No purse, no bag, no sandals

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 4C
7 July 2019

 

[ video ]

Today we going back into the lectionary cycle after several weeks when we have stepped aside from the lectionary to focus on the key phrases in the great commandments: Love God with all our hearts, with our souls, with our minds and with our strength.

The passage served up in the lectionary this morning happens to be the mission charge as Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to extend the reach of his own ministry and activity.

This offers a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of the activity of Jesus himself; as well as the activity of those disciples of Jesus who were based in the Galilee and continued to do the ‘Jesus thing’ in the first few years after Easter.

We have two versions of the mission charge, the version here in Luke 10 and a parallel version in Matthew 10. They are very similar. In fact, in places they are word for word the same.

Were Matthew and Luke students handing in essays at a university they would be up on a charge of plagiarism, since they have clearly used a common source – or perhaps copied from each other.

This takes us back into the earliest transmission of the gospel traditions, to an ancient version of the Gospels which scholars call simply ‘Q’, from the German word Quelle, meaning source.

These days this ancient source is more commonly referred to as the Q Gospel, and the people who produced it unknown as the Q community.

While it is hard to name any individuals who were part of that earliest community of Jesus followers in the Galilee after Easter, we can learn quite a bit about them as we read between the lines of the Q gospel.

To reiterate, these were people who lived in the Galilee in the years immediately after Easter and were followers of Jesus. Many of them knew Jesus personally. They had seen him at work in their villages and towns. They had heard him speak. Perhaps they had shared a meal with him. Maybe he had healed them or another member of their family, or at least somebody from their village. One of them was probably the little boy with a basket containing five loaves and two fish, for sure another one was Mary Magdalene.

What a fascinating bunch of people.

How we wish we could have a conversation with them and gain an insight into their experience of Jesus way back in the first century.

These Q people, the very first followers of Jesus, were essentially overlooked and written out of the story as the Christian church developed and gained a foothold in the Gentile world around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. After Easter, we never again hear of the Jesus people from Galilee.

But their voice is heard in the Q Gospel, an ancient source which was used by Matthew and later by Luke as they prepared their expanded and updated editions of the gospel according to Mark.

Enough of that for now! This is not the time and place for a lecture on the earliest Christian communities or the formation of the new Testament Gospels!

 

But what I do want to do is to draw your attention to the dynamics which are preserved for us in the mission charge.

These people remembered Jesus as acting in certain ways, and it seems they continued to act in precisely those ways themselves in the first years and decades after Easter.

 

Being sent

Like Jesus, the early Q communities had a strong sense of being sent by God to share good news. They had something to share, they had something to say, they had things they could do which would make a difference in people’s lives.

So the first question for us today is whether we can describe ourselves and our Christian community in similar terms?

Do we have a sense of being sent by God to share some good news which is going to make a real difference in the lives of other people? Do we have something to share? Do we have something to say? Do we have some contribution to make to the well-being of our community, our neighbours and our families?

 

Simplicity

It’s clear from the example of Jesus himself—as well as the example of Paul and the other early apostles—that the instructions given in the mission charge reflect the actual practice of Jesus and his earliest followers.

They were to travel light.

They were to carry no purse, they were to carry no bag, they were to wear no sandals and they were not to be diverted from their missions by others they might meet along the way.

When they reached the village or an isolated farmhouse, they were to greet the residents and seek a place to stay.

Wherever they found hospitality was the right place for them to be.

They need not look for somewhere else. Somewhere better. More comfortable. More amenable to their lifestyle.

They were not TV evangelists or megachurch pastors. Not even cathedral Deans.

They were not to move from house to house, but to stay for a short period with the one householder before moving on to the next village.

They had few resources and there was no infrastructure.

This is the pattern we see in many of the saints, in the founders of religious communities, and in the pioneer clergy who established church in this valley.

Our institutions have grown complex and wealthy, but our impact has diminished.

We need to learn afresh how to travel light.

 

Program

The program of Jesus and of his earliest followers was quite simple and yet it was radical. It changed lives, it transformed communities, and it turned the world upside down.

PEACE: they came proclaiming the arrival of peace, Shalom. Not power, not conquest, not empire building of any kind, but the ‘kingdom of God’, the reign of God experienced in their own lives and in their own communities. Shalom indeed. Your kingdom come …

HOSPITALITY: at the heart of so many gospel stories there is the experience of shared generosity. Some scholars have joked that Jesus ate and drank his way across Galilee, and that flippant remark captures one aspect of the earliest Jesus movement. This movement took root in those times and at those places where ordinary people gathered for meals: in homes, in the marketplace, beside the road, by the lake, out in the fields. At its heart, the Jesus program was simply for people to share what little they had and discover it was more than enough.

HEALING: both Jesus and his followers gained a reputation as healers. But they were not healers who set themselves up in a sacred grove and waited for the sick and suffering to come to them, charging a fee for their prayers and their potions. Rather, Jesus and his followers were healers who spent their time out amongst the broken and the sick. In the ancient world to be sick was to be excluded. In the absence of effective medication, a simple public health measure was to isolate the person with a disease. The individual was sacrificed for the sake of the herd. Jesus and his followers invited people back into the community, declared them clean, and offered them hospitality. Followers of Jesus were a community of outcasts, desperately poor and socially excluded. As they found healing they also discovered community.

 

And us?

We’ve come a long way. And it is not all good. The distance between the practice of Jesus and the practice of the church gives us pause to stop and think.

As we rediscover what God is calling us to be and to do in a post-Christian secular Australia, these three fundamentals from Jesus and his earliest followers in the Galilee may well represent ancient wisdom that we need to embrace afresh:

  • Travel light
  • Do good
  • Share (whatever you have)(all of it!)

 

This is the call of God on us as individuals, as families, and as a cathedral community.

May God give us the courage to do what has to be done.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 2 Comments

Ending spiritual and emotional violence towards LGBTQI+ persons

A speech to the Synod of Grafton Diocese on Sunday, 23 June 2019, when moving the following motion (shown in its final amended form):

That this Synod encourages the 2020 General Synod:
(i) to authorise Anglican clergy to participate in civil weddings;
(ii) to move towards providing optional provisions for the blessing of civil marriages; and
(iii) to move towards providing an optional liturgy for the solemnization of Holy Matrimony where the parties to the marriage are of the same gender.

 

Mr President, I am honoured to move the motion which stands in my name as item 24 on our business paper.

Synod members may be surprised to hear that I have hesitated to present this motion, due to a desire to avoid pointless conflict. However, I have been persuaded by other members of Synod who assisted in the drafting of this motion that, first of all, this motion needed to be presented for debate and secondly, that I should be the person who moves it.

I also share the hope expressed by David Hanger that we can engage in this debate with courtesy and respect. Perhaps at the end of the day we shall be even better friends than we are now, since each of is seeking to be true to Scripture and the call of God on our lives.

Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and intersex sisters and brothers continue to experience emotional and spiritual violence within the church as well as in other spheres of life.

While ever the letter of our church law excludes and discriminates that emotional and spiritual violence will persist.

Until and unless we open every aspect of church life to LGBTQI+ people, including the right to marry and to have their intimate relationships celebrated and blessed within the life of the church, this emotional and spiritual violence will continue.

In brief, that is why this motion is being brought to the Synod today.

As everybody will agree, I am sure, this is a question of our core values as people of faith.

To paraphrase — and respectfully misquote — our Lord, people were not made for marriage, but marriage was made for people.

Do people come first, or does a strict reading of the tradition prevail?

The New Testament provides ample evidence of the way both Jesus and Paul would answer such a question.

This motion is not seeking a protracted debate on the doctrine of marriage or the issues around same-sex relationships. All that has been canvassed extensively in recent years and especially during the debates leading up to the postal plebiscite in 2016.

Indeed, I note that the arrangements for General Synod next year have recently been modified to provide up to 3 days for an extensive discussion precisely on the theological and pastoral issues relating to human sexuality.

We do not need to have that debate here today.

It would interesting to glance back over the history of marriage within the life of the church, but the time available to me is too short for that.

However, I note that while marriage occasionally serves as a metaphor—among other metaphors—for the relationship between Christ and the church in Ephesians, it attracts little comment in the New Testament and certainly no mention in the creeds of the Catholic Church, and even in The Articles of Religion.

Further, until around 1200 CE there were no church laws relating to marriage.

For more than 1,000 years after Easter, marriage tended to be a private matter and required simply an exchange of vows between the two persons, without even the presence of any witnesses.

Around 1200 we see the Western church beginning to introduce canonical requirements to ban secret wedding vows, to require the presence of witnesses and in due course, to require a priest to be present and make a written record of the marriage.

Indeed, it was not until the Council of Trent in 1546 that marriage was defined as a sacrament of the church.

Our understanding of marriage has continued to change and evolve over time.

  • It is no longer seen as the transfer of one vulnerable woman from the control of her father to the control of her husband.
  • We no longer expect women to promise obedience to their husband.
  • Married women can own property and pursue careers.
  • We no longer understand marriage is primarily about procreation.
  • We have come to appreciate marriage as a blessed relationship in which two people find deep companionship and create a home in which children may be born and raised, but also as a small community of love through which a much larger circle of people find blessing.
  • We have come to terms with the reality of marriage breakdown and divorce. Despite the clear teaching of Scripture to the contrary, our church allows divorced persons to remarry and to do so with the blessing of the church.

Much has changed. But some important work remains to be done.

Around the Anglican world, many churches have begun to address the need to change our definition of marriage and provide for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

At last count, the Anglican provinces which have moved in this direction include the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Wales, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Episcopal Church USA, the Episcopal Church of Brazil, and the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Other churches with which we have full or partial communion and who have moved in this direction include the Union of Utrecht (look it up) as well as a large number of Lutheran communities in Europe and North America.

For most Anglicans this is not a core issue of faith and order.

The motion before us is carefully drafted to focus on the advice which we might reasonably offer to the 2020 session of General Synod.

This is especially pertinent given the changes to that Synod’s schedule to allow extended discussion—in conference mode—of precisely these matters.

This motion does not commit our diocese to act unilaterally, nor does it ask the Bishop to approve the blessing of same-sex marriages or to issue a liturgy for the marriage of same-sex persons.

However, this motion does offer a way for our Synod to express our mind and to contribute intentionally to the ongoing national discussion of these matters within our church.

As I commend this motion to the Synod, I am conscious that not everybody here will agree with the proposal.

Indeed, there are some people here who should vote against this proposal.

Anyone who thinks that LGBTQI relationships are intrinsically sinful, disordered and evil should certainly vote against this motion. Their decision to do so will be respected.

Similarly, anyone who thinks that the literal text of the Bible must always be followed may well find that they need to vote against this motion. Again, their decision to do so will be respected.

On the other hand, all of us who voted to support motion 23 earlier in the session will be inclined to support this motion.

Those who believe that compassion trumps doctrine will want to vote for this motion.

Those who believe that it is essential that our church engages with issues of concern to our neighbours, to our friends, to our families including—our children and grandchildren—will want to support this motion.

Those of us who want to see an end to the long tradition of emotional and spiritual abuse of LGBTQI+ persons will, of course, support this motion.

This is the right thing to do, and now is the right time to do it.

Thank you, Mr President. I commend the motion to Synod.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, News | 3 Comments

with all that I have

Third Sunday after Pentecost
Christchurch Cathedral, Grafton
30 June 2019

 

[ video ]

 

Through this past month of Sundays we have been reflecting on the inner dynamics of our lives as Christian people.

  • What are our core values?
  • What is our mission in a nutshell?
  • What are the elements of faith which are non-negotiable and draw us into the future where God awaits?

 

During this series we have been focusing on some key phrases from the familiar words of the great commandment:

Shema Yisrael; Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, [with all your mind,] and with all your strength.

 

On the first Sunday this month we reflected on the significance of loving God with all our heart. We saw that this means moving beyond any sense of compliance with external requirements, as we acknowledge our relationship with God as fundamental to our identity and our purpose. This stuff matters to us. We care about spiritual work.

The following week, we reflected on the significance of soul: who we are in our innermost selves as creatures in whom the spirit of God is present and active. We saw that loving God with all our hearts is to make God the most important priority, but we also saw that to love God with our soul is to recognise that a relationship with God lies at the very heart of who we are as living creatures. Spirit people. Living souls.

When Jesus was quoting the words of the Shema Yisrael to the lawyer who asked his advice, he took the liberty of adding one additional element. We tend not to notice this because we are so familiar with the version from the Gospels.

The original version in Deuteronomy 6 refers to heart, soul and strength, and in today’s sermon we will be reflecting shortly on the significance of that final term. However, it is both interesting and significant that Jesus is remembered as telling his questioner that it is also absolutely essential that we love God with our minds.

There is no place for intellectual laziness within the spiritual life. We do not mistake information for wisdom, nor do we value answers over questions. But we are called as people of faith to use our brains and to love God with our minds.

When Camellia helped us to explore this idea a couple of weeks ago, we were observing Trinity Sunday. The concept of God as Trinity is an excellent symbol of the need to move beyond simplicity and naivety, towards a more nuanced and sophisticated faith. Loving God with our minds!

 

Loving God with our strength

So this week we turn to the last of the four phrases: loving God with our strength or, as we used to say the old translation, with our might.

This is an interesting concept.

Loving God with our heart invites us to think about the priorities in our life. Loving God with our soul invites us to reflect on our innermost identity and spirit people. But loving God with our strength—or our might—takes us to a very different place.

The Hebrew word in Deuteronomy 6 is מאוד, which is really an adjective rather than a noun. Indeed, I have מאוד on the outside of a coffee cup that I purchased from a coffee chain in Israel several years ago: מאוד. In the context it means exceptional.

In the context of Deuteronomy 6 as also in the context of Mark chapter 12, where the Greek word is ισχυςis used, the focus is on everything we have.

Nothing is excluded.

Nothing is exempt.

Nothing is held back.

Every resource and every asset and every ounce of energy which we have at our disposal is brought to the task of loving and serving God.

So, instead of saying love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength we should perhaps translate it as follows: love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with everything that you have.

Wow!

That is a truly radical call to discipleship:

Remember the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler: “sell your goods, give everything to the poor then come follow me.”

Remember the comments of Jesus when he saw a widow putting her last two small coins into the collection box at the Temple. Her gift was more precious than the bags of coins being offered by wealthy people, because she gave everything that she had.

This is not asking for 10%.

This is not negotiating any other intermediate benchmark for splitting our assets between God and ourselves.

This is a demand that everything we have—the whole lot—be given over to God’s purposes!

This is the wisdom of St Francis of Assisi.

This is the wisdom of Saul of Tarsus.

This is the wisdom of Jesus.

The call of God on our lives invites us to see everything we have—every asset over which we have control—as entrusted to us by God for the sake of mission.

So how do we manage this radical demand when it comes to distributing our assets, and particularly the discretionary funds which are available to us after we have filled our primary obligation of providing for our family and ourselves?

 

The way I deal with it is like this.

If the amount of money which I allocate each week has no impact on my capacity to do whatever I want to do, then I have not given enough.

Let me say that again as it sets a different kind of benchmark.

If the amount of money which I allocate each week has no impact on my capacity to do whatever I want to do, then I have not given enough.

There must be an element of sacrifice.

No pain no gain.

 

On the other hand, if I find that there are some things I would like to have done but can no longer afford to do because I allocated a significant chunk of my disposable cash to God’s work, then I have a sense that I am beginning to love God with all my strength, with all that I have.

 

So I will never tell you how much money you should put into the offering plate or how much money you should contribute to this charity or that charity.

For some people, 10% is way too high because what is then left is simply too small amount on which to live. On the other hand, for some people 10% is way too low, because their 90% is still so large a sum that there has been no sacrifice at all when they surrender even 10% of their disposable assets.

Again, remember the widow’s and the two small copper coins.

There is a challenge, a sting at the end of the tail, as we hear the words of the great commandment.

Yes, we will make God the most important thing in our lives; loving God with our heart.

Yes, we will live out of the recognition that our innermost selves express the presence of God deep within us; as we love God with our soul.

Yes, we commit to have minds that are always open to new truth; loving God with our minds.

And yes, we will love God with everything that we have even when that means that some of the things we would have liked to do we can no longer afford to do, because we are choosing to love God with all that we have, with our strength and with our might.

That’s a tough call, but it is the call Jesus makes.

And wouldn’t be great if the Cathedral had a reputation around town for our generosity. Those people (us) make such an impact because they are so generous with their time and their money. They give it all they have!

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Spirit of the living God

Pentecost Sunday
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
9 June 2019

 

[ video ]

Last week we started a series of sermons that will extend across the five Sundays of June. During this month we are exploring the core of our mission, what I have called “Mission in a nutshell”.

There is a famous story in the Talmud about Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus:

A pagan came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

 

That Jewish story is very much like Mark’s story about Jesus being asked (this time by a Jewish religion scholar) for a brief summary of the Law:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.” (Mark 12:28–34 NRSV)

 

Last week we focused on loving God with our HEARTS, but this week we focus on loving God with our SOULS.

Let me suggest that the difference between last week and this week is not very big, and yet absolutely huge.

The HEART refers to what we most value, what we most care about.

The SOUL refers to who we are, our innermost selves.

Today we observe Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit.

This is the last of the Great Fifty Day of Easter. It marks both the and a fresh beginning.

It is also the perfect time to be thinking about our SOUL or our SPIRIT or our INNERMOST SELF.

Let’s go back to the ancient Eden myth in Genesis 2.

Unlike the poetic drama of chapter one, in Genesis 2 we find God rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty as she fashioned the first human from the soil, from the earth. In the Hebrew text the term is ‘adamah, and the earth creature is called ‘adam (Adam).

But then notice how the story describes this clay doll becoming a living person:

“… then the LORD God formed the earthling(ha-‘adam) from the dust of the ground (ha’adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living soul (nephesh).” (Genesis 2:7 NRSV)

 

In that ancient myth, it is only when the spirit of God is breathed into the nostrils of the earthling that the human becomes a living soul.

What a powerful word picture for us on Pentecost.

Here we are, seeking to love God with all our soul, with our innermost selves.

But our distinctive character as a living soul is itself the result of God’s Spirit already being at work in us, pulsing throughout our whole being.

We are who we are because of the Spirit animating us.

When we love God without innermost self, our soul, we are not only offering to God our most authentic selves, we are also returning to God the very gift of life itself.

Last week we were invited to ensure that we value God above everything and everyone else.

This week we are asked to go deep inside and check that our innermost self, our soul, is receptive and responsive to the enlivening presence of the Spirit of God.

In doing this we are embracing the true meaning of Easter.

For the earliest Christians, the Spirit was Jesus himself, alive and ever present with them and within them. Let me end with these powerful words from Paul:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18 NRSV)

 

 

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First things first

Easter 7C
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 June 2019

 

Mission-nutshell.jpg

 

 

[ video ]

At its last meeting, Parish Council agreed that we would use the five Sundays during June to reflect on our core mission as Christians: first of all, to love God, and secondly, to love other people just as we love ourselves.

We plan to do that by paying attention to some very familiar words, what we call the Two Great Commandments:

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Jesus said: ‘This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

 

The sermons during these five weeks will focus on loving God with our hearts (this week), loving God with our souls (next week), then loving God with our minds and with our strength, concluding with love for other people.

So today we ask, where is our heart?

Jesus famously invited people to think about where our hearts are because, as he observed, where our hearts are focused is where we will find our deepest meaning. That will also tend to be where we allocate as much of our resources as we can spare, and sometimes even more than we can spare.

This invitation is a good place to begin as we reflect on God’s call on our lives during these five Sundays.

Is our faith something at the very core of who we are, or simply a vague interest to which we turn our attention where there is nothing more pressing on our minds?

Australians tend to default to a mindset that leaves God out of the picture, unless and until there is some crisis that causes us to refocus on our faith.

Yet the call from Jesus, who was simply echoing the traditional Shema of ancient Israel urges us to make love for God the most important thing in our lives.

Here is the original Jewish version of that great commandment:

Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

 

That was the divine call which Jesus accepted for himself, and he invites us—indeed he commands us—to make this obligation our own.

A life centred around love for God cannot be a selfish life.

We choose no longer to live for ourselves, but for God—and thus for others.

Imagine how different our city would be, our nation would be, and our world would be, if people were driven by their love for God and then looked for ways to express that commitment by compassionate action towards other people.

Notice, however, that Jesus is not asking people to be more religious.

He is not asking for more actions that impress other people with our investment in religion or in personal development or in spirituality.

Ever the radical prophet, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He demands that we love God, rather than act more religious.

This is clear from the context of this statement by Jesus, which we rarely hear when these familiar words are read in church.

In the Gospel, Jesus has just been asked about the one religious obligation that a good Jew should be sure to observe.

There were a variety of possible answers:

  • Observe Sabbath
  • Keep the Ten Commandments
  • Pray at the temple often
  • Bring offerings: lots of them and big ones
  • Give charitable assistance to the needy
  • Keep a kosher kitchen
  • Avoid sexual immorality
  • And more

 

Jesus declines to pick any of these external religious observances.

Instead he cuts to the core of the issue and demands just one thing: Love God with your heart …

From the very centre of our being, make God our first priority.

Not the church …

not the family …

not the career …

not the reputation …

not the hobby …

 

Just get this one thing right and the rest will sort itself out: Love God.

Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 Jesus makes the same point but in very different words:

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [Matt 5:33]

 

In the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing that we actually ask is that God’s kingdom will come … we seek that blessing before we ask for our daily bread, forgiveness of our sins, or protection from temptation.

First things first …

First, we seek for the kingdom of God.

Your kingdom come …

Everything else we need will come in its own good time, if we can just get that basic orientation of our innermost self right in the first instance.

Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart …

… strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well

 

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Wisdom has set a table

CVAS Junior School Worship
26 May 2019
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton

 

[ video ]

The Table stands at the centre of our worship today.

It is always so for Christians.

We have lots of symbols, but the Table is the one that is distinctively Christian.

Not a book to be mastered, but a Table at which we each have a place.

Not even the cross. The bread and fish of the Eucharist are much older symbols for Christians. The cross comes to prominence only after the Empire has co-opted the Church for the sake of power.

The Table is a sign of community, a sign of hospitality and a sign of abundant life. 

We are people who are learning how to say YES to God, YES to life, YES to hope, YES to love. The Table calls us to the lesson, and the Table provides an opportunity to practice our capacity to accept their gift of life, to share it with others, and to live life to the full.

During the last two terms, our Year Four students have been exploring the significance of the Table: the Table of Jesus, the Table of the Lord.

Today several of them will claim their place at the Table of Jesus.

 

The table of the universe

I love the imagery of our first reading.

Lady Wisdom has built a house and prepared a feast to which we are all invited. 

What a beautiful way to speak about creation. About life itself. The mystery and wonder of being here, of being alive. Of the whole universe: it is a palace built by wisdom for us to inhabit.

That is not a scientific explanation, but it is certainly an evocative poetic word picture. 

God has built a house and set a table for a massive banquet. 

We call that banquet: “life”.

Life is good. 

We are invited. 

All of us. 

Not just a chosen few. 

 

The bread we bless, the cup we share

Our second reading invites us to notice what is on the Table.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

The universe can be imagined as a marvellous house designed for our delight, a table groaning under the weight of good things for us to enjoy.

What is served up for us at the Table is nothing less than the life of Jesus.

Again, and as always, we are working with poetic symbols. But they are symbols of generosity and abundance, of life and love, of hope and compassion.

As Christians, we experience the irresistible love of God most clearly in the person of Jesus: who he was, what he said, and how he acted.

God’s love is not limited to Jesus, but that is our path into the compassion of God.

So the bread and wine that we take and bless at the Table are symbols of Jesus himself, his body and blood as it were, being placed in our hands and taken into our very selves.

Again, poetry.

When taken literally it turns to dust, and especially so when we hate other people because they understand the mystery of the Table differently.

But when accepted in faith as a sacred symbol, the bread and the cup are (as St Paul wrote almost 2000 years ago) a way for us to participate in the life and the character of Jesus himself.

At this table, we find our identity 

At this table, we find our unity.

At this table, we find the grace needed to live with hope and compassion.

 

The multitude fed

Our Gospel today is one version of a much-loved ancient Christian story in which Jesus fed a huge crowd of people with just a Junior School lunch box.

Again it is a poetic story.

We miss the point if we ask, “Did it happen?”

We get the point if we ask: “What does this mean?” That is a much better question.

In the story Jesus has a huge crowd of people with him some distance from a convenient market town: 5,000 men according to Mark; 5,000 men, not counting the women and children, according to Matthew. Even 5,000 hungry men is a catering challenge. But Matthew is suggesting a vast number of hungry mouths. 

So what does it mean that the only miracle story to occur in all four Gospels is Jesus feeding a great crowd of people?

What does it mean that Jesus did not first check their beliefs, or their intimate relationships, or their social media history, or shake them down for a donation to the Cathedral heritage fund?

The open table is the ultimate Christian symbol of God’s generous love for us all.

The love that brought the universe into being in the first place.

The love which continues to pulse at the heart of creation.

The love which invites us to flourish and be fully human, fully alive.

The love which is the ultimate reason why the Cathedral set up CVAS 21 years ago.

The love to which we can all say YES, at some stage in our lives, when the time is right.

The love which the Table of Jesus represents, and to which it is never too late to say YES.

As we welcome several of the Year Four students to claim their place at the Table of Jesus this morning, we join them in opening our hearts—our innermost selves—to that divine love which we see in Jesus and, in our better moments, which we see in each other.

Come to the Table.

Take the bread. Drink from the cup. Claim life. Reject fear.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

Love, actually (again)

Easter 5C
Christchurch Cathedral, Grafton
19 May 2019

 

[ video ]

 

 

Love, actually (again)#

# “again”, because on 23 December 2018 I preached a sermon with the same title.

 

There is a famous story—probably apocryphal—of a new priest who surprised her parishioners when the sermon she delivered on her first Sunday in the parish was simply to say: “Love one another”. She then sat down and the service continued. People were surprised, but thought they could cut her some slack as it was her first week. The following week she went up  into the pulpit and repeated the same brief statement: “Love one another”. There was some rumbling among the faithful over their coffees after the service, but things came to a head on the third Sunday morning when the new priest repeated the same brief message: “Love one another”. Next day the Churchwardens met with the priest to ask what was going on? She listened quietly to their concerns and then replied as follows: “Yes, I have other things to say. When I can see that people have understood my first point then I shall move on to my second point!”

 

The Gospel today was from John’s account of the last supper.

He tells the story rather differently from the other three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. The main event in the story is not the meal, but Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In the comments made by Jesus after that symbolic action, Jesus unpacks what it was all about (and what our faith as Christians is all about), in the words we just heard read:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

There are three big ideas in that short statement, so let’s just unpack them a little bit this morning as we prepare to baptise Cruz.

 

A new commandment: love one another.

Jesus did not give many commands. He was invitational rather than dictatorial.

But among the early Jesus people who created the Gospel of John he was especially remembered as giving is followers one simple instruction: Love one another.

I am often asked about the beliefs of various people and groups. My default response is that I do not care all that much what a religion believes, so long as they are not hurting other people.

So the first and most important thing about the faith into which we are baptising Cruz this morning is that it is all about love, about treating other people properly.

We are not required to believe this or that.

We are not required to pray in this way or some other way.

We are not required to attend worship, donate money, go on a pilgrimage, or observe any particular religious practices.

Yes, there are things we do and believe—and we want to get them right; but only one thing matters: LOVE.

Imagine how different the church would be and the world would be if we all lived by that new commandment.

 

The benchmark: Just as I have loved you

The second point to note is the benchmark that Jesus sets.

The measure for our loving actions is nothing less than the example of Jesus himself.

Well, that takes the pressure off, eh?

All we have to do is treat people the way Jesus treated them.

Easy peasy.

Kindness to those in need, and fierce opposition to those in power.

What could go wrong with a plan like that?

Are we surprised that such an attitude got Jesus into strife with the rich and powerful?

But that is the benchmark set by Jesus: copy me!

 

 

The outcome: everyone will know that you are my disciples

How we do prove our authentic Christian identity?

By acting with compassion.

By acting out of love, not fear.

By saying “No” to hatred and suspicion.

By assuming that our neighbours are decent people even when their food smells different or their skin is a different colour or their religion is not the same as ours.

How sad that such a simple statement even needs to be made, but as we have seen again this week even here in Grafton there are too many people—perhaps not many, but too many even if just a small percentage of the community—who are racist and driven by fear.

In the aftermath of a federal election we have a chance as a community to make a fresh start, irrespective of who forms government.

Today we launch Cruz into a life centred around the power of love to transform his life, our lives and the whole world.

Today we say YES to God, YES to love and NO to fear.

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The Fourth R

For years now educators have reminded us of the need to address the “three R’s”: Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic.

At the same time, Religion scholars and especially those of us engaged critical biblical studies have been warning people not to neglect the ‘fourth R’—religious literacy.

Religious literacy might be defined as that set of knowledge, attitudes and skills which enable people to navigate successfully the contested religious landscape.

Doubtless, there are several components of religious literacy:

  • an appreciation of the role religion plays in the lives of individuals and communities
  • appreciation of diversity among religious communities
  • recognition of commonalities that cross religious and cultural boundaries
  • knowledge about and skills in engaging with key religious practices relevant to particular faith communities
  • role of sacred texts within religious communities
  • impact of religion on public health
  • the interface of religion and violence
  • the capacity for religion to be toxic and ‘best practice’ to avoid that outcome
  • fundamentalism as a dynamic that crosses religious boundaries

 

For many people of Christian faith, including people whose most significant cultural context has been some form of Christianity even they do not practice any faith, biblical literacy seems to be a pivotal element of wider religious literacy.

 

Biblical Literacy

The following comments on biblical literacy are extracted from my lecture Reading the Bible as a Charter for the Human Spirit at the Festival of Wild Ideas sponsored by the Mosman Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council on 5 May 2019.

Biblical literacy has numerous elements, including at least the following:

  • It requires attention to how written texts function as acts of communication between and among authors and readers. This is an unremarkable literacy skill in other areas of modern life, including media studies and genre analysis at school. Yet it seems oddly and sadly lacking in many Christian churches. Meaning is always negotiated between the author and reader, with all the power being in the hands of the reader who is the one constructing meaning out of the process. The author can seek to shape the form of those negotiations, but the reader is the one ultimately creating meaning from the communication process. As text the Bible is subject to those same dynamics. We determine what it means. It does not determine our meaning.

 

  • Typical literacy also requires us to pay attention to the nature and function of language as we create, share, adopt, implement and adapt human knowledge between individuals and across generations. This is essential as we seek to use the Bible authentically.

 

  • Biblical literacy further requires that we pay some attention to what may reasonably be known about the composition of those texts that we now value as sacred Scripture. They did not drop out of heaven and they were not dictated by the Holy Spirit. Despite years of teaching biblical studies in seminaries around Australia and elsewhere, I was still shocked the other day to see a Christian leader quote from Psalm 51 as part of his argument against abortion, with the claim that the Psalm represents the direct words of God. This is, of course, nonsense.

 

  • In addition to paying attention to how the text may have originally been composed, we also need to pay attention to the process of reception for certain texts which were accepted as sacred while other texts from the same period were excluded from those documents authorised to be read in church or consulted to settle theological disputes. In other words, both the formation of the canon and the history of the interpretation of the canonical texts have a part to play in genuine biblical literacy.

 

  • What we have learned about using these texts from the accumulated experience more than 2,500 years of continuous interpretation within communities of spiritual practice must also be brought into the discussion. We are not the first people to read these texts and people of goodwill have been wrestling with them for centuries, constructing life-giving ways of reading the text as a charter for human flourishing in different cultural and social contexts. We ignore that wisdom at our peril.

 

  • An essential element of biblical literacy — or perhaps simply religious literacy — is that we consider what impact our new insights into the physical and social realities of being human in our kind of universe have on our contemporary reception and interpretation of these ancient texts. Since we no longer think we live on a flat earth or in an earth-centric universe, we will necessarily construct a different vision of life as we read these texts.

 

  • Finally, there is our own lived experience. This informs us as we reflect on past and contemporary interpretations of these venerated ancient texts. When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit is surely as much in the life of the reader and the listening community as it is in the texts themselves. Such a view of inspiration would certainly be consistent with our understanding of how meaning is constructed when a text is being read.

 

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The Good Shepherd

Easter 4C / Mothers’ Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
12 May 2019

[ video ]

It is a beautiful accident that our secular Mothers’ Day this year coincides with the Fourth Sunday of Easter, with its theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Like a mother whose ear is attuned to the call of her own infant, or an infant whose ears are attuned to the sound of its mother’s voice, Jesus describes his sheep as those persons who have an ear for the wisdom he both speaks and embodies:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
(John 10:27–28 NRSV)

Palestinians-shepherds-Bethlehem

Normally I focus my sermon on the Gospel, since our core task as Christians is to listen to the wisdom of  Jesus. However, today I want us to reflect together on the meaning of the Twenty-Third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd”.

You have the text of the Psalm in the bulletin (or on page 243 of the Prayer Book, if you prefer). If you are keeping an eye on the APBA version, you may notice that it differs slightly from the translations found in the Bible.

A Prayer Book for Australia, Liturgical Psalter

1 The Lord is my shepherd:
therefore can I lack nothing.
2 He will make me lie down in green pastures:
and lead me beside still waters.
3 He will refresh my soul:
and guide me in right pathways for his name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil:
for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me
in the face of those who trouble me:
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup shall be full.
6 Surely your goodness and loving-kindness
will follow me all the days of my life:
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

Bible (New Revised Standard Version)

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; [Heb waters of rest]
3 he restores my soul. [Or life]
He leads me in right paths [Or paths of righteousness]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, [Or the valley of the shadow of death]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely [Or Only] goodness and mercy [Or kindness] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. [Heb for length of days]

For the sake of comparison in the web version of the sermon I am also providing the New International Version translation:

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

 

Just to keep you all awake, I am going to work with the translation from the Jewish Publication Society so that we hear the sense of these ancient words with their original Jewish accent.

1         The LORD is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
2         He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3         He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
4         Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5         You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
6         Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

 

The variations in the same Psalm across these different translations invite us to move beyond the literal words and imagine how we might hear these words with fresh ears, ears and hearts attuned to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.

So let’s work our way through the six verses of this well-known psalm.

 

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.

“The LORD” is the conventional way to represent the ancient sacred name of God, which in the Hebrew Bible is written with just its four consonants: YHVH. This “Tetragrammaton” survives as the “Jeho/Jehu” and/or “iah/jah” syllables in many names for individuals and places in the Old Testament: Jehoshaphat, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, etc.

It may once have been pronounced as “Yahweh”, but during the second century BCE it became customary to avoid saying the sacred name. Instead, other synonyms were used: ‘Adonai (Hebrew for “My Lord”), Kyrios or Theos (Greek terms for “Lord” and “God” respectively). In many anceint Hebrew biblical texts the vowels of ‘Adonai were written with the consonants of the Tetragrammaton to create an unpronounceable word as a reminder for readers not to say the sacred name.

In later Christian use that was entirely misunderstood, and the term “Jehovah” was thought to be God’s name.

This mistake survives in classic hymns such as “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”; and in the theological gibberish that is propagated by the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This ancient covenant God is understood by the psalmist as his existential shepherd: guiding, protecting and sustaining the person of faith. With such a shepherd god, we never fear anything. We can never be in want. We lack nothing good.

 

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;

In the marginal pastoral lands of Palestine, finding a good supply of green pasture was (and remains for the Bedouin even now) a core responsibility. Along with fresh pasture, the sheep need water in a dry and rugged environment.

The second verse of Psalm 23 draws on this familiar reality to describe the gentle presence of God in our lives.

 

3 He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths as befits His name.

The familiar words—“my soul he doth restore again”—are better translated in the Jewish Publication Society version.

The divine shepherd renews our life, fresh every morning, and guides in the right paths: the tracks that suit our needs and which lead us to the green pastures and the waters of repose.

The track God chooses for me is the perfect path for me to follow.

 

4 Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

The “valley of the shadow of death” has been one of the most evocative phrases in the traditional version of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Notice how the Jewish translation represents that line.

In our darkest moments, whatever they may be, the divine Shepherd is always with us. We are never alone. Never abandoned. Never bereft of hope.

A Palestinian shepherd typically carried a club (rod) to fend off wild animals and a crook (staff) to guide the flock in his care.

Fierce protection and gentle care are the hallmarks of the God who is always with us. Emmanuel.

 

5 You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.

It is generally agreed that the final two verses of the Psalm involve a change of metaphor from “sheep” in the care of its shepherd to “guests” in the house of the LORD, with a place at the table of God

This metaphor especially resonates with Christians because of the centrality of the Table of Jesus in our faith and practice.

We gather at the Table of the Lord. The Table which Jesus has prepared for us and where Jesus is the host. The Table where we are anointed with oil: the oil of gladness, the oil of healing, the oil of discipleship. This is the Table where we drink the same cup as Jesus drank, the cup which renews us with the life of Jesus. His life poured out for others. Our lives poured out in grateful service.

 

6 Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

Psalm 23 concludes with a flourish.

The love of the divine Shepherd and the generosity of the divine host will never fail us.

Notice that is is not an affirmation of life after death, but rather an expression of hope for God’s blessing here in this life.

Here in this life we are guests at the Table of Lord and already living in the Lord’s House.

The earth is not a consolation prize nor a place of exile from which to escape when we can finally go “home”. This is our home. It is the house of the Lord. And it is a good place to be.

 

So let’s hear this Pslam one more time:

1         The LORD is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
2         He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3         He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
4         Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5         You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
6         Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

 

Posted in Bible Study, Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

Sarcasm as a ​rhetorical​ tool

The axiom, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”, is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright who lived in the second half of the 1800s.

That attribution may not be accurate, but the axiom itself is usually misquoted (stopping at the mid-point) and mostly misunderstood as implying that using sarcasm is evidence of low intelligence. What the axiom perhaps seeks to express is that sarcasm fails as humour, but can reflect an acute intelligence.

Whatever may be the case for sarcasm as an index of intelligence it is a dangerous tool to wield in public debate. It is more likely to offend than persuade, and it can even reverberate with unfortunate consequences for the polemicist who draws that tool from the debating toolkit.

This may indeed have been the fate of a well-known Anglican blogger in Sydney whose delight in deploying sarcasm to attack a media release by the Bishop of Grafton has quite possibly exposed the folly of our blogger’s own worldview.

In attempting to undermine the statement by Bishop Murray Harvey, the Revd David Ould stoops to sarcasm as if that strategy will deflect and rebut the sound spiritual wisdom to be found in the statement by Bishop Harvey:

Here at davidould.net we want to suggest that Dr Harvey should issue some more press releases because there are people out there making bigger threats than Folau. For instance, this guy should get a rocket:

Luke 13:1   Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 He answered them, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? 3 No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!”

LUKE 13:1-5 (NET)

Now there’s a threat if ever I saw one. He doesn’t just have a small list like the narrow-minded Apostle Paul in 1Cor. 6:9-10 (which Folau quotes in his post along with Gal. 5).

No, whoever that hater is in Luke 13 … well he just used hate speech to threaten and vilify everyone.

EVERYONE!

That’s the last thing a Christian should do. Someone should find out who he is and tell him to change his attitude and send a positive message about his faith and promote social inclusion (although what could be more socially inclusive than including all of society in your “threat”?).

As for community well-being, surely telling people that they will perish if they don’t repent can’t be good for anyone. Someone tell Dr. Harvey so he can sort this dangerous bigot out.

 

What this somewhat reckless rhetorical missile has done is simply to expose a serious problem with the biblical texts themselves. Sometimes—indeed quite often—the Bible says things which are indefensible, incomprehensible or just gutter talk. When the Bible descends to the gutter that does not justify us in doing the same, nor are we obliged to believe or practice anything in particular just because it happens to be written in the Christian scriptures.

In his exaggerated journalesque mode, Mr Ould inadvertently illustrated precisely the core issue with the ugly social media posts by Israel Folau as well as the point correctly—albeit gently—made by the Bishop of Grafton.

The Bible endorses and even commands a range of beliefs and practices which most people of faith would these days find abhorrent. The catalogue of nasties includes (but is not limited to) capital punishment, ethnic cleansing, the willful destruction of fauna and flora, patriarchy and sexism, totalitarian rule by absolute monarchs claiming divine approval, and slavery.

When even a modicum of biblical literacy is applied to the task of biblical intepretation, a much more nuanced reading of Scripture results. But Mr Ould and Mr Folau are not ones for nuance, it seems. It is all so simple and so black and white. Just read the words from the ancient text. No need for brains to be engaged at all.

There is, of course, ‘a more excellent way’ than this mindless recital of ancient words, but it requires us to read the text with some critical awareness of how texts work (and the power of the reader to determine what a text means), how these particular sacred texts were composed and received, how little actual historical credibility the biblical texts really have, and at least some awareness of what we now know to be true about the scale of the universe and the complexity of our shared DNA.

When read with cognitive modesty and some critical awareness, the Christian Bible—like all the sacred texts from the great religions—can be a catalyst for human liberation, rather than manacles on the collective human spirit. I made precisely that point when giving a public lecture in Sydney this past weekend for the Mosman Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council.

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