Discernment … wisdom … conversion

Discernment Synod Eucharist
Diocese of Grafton
4 February 2018

[video]

Here today we begin the process of discerning the person who will serve as the next Bishop of Grafton.

Here in this service we seek the guidance of God in that process, and we commit ourselves to be the kind of persons God can guide.

 

Leadership as ministry

The ministry of leadership within the community of God’s people has often challenged both those called to leadership as well as the members of the Church.

There is no singular biblical specification for leadership, despite periodic attempts to promote one model or another as ‘the’ biblical template.

At different times in church history various models of leadership have been developed in response to the missional needs of the churches at those times. Even within the New Testament we find many different models of pastoral leadership, and that diversity is expanded even further if we include the Old Testament.

A reasonable case can be made that every model has its advantages and disadvantages.

As Australian Anglicans we embrace episcopal leadership exercised within a Synodical governance framework in which clergy and lay people have substantial authority and shared responsibility for the well-being of the Church. This differs from some other provinces of the Anglican Communion where Bishops may exercise more authority and where the powers of the Synod may be somewhat curtailed.

 

Discernment Synod

Beginning here today, this Synod embraces its responsibility for the appointment of a new Bishop, a responsibility that we exercise as we follow a series of careful steps:

First of all, here in the Eucharist, we seek God’s guidance. I shall return to the significance of that in just a moment.

Secondly, we shall then spend the bulk of today listening to one another carefully, intentionally, with spiritual ears attuned to hear not only one another but also the God who is within us, among us, and between us.

Finally today, we shall elect the Bishop Appointment Board. Those chosen to serve on this Board are being entrusted by us to choose and appoint our new Bishop, informed by our discernment process today and guided by God.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider that.

What a profound act of faith.

We not only seek God’s guidance, but we are delegating 12 of our members (along with 6 reserves) to make a decision of immense significance for us as a Diocese, and for many of us as individuals.

We trust those 12 (18) people to act in good faith.

Our trust in them is a tangible instance of our trust in God.

We are indeed stepping onto holy ground as we undertake this task today.

Let me now return to stage one of that process: what we are doing here in this Eucharist in the Cathedral this morning.

 

Ongoing conversion

As I mentioned earlier, here in this service we are seeking God’s guidance not only on our discernment Synod today, but also on the whole process of choosing our new Bishop.

In our case and at this time, we need to discern not only the qualities needed in our new Bishop, but also the qualities needed in us as we form the Synod of this Diocese and work in partnership with our Bishop.

Our prayers are not for others to be touched by God, but for all of us and each of us to be touched by God.

Let me put this in stark terms.

Unless we are reformed and renewed we can sabotage the ministry of our new Bishop

For sure we need wisdom to find the right person

But getting the right person is not a silver bullet to resolve the real challenges we face.

We also need to be the right people, the people God wants us to be.

We need a deep and continuous conversion of the Diocese, and that means us (not the Registry office).

It is for that blessing that we pray this morning.

As I try to unpack what that blessings might look like, let me recycle some words of St Paul, and suggest that we are seeking the gifts of faith … hope … love …

  • faith: an attitude of trust rather than pretending to have the answers
  • hope: genuine confidence that God has work for us to do and will enable us to do it
  • love: authentic concern and goodwill that subverts theological tribalism

 

Yes, we seek wisdom to identify the right person to serve as our Bishop.

But we also seek grace to become the kind of people with whom that new Bishop can serve.

That way—and only in that way—can we engage in the mission to which we are called and develop the ministries that will authentically communicate the heart of the gospel to our families, our neighbours, and indeed our own selves.

May God grant us our prayers.

Amen.

 

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Dean of Grafton

Text of the response by the Eighth Dean of Grafton to the community welcome at the conclusion of the installation and commissioning liturgy at Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton on Friday, 2 February 2018.

 

180202 InstallationThank you for the generous welcome extended on behalf of various communities represented here tonight.

Thank you to each of you for being here this evening to make this such a special celebration.

Thank you for the exceptional care and support to me and to Eve and our family since my cancer diagnosis first disturbed our plans to hold this event in September. It has been a richer and more blessed journey these past few months because of your care and support.

Thank you as well to the search committee, chaired by Bishop Sarah, which has invited me to engage in this new ministry opportunity.

Twelve months ago today exactly, I arrived back in Australia with no firm sense of what ministry I would undertake after my time in Jerusalem. It seems that God still had plans for this Lismore boy who has now returned home to the beaches, the rainforests, the timbered ranges and the generous river valleys of his birth. It is good to be home. It is good to be here.

As a Cathedral Parish we are first of all a community of people called together as followers of Jesus. Tonight we reaffirm our commitment to learn and to practise what Jesus has taught us about living as a colony of God’s Kingdom here in this place and at this time.

As a Cathedral we serve the wider diocesan community. I invite the prayers of each ministry unit across the Diocese, as we seek to discern how best to make the spiritual and cultural resources of this place more available to you in your own context.

As a Cathedral we seek to be a place of pilgrimage and prayer for all people of faith, for people of all faiths, and those who do not claim any faith. Our doors are open, our hearts are open, and our minds are open to insights and challenges emerging from our ever expanding knowledge, our evolving social contexts, and the impact of new technologies.

As a Cathedral we are a place where the civic community gathers to celebrate our shared life as a city. Here we mark times of tragedy and loss, and here we affirm our unique local character and our many successes as a city.

Finally, as a Cathedral we are a place that affirms hope. As a traditional place of asylum and sanctuary, we speak truth to power, and we speak peace-shalom-salaam to those without hope or power.

Thank you for sharing the journey that begins this evening …

 

 

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Rainbow faith in an ancient land

Australia Day Service
Grafton Cathedral
28 January 2018

australia_day1

Over this holiday weekend it is timely to reflect on what it means to be Australian, and especially what it means to us as people of faith.

 

Goodbye to privilege

We can start by acknowledging that the days of privilege are past.

While religious faith continues to be protected and respected in our society, Christianity no longer enjoys the status that it once had. That is especially true of the Anglican Church, as social changes have necessarily meant that our percentage within the total population would decline.

We now find ourselves as one church among many, and one faith among several.

That is no bad thing as monopoly feeds arrogance, and privilege tends to corrupt.

We have seen the dark side of that privilege revealed in the plain light of day by the careful work of the Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children in church institutions. That religious institutions were not the only places of abuse is no consolation. It reminds us deeply we failed to bring our distinctive Christian values to bear on the important caring ministries in which we were involved.

We share and reflect the failings of other individuals and institutions.

But we also claim a different set of values, and we aspire to a higher level of genuine care, modelled on the practice of Jesus himself.

So let’s set aside any hankering for past privileges, and focus on how our faith might inform and shape our citizenship now and in the future.

 

This land

What does it mean to be in this place, rather than somewhere else in the world?

Every place is both beautiful and special, but this is our place.

It is an ancient and distinctive land, with animals and plant life that are quite remarkable in their own right.

The challenge of the Jewish exiles in ancient Babylon becomes ours as well: How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? But we reframe that slightly, so it becomes: How do we sing the Lord’s song in this ancient and unique place?

How do we express our faith with an Aussie accent, crafting words that come from our experience rather than words borrowed from ancient Palestine or Medieval Europe?

This is essential work, but it will not be easy.

One aspect of the challenge is seen in our religious calendar.

We observe Christmas, a celebration of the coming of Light at the darkest point of mid-winter, in the middle of summer. And we wonder why everyone is at the beach and not in church? We sing of dashing through the snow, as we head to the coast and slap on the sun screen. Here in the Great South Land, we are singing the Lord’s song in words that derive from the northern hemisphere. Category error!

Even more out of sync is our celebration of Easter, the ancient Spring festival, in the middle of Autumn. We have mortgaged our copy of the Lord’s song to the calendar of another place, and our lyrics clash with the reality of what is happening outside the window. We talk of new life, as the leaves turn brown and fall to the ground.

The reality is that we cannot change the dates for Christmas and Easter, but perhaps we can make sure that we observe them with an Aussie accent.

Much as I love and identify with the geography of Palestine, that is not our land. As Palestinians—whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim—have needed to find ways to speak of God and faith in their own accent, so we need to learn how to speak of God in ways that will resonate with our neighbours, our children, and our own inner self.

 

These people

And what does it mean to be among the people who share this place with us?

Who are these people?

First of all, we acknowledge the indigenous people of this land. We share this land with people whose ancestors have been here for 60,000 years. Let that number sink into our consciousness. 60,000 years.

When literalists engage in the folly of adding up the genealogies in the Bible to calculate the age of the earth, or the dates of Adam and Eve, they come up a number of around 6,000 years. On the same timeline, they place Abraham—the so-called father of the faith—around 2,000 BCE, or 4,000 years ago.

While such numerical games are meaningless nonsense in a universe that is 15 billion years old, there is a lesson to be learned.

Christian fundamentalists claim with pride that our faith goes back to the time of Abraham, yet we live in a land with a human history stretching back 60,000 years and more.

We have much to learn from the oldest continuous human culture on the planet. Yet we rarely pause even to consider what we could learn from them about singing the Lord’s song in this strange and marvellous land.

That is going to change.

The Cathedral will now be working with indigenous theologians to provide a space for what the Revd Lenore Parker, a local indigenous priest and poet, calls ‘big river theology’. I have no idea where that will take us, but I catch a glimpse of it in the art that transforms the Baptistery of this Cathedral Church. For sure we have much to learn about speaking of God in this place and among these people.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Apart from our indigenous people, and similar to many of us, there are a great many other people around us whose roots lie in other places and other cultures.

What an incredible blessing to live in such a diverse and multicultural community.

As people of faith, when tensions arise between different cultural and ethnic groups—­as they always will from time to time—we will celebrate diversity, encourage openness, and refuse to join those politicians and other xenophobic forces that seek to promote fear and hatred so that they can divide and conquer our community.

We celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, including the diversity of humankind.

As church we seek a unity that goes beyond ethnicity, race, social status or gender. We value those differences, but we refuse to allow them to divide us from one another in the Great South Land.

At least that is theory.

The reality may be different as we look around and wonder why the faces inside this Cathedral are so similar to one another, and so unrepresentative of the diversity seen outside the Cathedral.

This too must change. And it will.

 

Towards a brand new day

As I wrap up these brief reflections on being people of faith, Christian people, in this ancient land, let me quote part of the beautiful prayer by Lenore Parker that we shall use as the preface for the Great Thanksgiving Prayer this morning:

God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
From the dawn of creation you have given your children 
the good things of Mother Earth. 
You spoke and the gum tree grew.

In the vast desert and dense forest, 
And in cities at the water’s edge,
Creation sings your praise.
Your presence endures
As the rock at the heart of our land.

The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
And bathed it in glorious hope.
In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
To each other, and to your whole creation.

Lead us on, Great Spirit,
As we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
From the hurt and shame of the past
Into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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The God who goes fishing

180121 Epiphany 3B
Christ Church Cathedral
Grafton

sign-clipart-gone-fishing-5

[video]

On this third Sunday after the Epiphany, as we are invited to reflect on those moments, when we catch a glimpse into the deeper meaning of life, the lectionary offers us some fishing tales!

These are not regular fishing stories—and parts of both tales are to be found offstage as it were—but it may be helpful to think of both the reading from Jonah and the reading from Mark’s gospel as being examples of fishing stories.

Jonah, as you may recall, is one heck of a fishing story. We’ll come back to it in a moment as it is basically the prequel for today’s excerpt from the text. It is a story where the fish does the hunting and the human is swallowed by the giant sea monster.

The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, represents Jesus hanging out amongst the fisherfolk down by the Sea of Galilee.

The north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee has always been the best spot to go fishing. The water is not so deep and is therefore warmer. In addition, there are lots of nutrients washed into the lake as the Jordan River comes down from the mountains in the north and meets the still waters of the lake, losing its velocity and dropping its silt in the process. Fish have always enjoyed the north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee. Fisherfolk are always to be found in that quadrant of the lake.

But this is a bit different because Jesus says he’s going to teach the fisherfolk how to fish, and they won’t be catching fish but people.

 

A disturbing God

You might already be getting the sense that today’s readings are building on a theme that Camelia started in her sermon last week. At that time, Camelia spoke about the God who calls. She drew our attention to the dynamic in the religious life and especially during Epiphany season, of being people who listen, people who hear, people who are attentive to what the Spirit might be whispering into their soul.

The idea of a God who calls is a key Epiphany theme.

What we often overlook is that this call from God is often is something which upsets and disturbs us.

When God calls it is rarely to make us feel comfortable about life. Rather things get disturbed, whether that be our own lives; our expectations and our arrangements for our future; or our families who may be far from pleased at our response to God’s call on our lives.

This was certainly true of Jesus, as we will see a little bit later in the Gospel of Mark.

His family come down from Nazareth to Capernaum to rescue him because they think he is out of his mind. He needs to come home and have a rest.

Meanwhile back in the village things were not much better. In Mark 6 when Jesus is active in his own village, his townspeople look at him and say, “Who does this fellow think he is?”

 

This week’s Epiphany moment

The Epiphany moment we are being invited to reflect on this week is the insight that God has work for us to do, and that God will call us to the work that is ours for the doing.

Let that sentence resonate in your mind for a moment.

God has work for us to do, and that God will call us to the work that is ours for the doing.

It is actually quite scary and perhaps exciting at the same time. God has something in mind for us, and God will not be brushed aside.

The most important thing we can do in this Cathedral is to help people discern what God is calling them to do, and then support them as they seek to embrace that call.

They will need our support, as the call be disturbing at many levels.

This was the experience of many prophets and apostles in both the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition.

We see it most dramatically in the wonderful tale of Jonah the runaway prophet.

He is so disturbed by God’s call on his life that he runs in the opposite direction, catches a boat to the other end of the Mediterranean, and eventually volunteers to be thrown overboard into the ocean.

Of course, he had no idea that—in the story—this is exactly what God wants him to do and God already has a large fish ready to swallow him up. After three days the fish will spit Jonah out on dry land and God will ask Jonah to get on with the job.

While the story is dramatic and vivid, perhaps even exaggerated, in the Jonah tale, we see it also in the ancient traditions about Abraham, about Moses, about Jeremiah, and certainly in the case of the apostle Paul.

Recognising that God may have something in mind that we need to do with our lives, is not necessarily going to make us feel relaxed or at peace. It can indeed be quite disturbing.

 

Kingdom work

The work that God will have in mind for us will be something connected with the coming of God’s kingdom.

This takes us back to the beginning of the gospel reading this morning when Jesus appears on the scene in Galilee announcing that the time is up, the empire of God has drawn near, and it is time for people to turn their own lives upside down and make their response to this new reality. That’s a rough translation!

So what is this kingdom of God thing that was so central to Jesus own sense of his identity and his purpose?

It should be familiar to us. After all, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom each and every time that we say the Lord’s prayer:

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

Of course, that has always sounded like safe religious words that we can rattle off during a service or maybe at some other time when feeling religious, and we don’t really expect it to make much difference.

But in saying that prayer we are signing up to work for the coming of God’s kingdom. We are in a sense making a response to the God who calls, to the God who goes fishing seeking to catch us and draw us into God’s own work.

After all we all want to do the will of God, right?

But do we really?

Certainly, Jonah was not too impressed with the invitation to submit to God’s will.

We can see that those around Jesus, his family and his neighbours, were not at all impressed when this young man from the village decided to go off and do unpredictable and unconventional things, claiming to be working for the kingdom of God. Who does he think he is?

And while Andrew and Peter along with James and John seem to have responded remarkably quickly to Jesus’ call — that they leave their boats and leave their families so that they could come and follow him — we can be reasonably sure that old man Zebedee was not too impressed.

Doing kingdom work can be messy.

It certainly was for Jesus. It certainly was for Jonah. And it certainly was for those fishermen who responded to Jesus’ invitation to come with him and learn how to fish for people. Their lives were never going to be the same again.

Doing kingdom work will require us to put God first.

That’s what causes the trouble.

Other powerful people in the social systems within which we live find that threatening. Not only is the call of God disturbing for us, but the call of God can also be very disruptive for those around us. We no longer march to the same drum as everyone else.

If we were really to listen and take on board the call of God on our lives—the call of the God who goes fishing—then we may find ourselves pushing against the grain of our own culture and our own community.

We may find ourselves speaking truth to power at times when the powerful do not want to hear the truth we have to share.

We might find ourselves acting to protect refugees and provide asylum for those who our government wants to lock up and expel. The officials will not be impressed when we say that we have to do God’s will even if that conflicts with the law of the land.

We may find ourselves called to expose the cynical games played by the powerful as they create distractions in the media and distort the truth so as to protect their own privileges.

Like John the Baptist before him, Jesus of Nazareth spoke truth to power and was prepared to be an outsider even amongst his own people.

 

sign-clipart-gone-fishing-5

 

So today we are glimpsing an epiphany moment indeed.

God has gone fishing, and she is seeking to catch us.

God is drawing us into the work of the kingdom, into the work of ensuring that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

There is nothing more important than this work, but it is not an invitation to an easy life.

But God is a patient fisher, and she will stay the distance until the divine dream for a world of beauty, and justice and peace is fulfilled.

May we not only have the grace to hear the God who calls, but also the courage to respond to that call and spend our lives in the service of others.

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Jesus the Jewish religious progressive

Baptism of the Lord
Christ Church Cathedral
7 January 2018
[Video of the sermon from 8.00 am service]

 

May the Spirit of God that moved across the waters of creation,
may the Spirit of God that fell upon the disciples of John,
and may the Spirit of God that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism,
descend upon us this day. Amen.

Well, here we are at the beginning of a transition.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, so—for those of us in the Western Church—Christmas has ended. Of course, for Christians in the Middle East—as well as Australians in the Coptic and Orthodox faith communities—today is Christmas.

As our Christmas wraps up we pray for our friends whose Christmas is just commencing.

For us a new season begins, the Sundays between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. This Epiphany season is a liminal space, a time of transition, a period for reflection.

“Epiphany” is an ancient Greek term that means manifestation or revelation.

We have been celebrating Emmanuel, the God who is to be found among us, and now we are invited to reflect on on the Epiphany moments in our own lives: those times when we catch a glimpse of the Sacred One who is always present but often unnoticed.

On the first of these Sundays in the Epiphany season we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, an Epiphany moment for him, for John, and for his earliest followers. It is a major festival in the life of the church and a wonderful day for Baptisms, but for us it always falls in the middle of our summer holidays.

It was certainly a significant moment for Jesus.

A couple of Sundays ago I alluded to the special relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, when our Advent readings featured the prophetic ministry of John.

The baptism of Jesus by John is rock solid historical tradition. Along with the crucifixion, this is one of those episodes from the life of Jesus that none of his followers would ever have invented. Scholars refer to this as the ‘criterion of embarrassment’.

The idea that Jesus—our great spiritual master and the human face of God—began as a disciple of someone else, was an ‘inconvenient truth’ for the Gospel writers. When we compare the four Gospel accounts of this episode we can see their embarrassment at this awkward truth.

The core historical reality is clear. Not only was Jesus baptised by John, but Jesus seems to have been a disciple of John, one of his many followers. At least for a time.

We cannot be certain of the exact location, although we know it was at the southern end of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea.

We do not know exactly what form the ritual actions took, but it most likely involved a complete immersion in the river to symbolise ‘scrubbing up’ in preparation for God’s next big thing.

And we are unable to determine the exact words that passed between Jesus and John, as each Gospel writer tells the story a bit differently.

Such matters are what I describe as ‘micro history’ and they need not concern us now. I happen to find them fascinating but they are not appropriate for a sermon. Some other time, perhaps. In a Bible class discussion.

What can can focus upon in a sermon is the ‘macro history’ of this tradition, both then and now.

As we reflect in the big picture of Jesus being baptised by John, we can choose to see the forest rather than being distracted by all the trees. When we do that there are insights to be gleaned about Jesus ‘back then’ and also about ourselves ‘here and now’.

When we look at the baptism of Jesus in this way there are several things that attract our attention.

 

Jesus and Second Temple Judaism

The first and most obvious point, although it is too easily overlooked by Christians, is that Jesus was deeply embedded in the religious beliefs and practices of Judaism in the Second Temple period. He was a Jew, not a Christian. His core beliefs and all his actions were shaped by the ancient tradition of Judaism, and there was nothing that he did or said which was inconsistent with the best of that spiritual tradition.

We do a disservice both to Jesus and to Judaism, when we suggest that Jesus was somehow alienated from the spiritual tradition that nurtured and shaped his own prophetic instincts. In time, and most unfortunately, the new tradition centred around the person and teachings of Jesus would part ways with his own faith tradition, but that is no reason to project our history of alienation, competition and suspicion back onto Jesus himself.

In our own time and place, we do well to be as deeply embedded in our own spiritual tradition as Jesus was in his tradition. One of the tragedies of our time is that most people have lost confidence in the Great Tradition, and thus have lost their own connection to the accumulated spiritual wisdom that we need to draw from in order to live lives that are authentic.

We live in a society that might be described as ‘SBNR’—spiritual but not religious.

That is a distinction unknown to Jesus, and the sooner we overcome this false dichotomy the better for everyone. We need people who are both religious and spiritual, and Jesus was just such a person.

 

Jesus and progressive religion

While Jesus took his own religious heritage very seriously, he was no traditionalist.

In fact, I want to claim Jesus as a religious progressive.

He was drawn into the radical reform movement of John the Baptist—‘John the Scrubber’—who stood firmly within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but also called for root and branch reform of the religious institutions of his day.

John’s radical stance is seen most clearly in the ritual washing that gave him his nickname, the Baptizer, the Scrubber. Baptism was not unknown in Second Temple Judaism, although it had not existed in earlier stages of the Jewish religion. However, it was not something Jews did. Rather, it was a rite for the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism.

In demanding that his Jewish audience undergo this water ritual, John was dismissing their existing religious identity. They were no better and no worse than the goyim who needed to be baptised (“scrubbed up”) in order to particulate in the blessings of the covenant.

We can imagine John shouting, “I don’t care if your grandmother was Jewish! Your religious pedigree means nothing to me. Everyone has to be scrubbed up to get ready for God’s next big thing.”

That is the radical reform movement within Second Temple Judaism with which Jesus aligned himself.

We may like to imagine that Jesus would attend the Cathedral if he lived in Grafton today, but I suspect he would cause us some headaches if he did.

Were Jesus on our parish roll he would be constantly challenging and questioning what we are doing, and how we are doing it. Why are you doing that? Why are we not doing this? Why are we doing it this way?

Jesus, of course, is not on our Parish roll. But those are precisely the uncomfortable questions that Jesus is asking us all the time.

Reconnect with the heart of the tradition, he would demand. He does demand. Now.

He was—and is—a true radical, a genuine progressive.

 

Jesus had the heart of a disciple

Another of the things we see in the baptism tradition is that Jesus was willing to learn from others.

He did not walk around thinking to himself, “I am the Son of God. I do not need anyone to tell me what to think or how to act.”

On the contrary, as best we can tell, Jesus joined a wider movement of reform minded Jews who embraced John’s message and went back to first principles in their own spiritual tradition. Most likely he spent some time with John, and did not simply turn up anonymously among the crowd of candidates waiting for baptism in the Jordan River. In the Gospel of John we find hints of a deep and longer connection between these two people

Jesus submitted himself to the spiritual authority of John. John was his master. Jesus was the disciple. Only after John is arrested does Jesus seem to begin his own prophetic ministry, and we find those fascinating accounts of John sending other disciples to Jesus to ask whether Jesus was the one for whom John had been looking.

In the true style of spiritual masters, John and Jesus defer to each other.

Jesus would later defer to the spiritual wisdom of a Lebanese mother who offered him a ‘master class’ in divine compassion.

May we all have the capacity to see the wisdom that others have to share with us, regardless of their status, their ethnicity or their gender.

 

Jesus loved the liturgy

Jesus is sometimes portrayed as a critic of the Temple and an opponent of the Pharisees. This is misplaced.

He was surely a fierce critic of the Temple elite who exploited their privileges for their own benefit. He was certainly a tough opponent of religious teachers who imposed on their students burdens they were not prepared to carry themselves.

As a Second Temple Jew, Jesus was familiar with the biblical tradition but in the baptism episode we see Jesus going beyond the text of the Bible to engage in religious ritual.

For Jesus as for John, it was not sufficient to read the Bible and make an interior commitment to faith, repentance, justice, and faithfulness.

Such commitments needed to be acted out in ritual. We embodied personas, and our religion is better when expressed in tangible actions and ritual moments.

Like Jesus, we are called to go beyond reading and reciting the sacred scriptures—which, as it happens, are replete with ritual actions involving individuals, families, and whole societies.

More than that, we need to teach people how to celebrate their life journey with appropriate rituals, and to develop a robust religious literacy that includes both the capacity to work with the canonical texts and also to draw on the rich storehouse of the faith to shape rituals old and new that speak sacred truth in this secular age.

 

Jesus’ own religious experience

My final observations takes us onto holy ground indeed. We may want to take off our shoes—another ancient ritual that we still see observed before people enter a mosque—as we tread this space.

The biblical accounts of the Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River hint at a profound spiritual experience for Jesus at that time.

He is participating in a personal, profound and prospective ritual moment. The whole drama is presided over by his mentor and teacher. Jesus is stepping into his vocation, even if he is not fully aware of what is happening.

The crowds are oblivious, as they mostly are when something of deep significance is happening in our own lives.

These moments matter to us. They transform us. But they may pass unnoticed by those around us at the time. Even those who are closest to us.

Jesus gains new and deeper insight into his identity and his worth, as well as God’s call on his life.

You are my child,
the chosen one,
the beloved.
I am well-pleased with you.

It would take Jesus the rest of his life to discern what that meant for him.

Likewise, our great work is to discern what it means in our life when we hear the bat-qol, the heavenly voice, naming us as a beloved child of the universe and expressing her delight in us: just as we are, right now.

In our brokenness and confusion we make God’s heart skip for joy. Just as we are.

Can we believe that?

Can we wrap our hearts around that possibility?

It is surely the deepest and most profound religious experience to discover that we are loved—unconditionally—by Life in all its depth and in all its fullness. That, surely, is good news as well as a transformative religious moment.

 

At the start of this sermon I said some truly dangerous words:

May the Spirit of God that moved across the waters of creation,
may the Spirit of God that fell upon the disciples of John,
and may the Spirit of God that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism,
descend upon us this day. Amen.

You probably thought I was just staying some religious words at the start of the sermon, and they could be safely ignored as you settled back into your seats.

But these are dangerous words.

What if my prayer was answered?

What if the Spirit that hovered over the watery chaos of creation was poured out on us?

What if the Spirit that overwhelmed John’s disciples fell upon us?

What if the Spirit that enveloped Jesus was also to envelope us?

What would it means for us, for our Cathedral and for our city, if we heard those ancient words addressed to us?

You are my child; my daughter, my son.
I am delighted in you,
Be all that you are,
become all that you can be.
Grow into the promise,
grow into my dream for you.

 

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Peace to those who are far off

Midnight Mass
Christ Church Cathedral
24 December 2017

[video]

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” [Matthew 2:1–2]

In churches around the world, and in many of our homes, the three wise men are kept off stage tonight. They may be down by the church door, or on the far side of the lounge room. But they will rarely be found adoring the Christ Child before January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

The reasons for this are complex and misplaced. We shall not bother with them tonight.

Suffice to say that the Western Church has tended to focus on the angels and shepherds on December 25, and to delay the wise men until the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6.

Guess what? There will be very few people in church on January 6, so most of the time most of the people miss out on the message of the wise men.

Tonight, I want to bring these oriental visitors in from the cold.

I want to make room for them in the presence of the Christ Child. Indeed, I want to base my reflections in this sermon around the wise men.

To do this we need to gently deconstruct the version of the Christmas story that we each carry in our mind.

As we welcome the wise men into the Christmas scene, we suddenly notice there are no shepherds by the manger when the wise men arrive. Indeed, there is no manger. And no inn with limited rooms available.

The annunciation, the census, the long trip from Nazareth, the shepherds, the angels, the inn with no space, and the manger—all belong to Luke’s story of Christmas. They have no part in Matthew’s story of the Saviour’s birth.

We blend these two stories together, and that is fine. Then we add other elements found in neither Matthew nor Luke. The story grows richer and more elaborate.

The Christmas story that we all know and love is not found in the Bible, but that does not make it any less precious to us.

But for tonight, since I have chosen to make room for the wise men, we find ourselves paying attention to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. In doing so I hope to enrich your appreciation of the Christmas story, by paying attention to one of its overlooked themes.

There is one other important difference between Luke and Matthew, which we miss when we blend their two stories into a single narrative.

Luke is very upbeat.

Everything is great. All is going well. Even the Roman Empire is unwittingly collaborating with the divine purposes, as it orders a census that causes Joseph and Mary to visit Bethlehem just in time for Jesus to be born there.

Matthew is more sombre.

There is a shadow hanging over the Holy Family, as Herod seeks to destroy the Christ Child. They will flee to Egypt as refugees, in Matthew’s account. No triumphant visits to the Temple in Jerusalem for this story teller. The family will only return to Palestine after Herod has died, and even then they go north to Nazareth rather than returning to their home in Bethlehem. The only time that Jesus visits Jerusalem in Matthew’s Gospel he is killed. A dark shadow indeed.

Who is this Matthew whose account of the birth of Jesus suddenly seems so unfamiliar to us?

The short answer is that we do not know.

We can tell what kind of person he was by reading between the lines of his gospel, but the identity of this person remains unknown.

What we can discern about this person is that he was a Jewish follower of Jesus, most likely living in the NW corner of ancient Syria, close to the important trading city of Antioch.

Antioch was a melting pot. Christians and Jews had a long history of mixing and interacting in this city. According to the Acts of the Apostles, most likely written by Luke as the second volume for his history of early Christianity, Antioch was the place where the name ‘Christian’ was first coined. It was also the base from which Paul set out on his missionary journeys that brought Christianity to Europe.

Antioch was not only a place where Jews and Christians mingled. It was also a place where East met West. Already by the end of the first century, when this gospel is taking shape, Christianity has begun to spread East and beyond the confines of the Roman Empire.

Enter the wise men!

The Gospel according to Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels in the New Testament. For Matthew, Jesus is the great lawgiver, a new and bigger version of Moses.

Yet Matthew is also adamant that the message of Jesus is for all people, and not just for the Jews.

He concludes his story with an episode that has no parallel in any other gospel. Jesus appears to the small group of disciples (‘the Eleven’) on a mountain in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem. He commissions them to go on a universal mission to share his message with all nations:

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

That is how the gospel ends for Matthew.

How does it begin?

With foreigners from the East, wise men from another spiritual tradition, travelling from far away to adore the Christ Child.

These magi were advanced practitioners of pagan religion. They were not proselytes, converts to Judaism. They were privileged members of pagan religions, and as such they were completely outside the scope of the Jewish faith as well as the yet to be born Christian faith.

As a Jew, Matthew should have condemned these pagan astrologers.

Instead, as a Christian he welcomes their part in his story of the birth of Jesus because they represent where the future of the faith belongs.

Not with the insiders, but with the outsiders.

The miracle of Christmas is that we cease drawing circles to exclude those who are different.

The miracle of Christmas is that we open our hearts to welcome the stranger and the pilgrim.

The miracle of Christmas is that we do not waste time checking if others have the same beliefs as us.

The miracle of Christmas is that we proclaim, PEACE.

Peace to those who are far off, and peace to those who are near.

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Hark! A herald’s voice is calling

Advent 3 (B)
17 December 2017
Christ Church Cathedral

 

[video]

It had been my intention to speak about John the Baptist today.

For two weeks in a row now, the lectionary has offered us early Christian traditions about the Jewish prophet, John. Last week we heard how Mark describes this John in the opening scenes of his Gospel. Today we hear from a very different perspective within earliest Christianity, the Johannine community.

Mark and John offer very different portraits of Jesus. Yet they both found it necessary to say something about John as they started to share their story of Jesus.

John has fascinated people from antiquity through until today.

He acquired his nickname, ‘the Baptizer’, because of his demand that his followers undergo a water ritual to express their personal response to his prophetic message.

The most famous of his followers was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus seems to have been baptised by John in the year 28 of the Common Era.

That simple fact is one of the most certain things we know about Jesus. None of his followers would ever invent such a story. Indeed, it was something of an embarrassment to them that Jesus had once been a disciple of John, and had been baptised by John.

That simple fact invites us to explore the relationship between these two Jewish prophets from 2,000 years ago.

Some of that was what I intended to speak about today. But that can wait until January 7, when we celebrate the Festival of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus.

In the past few days we have seen the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse complete its careful work extending over the past five years, and present its final report to the Governor-General.

Given the significance of that report for the community and for the churches, it would be remiss of me to say nothing of its work and to talk about some ‘safe’ Advent topic instead.

For too long the church has averted its gaze from the horrors of child sexual abuse, as well as the abuse of other vulnerable people.

We can do that no longer, and in part that is thanks to the impressive work of the Royal Commission.

There is—I suggest—an unexpected link between John the Baptist and the Royal Commission.

John was an outsider.

He opposed the abuse of power and the eager grasping of privileges by the Temple clergy in Jerusalem.

He may have come from one of those families himself. At least that is what Luke would like us to think. But he broke ranks with the religious institution that operated for its own benefit, and he directed to them a prophetic message about judgment, repentance, and renewal.

Our opening hymn this morning began with the line: “Hark! A herald voice is calling.”

Indeed, a herald voice is calling.

It is the voice of the Royal Commission.

It is a prophetic voice that names and exposes the sins of our churches, along with other institutions in our national life.

It is a prophetic voice that speaks words of comfort to the victims. That honours the victims. That treats them with a level of care and respect that our church has failed to do.

It is a prophetic voice that speaks of restitution, vindication and compensation.

It is a prophetic voice that calls on churches to change their ways. No more averting our gaze. No more shifting of sexual predators from one parish to another. No more silencing of the victims. No more failure of compassion among the disciples of Jesus.

It is a prophetic voice that maps out a pathway for restoration and recovery.

It is a prophetic voice that promises renewal if we are prepared to make these changes.

So far as I am aware, no cases of sexual abuse of children have happened in this parish. But they have happened in our Diocese and in our national Church.

For all the evil that has been done—and for all the good that has been left undone—we repent. We apologise. We resolve to make amends.

Already the contributions by the Cathedral Parish to the Diocesan compensation fund have cost us dearly. Resources that could have funded our ministry have been applied to the more urgent ministry of healing and reconciliation. This is a small price to pay compared to the costs borne by the victims all these years.

I pray these contributions help the victims to heal, and steel the resolve of our Church to make sure this never happens again.

As a faith community in Grafton we now need to rebuild our relationship with the city.

This will take time.

It will require openness to change on our part.

And it will require a willingness by the community to trust us again.

Most of all it will require a change of heart on our part.

Being a ‘safe church’ is not a compliance issue, it is the very heart of the Gospel. It is in our DNA as a community of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus gathered broken people into a community. He created a safe place for the broken and wounded to find acceptance, healing and purpose.

Jesus calls us to that mission.

John the Baptist challenges us to focus on others and not on ourselves.

The Royal Commission calls us to account and invites us into a journey of reconciliation and healing.

Hark! A herald’s voice is calling.

Let’s not miss what the Spirit is saying to the Church at this time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anointed with the spirit of the LORD

Reflections on the first reading for the Third Sunday of Advent …

Today’s lectionary offers us a rich set of classic texts for Advent.

As the sermon will focus on John the Baptizer, this brief note will explore the first reading from Isaiah 61.

This one of several passages in the central part of the great Isaiah Scroll, that scholars refer to as the Servant Songs. No one is entirely sure how the figure of “the Servant” was understood at the time that the texts were being created, but we know it came to play a significant role in the spiritual imagination of the Jewish people around the time of Jesus.

Isaiah is one of the three OT books most often cited in the New Testament. (The other two are Deuteronomy and the Psalms.) A similar pattern is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the ancient library of this controversial Jewish sect also has more copies of these three books than any other books from the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, a copy of the Isaiah Scroll was among the first Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries in 1947.

Who is the Servant of the LORD? Is it a person? Is it the nation as a whole? Is it Jerusalem? From a Christian perspective, we recognise that Jesus of Nazareth is the quintessential Servant of the LORD. But what about us? Are we not also called to be the ‘Servant of the LORD’?

In today’s passage the Servant is someone on whom the Spirit of God has been poured out. As a result of that anointing with the divine Spirit, the Servant will bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4), he imagined Jesus claiming these same words to describe his own ministry.

Notice the down to earth consequences of the Servant’s ministry as the Anointed One, the Christ. The mission of the Servant is not to increase attendance at religious ceremonies or raise the level of offerings. Real people will find their own lives turned around. Adverse personal circumstances will be reversed. Destroyed and abandoned towns will be rebuilt. A new beginning for all the people of God, and not simply an increase in religious activity by the faithful.

May the Spirit of the LORD be poured out upon us all, and may we each claim our vocation as the Servant of the LORD.

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Christ the King

Feast of Christ the King
Christ Church Cathedral
26 November 2017

[video]

Today is our day: the feast of Christ the King.

While most people know us as Christ Church Cathedral we are actually the Cathedral Church of Christ the King. So today is our festival day.

This festival occurs on the final Sunday of the church year.

Next Sunday we begin Advent and a new church year, but today we wrap up a year that has passed:

  • a year of learning
  • a year of ministry
  • a year of transitions
  • a year of new beginnings

During this week we might take some time to think back to this time last year:

  • what has happened in your life since then?
  • what has changed?
  • what has remained constant?
  • what has been reaffirmed and strengthened?
  • what do we regret?

 

A community dedicated to Christ the king

Looking back can be instructive, but I invite us to look forward at this time. What does it mean for us to be a cathedral community dedicated to Christ as our ‘king’?

The term ‘king’ can be problematic here as it reflects a world of empire and certainty.

We have neither. The empire has fallen. We live in a time of transition, and uncertainty is the air we breathe.

But that exaggerated title still speaks to our core values:

  • we are community for whom Jesus is central
  • it is no longer a claim to privilege
  • it is no longer a claim to certainty
  • but it is certainly our cardinal orientation

We are a community where Jesus matters:

  • what he believed, we believe
  • how he acted, is our model for action
  • how he treated people, is our guide for life

So let’s unpack this a little further.

 

The Wisdom of Jesus

At the heart of our faith is the spiritual wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth.

Unlike many spiritual teachers, Jesus had a just a very brief moment in which to live the wisdom that his heart embraced. He did not have 20 or 40 years to unpack his ideas. Rather, his public ministry lasted maybe just 18 months. But what an impact he made in that brief time!

We find the spiritual wisdom of Jesus especially in his parables and aphorisms. He was an oral poet, and with just a few well-crafted words he invited people to see the world differently.

More than that, Jesus challenged people to live as if what they had glimpsed was already true. At the heart of his wisdom was a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God, the Empire of God, the Commonwealth of God:

  • not the Empire of Rome
  • not the tribal supremacy of his own Jewish people
  • certainly not Christendom
  • or the empire of the church

Rather, Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: not at the end of time, but right here and right now.

If we are the Cathedral Church of Christ the King, then the crazy dream of the reign of God has to be at the very centre of who we are, what we do, and how we do it. We will see the world differently, and act accordingly.

 

The Practice of Jesus

The words of Jesus are validated by his actions, and that surely is a message to us as well.

What we believe must be demonstrated by our actions. We must walk the talk, we must practise what we preach.

In Jesus’ context that meant creating a community in which the outcast found a place for themselves.

Jesus lived and died for people on the margins. He was not interested in the powerful, the privileged, or the comfortable.

Ordinary people, little people, were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry; and that needs to be true of us as well. If we forget that, we have lost touch with Jesus.

The bottom line here—as surely we must have learned from Royal Commission—is that our best ideas do not have as much impact as worst actions. We must ensure that our actions align with our core beliefs. As a Cathedral, we need to act as a colony of God’s kingdom, rather than as a bastion of privilege—and never simply serve our own interests.

 

The Integrity of Jesus

Jesus validated his spiritual wisdom by the circumstances of his death.

The cross of Jesus looms large in Christian thought, but is mostly misunderstood.

In the ancient world, the key to a life lived well was how a person died.

That is a piece of wisdom our culture finds hard to embrace, although it is one that we encounter as our own journey brings us close to death. To die well is to be someone who has lived well.

Jesus could have evaded death, but he chose not to do so. He could have left Jerusalem, but he chose to stay.

We shall never fully understand his motives, but we can see the choices he embraced.

Jesus’ death on the cross, was the validation of his life and his own personal understanding of the reign of God. This is why a common way to depict Christ the King is to portray Jesus on the cross wearing a crown and royal robes.

In the horror of his death we see the integrity of the one who both understood and embraced the reign of God. The cross becomes his throne, as the Gospel of John seems to understand. The crucified one, the excluded one, becomes the one who reigns because of the ultimate power of God’s love to defeat fear and death.

 

And now it is our turn!

As a faith community, we have inherited a fantastic title into which we choose to live: the Cathedral Church of Christ the King.

Now the challenge is before us:

  • dare we embrace the vision of Jesus?
  • dare we waste our lives for the sake of others?
  • dare we risk failure and death for the sake of our vision of God’s new world?

 

Yes, we do.
Yes, we will.
Yes, nothing else deserves our best!

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Grace upon grace

In the months between the diagnosis of an aggressive bladder cancer and my discharge from hospital this morning, I have been on a journey of grace, a pilgrimage to wholeness.

My initial reflection on this close encounter with Lady Cancer, aka Holy Wisdom, was published on August 17. This update is being written on November 15.

Yesterday I returned to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) as planned so that my catheter could be removed and they could check whether I was successfully “voiding” from my newly fashioned “Neo-Bladder” that Dr Geoff Coughlin had created from a section of my small intestine as part of the 11.5 hour robotic surgery on October 20.

Apart from the hero’s welcome extended to me by the beautiful nursing staff of Ward 8B South all went as expected.

The catheter was removed around midnight, and by the time the doctors made their morning ward rounds at 7.00am I had successfully and repeated demonstrated that all was working well.

It had been anticipated that while in hospital for this brief pitstop, I would be taught how to self-catheterise in case I ever experienced a blockage and needed to relieve any build up in my Neo-Bladder. After checking the ‘performance data’, Dr Coughlin asked that I be discharged immediately and that the nurses do not take the time to teach me how to self-catheterise as the risk of my ever needing to do this was so low that it was not worth the time and effort to show me.

This was good news compounded by good news. Or, as John 1:16 would express it, Grace upon grace.

After Eve collected me from the drive through at RBWH we returned to St Francis College so she could continue with her work there today, and I then drove myself home.

It does seem that the surgery has been a success and that my recuperation is proceeding as well as could be imagined, and possibly considerably better than that.

For all this I am most grateful, and I am especially grateful for the care, the prayers and the support of family and friends around the world. I am especially appreciative of the Grafton Cathedral congregation through this whole process. It has been a most “interesting” way to commence as their Dean and Rector: not one I would ever have chosen, but one which has drawn us closer together with the bonds of affection.

With God’s continued blessing and grace, I hope to be back in the Deanery early next week and perhaps even during the coming weekend. While I shall continue on sick leave for the time being, I expect to be well enough to preside and preach at the Cathedral Festival on Sunday, November 26 when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. I am already working on my sermon!

My guess is that I shall limit myself to the occasional liturgical duties during the next couple of weeks and then slowly begin to pick up other tasks following my installation and commissioning on Tuesday, December 5.

We have much to celebrate and much good work to engage in for the common good. May God give us all the grace to do the work to which we are called.

Grace and peace,

Greg Jenks

Posted in Lady Cancer, News | 3 Comments