Friday, 7 December 2018

Comfort in Our Anxiety.

We have seen all sorts of really traumatic and difficult things over this past year and it would not be difficult to become anxious and depressed. Yet we have also seen things that encourage and bring hope such as the rescue of the soccer team boys in Thailand. So as the stress and hectic rush leading to Christmas begins to overwhelm us, we are reminded in scripture not to be anxious. The Apostle Paul tells us not to be anxious—not to worry—about anything. But we tend to be people who worry about everything.

We worry about what will happen if someone doesn’t show up for the big family Christmas dinner (and also about what might happen if they do!). We worry about getting into the right school or university and about the financial aid package coming through. We worry about the cancer coming back and about our company being bought out. We worry about the security of our jobs and the safety of our kids. The congregation I serve has had a difficult year with the death of a number of deeply faithful and involved members who had been part of the fellowship for 30 to 40 years and the distraction of problems with the local Council. I would not be surprised if a number of our members were worried about what the future will bring and how long we can last as an entity despite over 150 years of life as a congregation.

With so much to worry about, how is it that St Paul of Tarsus can tell us not to worry and not to be anxious? When Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his Nazi prison cell, he penned a poem that included these words to the effect that we fearlessly wait, come what may, because God is with us on every new day. St Paul, writing to the church in Philippi from his own prison cell, says something similar. Why is it that we need not be anxious or afraid? Is it because whatever we are worried about is really “no big deal”? Or because God guarantees that everything will turn out for the best? Or even because God won’t give us any more hardship or pain than we can handle?

No. St Paul says that we need not be anxious or afraid because “the Lord is near.” That is the good news to which everything else in this text is tethered. “The Lord (our God) is near,” even while we wait for him to come in all his fullness. In fact, St Paul says, he is as close as a prayer. And when God’s children take their worries and anxieties to the Lord in prayer, he will exchange their anxiety for his peace and calm their worried hearts with his love.

The sight of a mother cradling a squirming child in her arms and singing lullabies over him until he finally goes limp may be one of the sweetest and most serene things we can witness in this life. It’s a scene as old as time, and perhaps it is what the prophet Zephaniah had in mind when he wrote one of the final (and most famous!) verses of his book: “The LORD your God is in your midst …. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). When heard in the context of the other lectionary passages for the Third Sunday of Advent, God’s often anxious and worried children can receive these words as an invitation to climb into the lap of their heavenly parent so that our heavenly parent might sooth them with the songs of his love and care.

Then, having heard these songs, they might offer him one of their own, perhaps borrowing words from the prophet Isaiah: “God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). While the Apostle Paul seems to be doing everything, he can to free us from anxiety, John the Baptist seems to be doing everything he can to create anxiety in us. John’s words are so full of alarm, he seems so determined to set us on edge. For John, the news that “the Lord is near” is not only a promise that ought to comfort the afflicted. It is also a promise that ought to afflict the comfortable!

Friday, 30 November 2018

Full of Emergency!

Well I am early this week with my blog and I could say I am so excited as we begin the season of Advent on Sunday. A Sunday when we remember to find hope and not to get swamped by a world that seems Full of Emergency! But I have to be honest and say that the excitement of preparing for God's entry into the world hasn't quite gripped me yet and I have still to build up my feelings of hope. I am early simply because I have time and doing the blog now means I will hopefully get rest earlier on a Friday night.

But back to this weeks reading from Luke on this first Sunday of Advent. The events Jesus describes in Luke 21 would be enough to make even the bravest souls run for cover. This chapter is “full of emergency …. it’s a whole drum roll of disaster.”  Seas surge. Planets shake. The earth groans and threatens to come undone. The world Jesus describes is full of events both terrible and terrifying. In other words, the world Jesus describes is not unlike our own. Wars? We’ve got those. Persecutions? Yes. Leaders kowtowing to vested interest of a few? Sure. Leaders who lie and cheat so that those who are poor and struggling become poorer?  Yes, they exist. Greed and Abuse that destroy innocence? We have them.
We’ve got all those and many locally here in Australia. Natural disasters? Yes certainly as we fail to deal with the reality of Climate Change. Why only in the last 2 weeks there has been flooding and storms in both Australia and Aotearoa (NZ) and fire storms in California and Queensland here in Australia. Have you visited News websites lately? Jesus’s predictions seem to be ripped right from the latest headlines. Are these terrible events a sign that the end is indeed near? Are they an indication that Jesus might come, in all his power and glory, next Tuesday afternoon? Perhaps. But perhaps such speculation misses the point. Perhaps the point is that it always feels like the end of the world somewhere. That somewhere might be in a Bola-stricken village in Africa or in the bombed-out streets of the Middle East.

But that somewhere might also be in the heart of the person in the pew who was laid off last week, or who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or who is facing their first Christmas alone. All these things can feel like the end of the world and can make us want to run for cover, to cower in a corner and quiver with fear. Yet Jesus insists that we need not be afraid. Instead, when things seem to be going from bad to worse to worse again, Jesus invites us to stand tall, to lift up our heads, and to strain our eyes toward the horizon because it is precisely at such desperate moments that he promises to come.

He may not come to us today as he will one day—riding on the clouds, with all his power and glory on full display. But he will be there by his Spirit, he still promises to come. And that is good news for today—even if the world does not end tomorrow! Sometimes we struggle to see this possibility in the depths of the problems of our lives. Often, we find it difficult as humans to believe and find the patience to await and be prepared for the promise to be fulfilled.

Patience may be a virtue. But it is not one most of us want to cultivate. Instead, we download apps on our phones that let us skip the line at the coffee place that is “in” at the moment, pay for subscriptions with on-line companies that entitle us to quick delivery of our latest purchases, and spend our Friday nights watching whatever is available on Netflix Instant. We do not like to wait for coffee or a slow Internet connection. And we do not like to wait for God. We do not want to be patient and I am on that list at times. Like many, I want my phone connection to be working right now, my lunch in five minutes not fifteen. I often have to be reminded or remind myself about patience.

As one Anne Lamott observes, believing in God is easy. It is waiting on God that is hard.  Psalm 25 and Jeremiah 33 come as encouragement to those who are tired of waiting for God and who may be ready to give up. These texts from this week’s scriptures set for reading assure us that the one for whom we wait is faithful. Because he kept the promise he made through the prophet Jeremiah in Christ’s first advent, we can trust that he has not forgotten us, but will remember us according to his unfailing love.

Someone I read but can’t remember the name of once wrote that the greatest challenge for people who believe in Christ’s second coming is to live the sort of life that reflects God’s call and Jesus’ example. It means that people will observe and say, so that’s how people are going to live when Gods call and example in Jesus takes over our world.  God’s people are called to act with love grace and righteousness. We are then assured that all such a life is not ultimately a result of our own striving but is the gift of the one who makes us “blameless in the sort of life that reveals God’s call to us. God would enable us to see a picture of holiness with a promise to “increase and enrich [our] love.” Such behaviour would be a sign to all that we are able to be  lead into paths that are “loving and faithful.”

Friday, 23 November 2018

Things Are Not How They Appear.

“Is Jesus really the king?” It was Pilate’s question in John 18. But it is ours too. In a world that seems to be constantly falling apart (despite Psalm 93’s insistence that the King of kings has set it firmly in its place), it can be hard to believe that Jesus is really the king. Yet our faith tells us he is. But as Jesus reminds us in John 18, he is a different kind of king. Sometimes, he chooses to clothe himself in weakness instead of strength. As we read in the Psalms from our scriptures sometimes, he robes himself in meekness instead of majesty. Sometimes, he comes as the king of the cross instead of the king of glory.

Australians it seems are like North Americans in that they seem quick to blame their politicians when things go wrong but slow to give them credit when things go right. Although I must admit in recent times it is harder to find the things that are going right. King David it seems knew better and he uses soaring poetry to celebrate the difference a good king can make and to declare that another king (an even greater king than him!) is coming. David declares that it will happen. And thanks be to God, we Christians have faith that in Jesus Christ, it has.

I read somewhere that some years ago in the USA the company, Allstate Insurance ran a popular advertising campaign featuring a character named “Mayhem.” In each ad, Mayhem takes on a new form (a satellite dish, a texting teenager, or a poorly secured Christmas tree) to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. After each incident, an ominous voice says, “Mayhem is everywhere. . . are you in good hands?” In a world full of mayhem, those Christians who come into worship this week may be wondering if they are in good hands. We hope that they may leave with the assurance that they are because Jesus is king.

As we think and reflect upon Kings and kingship I am reminded that there is a scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends have finally gained an audience with the legendary Wizard. Smoke fills the air, his voice booms around them, and the four friends quake with fear—until Dorothy’s little dog Toto slips away, pulls back a curtain, and exposes the real Oz. That is when Dorothy and her friends discover that things are not how they first appeared. The great and powerful Oz is not so great and powerful after all.

Something similar happens in our scripture from Revelation 1 this week. Only this time, when the curtain is pulled back, the situation is reversed. With an oppressive emperor sitting on the throne in Rome and persecution breaking out all around them, John’s congregations may well have wondered if Jesus Christ was so great and powerful after all. It is chaos, not Jesus that appears to rule their world. Yet Revelation 1 insists that things are not how they appear. When the curtain is pulled back, Jesus Christ is not only revealed to be the one who will be the ruler of the kings of the earth.

No. He is spoken of as the one who is the ruler of the kings of the earth. Despite how things may first appear, his power and reign are seen as a present reality. John the writer of Revelation’s drives this point home when he twice insists that the Lord God is the one who is and was and will be (if you read Revelations 1 note how John breaks the expected sequence of past/present/future in order to place the present tense in the emphatic position). The “isness” of God’s presence and Christ’s reign are what the church celebrates on this Christ the King Sunday. Yes, we use the image that someday every eye will see him coming on the clouds. But those who have the eyes of faith can see that God is with us—today. So those of faith then say that Jesus is king—today. So he deserves our worship and allegiance—today.

Saturday, 17 November 2018


When we woke up this morning, many of us stepped into a world of expectations. This was not a conscious decision; it's just where we live, in a land where life is so good we have the luxury of taking many things for granted. The air conditioning stayed on, so we could awake to a comfortable room temperature; and if it was dark when we awoke, we reached for a light switch, so the invisible dangers could be revealed. Then we walked into a room with running water inside the house. On a Sunday some of you will be even listening to my voice over the sound system you expected and hoped to work so you could hear me when I turned the switch on. However this Sunday will be different in that we are in Melbourne but the expectations are still there.

So many things we expect in life we just take for granted until something doesn't work. The alarm doesn't go off. It's hot in the house. The light switch is non-responsive. We panic for a minute. We get frustrated. Then we think, "This is not how my day is supposed to be. My life is supposed to play out in such a way that I have all that I need to be comfortable. However, this morning, somebody or something flipped the script. And now I have no power when I'm supposed to have power."

Most of the rest of our world plays out a very different script; a minor power outage is disappointing. Outside of our country or outside of our neighbourhood there are problems and concerns many of us can't even begin to comprehend. There are illnesses that can't be treated, people dying in need of food, political and civil unrest, and overt exploitation and abuse of humanity and nature. A power outage in most of the world is a good day. Yet many of us see the discomfort and shock of power outages in this country, natural disasters like hurricanes and weather-pattern changes, wars in places where wars have been waged since the beginning of recorded history, and some of us interpret these events as "the sign of the times."

Where we live, 'be alert' became more a catch-cry in the 'war against terror' or a tool in the weaponry of road-safety campaigners, than an issue of spiritual 'safety'. What kinds of spheres do we need to be alert in where we live? What do we expect our world to be like in such an environment? One field in which we certainly need to remain spiritually alert and informed about our expectations is in the face of the multitudinous cranks out there, peddling extremist, fundamentalist versions of what Jesus is on about.

Not just in what we consider 'extremist' churches, but within mainline ones these days. The recent debates and news about abuse issues and about same gender acknowledgement are some examples. It can happen!

It doesn’t just happen out there somewhere but can happen right here amongst one’s own community.  How can we live in our time and God's time at the same time, in the world and in the church as Christ's Body, and do it free from fear? 'Perfect love casts out fear' says John. Persecution of Christians these days in some of our societies is just as likely to come from fundamentalist protestant or catholic factions within churches more than from outside.

Those out there in the wide margins can still persecute and the possibility is growing within in some quarters. The places where misguided people try to draw in church margins tightly round fellow Christians. Isn't it ironic that that's the way Jesus' warnings may be fulfilled today? That Jesus speaks of wars, earthquakes, and famines, as 'the beginning of birth-pangs' could be a helpful way of exploring the pains that our world still - as always - labours under. We have become very comfortable with the expectation that all will remain the same or get better. I really wonder where our focus might be. Is it in the expectation of all the comforts being there and available all the time?

On the other hand, is it on where God calls us to be and is it on the most important thing of God’s great love for us. What do we really have to bear to bring something worthwhile to birth? Have we even thought about it? Have we thought about what it is we are meant to be doing here and now?  As distinct from theological philosophising, what practical and constructive steps must we take to 'endure to the end'? I will leave you with some more questions to ponder over the next weeks before our focus is taken to shops and parties and gifts and all the other trappings of our western Christmas lifestyle.

Are we as Christians or even those outside the faith listening for what we say and working out how we act in love as we face those whom we meet day to day? And what is this end that Jesus talks about? Whom, is the end for and is it important? Is the Christian call to be working to enable God’s kingdom to be here and now in his love the most important thing? Is this scripture passage too close to the bone?

Friday, 9 November 2018

Societies Fringe Dwellers.

Often, something positive eventually comes from a disaster. This does not mean that the disaster was God’s way of achieving the positive. The birth of David results from Ruth’s union with Boaz (encouraged by Naomi), but the biblical events preceding that— Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s incest with his daughters, the famine and death of Naomi’s family— are not God’s preferred method of bringing grace into the world.

If we look at Divorce despite it not being ideal and not what God wants for us it is necessary because of our choices and mistakes. The way God calls us to live as shown in the life of Jesus seems so perfect, yet we are forgiven as we struggle to live in a holy way. Out of divorce can come positive things as we evaluate our own mistakes in the relationship and work towards not making them again. Out of the pain can come positive growth that enables the person going through divorce to be much more fully present and available in their following relationships including maybe a new partner.

One of the first widow’s I ever understood to be a widow was young. She was someone I had known in the community and her husband died of a heart attack while playing basketball. He was twenty-nine. Suddenly, the notion of widowhood became clear to me. It was not that a woman simply outlived her husband, but that there was a blank space at the table, an empty side of the bed, a phone number that goes unanswered, conversations that become one-sided. Widows and widowers of all ages and circumstances frequently surround us. And we forget their status.

We forget that they are among those considered most vulnerable and most wise in Scripture. We forget that God’s heart is with them. It is critical to remember that her beloved, deceased partner may not have been a saint, but she will still grieve. That the person still living is still thinking of their loved one, even if you are afraid to bring up the subject. That she may grow accustomed to her new state, but never stop missing the ones who rest in light. Being widowed, being left out of partnership, should not mean being left out of community.

Let not the community of God forsake those who mourn. It is not enough to say God is with them. We are to be the hands, words, and consolation of the Spirit with widows, orphans, and strangers. Throughout his ministry, Jesus called to attention those on the margins of society, those who had previously gone unnoticed, the poor, the blind, the lame, the beggars, the lepers, military personnel, and widows. It’s a reminder particularly as many of us in Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) will be marking Armistice or Remembrance Day which falls this Sunday. These are the same people we find on the margins of our societies today. Those who still are excluded, those whom society looks down on or simply ignores. A widow, living in poverty created by the institution charged with her care. An aged person placed in a Home as there is no one to manage things for them or even visit them.

This gospel reading from Mark 12 that continues today doesn’t seem like good news: A widow giving her all to a corrupt institution, an institution that fails to care for her as it is supposed to do. But she gives anyway. And Jesus commends her giving. He commends her and condemns the system. Jesus holds her up as an example of how small but significant acts can break down a cycle of injustice and corruption.

In the culture of Jesus, widows were non-people. Without a man to support or validate them in society, they were non-beings. Vulnerable and invalid, it was easy not to see them. It is easy not to see the people on our streets living without shelter, food or clothing. It’s easy not see the desperation of the refugees trying to reach countries where they might be better off. It’s easy to blame the poor, the immigrants, the refugees, the disabled and many others who are suffering. Yet, Jesus not only notices widows on many occasions during his ministry, in this week’s text, he actually uses a widow to teach trust and reliance on God.

This gospel is not talking to us about a comparative giving table, steering the prosperous to give more. It is encouragement for those who go against the grain, who practice subversion in whatever way they can, even in the face of injustice. Who, by their subversion, make inroads into creating justice and fairness for all God’s people. It doesn’t always take placards and a lot of shouting for trends and policies to be reversed. Persistent, simple subversion also does the trick.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Vain Offerings

In this week’s Gospel reading from Mark 12 Jesus has already argued with the Pharisees and Herodians about paying taxes to Caesar, and with the Sadducees about the concept of resurrection. Now a scribe, overhearing their arguments and judging Jesus to be a smart cookie, poses his question. It's odd that Jesus gives him a straight answer instead of an object lesson (as when he asked for a coin from the Pharisees) or a counter-question. Perhaps he knows the scribe is asking a genuine question and doesn't have a hidden agenda?

In Matthew's version (22:34-40) and in Luke's version (10:25-28), the questioner is a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Mark's scribe seems to be honest. Mark's story is also unusual in that the scribe congratulates Jesus on giving a good answer, and that Jesus responds by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God.". The Pharisees and Sadducees have just been shown up by a lowly scribe! He even gets in a dig at the Sadducees' focus on the temple, "This is much more important than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

There is something touching in this encounter that offers hope to churches today. Despite those who try to control Jesus, to manipulate or discredit him, there is still hope for the few who come to him with genuine questions.

Have you ever thought about, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?... bring no more vain offerings” means for us as those who seek to live as Jesus did. Let’s try another tack. God is lonely for us. God, our Creator, our very help in time of need, longs for us, for our love, for our prayers for help, for prayers of praise and thanksgiving. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul is often quoted.

Have you ever wondered why God, our heavenly parent who formed us in her own image, longs for the companionship that comes during times of silent prayer and meditation; during times when we talk and laugh out loud with God; when we cry out in sorrow and petition; and yes, even, perhaps most especially, at those times when we scream in anger. These are the presents, the gifts that we can bring to our God who desires no material evidence of our love. What can our high spires, our golden chalices, our "burnt offerings" give to God that God does not already have?

Shall we seek to adorn the throne of the One who, according to Revelation, sits on the golden throne surrounded by worshipping creatures crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy?" Shall we expect to augment the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? How redundant that would be. No, these are but window dressing, substitutes for what God really wants from us: “...and the second is like unto it you shall love your neighbor as yourself...” As the prophet Micah reminded us, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God. 

Martin Smith, SSSE, is Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. His book, Co-Creation with God, provides profound insights into the way we view our relationship with our Creator-Parent. Martin's thesis is that God invites and welcomes our co-equal participation in the unfolding of our lives and future. Posing this provocative question, "God, what are we to make of this?" Martin counsels us to allow a partnership to form in which we jointly create our future according to the will of God.

Carter Heyward, feminist theologian at the Episcopal Divinity School and author of numerous books, says, "In the beginning was the relationship." Thus, relating to and with God enriches us and, Martin suggests, enriches the heart of God, also. How can you say that you love God whom you have not seen, when you hate creation and your neighbour whom you have seen?

Another gift that we can present to God is to mirror the love so freely given to us in our relationships of peace, harmony and justice with others in the world. This gift we can bring before God in thanksgiving and praise for God's love. We can allow that love to be a model for all of our earthly relationships. We can understand that God's will for us is that we should love equality, do justice, love our neighbors, those living anywhere in this global village, and walk in humble thanksgiving for the incredible blessings of God's love.

We are to demonstrate fairness in our business dealings, compassion and justice in our encounters with other human beings, see the face of God in both friend and foe, and invite the holy spirit to be present in all dialogues, discussions, and relationships. This is what is called for by the Prophet Isaiah and it stands as a blueprint for how God wishes us to live.

Friday, 26 October 2018

A Loud Faith

Words are powerful. Words can shape us. Amazingly, words can build us or break us, melt us or meld us. Words sometimes define who we are or prophesy who we will be. Words can demean or insult. “You’ll never amount to anything.” “You’re just lazy.” They can transform us or bring us to our knees. “You have cancer.” “Will you marry me?” “I love you.” “You’re fired.” “I don’t care.” “You have the right to remain silent.” Sometimes words have power because of their volume. Adjusting the volume can affect the impact of just about any word.

If you have been or ever watched a mother who has learned the power of a whispered, “Come here, right now!” I’ve also learned the importance of raising my voice, “young man, a car!” when I sense the wobbly, bicycling six-year-old is in danger. Of course, our body language, tone, and facial expressions all contribute to the power of our words. In Bartimaeus, the blind beggar’s encounter with Jesus, words matter in Mark 10 from our scriptures this week. Because of his blindness, Bartimaeus has to rely on words a more than others. He doesn’t see Jesus coming his way, he just hears about it from others and then he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The response of the crowd is that “many sternly warned him to be quiet. . ..” Sometimes you can sense the power of words by how many “shhhs” trail after those words. Bartimaeus was told to be quiet. Do you know what it’s like to be censored or hushed? Sometimes it happens when you point out an injustice at work or at school or in the church. Sometimes it happens when you finally name the elephant in the room. I’ve seen it happen in committee meetings and Bible studies. I’ve seen it occur in family settings and between married couples.

I remember meeting a person whose sister has a mental disability. In her family, no one talks openly about this reality. I once said to this person, “Why don’t you just bring it up sometime when you are talking to your parents?” They said, “No way, I can’t even imagine saying the words.” This person was silenced by the power of family dynamics before she could even open her mouth.

Where do you feel silenced? At work? Is it on committees such as the parent teacher association or even at church maybe? Is it within your own family? What are the words you can’t even imagine saying? What are the words you can’t even imagine saying above a whisper? Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus and is told by more than one person to be quiet. For most of us that would be all it would take to shut us down. Most of us are quick to read social cues or the emotional climate of our various settings. Most of us will pay attention to facial expressions or watch others to see how to behave.

And, if someone had to actually tell us we were behaving rudely or speaking out inappropriately, they wouldn’t have to tell us more than once before we’d modify our behaviour. If your boss or your teacher or God forbid, even I in my role as a minister told you to be quiet, most of you probably would. Bartimaeus is a little different. He’s a little bolder. Maybe it is the blindness that creates a missed visual cue or two. Maybe it is simply his intense need. Maybe he has matured to the point where he doesn’t care what others think. Whatever it is, when Bartimaeus is silenced, he just turns up the volume and “cried out even more loudly.”

Can you imagine turning up the volume on your faith? Can you imagine turning up the volume when you cry out to God? Can you imagine turning up the volume when others are saying, “Shhh, be quiet?” Can you imagine asking for mercy or sight or healing in the loudest voice you can manage? Bartimaeus turns up the volume because he senses Jesus is near. He cries out and the scripture tells us that Jesus stops in his tracks. “Jesus stood still.” Can you picture that moment with the audio on?

Bartimaeus is told by many to be quiet. He cries out louder and louder until his loud cry of faith causes Jesus to freeze. Then, powerful words are exchanged. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers “My teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus speaks and because of his loud faith, healing happens. I wonder what would happen if you and I turned up the volume on our faith a bit? What if you and I cried out to God a little louder?

What if we were sure enough about what we wanted from Jesus that we could shout it out at the top of our lungs? What if having Jesus stop in our midst was more important than pleasing our critics or having good manners or doing what others expected of us? Words are powerful. In the right place, at the right time, spoken loudly enough, words can even stop a saviour and bring healing. It then raises the question of each one of us as to how loud our faith is.