Friday, 12 October 2018

Can We Let Go?

We all have heard the saying, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." Many who are Christian have grown up hearing children's sermons or Sunday school lessons that describe the Christian life as a journey to heaven. It's as if heaven is some place "out there," out of our reach or experience, but if we live good lives and are not bad boys and girls, when we die we will go to heaven. The man in the scripture from Mark 10 is not talking about going to heaven. He's interested in how to experience eternal life in the here-and-now.

Perhaps in exploring his profound question, we can lay to rest the notion that heaven or eternal life, whichever expression we choose, is a "place" or something outside and unreachable through human experience. We are all conditioned by our environment. What have we kept since we were little children? As adults, we bring our histories, circumstances, and experiences with us. Our outlook on life is tied to this conditioning. Parents, teachers, friends, neighbours, work associates, and enemies have all contributed to who we are, what we think, and how we live.

The man in Mark's story (Mark 10:17-31) was also conditioned by such influences. He never murdered anyone, didn't run around on his wife, never stole anything from anybody, never told a lie, had not defrauded anyone, and had honoured his parents. This man could be described as the preeminent community example of integrity. But there was one thing in his life that had taken complete hold of him—his possessions.

I am persuaded that Jesus never talked about "going to heaven." He talked about "experiencing heaven." As he said, "The kingdom of heaven is among [or within] you." He never talked about us being good in this life, so we can get to heaven; he talked about heaven in this life. What the man in the story needs to do is what we all need to do— discern and discover how to allow ourselves to be claimed by the love of God. In doing so, we embark on a lifetime journey (now and eternal) of experiencing the goodness of God, the same goodness that claimed Jesus.

We do know that this man had many possessions and in another of the Gospel’s Luke describes him as a ruler which may be significant. As a ruler, he would know what it was to have power over peoples' lives. Who better than this man to understand the power of possessions over one's own life? I believe this man leads us all to Jesus. We all have something that possesses, or rules, and interferes with us living life on God's terms. The man's question is our question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Let's pause and consider why he used the word inherit.

The word inherit in the text is klironómisi in Greek. One of its shades of meaning is "to share in." The man is essentially asking, "What must I do to share in God's blessings?" Jesus tells him that he needs to come to grips with the one thing that keeps him from sharing life on God's terms, namely, his wealth. It is clear from the man's response that he has much work to do. He realises it will be nearly impossible for him to relinquish what he holds dear. It is his barrier to sharing in the blessings of God.

What must you and I do to share in the promise of God's blessings? What areas of our lives need some work so that we may share in God's life, life that is eternal? Based on Jesus' encounter with the man, God understands that we all have something in our lives that rules us. It is no accident that the writer notes Jesus' encounter is based on his compassion toward the man.  

We Christians follow the teachings of the one who completely understands how difficult—but not impossible—it is to rule over those things that would dominate us or rule over us. The person of Jesus shows us how to live such a life. So, what are our "rulers"? What gets in our way of being followers of Jesus' example? What sends us away shocked and grieving because we think we cannot live without them? Is it wealth, our phone, our position or even a prized possession? Each of us must answer this question for ourselves.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Deep Connection.

"This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," says Adam in the Hebrew Scripture called Genesis. Adam immediately recognises his deep connection to the new human being standing before him, a connection that God has woven deeply into the fabric of their lives. For us in the West today, it's very easy for us to focus only on the individuality of Adam and Eve-the union of a single man and a single woman that the ancient story seems to represent.

And it's easy for us to carry that individualistic notion of marriage into Jesus' teachings about divorce, too. It is still too easy sadly, for us today to take the worst of patriarchy and act as if women were not partners, inferior and of less value than our animals.  This still true often during divorce.  When Jesus talks about the dissolution of marriage in today's Gospel, our cultural and legal perspective tempts us to hear him talking only about a man and woman: two individuals who entered into covenant with each other-and we are tempted to hear that the pain of divorce involves only them, at least for the most part.

But in Jesus' time, marriage and divorce were not just about the man and the woman. They were about two families representing many generations, property, honour, and status. Divorce was not just an individual event; it was a risky break of confidence that could lead to family feuds, shame, and hardship for numerous people. The hardness of heart Jesus speaks of seems not only to point to the potential suffering of the woman, who must return in shame to her family of origin; but it also points to the suffering of two entire families and the greater community.

For those of us today who have lived through the pain of divorce, whether our own or others', this ancient understanding of marriage and divorce seems to ring truer than we might think at first. Even today, marriage and divorce affect many more than just those who sign the forms and enter or dissolve the legal contracts. Eve with the acceptance of same gender relationships and marriage not just one part of the relationship suffers but many of the relationships that are part of the two people’s lives. They often affect parents, friends, and siblings, who sometimes wrestle with the part they played or failed to play in a marriage or relationship that didn't work; and they certainly impact children as their schedules and lives must be forever altered.

Jesus' hard teaching about marriage and divorce, then, isn't just for a man and woman. Likewise, the recognition of Adam when he sees Eve is ultimately is a profound statement about how interconnected the whole human family really is. It is about how divorce, as painfully necessary as it can sometimes be, ultimately tears at the fabric of this human family and affects all of us, and the world around us. And here is where today's teaching about divorce touches our world and our church. Divorce is not just about two people. It's about all of those places where we have become hard of heart and have failed to recognise each other as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;" places where we tear and unbind, sometimes mercilessly, the ties between us that God made at the foundation of creation.

It's that hardness that we struggle with as we watch the painful realities of conflict in our worlds politics. As we watch people like the US President and our Australian Conservative politicians tear their respective nations apart instead of seeking good for all.  This is important as we reckon with hunger and disease in the world, as wealthy and poor become further divided; as we suffer fear from the cold heartedness that brings war and terrorism to us and to our sisters and brothers abroad; and as we struggle, with abuse that we often heap on the natural world, divorcing ourselves from our deep ties with the natural order and the heritage of a healthy planet we are called by our God to be leaving for our children.

And it is also this hardness that we must be wary of in a time when some in our greater community talk about schism in politics and breaking away. It comes at a time when some in the Uniting Church contemplate divorcing their part of the church as we of the nascent and growing Uniting denomination know it. Of course, the reality is that there will continue to be divorce. And it will be painful. No contract, prenuptial agreement, certificate of dismissal, or any other carefully crafted parting of the ways can get us off that hook.

Jesus holds up that pain to the Pharisees, and to us today as the need and the longing for deep connection that God intends for all of us. It is that hope that we celebrate together when we gather to pray and when we break bread together.  It's a hope that Jesus witnesses to in his life, and that Christ brings to us through the resurrection. And that hope is the good news that runs like a thread through this week’s scripture passages from the three-year lectionary.

We are a family, a community, a people, and a world that suffers from divorce of all kinds. But it is precisely that world that God in Christ enters - and not just with a hope to ultimately end divorce, but with a mission to heal all of us who suffer from it; to heal our hardness of heart, and to help us recognise again that we truly belong to each other, to the world we call home, and we belong ultimately to a God who has, for all eternity, refused to divorce us.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Whose Side Are You On?

We’re coming to the end of that month of the year in which many regions of the country see competition at its highest level. On most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, stadiums and gymnasiums have been filled with the faithful from all walks of life, as their teams compete to bring honour and glory to their respective team or districts. This can bring out both the best and worst in players, onlookers and parents.

Many of you will remember with smiles and nods some of the pranks and tricks pulled due to rivalries between schools, teams or university groups. How many of you still harbour a mascot, jumper or flag in their bottom drawer or out in the garage. Mascots still seem to be popular, but we don’t, like some overseas countries, offer prayer and blessing for our school team, district team or side in the national competition. Games still seem to generate the sort of rivalry that makes opponents though decorate their club rooms or gym.

I wonder if we would go as far as some of the American teams and put up a huge sign that read of such things as “God is on Our Side!” When such banners go up it must bring gasps of surprise. I sometimes wonder what the group’s motivation may have been as God apparently didn’t always play well and teams didn’t always win the contest. This week’s scripture readings reflect a sense of God being on the side of those whose stories are set for this week. In the Hebrew scripture, Esther, when facing the destruction of her people and possibly herself, trusts that her behaviour and faith in God will deliver her and her people from what awaits them.

James in chapter 5 tells us that in facing suffering, illness, or sinfulness, with God on our side, we can be delivered.  In the Mark 9, the disciples wonder if someone not from their circle can indeed do some of the things that they’ve been entrusted to do. In all the readings for this week, it is not so much a matter of whose side God is on, as it is whose side we are on.  James would not have shared with us this powerful mandate for prayer if his faith did not reflect his willingness to be on God’s side. Jesus tells his disciples that we control—or should control—how we live our lives to reflect whether we’re on God’s side.

It is a role or vocation that we seek to take on as the baptised. It is a journey that we are called to support the newly baptised on. To be on God’s side means to have a commitment to go beyond just ourselves and our needs and to open our eyes and ears to God’s leading. To be like Esther, we must love like God, love our fellow human beings and be genuinely concerned about their well-being and safety.

As Jacinda Arden, the New Zealand Prime Minister spoke at the United Nations in this last week, she called for a different world order - one that puts kindness" ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism. Her speech directly challenged the view of the world outlined by the US President. She went on to say that, "We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless 'other', to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them." I would add we can seek to be on God’s side and seek the goodness in and of all of creation.

Christians are called to have that faith that says our conversations with God are important especially as we seek help, healing and the lifting of discomfort of others. The way Jesus lived his life calls us to help others. Our call involves commitments of deep faith. To care about others begins with a faith that accepts Gods care for us. We are called to pray for others on a regular basis understanding that God hears all prayers. To care about others means that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear the needs of those who are suffering around us. This may involve leaving our comfort zones, our areas of security and familiarity, to travel to those parts of our community where previously we have been afraid to go or have felt unwanted.

This may also involve opening up doors of communication that will reveal hurts and pains for healing. To care about others may involve our confronting ourselves about how we’ve lived to this point. It may mean our having to change from being self-centred to God-centred and other-centred. The faith adventure that Jesus called us to follow can start in the lavish palace of a foreign king, in lush pastures turned to savage battlefields, in the quiet of a prayer room or worship area, or in the comfort and quiet of our own homes. At all these times our God is with us. God promises to continue to be with us. What better adventure can we hope for.

Friday, 21 September 2018

The Gift of Breath

In the Hebrew language of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly called the Old Testament, there is a wonderful word, ruach, which can be translated as breath, spirit, or wind. In Genesis 1:1, God's Spirit moves over the face of the watery chaos and brings forth life. In Ezekiel 37, God's Spirit is breathed into the valley of dry bones, and there is life. In the New Testament, the Greek word is pneuma.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, "the wind blows where it chooses" (John 3:8). In John 20, after the Resurrection, Jesus comes to the disciples and breathes on them, and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. . .." And in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, there is a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit dwells within us, as close to us as our next breath. To live is to breathe. One of the psalmists says, to breathe is to praise God. It is an imperative. Christians and Jewish people believe that we are created for the praise of God.

To breathe in is to receive the grace of God. To breathe out is to offer praise to God with our words and with our lives. We inhale, and we exhale. There is a natural rhythm. In the same way that music has beats and measures, our lives are measured. There is evening and morning, each day measured. There are six days of work and one day of rest, each week measured. Well in a way in today’s world this seems more of a hope than a fact. God has ordered our lives in such a way that we give and receive, work and rest, inhale and exhale. This is God's intention.

However, our human temptation is to live outside God's will for us. We do not live measured lives. We do not live ordered lives. We sometimes live hurried and chaotic lives. Yet this is not God's purpose for us. We were created to receive grace and to offer praise. But at times we forget to praise.

Many of us, even the most sophisticated among us, can become enslaved to destructive patterns of living. Years ago, I read about the experience of a group of world-class climbers who had died on Mount Everest. An interesting comment was made by one of the expert guides in that field. "Most of the people who die climbing Mount Everest," he said, "make it to the top. They die on the way down. They discover, after they have made it, that they do not have enough oxygen to get down the mountain. Or they make bad decisions, critical errors, because of the lack of oxygen." This is a parable of us.

The spiritual life is our oxygen. We may get everything we want in this life and die in the process. Lack of spiritual insight may lead us to choose things that are not really important in place of what is nearest and life-giving to us. What is God's order and design for you? This question is one sadly not thought about often even amongst Christians and other Religions. In worship that is shaped by the Scriptures we begin to understand that praise is an essential experience for God's people. We forget to give thanks for our lives sustained by our very breath. The rhythm that fires who we are and what we are as individuals.

This has a number of practical implications for us. In worship we discover an order and a design for our lives that we ignore at our peril. If our lives are cluttered or overwhelmed, we need to reorient ourselves toward God, who grants each day to us as a gift. Have you ever tried looking at each day as a gift? It’s amazing how that changes one’s perspective in the mornings. I find my grumpiness depleted and a certain joy about facing the day to come.

Also, God wants us to have times of rest, time for renewal, a time of catching our breath. What has happened to that thought. It seems to have disappeared as we have become caught up in bolting food as we rush out the door to catch the train or bus or get into our cars for the slow crawl to work in what is becoming massive car parks that slowly crawl along as our stress levels rise.

In the wholeness of creation there is the rest of God. We were created to praise God. When our hearts and minds and spirits are oriented toward God, we are not so critical of others, not so weighed down by everyday life. I wonder if we are able to stop and pray and imagine that God is speaking to us, each one of us, his beloved. Our God wants us to know that praise is as necessary to us as our next breath and when we worship our God, it is a foretaste of heaven. Add this thought: our God created us to receive and to give.

If you will breathe in and breathe out, you will discover the shape of your life. God did not create us for burnout or the pace of our lives. Our God wants to shape us, mould us, fill you, use us, breathe life into us.  Our God is delighted when we accept the gift of grace and respond with the gift of praise.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Teacher’s Achilles Heel

As I prepare to go on Retreat for a few days this morning I have been looking at what our Christian may have to say about teaching especially in the letter of James. The teaching profession has always received mixed reactions and the following comments I make are at times with tongue in cheek. However, Teachers are universally revered while at the same time young people are advised not to become teachers because the salaries are low, and some even denigrate teachers. There is the “truism”: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This same ambivalence is found in the religious world. Theological professors and teachers are often paid ridiculously low salaries and are sometimes ridiculed by their students as being “unable to minister and pastor in a parish.”

This week when James in our scripture from the Letter of James chapter 3, talks about teaching, he is not just talking to any particular group. He is reminding us that all Christians who are baptised have a responsibility for sharing the faith, teaching the faith and living the faith. When a child becomes the newest member of the body of Christ they will, as they grow learn from observing the actions of the community that is present. The newly baptised will learn from observing daily living out of the community’s faith. From those learning’s, they will mature and take their place as each one has done before them and be a light of Christ in this world.

James tells us that most people in the church should avoid teaching because religious teachers will be held to a higher standard by God. Christians are meant to be careful about everything we say and do. James warns those teachers who cannot control their tongues. He goes on to imply that it is the Achilles heel for teachers who speak erroneously. James is quick to admit that all Christians commit sins of the tongue, not only teachers. It’s an assertion that hardly ever receives any argument. James could say with Isaiah the prophet, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Nevertheless, He gives several warnings against allowing one’s tongue to go unregulated.

James likens an unbridled tongue to a ship without a rudder, or a fire that is out of control. James also suggests that there are some areas where one can control one’s tongue. Blessing and cursing should not come from the same mouth. If speaking error is a sin into which we all fall, I wonder why James singles out teachers. He seems to believe that teachers are especially vulnerable to the problem of controlling what comes from their mouth. Teachers use words more frequently than do most people and their vocation has them bear a great burden.

Students hang on to their every word as those growing up in the Church and even outside the church will hang on to the words and take in the actions you show forth in your lives. Remember how important our role is, in sharing the faith and encouraging and supporting others in their faith journey. God will hold teachers and each one of us accountable for what we have taught about our faith and how we have demonstrated that faith in our lives. For ministers and for laypeople that teach and belong in the church, this can be discouraging.

To add to this warning, James says that our words are spiritual indicators. The words that we use indicate what is in our hearts. If our words are not spiritual, then we aren’t spiritual either. This does not mean that James is advocating for a spiritualist vocabulary. On the contrary, he wants our words to be judged by their sincerity. This idea is often ignored in conversations among Christians let alone to those outside the faith. In an attempt to “be spiritual” Christians are tempted to use religious language as a means to impress others. This is the very thing James warns against.

This kind of warning resounds throughout the book of James. He is worried that Christians will say all the right things but fail to do the right things. He argues with those who talk about faith but fail to emphasise deeds that come in reaction to God’s love and grace. The proof of one’s spirituality is not only what you say, but what you do. So, this warning about what you say is important. It is a reminder that words are deeds in the sense that they can help or hurt the person who speaks them and the person who hears them.

One might be tempted to become mute in light of James’s warning concerning the dangers of sinful speech. However, that is not what he recommends.  We are encouraged not to be silent, but we are to use our words wisely. Words can be hurtful, and they can injure at a distance. But words also can be used for good or for evil. The key is in learning how to control our tongues. This means learning to think before we speak. It also means choosing words that do not offend or label. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it important? It obviously is. Look at the current action in our Parliament if you need an example of how not to do it.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Faith and Works

In his book, “John Wesley for the 21st Century,” John Gooch writes: “All the understandings of “perfect” above have nothing to do with what Wesley meant by perfection. They are “perfectionism's,” the kind of dreams that drive advertising. We’re not going to get that “perfect” body by trying fad diets or achieve complete happiness because we drive a particular kind of car. They are “legalisms,” pushing the idea that if I just try hard enough, I can be perfect.”

Wesley seemed to be following some of the thoughts expounded from our scripture this week which comes from the Letter to James.  He used the words “perfection,” “holiness,” and “sanctification” interchangeably. To him, holiness was not so much an impossible goal to be striving for, but a way of life. In some ways, holiness means, “How we who profess to be Christian live as a Christian in a world where it’s often hard to do that?” In both the early church and in Wesley’s writings, being perfect meant being complete, whole, becoming everything God has put within us to become. This helpful and valid reasoning has come to the surface throughout our Christian History. What it means to me and in some ways to others is that perfection is different for each one of us, because each of us has different gifts and for each of us being complete and whole looks different.

But let’s get back to the idea of riches and how a Christian faces this issue. We are sometimes partial to the rich because we mistakenly assume that riches are a sign of God’s blessing and approval. But God does not promise earthly rewards or riches; in fact, Christ calls us to be ready to suffer for him and give up everything in order to hold on to eternal life. For that means I am to be unattached to the things of this world. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have things of this world for my well-being, it means that I need to view them as gifts for which I am called to use wisely and be a wise steward of.

God does love us and accept us “just as we are.” God does not expect us to measure up to some impossible standard of “righteousness” before God loves us. Maybe if we hold on to the thought that we will have untold riches in eternity if we are faithful in our present life will help us on our journey of faith. Holiness also means we practice doing good works. If spiritual disciplines help us practice our love for God, doing good works help us practice our love for neighbour. We may begin serving meals at the homeless shelter out of a sense of obligation, but if we keep “practicing,” we reach the point where we see homeless persons as children of God and find joy in our relationship with them.

Some further thoughts on James 2:1-17 follow which gives us all food for thought in this age of growing greed, personal gratification for its sake and an extreme individualism. In verse 14 of James 2 it says; “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? A primary test of faith is our attitude toward God’s and the way we are able to listen to his Word and living that in our everyday lives. “Be you doers of the word, and not hearers only.” A person might look at his face in a mirror and see that his face is dirty but do nothing about it.

A second test concerns our attitude toward people and God’s creation. Apparently in those days there was a tendency to focus more attention on the wealthy than the poor. James says we are to have the same respect for all. Every person is an immortal soul and his life is sacred to God. Another test focuses upon our work. “Faith without works is dead.” We are saved by grace, but we express our gratitude by willingly working for our Lord. A most sensitive test is in the manner of our speech. James talks about the power of the tongue. The same mouth ought not to curse God and then try to praise God.

Think about the way in which you live out your Christian life. Do your words and actions inspire others to seek the Lord? If not, what would you have to change for this to happen?  Remember that every day there comes the challenge of the command: Let your light so shine that others may see your good works and glorify -- not you, but --- your loving parent, your God who is in heaven.

That is really the test of a Christian life, whether it does or does not, glorify our God.  If it does then there will shine out of our lives a great radiance, if only the wick of our life is illuminated by the light of Jesus. Then we shall be people who will bring light wherever we go, the light of love, of tender courtesy, of peace.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Living Faithfully

In this week’s Gospel from Mark 7 we hear of the Pharisees, who in their zeal for Judaism had turned their religion from a means into an end, from an affair of the heart to an outward form of external observance. Jesus was frustrated with the Pharisees, but I don't think he held them in the same contempt that many of us do today. Among the Jews of Jesus time, the Pharisees were the most faithful. Their religious system was designed to release the worship of the true God from the confines of the Temple and make it more accessible to all people in their daily lives.

They wanted to fulfil a prophecy of Jeremiah and that prophecy was a high ideal. I might add, they did their best to fulfil it. So, with the best of intentions, they applied the law to every aspect of life, and most of all, they were scrupulous about honouring the food which they received from God. God had brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and they gratefully took to heart what the Lord commanded them to do in return.

They believed in giving heed to the statutes and ordinances that God taught them to observe, so that they would live well in the land that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, had given them. They believed, you must neither add anything to what I command nor take anything away from it but keep the commandments of the Lord your God. They had accepted the call to observe the commandments diligently, for this would show wisdom and discernment to the peoples. It was believed that, when they heard all the statutes, people would say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!"

But something went terribly wrong. They were not respected as a wise and discerning people. They were treated with contempt, and they suffered under the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus told them that were not fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy, but Isaiah's. "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." When we talk about the Pharisees' problem we do so by making a distinction between law and gospel.

Many Christians believe we are saved by hearing and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is a false distinction. The Law and religion are good gifts from God, and both Paul and Jesus affirm that. But like all of God's good gifts they are subject to use or abuse, and they are abused when they're not practiced in the context of love. This is the most important point about the good news that Jesus bought. The good news is that our God is a God of love.

The trouble for the Pharisees was that they used the law to set themselves apart as better than other people and not to depend upon God. The name "Pharisees" means "separated ones." Perhaps the contempt they'd experienced from others led them to be contemptuous in return. The Pharisees had strict hygiene and dietary rules, particularly when it came to what they ate and what was washed. It sounds like today's Christian believers ending up in hell for eating meat with their salad fork.

Yet, if we are seeking to discover a true religion we need to be honest and admit that no matter how hard we try we can't get it right. If we miss the mark often enough, we may fear that we are headed for a bad end. In despair, we may seek reassurance in comparing ourselves to others. That's very thin ice because we can only compare our insides and their outsides.

In that case, the best we can hope for is a dull and formal religion in which we become like Anthony Trollope's Miss Thorne, whose "virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description." Perhaps it's time to think about renewing our covenant with God and setting aside some time to meditate on ways that we can be a more faithful and obedient Christians.

The law and the rules are a gift from God, but they are not meant as an end in themselves. They can be, however, instruments for expressing your love for God. That is the first commandment. Love God with everything you've got. There is, however, another gift, as important as the law, which shapes inward obedience the way the law shapes outward obedience. For the covenant you make is not just a covenant with God; it is also a covenant with God's people.

God has given us a precious gift to help us keep the commandments in love. That gift is the people in your life that you really cannot stand. Without them you cannot truly learn to love God. Let us pray that we may have the humility to forgive them as we have been forgiven and to love them as Jesus has loved us. That is the way of the true religion for which we have prayed.