Dreamy Joe

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
9 August 2020

[ video ]

For our first reading today we have the OT passage about young Joseph. You know, the precocious little guy with the fancy jacket and a fawning father. And the dreams! What an attitude this kid had.

In the Bible the Joseph story stretches across 14 chapters of Genesis: 37 to 50. It comprises about one-third of Genesis and is clearly a major topic of interest for the storyteller.

Our lectionary gives us two small bites of that very large cherry. Today we have the murderous scene where his older brothers conspire to get rid of the dreamer. Next Sunday we have the scene from Genesis 45 when Joseph, now the de facto ruler of Egypt (as if), reveals his identity to the starving men who once plotted to murder him.

We can perhaps understand why the lectionary committee chose those two scenes, but where is spiritual wisdom to be found in such texts?

The lectionary snippets do not do justice to the biblical text.

The selections are usually short and convent, and they do not slow us down too much, but our hearts need more than ‘drive-through’ spirituality .

Worse still, as read in church, they affirm and validate violence and exploitation. By the time we get to the happy ending in Genesis 45, Joseph has already been messing with his brothers’ heads by a series of tricks worthy of both his father and his younger self. It seems he never did gain wisdom.

Sometimes the Scriptures need to be read in lengthy extracts and not consumed as the spiritual fast food that is served up in the lectionary. 

Do yourself a favour and read all 14 chapters of the Joseph story this week. Better still, find someone to read the whole story out aloud so you can hear it being performed and not simply consume the letters on the page.

As you do that, ask what the Spirit is saying to the church—and to me—through a text such as this?

The answers will differ, but let me suggest some that you might come up with.

You may notice—and I think this what the biblical narrator probably wants us to sense—that there is a bigger divine plan beyond our own personal agenda for life, and wisdom consists of ensuring that our lives fit with that plan. I am certain that is what the editor of Genesis had in mind, and it was certainly what the writer of today’s Psalm (Psalm 105:12–22) had in mind.

We might look at that story with all its bad bits, and sad bits and loving bits and notice that God is all to weave all the bits of our lives together so that everything is OK in the end. That’s a Romans 8 kind of interpretation: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

As some people read this story and reflect on it, they will notice how things that could have been disastrous actually end up turning out for good. Indeed, at the end of the story, Joseph says to his brothers: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:19–21)

Depending on what sort of family you come from, you might take some encouragement from the knowledge that dysfunctional families are actually quite common, quite normal, and even happen in he Bible. This is certainly one dysfunctional family.

You might notice that is also a story about reconciliation of broken relationships. In the end, finally, Joseph and his brothers are indeed reconciled. Maybe that gives us hope when we are living and working with broken relationships.

As you read the whole narrative, you might realise that this is a story not dissimilar to the blowing up of the port in Beirut on Tuesday. This is a story in which the people who live in Palestine, Canaan, have lost their food supply and gone down to Egypt because they have heard there is food in Egypt.These are refugees. These are people who have been hit by a natural disaster and they are going to their neighbours for help. We might wonder whether Australians have an obligation to help our neighbours as they go through tough times; whether that is CVID-19 or wider issues of violence and poverty.

And certainly we would notice, as we read the whole 14 chapters, and perhaps reflected on the experience with a friend, that Scripture is an amazing gift to us and an incredible spiritual asset.

We don’t get that from the fast food drive-through lectionary experience that we typically get in a Sunday morning service.

The meanings that we see in the Scriptures will, of course, be contextual. It always is and it always must be. The meaning depends on who is reading the story, what is happening in their lives at the time and with whom they are reading the story; either actually with them or who they are taking with them in their heart as they read the sacred text.

So I invite you to get into the story of Joseph this week. Not because it is the best story ever told, and not because it actually happened historically, but because it makes up a third of the book of Genesis. It is a really important part of what the Bible has to tell us about wisdom for life, and it is an invitation from God—and from those before us—to think deeply about where we might see God at work in our everyday relationships.

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It’s complicated

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 8A
26 July 2020

[ video ]

Another Sunday and another text that portrays women as reproductive pawns in the game of life played by men.

In this case we have a powerful old man (Laban) trading his daughters like chips in a card game.

“Yes, I know you wanted the younger one. She is pretty. But I need to marry off the older one first. Hey, son, spend a week with her and then you can have the other one as well. But you will need to work as my unpaid farming assistant for an additional seven years.”

Not quite two for the price of one, but two women being traded away by their father as part of a deal with the man they will share as husband.

And no one thought to ask the women? Either of them!

And at the end of the reading we said:

Hear the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

This week at least our hermeneutical bacon is saved by a disclaimer tucked away in the Gospel reading:

… every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Matthew 13:52

That is a little word picture that has always resonated with me.

It is unique to Matthew and is probably not something that Jesus ever said.

But I wish he had.

And I am glad that Matthew did.

As people who are trained (schooled, educated, equipped) for the reign of God, what do we do with a story such as today’s OT passage in the storehouse of faith? Do we hide it away in the back of the shed, or do we bring it out as a model for life today?

Let’s think for a moment about the two sisters trapped in this love triangle.

Assuming it is a love triangle, and not a power pyramid.

Leah

Leah – senior sister, overlooked wife, matriarch. 

What we know best about that Leah is that Jacob preferred her younger sister, Rachel. Always.

Yet Leah was a survivor in a male-dominated world. She played her part in their father’s scheme to outfox the schemer himself, Jacob. 

She was living in the shadow of her younger sibling’s beauty, but flourished in a family system where her husband had to be shared with a young sister, who he clearly preferred.

 It was complicated. Life sometimes is. Often, actually.

Check out Genesis 30 for a snapshot of family worthy of a TV drama series. 

Perhaps we can rescue this text by hearing it as a call for us to honour women trapped in unhealthy relationships, not all of whom have the resilience of Leah to manage their circumstances to their own advantage. 

Let’s also pray for anyone enmeshed in society’s powerful messages about what constitutes beauty and who wish they looked different, spoke differently or had a different body shape.

Rachel

Rachel, the beloved, the beautiful. 

A man would happily work 14 years just to gain her as his wife. 

In the end, Rachel was the mother of both Joseph and Benjamin, the two favourite sons among Jacob’s many children. 

Tragically, she died in childbirth. 

A tomb in Bethlehem remembers her but has itself become a place of violence and oppression. 

I am left wondering …

Did Rachel love Jacob as much as he loved her? 

What value do we put on passionate romance? And what makes the beloved other so beautiful in our eyes? They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder …

Householders all

Week after week, day by day, it is our task to bring out from the storehouse of faith some treasure—some piece of wisdom—that is just right for the challenges we face in everyday life.

Sometimes the Scriptures tell us what to think or how to act.

More often than not, they invite us to judge (to discern), like Solomon of old.

What is wisdom?

How shall we act?

How do we life justly?

What does salvation look this like in this particular situation?

Yes, it is complicated.

But the core principles are simple:

Do no harm.
Love our neighbour as ourselves.
Choose life.
Stay humble.

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Peter and Paul

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Feast of St Peter & St Paul
28 June 2020

sts-peter-and-paul

 

[ video ]

Around the year 55 CE Paul wrote the following words near the start of his letter to the rather ‘high maintenance’ Christian community in the port city of Corinth:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1Corinthians 1:10–13 NRSV)

Back then Peter and Paul were leaders of different factions in the early Church and at least once they went head to head in a very public argument, as Paul himself describes:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11–14 NRSV)

According to tradition, they both ended up in Rome and both died there as martyrs. For decades after their deaths the early Christian community was divided over their respective legacies, with Paul being ‘on the nose’ in many circles although his side eventually carried the day as we get to around the middle of the second century.

I wonder how they feel about having to share a feast day on 29 June each year?

Our task today is not to trace their personal stories or reconcile the differences between, but rather to seek spiritual wisdom for our own lives today.

They were very different characters, and that may actually be the major piece of wisdom we take away from this reflection. We each have to be our own selves, rather than seeking to fit in with how other people expect us to think, act or worship.

Their life experiences were about as different as two Jewish men could in during the time of the Roman Empire.

Peter

Peter was a Galilean Jew from the village of Bethsaida, but may have already relocated to Capernaum when he encountered Jesus.

Like many others in the area, he was fisher. It was a major economic activity in the NW corner of the Sea of Galilee at the time. And Jesus seems to have targeted the fishing workers. But that is a whole other sermon for some other day.

Peter was uneducated and of low social status.

Yet Jesus identified him as a leader, and he is always named first in list of the apostles.

We tend to call him Peter, but that was a nickname given him by Jesus. His original name was Simeon. His nickname means “Rocky” and it seems to have stuck, as even Paul refers to him by an Aramaic form of that name: Cephas.

Peter, of course, is among the first witnesses of the resurrection; one of those to whom Jesus first appears in the Easter tradition.

He had never been to school, but he knew more about Jesus than we shall ever understand.

Peter was there. He was the leader of pack in Jesus’ eyes.

We just heard a beautiful legend about a beachside chat between Jesus and Peter after Easter.

 

Paul

Paul was a very different kind of person.

Not a Galilean, but a Jew from the Diaspora with a highly developed religious identity:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4–6 NRSV)

Paul had a first-class Jewish pedigree and may even have enjoyed Roman citizenship.

He was an outsider, and seems never to have seen, heard or met Jesus.

He became an insider—and in many ways the greatest Christian leader of all time—because of a religious experience in which he believed that he had encountered the risen Jesus. That turned his life around.

Paul considered himself just as much an apostle as Peter, James and John.

The faith we have is greatly indebted to Paul and bears hardly a trace of Peter.

 

Peter & Paul

Peter’s great asset was that he knew Jesus from before Easter. He could say things like, “When Jesus and I discussed this …” or “That time when Jesus and I went …”

Paul, on the other hand, appealed to Scripture and to his own religious experience of Jesus as a spiritual presence after Easter.

Peter was more likely to stay within the ancient Jewish traditions, while Paul was prepared to throw away the traditions; even though he was deeply trained in them as a Pharisee.

Peter tells us what Jesus was like, where Paul tells us what difference Jesus made.

We need both those voices, and—I suggest—we especially need the voice of Peter to keep Paul a little more grounded in reality.

One of the fault lines in contemporary Christianity is between those who prefer to shape their lives around Jesus in the Gospels, and those who say that it is the voice of Paul which we most need to hear.

Perhaps what we need most is to stay engaged with both those conversations.

We need to be exploring the meaning of God in Christ, actively reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Without that edge, our faith becomes a historical society devoted to an interesting person from 2,000 years ago.

But as we go deep into the mystery of what Jesus means, we must never lose sight of the real human being who proclaimed the presence of God’s rule in everyday life, and did so in ways that made sense to fishermen, housewives, farmers and homeless beggars.

We need a bit of Peter and a bit of Paul in each of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hagar the Egyptian

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
21 June 2020

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Sometimes the lectionary offers us a set of biblical texts that welcome us into a space where we can explore and celebrate the sacred love at the heart of the universe.

This is not one of those days!

Other times the Bible invites us to struggle with the text, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the LORD by the Jabbok River in Genesis 32.

That is the kind of Sunday we have this week.

For sure there are ways to avoid the struggle.

We could get lost in the baptismal theology of Romans 6. A preacher can easily spend 15 or 20 minutes in there, sound very religious and avoid engaging with reality. But that is not the call of the Spirit which I discern this week.

I am drawn to the figure of Hagar.

The black slave ‘owned’ by Sarah and Abraham, and used by them as a surrogate mother to provide them with a child so their dreams of a future could be secured at the cost of her present suffering.

As I searched for a graphic to place on the front page of this week’s liturgy book, I was captured by this haunting image of a homeless mother and child cast adrift by a world which has no compassion for people like her or her child:

 

homeless-mother-and-child

Let’s focus on that image for a moment.

Look at the young woman … and her child.

Hear again the harsh words of the woman of privilege (Sarah, ‘princess’ in Hebrew):

“Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)

 

For the women here today: Would you choose to be in the position of that young woman?

For the men here today: Have we stood by the women we love?

For all of us here: Do we see our children and grandchildren in the face of that child?

 

The story of Hagar

As the Bible tells the story, Hagar was a young Egyptian woman who had become a slave within the household of Abraham and Sarah. We are not told, how that happened.

Slave!

Abraham and Sarah owned slaves?

And that is OK by us? And by God? Really?

And the irony of a Hebrew family with an Egyptian slave!

Life is complicated.

Truth is twisted.

Justice is crooked.

 

As we know from African slavery in the USA and indigenous slavery in our own land, female slaves are sexually abused by their ‘owners’ – by the people who presume to imagine that they can possess another human being.

It wasn’t just the women.

The boys and the young men were abused by privileged ‘owners’ as well.

 

Hagar is given a task to fulfil for her mistress, Sarah. Go and have sex with the old man, Abraham, and get yourself pregnant. But the baby you conceive will not be yours. It will belong to me. I am your mistress. I am your owner. You are nothing. Just a baby machine. Do as I say.

If you do as I tell you then will be safe. We will protect you.

A familiar lie!

 

BTW, Hagar was probably black.

And it is clear that black lives seem not to matter—at least in the eyes of people of privilege—as much as white lives. Our lives.

And all this is in the Bible!

 

But it does not end with the enslavement and sexual abuse of a young woman of colour from Egypt.

 

When the privileged mistress does have her own child, then both the slave girl and her child are expendable. Worse, they are a threat to the privilege of the ‘owner’ and her child.

They need to go.

Where?

Who cares, just get them both out of here!

I don’t want to see them, either of them, ever again!

 

And all this hatred from a woman who had once claimed that child as her own …

 

Abraham is no paragon of virtue, even though the Bible excuses his lack of compassion. Worse still, the Bible shifts the blame to God.

How many times have we seen racists claim divine sanction for their hatred?

How many times do people of privilege claim that their power over others is a gift from God and not something they sought to attain for themselves?

 

 

Where is the Good News?

In the corner of this ‘text of terror’ there is a small scrap of good news.

Both Hagar and her son, Ishmael, survive their expulsion … because God intervenes to save them. The child grows and his mother finds him a wife from Egypt. In the tradition he becomes the ancestor of the Arabs.

But God mostly does not intervene to rescue people when they are abused and exploited.

The injustice is neither addressed nor redressed.

It just happens.

 

As Jesus people, where do we find good news—healing, salvation—in such a terrible tale?

As we wrestle with Scripture, what news of freedom and liberation and hope do we find in such a story?

How long has Hagar had to wait for the crimes against her to be recognised?

And not just Hagar the Egyptian, but all the black women and all black boys who have been abused and exploited by people of privilege in our culture, in our society and even in our religion?

Justice for Hagar comes when we see that what happened to her was not OK.

Redemption for Hagar and her child comes when our hearts break at their treatment.

Restoration comes when we honour Hagar as a great woman in the story of faith.

Good news is found when we stand with Jesus and proclaim the words of Isaiah 61:

 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favour …

 

 

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Black Lives Matter to Jesus

This post was first published as an opinion piece for A Progressive Christian Voice Australia.


There is an age-old divide among religious people about just what God—however understood—wants of humans.

For the better part of 3,000 years in the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditions, there have been those stressing the need for purity (often expressed through codes about sex and food) and those who focus on justice for the victims of structural evil.

Recently, Martyn Iles, the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby has stoked the kind of controversy that appeals to their base and drives their fund-raising efforts with a claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is “anti-Christ”.

This is theological ‘dog-whistling’, and especially in the deliberate evoking of the biblical term ‘Antichrist’.

In the current context of global protests and persistent systemic discrimination against people of colour, this claim is highly partisan. It is also ‘tone-deaf’ to the cries of the oppressed which ascend to the God who has promised to hear them.

The intention to provoke (opponents) and alarm (supporters) was clear when—rather than apologise or retract those comments—Martyn Iles doubled down on them by producing a special podcast session with a 20-minute tirade again BLW as another example of radical secular Marxism seeking to destroy Christianity.

Despite his self-description as a “lover of law, theology and politics” (Facebook – About), Martyn Iles has no formal theology qualifications. His only listed qualifications are in the law. That lack of formal training in theology is evident in his public statements.

Iles espouses a fundamentalist form of Evangelical Christianity, with a fascination on apocalyptic eschatology. He has recently announced a new YouTube channel dealing with questions about the ‘End Times’.

The problem is not his naïve use of the complex texts which constitute the Bible, nor his total disconnect from critical religion scholarship. Both those things are typical of Australian Evangelicals. Rather, what concerns me most is the way that he ‘verbals’ Jesus by imposing his own concept of Christ onto the biblical texts.

The domesticated Jesus promoted by Martyn Iles does not engage in political action, so I presume he would neither support nor join the ACL.

His Jesus only cares about ‘saving souls’ and did not care about feeding the hungry, healing the sick, or letting the oppressed go free (fact check that claim against Luke 4:18–19).

Such a Jesus would not have bothered himself or his disciples with a campaign against a religious discrimination bill; or indeed opposed legislation for same-sex marriage. He just came to save souls.

This kind of Jesus crosses to the other side of the road when he encounters a victim lying wounded in the ditch. Nothing can be allowed to distract from saving souls.

He would not have protected a woman from death by stoning at the hands of a self-righteous religious mob. He would have invited the lady to accept Jesus into her heart but done nothing to address the immediate danger of killing by the authorities.

It seems that Martyn Iles frets over a secular Marxism that he sees in the DNA of every social movement, but is blissfully unperturbed by the multiple structural injustices which have promoted white prosperity at the expense of black lives, not to mention indigenous Australian lives.

He notes the correlation of black deaths with crime rates in black neighbourhoods, but he does not question why we have black neighbourhoods nor why poverty is allowed to continue in the wealthiest societies we have ever seen on the planet.

That myopia must be convenient.

Secular Marxism is a special worry to Martyn Iles.

He recycles the nonsensical idea that a secret KGB operation created liberation theology (apparently an especially virulent form of secular Marxism) to subvert Catholicism in Latin America, while simultaneously infiltrating the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Some people do love conspiracy theories.

It seems that Martyn Iles has no idea that liberation theology occurs spontaneously any time that an oppressed person reads Scripture (not just the Gospels) through the lens of their own experience.

They may be peasants in Latin America, blacks in South Africa or the USA, Palestinians languishing under decades of illegal military occupation by Israel or—an LGBTQI Christian in a Sydney Anglican congregation.

Such is the power of Scripture when the Spirit of God moves in the heart of a reader.

However, as already mentioned, the deeper problem with the analysis promoted by the ACL, is its self-serving blindness to systemic evil.

Possibly the ACL members need to spend some time reading the prophets of ancient Israel. They make up quite a large section of the Bible, actually. Anyone who reads these texts could hardly miss the prophetic denunciation of injustice, poverty and exploitation.

Never mind the prophets, even Deuteronomy is crystal clear about what is expected of those who might seek God’s blessing on them:

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

If it is too much to ask dedicated Christians who support ACL to read the biblical prophets, perhaps they could find the time to reflect on the earliest version of the Lord’s Prayer and notice the raw edges of poverty in that prayer before we spiritualised it:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(Luke 11:2–4)

As a sequel, let me recommend Luke’s version of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
(6:20–21,23–25)

If even these brief epitomes of the central message of Jesus are too much for the ACL supporters to absorb, perhaps it would suffice for them simply to take to heart the words of the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, 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)

 

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A bountiful harvest

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Second Sunday after Pentecost
14 June 2020

harvest_time

 

[ video ]

It is so hard to pass by the iconic story from Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah offered hospitality to three strangers only to discover—with hindsight, as always—that it had been God who was at their table all the time.

Actually, perhaps we do not have to entirely pass that story by.

Maybe we can park that idea to one side as we reflect on the theme of the bountiful harvest and the need for more workers if the harvest is to be finished. Hold that thought for a bit.

 

A plentiful harvest

How many sermons have we heard over the years about the potential harvest out there, if only we had enough people and enough resources to go fetch it?

In my experience as a child raised within the life of the church, this theme was developed especially with reference to missionary work (“the great harvest” to be found in faraway lands). To a lesser extent, it was applied to local evangelism as well, with our neighbours and friends imagined as a field ripe for harvest.

Both those common ways of using this theme, at least in my own experience, have tended to be about finding ways to persuade other people to see things our way.

When used in a more appropriate manner, it becomes a sense that there is so much good to be achieved for God, for our human community and for the earth herself that it would be tragic were it left undone or incomplete.

Too often, I fear, it becomes a passion to “save souls” from something terrible rather than a desire to achieve wonderful things for the benefit of everyone.

How big do we draw the circle of blessing?

Is it a tight circle enclosing a small group of rescued sinners, or do we have a sense that we exist to be a blessing for others? Not just for some, but for everyone?

Now that would be a bountiful harvest!

 

Only a few workers

As the preacher describes the size of the harvest, they usually lament the lack of people to go gather it in.

As church membership shrinks and participation rates collapse, this sounds familiar.

The workers are not just clergy, but people willing to serve on Parish Council, school boards, cleaning rosters, serve in the OpShop, teach Sunday School, lead youth groups, etc, etc

But today’s Gospel reading subverts that response, based as it is on fear for the future; and a sense of loss when we compare things now with the past.

Interestingly, having spoken about the need for more workers to be sent by the master of the harvest, Jesus sends out just 12 people. That’s right: 12!

The truth is, of course, that even a small group of passionate people can achieve amazing results.

Twelve uneducated men from Galilee. Maybe Matthew (Levi) was able to read and write. None of them was well-connected or had any kind of serious social status. No physicians, engineers or artists in this group.

Only Peter was to make an impression on the memory of the church, and almost everything we know about him is legend.

The others all disappear from the stage of history and leave no trace of their efforts.

But almost exactly 300 years later (in 325 CE) a Roman emperor called Constantine would convene the first Church Council in the city of Nicea to approve the first draft of the creed we say in this Cathedral most Sundays. The emperor had become a follower of Jesus a few years earlier and before long Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

That may not actually have been a good thing, but it still demonstrates what an amazing result can be achieved by a handful of ordinary people whose hearts have been possessed by a big idea.

Maybe we do not need to ask for more workers, just a few workers with bold dreams.

 

The lord of the harvest

Who is the lord of the harvest? and what are his instructions for the workers gathering the harvest?

In the Gospels it is God, but for us—in a sense—it is Jesus himself.

Our gospel reading began with Jesus active in the work to which God had called him, and later sending out his twelve disciples to keep doing the same stuff.

What was Jesus doing and what did he send the others out to do?

CONNECT – went about from village to village, engaging with people where they were. He did not try to persuade them to come to him. He went to them

TEACHING – Jesus offered practical wisdom, spiritual wisdom for everyday life. It was not arcane religious knowledge or philosophical speculations. It was wisdom to live by. Daily bread indeed.

HOPE – Jesus gave people hope with his talk about the coming kingdom of God and he encouraged people to start acting as if the reign of God was already here.

HEALING – as Jesus did all that people were finding healing, they were being saved, their broken lives were being put back together.

COMPASSION – Jesus embodied (literally) the compassion of God

 

That is the work of the harvest as understood and practised by the lord of the harvest.

 

Conclusion

If we are struggling to recruit people to help us could it be that we are working in the wrong paddock, seeking to gather the wrong harvest?

Are we driven by compassion for them or by our need for their assistance to keep the church going?

If it is not the former then there will be no blessing s from the lord of the harvest.

Jesus did not send the twelve out to repair, maintain or expand the synagogues.

Jesus did not ask for money: “You received with payment, give without payment!”

Jesus transformed lives, communities, society and the world.

That is our mission as well.

If we focus on that mission, we will find we have all the people we need to achieve the most remarkable results.

 

We started with a brief reference to Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers to their tent. They shared what they had with these strangers who had walked into their lives. They did not ask for anything in return. But they later discovered that God had been among them.

May that be our story and the story this town as well.

 

 

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The eighth day of creation

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost. Sunday
31 May 2020

Hurricane_Isabel_from_ISS

[ video ]

 

Everything begins in chaos
Darkness

Tohu vabohu, writes the ancient Hebrew poet

Formless
Empty
Immense swirling oceans (the Deep)
No light at all from any source

Then something happens:
ruach elohim

 

Christians like to translate that phrase: ‘Spirit of God’
Jews prefer to say: ‘a wind from God’
I suggest we read it as: ‘a powerful wind’
In everyday terms we might say “a hell of a storm”

All that we are today has its origins and its explanation in those ancient words that open the Bible we share with our Jewish friends.

To paraphrase:

God was there at the start
God created everything
It was a mess
An amazing storm came through
Hovering above the formless empty chaos
Then there was light!
God had spoken.

 

That is not just a description of our origins.
It also describes our present reality
And it indicates our destiny

TODAY is Pentecost, sometimes called the Eighth Day of Creation
TODAY we celebrate the disturbing and renewing presence of the Spirit
TODAY we pray for the Spirit to hover over our chaos until the light appears

As we observe this Great and Fiftieth Day of Easter, let me offer a simple paradigm for understanding the meaning of Pentecost:

The presence of the spirit of Jesus among us
is the proof of the resurrection
Equally, our commitment to compassionate action
is the proof that the Spirit is among us.

 

The spirit of Jesus among us

This was a major theme in the way that Paul understood the gospel.

He hardly ever refers to the life of Jesus and almost never quotes any teachings from Jesus, but he repeatedly refers to the Spirit as the real, lived experience of the risen Jesus active in the church.

One familiar example, often used in services today, is this:

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

However, I think my personal favourite, might be this line from a little later in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)

For Paul and for us, the Spirit present among us is the proof that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us into God, into the future, into eternal love.

Indeed, Paul never mentions an empty tomb. Rather, we find that in the Gospels, all of which were written long after Paul is dead.

For Paul what matters is to have been drawn into the Easter life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, which has been given to us.

For that reason, Pentecost is indeed the Great and Fiftieth Day of Easter.

Easter does not end with the discovery of an empty tomb nor an ascension into heaven.

Easter has really only fully happened when we have a community of people where the Spirit is found: hovering over our chaos, absorbing our darkness, shaping our formlessness, illuminating our darkness, filling our emptiness.

Today, on the festival of the Spirit,  we know the meaning of Easter; and in our experience of the Spirit of Jesus among us we know the reality of his resurrection.

 

Acting with compassion

In our mission statement on the Cathedral website, we speak of ourselves as “acting with compassion in the heart of Grafton since 1842”

When that description is true, then we have proof that the Spirit of Jesus is indeed active among us.

Jesus was, first of all, a person of compassion: he healed the sick, he cast out demons, he made the blind see, he fed the hungry, he proclaimed a time of liberty and salvation, he had time and compassion for those on the margins of their own communities.

As Jesus people, his Spirit of compassion will be evident among us as well.

Paul one time described this as the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23)

This does not mean that we always get it right.

Nor does it mean that when we mess up we should beat up on ourselves.

But it does suggest that when we get it right, this is what the presence of the Spirit of Jesus among us looks like: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”

We should expect to see evidence of the Spirit of Jesus at work among us.

And we do.

We saw it during the fires during summer.

We have seen it in the care and support during the pandemic.

We see it in the OpShop volunteers.

We see it in the Cathedral Pantry.

We see it in every act of compassion and care.

 

May the disturbing and renewing presence of the Spirit continue to be our experience so that we never doubt the resurrection of Jesus and never lose sight of what it means for us to be Jesus people here and now.

God was there at the start
God is here now
God will be here in the future
It may be a mess
But an amazing spirit-storm is around us
Hovering above the formless empty chaos
There will be light!
God has spoken.
Alleluia!

 

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Creating a Network not forming a Crowd

Palm Sunday
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
5 April 2020

Palm-Sunday-in-Jerusalem

[ video ]

 

It is Palm Sunday, a day for crowds.

There were crowds in Jerusalem at Passover time 2,000 years ago …

There are crowds in Jerusalem for Palm Sunday every year, except 2020 …

There are good numbers at people at churches on Palm Sunday, but not this year …

There are no crowds this year.

Or maybe our definition of crowds has been upturned:

Two’s company
Three’s a crowd

That certainly applies in Australia under our coronavirus regulations.

We have no crowds, but we have lots of participants.

Most ‘regular’ Sundays we have been getting 60 people at the Cathedral on Sundays. That is up by almost 50% from three years ago and we would like to see it higher.

But the past two weeks while we have been live streaming our service, we have been getting around 1,000 people looking at the video.

Yes, you heard me: 1,000 people!

We have no one in the Cathedral, but we are creating a web (not a mob), a network (not a crowd)

So welcome to all our online people, whether you are from our regular Cathedral congregation, friends from across the north coast or around the country, or people who do not usually get to church anywhere on Sundays but have found this a good way to do some spiritual work.

You are welcome, and we are glad to have you participating in our Cathedral mission:

We are
a generous faith community
centred on Jesus
seeking wisdom for life
acting with compassion
in the heart of Grafton
since 1842

Come right in and make yourself at home as we do the stuff that Jesus people have been doing since that first Palm Sunday almost 2,000 years ago:

 

WORSHIP

We are celebrating how good it to be alive. To be alive here and now. There is a lot of anxiety out there thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but at a time like this we still have so much to celebrate.

Worship is when we pause to consider how wonderful it is to be alive, what a gift life is, and how grateful we are to the love that pulses at the very centre of the cosmos.

We call that eternal love at the heart of cosmos, “God”; and we believe that we encounter that love in human form in the person and the wisdom of Jesus.

We can worship anywhere, as this pandemic is teaching us all over again.

You can worship right now, simply by pausing to reflect on the blessing of being here.

 

RITUAL

Rituals are not the same as worship, but worship uses many different rituals and this coming week is the time in the year when we have lots and lots of special rituals: from palm branches to today to feet washing on Thursday (except it is banned this year) to stations of the cross on Good Friday, the lighting of the Holy Fire on Easter Eve and the Paschal Candle on Easter morning.

We have rituals in every aspect of our lives, but this year we need to create or modify those rituals for online communities and inside our homes. Create a holy space in your home. Light a candle. Contemplate a holy picture. Read the Scriptures. Say your prayers. Cook special food for these special days. Listen to the special music that feeds your spirit.

Rituals.

 

COMMUNITY

Jesus gathered a community around him, and we are part of that community 2,000 years later.

Our community is under threat, and more so by people who think only of themselves than from the virus.

Our community includes all creation: the plants and animals, the rivers and the oceans, the air and the sky.

Make sure our rituals include some that renew and enhance our connection with one another and with the planet. I like to stop and talk to the magpies around the Cathedral. What is your crazy personal ritual that connects you with the community of sacred Earth as well as with other people?

 

COMPASSION

As Jesus people, we know that it is all about compassion.

In the end, nothing else matters. Not what we believe, but how we treat others.

Through the weeks of this pandemic members of Parish Council will be phoning people from the Cathedral community here in Grafton to check on them. Are you OK? Is there anything you need? Can we help in any way?

Compassion.

That is what Jesus people do.

Our Cathedral Pantry has really caught the attention of people across Grafton. It is a simple thing, but it makes a difference to those who really need our help. Compassion.

 

GENEROSITY

Jesus people are generous people.

We see that from the very beginning of the Christian story.

One story that captures this so well is our Gospel from today when a woman anoints Jesus with very expensive ointment. It was a prophetic act, anointing Jesus for his burial even before he was dead. But it was also an act of loving generosity. What could have been e joyed for her own benefit is totally expended for the sake of someone else, in this case, Jesus himself.

You will know the story of the crowd being fed with two fish and five loaves of bread. That was a picnic lunch for a young boy, but he brought it to the disciples because he heard that everyone was hungry.

What’s the point? ask the disciples; watch me, says Jesus.

Generosity is when we see a need, take action to address, and do not worry about our own needs.

We have seen a lot of generosity during this past couple of weeks as people respond to the news that the Cathedral will lose about half its income for 2020 if the shutdown lasts six months as we expect.

We are not out of the woods yet, but more than half the expected shortfall has already been made up by special gifts from people in our Cathedral community.

Generosity … it how Jesus people act.

 

So welcome—no matter where you are joining us from—and may you have a holy and deeply meaningful Holy Week.

We are glad to have you as part of our community of compassionate Jesus people in the heart of Grafton since 1842 and now in the heart of many more communities because you have joined us this morning.

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Faith community compassion generosity

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Grafton Cathedral
22 March 2020

La_curacion_del_ciego_El_Greco_Dresde

[ video ]

The gospel set for today is strangely apt and yet it strikes a chord that spells fear, not hope.

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he encounters a man who has been blind since birth.

Note the very different attitudes of the key characters in this story:

 

JESUS NOTICES A BLIND BEGGAR

HIS DISCIPLES WANT PHILOSOPHICAL EXPLANATIONS

JESUS ADDRESSES THE NEED OF THE PERSON

BECAUSE COMPASSION GIVES GLORY TO GOD

THE RELIGIOUS EXPERTS REJECT JESUS’ CREDENTIALS

THE PARENTS OF THE MAN WANT NO MORE FUSS

THE HEALED MAN SEES CLEARLY

AND NOT JUST WITH HIS EYES

 

We can also notice that Jesus was clearly not under the current COVID-19 health requirements when he spat on the ground and made a paste from the dirt …

 

Fast forward around 2,000 years and here we are on the edge of a whole new way of being church, worshipping God and serving others.

We have never been in this space before.

Easter is just around the corner and almost certainly there will be no public church services during those most holy days.

Passover will be scaled back for Jews.

Ramadan will be quiet and subdued for Muslims when the daytime fasting ends.

 

Some of us have experienced part of this in our lives due to illness or other life events that have kept us away from church for a time. But we always knew that church was happening, and that people of faith were gathering for worship, learning more about their faith, and getting organised to make the world a better place for everyone.

Not anymore.

The pause button has been pressed.

So, what do we have left during these weeks when not just church but so many other aspects of our lives will be so very different from anything we have experienced before?

Let me unpack that around four (4) key words:

  • Faith
  • Community
  • Compassion
  • Generosity

 

FAITH

Faith is something that seems to be in short supply these days.

People who strip the shelves of household supplies and food are demonstrating a profound lack of faith in the capacity of our system to sustain us as it does in normal times.

People who pack our beaches and ignore the advice to maintain safe social distances are also showing their deep lack of faith. They do not trust the health authorities. They do not believe the government. They have no faith in science.

These are not normal times, but we can respond to these times with faith rather than fear.

We can be people of cautious optimism and quiet hope.

We can do all this because we are Easter people.

We do not deny the tragedy and the evil of Good Friday, but we affirm that light conquers darkness, love defeats hatred, hope destroys fear, and life overcomes death.

Faith does not halt the pandemic, but it stops us falling apart as our routines dissolve around us.

Faith nudges us to look beyond, to the love which at the very centre of the cosmos and which came to us in the person of Jesus.

Faith is practical hope; not whistling in the dark but lighting a candle to shatter the deepest darkness.

 

COMMUNITY

As people of faith we are community, the Body of Christ, those called together to make a difference in the world.

For as long as any of us can remember, our community has been grounded in gathering around a table, the Table of Jesus.

But that table is out of reach for a while.

We are going to find other ways to build and sustain community.

One part of that is the technology which has transformed our lives, and which now allows us to gather without being in the same place.

We have online communities and we can make better use of them.

But we also need to make the phone calls and knock on the doors of isolated people.

Make list of people and find ways to check on them. Make a list of 10 names and pray for those people every day. Maybe give them a call. Check how they are doing.

If you have concerns for them, let us know and we shall try to make contact as well.

Download the Cathedral app.

Join the next few Dean’s Forums as Zoom meetings!

Get onto Facebook and join the Grafton Anglicans private group. Share your thoughts. Ask questions. Reflect on what is happening. Explore the Bible. Begin to imagine what church will be like on the other side of this pandemic.

We are a resilient community and we shall come out of this stronger than ever.

 

COMPASSION

Some people are going to be hurt by the pandemic.

Many people will become ill and some will die. Some of us may die in the next few weeks.

Businesses will close.

Jobs will be lost.

Some essential household items and certain lines of food are still going to be hard to get.

But we do not hoard.

It is against the very essence of being people of faith to hoard.

We share what we have and give when we are asked.

It seems impossible to feed 5,000 people with five bread rolls and a couple of small fish, but God can use what we share to make a huge difference in the lives of others. And especially in those in most need.

Instead of worrying about how we will survive as a church with the OpShop closed for several months, let’s begin to imagine what an impact we can have on people as the OpShop becomes a community hub where they find the help they need. And indeed, in some ways, the food they need for each day.

Give us today our daily bread.

We shall be gentle with each other and act out of compassion.

 

GENEROSITY

Recently we sang the beautiful modern hymn, “A Spendthrift Lover is the Lord” by Thomas H. Troeger:

A spendthrift lover is the Lord who never counts the cost
Or asks if heaven can afford to woo a world that’s lost.
Our lover tosses coins of gold across the midnight skies
And stokes the sun against the cold to warm us when we rise.

As people of faith, we reflect the generosity of God in ourselves and in our own actions, and we are going to need generosity as we navigate the weeks and months ahead.

Generosity is as much about openness as it is about funding.

Indeed, generosity is the very opposite of the hoarding which has been so evident in the past few weeks.

It is natural that when we fear that there may not be enough of something to go around, we are tempted to grab what we can before it runs out. We panic buy. We hoard. We are selfish. Other people get hurt.

As people of faith we know the generosity of our spendthrift lover.

We trust the endless capacity of God to bring good out of evil, and life out of death.

We have no deep fear that life lacks what we need to thrive.

Give us today our daily bread.

So we have no need to hoard.

We can share what we have without fear.

And that unlocks a chain of compassionate generosity that turns our world upside down.

As a Cathedral, we will pay what we need to spend, and we will share what resources we have. Even if our reserves are exhausted, God will provide all that we need and then some.

Give us today our daily bread.

So please do find a way to get your gifts to the Cathedral: direct debit, bank transfers, cheques, mobile payment on the Cathedral app, delivering your envelopes to the office.

We may have less coming in, but there will still be lots to go out.

As generous people, we can keep our hearts and our minds open to those who need our help.

 

In among all the strangeness of the coming weeks, hold fast to these four key words:

Faith – Community – Compassion – Generosity

 

Finally, embrace this opportunity for a change of pace. Let’s all slow down for a bit.

With that in mind, let me close with a poem by John O’Donoghue

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

© John O’Donohue. Excerpt from his books, To Bless the Space Between Us (US) / Benedictus (Europe). Ordering Info: https://johnodonohue.com/store

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

Clean hands and open hearts

This opinion piece appeared in The Daily Examiner on Thursday, 12 March 2020

“Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts.”

With these seven simple words, Dr Abdu Sharkawy, concluded a recent Facebook post about the coronavirus. Dr Sarkawy is a Canadian medical doctor and an infectious diseases specialist. His post went viral, which is an interesting metaphor given our content.

After all the scientific and medical details in his post, those three simple axioms stand out for me: Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts.

We certainly need to pay attention to the facts and resist the tendency for fear to override both common sense and scientific knowledge. The empty shelves in the supermarket aisles reveal how easily fear can trigger irrational responses.

We are fortunate to have an excellent public health system. Let’s give the advice coming from the federal and state health officers at least as much credence as the advice we accepted so readily from our emergency services during the recent bushfire crisis.

Facts not fear.

The best practical advice is to leave the toilet paper on the supermarket shelves and to focus on personal hygiene, especially cleaning our hands. Often. And thoroughly. Yes, it really is that simple. Clean our hands. Cough into our elbows. Avoid shaking hands. Stay indoors if we feel unwell. Do not put others at risk even if that means some inconvenience for us.

Clean hands.

But perhaps the most important lesson of all is to keep our hearts open to one another.

As a compassionate community we affirm our shared humanity, and we renew our commitment to be there for one another.

A year ago we determined not to allow an act of violence in Christchurch to tear us apart. Since then we have stuck together as fires ripped the heart from our forests and threatened so many small communities. The same resilience is needed as we stare down this virus which threatens our compassion for one another.

Open hearts.

 

Dr Greg Jenks is the Dean of Grafton. Like many Anglican and Catholic churches across the North Coast, Grafton Cathedral has made changes to its worship arrangements to reduce the risk of the COVID-19 virus being spread.

 

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