We are witnesses Easter 2021
Craig Evans in his commentary wrote, “The apostolic faith in the resurrection will rest on eye witness, first hand experience, not hearsay” .
Three women are named – Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, as witnesses to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The women, deep in grief, went early morning to the tomb, with spices, so they might anoint the body of the deceased, as is their custom.
They were alarmed, afraid, because the tomb that should be closed is open. The body that should be present is missing. A young man, dressed in white is sitting where the body should be lying. They came to the tomb knowing that death always has the final word. The absolute truths that they have known and trusted all their lives turned out not to be, shaking the foundations of their worldview. No wonder they were afraid.
The young man said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He has been raised. He is not here! But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee; you will see him there.” The women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. These words are stronger in Greek – “trauma and ecstasy had seized them”. And so, the women said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The text for this morning ends in silence, and Jesus never appears. The women at the tomb never shouted “Christ is risen” or even whispered “Alleluia”. Mark wrote the story to live beyond that generation of eye-witnesses. Mark wrote for those who had never seen Jesus or heard him speak, including us, the readers. And Mark invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood.
In the tomb, the two Marys and Salome didn’t see Jesus, neither do we. They didn’t hear Jesus call their names, neither have we. They weren’t invited to touch his wounded hands, we haven’t either. The women of the story are our silent sisters, while the narrative is left for us the readers to complete as we let the narrative dialogue with our own lives. How is our life of faith shaped by trauma and ecstasy, trembling and amazement – the highs and lows of life!
We cannot escape our fears. Our fears may be personal relating to health, employment, death, loneliness, pandemic, grief. And often, our fears hold us captive, so we lose our sense of, and ability to recognize God’s presence – in the world, in one another and in ourselves. Also, it’s impossible to put ecstasy into words, and all we can do is to stay silent, as no words would adequately express the depth and breadth of what is experienced firsthand within. So we might end up with general expressions like, ‘I had a resurrection moment’ or ‘that was divine intervention’ or ‘it was so heavenly’.
Jesus’ resurrection shatters human categories of who God is, where God’s life and energy are to be found, and how God works in the world. We bind ourselves through our fears, our hurts, our assumptions, our distractions, our attachments and addictions to things, to people and even beliefs, to the extent that we are unable to see Christ in this world, therefore missing out on the privilege of being witnesses of Christ’s presence. Also, it’s often our own unwillingness that prevents our own growth and transformation in life and faith.
The question is, how come the tomb of the Easter morning is open, but our minds are closed to the greatness of life?
As Easter people of the 21st century, together with all of creation, we are witnesses, to the kindness, generosity, love and grace of God in the rhythm of life. Being witnesses does not mean having all the answers, but, experiencing first hand, that in the midst of the highs and lows of life, there is hope. Experiences like: Facing a pandemic with uncertainty; Managing grief and relief in losing a loved one; Making adjustments due to changing circumstances – Recall the moments when your heart warmed, & softened, and you knew that you were somehow different; Possibilities that you didn’t create for yourself – they just opened up; Being a parent or grandparent or adopting children. Such moments may fill our eyes with tears, and we weep – not with pain or sorrow, but with the water of new life.
May we find hope, faith and love in both the trauma and ecstasy of Christ’s presence among us.
We are witnesses.
Disturbing many, disturbing much
Good Friday Message 2021
John 19: 28-42
It’s quite disturbing to read about the events which end Jesus’ earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death. Very cruel – yet we’re told that these happened in order to fulfil scripture?
On the cross, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’. This was met with a sponge of sour wine. He said, ‘It is finished’. This was met with a spear that pierced his side, and with no broken bones, again so that scripture might be fulfilled? The Bible was written by man, and therefore prone to inaccuracies.
The story of Jesus’ death reminds us that the spectacle of an innocent and good man destroyed by the powers of this world is a typical human experience. It draws out our deepest feelings of remorse and empathy, as well as our own deepest shadows. It’s been used to stir anger and scapegoating. It’s been used to fuel hostility towards, and discrimination against, religious or racial groups. For many generations it has succeeded in persuading and arousing personal guilt that “Christ died for your sins”. And it’s also evoked loyalty and devotion in a sentimental and even fanatical way.
In our context today, what’s disturbing many and disturbing much is the wisdom of passion. The passion that invites us not to be spectators watching what Jesus did, but understanding what each of us is called to do: To disturb any complicity with discriminating structures and systems that rob many of us of our humanity, including the way we read and interpret the Bible.
Passion is at the heart of the Christian faith experience. By the word “passion” here we mean the same events that ended Jesus’ life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and his death, but we see it from the perspective of wisdom.
From a wisdom point of view, passion is reading Jesus’ life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment – to empower each one with the courage to be awakened to greater truth, greater humility, and greater care for one another.
In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either our guilt or our devotion, but rather in deepening our personal capacity to make the most and the best of our life. If we’re willing to embrace that, then Good Friday, which is about passion, begins to make sense in a whole new way.
But what do we do with the pain, hurt, fear, struggle and shadows that weigh us down, feeling unworthy and thinking we’re never good enough for God? It does seem so much easier to deny, to blame others or to run.
I suggest, that we bury once and for all those fear-and-punishment scenarios that got programmed into many of us during our childhood. This is part of what passion disturbs. For Jesus’ life was all about love, setting good examples, disturbing many and much, in all forms of discrimination and injustice.
And we ask ourselves, what needs disturbing in our life so that we place our faith, hope and love in what matters?
The love of God is Life-Giving
Jer 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33
On this last Sunday of Lent, we’re reminded that the love of God is Life-Giving. And our faith and experience of God’s love is about our awakening, and our encouragement to live life content, with acceptance and peace, rather than being weighed down with always feeling not good enough, and not worthy of God’s love – which used to be the focus of early religion.
Fr. Richard Rohr said, “Early-stage religion tends to focus on cleaning up, which is to say, determining who meets the requirements for moral behaviour and religious belief”.
God’s love and covenant is with all people from the least to the greatest, never about who is worthy and deserving. It’s never about who’s winning or who’s getting the credit. It’s all about what’s life-giving.
In Jeremiah’s words, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. From the least to the greatest, they will know me without being taught!”
Such is God’s love, that wisdom or God’s mind is written in our hearts, known and experienced without being taught! God’s mind with us, wisdom, not only enlarges our horizons of understanding and sharpens our discernment but also witnesses to the presence of God with us! That is love beyond measure, life-giving love. And God’s love has been there since the beginning. It not only appeared or manifested in the times of Jesus. But in and through Jesus’ life, everything about being fully human and being one with God, is revealed for us to see.
In the words of John 12, Jesus said, ‘the hour has come for the son of man to be glorified. Father, glorify your name’. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’, and Jesus said to the others, who thought the voice they heard was thunder or an angel, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.’ It is like Jesus saying to those around him, that God’s individual covenant with each one is about glorifying the son of man – not just Jesus himself but all people, who are in a partnership relationship with God. And that God’s love that embraces us calls us to be truly who we are, worthy of life and all that is life-giving.
Jesus went on to reveal the secret to what is life-giving. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. This is a reality that we’ve seen and experienced over and over. It’s like the pattern of loss, renewal, change and growth that runs throughout our lives and our world. From simple things like changing schools, or changing jobs to getting married, having children and grandchildren, losing loved ones, facing a pandemic – through these, some things do need to fall to the earth, and die, in order for new life to grow and bear much fruit.
I ask the question, in my life, what needs to fall into the earth and die in order for me to bear much fruit? And what does it mean for my life when I hear the words, those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life?
If we love our life, we’d opt for renewal and growth, and new life, therefore let go and give death to what’s not life-giving. And if we hate our life in this world, we will find comfort in systems of injustice, of violence and even with hatred and that we remain through life. In shutting ourselves from love, who else do we shut out from love?
Jesus again awakens us again to the glory and the luxury of being truly an image of God, and receiving of God’s love abundantly. With that love, we make a commitment to seek what is good, and to work for the good and well-being of others.
With the wisdom of God;
The new life in Christ;
And our unity and strength in the Spirit, we experience, affirm and proclaim that the love of God is always life-giving.
John 3: 14-21
John 3:16 is one of the most well-known, much loved, most frequently quoted, and greatly misunderstood in the bible! For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
What does this much loved verse say to us in the 21st century? At its heart is Living Faith, Practicing Faith. English language teacher Laurie Rush, points out that it’s living faith, the verb – not the noun. For as a noun, faith is only a mental or intellectual assent when we believe the facts or proposition about something but it doesn’t have any bearing on our lives or our heart. Mentally agreeing with something said but involving no action on our part at all.
Living or Practicing faith, is a way of living and doing. And it’s not practicing as in trying out something before we’re ready to do the real thing, but rather it is something we’re always learning, always living, a continual journey, something that takes constant and consistent attention. It is a discipline of the mind, body and spirit, demonstrated in actions.
Let’s hear the verse again, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him, may not perish but may have eternal life’.
Clearly there are four parts:
– For God so loved the world. God’s love is the motivating factor in the whole verse – God’s commitment to the whole cosmos. And there’s inter-connectedness between God, and us and the whole created order – God’s commitment to each one of us. This love is expressed through the gift of his son.
– That’s the second. He so loved and he gave his only son, not to his death (which was cruel and brutal), but in and through his life, living among us, showing us what life with God can look like. That love needs to be demonstrated, not just talked about. No matter how eloquently or poetical words are about love – love is, only when it is demonstrated.
Jesus’ life is the demonstration of God’s love, so that we have the opportunity to see that it’s possible, it’s doable, to make an impact, a difference in the world. What would you do, if you’re the only son and only daughter of God? What difference in the world, in the community, in the family, in the church are you making by living faith?
– Third, ‘So that everyone who believes in him’, To believe in Jesus means adopting and following his ways – “In so far as you do it to the least of your neighbours, you do it unto me”. Believing in Jesus means caring for and embracing those in society who are different to us. Believing in Jesus is seeing how the light has come into the world, the understanding of God’s love, that the world may be saved through him, through his ways.
– So what is the connection of belief to eternal life? To perish or have eternal life does not refer to physical death or physical living forever. But there’s a freedom we long for in life. It is not freedom to do whatever we want, because in doing so we either enslave ourselves, limit ourselves or even reduce ourselves with our own desires. The real freedom also known as ‘eternal life’ in this text comes in doing truth, doing justice, doing love, doing kindness. And that’s believing and adopting the way of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we save our lives from ourselves.
Living faith is living out the directions intended to make our lives more whole, more peaceful, and more joyful, more freedom to be at our full potential – that is eternal life! And it’s a continuing journey, affirming God’s unconditional love for the whole world.
Our faith, our truth, our convictions are meant to be put into practice in our lives. It’s not something we learn to do like riding a bike and once we learn it we’ve got it. It’s more like learning a musical instrument – if we’re committed to it, we’re always learning new ways. So is living and practicing faith in real life.
Although we’ve been practicing faith a long time, we’re still continually learning what it means to love God and love others. We’re still learning how to practice doing to others what we want done to ourselves. I am still learning how to open myself so that the life and love of God can flow through me. I’m still learning to relate to the people around me with compassion, understanding, kindness, and mercy. And I hope that I never stop practicing. Living faith.
When the point score is (Love) – 0
Genesis 9: 8-17
During the snap lockdown, I watched a bit of the Australian Open tennis. It’s interesting that in tennis, when the point score is ‘love’ it means nil, zero, no point, nothing. I also watched an advertisement from Uber Eats, frequently shown during the breaks which said, “when the point score is 0 (love), you could eat for (love) $0”. These grabbed my attention as a metaphor with which we interpret today’s reading from Genesis and how it relates to each of us as we begin this season of Lent.
God said to Noah, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and every living creature that is with you, as many as came out of the ark. The sign will be a rainbow seen in the clouds. When the rainbow is seen, remember the everlasting covenant between God and all that lives on earth.
”When Noah and all that came out of the ark, – the survivors of floods, they had nothing, their score point is nil. Like tennis, when their score point is love, God promises that they will live on Love. God establishes a covenant: A free will love offering; a commitment to be in relationship with all that lives on earth; giving us nothing less than what’s life-giving.
In ancient times, covenants were legal documents, cementing a relationship of mutual obligation, usually between a greater power and a lesser power. The obligations are reciprocal, but the power dynamics are not often equal. Notice God’s covenant with Noah, it’s not just with Noah or with only his family, but with “every living creature.” God commits God’s himself not just to humanity, but to all of creation.
An extraordinary detail about this covenant is that, it does not involve the legal reciprocities of a treaty. Instead, all of the obligations rest with God – portraying a God, who has been moved by the suffering of humanity and all of creation. So, a covenant comes without any conditions or expectations – a promise, rather than a treaty, a sacred arrangement.
The legal resonances of covenant infer that one’s own obligations are always dependent on the other’s fidelity to her or his obligations. Yet, in this covenant, promises are offered freely by God without counting or expecting any reciprocity from creation.
When do we make promises that we say are unconditional, and yet we end up expecting that we should receive equal “payment” for keeping up our end of the bargain?
The ecological implications of the flood story are significant. As climate change warms the earth and melts the ice caps, the prospect of a flooded earth looms larger every day. The season of Lent calls us to care for all of creation, refraining from environmental degradation, and calling us to action for ecological justice.
The author uses the flood story to explain the blessings of life. Where the end of the flood marks a time when a sign of hope means that things will turn around for the better even during the tough times – and a covenant of assurance that God will not destroy all life again. Even in the midst of a storm, a new tomorrow awaits us.
This message of hope is a source of strength as we navigate the devastation of a global COVID-19 pandemic – which is our current storm & our own version of an ancient flood myth. And God’s message of hope for us today, is a love that will never let us go. When our point score is ‘zero’ or ‘nil’ (with no hope) we’re embraced to come as we are, and live on God’s abundant love and grace”.
Christ the true light
John 1: 1-18
What do we call the presence that we can never define but could never deny? Divine Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth! Emmanuel, God with us!
The gift of Christmas – Christ the true Light is a continuing reminder that life is to be lived, graciously and truthfully. The true light bears witness to the fact that divinity and humanity are inseparable in each life, unless it is one’s intention and choice. We choose to reject and to ignore what is already ours.
We begin this year with a fresh engagement with the biblical narrative of what it means to be genuinely human, to be bearers of God’s image – not only to be truth-telling humans, but to be everything humans can be. This enables us to cherish both what’s most important and what’s most meaningful in our lives. It enables us to embrace our values and purpose and live in meaningful ways.
This has always been at the heart of Christian History. In our reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, we learn that everybody is holy! Sacred, respected and revered. In the Christian Scriptures, we find that everybody is loved infinitely, and there’s nothing we do that puts us out infinitely, of the love of God.
In and through Christ, we are called to do God’s work on earth – to love and care for each other and for the whole of creation.
One of the many Christmas Cards I received this Christmas was from Friends and Ministry Colleagues Margaret and Clem Dickinson –with words that for me succinctly capture what we as image-bearers are called to do. I’d like to read the words on the card.
‘As you do God’s work on earth:
A single candle lit can light a thousand candles more
And never lose the glow with which it started long before,
And likened unto this would be the love Our Lord has shown –
For his ever-glowing love is still the greatest love that’s known.
May His love light your way and bring joy to your heart as you carry out his work!
This is the message for us all. Each life, like Christ, a single candle lit, can light a thousand candles more. And light always makes a difference in darkness.
In Tongan, darkness is fakapo’uli. Fakapo’uli has at least 3 meanings: ‘the absence of light’; ‘ignorance’; ‘very, very, angry’.
Reflecting on these Tongan meanings reminds me that fakapo’uli, the physical absence of light, is a metaphor for absence of truth based on knowledge and wisdom, otherwise known as ignorance. Just as much as it is about the absence of grace – no patience, no compassion, and rejection of rationalization, and one becomes very, very, very, angry.
The conferring of grace and truth on humanity reveals who we are created to be – genuinely human – where grace and matters of the heart, together with truth and matters of the head, journey hand in hand to guide our human life. Heart and Head (Grace and Truth) – the compass of life! That is, the inextinguishable light that Christ brings – a spiritual understanding we can wrap our minds around – an image of Jesus as the light of the world. We all witness that illumination always makes a difference in darkness.
Light has a way of making things look better. We can see more detail and color. Light creates warmth and gives us a richer point of view. In the light we can better see things as they really are, and we can see truth placed before us. We can make the choice to accept the light and adjust to the light.
We live in a world and culture that cares little for truth. Most is about what works, what sells, what’s convenient, what seems true. But truth matters. Truth guides us against falsehood and evil – and truth is the ground for peace. What do we call the presence that we can never define but could never deny? Grace and truth – God with us!
In the beginning God looked at all that had been made and saw that it was very good. Light and life enveloped all of creation. God handed the light to human beings. The parents handed the light to their children. Their children handed the light to their children. From one generation to the next light is passed on.
Who will keep the light burning in our day?
Who will carry the light into the world
in this year and years to come?
Who will carry the light – if we do not?
Who will pass on the light – if we do not?
Living with vibrant hope
Luke 2: 22-40
As we come to the last Sunday of the year 2020, we stand and look back to what was. Arriving at what is, we affirm that it’s been a year with a difference, especially with the Coronavirus Pandemic. Having survived its trials thus far, we say with confidence that we have been and are living with vibrant hope for 2021.
Oprah Winfrey said, ”Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instil in us. Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.” So we add to that – there is hope!
In today’s reading Luke paints a picture of what living with vibrant hope looks like in their context:
– Mary and Joseph come to present Jesus to God. It is part of their tradition but also demonstrating their hope and confidence in God’s promises.
– Simeon, described as a righteous and devout man seeking and hoping for the consolation of Israel.
– The prophet Anna fasts, prays, and hopes for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Such vibrant hope is evident from ancient traditions, but equally as alive today. Living in anticipation in our time and our context look very different – a 5-year-old looking forward to first time in prep, or as he calls it ‘big school’; different for the ones waiting in long queues for surgery or recovering from surgery; different again for those whose holidays have been cancelled three or four times in the last twelve months; different for those whose families and friends are affected by natural disasters overseas. And the list goes on.
Vibrant hope comes in a package with energy, a sense of looking forward, determination and resilience.
When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple, it was for two reasons – the child’s presentation to the Lord, and the mother’s purification. The Temple was the locus of Jewish devotion, for they believed God definitely dwelt within its walls. The gospel writer used the ceremonies, the place, and the witnesses to further proclaim Jesus as the Christ.
According to Jewish tradition, the presentation ceremony declared the son legitimate, that is presented before God and the community. A child’s mother was unclean for thirty-three days. Only after that period could the mother celebrate the rite of purification with an offering. Again, Luke used the purification ceremony to emphasize the presentation of Jesus, just as Hannah presented and dedicated Samuel to God at the Temple. Indicators of people living with vibrant hope.
In the temple, Simeon took Jesus into his arms and praised God saying, “Now, you can let me die in your peace, Lord; you kept your word to me. I have seen the One who will save your people, whom everyone will see”.
The child’s father and mother were surprised by what was said. But Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, “God put your child here so many people will fall and many will be raised up. People will oppose him and this will show what they really think. But this will be like a dagger stabbed in your heart”.
Simeon’s bold leap into the life of Jesus and Mary is an invitation to find an entry into the new humanity of Christ. The prophetic words “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for revealing God’s glory to the chosen people of God” mean healing and transformation of the whole world. The spirit-inspired words of Simeon echo those found in the Second Isaiah about the dual mission of Jesus to the Jews and to the non-Jews alike – a ministry for all people.
The prophet Anna, was also constantly in the Temple serving God and she too thanked God for Jesus and spoke of him to everyone who waited for Israel’s freedom.
In the person of Jesus, people encounter God in the best possible way. After they did as God’s Law commanded them to do in the Temple, Mary, Joseph and their baby went home. There, Jesus grew strong because God filled him with wisdom. And God blessed him.
As we look forward to the end of this year and the arrival of the new – What is it that we hope for? What drives us to live in anticipation? Are we prepared for others to encounter God in the best way possible through our life?
May we be blessed with strength and wisdom as we end this year, journeying into the New Year living with Vibrant Hope.
The priceless gift of Christmas
Luke 2: 1-20 Christmas Day
The good news bulletin in today’s text includes both the story of Jesus’ birth and the first proclamation of its significance. Born and laid in a manger, as there was no room in the guest house. That’s not a sign of a royal birth. And shepherds were the first to hear this angelic news bulletin. According to their culture, shepherds were at the bottom of the social ladder. This leads us to ponder how this news relates to us, and what it might mean concretely in our own lives, as we celebrate Christmas.
The angel says, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day, a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you…” and goes to explain the sign. Martin Luther saw this as the hallmark of genuine gospel proclamation, that the angel does not simply say, Christ is born, but ‘for you he is born!’.
The angel proclaims the priceless gift of Christmas, peace on earth among those whom God favours. And the angels are not announcing the gift of peace being at hand, for those who have pleased God, but rather that the peace to be realized is God’s gracious gift, bestowed at God’s good pleasure. The divine favour, dependent not on human behaviour but on God’s gracious will. And when things do not go according to plan, God appears – arrives unexpectedly both in timing and in place. The Gospel reminds us that God appears to all people including the less than perfect and less than powerful, which is the majority of us.
A young man reading the story for the first time wondered if the angels took the wrong turn and found the shepherds by mistake? Whether their intention to announce the king of peace was supposed to be directed at decision-makers and important people? His Bible study teacher assured him that the angels, the messengers of God, knew exactly what they were doing. And God’s message of good news finds no boundaries regardless of status, of age, of culture or religion – and that the Son of God, prince and king of peace, is our blessing and gift of Christmas.
Our reading today, about the angels and the shepherds points us to discover hidden truths about ourselves including but not limited to – the secret of the universe is within us; we have a spark of the divine deep down inside; and the aim is to follow that spark like a star wherever it leads.
This is what we may be referring to as being one with God or an intimacy with God. It enables us and challenges us to wonder and ponder, asking ourselves why? How can it be? Where to from here? How can we find out?
Our relationship with God leads us to be interested and engaged in finding the truth. It drives and motivates us to love. And it affirms and assures who we are. In other words, Christmas reminds us of what life means for us – the ability to wonder, to pursue the truth, to love and have security, to be humanly divine.
Jesus the gift of Christmas, gifts us the kingdom of God as an earthly possibility and reality for all people.
The priceless gift of Christmas!
Let us rejoice and be glad in it, living life in its fullness!
Wishing you all a Blessed Peaceful Christmas
and a New Year filled with renewed Hope.
The pursuit of wellbeing
Advent 4 Luke 1: 26-38
It is often loss, crisis, uncertainty, or disappointment that has much more to teach us than the bright shiny moments in life. While grief, crisis, and disappointment are part of life, if we look at it from a wellbeing perspective, there’s a lot to be thankful for.
Today, we are thankful that after a long 9 months of being together by staying apart, for the sake of wellness and wellbeing, we are able to re-gather for worship in church.
Our wellbeing is about how well we function or how well we perceive ourselves to be functioning in our contexts, recognizing and acknowledging the ups and downs of our journey of life. And the practice of gratitude and mindful awareness can be powerful tools in enhancing our wellbeing and also making us treat others with more compassion and kindness. Our kindness and gratitude to others gives the biggest boost on our own wellbeing rather than what we do for ourselves.
In today’s reading from Luke, we witness the way of God, ‘The pursuit of wellbeing, for all creation.’ The story says that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to visit a virgin named Mary (in its original meaning – virgin is a young woman of childbearing age, unmarried maid or maiden – nothing to do with virginity).
The angel’s voice conveying God’s message, has the following:
Some good news: “favoured one! The Lord is with you”
An assurance of protection: “Do not be afraid”
You’ll have a son, or the baby conceived will be a boy – the hope for a future.
You will name him Jesus (which means saviour)
He will be great: The son of the highest sits on David’s throne and his reign will be for ever.
The Holy Spirit will be upon you.
That’s huge! Unexpected news, huge responsibility – reading it in the different parts already feels heavy. No wonder Mary was perplexed. Young and puzzled – full of uncertainty, maybe difficult and weighty to hear and receive, with questions, wondering what sort of greeting might this be?
A few years ago, sharing the same passage with a group of High School students, I recall being bombarded with questions I didn’t expect, like:
“Do you believe in the virgin birth miss? Was she really a virgin? Was she shocked/surprised that the angel already knew that she’s pregnant? Was she embarrassed or scared that the angel exposed her reality? Was she grateful that the angel saved her face from the village gossip? Was she blessed or cursed to be mother of Jesus?”
I just didn’t know how to answer some of those questions. I don’t know if I’m able to do justice to answering them even now.
But the questions these teenagers raised, paints a picture of the Mary in the story as someone who has fears and hopes. And the angel, the messenger of God, in the encounter gave the assurance for the pursuit of the wellbeing of Mary. Just when life seems either comfortably predictable or filled with difficulty, the angel appears unexpectedly, pointing in directions she wouldn’t have imagined, posing uncomfortable questions we wouldn’t have chosen to face.
We are reminded that the Bible characters of our faith are real people, very human with hopes and fears. And one of the important moments we face is the understanding and affirmation that the presence of the divine is with us, where we are, in our ups and downs. And especially, in our down moments, the voice of the presence within, (the angel that whispers and we listen to) points us in unexpected directions that lift and boost our wellbeing. That, is the ‘Word became flesh’ in manifestation. The earth and heaven combine in humanity. And the God we know is manifest in our sense of meaning and values that urge us to continue to work for a fairer and kinder world for all of creation. Craig Hamilton in his book, Made Man, expresses why God becoming human is so shocking, so necessary and so life-changing.
“It was at such a point when Mary felt shockingly blessed, and in tune with the compassion of her God – that what she needed at the time she received. A life-changing moment for her, that she said to the angel, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ The witness of one whose heart gently whispers, it is well with my soul. All will be well!”
Mary’s well-being was served, and the angel departed.
But God’s promise and presence remains in pursuit of our wellbeing.
Know who you are
Advent 3 John 1:6-8, 19-28
Who are you? Who are we?
It takes one who knows who he is, to know what and who he is not!
In John’s Gospel, John is never called the Baptist, but rather, John the Witness. For it wasn’t so much the issue of baptism as it was the expectant coming of the Messiah – the new and true light of the world. John was not the light, but he came to testify to the light, that enlightens every heart and gives everyone the ability to see. Mind you, in our humanness, there’s no such thing as darkness, only a failure to see!
When John was asked, ‘Who are you?’ He described himself first by who he is not – not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. But the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
It’s as if John is saying, “I’m just the signpost, pointing out the more important attraction … Among you stands one you don’t know … the one who is coming after me, I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal”.
Certainly John understood who he was and what he was called to do. At the same time he knew what he was NOT called to do. It’s called “Know who you are.”
It’s intriguing that John the Witness in this text, is the ‘I am not’ who is preparing the way for the great ‘I am’ who is to come. A preparation for the one to come, yet already present in their midst.
On this third Sunday of Advent, John reminds us of what we are called to do – to testify and bear witness to Jesus Christ, light of the world. The one we trust and worship and follow as the way, the truth and the life. The light that enlightens humanity to find the way, to experience the truth and to live life.
Ravi Zacharias said, “No one describes our human condition, your heart and mine, more accurately than the person of Jesus Christ.” He aks about the absolutes of our human heart, “Where in the world do evil, justice, love and forgiveness converge in a moment of history? In the person of Jesus Christ – who shows you the evil in your heart and mine; who was just and the justifier, who loved us so greatly who gave his love for us and said, ‘Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing’.”
Are we prepared to testify and bear witness to Jesus Christ? Zacharias, also said, “Unless you and I receive the son that God has provided, we will be offering our own sons and daughters in the battlefields of this world – for position, for power and for land and for prestige”.
This is a time, more than ever before, when we need to be one with Jesus Christ. Our faith in Jesus Christ grounds us in the reality and relevance of our own heart, even in ways that are not expected of us, or prescribed for us, but may be in new ways we’ve never seen or experienced before. The call is for us to learn more about ourselves and our own callings so that we may be as clear as John was, about what we are to do and not to do.
Take a look at your heart as we ask ourselves, who are you? and who are we?
When we know who we are, we also know who we are not.
The beginning of the good news
Advent 2 Mark 1: 1-8
Following on from last week’s ‘Hope for a new beginning’, today’s reading starts off with naming one, saying, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God’. John the baptizer says, “I have baptized you with water; but he (Jesus – son of God) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”.
Naming a new beginning in this reading for the second Sunday of Advent highlights three things: God is a changing reality; Human understanding of God is always changing; (these are two sides of the same coin); and The purpose of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Throughout history, the human concept of God has always been changing. The early religion for example was known as animism, where everything that lived and moved had a spirit in it and the belief in a supernatural power – God – that organizes and animates the material universe. It was perceived as a spirit-filled world, where the ocean remained in its boundaries, the rivers did not flood and the trees had to bear certain amounts of fruits. And with these were rituals that took place to enable it to happen. This was in the time of humans being hunters and gatherers, depending on what was naturally available.
By the time the agricultural communities were created, human focus changed to the fertility of the land. So did their concept of God shift. God became ‘Mother Earth’ who nurtures the produce of the land – a feminine concept of God.
The human communities continued to develop into very complex systems, so military structures and operations were put in place to protect them, from their own created systems. The concept of power, held by tribal chiefs who governed and presided over the subjects under their protection, was then the analogy that became the way humans were thinking about God – that God was the military superior, all powerful chief above the sky who protects, and every people had their own God. But slowly through many centuries, there was the changing reality of humans’ concept of God, including the possibility of a one God for all people. Not every human shares that concept either.
But the Bible stories also reveal a changing and growing God with the human understanding of God constantly shifting and changing too.
Today, we remind ourselves of the purpose and reason for the coming of Jesus as proclaimed by the prophets – in today’s reading, the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, like other prophets, was not predicting the future so much as discerning a new understanding of God.
So preparing the way of the Lord, making his path straight, does not mean preparing to be perfect in order to be good enough for God or for the church. The baptism with water so that one repents in order to be forgiven, is part of what Jesus turns on its head. The baptism with the Holy Spirit, is what Jesus brings as the affirmation of the indwelling of God in humanity – the “one-ness” of the changing God with the changing human understanding of God. Some would refer to the same as ‘atonement’. I think it’s clearer with a play on the word to say ‘at-one-ment’, a seamless unity.
With the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we are not called to be religious but to be made whole human beings, a call to a new kind of freedom, with the divine purpose of being able to love those beyond the boundaries of our ability to love.
That’s the good news of Jesus Christ – that God is love.
HAPPY NEW (CHRISTIAN) YEAR
November 29th was the first day of the Christian Year and the first of the four Sundays of Advent.
The word “advent” means “coming” and the Advent season is a time of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ into the world, an event so significant that the world re-started its calendar from the time of that occurrence – 2,020 years ago.
Advent is also a time when we might individually focus on the impact of Christ in our lives.
During the four Sundays of Advent,
our Advent Wreath is on display bearing five candles.
The first candle HOPE. The candles to be lit on December 6th, 13th and 20th represent respectively, LOVE, JOY and PEACE. Three of the candles are purple while the JOY candle is pink.
On Christmas Eve, the CHRIST candle in the centre of the wreath is lit. This candle is white, to indicate PURITY. It is in the centre of the display to signify Christ’s role as the LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
The wreath itself also has meaning. The circle of evergreen in which the candles are placed represents CONTINUING LIFE. Sometimes seedpods, nuts and cones, symbolic of resurrection, are used to decorate the wreath.
Hope for a new beginning
Advent 1 Mark 13: 24-37
We begin the Christian year today with Advent which means ‘coming’ focusing on the reading from Mark’s gospel which brings hope for a new beginning.
After dark times of suffering due to the Corona virus – with hundreds of lives lost, many people’s well-being and livelihood deeply scarred by months of isolation, this week for the first time since February, Victoria has no active Covid-19 cases and has recorded just under 30 consecutive days of zero infections and eased restrictions.
We give thanks, that we are moving from a time of suffering to hope of a new beginning, and also continuing to be alert and stay awake! Be vigilant in keeping safe, as a new beginning is not a restart of what was, but an adjustment to new norms.
The scripture reading today speaks of dark times of suffering; the coming of the Son of Man in power and glory; the fig tree with new leaves, sign of new beginnings. Every generation will be seeing all that has been mentioned – suffering, the Son of man, signs of hope and new beginnings. So be alert and keep awake for we don’t know when hope becomes a new beginning.
At the time of the writing of this Gospel, Jerusalem had been destroyed. Christians were experiencing dark times of persecution – dark times poetically expressed as darkened sun, which gives the moon no light, falling stars and shaken zodiac. Frightening imagery, yet this chapter is intended to encourage Christians who are living in frightening times. It acknowledges their suffering, and promises that there’s hope for a new beginning.
In suffering and hard times, we are encouraged not to give up but to hang in there and see the hardship through. The experience of working through hard times helps us to grow. It develops maturity, and provides the confidence to be strong and be of good courage.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” So in our suffering and our own dark times, we are not surprised by hope, we are encouraged and strengthened by it.
Jesus has in mind much more than the destruction of a building. For the people of his time, the temple was the place where God dwelled – the place where people could come to be in the presence of God. With Jerusalem and the temple gone, the new hope is that the Son of Man will become the new temple of God – the person through whom access and presence with God takes place. That is a new beginning. A new norm was on the horizon, that the coming of the Son of man will be bringing healing and hope (the power and glory) in the present life, for everyone.
Earlier in verse 4 of this same chapter, the disciples asked for a sign from which they can see the promise of the coming of the ‘Son of Man’. Jesus answers saying, “From the fig tree, learn this parable. When the branch has now become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near; even so you also, when you suffering comes to pass, know that it is near, at the doors. The fig tree is not withered but blossoms, it has all it needs for new life – a sign of hope, sign of a new beginning”.
Jesus goes on to quote from the prophet Daniel saying, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Could this be his way of declaring that humanity will freely interact with their God’s sovereignty in all of life – from suffering, to endurance, to hope and to a new beginning? This is Jesus also saying, “Have the courage to embrace your humanity and live it with integrity”.
The good news of Advent is that the Son of Man comes not to fulfil the prophecies of old. But to bring a new beginning, that is radically different from what was! So be alert and keep awake for when hope surprises us with a new beginning.
Let us pray this Advent prayer by Matthew Kelly – God of hope, I look to you with an open heart and yearning spirit. During this time of Advent season, I will be alert and awake, listening for your word and keeping your precepts. My hope is in you. Amen.
The hiddenness of the Kingdom
Christ the King or the Reign of Christ Sunday
Matthew 25: 31-46
On this last Sunday of the Christian Calendar, we are invited to hear the story that is literally taken as the ‘Judgment of the Nations’ (referring to non-Jewish people of the time, known as Gentiles), to hear the story as Jesus’ parable revealing the hiddenness of the kingdom: its secret dimension, its sudden arrival, its intangible qualities.
In a time when people were living with twists and turns in captivity and slavery under kings and rulers, there was prophetic hope of two things: a promised kingdom for restoration from suffering and a promised Saviour figure with a divine mission – the Messiah.
Again and again Jesus, through his parables, his teachings and his life, reminds his listeners that the kingdom belongs to those regarded as ‘little ones’ in the world of his time – the poor, the widows, the small children, the sick, the lame and the blind. Part of the secret dimension of the kingdom is that, it is already here, and we’re already part of it, where we embrace all of creation, with all people, including those who are called and labelled by society as ‘little ones.’
This is the kingdom where Jesus reigns as the Word (with a capital W), through whom the whole cosmos was created; reigns within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; reigns in society, where justice is done to all people of all faiths, of all backgrounds. Jesus reigns in the future hope. The reign of Christ the King is engraved in our nature, respected in our faith and lived out in our daily life. That is the intangible qualities of the kingdom.
Jesus teaches us what it might mean to know and to love ourselves in such a way that we can truly reach out with love and care towards others. When we encounter our true selves, so we learn what it means to love others with the fullness of life. The self is the best gift the caregiver has to offer. Acute self-awareness is needed to fully offer the gift. Giving is challenging, but it has the potential to change the life of the giver.
To what extent do we believe that we are beloved of God – unconditionally loved – as we are, for who we are, irrespective of our failures and foibles and triumphs and trials. The realization and belief that God loves not for what we do but for who we are warts and all, can prevent or at least counter any self-destructive drivers.
The ‘courage of our Confidence’ that is not built on ourselves or our performance but is founded in the belief that God loves and accepts us. Jesus draws the listeners (us) to focus on the ultimate ground of our identity, one that has nothing to do with success or failure, but the everlasting truth that we are loved.
American Jim Wallis says, “The right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it.”
Matthew 25:32-34 (Ezekiel 34: 17) – ‘As for you my sheep, the Lord Yahweh says this: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats.’
(Daniel 12: 2) – Of course those who are sleeping in the land of dust many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. (Resurrection and retribution)
Matthew 25: 34-40 (Isaiah 58: 6-8) – Is this not the sort of fast that pleases me: to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free and to break all yokes? Is it not sharing your food with the hungry? And sheltering the homeless poor; if you see someone lacking clothes, to cloth him and not to turn away from your own kin? Then your light will blaze out like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over saving justice for you will go ahead and Yahweh’s glory come behind you.
(Jeremiah 34: 8-9) – The word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to issue a proclamation freeing their slaves. Each man was to free his Hebrew slaves, men and women, no one was any longer to keep a brother Judean in slavery.
(Job 31:32) – No stranger ever had to sleep outside, my door was always open to the traveller.
Matthew 25: 35 (Ezekiel 18:7) – But if a man is upright he oppresses no one; he returns the pledge on debt; does not rob, gives his own food to the hungry, his clothes to those who lack clothing.
(Leviticus 25: 35-37) – If your brother becomes impoverished and cannot support himself in the community, you will assist him as you would a stranger or guest, so that he can go on living with you. Do not charge him interest on a loan but fear your God and let your brother live with you. You will not lend him money on interest or give him food to make a profit out of it.
Matthew 25: 42… (Job 22: 6-9) – You have exacted unearned pledges from your brothers, stripped people naked of their clothes, failed to give water to the thirsty and refused bread to the hungry; handed the land over to a strong man, for some favoured person to move in; sent widows away empty-handed and crushed the arms of orphans.
The voice with a fresh grasp of God’s truth.
Tom Wright in his Good ‘God in Public, quotes Woody Allen who said, “I believe in God; it’s just that he seems to be a bit of an underachiever.” This God is supposed to have a set of rules for how human beings behave and there’s A rumour that he’s planning some kind of final examination in which we’ll all be tested on how well we’ve done – though according to other variations it’s done on a continuous assessment basis, which is in fact equally troubling –
some people seem to think that God steps into the world from time to time to perform remarkable stunts to remind us he’s still around, and then seems to disappear again.
Justice, speaking truth to power.
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
This past week and a half, the Media has covered so much about the Presidential Election in the United States, including ‘voices speaking truth to power in the name of justice.’ There is no doubt that what happens around the world impacts on many others beyond the shores of that country, in a variety of ways – some affected more directly than others.
In today’s democratic climate, we’ve been trained to think of political legitimacy in terms of the method or mode of appointment – once people have voted, that confirms legitimacy, that is fair.
In our reading of the Bible, we’re reminded that the Ancient Jews and early Christians were not particularly interested in how leaders or rulers had come to be leaders and rulers. They were far more interested in holding leaders responsible in terms of what they were actually doing once in power.
In his book ‘The Power of Parable’ John Dominic Crossan reminds us that Jesus was a Jew, talking to fellow Jews. Their country was under Roman occupation and the Jewish people were under pressure to conform to the Roman way of doing things.
Faithful people in Jesus’ time tried to live their lives in accordance with the law of Moses, the Torah – the first 5 books of the Old or First Testament. That was their way of being faithful to the God of Israel. So in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus are the law codes about taking interest and profit from fellow Jews – “You shall not charge interest on loans or provide them food at a profit. Fear your God and let them live with you.” Earning interest on money loaned or invested was perfectly acceptable in the Roman system.
I invite you to hear the parable of the talents in its ancient context, attuned to the Torah and not with the modern ears attuned to the Australian Stock Market.
So, in that light, Jesus’ parables are not merely window-dressing or just frilly packages to make his audience and us understand a point made or a hard truth. Jesus’ parables are serious theology! Hence reading them, we’re not looking for what the moral of the story is. We are looking for Jesus’ theology!
The devastating moral lesson is, “For to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The theology is about ‘Justice’, which calls for the faithful to speak truth to power.
Walter Brueggemann in his book, Truth Speaks to Power wrote, “Legitimate power always includes attentiveness to justice. When power is not attentive to justice, it cannot endure. This is a summons to us to keep alive the agenda of justice for the vulnerable, to maintain a kind of subversive stand toward power. Truth is the structure of reality that cannot be violated by our capacity to administer it. Truth is not a set of propositions, but a cluster of relationships – relationships of dignity, well-being, security and respect. When power violates those relationships, then those who administer such power learn that they cannot finally withstand the force of truth.”
The parable tells of a man who entrusted his property to his servants. On his return, he rewards the two servants who had gained 100% on what was given them – applauding them with “Well done, good and faithful servants – come and share in your master’s happiness.” The master harshly punishes the one who gains no profit, speaks up against injustices. He calls him wicked and lazy.
That servant says, “Master, I knew that you’re a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Here is what belongs to you.” That is the voice of the faithful, speaking truth to power. Hard as it is to speak up against injustices, and not expecting to be treated kindly either, this servant’s voice shakes the master’s power and ego. I wonder if that point is when the powerful cannot withstand the truth.
Of course there’s a whole variety of interpretations of this parable of the talents – from gifts and talents to ‘use it or lose it’. ‘what you get is proportionate to what you give,’; ‘being prepared for when Jesus returns’ – to name a few.
My invitation today is for us to hear this parable in the context of ‘Justice and Speaking truth to Power’.
Jesus’ parables deliver his theologies in relatable ways that motivate us to ask how we would act in a situation; whether the truth really matters to us; how truth applies in our lives. In other words, if we don’t see ourselves in Jesus’ parables, maybe we’ve missed the point!
We are called to speak truth to power. Speaking up and speaking out about injustices. But what if we ourselves are that power?
Remembrance Day recalls that at 11am, on the 11th day, of the 11th month 1918! The Armistice was signed; Ending World War I.
The Red Poppy Banner – After World War 1, the poppy growing in France became a universal Tribute to the fallen. Our craft group created the banner we use that honours the Sacrifice of men, women and children who died in wartime and pays tribute to all who served Australia.
In World War 2, the Commonwealth declared War on Germany 3rd September 1939. Following the Pearl Harbour raid, war was declared on Japan, on 8th December 1941.
Over 1 million men and women from Australia’s population of 7 million saw active service.
Darwin was bombed on 19th February 1942, with 230 deaths, and subsequently another 63 bombings. This was Australia’s ‘Pearl Harbour’. Australia was bombed 97 times during 1942-3. The Australian government discouraged detailed reporting of the threats. Children of that generation did not know war had come so close. There was rationing, blackout curtains, and air raid drills. But war was happening ‘over there’ and knowledge kept was withheld.
One young lad called Henry knew about war though, his brother was a soldier.
But he was just a boy.
Henry Leech, a tall strapping 16-year-old, convinced his Mother to let him enlist as a ‘21-year-old’ in 1941. Henry chose to go to the adults’ war. In September he sailed as a Bren Gunner on the Dutch Ship, “Sibajak”. He was captured by Japanese forces in February 1942 and was a Prisoner of War in Changi prior to three and a half years on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway.
Henry was 19 when War ended. He left a boy; he came home a man.
On discharge, Henry returned home, met and married Phyllis Fort, moving to a Soldier Settlement Property at Dunkeld near the Grampians. He lived to 92.
Henry, and others, came back. Many didn’t.
The Australia they fought for, remembers and honours them all.
The parable that evokes the gospel.
The parable that evokes the gospel – what an odd way to do it – with a parable, which seems contrary to the gospel.
There is a clear hierarchy of power, with a male addressed as ‘lord’ holding the ultimate power. In this hierarchy, there is a group of women, identified as “bridesmaids” in English and in Greek as virgins. The group of women are identified as foolish and wise – the foolish ran out of oil, were without power, asked for admission and were refused. The wise or the more prudent, were good at planning ahead, but they refused to share their oil with those whose oil ran out, and they didn’t help their sisters enter the wedding feast.
The power holder (gate-keeper), tells the ones who have hunted for oil in the middle of the night, when and where there were no 24/7 petrol stations, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
What kind of gospel is portrayed here? This is very odd. In the first and final verses of the reading, Jesus said: The kingdom of heaven will be like this… ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’
Who is Jesus alerting to understand the kingdom of heaven and to keep awake? Not the foolish of the parable, but, the gatekeepers with ultimate power like the bridegroom, and the so called wise virgins, who were prepared with extra oil, but they missed out on living the gospel – the sharing and caring part.
‘Keep awake, for you know neither the day, nor the hour.’ According to one translation this means, ‘To grasp the big picture and be adaptable’. Because situations and contexts change and are unpredictable. Understand the big picture – the gospel of the love of God that finds no boundaries, makes no judgment, no matter who you are, or what role you play. Finer details can be adapted depending on what is encountered. Preparedness acout details is fine, but don’t miss out the big picture – the purpose.
The services offered by the Uniting East Burwood Centre is a place where whoever comes in need of food is given food. No questions asked; no judgment made whether they are deserving or not; personal details do not distract or restrict the focus of serving and helping those in need.
The parable speaks of the judgmental attitude of the gospel writer – already classifying the foolish and the wise. We read of the arrogant attitude of the so-called wise – selfish and unwilling to share their oil with their sisters. What kind of gospel is this, that has the danger of separation and exclusion in the name of faithfulness? Surely, this isn’t the gospel that Jesus is evoking.
In the parable we hear the connection between vulnerability and power. We imagine the chosen and the locked out. There’s a very short line between seeing the door closed on you and seeing yourself as the rejected. Covid-19 brings lockdown as a safety measure, not lockout as unwanted.
We imagine from the parable the well-prepared, only to encounter something different. So many plans made anticipating what would happen in 2020 were all wrong. Because situations change and we have to adapt without missing the purpose. The bridesmaids came well prepared but the situation changed – the bridegroom was delayed. The parable calls for constant alertness to the unpredictability of life, and at the same time always living out the gospel – life in its fullness experienced in God’s love.
On this Sunday closest to Remembrance day, the 11th of the 11th – we commemorate those who died fighting to end all wars and protect the nation. We remember those who suffered and are continuing to suffer for Australia’s cause in all wars and armed conflicts. We also remember that our history includes religious wars. For example, within the Christian church, Catholics and Protestants killed each other, each trying to impose their own religious views on the other – ‘in the name of God’.
How often we take our prejudices and sanctify them with our religious language. We often witness how the bible is being used to justify acts of violence and hatred.
Jesus shares this parable to evoke the gospel and remind us of the purpose, saying, “Once you understand how the kingdom of heaven is living your life, your responsibility is to go into the world, where people are different – in languages, in culture, in looks, in skin colour, in different religions – and you are to preach and live the gospel – that God loves us wastefully and bountifully”.
A paradigm shift with first class honours
Matthew 23: 1-12
Jesus flipped the narrative of leadership on its head and spoke of ‘Servant Leader’ – where leadership isn’t to grab power, honour and recognition, but to serve. Leadership is sacrifice, not privilege. Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”.
This is the lectionary reading for ‘All Saints Day’ – a recognition of service, and it is also very fitting for Leadership concerns in the Presidential Election taking place in a few days time. First class paradigm – when it is understood that ‘Greatness is determined by service’.
Jesus guided the crowds and his disciples away from the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees, who have the authority and knowledge to sit on Moses’ seat; but they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but never on themselves. Their deeds are only for show. They love the place of honour, and to be greeted with respect and command others to call them rabbi – the most knowledgeable, wanting to be served, with no sense of service.
Throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus brings on the real first class paradigm shift, which is about human becoming divine, and not so much about the divine becoming human. And the way to become divine is to become fully human, by living each day with the reality of God, which is called and known and experienced by different names such as:
the source of life; the ground of being, the voice of wisdom, the sacred or divine presence, the core of consciousness, the source of love. These are all that we humans are made of. The role of Christianity is to enhance the life of every person. Hence what you do to your life – you do to another, in serving and service. And sure enough, anything that gives people a sense of their own worth and dignity is nothing other than Godly or divine.
If we think Christianity is about the divine becoming human, then we are not only claiming that we know how God operates, but we are also limiting the truth of God with our own restrictions and our own boundaries.
Jesus’ paradigm shift calls us to be all that life is capable of being, that is to be fully human. Giving others hope, not heavy burdens. Building a world where everyone can also live more fully, with the space and courage to be all that they can be. This is not a call to escape life’s traumas or to have peace of mind, as life will always have challenges – including fights we cannot win; mountains we just can’t climb; and dark valleys with no visible way out. Yet in all that, we are called to live and lead, to love and serve.
On this All Saints Day, we are reminded that every life has the capability of being fully human and totally divine. Today, we honour and remember those in the Burwood Heights Church Family who have been called to rest this year, after their own ministry of Service –
. Dr Ivan Wilson, served as an Academic and University Lecturer;
. John Dornan served in WWII and a missionary;
. Peter Heil served as a Bank Manager;
. Colin Wilson, a Supermarket Manager and polished musician.
Different areas of service that contributed hugely to enhancing the lives of many people.
Today reminds us that every human life has the ability of living and being a saint, as every life is sacred, and humanly divine.
The paradigm shift that Jesus calls us to, is to walk the talk with honesty and integrity; serve others responsibly and compassionately; act with humility and we will be exalted and resilient.
These are first class components and characteristics of life, a human life that is totally divine.
Jesus, the best of the best, brought about that paradigm shift – with first class honours!
Follow your heart and take your brain with you.
Matthew 22: 34-46
This is one of my late father’s favourite pieces of advice to us children when we were teenagers. How would he know that my sister and I were interested in boyfriends then? Or my brothers in girlfriends – we all heard the same words, “Follow your heart and take your brain with you”. Which didn’t make much sense then but it meant a world of difference in hindsight!
Thinking and feeling go hand in hand – what we believe in our heart has to make sense in our mind. That’s a vicious cycle always at work within us from wake up time in the morning until we fall asleep at night. But that ongoing process gives us meaning, value, opinions, decisions, empathy, clarity of purpose, confidence in life and in oneself. That is our identity, and no one escapes that.
When a learned Pharisee tested Jesus by asking which in the law is the greatest, Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ One way of saying this, is follow your heart and take your brain with you – don’t follow blindly, unthinkingly, without understanding. Our mind articulates our feelings and what we believe in. We don’t often make our judgments on very critical issues be it in our jobs, our families, in church and disciplines, on the basis of how we feel at the moment. We have to go with what is right and do it in kindness and in the best way. That highlights the importance of perspective and the mind informing our emotions.
The call is for us to love God with our mind – with the implications of owning and living out our sense of being beloved by God. Living out our best self, which is always when our thinking and feeling are dancing to the same tune. It is only when we understand, when we accept, and appreciate our ‘beloved self’, as the first step, that we proceed with the second commandment of, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” – not love your neighbour before or more than yourself!
The scene in the story changed. This time Jesus asked the Pharisees about the Messiah whose son is he? I’m fascinated with this part of the story because it reminds me of a Tongan proverb: “Tama tu’u he fa’e.” A child’s foothold is his mother!” Allow me to go off on a tangent.
In Tongan society, a mother’s social rank on various occasions would give her children special privileges. This is due primarily to the supremacy accorded to the female role in the brother-sister relationship. A woman’s brothers are inculcated from infancy to serve in a subservient role with respect to their sister. They are to regard her with indulgence – an act which extends to her children as well. Hence the child’s status becomes elevated through his mother.
Interesting for me that Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism follow the Jewish law, halakha, if the mother is Jewish, so is her child, and if she is not Jewish, neither is her child. But the child of a non-Jewish mother can be considered Jewish only by a halakhic conversion to Judaism.
The Pharisees answered Jesus correctly, that the Messiah is the son of David. But then David calls him Lord, how can he be his son? For Tongan readers, they’ll respond, ‘you are your mother’s son!’ Jesus here declares his matrilineal descent – his social status is elevated through his mother. I am my mother’s son!
But the reality in Jesus’ context – the first requirement for messianic lineage was to be of the house of David. According to genealogy, David’s son Solomon is the line from which Joseph emerged. And from David’s son Nathan is the line from which Mary emerged. Generations later they parented Jesus. But Jesus as Mary’s son fulfilled the biblical kingship: ‘Seed of a woman.’ A member of the house of David. He received divine appointment to the throne – remember the biblical story of the angel appearing to Mary with the promise of a son and ‘the Lord will give him the throne of his father David.’
When Jesus speaks of his mother’s heritage, no one was able to deny, no answers and never asked him any more questions. Is that a moment of understanding when their minds eventually caught up with their intention to test him?
Jesus demonstrates how the mind is trained to stay positive in a negative situation. It affirms the mind as the engine that drives our heart and soul – that what we think we become. There’s a saying that “we can’t pour from an empty cup.” So, first, “love yourself enough, just as you are, and do it to others”. That may be a contemporary version of ‘loving God and loving neighbour as yourself.’ And do it with our mind!
Follow your heart, and take your brain with you!
The Jesus of today
What might the Jesus of today look like?
Summer Waters, aged 11 of New Zealand, wrote this poem: “He was at the hospital visiting a friend who was sick. They prayed together quietly. For just a minute he looked like Brother Jones, but – it was Jesus. I could tell by the tears in his eyes.
I saw Jesus this morning. He was in the kitchen making my breakfast, and fixing me a special lunch. For just a minute he looked like my mum – but it was Jesus. I could feel the love from his heart.
I see Jesus everywhere, taking food to the sick, being friendly to a newcomer and, for just a minute, I think he’s someone I know. But it’s always Jesus, I can tell by the way he serves.”
Jesus was a man in his time, a man for all Jewish seasons. The Jesus of today is a God experience, revealed in the transforming energy within a person; the power, which reorients a person’s life into feeling like a new being.
The reading today speaks of a cruel act where the Pharisees’ disciples were deliberately sent to trap Jesus. They asked him whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. Jesus responded, “Why are you testing me, hypocrites. Show me the coin used for the tax – whose image and whose title? The emperor’s! Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus does not simply evade their trap or confound their plans, but reveals a God experience for them. For when they heard Jesus’ response, they were amazed and went away. The Christpower transforms understanding and lives.
Jesus affirms without saying that an image of man is still an image of God. Since all are made in the image and likeness of God – the One who creates, sustains, nurtures, redeems and saves…no matter what the cost, Jesus calls the tricksters hypocrites. For they have literally taken to wearing another false likeness as if they have forgotten who they are, and in whose likeness they were made. Through Jesus, they received a God moment, which enabled them to re-orient themselves – not by invasive force, but an understanding within.
John Shelby Spong wrote, “The God I met in Jesus was not an invasive divine power who entered this world from outer space. I rather experienced God as the primal life force that surges through all living things, but which comes to self-consciousness only in human life and was somehow uniquely seen in its fullness in Jesus of Nazareth.”
Well, the Jesus of today, is God moments, that both alerts us and keeps us on task: re-orienting ourselves – all that we have, and all that we are, to be always what we’re created and meant to be – embodying the word made flesh.
This poem by Lucy Newton Boswell entitled Christpower, which for me talks about the Jesus of today, and gives the essence of what life is all about:
Look at him!
Look not at his divinity but look rather at his freedom.
Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power, but look rather at his infinite capacity to give himself away.
Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him, but look rather at his courage to be, his ability to live, and the contagious quality of his love.
Stop your frantic search! Be still and know that this is God: this love, this freedom, this life, this being; and when you are accepted, accept yourself; when you are forgiven, forgive yourself; when you are loved, love yourself.
Grasp that Christpower and dare to be yourself!
The poem gives us a powerful picture of what Jesus was and is, and what our daily life is about – be yourself, profoundly human;
be an archetype of love, grace and transformation;
be a person of integrity, insight and vision; a source of strength, an advocate for justice and wholeness, an inspiration for new beginnings … and all things that always expand the level of consciousness, in which all of us share, and into which we evolve as we become more deeply and fully human.
That’s us! And that’s the Jesus of today!
Our Call to Vocation
Matthew 22: 1-14
Who is called? Everyone.
Called by whom? By God
What for? To one’s vocation –
Called to one’s self and being, based on skills, gifts and graces each one is blessed with.
And called to compassion – comfortable in accepting our own self and being, then we are called to live out in our lives and in our relationships what we claim to believe as the foundation of our being and values – God’s mercy, justice and generosity.
Matthew 22 begins with a parable of a wedding banquet. And because parables are teaching tools, not historical events, they are open to many interpretations. One way of interpreting this parable, is our theme for today: Our call to Vocation. In the story, the servants were asked to “go out and call everybody they can find, the bad and the good alike”. Translated as ‘invite’ them – bring them all in. The house is full, including at least one who has the wrong garment. From a custom and cultural perspective, it probably signifies a lack of respect for the host and the occasion. Or, maybe total lack of awareness of why people were flocking to this place, and just joined the crowd.
Or could that one represent:
– the ones who reject the invitation, the kindness and graciousness of the host;
– the ones who accept the invitation but who do not prove worthy?
What is clear for me, is that the one without a wedding robe is not a preview of eternal punishment, because God loves everyone, even when we don’t reciprocate.
The call of God on our life is an invitation to our vocation. Ours is the responsibility and freedom of choice to make a commitment. If we reflect on the phases of development of a Calling to Vocation – all Christians are called, never volunteered! No one in the whole Bible ever volunteered to be Christian – everyone was called.
In Ancient Time, a calling to vocation was a calling to service as in God frequently calling people to a vocation: Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jeremiah, Esther, David … and more.
In New Testament times, a calling to Vocation was a calling to Priesthood – discipleship, apostleship. Jesus called disciples. At the heart is compassion, prepared to help others.
In the Reformation, Martin Luther’s time, a calling to Vocation, was a calling to the ‘Priesthood of all believers’. Everyone a minister. A calling was translated and linked for the first time, as career, as profession, as a commitment.
In society today, there is still unease about linking a calling to vocation with profession and careers. That may ring true when career and profession are seen as jobs. But when our calling to vocation is about discerning and finding meaning in our daily life, and how we live our values in our relationships with others – that’s what sets the foundation of the profession and career we are called to.
The kingdom of God needs Musicians, Artists, Painters, Poets, Accountants, Financial Advisers; Social Workers, Counsellors, Lawyers, Electricians, Plumbers, Nurses, Doctors, all Health workers, Bakers and Cooks, Cleaners, Pharmacists, IT Gurus, Teachers and Preachers … You name it, everyone is called. All professional and career people are called to a vocation of compassion. The focus is the welfare and well-being of others. We are called to an irresistible interest in life, as we are and living in community with others.
The parable highlights that the invitation is not about just showing up, but a commitment to bring the diversity of individuality and differences together, and experience communion and fellowship as one community.
Being called by God is no easy thing. But knowing that you have been called, and knowing what God is calling you to, is even harder. So how then can we know that God is calling us? Or is it only a figment of our imagination?
Being called by God is never loud, not a shout – it’s very faint, almost a whisper. Yet convincing, persistent and transforming. And the parable highlights that it’s our personal choices that separate us and exclude us from God’s invitation. When we hear God’s invitation, we choose to refuse it or to make a commitment! As Jesus says at the end of the story, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
We note that what distracted the invitees were good things, not bad – the routines of daily life. Like our own days – there’s work, we run errands, clean the house, pay the bills, take medication on time, walk the dog, go shopping … Where can we find room for God? Perhaps pencil in God in the daily to do list? Or perhaps wait for when we have plenty of time which is never likely to come?
God calls us to our personal accountability and responsibility in community. Our call to vocation!
The touch of the Master’s hand
—‘Twas battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer thought it
hardly worth his while
To waste his time on the old violin,
but he held it up with a smile.
—“What am I bid, good people”, he cried,
“Who starts the bidding for me?”
“One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?”
“Two dollars, who makes it three?”
“Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,”
From the room far back a gray bearded man
Came forward and picked up the bow,
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet
As sweet as the angel sings.
—The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said “What now am I bid for this old violin?”
As he held it aloft with its bow.
—“One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?”
“Two thousand, Who makes it three?”
“Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
Going and gone”, said he.
—The audience cheered,
But some of them cried,
“We just don’t understand.”
“What changed its worth?”
Swift came the reply.
—“The Touch of the Master’s Hand.”
– Myra Brooks Welch
The Parable of the Tenants
Matthew 21: 33-46
The desire for personal power was what these leaders cared about. So Jesus launched into a parable, about an owner who leased his vineyard to tenants. They were to care for it then give the owner his share of the harvest. When messengers were sent to the tenants, they beat and stoned and killed them. Finally the owner sent his own son. The tenants’ reaction? “Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.”
The parable seems clear, that Jesus was referring to the Scriptures the leaders know, Isaiah 5:1-7, speaking of Israel as God’s vineyard. The servants God sent were the prophets who generations earlier had rejected and often killed. Now, in Jesus, the Son had come. And the reaction of the rulers had been to plot to kill him. Jesus continued to demonstrate the response of the nation to his ministry.
The leaders might speak of their reverence for God and His Law. But in fact, their motive was one of lust for power. That desire would not permit them to take their place with God’s other little ones – the people perceived at the margins.
Jesus has the Priests and Pharisees speak their own indictment. He asked what they thought the owner would do to those unfaithful farmers. They answered, “The land would be taken away and given to others who would give him his rightful share of the harvest.” Jesus quoted Scriptures again, Psalm 118: 2-3, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone – the Lord’s doing, and strong … The one who falls on it will be broken, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls… I tell you, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruits.”
The Priests and the Pharisees realized Jesus was speaking about them – oops! They realized that the owner in Jesus’ parable is God, and the vine he’s growing is his people Israel, so the tenants to whom God has entrusted his vineyard must be them, the priests, Ouch! Those supposed to produce the wine and yield over to God, have instead killed the servants and the son, so that they can keep the wine for themselves.
In their desire for power, they missed the point that the son’s true inheritance is not the wine but the loving relationship with his father, which they cannot inherit by killing him. They knew the parables were about them. And they missed the fact that it’s also about Jesus. Their self-centred attitude blinded them, missing the bit about the son who is killed, and they don’t seem to wonder who he is. Or maybe they did recognize that Jesus was claiming to be the son – the messiah, but they didn’t want to acknowledge him, so they willfully blinded themselves?
Jesus calls them to understand the spiritual meaning of the stone rejected by the builders as having its fulfilment in himself. But let’s hear the context of what the rejected stone was in the Psalmist’s writing. When King Solomon’s temple was being built, several miles away in the quarry each stone was measured and cut for its exact spot in the temple. And the very first stone to be delivered was the capstone, but that’s the last stone needed in the construction. So the builders said, “What’s this? This doesn’t look like any of the first stones we need. Put it over there for now.” Well, years went by and the grass grew over the capstone and was generally forgotten. Finally the construction was done and the builders said, “Send us the capstone”. And the word came back from the quarry, “We already did”. Then someone remembered what they had done with the very first stone sent to them.
The first will be last.
So the stone was taken from its lowly position among the overgrown weeds where it had been forgotten, and was fitted in its place. It completed the temple, and the whole work was celebrated and honoured in its strength and beauty. Thus the scripture says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.”
Jesus, whose life and ministry were rejected, questioned, challenged and ignored, became the cornerstone of a whole new world. A world where temples are not stones and brick, steel and glass, but human lives – temples built on God’s love and grace.
A world where we rejoice and give thanks: for the harvests of the Spirit; for the good we inherit; for the wonders that astound us; for the love that has found us.
We are built, and re-built on the strength of Christ in a world in which we’re given a future of hope, of insight and strength – to live life abundantly.
Matthew 21: 23-32
During this time of pandemic, coupled with National Election Year for some States and Countries, through the media we hear of many stories and events where authority is questioned:
Health Experts; Scientists and researchers; Political and Party Leaders; Age Care CEOs; Educational Institutions; School Principals; Sports Managers … and more.
Authority and power may be the presenting question, but the real question is about a leadership crisis due to misunderstanding what leadership is.
In this reading Jesus enters the temple, the same place where he overturned the tables of money makers and traders, and healed the lame and the blind. This time as he was teaching and the question of authority is raised. The chief priests and elders asked, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Little did they realize how self-revealing and self-serving their questions were. They weren’t seeking information for understanding, but with territorial authority they intend to trap Jesus, or to impress him, or to show him who’s the boss!
Jesus discerned these leaders’ own fears, and took it that they were not questioning his authority but their own – the chief priest maybe by ordination and elders appointed by the people. But does that mean that they authorize how people make sense of their life? Jesus the good teacher seizes the moment, and asks his own question, with a parable to illustrate it. Not to catch them out but to extend their thinking.
They had answers, but were based on their own fear – fear of the people who gave them their authority; and afraid of having to answer honestly to Jesus why they did not believe John’s baptism.
Jesus uses the parable of the two sons to illustrate how the priests and elders were answering from their own ‘place of fear’. They answered Jesus’ question with “both”, because the father would still want both his children regardless of what they were saying.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to the kingdom of God ahead of you.” That is stating the obvious – that while these leaders were focusing on their authority and power, and their fear of losing rank (which is just the container on the outside), they miss the importance of the content of the container – the gospel of God’s free grace. The tax collectors and prostitutes on the other hand, empowered by God’s free grace, transformed their lives and their ways of being. Jesus hopes to make the point with the people of authority that the way this father in the parable was to his children, is how God’s attitude is to us as his children – not one over another, but all, just as we are, even when our “yes” is sometimes “no”, and vice versa.
We’re reminded that leadership of family, of organization, of business, of community, of church, is given authority in order to benefit those who are in their care – the members, the workers and followers. Leaders are not to use their authority to benefit or promote themselves. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the same notion about leadership saying, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is – what are you doing for others?”.
In the political climate of today, we’re reminded that Leadership is not about rank, power, and authority. Leadership is responsibility, doing what is just, to help build people’s dignity: where leaders are not competitors but co-workers and team players; where leaders are not the ones in charge but empowers others to be in charge themselves.
Jesus, the Teacher, the Leader and the Saviour – modelled and practised leadership. We are challenged with the same – to model the behaviour we want to see. That is how we author our own life. Modelling the behaviour we want to see is power and authority without question. Leadership at its best.
The Parable of Abundant Grace
We will focus on three aspects of Abundant Grace highlighted in this parable – Grace is inclusive of all, Grace treats everyone equally, Grace reverses our expectations.
Grace is inclusive of all –
The first we read into this parable is the hiring of workers by the landowner. Everyone that was found in the market place was hired to work. By God’s grace, we are hired as co-workers in his vineyard – not based on our heart being perfect or the best able, but simply by God’s grace.
We tend to focus on the reward – the pay day, and miss the importance of the hiring moment. The landowner hires everyone, including the strong and the early; the lazy and those that just stand around; the differently abled who got to the market late; the good and the wicked. And the landowner says, ‘I will pay you what is right.’
Grace treats everyone equally with equity –
The parable clarifies for us the difference between Equality and Equity. Yes, both promote fairness. But Equality refers to equal opportunity and the same level of support for all segments of society. Equity goes a step further & refers to offering varying levels of support depending upon need, to achieve greater fairness of outcomes.
Equality is the effect of treating each as without difference; that is, each individual is considered without their measurable attributes; treated as the same with those of differing attributes, and call it fair! But fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need. Equality is like giving everyone a shoe. But Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits. Grace ensures equity first in order to enjoy genuine equality and eventually attain liberation. Aristotle said, ‘the worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.’
We offer varying levels of support for people depending on their need, whether because of age, or mobility, attributes, or health and much more. Even with this Covid-19, we know there is no ‘one size fits all’ support. Need for life is the focus not sameness. That’s equity and that’s treating everyone equally and fair, for the best outcome.
This parable is often quoted and misused in discussions about equal opportunity and equal pay in workplaces, and very often leading to envy and divisions. Although this parable is not about a business deal based on hours worked and performance but rather the abundant grace of God, it speaks volumes, and can be used with its core message of treating everyone equally and fairly, to inform such discussions in its reality. The parable reveals the moment of salvation is becoming one of the workers, not the pay or reward. As long as we perceive salvation as pay, there is likely little joy along the way and much frustration about the salvation state of our peers.
The reality is that the parable makes us realize how deep our sense of entitlement and how deeper our sense of privilege exist in us. They influence and shape our vision of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. We tend to shape our identities and our sense of value by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. We want fairness and equality when it serves our interest, but not so if it means that we all get the same at the end. We want fairness – equality and equity, as long as the other doesn’t get the same as we have? Do we formulate our perception of the kingdom and expect God to fit into that? Or rather prescribe how God ought to share God’s grace? All that changes.
Grace reverses our expectations –
The parable points us to a critical aspect of New Testament theology. The last will be first. The owner of the vineyard paying first the ones who arrived last and the first arrivals last, receiving the same, they complained saying, these last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us? The last paid didn’t get nothing, they got the same. ‘Maybe it should be said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be the same.’
This scandalous reversal of expectation, of our sense of justice and even of our hopes, is central to our life and faith. Whoever wants to be first, must be last, and a servant of all. This reverses our human ideas of greatness! The scandal of this parable is that all are equal recipients of God’s grace. The scandal of our faith is that we’re often envious and jealous when God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness are given to others in equal measures.
We are asked – Is your eye evil because I am good? So far, we have put ourselves in the shoes of the hired workers – the receivers of God’s abundant grace. What happens when the role is reversed and we are in the landowner’s role? Is the parable still about abundant grace?
The pursuit of Unlimited Forgiveness
Matthew 18: 21- 35
We may not gather at church; but we gather as the church wherever you are. I invite you to join me reflecting on the theme: “The pursuit of unlimited forgiveness.”
Such a hard call! Last week we spoke about holding the key to reconciliation. Today’s reading is the continuation of that, spelling out the key – unlimited forgiveness!
Two little brothers Harry and James had finished supper and were playing until bedtime. Somehow Harry hit James with a stick, and tears and bitter words followed. Charges and accusations were still being exchanged as mother prepared them for bed. The mother instructed, “Now James, before you go to bed you’re going to forgive your brother.” James thought for a moment then replied, “OK, I’ll forgive him tonight, but if I don’t die before I wake up, he’d better look out in the morning.” Yes we all know about partial forgiveness. In today’s reading, Jesus calls us to forgive our brothers and sisters over and over and over and over again!
Peter, in conversation with Jesus, asks the question maybe we’d like to ask – knowing how much to give and what we get in return. This seems to be the case when it comes to forgiveness.
The irony is, on one hand we want forgiveness to be computable. We want controls, parameters structures, conditions and qualifiers. And yet, on the other hand we treasure our freedom – so we resist situations, systems, even ‘roadmaps’ that would curtail our choice and autonomy.
Peter asked Jesus: When are we off the hook for forgiveness? My brother shall sin against me – how many times shall I forgive? Peter thought he was being generous, only to be met with, not 7 but 70 seven times. 490 times? Or forgive 7 days for 70 years? Jesus makes record keeping & counting impractical. Who can forgive 70×7 while keeping track? Who’s in the habit of forgiving without becoming a forgiving person? Jesus is saying – as much as we place controls over when/where/why we forgive others, we first do it to ourselves.
How many times have we been forgiven by God through the forgiveness of others? We ask ourselves, and realize, God doesn’t stop forgiving. And so neither should we. Having experienced forgiveness, we are invited to make it possible for others to experience it. The more we’re aware we’re gifted with being forgiven, the more inclined we will be to distribute and share it with others that need it.
We are regularly assured that God forgives, and our sins are forgiven! Therefore, out of a spirit of gratitude, we are called to forgive others. But how can we offer others what we don’t have? We pray the Lord’s prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Do we mean the words we say? Or do we sometimes want to pray saying ‘forgive us our sins more than how we forgive others?’
Life is full of incidents that either call for us to forgive or to be forgiven. Do we sometimes feel unworthy of forgiveness, therefore resist receiving it let alone offering it? Forgiveness is a hard call because it sets in motion deep, tragic, painful memories, thoughts and feelings. An uncomfortable, hard place to be in – The very place where Jesus calls us to the pursuit of limitless forgiveness.
Desmond Tutu said, without forgiveness, there can be no future for a relationship between individuals, or within and between nations – and we add in family and church.
Forgiveness is not transactional – it’s not about debt and repayment. It’s about the integrity and cohesiveness of Community. Forgiveness is not cheap grace. Jesus isn’t suggesting that we regard offences as unimportant, nor suggesting that we wink at sin. We are called to take both seriously.
To forgive someone is to hold him or her, excused from an offence, while still acknowledging his or her responsibility for the offence. Forgiveness is not to be confused with granting of a pardon, which is merely a permitting to go unpunished. Forgiveness is not to be confused with toleration of hurtful behaviour. It is not even condoning unacceptable, unjust actions.
Forgiveness is something we live and we embody. It comes from the heart.
Rev Bubsy Arulampalam wrote last week, there’s no limit to our attempts at forgiveness and reconciliation – and we cannot write off people from our lives because we have failed in our attempts. Failure to forgive disrupts, distorts and degrades people and community. Losers quit when they fail. Winners fail and fail until they succeed.
Forgiveness affirms and strongly proclaims the ‘divinity of humanity’. The pursuit of unlimited forgiveness is: hard – possible – freeing. It works. And we can.
Open the door to Reconciliation
Matthew 18: 15-20
We hold the key to reconciliation. A process of truth-telling which is about the accountability and responsibility for both the offender and the offended. It involves many aspects including but not limited to: Listen to understand; protect the vulnerable; be careful not to escalate harm; restore relationships – and get along!
A well-known father whose daughter was arrested for drug-possession said that the family was saddened by the daughter’s choices, but they loved her and would support her recovery. That is the kind of love and commitment to which Jesus calls us as brothers and sisters.
As a church family, we’re not just members of the same organization. We’re brothers and sisters – valued and highly regarded as our own blood. So, if your brother or sister sins against you – point out the fault, when the two of you are alone.
The words ‘against you’ are not found in some of the older manuscripts. If we drop those words (against you), the focus is on the other person’s sins. If we include those words, the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense – sin committed against our ‘self’.
Either way, Jesus’ words make sense: That if we become aware of sin, directed against us or not, we have a responsibility – to restore the sinner. We are to take the initiative to resolve the situation.
And the way to do it is in private: Why?
It’s discreet & less threatening intervention. It protects the offender against unnecessary embarrassment. It enables correction before the offense becomes general knowledge. This way gives hope for the offender to retain his or her dignity.
It’s easy to read the text as the universal manual with a 3-step process of conflict resolution – as if, following the steps will produce guaranteed results. That can be a distraction for Jesus’ followers call to the responsibility of restoring the sinner with a spirit of gentleness.
In the spirit of gentleness – there is no room to name or shame anyone in public, as it doesn’t restore the heart but might break it even more. With gentleness, there’s no room to do more harm. If you are listened to, you have regained your brother. The two sides of the same coin called Reconciliation are in ‘calling him out’ that’s also ‘calling him in’.
In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar. Go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus emphasizes here that the way to reconciliation is to sort out your differences between you two in private. You let the other know that you have been hurt – tell your truth. In doing so, you set yourself free. You take no responsibility for the other’s response though.
This highlights how the next steps might be good procedures to follow, but with nothing achieved. Taking a couple of witnesses with you – they maybe witnesses to your story, and not witnesses to the sin committed. Reconciliation is not to fix blame but to restore relationships. When you tell the church, and they are not even listened to, Jesus says, “Let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Some would argue that Jesus asks the offended to treat his brother/sister as an outsider – no longer a member of the church, and where possible avoid contact.
I see it differently. I hear Jesus saying: you’re the one that opens the door to reconciliation. You hold the key.
Let the one who refuses to listen, be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector – the one at the edge perceived as outsider; one that maybe we’d love to disconnect from. The call is to open the door for them so they know they are not judged, but loved; not excluded from community but embraced; not shamed but forgiven:
They are the ones to care for, to share a meal with, to reach out to. God is with them too. In other words, you be the Jesus to the gentile and the tax collector. That’s how/what heaven on earth looks like. Where you owe no one anything but love.
Jesus says, “Truly! whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them: gathered in love not hatred; gathered in unity not division; gathered in forgiveness not blame; gathered in reconciliation not disconnection. I am there …”.
On this Father’s Day, as we give thanks to all our fathers and father-figures, and all that we look up to, let us also take the initiative to effect reconciliation, anywhere, anytime with anyone.
Open the door to reconciliation. We all have a key.
Crosses are moments in life
Matthew 16: 21-28 – An interesting reading!
Peter, the rock on which the church is built, with his God-inspired confession a few verses before. Next minute, he becomes the stumbling block for Jesus’ mission and a spokesperson for Satan. A moment of the cross at a crossroads!
The exchange between Peter and Jesus is a critical moment for Peter and the disciples – “Get behind me Satan… If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. This conversation was at a time when the cross wasn’t something in which to believe, it was a moment in time, a moment in the life of the first disciples, when they learned how to believe.
Imagine who we are as a church family and the symbol of our identity as a church. Our physical description may be the A-frame Church at the corner, but our theology and the heart of our Church community and family is preached from the height of the cross at the crossroads, that proclaims the moments we carry during challenging times and when the going gets tough, including the package that isolation and lockdown brings.
I would like to use the metaphor of the ‘cross at the crossroads’ as the lens through which we read this important moment in Matthew’s Gospel, and how it speaks to us in our time.
The cross for the disciples and for us is not a symbol of religion but a reminder of that moment in time when our identity as humans is called into question; at a crossroads; at stake; or even in jeopardy.
– the moment when we catch a glimpse of what calling ourselves Christians really means, that makes us hesitate.
– the moment when we are told that the life we thought we planned for, prayed for, was not what God had in mind for us.
– the moment when we might have to choose whether or not we are willing to have something else, or someone else, have more control over our life than we do.
Well before the cross became a symbol for a religion, for Christianity, for salvation, the cross was something that marked a moment when the paths of life was uncertain, when the direction for how to be in the world was less than clear. That moment at the crossroads when God seemed to be giving us a different route the future.
The cross was also a cultural instrument of condemnation. A sign for what happens when power is crossed, when authority is challenged, when injustices are called and when you choose to embody a different expression of power in the world.
Jesus turned that upside down and expressed the cross differently:
– That moment of willingness to stand against power that silences and oppresses;
– the moment of speaking up for those the world would crucify;
the courage to call a thing what it is;
– the moment of renouncing systems, institutions and leaders who choose themselves over others – who might be wearing and waving their crosses as a mark of their own works rather than carrying their cross as a blessing for others.
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.
The Tongan Bible translates Jesus saying, “if any want to follow me, they be like a patriot, and carry their cross, and be my great!”
‘Be a patriot’ – a person who loves, supports and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion. So the call to carry the cross and follow is a call to patriotism – it is not an invitation for us to start looking for crosses to bear. It’s not about plotting the way to success. The logic of the kingdom is to love and care for those in need. Crosses are, and will be provided. Anyone who has to juggle work with homeschooling children, and caring for younger ones who cannot attend day care have crosses to bear. Martin Luther once said, “Anyone who has a spouse or a family already have built-in crosses enough!”
Jesus is not asking for anyone to be superhuman; not even asking to deny our humanity.
Jesus is asking for total dedication to purpose, that carrying your cross is a choice for life and not death – understanding that cross carrying is a natural part of the journey of life.
Jesus is calling for our commitment to fully accepting how vulnerable our humanness will be if we choose to make a difference. And the more we serve, and care and love, the more we discover who we really are.
That is finding self, not losing it – even when we are with our cross at the crossroads.
Nurture the Rock in Your Life!
Matthew 16: 13 – 20
Faith is easy when Jesus comes to the Rescue.
The Disciples were on a boat during a storm and a figure appeared, walking toward them on the water. They assumed it must be Jesus and Peter challenged Jesus to let him walk on the stormy sea too. But overwhelmed by it all, fear took over and Peter began to sink. Back on the boat with Jesus’ presence and the storm calmed, with relief and wonder they say, “Truly, you are the Son of God”.
In the peaceful area of Caesarea Philippi where He is well received, Jesus sits and chats with the disciples, aiming to gradually clarify the mystery of the Kingdom he has come to establish, and to alert the disciples to their future role. Jesus asks them about the rumours, gossip and speculation circulating among folk – “What Is being said about the Son of Man?” They respond, “Some are saying that you are John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other Prophet”. Eventually, Jesus asks them, “What do you think about me?”, Matthew’s gospel has crystallised Peter’s response into the powerful statement of faith and belief – “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God!”
Jesus’ reply reflects an insight into what has just happened, “God the Father has given you this insight and you have listened to and believed what He has been telling you!” “Peter, this is the Truth on which God’s Kingdom is to be built!”
It is the moment when all the Disciples come to Faith as true followers of Jesus. Jesus can begin giving them instructions on what their role might be in this New Community of Living Faith.
They are to keep watching, listening to, and learning from, the Master! What they learn will be the guidelines for the New Community after the death of Jesus. The New Community could have no basis until this ‘Rock of Faith Statement’ was made and responsibility for the future Community given to Peter and the other disciples.
Check your Rock of Faith for hairline fractures or flaws. Life has a nasty habit of catching us off guard. Probably, all the great people who have gone before us found this to be true. Surely that will not happen to Peter – he has met and is in the presence of the Messiah. He is with Jesus and the other disciples daily, nothing can go wrong. But it does! A time came when Peter failed his Lord. His loyalty was not as good as his Statement of Faith. Remember that when Jesus was brought before the Roman Authorities Peter was challenged about being a follower, and he denied he knew Him.
Jesus knew the frailty of Peter and the other disciples, yet he entrusted to them a Mission which was crucial for the continuation of His work. Under the guidance and presence of Spirit of the risen Christ, Peter and the other Apostles did carry out their mission.
The Unity, Mission and Future of the Church depend on rocks, like us, even though we are slightly flawed. Together, we offer ourselves, just as we are, to be a faithful presence. There will be high and low points. But always the same is the accepting love of Jesus and his continuing call to us to walk in his footsteps.
The Canaanite Woman
What does our reading of Matthew 15: 21-28 tell us?
Quite a lot – but we focus on three things: A Faith Exposed; A moment for Teaching and Learning; A Life –giving Mission. These are aspects of Jesus’ Mission and Purpose highlighted in this familiar story: Jesus leaves the neighbourhood of Capernaum, journeys into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon – and a Canaanite Woman came out and cried, “Have mercy on me Lord, son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Jesus hears the voice of a prayer from a heart, both intense in her desire for her daughter’s life and also in her appreciation of who Jesus is. The same voice was heard differently by the disciples, so they requested, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Some believe the disciples meant, “Do what she asks for and send her off quickly”. Others think the disciples were annoyed and impatient with the interruption and wanted to dismiss a Gentile woman, as unworthy of notice.
But Jesus’ answer to the disciples was a telling point. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. He was saying to the disciples, “I was sent only to you – and to those who still misunderstand that God’s love and presence has no limits and no boundaries.” So the woman is not the lost! She has faith and continues in prayer aloud, “Lord help me!” This time, Jesus seizes the moment as a learning opportunity for the disciples.
Putting the woman’s faith to the test before the eyes of the disciples – Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table!”
This mother’s faith knows the healing of her daughter is but a tiny crumb, of the grace of power and love which belongs to someone like Jesus! And Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” The story ends with a life-giving moment, the woman’s daughter was instantly healed!
By exposing the woman’s faith, Jesus opens the eyes of the disciples to see what being a disciple looks like. In real time, real event and real situation, a mission obligation moment arises for Jesus – the Canaanite Woman’s faith as the teaching tool, demonstrating for the disciples that true faith is ‘The Spiritual Conviction or Truth’ that lives and rises within – the way we believe in what is not seen, not based on the facts or doctrines taught.
The truth within this woman is that she’s broken internally because her daughter needs healing – she lived up to her responsibility of telling that truth, knowing also that she’s not responsible for other’s reaction to her truth. At home with her heart – comfortable in her own skin, her own feelings, her own knowing, her own faith, she was brave! Brave here doesn’t mean feeling afraid and doing it anyway, but brave as in living the truth spoken out loud from within. She demonstrates without words that she doesn’t fit into the box or the cage prescribed by the world. She refuses to be fenced by cultural or racial boundaries, she refuses to betray herself. The Canaanite woman knows not to conform to this world with the barriers and systems that segregate, discriminate, and hurt people.
Like this woman, our encounters with people, situations and events touch us deeply. They evoke feelings that move us to articulate our knowing, our truth and our faith, which transform into actions. We learn from this story that with faith, we are like a cup filled to the brim, and we get bumped. Getting bumped in life is inevitable, what comes out is our choice of what we filled it with.
May our faith be exposed, as a teaching and learning moment that is always life-giving.
Matthew 14: 22-33
Stay Home! Is the strongest, and the most effective message of this Covid-19 Pandemic. Stay home – safer for you and others.
That message is the voice through which we hear our reading. Stay home! Or in the story, “Stay in the boat”.
Sometimes faith is seeing the boat for what it is – the home at sea. Jesus meets us at home. Matthew 14: 22-33 in a nutshell provides a wonderful image of faith – so powerful, yet so fragile.
Good news – faith can move mountains; it is calming, it is healing.
Even better news – Jesus comes to us amid the storm.
The best news – Jesus lets us stay in the boat when we have only little faith.
‘Fear’ and ‘Faith’ journey together, fuelling and magnifying one another – limiting and overtaking or advancing the other.
The disciples’ boat was battered by waves and wind. Fear made them mistake the figure of Jesus as a ghost and they were terrified by their own assumption and interpretation. Fear, although sometimes a protection, can also be limiting and paralyzing.
When the disciples cried out in fear, Jesus immediately said, “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid.” He called them to faith, to overcome their fear. And faith means living out your heart. Take heart! Jesus reminds the disciples, “My home is your heart’. You know me and you know I’ll be there. Trust your heart. Trust yourself. That’s when you’re at your best.” When the wind ceased the disciples realized who he is. So they worshipped Jesus, son of God.
In the midst of a storm – pandemic, grief, health issues, or loss of job and business, when energy level is low – anxiety levels shoot high, fear sets in, faith diminishes or even disappears. And in all that, we don’t recognize Jesus, the lifeline.
Many are out there on the water with us at this time, splashing around in stormy waters, with waves of anxieties and insecurities that somehow connect us to one another.
The call to the disciples and to us is ‘Stay home’.
Trust your heart, your innermost space;
Trust yourself, your capabilities, your gifts and skills, your discernment.
Trust that what you’re doing matters;
That what you’re doing makes a difference and Jesus is always with you.
When we’re surrounded by adversity – safety, peace and salvation are experienced within self, in our heart, the home of Jesus. Wherever we are, Jesus is with us.
Take heart – Stay home – Be safe
That is how long Adam was alone in the world before Eve came along. No one has ever been more socially isolated than Adam, but he didn’t know any different.
Six Weeks! That is how long Noah was stuck on the ark with a menagerie. He had his work cut out keeping the lions away from the impala and the rabbits away from each other. He would have needed a mask when cleaning up all the droppings.
Six Weeks! That is how long the armies of the Israelites and the Philistines nervously stared at each other before David and Goliath did their thing and brought the stand-off to a conclusion.
Six Weeks! That is how long Jesus self-isolated in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. He knew it wasn’t going to end well; as it didn’t for John the Baptist. Jesus dismissed all of the easy options and emerged well prepared to see it through.
Six Weeks! That is how long we spend during Lent, denying ourselves some pleasures so that we might focus a little more on our spirituality as Easter approaches.
Six Weeks! That is how long we need to endure these Stage 4 Restrictions.
What story will each of us tell of it in the years to come?
Somehow we need to look for the positives and spend each day as productively as possible
Psalm 118:24 offers us a thought with which we could start each day: –
“This is the day that the LORD has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it”.
A Reflection – May Your God go with You
The late Irish comedian Dave Allen used to end his shows saying “Good night, thank you, and may your God go with you”. I used to think that this was sacrilegious, there is only one God; we don’t have our own personal gods. But a particular event caused me to think differently.
A few years ago, my brothers, sister and I all had reason to be in Adelaide together, and feeling nostalgic, arranged to meet outside the house that was our home some 60 years before. The house was still there, though the garden was a mess. The streetscape was much as we remembered it.
We started to reminisce about our shared family experiences. The funny thing was that, when one of us would recount a meaningful shared experience, others either didn’t remember it or if they did, it had different meaning for them. Someone listening would wonder whether we really were from the same family!
And it was clear that each one of us had a unique but special relationship with our parents. We were of different ages, one girl and three boys and we all have quite different personalities, skills and interests. If you were to ask my sister and I separately what sort of person our mother was, you would get quite different answers from each of us. You might even wonder whether we had the same mother! From that discussion we all learnt a lot about ourselves and each other and I at least, developed a deeper respect for our parents.
Shortly after that occasion I caught an old Dave Allen program, and when he said “May your God go with you” at the end it occurred to me that the statement was not sacrilegious, but profound. Each one of us has a unique personality and a unique set of interests and experiences, so of course, each person’s relationship with the divine mystery that we commonly call “God” must be unique and personal.
May your God go with you.
NAIDOC stands for “National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee” and NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
There are very few full blooded Aboriginals in Australia now. Any person with any degree of Aboriginal descent can legally identify as Aboriginal if they are accepted as such by their community.
Approximately 800,000 people, 3.3% of the Australian population, identify as indigenous. Most live in or close to major or regional cities, only 20% live in remote or semi-remote areas. Only 20% can speak an indigenous language. Indigenous culture is quite incompatible with the imported culture. People of mixed blood have a “foot in each camp”, which must be emotionally difficult for many. Though a very ancient culture, Indigenous Australia was never one nation, but a collection of many.
In general, compared with the non-indigenous community, native Australians have poorer physical and mental health, a shorter life expectancy, engage in more substance abuse, are less well educated, have a higher level of unemployment, are over-represented in incarceration statistics, and are more dependent upon Government welfare.
As a nation we are still searching for answers. It is interesting that the various protest movements emphasise indigenous disadvantage but don’t offer solutions. Solutions are very difficult. In Federal Parliament, the Coalition, Labour and the Greens all have different ideas, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, for those identifying as indigenous to speak with one voice.
At the same time, there are many remarkable Aborigines and Islanders who have made an incredible impact on their communities, the country and the world – as PhDs, politicians, counsellors, teachers, painters, sportsmen & women, opera singers, authors, journalists and in many other field.
The Uniting Church walks alongside “First Peoples” in various ways and in various places, headlined by the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC).
Giants of the Early Church
Many Christian traditions will celebrate Monday June 29th as a “feast day” for St Peter and St Paul.
Peter was an illiterate fisherman. His real name was Simon, but Jesus saw him to be a solid character and called him Peter which means “rock.” Later, Jesus declared Peter to be the rock on which he would build his Church. Peter was one of the first of the Disciples to be recruited and was their spokesman.
Peter had a lapse when he denied knowing Jesus on the night of his arrest, but went on to lead the new movement, famously winning 3,000 converts with his first sermon at Pentecost. He is generally recognised as the first Pope. Peter is believed to have been crucified in Rome around 64AD after the great fire, for which Nero blamed the Christians. St Peter’s Basilica is built over his burial place.
Paul was a traditional Jew from the Greek university town of Tarsus located on the South coast of Asia Minor. He came from a prominent family which had the privilege of Roman Citizenship. Paul was well educated and could speak Hebrew as well as Greek. He worked as a tentmaker and leather worker.
Initially Paul was ardently opposed to the Jesus movement and took part in the stoning to death of at least one Christian. Then he had an epiphany on the road to Damascus after which he became an ardent apostle. Paul spent many years travelling the Eastern Mediterranean setting up new Churches, and some of his follow-up letters make up much of the New Testament.
The traditional Jews objected to Paul’s relationship with Gentiles and arranged for him to be arrested. Paul insisted on his right, as a Roman Citizen, to be judged in Rome. After a perilous sea journey he spent two years there under house arrest. Tradition has it that he was beheaded in Rome at about the same time as Peter met his fate. He is buried in Rome and the Basilica of “Saint Paul Outside the Walls” marks the spot.
Two inspiring characters, well deserving of a “feast day”.
Creating a New Church
The Uniting Church in Australia came into being on 22nd June 1977- just 43 years ago. There are some particular characteristics which reflect the essence of this uniquely Australian Church.
The ecumenical Union of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational denominations became a possibility as the planning focused on what the traditions had in common rather than their differences. The Uniting Church recognises and relates well with other denominations and faiths – the name ‘Uniting’ was chosen rather than United, leaving it open to the possibility of a broader Union with other denominations. Some co-operating fellowships across the country have brought together Uniting/Baptist, Uniting/Lutheran, Uniting/Anglican and Uniting/Church of Christ congregations.
Each of the founding denominations was actively engaged in Community Service, both locally and in large-scale ventures. Notable examples were a Methodist minister who founded Epworth Hospital and a Presbyterian minister who established the Flying Doctor Service. This ethos has carried over into the Uniting Church, with the large organizations Frontier Services, Uniting, and Uniting AgeWell, as well as local community agencies, schools and hospitals.
The National Assembly, State-based Synods, regional Presbyteries and local Church Councils are all democratically elected and ensure local involvement.
Happy Birthday UCA.
The Trouble with the Trinity
Trinity Sunday, June 7th is an unusual “feast day”.
It doesn’t commemorate a saint or an event but a doctrine. And a difficult one at that.
Neither the word “Trinity” nor the explicit doctrine appear in the Bible, though there are many references to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
The Jewish religion, unlike most others, was emphatically monotheistic. There is only one God. But the early Christians were blessed with the resurrected Jesus and (after Pentecost) the Holy Spirit, and they were charged to “Make disciples of all nations…..in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Did they now have three Gods? Is the one God now divided into three persons? Is the Father the real God and the Son and Holy Spirit his creations? Or what?
During its first 300 years, the Church became quite divided on this issue, and after the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian (not for the right reasons) and decreed Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire, this divisiveness became a political concern. In 325 AD he called all the Bishops to a meeting in Nicea and banged their heads together (figuratively) to try and reach a consensus. 44 years later, the Emperor Theodosius convened the “Council of Constantinople” to finish the job. From these meetings we have the Nicene Creed and, were it not for the virus, would probably be reciting it at worship on June 7th.
In essence, the doctrine of the Trinity says that a) there is only one God, b) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons and c) each of these Persons is the whole of God. Not an easy concept to wrap one’s head around!
The former Congregationalists among us have a dislike of creeds and doctrines and would put more emphasis on the experience of God. We experience God in the wonders of the living creation of which we are a part, we experience God in the presence of those who live by the values and commitments of Jesus, and we experience God in the quiet times when we make ourselves available to him.
So on June 7th, perhaps we could embrace and celebrate the various times and ways in which we can experience God and not worry too much about the doctrine.
JOHN WESLEY – Founder of the Methodist Church (1703-1791)
Aldersgate Day, celebrated on 25th May, recognizes an event in the life of John Wesley.
It recalls the day in 1738 when he attended a group meeting in Aldersgate, London, where he experienced an assurance of his salvation. He embarked on an evangelical mission that lasted for 42 years.
In 1742 John Wesley published his doctrine of Christian Perfection, which provoked much debate over the next couple of centuries and Wesley`s teachings and preaching continued to attract more people. However, it also continued to upset the leaders in the Church of England. Wesley therefore came under great persecution wherever he went.During the 1750s through the 1760s, Wesley continued to build his “societies” of followers and developed schools and orphanages. His preaching and teaching took him throughout Britain, and his writings and publications were being read around the world by all social classes. Wesley wrote in such a way that the common man could understand what was being said.
This brought an understanding of God`s word to the common man, which ignited revival fires throughout the land. In 1784, Thomas Coke, a disciple under Wesley, was headed far America to oversee the “societies” there. Wesley ordained Coke and gave him a certificate as general superintendent of the Methodists in America, effectively beginning the Methodist denomination in America and formally splitting from the Church of England.
This statue of John Wesley
was presented to the church to mark
the centenary of Methodism in Victoria.
~~ Item from The Argus (Melbourne), 30 November 1935 ~~
On Thursday afternoon the life-size statue of John Wesley, presented to the Methodist Church to mark the centenary of Methodism in Victoria, will be unveiled by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia (Sir John Latham) in the grounds of Wesley Church, Lonsdale street. The statue, which is of bronze has been executed by Mr. Paul Montford and is the gift of the late Mr. F. J. Cato and M. E. A. Cato, his son. A short service will be held in the church
at 4.30 p.m., and the unveiling will take place at 5.15 p.m.
FOR MOTHERS DAY
In Isaiah 49: 15-16, God’s compassion is pictured as a mother who cannot forget her child – demonstrating God’s love as permanent, unforgettable and unconditional.
Mothers are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they are always there!
We have a chance to remember our mothers with thanksgiving, and also the special people in our lives who will always mean so much.
During this time of pandemic and quarantine, the boldness and beauty of Easter is so much more tangible. With its focus on new life, Easter brings hope and peace in the midst of the turmoil. The gospel reading for Sunday (Matthew 28:1-10) urges us, ‘do not be afraid.’ Covid-19 brings uncertainties, illness, loneliness, death, scarcity, and loss, but the boldness and beauty of Easter reminds us that ‘Christ is Risen’ and is with us always. It is our responsibility to incorporate into our lives the new life, the compassion, the empathy and the ways of Christ.
2020 Easter will be remembered for a long time because, while the church doors are closed, the heart of the Church continues to beat. There are no rituals and no gatherings for worship but people continue serving in new ways, and in unexpected and unanticipated circumstances.
God did not create the pandemic to teach us a lesson or punish us. However, a crisis of this nature forces each of us to reflect upon our journey of life and faith. This is a time for strengthening our faith in light of the good news of Easter.
In isolation, we are yearning to be back to normal. Which parts of ‘normal’ are worth returning to? Which parts of ‘normal’ would we rather get rid of? What have we overlooked? What have we taken for granted or assumed?
If we live our lives of faith as if nothing is a miracle, then we may see and experience more the presence of God within us and around us – peace in the midst of a pandemic.
May the Spirit of Christ, continue to dwell with us as our source of strength.
Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
Restoration of the Spirit. Ezekiel 37: 1-14
The familiar story of the valley of dry bones hits us with the reality of the Covid 19 Pandemic. While being in lockdown and isolation may be difficult, it could be a time to focus on the “restoration of the Spirit” – a process of a new birth of life or the birth of new life. A process of slowing down, taking a deep breath and remembering that the key to life is the ‘Spirit’. Without it, our flesh and blood is just existence. But with God’s Spirit there is life – fullness of life as Jesus said.
And there is no WHERE on earth, no WHEN in time and no WHAT in any situation, that can keep God’s Spirit away from God’s people.
While the world around us is changing, bringing uncertainty, a feeling of being completely cut off and of hopelessness, may this be a time when we discover anew the unchanging, calming, and peaceful presence of God’s Spirit within us. Being empowered by the Spirit, we are called to hope – indeed, to faith, hope and love.
Continue to look after yourselves and each other.
When Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, he entered the temple, a sacred space, the dwelling place of God – and he finds people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and money changers seated at their tables.
What Jesus sees automatically makes him shift gear into ‘prophetic mode’, speaking and acting God’s truth in chaotic situations. Jesus acts first and speaks after, his actions are those of an angry prophet. He drives out the cattle and sheep – but not the people. He overturns the boxes and tables of the money people – but does not touch people. The people had no intention of violating God’s purposes and would never knowingly oppose God. The practices are tolerated and encouraged by the temple authorities.
Jesus shifts our understanding of temple. He replaces the sacred space of a building with the temple of his body, replacing the sacrificial offer of animals with the sacrificial offering of his life. The sacred space is in us too and we are challenged to clean.
In this period of Lent, what clutter takes up all our temple space?
What distractions occupy our temple time and focus, causing us to miss out on what’s important?
We have the freedom of choice to clear our temple.
THE POWER OF ONE
One song can spark a moment,
One flower can wake the dream,
One tree can start a forest,
One bird can herald Spring.
One smile begins a friendship,
One handclasp lifts a soul,
One star can guide a ship at sea,
One word can frame the goal.
One vote can change a nation,
One sunbeam lights a room.
One candle wipes out darkness,
One laugh will conquer gloom
One step must start each journey,
One word must start each prayer.
One hope will raise our spirits,
One touch can show you care.
One voice can speak with wisdom,
One heart can know what’s true,
One life can make a difference,
You see, it’s up to you!
Fr Terry Bowman MSC
St Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church Blackburn
Reprinted with permission.
Called to Mission
Aging Gracefully is anything but …
Dealing with Grief
Fresh Expressions of Church and Mission
The Basis of Union
Compassion – Mothers’ Day
All Saints Day
The Lenten season
Where is Easter mentioned in the Bible