Friday, 27 March 2020

There Is a Scene ………

There is a scene in the movie Return of the King, based on the third volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn gives dead soldiers who deserted their king a chance to regain their honour and be restored to peace if they will help to defend the City of Kings which is under attack by evil powers. He enters a cave through a small crevice in the mountain. It is dark and the sound effects make it clear that this is not a pleasant place. He steps over piles of dry bones heaped up against the walls of the cave and it appears that these are nothing but dry skeleton bones. 

Suddenly, in the centre of a large room, these skeletal creatures begin to threaten, but they are not really alive. Aragorn offers them a chance to redeem themselves by making good on their pledge to defend good against evil, and to be a part of a community that will restore the kingdom.

The prophet Ezekiel has had a similar experience in this week’s Hebrew Scripture well known reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14. In a vision or dream, he is with God in a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to instruct the bones to listen to the Lord. Then God tells the bones that God will restore their bodies with muscle and flesh and give them breath, resurrecting them to life and knowledge that God is the Lord. God calls upon the four winds to bring life back into the bones and they are alive again. This powerful image of God’s Spirit being breathed into the bodies so that they may live brings us back to the creation story in Genesis.

God communicates with Ezekiel through a vision or dream. God needs Ezekiel to tell this story to the people of Israel. They have lost hope and are feeling disconnected from their relationship with God. God wants them to know that only God gives life and has the power to restore the community to fullness. It has a semblance of applying to our world today as we face the requirements asked of us to stop the spread of Covid-19. God wants Israel to know that feeling powerless and hopeless is a form of death that sucks the life out of them, creating despair. Ah and this is what we too meed to hold on to; But they can be restored if they will just be faithful. This vision of hope for the revival of their nation as the children of God comes from God’s word and Spirit alone.

Both of these stories are about restoration, not of individuals but of communities being redeemed. They both have a prophet who is the messenger to the people. They both reject death and trust the stunning freedom and power found when the whole community is restored to their call to action and faithfulness.

As we near the end of Lent, we are being reminded that God’s Spirit is the source of our life as a community. We are not only being prepared for Christ’s resurrection but our own. As we read the Gospel, we have to look beyond the obvious. This account of the resurrection of Lazarus seems strikingly similar to the account we will hear of Jesus resurrection in a few weeks. In fact, it is this story that precipitates the plot against Jesus and leads to his death and resurrection. Jesus acts, not on his own, but from God’s guidance and not at the urging of others. It is another account of life coming from God and no one else.

Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus in Bethany is ill. But Jesus does not go there for two more days and not until after the disciples remind him that Bethany is the place where the people wanted to stone him just a short time ago. Jesus takes the opportunity to tell the disciples that he will go there so that they might believe. He is the prophet in this story, and it is up to him to bring God’s message of life.
I will leave you to read what actually happens but as a part of our Lenten journey we are given yet another opportunity to walk a path toward restoration with Jesus. But we must walk that path as a community so that there may be a resurrection into new life. We are reminded that only God gives life. These stories give us hope that God will continue to give life even over death. Even in these times of pandemic that promise, and that hope is still valid.

We are living in a new time but first we must experience Easter. We can make some choices about how we get to Easter. We can choose not to focus on the things of the world that distract us and drain our life from us. We can choose to resist loving or accepting some more than others because they are different or think differently. We can deny those things that satisfy a sense of artificial power based on material things. We can choose to nurture a sense that we are individually more important than who we are together, as a family.

Or we can be restored by allowing the Spirit of God to give us life. We can choose to live as Jesus lived. We can live into our call to be a community of faith focused on the strength of our unity. We can give ourselves over to be restored by letting those things that separate us from God and each other die and be resurrected in Spirit to life as faithful believers.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Refreshed by Grace.

Over the years for Christians, even those on the fringe of Christianity, Lent has often been seen as a time of intense self-reflection. But self-reflection without understanding the power that God holds to make something beautiful of our clay vessels, our little lives, is to defy the power of the God of Love. According to the psalmist, in Psalm 23 set for this week, the valley of the shadow of death is where God is. It is in the presence of our enemies that a table is set, and, deep in our own muck, we are led beside the still waters.

According to the book of Samuel, again one of the scriptures for this week in our lectionary, God picks David, a young child, to fight Goliath and to be king of all Israel. And through that kingship, which has its times of horror and times of victory, God makes David the king Israel needed for the moment. In addition, in the Gospel of John, the blind man suffers consistently throughout his life because people look at him as deficient, as sinful, as someone not worthy. Self-reflection in all these cases would bring us to a place of despair, but in the hands of a good and merciful God? Something beautiful happens.

As human beings, we look at vulnerabilities as weaknesses, as those places that need to be thrown out or erased, denied, or refused. But it’s in our weakness and vulnerabilities that God reveals God’s self. It was in the choice of the smallest and youngest son that God revealed the king. It was in the valley of the shadow of death and in the presence of enemies that the poet knew that his God anointed him with the most fragrant oil and his cup ran over. And it was in the man’s blindness that the Holy One’s spit and a little mud helped him see in John 9.

But we live in a world where the expectation is that we are always and forever at the top of our game or we are punished. We live in a world where admitting our weakness is to admit defeat and to encourage harassment. We are in a world where we hide our hurt or we will be further damaged. We live in a world where panic and greed control which we have seen in the hoarding as people panic about the Covid-19 sickness the world is facing. And yet our God says, “It’s in our vulnerabilities that we find the grace” and that finding grace and mercy is the ultimate goal of human existence within the Christian faith.

John Wesley hoped we would become perfected but being perfected meant perfected in receiving and showing mercy, not in our perfection in a particular moral code or a sense of our own “doing it right.” That is the transformative power of the Christian faith. The ability to receive and swim through the muddy and spit-filled complexity of life with a merciful, loving creator.

And now a comment on the reading from John 9. The blind man could have been a “seeing” man—it is not the healing of the man’s blindness that is the ultimate experience Jesus hoped to address. The ultimate experience is God making us whole; God’s work is in making us whole. The one who was blind from birth was surprised by grace (there’s that word again), surprised by Jesus, shockingly loved and chosen, and his vulnerability became the place where the good news that he, too, was deeply loved was made manifest. To God, we are all the beloved. Each one of us is both beloved by God and the beloved to each other. It’s just sometimes we don’t recognise this or choose not to recognise this.

The real injury in the blind man’s life was the criticism from society, the damning from the religious leaders, and the selling out of his parents.  The ultimate holy experience, and one that is throughout scripture, is to experience God as one who does not see as mortals see—who does not see us in all the ways others have judged us, raced us, held us down, and been aggressively jealous or arrogant toward us. Yet it is facing those judgments, oppressions, imprisonments, jealousies, and arrogances, and reflecting and focusing on God’s love, grace, and mercy that will heal us.

The ultimate is that we are all yet beautiful, full, alive, living this life with the Spirit of God deep in our hearts. The ultimate is that God chose to birth us from love and mercy, continues to love and give us mercy every day of our lives, and, at the end of our life, will receive us into arms of love and mercy. The love of God is the grace given to us as we are created before we were born and continues with us throughout our lives.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Assumptions out of context.

There are usual suspects that possibly come first to our minds when reading this pericope in John 4 from the readings set for this week. Over the years, I’ve heard them all: the woman with five husbands, Jesus and the Samaritan, the adulterer turned evangelist and so on. None of these are bad but, frankly, they’re unoriginal, and over the years I have wondered if woman dread the references. It is difficult as a man but over recent years the growing societal non-acceptance of the treatment of woman within our society has caused me to think and I have begun to wonder how these portrayals were used in keeping woman from taking the role God calls them to in our communities and culture. But what if instead of looking at this passage as an indictment of this woman’s sexual lifestyle, we focus on the things not said.

I read about a great theologian, sister, who was mentor to many woman, Dr. Loida Martell-Otero, who said to someone once, “You have to learn to read scripture against the grain and discover the things that are not on the surface but below it.” In her former life, she was a veterinarian who dealt with large animals in Puerto Rico. She reminded those taught by her that when examining animals, veterinarians always run their hands against the grain of the animal’s skin and coat, slowly and methodically to see if they discover bumps and bruises that can’t be seen on the surface. What if we did the same here?!

If the woman’s reputation is so bad, that she has to come out to get water at a certain time of day, then how is it that instead of turning away from the conversation with Jesus, a man who is not a Samaritan, she instead engages with him in deep theological conversation as though she had every right to be there, defending her well and defending her way of worship? She never backs down from Jesus’s conversation and instead allows him to enter into her space so that he can discover things about her own life.

Another thing that I have pondered along with many is whether she indeed had such a bad standing with the community. How is it that upon her encounter with Jesus, she runs and tells the entire village and they follow her to come and see this man who has told her everything about herself? Sometimes we read a lot of our own biases into scriptural texts; there really is nothing in there that can confirm that she was an immoral woman, and it’s really not hard to do, given how we have been shaped to believe about women in general, especially in scripture. The harder task is to go against the grain and see her not through our eyes, but perhaps through Jesus’s. Do you know how incredible it feels when someone sees who you really are and recognises the value that you bring to this world? So, I wonder how that would be for woman. I think it would be as refreshing as a drink of living water.

In the current debate on violence against woman and our failure to protect and support woman in such situations it is certainly something to ponder. I have been concerned that continually parts of the church try to use scripture, sometimes subtly to hold power over woman. This path that leads to abuse and violence thus negates the way Jesus has shown and called us to in dealing lovingly and compassionately with each other, especially I our diversity.

 Just like Jesus, Moses finds himself in need of provision for the people who are in the middle of the wilderness called Sin (how’s that for a theme?). Water as an overall theme is an important spiritual symbol. Water is creative, and water is restorative. Water is destructive and can demolish, as we have seen in floods here in Australia and other places around the world. A lack of water to feed and nourish has also been part of our lives over this summer in Australia.

Water can also be a symbol of justice and righteousness, and the renewing peace of God that restores the strength of all people who are thirsty and seeking a way out of their own wilderness experience. If we are talking about the life-giving water that God can provide, we can be sure that with it comes change. Clearly the people who are arguing and fussing with Moses aren’t ready for the change, even though they had found themselves in the midst of slavery and oppression, but Moses hasn’t given up on them and neither has God.

I wonder if that’s why it is that they call it life-giving water. Is it because grace never runs dry? During this season of Lent, the challenge will be whether or not we allow this life-giving stream to transform and create in us a new heart and a new life. I would also like the leaders of the world including Australia to take note and take drastic measures to deal with climate change. Without water there is no nourishment and there is fire and death. A poignant reminder of the stewardship of creation we are called to by our loving God.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Primal Symbols that Call.

John’s Gospel begins with the primal symbols of darkness and light, and these are interwoven into descriptions of the physical settings of Jesus’s ministry as well as spiritual conditions. There is a difference between night and day, and John’s Jesus insists that the reader, the hearer, the believer must choose. There are no shades of grey in this test of discipleship or in this familiar text from John 3. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil.”  

William Temple wrote: “Don’t wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, perhaps so that he won’t be seen by his highly critical Pharisee brothers, but perhaps also in a state of intellectual or emotional obscurity. Cautious, concrete, literal-minded, entrenched in his beliefs and practices, Nicodemus is genuinely curious and humble in light of Jesus’ signs.

In his encounters with people, Jesus finds the weak spot as the locus of transformation. For Paul it is the mysterious “thorn” in his side. Paul begs God to remove it, but hears instead in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” For Peter, it is his threefold denial. After the Resurrection, Jesus will ask three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21). For Nicodemus, it is his knowledge: “How can?” “But?” Jesus meets the Pharisee’s literal-mindedness with a frustratingly wild metaphor. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus, a respected leader and teacher, comes under the cover of darkness to ask the hard question: “Is it possible that everything I know is wrong?” He clearly recognizes the signs of God in Jesus; he knows wisdom when he hears it, but that wisdom is making a fool of him. He’s an old teacher who is still hungry to learn, but he doesn’t expect to be demoted to preschool. Jesus doesn’t make it easy. He uses the one word for “birth,” anothen, that has two different meanings: “born again” or “reborn” and “born from above.” Nicodemus goes for the literal, turning the Spirit’s work into a laborious affair.

John’s Jesus is a code talker, using symbolic language to distinguish between those who are children of light and those who have chosen the shadowland. If we draw back from this dramatic staging between this teacher of the law and the One who is Wisdom, we can also hear the post-Easter community of John speaking to the religious authorities who were colluding with Rome to ostracise converts to Christianity. “I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony.”

Leaders like Nicodemus may be the spiritual guardians of the holy of holies, but they resemble the Romans trying to guard an empty tomb. “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It seems that Nicodemus doesn’t appreciates the lesson or the question. He simply slips away into the night, disappears from the Gospel scene.

But in the darkest moment for the followers of Jesus, Nicodemus shows up again. It is Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who anoint and wash Jesus’s body and prepare it with spices for burial. It’s an intimate and courageous witness. Near the Gospel’s end, Nicodemus steps out of the shadows into the public square of Rome’s empire and choses the Light.

The images of pilgrimage and the language of the Spirit’s new birth are linked in these scriptural texts in the season of Lent. Both present the reader/hearer/believer a choice. Do you trust the One who is the Way? Will you begin a pilgrimage of faith, filled with assurance of the God who guards and shelters? Have you been born by water and the Spirit?

Both scripture passages offer the believer life filled with assurance and the power of the Spirit. This theme of assurance connects this Lenten gospel and this psalm. Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Blessed Assurance” would provide the musical affirmation of faith in a trustworthy God and Jesus, the Christ. This is story filled with assurance of the God who guards like a mother and shelters like a father. This is the song of a child of God, an “heir of salvation” in and through Christ. We are “born of his spirit” and this is our story and our song.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Seek to be a Means of Grace.

The book of Genesis offers deep metaphors for the season of Lent, a season of reflection, repentance, and renewal. These passages teach a timeless lesson on God’s provision and desire for deep communion with humanity. These verses also shine a light on the destructive consequences of egotism and selfishness.

One of those metaphors’ states; that when God breathed God’s pneuma into dust and placed those souls in the garden, a full and perfect relationship of love, communion, and trust was created. Through the gifts of collaboration and community, they were empowered to be in relationship with creation, to tend and enhance creation. The equilibrium and sacredness of the garden was interrupted when humanity succumbed to the temptation of self-aggrandizement over against complete trust in and reliance on God.

A forest of shame borne of the seed of selfishness then separated humanity from full communion with their creator. What selfish motivations are wreaking havoc in our personal lives, churches, and communities? Where have we given sway to egotism over an abiding communion with God? How might our lives be more peaceful and fruitful if we resisted destructive temptations?

In our postmodern Christian discernment, there is often a tension between whether sin or love is the overarching message of our faith. Genesis offers a both or and response. God is love, and yet the depth and breadth of God’s love cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the presence of sin. Perhaps our disdain for acknowledging sin rests in the failure to tell the rest of the story. After acknowledging their actions, God does not respond with consequences alone; rather, God also continues to offer provision. How can we fully explore the message of Genesis without the overworked either/or analysis?

Lent offers a precious opportunity for Christians and non-Christians to reexamine what is creation and/or God’s intent for creation, to earnestly repent of our sins and failures and renew our covenant. As we journey these forty days and nights, the beloved community has the opportunity to become the church God envisioned. Those who are the beloved, that is all of creation is enabled to seek God’s vision for the world. As we do, the church then becomes the place where others who are broken can find wholeness. Those seeking deliverance, healing, hope, and love can experience the transformative inertia of the church’s blessing.

The themes of temptation, trust, and humility are highlighted in this week’s reading from Matthew 4. In juxtaposition to the actions and attitude in the garden, the writer of Matthew illustrates the faithfulness of Christ as he humbly relied upon God and God’s word and revelation. Even in his starvation, Christ demonstrates the strength inherent in feasting upon every word of God rather than the empty words of humanity. Another prescient theme to be explored is the problem of half-truths. How did knowing the fullness of God’s word enable Jesus to withstand temptation? What strength can be drawn from the humility of relying on God’s word as we wrestle with the demons in our lives?

I’d like to share the following from a recently written article by a friend Andrew Semple. He wrote:

“The early church was a movement that had diversity both in organisation and practice; unique on the one hand, but a mixture of influences principally from Judaism, but also from Greek philosophy, Greco-Roman paganism, and a number of ‘mystery’ religions on the other. It did not have a singular form, nor was there an ideal structure upon which each community was based - that structure emerged later along with the statements of faith. Baptism, however, was the sign of becoming part of the church and a way of being welcomed into God’s family. While the Eucharist became the sign of participation in the life of the church and the exercise of personal membership of it.

Diversity within the church resonates with St Paul’s ‘body image’ in 1 Corinthians. It also sits comfortably within the ‘mixed economy’ model of church presented by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (‘Making the mixed economy work’ - 6 May 11). Diversity is good for the church because it allows many people to participate in it and belong to it.

The church is meant to ‘be’ the body of Christ in the world, acting in Christ’s name to ‘do’ those things that bring justice and righteousness. Sadly, ‘being’ and ‘doing’ often end in conflict if one dominates the other. Rather, we are meant to be a little bit of both – the church is meant to both ‘be’ and ‘do’; one cannot exist without the other.”

He goes on to remind us of the transformational community the Church is to be.     ‘…to be a transformational community built on the love of God and worked out in the ministries of word, sacrament and incarnation’.

“The church is also meant to be prayerful (that is, be in communication with God), while pursuing those things about which it prays. In other words, we should not pray for the poor if we are not going to be generous, we should not pray for peace if we are not going to condemn conflict and violence, we should not pray for refugees if we are not going to show hospitality to them, and so on. We should therefore not claim to be ‘the church’ if we are not going to be
a means of bringing God’s grace and salvation into the lives of others. Telling people to leave the church mitigates against this position.”

I will leave you with these thoughts for Lent’s beginning as we all work out our response to the love of God and the work the Church is called to.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Smudge of Change.

For many years, I questioned in my mind the practice of donning ashes at the start of Lent as it seemed, to me, to be at odds with Jesus’ exhortation to perform our spiritual disciplines in secret. For many, that will be the only time of the year when we make a public spectacle of our repentance, perhaps even our faith. As I grew up, it wasn’t a discipline observed in my particular Anglican upbringing. However, the first time I did participate in this ritual, having ashes placed on my forehead by a beloved Anglican mentor, I was so moved by the experience that I vowed to seek the opportunity to participate in or make this observance accessible wherever I ministered.

There is something in the donning of ashes that speaks of change for us and the world around us—a symbol of change that needs to be publicly displayed and not hidden away behind locked doors. The dark smudge on my forehead feels dry and grainy. Felt cool and damp as it was placed there. Already it has changed. I found the following from a service written in an article by Jenee Woodard that helps state what it means.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Dry, sobering words. God forbid that any should forget their humble beginnings or equally humble, inevitable end summed up in a smudge of ash!
Sobering if that were all:
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. But, there’s more. In those ashes lies not just a salutary reminder but an exhortation —
a call to turn from sin and live out the gospel, an affirmation that, from those humble beginnings, we are called to great things.
Turn from sin and live out the gospel transforming the dirty smudge on my forehead into an aspiration of service changing its weight and import into a sign of hope that this ancient holy day ritual still has import.
In a world rushing on to the next thing ashes become symbols of love carrying all the potential to spread love as the gospel is lived out in ordinary people
in humble people who don ashes to change the world.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Light of Experience.

When thinking about the Gospel reading for the Transfiguration from Matthew 17, I began to think about mountain experiences. Things happen on mountains. When I was younger growing up in Aotearoa (New Zealand) I spent a lot of time in the mountains and hills with family or friends. Sometimes we would be out for up to a week. When you go into the hills and mountains in Aotearoa you need to be careful and prepared for all types of weather and condition. You also have to trust, build fellowship and care about those with you. Sometimes I went with just one person and sometimes with a good number.

One trip we were hiking from Glenorchy at the top of Lake Wakatipu. We set out from Glenorchy and walked into the start of the Routeburn Track.  The next day albeit overcast we walked to the Harris Saddle expecting to camp out somewhere near there. As we got there though and rested for a crashing storm tracked its way across the mountains until it arrived at the Saddle where we were with brilliant lightning, booming thunder, slashing rain and then snow. Initially we huddled in fear and awe at the power and for me of our God made manifest in this display of creation.

That was a singular weather event in all my years on the mountains We then quickly made our way despite a minor injury to my walking partner to the next shelter/hut at Lake McKenzie. Boy was I glad of the companionship and support of my friend despite his injury. We pushed hard through the rain that had set in and arrived at Lake McKenzie before dusk. There were a couple of people already in the hut. We were delighted to find others there as we were concerned about getting support if things with my friend got worse. We expressed our gratitude at arriving at a nice warm hut, a cuppa and then we all prepared a nice warm meal.  

Before eating, in the quiet of our surroundings I expressed my thanks and gratitude to myself for the experience together we had and our safety despite the conditions. While in those mountains I was reminded of the story of transfiguration — of the notions of being changed from the inside out and prayers that this glow, this obvious work of the Spirit, this being kept safe despite the experience would transfer back to where we had come from. I was reminded that coming out of the normal often allows for these “mountaintop experiences.”

The transfiguration of Jesus is seen as a divine light that emanated from his body that revealed to the disciple’s truths, they had not understood through Jesus’s words alone. Jesus knew they would not be able to comprehend the resurrection, so they were provided with the unforgettable visual teaching method. The hardest lessons that we learn in life stay with us because we witness them with our eyes. As humans, we believe what we see and not what others see for us. Jesus knew that the coming events of his suffering, death, and resurrection would become the “good news” throughout eternity if told through the eyes and memory of the disciples.

So, the question I reflect on these days is, “How does this sense of belonging, this bond of acceptance, this trusting of each other, this trusting of God, this unconditional love and non-judgment become the norm in our lives every single day, no matter where we are?” Our prayer always was, “How do we become the bearers of goodness, mercy, and love that transfigures each and every space we enter?” This is a critical message for our bodies of Christ gathering to hear a rallying cry in our houses of worship. Transfigured through mountaintop experiences, we go to shine in a world of dimness.

Exodus 24 the Hebrew Scripture set for the Transfiguration Feast talks of how rules affect our lives. In a world of ambiguity and vague language, how do we translate rules written in stone for our daily lives? Ethical decision-making with a lens that sees and considers the broader impact of what we say and do is much needed in our world. Can our churches be places that not only encourage this but teach and demonstrate it? In what ways are the Ten Commandments a guide or a hindrance to decision-making in this day and age?