Friday, 15 June 2018

What Grows?

As we prepare to visit Vietnam for a couple of weeks and I am unsure if I will be able to put up a blog I began to think about agriculture, Jesus and parables instead of our reliance on technology etc. Maybe it had something to do with the importance of wherever you go of food production and how that every day life relates to our inner life. It is often from images of creation that we get insights to strengthen our inner journey and put us in touch with our spiritual journey.

Jesus taught the crowds using parables. In our parables for this week from Mark 4, we see that Jesus used every day agricultural language to talk about God. In the first parable, he speaks of someone scattering seeds and watching them begin to grow. If you have ever planted a vegetable garden, you know how amazing it is to watch how the seeds come up, begin to grow, and eventually produce a harvest. It is something I had the joy of when younger and my father set aside part of our quarter acre section for each of us to plant and grow.

We don't know exactly why it grows or how it grows, but somehow the earth produces the harvest, and we are able to reap what was sown. In the second parable, Jesus speaks of a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds on earth, and so some might expect that the harvest from the smallest seed would be very small as well. However, Jesus says that from the smallest seed, the mustard bush becomes one of the greatest of all shrubs. It puts forth large branches and all of the birds of the air make nests from its shade.

We also her that Jesus explained in private. If we could have access to the private explanations Jesus gave to the disciples, surely there would be less confusion and more understanding. If we could just have a private tutoring session with Jesus, wouldn't we understand God's hopes and dreams for us just a little better? Since we don't have access to the private meetings where Jesus "explained everything," we simply do our best with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost suggests to us that the Holy Spirit is present and active in our world. God does not abandon God's people, and the Holy Spirit is always available to us. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit gives us power to do ministry in Jesus' name and to speak the truth about God's love. In these two seed parables, we learn about that which seems to have been the most important topic for Jesus, the kingdom of God.

First, we learn that there is mystery to the kingdom. Some of us do not like mystery in our lives. We want order and structure, and we want to be in control. However, we are reminded that God is sovereign and works in God's own way and timing. While we may see in other teachings that God desires for humanity to join in God's efforts, this particular parable suggests that even if humanity is oblivious to what's going on around them, God is still at work.

A second thing we can learn about the kingdom of God is that God's workings may appear to be small and insignificant, but like a mustard seed, the kingdom will grow in significant ways. When we sing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," we affirm that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. God's kingdom will reign supreme, and we will experience life as God intends.

Finally, we also learn that Jesus doesn't force feed us. Instead, he gives us as much as we can understand at this point in our lives. That is good news for humans, who are not perfect and who often are slow to understand. God gives us just what we need for each day and situation. Though we may not get the full picture or the deepest understandings that day, we catch glimpses of God's kingdom and that is enough.

Just like the Israelites had to learn that lesson over and over as they wandered in the wilderness we seem to need the same. God will provide for our daily needs. We just have to trust and be open to receiving that blessing. Internally, we may also see that God grants us things beyond our physical needs—like grace, comfort, and peace. How thankful we are for a God who provides just what we need through kingdom seeds!

Friday, 8 June 2018

Let's Begin Here.

It is often difficult to be patient while we wait for a change in circumstance to come when our minds are focused on what is right in front of us. Waiting on and with God can be difficult for believers especially while enduring challenges with family members, health problems, or simply the day-to-day business of navigating life. One of the helpful things to remember in such situations is to remember what St Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. He wrote that it is beneficial for Christ followers to daily and intentionally remind themselves all things are for our benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory.

Remembering that the acts of grace that God extends to each one of us every day increases our gratitude toward our God. Facing a dilemma while recalling that God either got us out of a similar situation or kept us sane while he brought us through a worse situation brings peace and, eventually, patience. Practicing being grateful makes the waiting with God easier to bear. Have you ever come through a difficult situation and wonder how? Similarly, when we face problems or loss our God still walks beside us supporting us to face such difficulties.

This is difficult for us to accept as we like to be in control, we like to think it is from our own resources we survive or overcome. Spend a few moments in a book store or online at Amazon or other Book agencies and scan the titles in the sections on "religion," "spirituality," or "new age." What do you see? On any given day, you will see a wide variety of titles on prosperity gospels, praying your way to health, contacting spirits, "secrets" to success, encounters with angels, encounters with demons, "Christian" reincarnation, earth spirituality—you get the picture.

One thousand and one options, from the ridiculous to the sublime, all aimed at a culture that says it is "spiritual, but not religious." The strong man of organised religion may very well be tied to its own ecclesial throne, while pretenders pillage and plunder the spiritually hungry and seeking. We may be bound, but we're certainly not gagged. Part of our problem is that we are engaged in never-ending disagreements about who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is evil, who is righteous and who is sinful.

We don’t as a society seem to want to seek unity, harmony, reconciliation, or justice. We are merely adopting the secular culture's passion for competition and winning at any cost. We only have to listen to the twitter comments and speeches of politicians all over the world to see where we have moved to as a society. Sadly, what their message seems to be is to forget grace and forgiveness, ignore love and mercy, disregard patience and tolerance, and label justice and generosity as socialism and communism to put "those people" in their places. If we continue to allow religion to turn from life-affirming, joy-producing, divine blessing into legalistic, authoritarian, proof-texting moralising then no one needs to break in and bind us—we'll do it ourselves.

Listen to the leaders in our Australian Parliament where often they sadly reflect these negative attitudes especially to the wider secular community. This comes about because one of the risks of serving a human leader is the possibility of control. Human flaws create the opening for leaders to be controlled and manipulated by those whom they serve and vice versa. It is for this reason that it is critically important that we as Christians to serve under the governance of Jesus Christ, whether leader or follower.

The term power is a constant in everyday language. We talk about power in the contexts of business, government, even the church. As the Gospel of Mark reminds us, however, only Jesus Christ has true power. Through Jesus, we have the ultimate gift of forgiveness. Sadly, even today, we see the leadership of Israel and the Palestinians unable to see the that gift of forgiveness and what it might bring. Instead they want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a death and to destroy each other. An attitude encouraged by such leaders in our world as those in the USA, Philippines and China. This is not of God or what his Son sought to teach us.

The time has come to set aside differences and focus instead on what we share in common. Jesus says in Mark 3, "But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first binding the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered." Let's begin here. Let's acknowledge that we believe different things and value different things and seek different things, but at our heart and core we are all one family, children of God, and brothers and sisters of the Christ. It won't change anything overnight, but one thing is certain. If we're all on the same side, there won't be any of "those people" left to dislike.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Sabbath Rest?

Some of you might enjoy this story I found during my browsing this week. The wife of a man who died assumed they had plenty of money, so she gave him a very nice funeral and a fancy tombstone that said, “Rest in Peace.” However, when the estate was settled she learned he had wasted all their money on gambling and bad investments. This made her so angry she took the little money she had and added three words to the tombstone. The new tombstone said: “Rest in Peace … Until I Come!”

What I was thinking about at the time was what it is we really need if we are going to find peace. It came out of a discussion with my wife over where we wanted to be buried and what sort of funeral we wanted. A bit morbid some might say but important for a spouse to know. The reflection of my wife was that it did not matter as we knew and had the hope where we were going after we leave this life. As someone once said, you don’t need a tombstone to rest in peace; you only need Jesus.

The Hebrew word for rest is Shabbat. There are no vowels in the Hebrew language, so the word Shabbat is comprised of three Hebrew letters: Shin, Beit, and Tav. In this week’s reading from Mark 2-3 we are able to discern what Jesus taught about the Sabbath Day. Sabbath is one of the most misunderstood topics in scripture. There are two questions that trouble many people and they are: (1) Why don’t we obey the Fourth Commandment that says, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy?” The other question is: (2) When did we change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?

You know, I have heard it said that there were a group of religious whiners who followed Jesus around criticising everything He did and said. In this passage, they whine about how Jesus didn’t observe the Sabbath the way they thought it ought to be observed. But we also can say that Christians are not required to follow the Jewish Sabbath rules. This is where it gets tricky as there are a number of ideas that have arisen without looking at the history of the development of what we call a day of rest on the Sunday.

Some of the Pharisees confronted Jesus about this hoping to put a wedge between him and the people who followed him. But Jesus made it clear that God saw the necessity of satisfying human hunger even on the Sabbath. He even pointed out that David had acted on that basis when he as a refugee and those fleeing with him ate sacred bread. Then Jesus said, “God created the Sabbath for people not people for the Sabbath.” In other words, God considered keeping people more important than keeping the Sabbath.

As some will know, there are some groups who follow Jesus, but meet on Saturday, and even follow the Old Testament dietary rules. They don’t eat pork or catfish. Some of them judge those of us who worship on Sunday. They say we’re wrong, and that Sunday worship is actually the mark of the beast. Interesting isn’t it.

What is important is that time is set aside as holy – for divine purpose. From my reading and reflection, I believe that God set aside times other than Sundays for people. Christians need to take those times for worship and spiritual renewal.
But all this talk of working on Sunday is skirting the real issue: “Is Jesus Lord of your Sabbath – your time of peace – your time with God?” What do you do on Sunday? What are the rules that may be barriers to you for recharging and finding peace?  

Sadly, this tragedy of what is the Sabbath or what is Sunday remains today. I know we as Christians want people to attend services every Sunday. However, there are some who cannot enjoy worshipping the Lord because they are so consumed with meeting the demands and expectations of others. Some can’t focus on the Lord because they are so busy “policing” the behaviour of others. I am personally thankful for Sundays, and I believe every believer needs to look forward to being in a place of gathering to worship. However, if our demands and expectations regarding Sunday cloud our view of the Saviour, then we have missed the purpose for Sunday all together!

Friday, 25 May 2018

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.

Well it seems to me that is a matter of opinion as to what qualifies as holiness. To some people it is going to church; to some it might mean avoiding certain bad habits or adopting certain outward religious practices. Some think clergy are, by default, some kind of holy person. Trust me, when I say that this idea is patently false! Growing up, I knew people who adhered to so called “holiness traditions.” They willingly and consistently lived the mundane, everyday aspects of their lives according to a strict interpretation of Christian Scripture. It was a willing setting aside of any aspects of humanity in order to be more like what the scriptures called for in a follower of Jesus.

In the Hebrew Scripture Isaiah 6 we find that the prophet finds himself utterly, inescapably human in the presence of his vision of God. The death of the king is no mere historical marker, but a sign that things are about to change in Judah. Although Uzziah, in his fifty-two years of reign brought Judah to new heights in terms of prosperity, influence, and power, he forgot that he was an earthly king and not a divine one. In the writer of first Isaiah’s experience of soaking in the presence of absolute holiness he was given a powerful reminder of his own humanity.

It’s as if he looked around at the angels and the smoke and the trembling temple and the songs and the tongs and concluded, “One of these things is not like the others.” And even though he was made guiltless, cleansed and a flaming, searing coal of mercy and forgiveness blotted out his sin, the whole episode is an object lesson. It was an object lesson in a one unavoidable, undeniable truth: God is holy and we are not. We are human. Or as we like to say, “We’re only human.”

So how do we understand our humanity, how do we understand our triune God – the Trinity. Since earliest days, humans have tried to know the nature of God and the nature of themselves. An impossible task, we know, to put the ocean into a paper cup. But we are human. We are curious and passionate, and we desire this God-ness, this goodness, because we want to go beyond who and where we are. It’s hard to talk about the Trinity without falling into something the church has declared heresy.

A doctrine of the Trinity may not be in Christian scripture, but the authors of scripture give testimony to the Trinity in the life of the faithful. We start with the “God is one” confession of our Jewish ancestors. Yet this God has been known in different ways, from the awesome God of nature who led the people Israel, through to the humble servant Jesus the reconciler, to the powerful wind of the Spirit that breathes new life into the world. Knowing God in a triune way gives gifts for spiritual and community life. Father, Son, Holy Spirit are distinct, yet undivided.

There are many images used to try and help one understand the Trinity and I will leave you to find the one that helps your understanding. I like the image of the Trinity as a Dance myself, but I would like to take as an example a sports team for this piece of writing. The players have a common purpose and work together to achieve a goal and a victory. Maybe it’s easier to consider the image of a marriage, where two are joined as one, hopefully in love, and hopefully working throughout their lives to form a more perfect union. So much more is God imaged in this way, a union of three persons who fit so completely together that they are One.

The metaphors, though, carry us only so far. The community of faith has consistently turned to praise as the most suitable response to encounters with this God. “Holy, Holy, Holy!” cry the six-winged seraphim. Whatever tales theologians tell about life in the Trinity, our experience is rooted more in awe, in wonder, in holy Mystery than in understanding. In the Lord’s temple, all say “Glory!” Or for me I desire to participate in the dance that is the Trinity.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Gifts for the Family.

In Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour, much is made of thank-you notes, especially thank-you notes for wedding presents. One of her sample letters reads as follows:

Dear Aunt Patience:
Rhino and I are thrilled with the magnificent silver sugar shaker you sent us. It adds not only beauty and dignity to our table, but amusement, too, as some of our friends who are both ignorant and daring have not waited for the berries to be served but have shaken it over their meat. "This could only have come from your Aunt Patience," said one, and we were proud to say that it had. Rhino joins me in thanking you for your kindness. We look forward to having you in our new home.

Most of us have gotten gifts that we weren't quite sure how to use. We smile politely, say "thank you very much," but think to ourselves, "What on earth am I supposed to do with this?" With any luck, the giver will notice a look of perplexity on our faces and give us some clue as to the intended purpose of the item. But, just as often, we are left to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't, and there are times that we just never find out how this beautiful but strange gift is supposed to be used.

I would bet that it wasn't too different for Jesus' disciples in this week’s scripture from the gospel of John. Pentecost Sunday is a day when Christians give thanks for God’s many blessings, for the Church in which we are nurtured and through baptism are made members. Christians believe we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit -- and the question is asked. "What on earth am I supposed to do with this?" Nobody had ever received that gift before. There was no helpful lady at the registry at Myers or David Jones to tell them just why they should have this particular item and how to use it. And so, when Jesus breathes on his followers and gives them this amazing and perplexing gift, he tells them right away how to use it -- to forgive sins and to be bearers of peace.

When we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is not ours to keep tucked away for our private use. The Holy Spirit is a gift that is to be shared generously and lavishly. Like the fine china and beautiful linens, we give and receive as wedding presents, the Holy Spirit is given as a token of the day on which we take vows to live in unity with Christ. And, like those beautiful dishes and tablecloths, the Holy Spirit is a sign that our lives with the Lord will be lived not in isolation, but in gracious and loving service to other people.

You know Marriage legally forms earthly and visible families within communities, groups of people who promise to be together in good times and bad, to balance each other's talents and abilities, so that in sharing and giving of what they have and who they are, they will live a life that is fuller and more satisfying than any life they could possibly imagine having alone. Graciously with the very best of what we have and the various talents of each person we are called to make the whole thing work. This doesn't happen in isolation, but in consciously living in the wider community of family and for Christians this is God's family.

We bring the beautiful and precious gifts of our baptism to the banquet table of God's family. Each of us has something different and distinctive to bring to this table. Each of us has something to give thanks for and we are called to share those blessings that we have received. At God's table, every colour, shape and texture of dinnerware -- from the finest gold-banded china to hand-thrown pottery, and even paper plates -- is needed, wanted and welcome. Until everyone has a place setting at the table, a place specially designed for that person, there is something missing at the feast.

We are to offer the gifts that we have as a welcome addition to the life of the family of God, and to rejoice that it makes our life together fuller and richer than any we could possibly imagine if it were absent. Pentecost seems to be the season in which we celebrate such things. We look to the desire that all our lives will be richer and fuller than it was before and that we are also enriched by each one’s presence and gifts among us.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

All Things Common

As we reflect this Sunday on Mother’s Day and think about family, whatever our experience, it is interesting to look at what made those first Christian communities.  The paradoxical need in our overcrowded world is for community: we long to know that we belong and that we matter to those around us. The proliferation of gangs, political parties (those with specific negative agendas) and radical militant groups are just some examples of the possible negative results of that need. Common enemies, ritual practices, or a cause of some sort form a sense of power and meaning for destructive ends. Another emerging and rapidly growing community builder is blogging and tweets. Facebook, Twitter and Blog-sites, join people together from all over the world.

But whether it is the counterfeit brother- and sisterhood of gangs and militants or the virtual communities of the Internet, there is a sense in which these communities fall short of what people truly need. The picture of community we find in scripture in Acts 2 is dynamic and radical. The dynamism is best described when St Luke writes that they were a people of signs and wonders. As much as churches talk about how caring and friendly they are, the most important point of commonality is the presence of the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the power of the Holy Spirit that made the people of faith into a dynamic, multipliable force.

The authentic church is still being characterised by signs and wonders: changed hearts; healed bodies, minds, and relationships; witness and social action in the world. It is sad that signs and wonders is a description that people often only apply to charismatic denominational and nondenominational churches. At its heart, the church is not about what people do, but rather about what the Holy Spirit does through openhearted, open-minded people

Providing good parking, communicating in the vernacular style of the people, and having well-organised welcoming strategies is good, but they cannot substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Church. I wonder what it is in the other organisations that supplies the direction and knitting together of the group? The Acts 2 picture of community is deeply radical to many people and even too many Christians. Luke writes that they “had all things in common.” For a slave community with little or no property or assets, this kind of sharing makes sense. As the church grew, however, this model became rare.

 But the clear picture is that the church was bound, economically as well as spiritually. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Most church goers today would be hard-pressed to name their areas of need, economically or otherwise. In fact, we work hard at presenting the image that, because God has blessed us, we are not needy. We love to help the needy, but we don’t want to be like them. We secretly believe that needy people are deficient and inferior to us, put there by God to make us feel grateful and guilty for being more blessed.

Could it be that one of the reasons that our sense of community is often artificial because there is very little holding us together? Down deep in our fallen selves, we really do want to believe that we don’t need each other. The Acts 2 picture also includes the investment of time that community requires. People don’t “go to church”—they are the church. Early Christians were community at work, home, worship, fellowship, and witness. Parents and family’s day by day, as they spent much time together in worship, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

How different this is from the characterisation of the twenty-first-century communities we live in or the Church we may belong to. Our situation might be described this way: “And since they were very busy people, they spent as little time with each other as they could get away with, eating on the run and never feeling satisfied, competing and scrapping over worship, and having the mistrust and criticism of the majority of the people.” The opportunity to be a dynamic and radical community of faith has been given to many.

So, how do we respond to a family experiencing a death where a wife and children are left behind. Have we as a community learnt the what it is to be the body of Christ. Have we surrounded youth in our community as they face difficulties with love and care? Common grief can become a source of common commitment and purpose. Through tragedies, we can learn better than ever who, and whose, we are: the people of God, dynamically and radically bound in spirit, in goods, and in shared time. And with it there have been and there will be more signs and wonders.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Living Up to Your Appointed Position

With every senate, parliament, student body, or school board election, there are appointments to positions of authority. As seems true for every elected official who has the authority to appoint, the special positions go to those who were most supportive during the election. History has shown that sometimes the process is successful, but it is more likely that the people in new positions are mediocre at best. Success is dependent on how closely the appointee matches the requirements of the job and has little to do with one’s performance during campaigning.

One only has to look at Trumps appointments to positions, let alone the way our parliaments appoint those to lead Ministries. Do we appoint people to lead health who have a background in health and know something of what is needed? Or does this have problems?  I remember reading about someone who was appointed to agriculture in the USA who had a background in farming and appeared to be a natural fit for the appointed position. His credibility was severely affected when he discussed the invasion of fire ants into the United States.

On national television, he sincerely talked about the problem and was apparently doing an adequate job of sharing information. If any of you have ever been the recipient of a swarm of fire ants, you know that you will do everything in your power to avoid the pain associated with their anger. The secretary had what appeared to be a glass aquarium sitting on a table before him as he spoke. During the presentation, he removed the top and continued to discuss the severity of the sting from the tiny creatures. He casually dipped his hands into the mound of loose dirt inside the aquarium. What he found was not the sweet nibbles of tiny fish, but the anguishing fire of hundreds of tiny ant’s intent on protecting their place in the world.

As programmed by nature, the ants did just as they are expected to do. There was chaos on the stage as the Secretary and his aides quickly began brushing the tiny insects from the target of their wrath. Even when a person is perfectly appointed to a position, there is a risk of failing or exposing ourselves to pain from our actions to fulfil the obligation. In John 15:16-17, Jesus makes a crucial appointment. He appoints his disciples—people who love and follow him—and, more important, you and me, to the highest appointed position in Christendom. Jesus said, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God as parent will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Jesus said these words just after he had assured his listeners that they are his friends. He rejects the word servant because the servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, he calls them friends because he had already shared with them everything that he had learned from God. Jesus’ admonition that he had chosen them and considered them friends was a natural lead into their appointment to live a life of good works. I find it interesting that Jesus appoints followers to love others and to do good works toward others.

It seems to me that Jesus was encouraging the appointed to find joy in themselves and to love their own mind, body, and soul so that they might love others. Most of us can find much pride in our accomplishments and in our gifts to the church and community. The nature of human beings is often to tell God why we cannot fulfil the requirements of our appointment. People who continually say they cannot meet the expectations of the job will surely fail.

We are called to accept any appointment with a can-do attitude followed by gratitude and when we accept our appointment with the attitude of gratitude and maintain complete faith in God, we will be successful in our appointed role. I believe that Jesus expects us to be sensible in our approach to the appointment—to first love ourselves so that we can love others, never putting ourselves or those we serve in harm’s way. We must know the signs that we have caused pain and suffering to others and to ourselves. We are expected to avoid dipping our hands into the fiery stings of failing to serve. Now, if only all our leaders, particularly our politicians could follow such a call.