Friday, 14 August 2020

So, Let Us Take A Walk.

Do you believe in Santa Claus? How about the Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy?

Children do. Have you ever noticed they have tremendous, unquestioning faith? If they are told that Santa exists, they will believe, and their belief will be reinforced year after year by the presents under the tree, In the case of the Easter Bunny, the eggs in a basket every year are the reinforcement. Where the Tooth Fairy is concerned, that dollar appearing mysteriously under the pillow, replacing the lost tooth, will reinforce belief. Even when they are old enough to suspect that the person who ate the cookies and milk on Christmas Eve was really dear old Dad, they are reluctant not to believe for fear that the presents may stop appearing. In their developing minds, they grasp for the reality of things hoped for and therefore trust in persons, or rabbits, or fairies they cannot see.

That is what faith is, the surety of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen.

To a child, faith is limited by an immature view of the world. A child cannot comprehend that the gifts hoped for and received, are really the manifestation of the love of God as shown through the love of parents. But as a child matures, his or her faith matures. In fact, for most of us faith is an ever-changing part of our psyche. As people of faith, we anticipate it will grow, and it generally does. However, that growth is not steady, and all too often is limited by a finite world-view unable to totally comprehend our infinite God.

We have stories of faith in today's readings. One of those we have is the impetuous Peter whose faith was, more often than not, in need of water wings.

Peter's faith, at best, wavered. In fact, during Jesus' earthly ministry, it waffled all over the place. It was rash. It was impetuous. When he saw Jesus walking on the water, Peter was not sure who was actually doing that amazing thing. He yelled out, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water." Jesus replied, "Come!" Peter immediately began walking across the sea, but lost heart in the face of the wind and waves. He began to sink, so Jesus reached out his hand and saved him.

Such actions were common with Peter. Remember his confession. Jesus was walking with the disciples and asked, "Who do men say that I am?" "Some say Moses, or Elijah, or John the Baptist."

"But who do you say that I am?" Peter blurts out, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God."

Jesus responds, "Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah [Peter's Hebrew name], for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." Jesus then said he was going to Jerusalem where he would be arrested, tortured, and killed; then in three days he would rise from the grave. Peter blurted out, "God forbid, Lord. I shall never let that happen to you." To which Jesus replied, "Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me."

I wonder who has the stronger faith from amongst those we find talked about in our scriptures. Is Peter one of those with a strong faith or does he have the strongest faith? Probably it was one of the Hebrew scripture characters like Jonah. His faith never wavered, even in the belly of that great fish. But Peter had an insight into something which Jonah totally lacked-a glimpse into the infinite power and love of our God. And that stood Peter well. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, which buttressed Peter's faith just as Jesus' hand had supported him on the water, Peter was able to step out in faith and preach the Gospel without fear, even though a martyr's death was ever before him.

What does all this mean to us? Most of us have the wavering faith of Peter. That's OK. The church was built by legions of people over the centuries, all in need of water wings. We are the architects of the new millennium. Thankfully we have something that Jonah, and even Peter, never had. Through the lens of the Resurrection, we have the assurance of the infinite power, love, and forgiveness of our God. We know that every time we step out of the boat, Jesus' hand will be there to keep us afloat.

So, let's take a walk.


Friday, 7 August 2020

Depth of The Gift.

In the Christian Church, the season of Pentecost is a time of explanation, a time of gradual but astounding revelation. The readings for this season try to explain to the people of God who have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of the Lord, the vastness, the depth of the gift they have been given and the deep resonance of it in their lives and in the lives of those with whom they share the gift.

Scripture is full of the natural elements of our world that we all know and experience in our lives -- earth, air, fire, and water. Since we all have some experience of each of these elements in intimate, daily, personal ways, they can provide amazing keys to our understanding of the God that created them -- and us.

This week we encounter water -- and vividly -- in all its dimensions. We know that Jesus' first disciples were fisherman, people who risked their lives on the water and drew their sustenance from the water. Water is essential to human life, we all know that, and it was an especially sharp reality for the people of the Holy Land, where water was frequently in short supply and very precious indeed. There was also something mystical and frightening about the precious element. 

It could be the water of Baptism. It gave you, your life -- but it could also drown you! It sustained you in the desert, but the hidden creatures of its ocean depth might swallow you whole, as was the case with Jonah in his encounter with the whale, the great leviathan. What delivered the doubting Jonah from the depths? His anguished call to God for help when he was sunk deep below the waves in the belly of the whale.

Matthew's Gospel tells one of the most famous of all the stories about Jesus and how he explained the transcendent power of faith to his disciples -- disciples who were charged with going out to the world to preach his message (a perilous business at best). The disciples were at sea in rough waters and Jesus walked out to them, showing them that the faith that he embodied could overcome the natural world, its rules, and its deepest fears. If you read just beyond today's Gospel, you will see how Peter, that most humans of the disciples, faltered in his belief when he tried to repeat Jesus' amazing act of walking on the water. "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"

These stories we read in Pentecost are really about the act of belief itself. Real belief must rise above the earthly, the everyday, even the logical. Logic would say that no one could walk on the rolling waves. But Jesus did walk on the water because his belief was absolute, and, more important, he showed his disciples, those people who would have to endure many hardships and even death in his name, what their faith could do, what their faith could overcome.

In fact, the evolving Gospel story is about, on an even deeper level, the way in which the coming of Jesus, his death, and resurrection, changed utterly what we might once have believed were the "facts of our lives." We were to be new people living in a new world. And the writers of the Gospels had a very keen sense of how people might be led to understand the mysteries of the faith.

Certainly, from humankind's earliest days on earth, water and the journey over and through water, have been central to our understanding of our place in the world. From the days of the ancient world, the cycles of our life and experience have been told in terms of perilous journeys on water.

But the Christian message is different from that of the Norse legends and the Greek epics in one important way: it tells us we can and must move beyond and above the world we know and its restrictions and, with faith, enter into the domain of perfect freedom. Our faith must allow us to walk on the disturbed waters of life and it must save us from the depths of the sea when we fall.

 One of the greatest American writers of the 19th century, Herman Melville, knew a lot about the sea and what it stood for. Both his English and his Dutch forebears had strong links to the sea. As a young man he had shipped out on an American whaler, and he spent the rest of his writing life using the experiences he had on that and subsequent voyages to explain what he knew or intuited about the ways of God and men and women. Moby Dick, his allegorical novel about the sea and its potential for destruction and salvation, is full of the fearful music of Scripture, as it reflects the tempests and calms of the sea.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Meeting God Where You Are.

Sooner or later God meets us where we live. For crafty, scheming, heel-grasping Jacob, whom we hear about in this week’s readings from the lectionary, Genesis 32, that meant God’s getting down into the mud and blood of this earth and quite literally wrestling with the man who had devoted his life to getting ahead by being stronger and smarter than his every opponent. Jacob wrestled with Esau in the womb, wrestled with Esau out of the womb.

Next Jacob wrestled with his father, Isaac, and then for about two decades had an ongoing wrestling match with his uncle– cum– father-in-law, Laban. God had stayed with Jacob through all that and even had made some pretty big promises to him at a place dubbed Bethel. But what Jacob did not yet know is what a lot of us are often slow to realize: the best things in life come by grace alone. The old self— the scheming, live-by-your-wits, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap self— has to die and only then can God bring us the blessing of a new identity. Jacob became Israel.

In Christ we become children of God. Who knows what our particular Jabbok River will be— we all have a different “Jabbok,” a different place of “Peniel” where we see God’s own face and discover the glorious truth that grace alone ushers us into God’s wonderful light. But God is as relentless as God is gracious and if we now live as children of the light, we can know for sure that our life is a sheer gift.

We live in a world of death, and this was a fact that crashed in on Jesus with peculiar force after hearing of John the Baptist’s brutal beheading. John’s death was so senseless, the result of a boozy, lusty, thoughtless offer by a corrupt king. So, Jesus withdraws to another place of death— a lonely wilderness spot— only to be followed by masses of people hungry for Jesus’s words and soon enough only plain hungry physically. But where Jesus goes, life follows (as Isaiah predicted). So, when the people had eaten and were satisfied, they perhaps sensed that life is grace— in the wilderness but always. If we manage to find life in a world of death, it is all grace.

Once a person discovers the truth that God alone gives life by grace alone (as Paul did the day, he stopped being Saul), then that person begins having a lifelong love affair with the gospel that reveals that grace. Once you have eaten the heavenly manna only God can give— the bread you cannot buy with money as Isaiah said— you want to share it with the whole world. For Paul in Romans 9, that meant sharing it with his fellow Jews who had not yet come to recognise Jesus as the Christ. Paul was so desperate to see also them fed that he said he would go to hell himself if that is what it took to get more people to take a seat at Jesus’s banquet table. Curiously, that actually is what Jesus did to accomplish that very goal.

I recall a story that I once heard of a brand-new seminary graduate, who had just returned home from his studies and invited to lead an adult education class in his home parish. Still riding high on his wave of celebration, and very much aware of himself as a "master" of divinity studies, he began to hold forth in a session on the story of Jonah. "In my exegesis of this pericope, I found no empirical justification whatever for a substantive faith in the notion that a human being could be ingested by a whale and survive. However, our efforts to spiritualize this foundational myth yield great promise for deeper theological and hermeneutical exploration."

Whereupon the recent graduate's grandmother, who was sitting in the back row, sucked her teeth and hissed under her breath, "Lord, you sent the boy to school, and he comes back here a fool. Anybody knows that it doesn't matter whether Jonah got swallowed by a whale, a goldfish, or a guppy -- the story is still true."

This week’s readings leave us like the that seminarian -- challenged to look beyond the limits of what we think we know, to find the truth underlying another miraculous event in the account of the Scriptures. In Matthew, Jesus starts out with two fish and five little loaves of bread, just enough food to feed one person for one day of travel. By the time he had finished blessing this small offering of food for the needs of the people, it is enough to feed thousands, with food to spare.

The very notion boggles the modern mind -- but not those people who read the story through the eyes of faith. For people like the grandmother in our story, the rich truth of this Gospel parable is summed up in the lyrics of the Gospel hymn writer: "God chooses ordinary people...and little becomes much when it's placed in the Master's hands." Interesting for us to reflect upon. So do we meet God where we are and do we allow our God to meet us there.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Finding Value in What Others Overlook.

Have you ever been somewhere they make the most wonderful and unique dish? Like many other places in Australia there are a variety of bakeries and shops in the small towns nestled among the winding roads around New South Wales. They sell all sorts of pies, but I have to admit I’m very fond of a curry pie. But what I find best is when they use a local ingredient such as seeds, they waste in a vineyard. It makes sense, especially given all the vineyards in the Hunter region of NSW. So, I wonder to myself if anyone had thought of making a wine pie just on its own?

Vineyards are everywhere. Rows and rows of grape vines next to rows and rows of other crops. So neat and orderly looking – quite pretty. Quite predictable, except for the weeds, of course. You never know where or when they’re going to show up. Just like we can never predict how the Kingdom of God will show up.

Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed that Jesus tells us about in this week’s Gospel from Matthew 13. What we may not know today, but what the early listeners would have most likely understood, is that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed. Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that will constantly and inevitably keep growing and spreading. Have you ever seen ivy on an old house, taking it over completely? Now there’s a visual. That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

But that’s the endgame. Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny. The Kingdom of God starts small and unnoticeable. But when the Kingdom comes into its own, it is everywhere, and you can’t miss it. We are part of that growth, part of that kingdom, whether anyone recognizes us for what we are or not. The most important thing is that God knows.

Jesus does not stop there in our gospel lesson today. He gives even more parables – more stories of ordinary things that possibly have extraordinary meanings. Parables like these are meant to be wrestled with.

So, what else do our parables tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven? It says in the gospel that it is like yeast that a we mix with flour to make huge amounts of dough – enough for an entire feast. In Jesus’ time, leavening was something that people understood in scripture as unclean or evil. Unlike the convenient packets of dried yeast, we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients. The Kingdom of Heaven is being modelled after something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life. And yet, God makes it good.

The Kingdom of Heaven is also like a treasure hidden in a field that makes a person sell all they have in order to buy the field that the treasure is in. It is like a pearl of great price that makes the merchant sell all he had in order to have just that one pearl. How valuable is the Kingdom of Heaven? What would you give up everything to possess? Would possession be worth the sacrifice?
The Kingdom of Heaven in your part of God’s vineyard is like …. You fill in the blank.

What is valuable in God’s Kingdom, others may see as junk. How often do we who are Christians buy into the attitude that on Sundays we carry Jesus in our pocket and take him out for a while, only to put him back in as soon as we leave the parking lot? We get settled in our daily lives the rest of the week and forget whom it is we follow. We might think, “Oh I’m just part of a little church. We can’t do much, so why bother?” Why bother indeed? Except that God bothers. Then God asks us to bother more than we want.

Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom starts out small like a mustard seed and grows into a tree that shelters and nurtures life around it. When that small mustard seed starts growing, it has an advantage, because it can grow in and around the landscape, sheltering those beneath it and giving a place to perch for those above it. This, too, is how the gospel is spread in neighbourhoods where churches discern which leaf to unfurl in their present landscape. A little branch here, a little branch there, and suddenly the place is alive with people in the neighbourhood being nurtured by the spread of the gospel.

God’s gifts are unexpected, but they are so vast that they require a response. Do we give up our self-centred attitudes and everything else for the Good News of the gospel? That’s a question that will take a lifetime to answer and is easier said than done. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with the section of God’s Kingdom that we’ve been given. Even right now, we are in flux – we don’t know what the future holds for the church. But even in that unknowing, we have an advocate – the Holy Spirit – that helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

We are called to trust God. The God that uses what others think is unusable. The God that calls us to love others with reckless abandon. The God that sees in us what others cannot see. By living this way, we become of what the Kingdom of Heaven is made.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Which do we Feed?

In a classic strip of the famed “Peanuts” newspaper cartoon, Lucy explains to her little brother Linus about the existence of good and evil. She tells him that he, like others, have inside these two forces. Linus looks at his stomach with a distressed look on his face and declares, “I can feel them in there fighting.” Humorous, but true.

In this week’s gospel reading from St Matthew 13, we find Jesus telling a parable that uses a similar image – good wheat and evil weeds, fighting it out in a farmer’s field. It’s also the same story in whatever newspaper or On-line News any of us read this morning – good and evil fighting it out in the world. There is a force at every level of existence that works against what is good and what is God. There is a force that seeks to destroy the loving nature of creation.

There is a force that exerts every effort to suck the lifeblood out of everything that promotes prosperity and health and hope and peace and joy. Throughout the ages, the faithful have personified this sinister force by many names: Satan, the devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer, or “the evil one.” By whatever designation we choose, its intent, its nature, is to un-make what God has created and to deface, distort, and destroy whatever good it may latch onto, as it eats away at it with parasitic intensity.

So, the parable from this week’s scripture, Jesus gives us an illustration of the power of the evil force that can invade every aspect of life. Jesus says simply that the weeds came from an enemy, the devil, the evil one. “An enemy of God” is as good an answer as we will ever find for the source of that which works against God.

Though we Christians and many others in the rest of the world renounce the evil that the weeds represent, we also recognise something else in our lives. We see that our lives, like the field in the parable, grow with evil intertwined among the grace, love, and godly obedience that we promise to trust and employ in our Christian living. And we know from experience that no matter how intent we are to follow our vows, none of us will ever totally avoid the corrupting influences and tempting thoughts that lead us to go against the values of God.

Maybe that’s what makes so many of us anxious to do something, anything, about perceived forms of evil in our close communities and in the wider world. Seeing with what we assume is a crystal-clear view of what is good and what is evil, we move ahead, absolutely certain that we are right and just in eradicating what seems obviously ungodly.

But history shows how often this is folly. Any number of “witch hunts” reveal that they were more about making the hunters feel secure than actually doing something about evil. Still, we often have a strong urge, when threatened and fearful, to find something to cut out, weed out, push down, crush, or otherwise stop and destroy. Should we not admit that this kind of behaviour often simply functions as an escape from a more complex reality? This truth is hard to accept, as we find Jesus telling us something we really don’t want to hear. Jesus suggests we wait to let the nature of the godly prosper and prevail in due course. Profoundly, Jesus is leading us to cease chasing after the bad, and rather concentrate on the good.

So, we are left, finally, with a teaching that we would do best by paying less attention to the weeds – the evil in life – and simply staying away from it. Better for us to spend more time tending the wheat – the good in life – fostering its growth and putting it to use as Jesus would have us do, following the values of God’s Kingdom.

Like Linus of the Peanuts cartoon, we certainly recognize in ourselves and in the complex workings of the world in which we live the conflict that Linus experienced as a fist fight in his gut. Yet in the unlikely teaching of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus leaves us with a counterintuitive approach to dealing with this anxiety. What it means to respond in this way to any evil. In the conventional wisdom of the world, the teaching of this parable seems crazy and impossible.

Yet we know that it is possible from studying the leadership of those like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who chose not to tear at the weeds, but to nurture the wheat. They learned what they practiced from our Christ. Jesus reminds us, too, that those who choose to use the sword ultimately die by the sword. Indeed, at the decisive moment of his ministry, Jesus left the ultimate exclamation point on the meaning of today’s parable.

Dying on the cross, he did not seek to destroy his enemies who sowed the lethal seeds that choked out his life. Rather, he forgave them. He looked to God to sort it out in the end. And we can – in the best moments of living this life, faithfully look to the end of the passion story – discover that the power of the Resurrection which proves the truth of the parable of the wheat and weeds. In so doing, we will recommit ourselves to leaving the weeds to God. In so doing, we will, in ourselves and in the world around us, turn all our hearts and souls to nurturing the wheat that God has given us.

Friday, 10 July 2020

What Kind of Farmer?

So, this farmer went out with a bunch of seeds. And he scattered them far and wide. Some fell on the road, so the Emus ate them. Some fell on the red rock; those seeds sprouted quickly, but their roots didn’t go very deep. They withered and died in the blazing sun, and the remains were trampled by foxes. Some fell in the dry and thorny weeds; those seeds never had a chance. And some of those seeds fell on rich, fertile soil and grew forth abundant harvest.

That farmer must have lived in Victorian Desert. Many of us learned some version of this story when we were very small. As one of the Elders said, “It’s so rich and visual, you can just see the flannel board.” Even if you didn’t grow up in a faith community, you’ve probably heard a secular translation. These images can be easily applied to academics, business, family life, investment— any of which a preacher could incorporate for a particular context.

But for you Christians now, go back in time for a minute. You’re five years old, and your Sunday school teacher says, “Now, children, which kind of soil do you want to be?” The answer is clear . . . the good soil. (“Jesus” might also be a correct answer, as Jesus is the appropriate answer to any question asked in a children’s sermon). Yes, we want to be the good soil. Now go back and sit quietly with your parents and listen— be good soil— and God will grow something beautiful in your heart.

Hey, don’t pull your sister’s hair in church. And that twenty cents I just gave you is for the collection plate.

Anyway . . . it is a true and important message, that we need spiritual practices to make us “fertile soil” for God’s word and God’s will in our lives. Prayer. Scripture. Kindness and generosity. These things will make us the kind of ground where good things happen. If you wish to live a Christian life and follow Jesus’ way of life then compassion, love, forgiveness, generosity, friendship are all things that are to be strived to live by in our journey of faith.

But maybe now, as grownups, we need to think also about what kind of farmers we want to be.

The right answer, of course from my point of view, is the New Zealand kind (because of the climate). You want to farm in New Zealand where the “corn tops ripe and the meadows in the bloom,” and the wheat grains are plump and ripe, and the tomatoes are really tomatoes, and the strawberries are crayon-red, and a five-minute run to the garden is all the dinner prep you need. That’s what kind of farmer you want to be.

But the facts of life are, most of us are farming in the Desert. Metaphorically speaking, of course. In the desert, you have to scatter your seeds— the gospel potential life and growth— far and wide.

Because in reality, much of what you have is going to land in a barren place. It might look green enough right now . . . but wait till January and see where the sun hits. See what other-terrestrial bugs and reptiles and rodents come crawling out at night to graze. See what a few months of no rain does to that promising corner of the garden.

But there . . . just over there, that spot so utterly desolate and dry? There, exactly, is where the wildflowers come up singing. Where the winter grass pops up in June after just one hard rain. Where the cactus has been storing water, all year long, for just such a time as this.

You don’t know where your stuff is going to land. In ministry, in relationships, in business, in art. The landscape of our every day is broad and varied. If you want life to emerge from what you have in your hand, you’ve got to toss it far and wide and generously, and trust God for the growth. This applies to all of the society, to anyone who would explore and live the faith journey our God calls us to.

That’s what kind of farmers we want to be, if we are people of faith. We’ve got to sow generously, knowing that we are letting go of much more than what we hold in our hand. In good faith, we let go of our possessions, our agenda, and all expectations of “where the good soil is.” We let go, and watch in awe, as God takes our small seeds of faith and transforms them . . . ten, twenty, one hundred times over.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Humility brings Freedom.

It hurts so deeply because we love so deeply. These words are uttered time and again in reference to the pain of separation. The words drip with truth and yet only scratch the surface of the anguish that accompanies separation from a beloved. When one reads letters between soldiers and their loved one, the raw emotion and tenderness leap from the page. In our Hebrew Scriptures that is how the Song of Songs is often understood, a dialogue between two very intimate partners. Even when understood as allegory, the verses resist timidity.

This kind of rapturous intimacy is often missing when we discuss our relationship with God. There is often a distance, a kind of stoic admiration from afar. And yet, our deepest longing is for intimacy with our creator; to know and be known at an intimate level. We speak so highly of our friends the mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, and yet we rarely engage the book most given to mystical interludes. Why do we run from it? Who taught us to remain distant from the one who is love and created us in love? What is sacrificed in not knowing God more deeply?

 A female as protagonist is found only in Song of Songs. While controversial among some theologians, for those unafraid to engage, it can provide a critical perspective on gender equality and enlighten our understanding of gender roles and masculine normativity. What pathways do engage that female voice open up to us? In the wake of #MeToo and the deconstruction of unequal physical agency, especially among those marginalised in our society, how might this scripture inform and reform our social norms?

 In our “McLives,” (Macdonald Golden Arches fame type of lives) we are often racing to get somewhere, racing to be on time for another meeting, racing to deliver our children to their practices before running laps is required for tardiness. In these fast-paced lives we often rush through what should be important interactions and thoughtful conversations. This includes our prayer lives. With the popularity of movies like War Room, the notion of a prayer closet has been reintroduced. The ancestors often spoke of tarrying in the spirit to “have a little talk with Jesus and tell him all about our troubles.” The delight the author takes in seeing her beloved come near is borne of a deep longing to be in one another’s presence. That level of joy is not birthed in quick exchanges. In our over-scheduled lives, is time with God on the calendar?

So often Christianity or religion in general is eschewed as being too demanding, placing a heavy burden upon believers. In some circles there is the thought that life as a Christian is too confining or restrictive. We are all so staid, dour miserable and wowsers it is said. These criticisms are derived from a belief that old friends and familiar places will have to be sacrificed on the altar of piety. Yet the verses in Matthew 11:28-30 are the very antithesis of burden.

One translation reads, “My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” The writer of Matthew from this week’s scripture informs the reader that humble submission to God actually brings freedom and a way to lighten the load. Unlike the yoke of oxen, which is heavy and conjures images of being forced to work hard in the heat of the day, the yoke of Christ is love and companionship. As the Lord’s Prayer illustrates so beautifully, those who walk with Christ want for nothing. Do our lives witness to Christ as burden-bearer?