Morsels 2018 August

An archive of previous “Daily Morsels” published on the Cathedral app. Please note that these version of the content are not formatted to reflect line breaks or separate paragraphs, as they are purely an archival set. They also tend not to have any embedded web links from the original Morsel. To receive these message direct to your mobile phone or tablet each day, please download the Cathedral app.

 

FRI – 180831
Title
The God beyond words
Body
The following remark by Professor Kevin Hart of Virginia University, made during a recent podcast in the “On the Way” series from St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane, caught my attention: “When we stop trying to talk about God and we talk with God, God is there and we can talk with God. This paradox, it seems to me, is at the heart of the Christian life—and not just the Christian life, but the religious life—and is something we can never overcome.” Expertise is not required, just a willingness to open ourselves to the God beyond words. For the podcast, see the web link. For the context of this quote, go to 19 minutes and 30 seconds into the audio.
THR – 180930
Title
One bread one body one humanity
Body
At Grafton Cathedral last Sunday morning the opening hymn was based on the earliest extant Eucharistic liturgy. It comes from an ancient Christian text known as the Didache, which was composed around 100 CE. The final verse paraphrased a couple of lines from the Didache which are now used in contemporary liturgies across many mainline church families: “As this broken bread was once many grains, which have been gathered together and made one bread: so may your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” This is a vision of the church as gathered humanity: diverse and multicultural, yet one in Christ. At a time of rising nationalism and deepening trade wars, maybe such a vision is a gift that is both timely and of immense worth?
WED – 180829
Title
Hungry and thirsty for justice (Beatitude 4)
Body
Beatitude #4 seems to be a good sequel to yesterday’s morsel on forgiveness of real world debts being a key to our own forgiveness by God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6 NRSV) Am I hungry for justice? Am I thirty to see people treated right? Am I a student of Jesus?
TUE – 180828
Title
Forgive as we forgive (Part Two)
Body
As we saw yesterday, the Lord’s Prayer turns out to have some radical ideas wrapped up inside those familiar words. Here is our key line again, from Luke’s version of the prayer: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” The second things to note from this petition is what we promise to forgive. When we say this prayer we undertake to forgive the real debts that people owe us, not just some emotional or spiritual pain they have caused us. Rural debt was crippling ordinary people in the time of Jesus and he links forgiveness of sins to a restructure of the economics of the day. Dare we entertain the idea that forgiveness of our own sins cannot be claimed until and unless we address the structural evils that grind people into poverty and destroy their lives? Who still wants to say this prayer now?
MON – 180827
Title
Forgive as we forgive (Part One)
Body
The familiar Lord’s Prayer turns out to have some radical ideas. In a week when mutual forgiveness might be more needed than usual in our national affairs, let’s consider this line from the Our Father: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” I am deliberately using the form of this line from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer as it is less religious than the version in Matthew and therefore probably closer to what Jesus would have said. There are two things to note in this, but we shall deal with just the first of them today: Forgiveness of our sins is not based on Jesus dying on the cross, but on our willingness to forgive others. Jesus teaches us to ask God—to dare God maybe—to treat us the way we treat others. Are we game to say that to God?
SUN – 180826 (Refugee Sunday)
Title
Refugee Sunday 2018
Body
God bless our eyes so that we will recognise injustices. God bless our ears so that we will hear the cry of the stranger. God bless our mouths so that we will speak words of welcome to newcomers. God bless our shoulders so we will be able to bear the weight of struggling for justice. God bless our hands so that we can work together with all people to establish peace. Amen. SOURCE: Uniting Justice Australia and numerous websites
SAT – 180825
Title
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true
Body
“Gather us in” is one of the most popular of the many contemporary worship songs composed by American Lutheran songwriter, Marty Haugen. The words of verse three have always resonated with me: “Here we will take the wine and the water, here we will take the bread of new birth, Here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth. Give us to drink the wine of compassion, give us to eat the bread that is you; Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true.” Ah to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true. That might even change the world!
FRI -180824 – St Bartholomew
Title
Seeking wisdom first
Body
The Old Testament reading from last Sunday now seems very timely in light of the political chaos in Canberra. After Solomon succeeded his father (David) as king over Israel he has a dream in which God invites him to ask for anything he would like to have as begins his reign (see 1 Kings 3:5). Solomon asks for wisdom to govern well. The storyteller continues: “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life …” (1Kings 3:10–13 NRSV) Do we have any Solomons in Canberra, or in Washington, or in Jerusalem …
THR – 180823
Title
A Celtic prayer for the morning
Body
I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven; Without malice, without jealousy, without envy, without fear; without terror of anyone under the sun, but the Holy Son of God to shield me. God, kindle thou in my heart within a flame of love to my neighbour, to my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all; To the brave, to the coward, to the man in the street, O Son of the loveliest Mary, from the lowliest thing that lives to the Name that is highest of all. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen!
WED – 180822
Title
Beatitude 3
Body
The third beatitude found in Matthew 5:5 is not paralleled in any other early Christian text: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Meekness is not a value we admire much these days, yet it lies close to the heart of the spiritual wisdom that Jesus embodied. Meekness was almost his defining attribute. We might get a handle on meekness by considering its opposite: impatient, assertive, overbearing. Spiritual wisdom is to cultivate patience, to moderate our assertiveness, and to cultivate the best interests of others. Blessed indeed are the meek. The future belongs to such people.
TUE – 180821
Title
Tomorrow’s bread today
Body
The line in the Lord’s Prayer asking for the bread we need day by day, has a hidden surprise tucked inside. All three of the surviving ancient versions in Matthew, Luke and the Didache use a rare Greek word: epiousion. This word is so rare that it seems to have been created by whoever first translated the Lord’s Prayer from Aramaic into Greek. This word seems to have been derived from a more common Greek word (epiousei), which means “the next day” or simply “tomorrow”. So this line in the Lord’s Prayer is not simply asking for the bread we need each day, but at a deeper level is a request to experience each day the bread of tomorrow, the bread of God’s kingdom. This is how the line was translated in the Alternative Services Book published by the Church of England in 1980: “Give us today the bread of tomorrow …” That was too radical for most people in church, so Anglican prayer books reverted to the more familiar words. May we experience the blessings of the future right now, day by day, in our own life. Epiousion!
MON – 1801820
Title
Do not be daunted
Body
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. [While often attributed to the Talmud, this is actually a paraphrase of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s interpretive translation of Rabbi Tarfon’s work on the Pirke Avot 2 which is a commentary on Micah 6:8. See Rami Shapiro, “Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A modern reading of Pirke Avot,” 41.]
SUN – 180819 –
Title
Holy Sophia, Lady Wisdom
Body
The alternative first reading in today’s lectionary depicts Lady Wisdom setting a table and inviting people to come to her feast: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:5–6 NRSV) Each Sunday as Christians gather around the Table of Jesus we hear that invitation renewed: Come and eat; taste and see that the Lord is good.
SAT – 180818 –
Title
Tikkun olam
Body
These two Hebrew words sum up a very important principle for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The phrase means: “repairing the world”. This challenges those expressions of religion that focus on personal salvation, the forgiveness of sins or winning access to the afterlife. Tikkun olam invites us to hear the divine call to join with God in redeeming and repairing the world. It reflects the ancient wisdom of Micah: “… what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)
FRI – 180817 –
Title
Kingdom come
Body
The reign of God was at the very centre of Jesus’ mission and ministry. The Greek is often translated as “kingdom of God” but that is too static a concept. What Jesus intended was more like “reign of God” or “rule of God”; even “God’s empire”! According to Jesus, this dynamic sacred presence was coming and yet it was already present: among us, within us and between us. Jesus taught people to pray: “your kingdom come …” What a dangerous thing to do. What an exciting thing to seek: setting God loose in our lives and in our world. Everything will be different …
THR – 180816 –
Title
What we sing we believe
Body
The songs of God’s people are a treasure trove of spiritual wisdom.
About once a week our daily morsel will be one of the songs of faith; mostly new but occasionally ancient. Here is one of my favourite modern songs, perhaps because I especially like the portrayal of Jesus as the one who upsets religion.
Praise with Joy the World’s Creator
Praise with joy the world’s Creator, God of justice, love, and peace,
Source and end of human knowledge, force of greatness without cease. Celebrate the Maker’s glory—pow’r to rescue and release.
Praise the Son who feeds the hungry, frees the captive, finds the lost, Heals the sick, upsets religion, fearless both of fate and cost.
Celebrate Christ’s constant presence—Friend and Stranger, Guest and Host.
Praise the Spirit sent among us, liberating truth from pride,
Forging bonds where race or gender, age or nation dare divide. Celebrate the Spirit’s treasure—foolishness none dare deride.
Praise the Maker, Son, and Spirit, one God in community,
Calling Christians to embody oneness and diversity.
Thus the world shall yet believe, when shown Christ’s vibrant unity.
[John L. Bell, b. 1949]
WED – 180815 – Mary, mother of the Lord
Title
Mary, mother of the Lord
Body
Today is one of several holy days dedicated to the mother of Jesus who, until the restoration of Mary Magdalene to the Anglican calendar in 1928, was the only woman honoured with a “red letter” festival in Western Christianity. The cult of Mary flourished in medieval Europe and she is similarly venerated in the Eastern Churches. In both East and West the mother of Jesus is an ambivalent figure in a theological world dominated by patriarchal gods and male saints. The doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven following her death is the youngest dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, only having been defined as recently as 1 November 1950. The historical Mary of Nazareth was a rather different character than the pious traditions that have clustered around her legacy. Mary was a peasant woman in a pioneer Jewish village with not much more than a dozen families. Having given birth to five sons and at least two daughters (Mark 6:3), she was doubtless a feisty woman who knew how to run the household with limited resources. As we peel away the devotional tinsel on this feast of Mary, we give thanks for the women in our lives: mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, wives and daughters. Let’s honour the mother of Jesus by making our cities and our families safe places for women and girls, and eradicating the scourge of domestic violence.
TUE – 180814 – Martyrs of the 20C
Title
Forge meaning, build identity
Body
The TED talk by Andrew Solomon seems like a good segue from yesterday’s morsel on the second beatitude: Blessed are they who mourn. Solomon says: “we don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” The comments of a friend who first alerted me to this TED talk sum it up: “Forging meaning is personal. Building identity is communal and enables us to change the world.” If you have 20 minutes to invest in serious personal growth, watch the TED talk by clicking on the link below.
MON – 180813 – Jeremy Taylor, d. 1667
Title
Beatitude 2
Body
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” [Matthew 5:4] The second Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount strikes a dissonant chord. Happy (or blessed = to be congratulated) are those who are mourning some loss that has caused them to feel bereft. Really? Since when? How can such loss be—in any sense—a blessing, a source of deep happiness? Compensation in some afterlife is not going to make me feel blessed here as my life falls apart. How do we rescue meaning from tragedy, hope from despair, life from death? Can it be that in our moments of deep loss God is—or at least seems—closer? When something that we treasure is taken from us, one thing remains: God. Was God absent when Jesus hung on the cross? Some theologians say so. But I think not. Perhaps in his own extremity—as the loss of his own life engulfed him—Jesus found that God was not absent. The victim found deep comfort at the epicentre of his own loss. Sensing the divine presence even in our deepest loss might perhaps be the comfort that allows us to claim a blessing even in the midst of trauma. May it be so.
SUN – 180812 – Pentecost 12B
Title
The future begins today
Body
Sunday. This is the first day of the week, even if our modern calendars tend to group Saturday and Sunday together as the “weekend” for convenience. It is still known to some people as “the Lord’s Day”. In ancient Jewish thinking the “day of the Lord” was a day when God and humanity met. It would never be a casual encounter. When we meet with God we come away changed. When God comes calling, it is not without consequences. It would be a day of judgment or a day of blessing. Never a dull moment, we might say. Like Jacob we might walk away from the encounter with a limp, carrying a wound that reminds us of the encounter with deep life itself. Just as scratches on an old family dining table bear witness to the many meals shared around its surface. Like Moses, we might walk away from the encounter alight with the divine radiance. In the opening book of the Bible, Sunday is the day when God begins to call the world into being with the creation of light. For Jesus, the first day of the week was the day of resurrection, when God called him beyond death to new life deep within God’s own self. May this day, this Sunday, be a day of encounter with the Holy Other. That encounter will leave us different than we were when our eyes closed last night. Let’s live into the new creation, the transformed life, that God invites us to embrace.
SAT – 180811 – Clare of Assisi, d. 1252
Title
When the roses are in bloom
Body
One of my favourite legends about St Clare of Assisi (whose feast we observe today) celebrates the profound love between her and St Francis of Assisi. According to the story, as they were walking through a forest in winter Francis asks Clare whether she has heard what people are saying about them. Francis declares they must stop seeing each other for a period of time, but does not indicate how long this will be. When—after a period of strained silence—Clare asks when she will be able to see him again, Francis replies: “In the summer, when the roses bloom.” At once roses burst forth from the snow-covered bushes. Clare picks a bunch of the flowers and gives them to Francis. And they were never separated again. This legend celebrates a love that dances on the edge of social acceptance, and yet is affirmed as holy and good by God. May we have the courage to love adventurously, needing no approval beyond the response of the beloved and the blessing of heaven.
FRI – 180810 – Laurence, deacon & martyr, d. 258
Title
Treasures of the church
Body
August 10 is the feast day for Laurence, a Deacon in the Church at Rome, who was killed for his faith on this day is 258 CE. A rich set of legends about the circumstances of his death soon developed. While these legends may have little basis in fact, they tell us a lot about what really mattered to people of faith some 1,760 years ago. In the legend, Laurence is promised his freedom if he will surrender the treasures of the church. Three days later at the agreed time for handing over the most valuable assets of the Church in Rome, Laurence arrived with a crowd of beggars, sick people and widows. These, he insisted, were the treasures of the Church. Laurence was promptly put to death, but his legend continues to resonate awkwardly in our churches who have so often disregarded the vulnerable and protected the privileged, as the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed so starkly. The true treasure, the treasure hidden in the field of our lives, are the broken and vulnerable who God entrusts to our care.
THR – 180809 – Mary Sumner, d.1921
Title
Healthy families, healthy communities
Body
Today many people will be remembering with gratitude the work of Mary Sumner, who died on this day in 1921. She was the founder of the Mothers’ Union, a lay movement with a vision of a world where God’s love is shown through loving, respectful and flourishing relationships. There is no more important task and no more rewarding role than nurturing the spiritual capacities of our children and other family members. As a Cathedral community, we work with parents, godparents, grandparents and other members of the extended family to offer our children the best support as they grow in their knowledge, in their sense of connection with God, in their compassion for others and in their care for the fragile web of life. No matter our age or the ‘shape’ of our family, these are attributes we all need for everyday life.
WED – 180808 – Now the green blade rises
Title
Love is come again
Body
The evocative hymn by John Crum (1872–1958) elaborates the saying of Jesus about a grain of wheat that falls into the ground, where it is transformed to become many grains. The first verse of the hymn reads: Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. May our lives be places of transformation, renewal and resurrection. Love lives again!
TUE – 180807 – Pearl of great price
Title
The priceless pearl
Body
Matthew 13:45–46 preserves the following parable of Jesus (also found in the Gospel of Thomas): “… the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” This is classic Jesus wisdom: edgy, exaggerated, impractical, but evocative. What is it about the wisdom that Jesus proclaims which makes us discard everything else of value in our lives for the sake of having this great treasure? What is this priceless pearl, the nugget of immense value, that we seek? Are we actively engaged in the search, or just hoping it might fall into our lap?
MON – 180806 – Transfiguration / Hiroshima
Title
A world transfigured
Body
August 6. In the calendar of the western churches, today is observed as the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus. For many of us, the world itself was transfigured when the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on this date in 1945. We glimpsed new possibilities, for good and evil, that day. In one sense we stepped out of the Iron Age and into the Nuclear Age in that moment of unparalleled destructive power. Most people alive now have never experienced the old world on the other side of Hiroshima. All of us need wisdom old and new to live faithfully in a strange new world on this side of Hiroshima.
SUN – 180805 – Pentecost 11(B)
Title
Love, actually
Body
As any parent or grandparent knows, love matters more than anything else. How sad that many people of faith seem to think that having correct beliefs or acting in certain ways matters more than being loving. Yet last time I checked, the “new commandment” Jesus gave his followers was to love one another, not check each other’s beliefs or personal behaviours. And the two great commandments are: (1) love God, and (2) love other people. At Grafton Cathedral we reflect this ancient spiritual wisdom in our tag line: “open doors … open hearts … open minds …” In the end, it is all about love. What else matters?
SAT – 180804 – Stillness
Title
Stillness
Body
The ancient Hebrew creation poem that we find at the opening pages of the Bible culminates with these words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1–3 NRSV) Coming at the end of the seven momentous days, we might like to think of resting, of sabbath, as the ultimate point of creation, the deepest significance of existence. What matters most is not that we are active, but that we can be still: aware, mindful, reflective, conscious, alive, self-aware.
FRI – 180803 – First Principles
Title
First principles
Body
The ancient Jewish prophet, Micah, gets to the heart of things with this classic piece of spiritual wisdom: “what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV) Not bad as a personal mission statement?
THR – 180802 – Beatitudes 1
Title
Beatitude 1
Body
The so-called Sermon on the Mount is an ancient Christian collection of the core teachings of Jesus. There is nothing here about sin and atonement, but a great deal about living in a simple and uncomplicated way. Those who live this way, according to Jesus, will possess the kingdom of God, or the reign of God. This is not a matter of status or power, but of knowing ourselves to be loved by God. Just as we are. At the beginning of the great Sermon is a version of the Beatitudes, a list of people who know deep blessing. Here is the first of those Beatitudes, first as preserved in the Gospel according to Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NRSV) Simplicity of spirit, and uncomplicated openness to God’s presence among us and within us, is a pathway to a life that is truly blessed.
WED – 180801 – Our daily bread
Title
The first morsel
Body
“Give us today our daily bread.” This is one of the most loved lines in the Lord’s Prayer. It is also one of the most difficult lines of biblical Greek to translate, as can be seen by the variants in different versions of the prayer. What is this bread that I need each day? What sustains me on the journey? In what sense is this “bread” something I receive as a gift from God, from Life? I trust these daily morsels from Grafton Cathedral will be one of the ways that God provides you with the bread you need for each day. May Jesus be the bread of life for us … today and always.
Posted in Archive, Grafton Cathedral, Morsels | Leave a comment

Mindful worshippers

mindfulness

Prayerful Practices

A checklist for mindful worshippers

 

A checklist for prayerful practices to help us become more mindful as we engage intentionally with the spirit-work God that calls us to undertake during these 40 days of Lent, and at all times.

 

When entering the Cathedral

We are crossing a threshold, a liminal boundary between ‘outside’ and ‘in here’. You may want to acknowledge your entry into this house of prayer by making the sign of the cross, or offering a prayer such as this one attributed to St Francis of Assisi: We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches in the whole world, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

 

Stillness

Sit quietly in your place, breathe gently and allow the silence to envelope you in its wings. It is good to be here. It is good to be me.

 

Light a candle

Lighting a votive candle is a way of being conscious of a person or a particular matter we wish to hold in God’s love. The candle keeps burning as we walk away, just as our prayers continue to surround the person for who we are praying.

 

Stations of the Cross

The Cathedral has a set of modern stations that commemorate different moments in the traditional procession from the palace of Pontius Pilate to the execution grounds at Golgotha. Walk quietly from one to another and reflect on Jesus’ own faithfulness to God’s call on his life, as well as contemporary people who suffer abuse of judicial authority, who see their children tortured and killed, who struggle with doubt and fear.

 

The Gospel in Glass

Get to know the windows of this Cathedral and pray for the families who donated them. Delight in the skill of the artist and reflect on the biblical texts or characters depicted in the glass.

 

Memorial Plaques

Take time to wander from one memorial plaque to another. Who are they commemorating? What a precious legacy we have here. AMDG Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. Indeed. To the greater glory of God.

 

Organ preludes and postludes

The visual art of the building and its installations is matched by the musical art that streams out from the organ, as quiet preludes before the service begins or as triumphant celebrations as the liturgy ends.

 

Sing, choirs of angels

The Cathedral choir offers a variety of musical pieces during the liturgy, from the Introit to the Mass Setting of the day to the Psalm and the anthems during Holy Communion. Enjoy being carried by the angels as the Choir leads us in our worship.

 

During Holy Communion

While waiting during the time that other people are receiving the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, call to mind those people and those situations in your own life, for which you are seeking a blessing in this most intimate moment of the liturgy.

 

Pray the Pewsheet

The weekly bulletin has lots of information, most of which can be pivotal moments for prayer and reflection. Notice the Mass Setting and the musical choices for the day. Pray for those listed as sick, for bereaved families, the recently departed, and those whose year’s mind occurs at this time. Do you know any of these people? How might you offer them care and support this week? For what do you give thanks to God as a result of the time you shared with them?

 

Preview the Bible Readings

Our lectionary provides us a with a three-year cycle of texts to challenge, encourage, inform and stretch us. Do you recognise the readings set for today? What memories do those passages stir for you? Are you reminded of another passage you want to read when you get home? Should you be sharing these readings with anyone else who might find them helpful?

 

Pray the Hymns

The hymnbook is a rich collection of religious poetry. Look up the hymns set for today and consider why they may have been chosen to complement the readings or today’s festival. Read quietly through the hymns and pause to reflect on the deep experience of God among us that these poems preserve.

 

As you leave the Cathedral

Another beautiful prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be
consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying
That we are born to eternal life.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Reflections | Leave a comment

And the lot fell on Matthias

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Feast of St Matthias
24 February 2019

 

[ video ]

 

It was the first extraordinary General Meeting in church history, and they had to fill a key position in the inaugural leadership team of the Jesus movement.

At least that is how the Acts of the Apostles, written by “Luke” as a sequel for his version of the great tradition about Jesus, tells the story.

Judas was no longer with them. His place needed to be filled. The Twelve needed to be complete as the new global mission commenced.

Two candidates are put forward: Joseph and Matthias. Both of them apparently from the circle of people who had been with Jesus since his Baptism, although there is never a mention of them in any earlier traditions. Not even in the earlier verses of Acts 1.

It was not only the first GM. It was also the first church raffle! And the prize went to … Matthias.

All told, this is a strange story and it sits oddly alongside the traditions found in the four Gospels as well as the letters of Paul. Matthias comes from nowhere and disappears just as fast. He is never heard of again.

Matthias matters more to me than most because my first appointment after my ordination as a Deacon was the Church of St Matthias at Zillmere, in Brisbane. The white vestments worn at my first Eucharist as a Priest were a gift from the Church of St Matthias, as was the pottery mass set made by Brother William, SFF and used at that first Eucharist.

So, what do we do with a story like that and a feast like this?

Well, in the absence of any solid information let me offer some reflections as we seek wisdom for the journey of life.

As Luke tells the story in the book of Acts, the early Jesus movement was a religious community with soft edges.

Already the boundaries were loose and expanding.

There were the surviving 11 male disciples, there were “certain women” (as if Luke could not quite bring himself to call women like Mary the Magdalene disciples or apostles). There was Mary the mother of the Lord. (A rather surprising tradition, given the life expectancy of peasant women in first-century Palestine.) And Luke says there were the “brothers of the Lord”.

All up around 120 people, according to Acts 1.

One hundred and twenty people less 11 disciples, less Mary and less the 4 brothers of Jesus, leaves quite a large group of “certain women” as well as quite a few other blokes, it seems.

Even if Luke, deferring to the cultural bias of his second-century audience, prefers not to name the women, or even count them.

That’s not many people really, but a lot more than we would imagine from the earlier Gospels.

Two of this larger group—excluding the brothers of Jesus (interestingly) and all of the women (not surprisingly)—were nominated at the Special Meeting to fill a vacancy on the Parish Council. Well, not exactly a Parish Council, but you get the idea.

Our AGM after church this morning will be a lot less dramatic, I expect. And women are welcome to nominate!

How widely do we cast the net when thinking of our membership circle?

Are we a community which new people find easy to join and navigate?

Will they be welcomed into key roles in the parish without having to serve a lengthy apprenticeship while we get to know them and make sure they know how things are done around here?

Are we a faith community where people are welcome and included no matter their gender or their sexual orientation? Thankfully we can say YES to that one!

Many churches in town could not say that.

Are we a community where people bring their gifts as volunteers and contribute to building and shaping spiritual practices that are diverse, healthy and life-affirming?

Again, I think we can say yes, even if it is one of the best-kept secrets in town.

Later in the service and again during the service on Wednesday morning, we shall be recognising the ministry of the dozens of volunteers who make our shared life happen. On Wednesday we shall focus on those who contribute primarily to the Op Shop, the Bookshop, and the Cathedral grounds. But in a few minutes, we shall recognise those who do so much to enable and enrich our Sunday worship gatherings,

Every Sunday is a team effort, and the ones you see up front in fancy robes are just the tip of a large iceberg.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to Matthias and Joseph?

For that matter, whatever happened to the other 102 persons whose names are not even mentioned?

We have no idea, but we do know that because of their faithfulness the legacy of Jesus did not vanish after Easter but became a social movement that challenged, confronted and defeated the Roman Empire.

Two hundred and ninety-five years after that first Extraordinary General Meeting of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, the Christian Emperor Constantine summoned the bishops of the Roman world to a council in Nicea. The creed they agreed upon is what we shall stand to say together after this sermon ends.

It all began with Matthias and the other 119 people who Luke says were gathered in the secret room between the Ascension and Pentecost.

From little things big things grow.

Thanks be to God.

 

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The God who subverts

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Epiphany 6C
17 February 2019

 

[ video ]

We really should have expected this from a god who gets himself born to an unwed mother.

“Blessed are you who are poor … woe to you who are rich …
Blessed are you who are hungry now … woe to you who are full now …”

What is this bleeding-heart left-wing nonsense that they are reading in churches all over the world today?

Oh? It is Jesus! Really?

I do not like him saying things like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable.

Read my lips, says Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

It has been very so tempting to stop right there and go back to my seat …

Enough said?

More than enough for us to work on during the week?

 

 

 

 

As I reflect on the Beatitudes in Luke a few things strike me:

Luke’s version is usually seen as closer to what Jesus would have actually said.

Luke’s version moves from speaking about “them” to addressing us (“you”). We have moved from ideas to praxis, from theory to real life.

Luke’s version is more confronting for people like us.

We are not poor, for the most part …

We are not hungry now, or really ever …

We do not have much reason to be sad, and the things that should make us weep we mostly ignore …

We rarely have people saying seriously bad stuff about us …

On the other hand …

We are rich, compared to most people alive in the world now and almost everyone else in human history …

We are so full so much of the time that we have health issues from over-consumption …

We love to laugh and be entertained, and we prefer politicians who promise to keep us safe from scary people and nasty situations … even when we know they are lying

We mostly are people about whom others speak well …

We are respectable, comfortable, nice and good people.

We are Anglicans.

We are Cathedral people!

 

Jesus according to Luke

You may recall that this is the Year of Luke, and we are paying special attention to Luke’s way of talking about Jesus this year.

As we noticed in the Dean’s Forum a couple of weeks back, Luke wrote for people like us: nice people with comfortable lives and some degree of social status.

Yet Luke preserves the prophetic words of Jesus in a form that disturbs us and make us uncomfortable.

Were Jesus standing for parliament most of us would not vote for him.

He would raise our taxes and spend the funds on assistance to the poor.

And he wants our vote?

No, Jesus does not want our vote. It is much worse than that. Jesus wants our whole being: our hearts, our minds, our assets and our souls.

He is no politician.

Jesus is far more dangerous than a politician.

 

Captain’s pick

In recent Australian politics we have experienced the famous “captain’s pick” on more than one occasion.

God makes captain’s picks as well, but she does it differently.

God chooses the poor, the widows, the orphans, the overlooked younger sibling, the refugees and the asylum seekers, the collaborators (“tax collectors”) and the women with reputations (“the sinners”).

Phew! That gives us all a chance …

That is why the priest says each Sunday as we are called to the Table of Jesus:

The gifts of God for the people of God.
Holy things for holy people.
Broken things for broken people.

 

We are all people with some form of brokenness in our lives: sometimes that brokenness is visible but most of the time it is invisible.

But the God who subverts calls us (yes, us) to be agents of change and communities of reconciliation.

The victory song that Luke puts on the lips of Mary in his carefully crafted account of the conception and birth of Jesus captures the essence of the Holy Rebel from Nazareth:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
(Luke 1:46–53 NRSV)

 

Christians who really believe these words change the world … starting with Grafton.

 

 

 

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The God who calls

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Epiphany 5C
10 February 2019

 

[ video ]

Sometimes the readings that are served up by the lectionary are a bit sparse when it comes to offering stimulus material for a sermon. But this week we have a feast of classic texts, each of which could trigger one or more sermons.

Don’t worry. I am only going to give one short sermon today!

As you know, we are still in the season of Epiphany; that time in between Christmas and Lent. This is a time when we are invited to reflect on ways in which we have gained some kind of insight into the ways of God with our soul or with our world.

Those epiphany moments when faith just makes sense, precious moments indeed.

They may not answer our questions, but they kind of make the questions less important as we embrace a larger kind of truth.

Indeed, as we shall see this morning, sometimes those insights turn our lives upside down!

There was an epiphany moment in each of the three readings this morning, and more than one in a couple of the readings.

Isaiah 6—a high official in the royal court of Jerusalem is attending yet another religious ceremony in the Temple, but this time it was a conversion experience! He was about to be drawn into a whole new ministry as a prophet, and he would leave a legacy whose impact is still felt today. He had been to the Temple numerous times, but this time it was different.

1 Corinthians 15—Paul is reciting a list of resurrection appearances by the risen Jesus when he describes his own calling to be an apostle. As Paul says, he was an enemy of the Jesus movement and actively persecuting anyone suspected of being a Christian. He was not likely to become the most important interpreter of Jesus ever. Yet God turned his life around and we still pay attention to Paul when we try to understand how to practice our faith.

Luke 5—it was just another regular fishing day for Peter and his business partners. No catch at all last night despite the hours spent out on the lake. A little distance away he could see Jesus from Nazareth talking to crowds of people on the lake shore about the kingdom of God, but Peter was not even listening. He had nets to clean and mend before they went out again that night in search of fish. Then Jesus comes and asks Peter to take him a short distance offshore in his fishing boat so he could keep on talking to the crowds without being pushed into the lake! Afterwards, this cocky carpenter even told him where to find fish. What would he know? Worse still, he was right! They caught the biggest load of fish Peter had ever seen. Almost sunk his boat and his partner’s boat under the weight of all those fish. As Jesus said, it was time to leave the fishing trade and go learn how to fish for people!

Those are not just weird stories from 2000 years ago or more.

That stuff still happens.

Tomorrow we mark 40 years since I was ordained as a priest, but that was not the career I had in mind as I came to the end of Year Twelve. I was heading for the military. The forms for Duntroon were already completed and waiting to be posted. But someone who knew nothing of my plans was used by God to turn my life pathway upside down and inside out. The forms for Duntroon never got posted.

If we had time to go around the church this morning and if people felt safe enough to share their personal life stories, I suspect we would find many other stories of lives turned around or even upside down by this audacious God who calls; the God who disturbs and overthrows our best-made plans.

We really should have a sign at the west doors of this Cathedral warning people not to come inside:

ALERT!

ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

YOU MAY DISCOVER THAT

GOD HAS A PURPOSE FOR YOUR LIFE

IF YOU ENTER THIS SACRED PLACE

WITH AN OPEN HEART

OR EVEN ONE THAT IS CLOSED

 

Even the kids who are causing trouble again as they steal candles and mess up the sound system cables may find that God is messing with their lives while they think they are being so tough and so smart. Perhaps they should ask Paul? He was one tough dude until God got at him.

Actually, the sign would be of no use—except maybe to stimulate discussion, and that might be a good thing.

Even staying away from the Cathedral will not stop God from touching your heart and calling you into service.

Even those hundreds of Grafton Anglicans who demonstrate their solid Anglican identity by avoiding worship except for Baptisms and funerals may find that God has plans for them as well. As indeed she does.

Wherever we are and whatever our current disposition, God has a purpose for our lives and God will persist in calling us to embrace that calling for our sake and for the sake of others.

Our job as a Cathedral community is to be a safe and supportive place for people to explore what God’s call on their life looks like and to support them as they start the journey God is calling them to make.

If we can be that kind of faith community others will be blessed and the world will be transformed.

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Intentional discipleship

This essay was published in the February 2019 issue of North Coast Anglican which will be available in churches across the Diocese of Grafton this morning.

 

In the liturgical afterglow of Advent and Christmas with all those special services and all that wonderful music, we pause and catch our breath.

The season of Epiphany—like its more rigorous cousin, Lent—invites us to reflect on the many ways that we encounter the God who reaches out to us and then to fashion our response to Emmanuel, God with us.

We are invited into intentional discipleship, as distinct from an inherited religious identity.

Discipleship is a word that is closely associated with Jesus and the responses people made to him on the other side of Calvary, before the Easter triumph transformed their views of his significance.

To my surprise when doing a recent word study in preparation for one of the Dean’s Forums at the Cathedral, I discovered that this is not a word ever used by Paul. It is a term only found in the four NT gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, written originally as part two of the Gospel of Luke.

The difference between the Gospels and the Epistles is stark.

MAQETES in NT

So to be a disciple is to be someone with an intentional relationship with Jesus.

To have beliefs and opinions about Jesus is not the essence of discipleship, even though disciples will have beliefs and opinions that matter deeply to us.

An intentional relationship with Jesus?

That would be a continuous Epiphany experience as we discover more and more about God’s loving and compassionate purposes for the universe, including our own selves.

That would be a lifelong commitment to shape our lives around the beliefs and practices that mattered to Jesus.

That would be to engage in compassionate action to bring the effective reign of God into the lived experience of our families, friends and local communities.

An intentional relationship with Jesus is going to be about practice (what we do and how we treat people) more than with ideas (what we believe and how we explain our faith to others).

As the practical Christian wisdom found in the Letter of James puts it: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)

As Anglicans, we are blessed with a rich heritage of spiritual practices that can be embraced as we commit to intentional discipleship. Some of them (like Baptism) are a once in a lifetime event, while others are practices that we can use regularly in our own spiritual disciplines.

Gathering with other believers for the Lord’s Supper is perhaps the first and greatest spiritual discipline for anyone who is serious about intentional discipleship. We need to ensure that our weekly Eucharistic gatherings are engaging and transformative, and not simply a case of going through the motions. What we celebrate in the Eucharist is the saving presence of God in Jesus and among us. Our liturgies should express that dynamic reality.

Prayer is at the heart of intentional discipleship. At its most basic level, this means we cultivate mindfulness: we are attentive to the presence of Christ within us, in others, and around us. Our personal and collective rituals can help us develop and sustain our mindfulness, and from that will flow a deeper experience of prayer in all its forms: contemplation, thanksgiving, protest, and intercession.

Deep engagement with the Scriptures is another of the core spiritual disciplines for anyone who is serious about intentional discipleship. The church already offers many patterns for daily and weekly attention to Scripture, and there is no shortage of Bible reading plans online and in your local Christian bookstore. As the fitness gear retailers constantly remind us: just do it.

Eucharist, prayer and Bible reading are the big three spiritual disciplines for intentional discipleship, but there are many more. These include cell groups, compassionate action for justice and environmental stewardship, fasting, labyrinth, pilgrimage, preparing a rule of life, sacrificial distribution of our own resources for mission, spiritual direction, and volunteering our time for church and community projects.

Which of these spiritual disciplines we embrace depends on our circumstances and perhaps our personalities, but the call to intentional discipleship is universal.

Imagine the transformation in our mission as a Diocese and in the communities we serve if every North Coast Anglican was actively engaged in intentional discipleship.

 

 

Additional note: A video of the Dean presenting a session on intentional discipleship as part of the My Faith My Life My Church program at Grafton Cathedral is available on the Cathedral website

 

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Colonies of grace and communities of reconciliation

Epiphany 3C / Australia Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
27 January 2019

 

[ video ]

At first glance those readings do not have much to do with Australia Day.

Of course, they were not chosen for their relevance to our national day, but are simply the readings set for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

Each week the liturgy team has the task of seeing how the readings intersect with our lives as a faith community and as a civic community. Robert is selecting anthems and songs that engage with the readings while also expressing our story of faith. And the preacher seeks to tease all this out in a way that provokes us to deeper thought and more faithful action.

The process is the same every week, but this time the focus is on Australia.

Mixed messages

This is a more complex challenge than usual because the relationship between religion and the nation is complex and at times contested.

As Anglicans, we have our own history in all this as well, and that complicates the task when we try to think clearly about the intersection of national identity and Christian faith.

There have been times in history when this was an easier matter.

Our first reading comes from when there was no separation between religion and national identity. Nehemiah has summoned the entire population of the province of Yehud in the time of the Persian Empire. They are about to hear a big chunk of the Bible read out in a language they no longer spoke, and then they are obliged to accept those texts as the basis of their national life together.

Religion was closely integrated into public life, and the ruler regulated religion as a tool for staying in power and keeping people in their place.

Fast forward about 400 years and we come to the scene in the Gospel reading as Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. The public sphere was still regulated by empire, but Jesus was launching a religious reform movement that will eventually subvert the Roman Empire and every other empire that would follow it.

As his most influential interpreter, Paul of Tarsus, would write about 20 years after Easter:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Like everyone else in the ancient world and up until very recent times even in the West, Jesus lived in a world where your nationality mattered very little. What counted most was the empire that controlled everything.

Allegiance to the empire was expressed in religious terms. The emperor was understood as a manifestation, an epiphany, of the gods. The emperor was your Lord and your saviour.

The ancient Jews were mostly exempted from emperor worship, but the Temple in Jerusalem was required to offer sacrifices for the empire and its emperor every day of the year.

Jesus’ axiom—give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what belongs to God—reflects the complex dynamics of life under the empire.

So, to paraphrase Jesus, what do we give to the nation, and what can we only give to God?

Beyond the wars of religion

140 years before the First Fleet landed in Botany Cove these questions were resolved for many Europeans in the Treaty of Westphalia. That treaty—which remains unknown to most people—has largely shaped our experience of religion in a society that is essentially secular.

Indeed, while we tend to think that we enjoy freedom of religion, in fact the Treaty of Westphalia was about freedom from religion.

After 80 years of war between Catholics and Protestants, Europe was exhausted and the solution was a treaty that limited religion to the personal and private sphere, while insisting that all citizens exercise their rights and their duties without regard to each other’s religion.

So, for example, as an Anglican government official, I could no longer discriminate against my Presbyterian neighbour when he applied for a permit. And the Catholic working in the Post Office could not refuse to accept my mail. In our public life within civil society, religion was banished to the private realm of personal choice and family life.

This mindset was at the heart of the new colonies being established in this ancient land.

The evils of religious wars and sectarian conflicts were to be avoided. There would be no established religion. When the constitution was drafted for the Commonwealth of Australia, the new parliament was banned from making any laws to promote or favour one religion over another.

We live in one of the first explicitly secular societies in human history, and that means we need to rethink the mission of the church to the nation and within the nation.

The Church in the public square

We find ourselves closer to the situation of Jesus than to Nehemiah.

As a Cathedral we seek to serve our local community, whatever people’s religious identity, but we do not endorse our current constitutional arrangements over any other. We do not prefer republics to monarchies. We do not support one political party over another.

Each of us will have our own opinions about all those matters, but as a church we have little to give to Caesar and we do not seek to impose our beliefs on the nation nor its parliament.

As citizens in a democracy we can act individually and collectively to promote particular causes, but as a church we interact with the nation on another level.

So what do we bring to the table this national day?

We do not seek privilege and power.

But we do speak for justice and we do seek to serve.

Again, we find ourselves closer to Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth than to Nehemiah in the square by the Water Gate in Jerusalem:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Our role is not to legislate or even to enforce.

Our role is to be agents of God’s love in every part of Australian life.

The Spirit of the Lord has come upon us (do we really believe that?) … We are anointed to bring good news to the poor … We have been sent to proclaim release for captives (those in detention centres?) … We have been sent to proclaim recovery of sight to those who cannot see the way ahead … We have been sent to let the oppressed go free (welcoming asylum seekers?) … We have been sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

We are not just to talk about good news, freedom, new vision, liberty and blessing. That would be far too easy.

Our mission is to be a Cathedral community where people find hope, meaning, freedom, acceptance, inclusion, healing, a helping hand, a listening ear, and a caring heart.

That is our gift to the city and to the nation on this Australia Day weekend.

Imagine how we can transform our city and indeed the nation when the churches of this land embrace God’s call to be that kind of community. No longer religious rivals, but colonies of God’s grace and communities of genuine reconciliation.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

800 bottles of your best wine, please

Epiphany 2C
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
20 January 2019

 

[ video ]

All around the world today, the Gospel reading in all the mainline churches today will be that story we have just heard: Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding celebration in Cana, a village quite close to Nazareth.

For Kefr Kana, this is their day.

Anyone who can do that would certainly attract a strong following.

How many “likes” would Jesus have scored on Facebook that week?

And how many letters to the editor would have demanded that he should stick to religion and stop undermining the moral fabric of the community?

The point of the story is not the quality of the wine (the best ever tasted by the MC on the night) or the staggering quantities produced: 600 litres of wine!

This is a symbolic story, a story of transformation, together with the promise that the best is yet to come (“you have the best until last”).

So let’s tease it out briefly to see what spiritual wisdom there may be for us in this ancient story today.

 

Jesus was at a wedding

A Middle Eastern wedding is a big deal and they last several days.

There was lots of catering, and the host could not run short of food or wine. Haraam, Shame, for the groom’s family in such a situation.

What I like most about this story is simply that Jesus turned up at family events and major community celebrations.

It would have been perfect for us today—as we baptise Isabella, Isabell and Ivy— had this story been about Jesus turning up at a Baptism, or at least to the party afterwards.

No shortage of wine, folks.

And he was a pretty deft hand at coming up with extras food as needed; provided you like pita bread and dry fish.

Do not get distracted by the miracle.

The headline here is that Jesus hangs out with regular people and does ordinary stuff.

As these girls grow up that is the mindset we need to share with them: Jesus is with us, even when everything seems ordinary. Especially at such times.

 

Water turns into wine

We would pack this place several times a day on Sunday if I could promise to turn your containers of water into beautiful fine wine.

A friend of mine whose kids I baptised many years ago, used to say every time we caught up at a BBQ: Fr Greg, when you get a licence on Sundays, I will be in church.

In the Gospel of John this transformation of water into wine is called a sign.

It is not about the water, or even about the wine: although it was really good wine and there was lots and lots of it. Around 800 bottles of wine!

Even the Bible says this is a sign, a symbolic story, and not something to be taken literally.

In the story, Jesus turns water into wine.

Every day, Jesus turns our ordinary lives into something else, something more.

If people really understood that we would indeed be packing this place every Sunday, because what happens here is better than any other ‘upgrade’ available around town.

Again, this is the secret to a fantastic life that we all need to share with these three girls, with everyone around us, and indeed with that toughest audience: ourselves.

We are going to share that secret recipe for a good life with them, and we are signing up for that today. All of us.

 

Keep the best until last

There is a great little punch line in that ancient story.

When the MC tastes this extra wine that has suddenly turned up at the wedding, he calls the groom over and speaks with him:

‘Hey, mate. What is going on here. Most people serve the best wine first and when folk are already drunk they bring out the cheap stuff. But you have kept the best wine until last. You are crazy man!”

Well, it was something like that. It’s a rough translation.

Sometimes we feel like our best days are behind us.

Old folks can feel like that.

So can young marrieds.

And new parents can feel like that as well.

We cannot do what we used to enjoy …

Guess what, the best is yet to come. God keeps the best until last. Now.

For the parents, godparents and extended families of these three girls the best is yet to come. There is so much more to experience, to learn, to share, to celebrate. The best has been kept until last. And last starts now.

Let’s go baptise these girls …

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

The Baptism of the Lord

Christ Church Cathedral
Baptism of the Lord
13 January 2019

 

[ video ]

Slowly Christmas is receding into the distance behind us.

The last couple of weeks have been a little like driving down the highway and seeing the places we have been becoming smaller and more distant as we move into our future.

For the next several weeks we will be in the season known as Epiphany, the time in between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. Throughout the epiphany season we are celebrating many different ways in which God becomes known by us, or if you like, is manifest to us.

As we engage with the Scriptures and reflect on our lived experience during these coming weeks we will be looking to discern different ways in which God becomes known and real to us.

 

The baptism of Jesus

We begin this series as always with the baptism of Jesus and this morning I simply want to share a series of reflections with you, with the invitation that you will take the one which most interests you and reflect on it further during the week ahead.

I want to organise these reflections as a series of progressively deeper answers to the seemingly simple question: why celebrate the baptism of Jesus?

 

Reason #1: because it happened

The baptism of Jesus is one of the most certain historical events in his life. It ranks up there alongside the crucifixion is something whose historicity we can be totally confident about. It may not strike us as such an awkward story, but the account of Jesus being baptised by John was an inconvenient truth for the earliest Christians.

To appreciate that we need to understand the followers of John represented a rival reform movement within second Temple Judaism. For the followers of Jesus to remember that the founder of their movement had started out as a follower or disciple of John the Baptist required them to acknowledge some kind of debt from Jesus to John.

This is not a topic that I want to linger over today and I have discussed it at other times, but it is worth noting that the Gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke all describe Jesus’ baptism by John while the Gospel of John offers an extended treatment of the relationship between John and Jesus, with a reference to the baptism having taken place ‘off stage’.

So we are celebrating a moment in the life of the historical Jesus, and it is a point which hints at a rather more complicated relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist than any of the early Christians really wanted to speak about.

 

Reason #2: the baptism marks a point of transition

As the early gospel writers tell the story, the baptism of Jesus by John represents the beginning of his public activity as the prophet of God’s kingdom within second Temple Judaism. This is the moment, as it were, when Jesus steps onto the public stage.

Again, I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this particular point, but it strikes me as significant that none of the canonical gospels show any interest in the childhood of Jesus or in his adult activities prior to his baptism. The nearest we get to such an interest is the unique story in Luke chapter 2 with the 12-year-old Jesus choosing to remain behind in Jerusalem and engage in conversation with the leading scholars of his time.

Generally speaking, in the biblical tradition as we also find in the creeds, Christianity has no interest in what happened to Jesus prior to his baptism by John.

Think about that for a moment.

Despite all the fuss we make at Christmas time, the New Testament never refers to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth nor to his childhood nor to his early activities as an adult prior to stepping onto the stage round about the age of 30 years. Considering that many peasants in first century Palestine barely lived that long, this is a fairly remarkable oversight.

In any case, whatever Jesus was up to as a child and a young adult, we mark a fresh beginning in his life and in his public career with his baptism by John.

 

Reason #3: the spiritual roots of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus actually takes us deep into the lived spirituality of second Temple Judaism and it has very little in common with the baptisms that we will be celebrating here in the Cathedral next Sunday morning.

What is happening at the baptism of Jesus is something which is fundamentally and intrinsically Jewish.

It is very easy for us to assimilate Jesus into our life experience including our personal spiritual practices, our religious culture. However Jesus was a person of Jewish identity and his religious practices were significantly different from our own.

Let me just list some of the things which would have been taken as perfectly normal religious practice for Jesus, mostly items we would find rather strange:

  • I keep referring to Jesus in the context of second Temple Judaism, and that phrase reminds us that the temple stood at the very centre of Jewish public life and was the focus for all of their aspirations for an encounter with God.
  • Animal sacrifices took place in that temple with hundreds if not thousands of animals being killed every day and vast amounts of incense being required as sacred a room freshener to cover up the smell.
  • Frequent ritual washings were such a central part of Jewish spirituality at the time that the presence or absence of mikvot, ritual bathing installations, is one of the pieces of evidence archaeologists assess when determining whether the site they are excavating was occupied by Jews or Gentiles.
  • In addition to the temple, Jewish people also gathered for prayers and readings in the local synagogue, most likely on Friday evening or Saturday morning.
  • In these gatherings participants were strictly segregated on the basis of gender.
  • The weekly Sabbath observance was a point of distinction between Jews and their neighbours, and it was observed with some care.
  • Strict food laws including rules about people with whom one could not ever eat were central to Jewish identity and social practice. Even though Jesus often transgressed these rules, they were very important to him and to his contemporaries.
  • And perhaps we also tend to forget that Jewish culture at this time was strictly iconoclastic with no images of humans or animals being permitted in a Jewish home or in a Jewish public space.

From that preliminary listing, you might well already be starting to think that second Temple Judaism was more like Islam than Christianity. There is indeed a significant cultural gap between Jesus and ourselves, and this is made particularly clear on an occasion like this when we celebrate Jesus’ own participation in the religious rituals of his own community.

 

Reason #4: the authentic religious experience of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus is not simply a moment of transition in his adult life nor is it simply a reminder that Jesus was an active participant in the normal rituals of the Jewish religion in Palestine in his time. The baptism of Jesus is also a story that invites us to recognise that Jesus had his own authentic personal religious experiences.

That may be something about which we have not thought very much.

We might have the unexamined assumption in the back of our minds that Jesus maintained a continuous conversation between himself and God the Father as he went through each day. However, that is probably not a helpful way to understand the humanity of Jesus and the mystery of his vocation as the human face of God.

Like all of us, Jesus would have developed a sense of awe in the face of the mystery of existence and like some of us he came to understand that the sacred dimension of life could best be understood as the God calls us into being and invites us into the future.

Just as we each have to discover our own vocation and calling, so Jesus had to grow in his understanding of himself and of what faithfulness to God was going to mean for him in his own unique particularity.

In other words, Jesus had a spiritual life and this included moments of religious experience.

The baptism by John in the Jordan River may well have been one such pivotal religious experience for Jesus. We will never know, because Jesus’ own observations and reactions are not recorded in any of the gospels. But we can use our imagination with care and self-discipline in order to appreciate some of the dynamics which must surely have been operating for Jesus.

 

Reason #5: the value of ritual

A final reflection that I want to offer this morning concerns the value of ritual.

On one level, of course, Jesus did not need to be baptised by John. Most of the Gospels make that very clear as they wrestle with the question of why Jesus would have been baptised by John.

In the Gospel of Matthew, John even asked that question and Jesus replies by saying, Let it be for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.

I think Matthew has it right when he understands that doing the right thing and being the right kind of person requires us to appreciate, to value, and to participate in ritual of various kinds.

Some of these rituals are simply the personal practices we develop in our own lives. How we begin the day, how we end the day, how we exercise mindfulness at various times throughout the day. They may extend to favourite colours or particular pieces of jewellery or any number of personal choices that we make. When these rituals are taken away from us we have a deep sense of loss.

There is another whole set of rituals relating to our home life, a life we share that intimate community of people we call family. These rituals come in many varieties and may change over time but we realise how significant they are for us when we find ourselves with another group people whose family rituals are different from our own, or when a guest from another family spends some time with ours.

In public life we know the value of ritual, whether it’s the courtesy of giving way to other vehicles as we approach the bridge or a major civic occasion such as Anzac Day. Ritual not only expresses our deepest identity and values, but can also facilitate our shared lives as a community and as a nation. Again, we often only realise how significant these familiar rituals are for us when we find ourselves away from Australia and in a place where different rituals shape the day-to-day experience of the people with whom we find ourselves.

In our religious life we also know the value of rituals, whether that be coming into the Cathedral to light a candle or participating in a major religious festival. The Cathedral itself is a piece of ritual executed in brick and standing at a prominent location in the heart of Grafton.

We like to have our West doors open despite the risk that creates, because that little act in itself says something about our openness to our neighbours. Opening the doors every morning is a ritual that reminds us to open our hearts and open our minds to those we meet that day. And for those who could walk past the Cathedral during the day, the open doors are both an invitation and an expression of trust. We are not closing our doors to keep you out. Our doors are open. We trust you. We are not afraid of you.

Of course, for Christians, the greatest ritual is the celebration of the Eucharist as we take bread and wine to participate in a meal together at the table of Jesus. It is not just the ritual at the table, but the entire shape of the Eucharist offers us a way to ritualize our lived experience during the week.

We are people who gather,
we are people who reflect on our performance and seek reconciliation,
we are people who listen to Scripture,
we are people who explore and wrestle with God’s truth,
we are people who pray,
giving thanks for God’s blessings and sharing our concerns for a broken world,
we are people who bring our gifts in the service of God’s kingdom
and out of compassion for others,
we are people who break the bread and we bless the cup,
we are people who seek to nurture the life of Jesus within us,
we are people who go out into the world transformed and inspired to be Jesus people in the city day after day.

 

At one level today we celebrate the simple event took place in the life of Jesus.

But at another level we are being invited to understand the importance of our own community of spiritual practice (which for Jesus was second Temple Judaism) and the value of ritual in so many different areas of our life.

I invite you to reflect on both those lines of thought during the week ahead.

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We three kings and then some

Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral
6 January 2018

 

[ video ]

Here we are on the twelfth day of Christmas in the West, while tonight our friends in the Middle East begin their Christmas celebrations. Antiochene Christians, Copts, Greek Orthodox, Melkites, Russian Orthodox and Syriac Christian communities begin their celebration after sunset today. For Armenians, Christmas begins on January 19.

The major celebration, of course, will be at the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the Orthodox faithful from different national and linguistic communities will gather for prayer and singing prior to the start of the liturgy.

At the centre of those celebrations will be the venerated cave where tradition says the birth of Jesus occurred. Controversy around the star on the floor of the holy cave is sometimes thought to have been a trigger for the Crimean War in 1853–56.

Both in the West and in the East, this is a day when we celebrate the legend of the wise men who—in Matthew’s Gospel—come from afar to venerate the newborn king of the Jews.

 

Midrash

Considerable energy has been spent on the historical problems presented by this traditional story which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. For those most part the message of this fictional story is completely lost amidst all the sound and fury as people debate whether such a magical star could have happened, or how these oriental visitors chose their gifts for the Christ Child.

This morning, I invite you to join me in an exercise of intentional listening to the Gospel of Matthew, so that we might discern the significance of this story which Matthew has carefully woven into his ‘midrash’ about the birth of the Messiah.

Midrash is a form of Jewish education in which a story is developed around a simpler biblical or historical moment, to explain how it happened and also to explore the deeper meaning of the event.

For example, ancient Jews such as St Paul were familiar with a midrash about the rock in the wilderness that flowed with water when struck by Moses. The midrash solved the problem about how the people got water on other days and at other locations, without leaving a trail of leaking rocks all over the wilderness—and turning the desert into a green parkland. In the midrash this technical problem was solved by the same rock magically relocating with the Israelites each time they moved. Indeed, in some versions of the story the rock went from tent to tent making home deliveries of the fresh water!

Paul cited the midrash in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5: “… for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Paul does not quote the legend, but he assumes that his readers know about it, and he extends the legend by claiming that the supernatural rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness from one location to another (which they all knew about) was actually Christ.

Midrash invites us into a story and within that story we find a deeper truth being presented, but it is a form of truth that is not mortgaged to historicity.

So, rather than be distracted by discussions over the historicity of the wise men coming to present gifts to the Christ Child, let’s explore why Matthew is telling this tale and what he is seeking to communicate with his readers.

 

The birth of Jesus in Matthew

Matthew seems to preserve the earliest written story about the birth of Jesus.

It was not a tradition found in Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark written at least a few years earlier.

And it was not a tradition that was of any interest to the contemporary Gospel of John. As we see in John 6:42 (“They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”), the Gospel of John simply assumes that Joseph and Mark were the parents of Jesus even though John also affirms most clearly the divinity of Jesus in the famous Logos hymn that serves as the prologue for that gospel.

When the Gospel of Luke is written even later, it has a very different midrash that seems to play with a parallel between the births of John and Jesus and the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus.

As we prepare to explore Matthew’s infancy midrash, we can note that the point of these birth stories was not to establish his divinity but rather to clarify his calling as the prophet of God, the one who comes to ‘save’ his people.

Matthew has crafted his story about the birth of Jesus very carefully so that it fits Jesus into the biblical drama of salvation:

He begins with a genealogy that is selective (with three sets of 14 ancestors), but traces Jesus back to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people (and of the Arabs, as it happens).

Cleverly woven into that list of male ancestors are four women, each of them with something irregular about their sexual history:

Tamar, a widow who pretends to be a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law to secure her rights within the family (see Genesis 38, but be warned this content is for adult readers only);

Ruth, a foreign woman from Moab, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David after spending the night with her future husband to secure his intervention on her behalf (see Ruth 3);

Bathsheba, who is not named here but simply listed as the “wife of Uriah”—a woman who David sexually abused and then arranged to have her husband murdered so that he could add Bathsheba to his harem (see 2 Samuel 11); and

Mary, who was discovered to be pregnant even before Joseph had slept with her.

Then we met a character named Joseph. Guess what? God speaks to him in dreams. Well, what else who happen to a guy called Joseph, a Jewish listener would say. Apart from being sent down to Egypt, which happens in Matthew 2!

This Joseph is both a dreamer, and an upright man, who seeks to treat the women in his life properly. So already the readers of Matthew are beginning to think about Joseph, Egypt and Exodus/liberation as the framework for the story of Jesus that Matthew is about to tell them.

By now Matthew’s readers have also been alerted to the idea that we do not need to have a perfect family background for God to be at work among us, and for God to use us to move God’s purposes ahead.

For many people even that wee bit of the story is good news indeed. ‘Broken things for broken people’.

Joseph is told to go ahead with his plans to marry Mary and to treat the unborn child as his own. He is even instructed on what name to give the child.

The child is not to be called ‘Joseph’, as a traditional Jew may have expected, but ‘Joshua’. Joshua was the successor to Moses and the person who—in the biblical narrative even if not in real history—conquers the land of Canaan so that the tribes of Israel can possess the ‘promised land’.

Piece by piece, Matthew is assembling his story about the birth of Jesus.

To really understand this birth, he says, think about Joseph and think about Joshua. But wait, there is more.

Like Moses himself—Jesus is the target of a murderous campaign by an angry king who orders the murder of every Jewish boy in his territory in order to eliminate a threat to his authority.

Herod actually did lots of nasty things and even murdered members of his own family to preserve his reign for almost 40 years. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he ordered the arrest of the headmen of every village with orders for them to be executed on the day of his own death, so that tears would flow on the day he died.

From this murderous reputation, Matthew has fashioned a legend within the legend, and created the story of Herod ordering the murder of the ‘Holy Innocents’, the children of Judea. Matthew turns Herod into another Pharoah so that Jesus can be seen as Moses 2.0.

So far so good, Matthew has developed a midrash which tells his Jewish Christian readership that Jesus is no threat to Judaism. Rather, Jesus is the ancient Jewish story coming to life in front of their eyes.

Even the name of Jesus’ mother helps with this project. We call her ‘Mary’, but her neighbours would have known her as ‘Miriam’: the same name as the sister of Moses.

All we are missing is the basket among the bulrushes.

 

So why the oriental strangers

Matthew could have spun this midrash, including Herod’s murderous rage, without any need to add a visit by foreign sages.

But he had more to teach his readers than the Jewish pedigree of Jesus.

Matthew was also passionate about the significance of Jesus for the gentiles, for those people without any Jewish descent. Which is most of us.

In the decades before Matthew was drafting his revised and enlarged edition of Mark’s Gospel there were occasional state visits to the Roman emperor by oriental rulers from beyond the empire seeming to establish cordial diplomatic relationships. Details of these and other parallels to Matthew’s birth narrative have been blended together by Matthew to create the spectacular scene of a visit to Bethlehem by an entourage of unspecified size (but certainly more than three individuals), bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew is not recording history here, but appealing to his non-Jewish audience. They too have a part in the story of Jesus. God’s purposes in sending Jesus were not restricted to the Jewish nation, but extend to everyone, everywhere at all times.

 

A message for all the world

How an author begins and concludes their work often reveals what is central to their concerns.

As he commences his revision of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew creates a beautiful midrash that sets Jesus into the Sacred story alongside characters such as Joseph, Moses and Joshua. Not a bad CV at all.

But time had passed. Already we are several decades after the death of Jesus. Matthew knew two things: (1) many Jews (and perhaps most) think Jesus was a traitor and a heretic, and (2) Jesus is attracting a very big following among the non-Jewish populations in cities like Antioch where is where Matthew himself is most likely based.

He needs to celebrate the Jewish pedigree of Jesus while also offering a place in the story for outsiders who become insiders.

The entourage of pagans who worship the Christ Child in Matthew—and only in Matthew—are the promise of success for the commission given by Jesus in the closing paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew:

“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.” (Matt 28:19–20)

There is room for everyone in the Jesus story.

Outsiders become insiders.

There is even a place for us.

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