but goes along with the request—revealing his murderous intention neither to Isaac nor to Sarah.

Isaac is the one figure to emerge from this despicable tale with his character intact. Having unwittingly assisted in the plot for his own murder, he is rescued at the last moment. He too, it seems, accepted that God could make such a demand and is prepared to submit to the abusive authority that controlled his fate.

Sarah makes no appearance in this story, but is a secondary victim to the psychological and physical abuse that Abraham is inflicting on her son—all in the name of religion. A few episodes earlier she was punished for questioning her capacity to conceive Isaac in her late 90s, but now Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to murder their son a few years later.

Truly this is a text of terror.

Imagine what the media would make of such a story if it were read out in a mosque this morning.

Imagine how respect for the church and openness to the ancient wisdom of our spiritual tradition would be impacted if our neighbours realised what we are reading in church this morning.

Imagine the impact of this biblical text on women and children who have been abused by men with a distorted sense of religion and a confused understanding of male privilege as something endorsed by God.

As we discussed all this last Wednesday morning, I remembered that I grew up with a father and later a stepfather who tried to kill me and my sisters, and who would both slip into dark and violent rages. That knowledge had slipped from my mind but was lurking in the shadows of my psyche.

Discussing this story on Wednesday morning revived those memoires.

How many other people hearing this story or reading the news reports these past few days will also have been reminded of violence and abuse in their own families, even in religious homes and in families who are leaders in the local church?

 

Communities of healing and hope

Last week I said the following:

… when read in our context, [this] is a story that challenges us to recognise and name the abuse of vulnerable women and children even within families of faith. Such abuse happens not just in our institutions, but also in our homes.

Wherever such abuse occurs, we need to name the abuse, protect the victims, and deal with the perpetrator.

We must name and reject abuse and violence, even when it is found in the Bible—and especially when it is projected onto our understanding of God.

The God we see in Jesus challenges us to reject the dark and violent depiction of the divine in this and other biblical texts.

The God we encounter in Jesus invites us to form communities of hope and healing, where the victims of violent abuse find safety.

The God who comes us in Jesus is never to be found among the violent and abusive, even when such people drape themselves in religion and claim to be doing the will of God.

So now let us stand to hear the Gospel, the Good News, after which we shall sing our Gospel acclamation:

Alleluia, the Word of God is living! Alleluia!
The Gospel is among us! Allleluia! Alleluia!

[©2004 Richard Bruxvoort Colligan]

 

Suggestions for further reading

(1) For those interested in more detail about the receptionn history of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) tradition from Genesis 22 within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I have previously published some notes about the Akedah tradition online.

(2) Another aspect of the reception history of the Akedah tradition is the idea that this was the last and most challenging of ten tests that Abraham had to overcome to demonstate his total loyalty to YHWH. All 10 are not found in the OT, but complete lists (albeit inconsistent) occur in much later Jewish tradition. Here is a link to an essay by Prof. Scott B. Noegel (University of Washington) that outlines this post-biblical tradition in some detail.

(3) Here are 2 versions of the Ten Trials of Abraham (from chabad.org):

There are actually a number of schools of thought about this. Here are some.
 
Maimonides lists them as follows:
 
1. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. G‑d tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
10. G‑d tells him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.
 
Note that all of the tests in Maimonides’ list can be found clearly in Scripture. Most other lists include events that are recorded only in midrashic accounts. For example, the following list is brought by Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro. Notice that the first event listed—Abraham’s being thrown into a furnace—is one that is not recorded in the Bible, but is known to us only by way of midrashic traditions.
 
1. He is thrown into a fiery furnace.
2. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
3. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
4. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
5. He faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
6. He is told by G‑d that his children will be strangers in a strange land.
7. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
8. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
9. G‑d tells him to send away Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
10. Abraham is told by G‑d to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.
 
Should you want to do more research, you can find more lists in Midrash Tehillim, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, and the commentary of the Meiri on Ethics of Our Fathers.
[http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1324268/jewish/What-Were-Abrahams-10-Tests.htm]

 

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Losing life, finding life

Third Sunday after Pentecost (A)
Byron Bay & Broken Head
25 June 2017

 

This week’s lectionary texts invite us to reflect on the stark reality that life can be challenging, and that even being a person of faith is not a ticket to a trouble-free life.

So much for the ‘prosperity gospel’ much promoted by certain groups of Christians.

The simple fact is that when we choose to live as people of faith we still find that our lives are often challenging, and even really hard at times.

Faith is not a ‘get out of jail’ card for the Monopoly game of life.

Faith is our response to the call of God on our lives.

We are disciples of Jesus because we can do nothing else.

We are not entering a private arrangement with God to acquire privileged access to the good life.

 

Dysfunctional families among the faithful

Our first reading today is part of an extended series of readings from Genesis. These ancient narratives describe the origins of the Israelite people, as they focus on the legendary characters from whom all later Israelites (and all modern Jews) trace their descent.

The tribal ancestors are presented as a series of generations from Abraham to Joseph, and their lives are recounted with varying amounts of detail. These are mostly tales about men, but women figure in the stories from time to time—as we see in this week’s passage.

These traditions about the ancestors of the tribes who eventually formed the people of Israel around 1,200 BCE were gathered together at a much later stage. They form a kind of prologue to the great story of redemption in the book of Exodus, when YHWH rescued the Hebrew slaves from their desperate situation in Egypt.

(We shall come to that story around the end of September.)

We might expect the storytellers of ancient Zion to depict their ancestors as examples of faith and paragons of virtue. But that is not the case. As we see in this week’s episode, Abraham is not portrayed as someone whose example we should emulate. Similarly in last week’s reading, his wife Sarah is not presented as a model for faithful living.

In this week’s episode we have Abraham expelling his elder son, Ishmael, into the desert along with his mother—all at the behest of Sarah, Abraham’s senior wife. It is a nasty and shameful episode in the story of Abraham, and not one of his better moments.

As it happens, when read in our context, it is a story that challenges us to recognise and name the abuse of vulnerable women and children even within families of faith. Such abuse happens not just in our institutions, but also in our homes.

Wherever such abuse occurs, we need to name the abuse, protect the victims, and deal with the perpetrator.

Within this story, that is exactly what God does. God protects Hagar and Ishmael, and ensures they survive despite their shameful treatment by Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael will eventually become the ancestor of the Arabs, and a major figure in Islam.

 

Faithfulness in troubled times

There is much more that could be said about Abraham and Hagar, and their son Ishmael. But let’s now turn our attention to the rather disjointed collection of bad news we were served in today’s Gospel (‘goods news’) reading.

It may be helpful to have a sense of when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and why someone took the trouble to gather these particular traditions together in the form we find them in Matthew.

Sit tight for a rapid-fire BIBLE101 introduction to the Gospels, with a focus on Matthew.

All of the gospels are anonymous.

None of them are dated.

Scholars date them by trying to establish the relationships between them, and especially between Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Most scholars (almost everyone, in fact) agrees that Mark was written first.

This means that—each in their own way—both Matthew and Luke are revisions of Mark, that expand and correct the earlier document.

Matthew, in particular, is really a second edition of Mark, revised and expanded to provide extra information about the teachings of Jesus, and also to address more directly the challenges faced by some of Jesus’ followers in northern Syria around 100 CE.

Most likely Matthew was published within a 15 year window either side of that date. Most scholars still prefer 85 CE, but more recent studies are suggesting around 110 CE.

When we compare Matthew with both Mark and Luke, it is clear that Matthew is writing for a Christian community with a very strong Jewish element. This is very different from the mostly Gentile (Greek) audience for Paul’s letters some 75 years earlier.

In particular, followers of Jesus were increasingly being harassed by their Jewish neighbours and relatives as the divisions between Jews and Christians became deeper around the end of the first century.

The early Christian leader who prepared the Gospel according to Matthew was seeking to reassure his readers that they were not betraying their Jewish heritage by following Jesus, and also to remind them that Jesus himself had suffered abuse and hostility from his Jewish neighbours and even from his own family members.

Now back to this morning’s reading!

Matthew has gathered together material from various oral and written sources to provide a reminder that following Jesus may mean that his readers can expect to experience criticism, hatred, hostility, and rejection. Even martyrdom is a possible outcome for those who choose to live faithfully in a context that opposes all they hold sacred.

For the original audience these were words that described their own lived experience.

For subsequent generations of readers, these words have been a reminder that Jesus calls us to faithfulness rather than success, to courage rather than celebration, to sacrifice rather than prosperity.

 

Beyond consumer religion

The so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ promoted by some Christian communities is a deep betrayal of Jesus, and of his earliest followers.

We do not promise answers to life’s questions, but spiritual wisdom to live with the questions.

We do not promote healing from illness and disease, but the assurance of God’s presence with us in every situation.

We do not promise wealth and prosperity, but a community of pilgrims who share what we have so that everyone has sufficient for today.

Neither Jesus nor Matthew were promoting a religion that offers benefits to a privileged few.

As today’s NT reading makes very clear, at our Baptism we are united with Christ  in his death and in his resurrection. That death was a cruel and painful experience. There was no First Class option for Jesus, and there are no exemptions from real life for any of us.

Those Christian communities who promote faith as a ticket to health and wealth, to happy families and successful marriages, are distorting the heart of our faith.

They may be attracting big crowds, but are they forming healthy communities of people committed to walk the way of Christ, no matter what it costs?

Perhaps if such communities paid more attention to the Lord’s Prayer (which they hardly ever say) and less attention to multimedia gimmicks, Christ would be better served, lives would be truly transformed, and the world would be a better place.

In the end, that is the challenge for us as well.

We are disciples of Jesus not to gain some personal benefit, but because that is how we best respond to our experience of God at work among us, and especially at work in the person of Jesus.

We need to be communities of faith that not only recite the Lord’s Prayer, but also put it into practice.

Let me finish with some words I used a few weeks ago:

Our Father in heaven …
we are all children of the universe, brothers and sisters of Jesus

Hallowed be your name …
May everything we do, and how we do it, reflect your character and purpose

Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven …
Our priority is serving the mission of God in the world

Give us today our daily bread …
May we find bread for the journey, and the grace to share it with others on the way

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us …
Make our generosity to others the measure of your treatment of us

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil …
Break the power of evil and let us know your Shalom

 

 

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Communities of the Triune God

Trinity Sunday (A)
11 June 2017
Byron Bay

 

As we transition from the Great Fifty Days of Easter to the long season of ‘Ordinary Time’, we pause to observe Trinity Sunday: the Feast of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.

One of the ways in which this holy day differs from almost every other religious festival, is that it commemorates a doctrine rather than an event or a person.

This commemoration is observed differently in the East and West of the Church.

For those of us in the West, its contemporary observance stems from the decision of Pope John XXII (1316–1344 CE). It tends to have the character of a philosophical and theological puzzle. A religious Rubik’s Cube. Is anyone in the room smart enough to solve this puzzle?

In the Eastern Church—and especially in the Middle East—this is more of an existential challenge than an intellectual puzzle.

For Christians in Jerusalem and Nazareth this is something that cuts to heart of their identity. As Christians, as communities of the Triune God, this is a core belief that defines who they are, where they live, who they may marry, and where they will be buried—as well as much else in between. This doctrine marks them as targets for ISIS as well as the victims of hate attacks by Jewish extremists.

For me this is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have learned about God in the months since Advent Sunday. What have we learned about Jesus in that time? What have we learned about the Holy Spirit? How has our understanding of discipleship matured and changed?

If we tried to express this as mathematical formula, it may look as follows:

Advent + Christmas + Epiphany + Lent + Holy Week + Easter + Pentecost = x

The doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian variable after all we have experienced in this series of religious observances over several months in the first half of the Christian Year. From the perspective of Christian faith, the ‘value’ which equates to all these moments of revelation and religious experience is the realisation that we can best speak about God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.

Such a formula does not resolve all our questions, but it is the best we can do in light of the Christian mystery. To say anything less about God would be to deny one or more aspect of revelation and experience during these past several months.

 

God the Father

As I reflect on what we have experienced of the divine mystery these past several months, I am conscious of a deep immersion in the truth of Immanuel (“God with us”, in Hebrew).

Not only God with us, but also God for us. Indeed, God as one of us.

And more than that, God-not-faraway, distant and remote. But rather, God deeply embedded in human experience. Perhaps better: humanity enmeshed in the web of life, with God at its eternal heart.

As Christians, we can no longer think of God apart from Jesus who taught us to imagine God as our father.

Jesus has changed how we think of God.

We cannot imagine God apart from Jesus, and we cannot think of Jesus apart from God.

 

God the Son

Just as Jesus changes how we think of God, so we find it impossible to grasp the significance of Jesus without using God language.

This, of course, is where we part ways with Jews and Muslims.

Their experience of revelation and grace does not require them to think of God when they consider the significance of Jesus, nor to acknowledge Jesus when they think of God.

But we do, as that is the necessary result of our Christian experience of revelation and grace in the person of Jesus.

As Christians, we have a particular experience of God, and it centres on Jesus: the first-century Galilean Jew who we have learned to recognise as the ‘human face of God’.

 

God the Holy Spirit

The earliest Christian communities discerned a shared experience of the Spirit of God. This was what made them communities of hope and transformation, and this is the core religious experience at the very heart of our faith as Christians.

In the end, we are not simply people with particular ideas about God. Nor are we essentially people who appreciate the wit and wisdom of Jesus.

Either would be a good basis for a life lived with integrity and holy intention. Together those two orientations powerfully shape lives that are ‘holy’ and ‘true’.

But the heart of the Christian faith is much more.

It is a shared experience of the Spirit of God, the Spirit that penetrates and animates everything that exists. And it is always and necessarily a shared experienced, a community event. It always ‘we’, rather than ‘me’.

Like us, most of the earliest Christians had never met Jesus and knew almost nothing about him as a person. What they had in common was not knowledge about Jesus, but a shared experience of the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life.

This is the profound mystery referenced in the familiar words of The Grace:

“… and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you …”

This sacred Spirit at work among us, between us, and within us, is nothing less than the Spirit of God that brings all life into existence. But it is also the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the Risen Lord among us: as Paul says in a mostly overlooked section of 1 Corinthians 15:

“… the last Adam became a life-giving spirit …” (1Cor 15:45)

 

The trinitarian circle is completed by the dynamic presence of the Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of Jesus, and who is also the risen Lord among us.

For that reason, we are people of the triune God. We can do no less.

God remains always beyond our words.

But God is never absent from our hearts, nor from our shared experience of the depth dimension of life.

 

 

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Jesus people, Spirit people

Pentecost Sunday
4 June 2017
Byron Bay

On this fiftieth day after Easter we conclude our ‘week of weeks’ during which time we have been reflecting on the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.

In our celebrations today we focus on the bottom line of Easter.

Where is Jesus?

He is here among us, and the Spirit of Jesus that we experience in our own lives turns out also to be the Spirit of God that hovered over the deep waters in the ancient Creation poem of the Jewish faith.

Because we are Jesus people, we are also—and necessarily so—Spirit people.

Jesus embodied the Spirit of God, and so do we.

This is one of the deep truths we proclaim later this morning when I baptise George at St Columba’s Church, Ewingsdale. That ritual is not about expunging some stain of sin from his perfect three year old life, but rather celebrating his participation—with us—in the Spirit of Life.

The dance goes on, and the Spirit is both the rhythm and our intimate partner in the dance.

Imaging the Spirit

Let me now offer you some ideas that will invite you to reflect on how we imagine the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, to be active among us, between us, and within us.

Let me present—ever so briefly—a series of seven metaphors for the Holy Spirit, and invite you simply to embrace those that touch you most deeply for your reflections during this coming week.

Wind / Breath

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This one of the most primal metaphors for the Spirit.

Spirit as wind, as breath, as the catalyst for life itself.

As the Psalmist wrote so long ago: When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the Earth. (104:30)

Flame

Fire heartOn Pentecost Sunday we naturally think about the tongues of fire, but there are more ancient examples of fire as an encounter with the purity and power of the sacred which lies at the very heart of our existence. One of my favourite images is the burning wish theophany in the Moses story. What ground is not holy? Is there any place where we should not take off our shoes in awe at the holy Other?

 

Fountain / Well / Stream

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As Paul says in our reading this morning:

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1Cor 12:13)

 

Dove / Mother Hen

e85828aca912bea6fc25282d6aed566fThis one of the more familiar metaphors, and churches around the world today will be decorated with doves on liturgical banners.

The dove is mostly a sign of peace (shalom), but I also like Stanley Spencer’s image of God as a mother hen protecting her chicks.

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Fruits of the Spirit

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The natural result of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives will be to generate outcomes that reflect the character of God, and express God’s hopes for our world.

I like the tropical flavour of this image, which speaks to our local context here.

 

Gifts of the Spirit

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These are not the gifts listed in today’s NT reading, but they are great qualities to have in our toolkit for living lives that are godly and true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intimate Presence

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How do we express the intimate presence of the Spirit who knows us better than we know ourselves?

Paul was geting personal when he wrote these words:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit …
(Romans 8:26–27)

 

 

Enemy of Apathy

As we conclude these reflections, I invite you to read hymn 418, “Enemy of Apathy” by John Bell and Graham Maule:

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.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons | 2 Comments

Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton

151113 SGC DeanBishop Sarah Macneil, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton, has announced that the Reverend Canon Dr Gregory C. Jenks has been chosen as Rector of the Parish of Grafton and Dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ the King.

The official announcement is being made this morning in the Cathedral Parish and in the Parish of Byron Bay, where Canon Jenks is currently serving after returning to Australia from Jerusalem earlier this year.

Dean Jenks will take up his appointment as the eighth Dean of Grafton later this year, and will continue to serve as the locum priest for the Anglican Parish of Byron Bay until that time.

The Cathedral of Christ the King has both local and diocesan mission responsibilities. The Cathedral is the parish church for the Anglican Parish of Grafton, which includes the northern half of the city as well as two nearby rural centres: Copmanhurst and Lawrence. At the same time, the Cathedral has a prophetic mission to the city of Grafton, and within the Northern Rivers more generally, as well as its ministry within the wider life of the Diocese.

Greg Jenks is married to Eve James, who is manager of the Roscoe Library at St Francis Theological College in Brisbane. They have two adult daughters. Greg also has two other adult children, and two grandchildren.

For Canon Jenks this is a return to his roots in the Northern Rivers, as he was born and raised in Lismore.

Dr Jenks is a Canon Emeritus of the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem, and was previously the Dean of St George’s College in Jerusalem. Prior to his appointment in Jerusalem, Dr Jenks was Academic Dean of St Francis Theological College  and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University.

Canon Jenks values his close links with Palestinian Anglican communities in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Haifa. He looks forward to developing mission partnerships and pilgrimage opportunities between the Cathedral and these faith communities in the Holy Land.

Dr Jenks is a co-director of the Bethsaida Archaeology Project in northern Israel, where he also serves as the coin curator for the dig, and is also the founding director of the Centre for Coins, Culture and Religious History. His research interests focus on the coins from the Bethsaida excavations, as well as other coins that illuminate the role religion has played in shaping human culture.

Dr Jenks is the author of several books and numerous published essays. His most recent books include Jesus Then and Jesus Now (2014) and The Once and Future Bible (2011).

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, News | 6 Comments

Good News for all of life

Easter 7 (A)
28 May 2017
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
St Oswald’s Church, Broken Head

 

This morning we conclude our series of sermons on the attributes of a spiritually confident faith community in contemporary Australia.

We began by considering what we mean by “confident”.

We saw then that such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

We then looked at Scripture as an amazing spiritual resource, and deep blessing that is ours when we read in the company of other people, and do so with an attitude of faith and thankfulness. A spiritually confident church will be one that develops the capacity of its members to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, as a source of sacred wisdom for daily life.

Next we turned our attention to liturgy, that ancient well of common prayer from which we draw the waters of life for ourselves and for our wider community. We began to think of our churches and our homes as ‘thin places’, where heaven and earth are not far apart.

Last week we turned our attention to the shared life of our church community. We imagined a faith community to be like an oasis where people find sanctuary in their journey through life. A safe place to be, and a good place from which to move on when the time comes. Church as a place where the Lord’s Prayer is not just said, but lived.

Today I invite you to consider how our faith connects with and engages the whole of life.

 

A Faith for the Whole of Life

As a final hallmark of the spiritually confident faith community, let me suggest that such a church is concerned with the whole of life, and not just with the religious bits.

The church is not a franchise for tickets to heaven, or even for some esoteric personal improvement program.

Our compassion extends from the newborn infant at the font to a frail aged person in the local nursing home. We do local theology, speaking about God in the towns and farms of the Northern Rivers. We are concerned about every person and the whole person.

Following Jesus we embrace the Shema as the mission statement of the covenant people: loving God with our heart, our soul, our strength, and our minds (an addition by Jesus). The whole person is involved in our response to God, and the good news we have to share is for all people and for the whole of life.

We do not agree to be relegated as a private recreational activity for those with an interest in spirituality or alternative health practices.

Without becoming arrogant or intolerant, we believe we have good news that touches on every aspect of the human experience. We know that we have to win the right to be heard, but we do not accept being sidelined as a quaint cultural group with an interesting historical past.

Our concern for the whole of life is grounded in our incarnational theology, its roots run deep into our beliefs about creation, incarnation, and resurrection.

A spiritually confident church will affirm our belief that God is the ultimate source of everything that exists. In the ancient creation poem that we inherited from the Jewish people, we read that God calls everything into being. Day after day through the week of creation our world takes shape in response to God’s invitation: Let there be …

At the end of each day, God looks at what has been created that day and declares it to be good. It is good. That is God’s assessment of our world, and we share that assessment. We do not divide this reality into clean and unclean, light and dark, godly and godless, physical and spiritual. All is of God and all is good.

This becomes even more powerful for us at the incarnation. God immerses herself in the physical world, taking star dust from an ancient super nova to fashion the human being we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The creator blends with the creature. Immanuel. God with us, among us, as one of us.

At Easter we see God go even deeper into the divine embrace of creation. Having first made humans to share God’s own immortality, God now allows death to become part of God’s own deep immersion in the human project. We were made in God’s image, but God chooses to embrace our mortality. How else to save us from ourselves?

God entering death is like a lamp being lit in a dark room. Light shatters the darkness. Always. The deepest darkness is splintered by the tiniest candle. Death is destroyed by the willingness of God to embrace our mortality. The power of death is shattered by the gentle, loving presence of ultimate Life.

For a robust and spiritually confident church there is no part of the human experience which is out of bounds.

We embrace everything we can learn about this world from the natural sciences and the social sciences. For a spiritually confident church, science is never the enemy. Fear is the enemy, not knowledge—and perfect love drives out fear.

Such a church celebrates life, welcomes the new insights generated by researchers, encourages its members to bring the whole of themselves into the quest for knowledge, for justice, and for the healing of our fragile Earth.

 

Reconciliation Week 2017

This week we are called as a nation to reflect on the need for deep and genuine reconciliation between the indigenous people of this ancient land and those of us whose people arrived much later. It would undermine all we have been thinking about during these past two weeks if we allowed our national focus this week to pass without any comment in our liturgy today.

You may recall that I suggested a few weeks ago that our liturgy is an investment in the spiritual fabric of our community.

Today is one occasion when what we say ‘in here’ and what we do ‘out there’ hangs together.

This is one of the ways that we live the Lord’s Prayer:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

 

This week we mark 50 years since the referendum in 1967 that approved the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in the official population count. Looking back now we may be amazed that the question even needed a vote, but it did.

This year we also mark 25 years since the Mabo Case which established that traditional title to the land continues to exist for many indigenous people and was not extinguished by the British Crown in 1788.

In the last couple of days we have seen a gathering of indigenous people at Uluru, ‘the rock at the heart of our land’, as we said in our prayers just last week. It calls on Australia to find a way for the First Nations of this shared land to have a voice in our Constitution.

It is not our job as church to propose how that should be done, but as people of faith we can rejoice as our indigenous sisters and brothers find their voice. They invite us to sit down together and find a better way.

As people of faith, as people of Jesus, we will join that process and make it something for which we work and pray.

We pray first of all for our sisters and brothers from the First Nations.

Then we pray for our political leaders. They need wisdom, courage, and grace.

In addition, we pray for open hearts and minds: for ourselves as much as anyone else. May we act and speak out of love, and not out of fear.

 

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Uluru Statement from the Heart

We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs.

This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Oasis of shalom

Easter 6 (A)
21 May 2017
St Paul’s Anglican Church
Byron Bay

This morning we continue our series of sermons on the attributes of a spiritually confident faith community in contemporary Australia.

We began by considering what we mean by “confident”.

Such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

We then looked at Scripture as an amazing spiritual resource, and deep blessing that is ours when we read in the company of other people, and do so with an attitude of faith and thankfulness. A spiritually confident church will be one that develops the capacity of its members to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, as a source of sacred wisdom for daily life.

Last week we turned our attention to liturgy, that ancient well of common prayer from which we draw the waters of life for ourselves and for our wider community. We began ti think ion our churches and our homes as thin places, where heaven and earth are not far apart.

Today I invite you to turn our attention to the shared life of our church community.

Oasis of Shalom

I like to think of a spiritually confident faith community as an oasis of Shalom, the perfect peace that God intends for all creation.

Such a church is open, inclusive, and welcoming.

People are made welcome, and provided with the space to be themselves. Even, to find themselves.

In the ancient tradition of the desert, a stranger is made welcome and asked no questions for three days. They are not interrogated about their identity or their history. They are simply made welcome and offered a place to stay for a while.

A spiritually confident church does not need to check the theological opinions of those who cross our threshold.

Genuine hospitality is a spiritual virtue that offers deep blessings to both the host and the guest. We can be clear about our own beliefs and values without needing to impose them on those whose paths cross with ours. There will be time enough for dialogue and conversation if the guests choose to stay longer among us.

For everyone in the community—long term members, short term guests, and those seeking a new community—a spiritually confident church offers a place of safety.

Children and vulnerable adults will not be exploited or abused in such a church. Beyond that, such a community is also a safe place to experiment, and even to make mistakes. A person’s worth is not derived from their theological views or their personal achievements. They are of value because they are God’s children.

These communities nurture experiments in holy living, and the web of community life is the safety net into which we fall when we miss the mark—as we all do.

A further hallmark of such a healthy and spiritually confident faith community is the ease with which a former member may leave the community. Unlike a sect, a mature and confident church understands that some people will find it necessary to move on from that community as part of their own personal spiritual development.

Leaving the community, for whatever reason, is not an occasion for pressure or recrimination. The community exists to serve God’s mission of Shalom and human flourishing, and does not seek to extend people’s participation in the community once they have decided they wish to move on. Indeed, their capacity to move on after a period of time with the church may itself be a mark of their new health and maturity.

Living the Lord’s Prayer

If I were to try and express this another way, I would suggest that such a church is a working demonstration of the reign of God among us. Such a community is a place where the Lord’s Prayer is lived, and not just prayed.

We could take each line of the Lord’s Prayer as a key performance indicator of a spiritually confident faith community:

Our Father in heaven …
we are all children of the universe, brothers and sisters of Jesus

Hallowed be your name …
May everything we do, and how we do it, reflect your character and purpose

Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven …
Our priority is serving the mission of God in the world

Give us today our daily bread …
May we find bread for the journey, and the grace to share it with others on the way

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us …
Make our generosity to others the measure of your treatment of us

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil …
Break the power of evil and let us know your Shalom

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons | 2 Comments

Confident faith in a post-Christian world

Reflections for a diocesan clergy retreat
Cathedral of Christ the King, Grafton
(17 May 2017)

In the context of this clergy retreat we have been reflecting together on the text from 2 Timothy 1:7 passage: For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

In this session, I want to explore some of the attributes of a spiritually confident Anglican faith community in a post-Christian Australia.

This is not a prescription for a healthy or successful parish.

Rather, I am seeking to name and celebrate some of the attributes of a local faith community that has some degree of healthy spiritual confidence.

As the earlier reflections by Stuart, Mike and Lyndon have already indicated, we have good reasons to be spiritually confident, as individuals, as clergy, and as a church.

Such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

What I am trying to do in this session is imagine what a local church might be like if it embraced the idea that we can put aside any sense of cowardice, and live into our destiny as communities of power (the Greek word here is dynameis), love (agape) and practical wisdom (sōphronismos). That last word is rare, and only occurs this one time in the Bible. It has the sense of making wise choices, acting prudently, exercising self-control.

A challenging context

Our recent history as a church—and the increasingly secular context in which we find ourselves—provide good reasons to be anxious about the future. While I do not want to focus on these negative elements, I think we need to name them as serious factors that impact us as people of faith and as faith communities.

As a church we face some tough realities:

  • loss of influence in society
  • shrinking numbers
  • ageing congregations
  • limited resources
  • shameful failures of care for children and vulnerable adults
  • seeming success of ‘mega-churches’

In addition to all those factors we are operating in a context that is now more complex than in the past:

  • rising levels of affluence
  • ‘time poor’ couples working to cover the mortgage and maintain their lifestyle
  • accelerating technology-driven change impacting every aspect of life
  • religious pluralism
  • rising secularism
  • advances in the natural and social sciences
  • a new concept of what it means to be alive and to be human

None of those contextual factors are likely to be reversed, and we ignore them at our peril.

The major challenge that I discern is the need for us to be nimble and innovative in our response to these emerging challenges. These changes are here to stay, and they will only accelerate in both the pace of change and the scope of their impact. Everything is changing and we had best be prepared for that.

A community that has not been given a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of dynamic power, selfless love and practical wisdom has the resources to flourish even in these circumstances, and especially in these circumstances. Whether or not we do flourish depends mostly on whether we respond out of fear or hope.

Let’s now explore some of the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities in a post-Christian Australia that needs us to be all that God calls us to be, but expects very little wisdom for the future to be found among us.

 

People of the Book

We could start at a number of different places, but let’s begin with the Bible.

A spiritually confident church will be one that genuinely values the Scriptures, without making extreme claims that reflect poorly on both the Bible and the churches. To use a phrase that is commonly heard these days, such faith communities take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

Every church talks up its respect for the Bible.

Yet not every church encourages its members to become skilled in using those same Scriptures as responsible spiritual adults.

A spiritually confident church will invest in the development of its members so that high levels of biblical literacy are found among its people.

A spiritually confident church will encourage people to read the Bible and also enable them to read it well.

Such a church will not make those familiar false steps that can be mistaken for promoting Bible knowledge among its people. Much of what passes as Bible study is more about developing Bible trivia skills, and sometimes just reinforces ignorance. Knowing fascinating micro facts about the Bible, even when they are correct, is not the same as developing the skills needed to read the Bible for spiritual wisdom.

Healthy and confident churches appreciate the Bible as an informal sacrament of the living Word of God, ever active among us. In such a Church, listening to Scripture together is a community exercise as we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.

That means not just the priest or the Parish Council, but the entire congregation needs to be skilled at using the Bible and actively engaged in small groups where they can help each other “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.

Listening to God is the quintessential hallmark of a person of faith.

Reading the Bible in the company of other people is simply the best way to do that.

The Bible is not a magic pudding of spiritual knowledge, from which we can cut slice after slice of divine answers to theological and spiritual questions. We do the Bible no credit when we encourage people to engage uncritically with this amazing spiritual resource.

Its most precious attribute, and the major reason for taking the time to develop good biblical literacy skills, is as a catalyst for spiritual wisdom. When a small group gathers to study the Bible, God blesses us with wisdom. This is true even when our questions are not ones found in the Bible itself.

Reading the Bible puts us into a sphere of grace where we are more attuned to discern what the Spirit may be saying to the churches.

We gather at the Table of the Lord to feed on his life, and we gather around the Bible to find the wisdom we need for our daily lives.

We come to Table with an attitude of faith and thanksgiving as we reach out hands to receive the Body of the Lord. We listen to the Bible with the same attitude of faith and thanksgiving as we open our hearts to hear Word of the Lord.

As always, the focus stays on the present. We are not seeking to find out what the Bible can tell us about the past, but exploring how the Bible can shed new light on today and tomorrow.

In all of this our goal is to form disciples, not train scholars. We are reading for wisdom, not offering a master class in ancient history.

A spiritually confident faith community is one that:

  • Develops the biblical literacy skills of its members
  • Draws deeply and often from the well of Scripture
  • Encourages regular Bible study by individuals and small groups
  • Has a strong preaching ministry in Sunday services, and
  • Engages with the lectionary texts.


 

Liturgy

It seems that humans have a deep need for ritual.

This may be one reason for the continued observance of ANZAC Day, even though it has also been manipulated by politicians who see benefits to them from such events. The deeper reason is surely our shared sense that as a nation we need such occasions to celebrate our identity and commit ourselves to a shared future.

This love of ritual is also seen in the big budget rituals of major sporting events, as well as in the weekly assemblies at the local primary school. In those assembles we celebrate success, we build community, and we reinforce our core values.

A spiritually confident church does liturgy well.

By that, I do not mean that it perfectly observes all the directions of Ritual Notes 9th edition, nor that it has the finest music, the most eloquent preacher, or the best sound system.

I mean, of course, that it offers a liturgy that speaks to the human condition, even if not executed to perfection.

Liturgy that connects the rhythms of our life with the mysteries of the faith.

Liturgy that becomes, in its better moments, an encounter with God.

This kind of ‘good’ liturgy is grounded in the experience and the language of the local community. It grows out of, reflects upon, and enriches our shared life with those around us.

Such liturgy draws on the long tradition of the church, but it also integrates spiritual practices from other traditions.

It need not be heavy, but it can carry deep meaning.

It is often less verbal than what often passes for Sunday worship.

And it engages the whole person and all of our senses.

The aesthetic qualities of good liturgy are powerful connectors with the participants, and time spent preparing the non-verbal elements of the service is seldom wasted.

A spiritually confident church will offer people a variety of ritual moments, and teach people how to create rituals within their personal lives. We will go beyond page 119, and tap into the rich resources of the ancient church as well as more recent liturgical wisdom.

Celtic spirituality may have much to offer here, as it names and claims so much of the everyday, connecting the familiar rhythms of our life with God’s deep presence among us and within us. That kind of spiritually may be a bridge to our neighbours who have little time for church, but a deep longing for connection with God.

A spiritually confident church will also provide ‘God spaces’ and ‘God moments’ for the wider community. I love it when I drive through Bangalow and see the sign outside All Souls’ Church: ‘Church open for prayer’.

There are no conditions on how you pray, or even to whom you pray. Just an invitation to step aside and spend some time in the company of God.

The worship we offer is not just for ourselves.

Behind our English word, Liturgy, is an ancient Greek word: leitourgia.

leitourgia was something done as a gift to the community.

When people of faith gather for worship we are investing in the spiritual fabric of our community. We uphold our community, our nation and the world in our own hearts and in the heart of God. We are standing with the angels, and aligning ourselves with God’s dream of a world shaped by love. We are investing in shalom, deep peace.

Our Sunday worship is not about keeping the Anglican brand alive in our local area.

We are calling to mind the depth dimension of life, and we are offering ourselves to serve as instruments of God’s love and peace right here and right now.

We are connecting with God, connecting with each other, and connecting with our world.

Each Sunday we come to the ancient well of common prayer, and we draw water from the well of life. We do this for ourselves, of course. We need the spiritual refreshment that this living waters provide.

But we also do this for our friends and neighbours, who may never come to this well, but may still share in the life that God gives freely to anyone who is thirsty.

Oasis of Shalom

I like to think of a spiritually confident faith community as an oasis of Shalom, the perfect peace that God intends for all creation.

Such a church is open, inclusive, and welcoming.

People are made welcome, and provided with the space to be themselves. Even, to find themselves.

In the ancient tradition of the desert, a stranger is made welcome and asked no questions for three days. They are not interrogated about their identity or their history. They are simply made welcome and offered a place to stay for a while.

A spiritually confident church does not need to check the theological opinions of those who cross our threshold.

Genuine hospitality is a spiritual virtue that offers deep blessings to both the host and the guest. We can be clear about our own beliefs and values without needing to impose them on those whose paths cross with ours. There will be time enough for dialogue and conversation if the guests choose to stay longer among us.

For everyone in the community—long term members, short term guests, and those seeking a new community—a spiritually confident church offers a place of safety.

Children and vulnerable adults will not be exploited or abused in such a church. Beyond that, such a community is also a safe place to experiment, and even to make mistakes. A person’s worth is not derived from their theological views or their personal achievements. These communities nurture experiments in holy living, and the web of community life is the safety net into which we fall when we miss the mark—as we all do.

A further hallmark of such a healthy and spiritually confident faith community is the ease with which a former member may leave the community. Unlike a sect, a mature and confident church understands that some people will find it necessary to move on from that community as part of their own personal spiritual development.

Leaving the community, for whatever reason, is not an occasion for pressure or recrimination. The community exists to serve God’s mission of Shalom and human flourishing, and does not seek to extend people’s participation in the community once they have decided they wish to move on. Indeed, their capacity to move on after a period of time with the church may itself be a mark of their new health and maturity.

If I were to try and express this another way, I would suggest that such a church is a working demonstration of the reign of God among us. Such a community is a place where the Lord’s Prayer is lived, and not just prayed.

We could take each line of the Lord’s Prayer as a key performance indicator of a spiritually confident faith community:

Our Father in heaven …
we are all children of the universe, brothers and sisters of Jesus

Hallowed be your name …
May everything we do, and how we do it, reflect your character and purpose

Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven …
Our priority is serving the mission of God in the world

Give us today our daily bread …
May we find bread for the journey, and the grace to share it with others on the way

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us …
Make our generosity to others the measure of your treatment of us

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil …
Break the power of evil and let us know your Shalom

The Whole of Life

As a final hallmark of the spiritually confident faith community, let me suggest that such a church is concerned with the whole of life, and not just with the religious bits.

The church is not a franchise for tickets to heaven, or even for some esoteric personal improvement program.

Our compassion extends from the newborn infant at the font to a frail aged person in the local nursing home. We do local theology, speaking about God in the towns and farms of the Northern Rivers. We are concerned about every person and the whole person.

Following Jesus we embrace the Shema as the mission statement of the covenant people: loving God with our heart, our soul, our strength, and our minds (an addition by Jesus). The whole person is involved in our response to God, and the good news we have to share is for all people and for the whole of life.

We do not agree to be relegated as a private recreational activity for those with an interest in spirituality or alternative health practices.

Without becoming arrogant or intolerant, we believe we have good news that touches on every aspect of the human experience. We know that we have to win the right to be heard, but we do not accept being sidelined as a quaint cultural group with an interesting historical past.

Our concern for the whole of life is grounded in our incarnational theology, its roots run deep into our beliefs about creation, incarnation, and resurrection.

A spiritually confident church will affirm our belief that God is the ultimate source of everything that exists. In the ancient creation poem that we inherited from the Jewish people, we read that God calls everything into being. Day after day through the week of creation our world takes shape in response to God’s invitation: Let there be …

At the end of each day, God looks at what has been created that day and declares it to be good. It is good. That is God’s assessment of our world, and we share that assessment. We do not divide this reality into clean and unclean, light and dark, godly and godless, physical and spiritual. All is of God and all is good.

This becomes even more powerful for us at the incarnation. God immerses herself in the physical world, taking star dust from an ancient super nova to fashion the human being we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The creator blends with the creature. Immanuel. God with us, among us, as one of us.

At Easter we see God go even deeper into the divine embrace of creation. Having first made humans to share God’s own immortality, God now allows death to become part of God’s own deep immersion in the human project. We were made in God’s image, but God chooses to embrace our mortality. How else to save us from ourselves?

God entering death is like a lamp being lit in a dark room. Light shatters the darkness. Always. The deepest darkness is splintered by the tiniest candle. Death is destroyed by the willingness of God to embrace our mortality. The power of death is shattered by the gentle, loving presence of ultimate Life.

For a robust and spiritually confident church there is no part of the human experience which is out of bounds.

We embrace everything we can learn about this world from the natural sciences and the social sciences. For a spiritually confident church, science is never the enemy. Fear is the enemy, and perfect love drives out fear.

Such a church celebrates life, welcomes the new insights generated by researchers, encourages its members to bring the whole of themselves into the quest for knowledge, for justice, and for the healing of our fragile Earth.

Indeed, we say, God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Thin places and deep wells

Easter 5A
(14 May 2017)
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay

This is the third sermon in our mini series looking at the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.

We have already reflected on the dynamic of spiritual confidence, which is not to be confused with arrogance or bigotry. Rather, as we saw, it is about a deep confidence that our faith tradition offers sound spiritual wisdom for life’s journey.

Last week we reflected on the significance of the Bible, and our confidence that time spent reading the Scriptures with an attitude of faith and gratitude is an opportunity to deepen our personal spiritual connection with God. As an informal sacrament, the Bible helps us to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

This week we turn our attention to worship, and I want to suggest that we can be confident that our liturgies connect us deeply into the mysteries of our faith.

Thin places, deep wells

Come with me to that classic story in John 4, where Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman Jacob’s Well.

This icon may help you to enter that story more deeply. Pass it around as I am speaking, Feel its weight. Absorb its design. The colour. The interaction between Jesus and the woman. Hold this physical expression of deep faith in your hands. Join your heart with the elderly priest who created this icon in the crypt beside Jacob’s well.

160116 Jacobs Well Icon

First of all, notice the location of this story. This was a holy place in the time of Jesus, and it remains a holy place today. This is a quintessential ‘thin place’; a place made sacred as people have come to the site over hundreds and thousands of years, and offered their prayers.

Our modern world of gadgets and instant entertainment is in desperate need of thin places. Our liturgies and our church buildings are thin places. We just need to learn how to appreciate them.

Now, notice the well.

For thousands of years people have come to this well. Mostly they just collected water. But sometimes something deeper happened, as was the case for this woman on that day.

The woman said to Jesus, “Our ancestor Jacob gave us this well.” I want to steal her words and apply them to our Prayer Book: “Our spiritual ancestors gave us this book …” She had a bucket to draw from the ancestor’s well, and we have a Prayer Book to draw up the living waters of the holy tradition.

When we step inside this building and when we open our prayer books, we are on holy ground and we have in our hands a most amazing spiritual treasure.

Ritual runs deep

It seems that humans have a deep need for ritual.

This may be one reason for the continued observance of ANZAC Day, although I am sure that it has also been manipulated by politicians who see benefits to them from such events. The deeper reason is surely our shared sense that as a nation we need such occasions to celebrate our identity and commit ourselves to a shared future.

This love of ritual is also seen in major sporting events, as well as in the weekly assemblies at the local primary school. In those assembles we celebrate success, we build community, and we reinforce our core values.

A spiritually confident church does liturgy well.

By that, I do not mean that it perfectly observes all the directions of Ritual Notes 9th edition, nor that it has the finest music, the most eloquent preacher, or the best sound system.

I mean, of course, that it offers a liturgy that speaks to the human condition, even if not executed to perfection. Liturgy that connects the rhythms of our life with the mysteries of the faith. Liturgy that becomes, in its better moments, an encounter with God.

This kind of ‘good’ liturgy is grounded in the experience and the language of the local community. It grows out of, reflects upon, and enriches our shared life with those around us.

Such liturgy draws on the long tradition of the church, but it also integrates spiritual practices from other traditions.

It need not be heavy, but it can carry deep meaning.

It is often less verbal that what often passes for Sunday worship.

And it may engage the whole person and all of our senses.

The aesthetic qualities of good liturgy are powerful connectors with the participants, and time spent preparing the non-verbal elements of the service is seldom wasted.

A spiritually confident church will offer people a variety of ritual moments, and teach people how to create rituals within their personal lives. We will go beyond page 119, and tap into the rich resources of the ancient church.

Celtic spirituality may have much to offer here, as it names and claims so much of the everyday, connecting the familiar rhythms of our life with God’s deep presence among us and within us. That kind of spiritually may be a bridge to our neighbours who have little time for church, but a deep longing for connection with God.

A spiritually confident church will also provide ‘God spaces’ and ‘God moments’ for the wider community. I love it when I drive through Bangalow and see the sign outside All Souls’ Church: ‘Church open for prayer’.

There are no conditions on how you pray, or even to whom you pray. Just an invitation to step aside and spend some time in the company of God.

Common Prayer for the Common Good

As a spiritually confident faith community we will do our best to make our worship special.

The liturgy deserves our best: the best music we can arrange, the best preparation we can give to our different parts in the service, the best personal preparation we can make as we prepare to gather in this sacred space to begin our week in worship.

The worship we offer is not just for ourselves.

Behind our English word, Liturgy, is an ancient Greek word: leitourgia.

A leitourgia was something done as a gift to the community.

When people of faith gather for worship we are investing in the spiritual fabric of our community. We uphold our community, our nation and the world in our own hearts and in the heart of God. We are standing with the angels, and aligning ourselves with God’s dream of a world shaped by love. We are investing in shalom, deep peace.

Our Sunday worship is not about keeping the Anglican brand alive in the Bay.

We are calling to mind the depth dimension of life, and we are offering ourselves to serve as instruments of God’s love and peace right here and right now.

We are connecting with God, connecting with each other, and connecting with our world.

Each Sunday we come to the ancient well of common prayer, and we draw water from the well of life. We do this for ourselves, of course. We need the spiritual refreshment that this living waters provide.

But we also do this for our friends and neighbours, who may never come to this well, but may still share in the life that God gives freely to anyone who is thirsty.

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