Friday, 29 May 2020

Dream those Dreams of God

The anniversaries of key markers in our lives are important. Birthdays are a good example. Some of us age until we are not all that crazy about our birthdays. They are a sign we are getting older, but even as we age, birthdays are important. Birthdays celebrate the labour of the woman who gave us birth; they celebrate the way in which we were nurtured as children; they celebrate another year given to enjoy. Birthdays are a big deal.

So, it is with other key anniversaries in life, such as wedding anniversaries or the milestones of our children’s lives. These are marker events remembered and celebrated annually. These anniversaries mark the significant passages of our lives. They also give us the framework for our stories. This is true not only of happy times, of course, but also of our difficult times. I wonder how the Covid-19 pandemic will be flagged and remembered as part of our stories. Will it be marked by a special day or be part of our histories only?

If you’ve experienced the breakup of a marriage, each year you remember the time when that happened. If you’ve lost a loved one—a spouse, a parent, or a child— those dates are forever pressed upon your memory. Those anniversaries are not marked by parties, but they are times of remembrance. This is important, not only for individuals, but also for countries. In the Australia we have Australia Day with celebrations with fireworks and outdoor barbecues. The celebration calls to mind the stories of the arrival of non-indigenous people in this land and the deep sorrow for the indigenous people that followed.

Anniversaries remind us of our stories, so it’s important that we observe the church anniversary of Pentecost. This is the day when we tell the stories and celebrate the events that gave birth to the church. In the first weeks after the Resurrection, there was no organised thing called the church, just people who had known or followed Jesus, who had experienced his resurrection. One day they are all together, and then, suddenly, miraculous events begin to happen.

A mighty wind blows through the house and shakes the very foundation. Tongues of fire leap from person to person. People begin to speak in the languages of the world. Then, after all this chaotic uprising of the Spirit, the Spirit expresses itself in yet another way as Peter quiets everyone down and preaches. He explains to them the meaning of the events that have just taken place. Peter tells the story and teaches us something about our roots, so the story of Pentecost teaches us about our roots as the church. Telling and retelling the story reminds us of the fundamental truths that are deeply embedded in our birth as the body of Christ.

We need the reminder because we live in the mundane “everydayness” of the church. Every one of us can find something to criticise in the church. We all can tell of disappointment, or even of hearts broken by the church. It’s important, then, to remember that the church is more than the fallible human beings it comprises. To use the words of an old creed, “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time,” not because we are the church, not because we embody the full measure of what the church should be, but rather because it is not ours, it is God’s.

For all of its faults and failings, it is through the church that we have been told the stories of the love of God in Jesus Christ. The church, for all its human messiness, is a gift of God. A second thing the Pentecost birthday story of the church teaches us is that the church, from its birth, was multinational, multicultural, and multilingual. We need frequent reminders of this. The text from Acts we here on this day is a testimony that at the church’s birth we were multinational, multicultural, and multilingual. We certainly don’t look like it most of the time, do we? Unfortunately, our congregations are often not reflective of the God-given nature of real church. We have to tell the story to be reminded of our true self. Our true self isn’t monolithic; our true self isn’t mono-cultural; our true self is multicultural.

There’s something else in the birthday story that’s worth remembering. After all the chaos and uproar of wind and fire and languages, Peter calls for order and attempts to interpret what all of this means reminding us to remember  that it is important “your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” This Peter takes from the Hebrew Scripture of Joel 2:28. Maybe from its birth, the church was meant to be a big dreamer for God. The church, from its birth, was to be a visionary change agent, not an agent of conformity, was meant to have visions and to dream those dreams.

Peter, on the day of Pentecost, tells us so. The church should always be dreaming God’s big dream. When our dreams are small or absent, when we are satisfied with the status quo, when we think we’ve done as much as we can possibly do, we’ve quit being the church, because the church is a dreamer. The church is visionary; the church is a possibility place. It’s important to tell our birthday stories and remember again our beginnings.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Where Did he Go?

Where did he go, the broken body, the strapping thirty-year-old, where did he go, my love, the crucified, the friend who ate with us at dawn by the lake? Peer into the clouds, scan the stratosphere; you must find him and bring him back, we cannot live without this glorious body. For in him the fullness of the divine dwells, and where he has gone, the fullness of our humanity has followed, and who are we, without our humanity?

A human body is now with God, as we Christians say, seated in equal power, and so we stare at the sky amazed, searching for our lost humanity.

The gospel readings set for scripture we have been hearing since Easter Day has been leading us step by step towards today's disappearing act. Early on, the story of Thomas and the wounds warned us to believe without seeing; then the story of the road to Emmaus suggested that we meet Christ every time we gather to share the meaning of the scriptures and to eat together -- every Sunday we recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Then we were warned that Jesus is a door through which we walk to green pastures, safety, and fulfillment; then the remarkable statement: I am in the Father and the Father in me.

The Christian community that wrote these words back in the first century had come to the realisation that the absent friend was none other than God. And finally, last Sunday we heard above vines and branches, and were reminded that our life flows from the life of God in Christ. In many ways, through several stories, the Gospels have been telling us about the meaning of our lives as Christians when our lover, Jesus, is gone. We have been gently guided to trust this absent lover.

But where is his Body? you say, scanning the sky. Luke, writing in Acts foresaw your question, and so the angel says to the disciples, "Why are you people standing there looking up to heaven? The body you are looking for is not there." The letter to the Ephesians points clearly to where it is: for God has "...put all things under Christ's feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all."

You are his Body. Look in the mirror when you look for Christ. But you are not his Body alone. Rather, we are his body, together.

His Body, gathering week by week, --physically gathered together, hearing scripture with our bodies, praying with our bodies, with our bodies praising a Ruler who is far above all the powers and principalities, presidents and governments of this world.

A body gathered to eat at a table open to all, acting out for all to see and touch, to hear and smell, the New World of justice which God is giving birth to among us even now. We gather to eat, and we have a glimpse of what it feels to be truly human, made in God's image.

The Body gathered to wash and anoint new members, dramatically acting out the meaning of Jesus's own dying and rising, repeated in our own sharing in his passing. We wash new members of our Body to give them a memorable experience of new birth. For belonging to Christ --and not to the powers and principalities of this world-- is like a new birth.

The Body gathered to celebrate the mystery of love between two persons, pointing to lovers and saying, "there is God, between them, praise the Lord!" --and seeing in their faithfulness, a distant echo of Christ's own faithfulness to us, and our longing for him. The Body gathered to forgive sins --even in a private confession the whole church is present-- proclaiming the deeply subversive Good News: your sins are forgiven.

The Body gathered to lovingly anoint its sick members, recognizing Christ in them, and committing ourselves to minister to them, attempting to mirror, in our life together, God's own infinite compassion and mercy, even when in death we gather to honour a person's life and tenderly honour the body that once serve it.

The Body gathered to praise God for leaders, to appoint them as such, to recognize the blessing and torment of leadership based on service, flowing from our memory of being sent out by Christ in service to the world.

Unlike Thomas, we are invited to trust without seeing. Unlike the disciples at Emmaus, our hearts burn, and we recognise him without his being here physically. Unlike his own disciples, who denied him, we trust him like a door to lead us to our happiness. Unlike the Pharisees, we trust that he is God. For we are grafted unto him like branches, and his physical presence has passed into our celebrations as a gathered people. Here, in the washing, eating, listening, announcing, praying, anointing, forgiving, marrying, healing, burying, we are Love's own Body, taken, blessed, broken and given for the life of the world. --Much more interesting, if you ask me, than I used to find reading the Sunday paper in bed.

No, we should not be looking up to heaven; The Body of Christ that is gone, is, in fact, right here. We are that Body, which is why, we will instinctively greet each other in worship with Christ's own words of greeting: "peace be with you."

Friday, 15 May 2020

The Tree of Life

One of the things that I notice when arriving in a new part of the world to live has been the emphasis on things rural. I am not sure why but think it might reflect my upbringing. Often this has reminded me of the importance of trees in our life. Where I come from in New Zealand we tend to sadly, take our magnificent trees for granted but since arriving in Australia I have been made aware of how important they are in our lives.

It also reminded me of a time many years ago when I had to take down a tree as a task in Bob a Job for scouts. The person didn’t tell me why the tree needed to be cut down, I was just told to get it out of the way. The tree looked fine to me, full of leafy branches, a huge trunk, and standing straight and tall. But when I started the cuts to take it down, I found that the inside was decayed. It was all rotted away. The inside of the tree was hollow.

The tree looked fine from the outside but was dead inside.

The same thing happens with us, with humanity, as well. We may look fine on the outside, but without the Holy Spirit living within, we are hollow, we’re dead inside. Jesus is telling his disciples in this week’s scripture for John 14 that he is leaving but God will give them an Advocate a Counsellor (the Holy Spirit) that will abide with them and will be in them. In this way, they won’t be “hollow” or dead inside. Trees are used quite often in the Bible. The term “tree of life” appears in Genesis 2:9 and in Revelation 22:14. In between the Bible refers to “tree” or “trees” many times, in ways both practical and spiritual.

Some practical ways are readily apparent - well for those of us of mature years – the wooden chair where we sat at a wooden desk to write with a wooden pencil on paper made from wood fibres or the buildings where we lived and worshiped, just to name a few.  But trees not only serve to meet the utilitarian needs of people, but also serve as metaphors for spiritual growth and responsibility, as well. One example is the giving of one’s life for others. The tree is cut down and made into shelter, fuel, etc. This is a metaphor for the sacrificial ministry of Jesus. A second example is in the living tree providing shade, shelter, and food during a long lifetime.

I think the “tree of life” mentioned in Gen. 2:9 refers to Jesus in many ways. The tree of life was said to be centrally located in the Garden of Eden, readily accessible. Likewise, Jesus is centrally located in both His earthly and His heavenly garden. Another way is that trees are often planted as windbreaks, shelterbelts, and buffer
strips along rivers and streams. Psalm 91:1-2 says, “You who live in the shelter of the “Most High,” who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress…”. We are sheltered by the “tree of life”.  A third way (and my favourite) is the type of work trees do to provide us with life. The work of photosynthesis. Trees and other plants take carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to produce sugars that are converted into leaves, stems, and roots. In this process, they give off oxygen. Trees take the carbon dioxide we breathe out and return to us life-giving oxygen.

Jesus, as the “tree of life” has taken our “carbon dioxide”, our sins and “converted” it into life-giving oxygen. In keeping with our theme of trees and the tree of life, I’d like to tell you a story.

Jesus was born in a manger (built from a tree), preached in a boat (built from a tree), and died on a cross (built from a tree). I refer you to a legend/story “The Legend of the Three Trees as a helpful exposition of how trees can help our understanding of our faith and relationship with Jesus. Jesus, as the Great Carpenter, knows what needs
repairing in our lives. He looks past the outward appearance and looks on our hearts. He can fill up our emptiness with an Advocate who will be with us forever. Jesus will give us the life-giving oxygen (the Holy Spirit) to live within us, so we won’t be like a hollow, decaying tree. And because of all this, we can be as alive on the inside as we appear on the outside.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Sometime A Few Years Ago

Sometime a few years ago I was standing in my living room, watching a neighbour cut his lawn. For where we were living at the time it was a typically hot and sunny Saturday afternoon. My attention was drawn to him because I wondered why he wasn't inside watching the cricket or tennis. But there he was, outside, pushing the petrol-powered mower back and forth in endless repetitions, the noise of his lawn mower joining with other mowers from other neighbours in what some people call the "Saturday symphony."

Sometimes when you stand and watch a small drama will unfold - and on this occasion it was a bit like a pantomime for me because I was indoors and too far away to hear any of the words. As my neighbour crisscrossed the lawn, suddenly the door to the house opened and his five-year old son emerged, followed by his wife. She put a small, plastic replica of a mower on the grass so that the son could "help dad" cut the grass. Like father; like son. Very sexist in job allocation but still typical at that time.

Mum returned to the house, and I watched father and son pursue their separate courses, the son "mowing" over grass that the father had already cut. This charming scene continued for a minute or two, and of course, my heart was warmed by the whole thing.

Then something happened that surprised me, but also made the point with an exclamation. The son abruptly stopped mowing, abandoning the mower where it stood in the lawn. He disappeared into the house, and I thought he was through. He'd had enough, or it was too hot, or he realized he wasn't cutting grass anyway, or his five-year old attention span had reached its limit, ... none of my guesses were correct.

After a minute or two, he re-emerged followed by his mother. She was carrying a plastic grocery bags, resourceful woman that she was. She crouched at the plastic mower and tied the bag to the back of the mower where the handles attach to the blade cover. I glanced over to the father again and knew immediately what was occurring. The father's mower included a grass-catching bag. The son could not truly be like his father - it wouldn't quite be right - unless he was like his father in every detail. If his father had a grass catcher, then he needed one too.

Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me, has seen God my parent."

Just five weeks ago we recalled the crucifixion of Jesus and collectively wondered what kind of radical or revolutionary or extremist he must have been in order to get himself executed. He was vilified by the religious and political authorities of Judaism. He was sentenced to death under Roman decree, crucifixion being a uniquely Roman form of state sanctioned execution. What on earth do we law-abiding, tax-paying, church-going citizens have to do with him?

However, in this week's gospel reading from John 14 we are reminded that Jesus is neither renegade nor rogue. Instead, he stands precisely on the same ground with God. This same God has been known down through the centuries as the God who creates, who gives life, who seals covenant, who decrees law, who anoints rulers, and who speaks through prophets. This one, true, living God and Jesus are alike, in every detail. Rather than representing something totally new, unheard-of, or tangential, Jesus speaks that which is consistent, constant, and at the very core of the divine and human encounter. It turns out that the people in authority - local and empire-wide - have strayed. No wonder Jesus was accused of blasphemy.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. God's truth results in a life worth living. Jesus is the way into that truth. He was the way into that truth to people in the first century, just as he is the way into that truth for us. Occupying pew space, even on a regular basis, is no guarantee that we are immune to other "truths" that compete with God's truth. That has been so true over the last months as various beliefs about the Covid-19 Virus have been expounded.

These competing truths possess great attraction. For example, many hold to the truth that if we focus completely on our own life - our business and job, our assets and property - to the exclusion of everything else, we can greatly increase our personal net worth and live in greater comfort and enjoy greater pleasures. It is also true that we can ingratiate ourselves to those who hold the reins of power, and in the name of the "common good" achieve great personal and monetary benefits. Both of these examples are true.

However, God's truth, which has been consistently articulated from the beginning, and is affirmed by Jesus, slices through these competing truths, calling us to a life of fulfillment as its goal, not comfort. The widows and orphans cared for, the prisoners released, the sick visited, the forgotten remembered, the outcasts welcomed in, the workers compensated adequately, the strangers recognized, the foreigners given a home, choosing these activities and others like them, results in a different kind of life. Following a different truth results in a different life. Following God's truth, we behave as God behaves.

In our private lives, our professional lives, and our communal life Jesus is for us the way into the truth of a passionate God who calls us to a life worth living.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Shepherd or Thief?

When we read Luke’s description of the early church, it’s easy to become either nostalgic — “nostalgic — “Those were the good old days ...” or depressed — “What are we doing wrong?” Before falling prey to either reaction, however, it’s worth considering that we now live in a culture that no longer assumes church attendance is either expected or obligatory. That is, people no longer go to church because they feel they should. Instead, they give their time, energy, and resources to those activities and institutions that make a real difference in their lives.

So perhaps we should ask people what they want, what they need, even what they crave from their faith communities. My guess is that the variety of answers we receive will have one thing in common: we want life, real life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life characterised by fulfillment, generosity, and love. This is still probably the most important thing even though we are currently worshipping virtually or apart. Which is exactly what Jesus promises in the Gospel reading from John 10:1-10 today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”

There are still “thieves and bandits” promising life to our people but failing to deliver. They can set the context for our preaching. In response to the false promise of acceptance—if you become thin or beautiful enough—that animates so many diet fads, the Gospel promises unconditional acceptance. In response to the false promise of escape in the face of hardship that drives many to drugs and alcohol, the church offers a community that shares all in common (Acts 2:44)—including joys and suffering. In response to the false promise that contentment comes by having more stuff, the church reminds us that “the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1 NRSV).

You see, to me the audience craving abundant life has never been larger. So, let’s offer it.

 The quest for good leadership is a universal struggle. Good leaders bring life, peace, and joy. Poor leaders don’t. Some even seek power for no other reason than to control and fleece those under their (lack of) care. Leadership in the world currently, in face of the Covid-19 crisis, does seem to be somewhat lacking. In the Gospel for this week, John presents Jesus as the ultimate leader who loves and brings life to his followers, who, in turn, are called to lead and love those under their care. This is the message of this week’s Gospel reading.

This section does not stand alone. It is part of a much longer discourse and flows out of the preceding narrative. The John 9 story of the Sabbath-healing of the man born blind sets up Jesus’ statement about making the blind see and the sighted blind. In reaction, Jesus is challenged by Pharisees who ask if his words apply to them. His response begins the discourse that continues, uninterrupted, into John 10 — “Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

While this story appears to be part of the sequence beginning in chapter 7 at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, 10:22 seems to indicate that the Shepherd discourse happened a few months later at the Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah), which commemorated the Maccabean confrontation of true and corrupt leaders (about 160 BC). Since the Ezekiel 34 prophecy about the wicked shepherds of Israel was customarily read at this festival, it makes sense for this to be the setting for the shepherd discourse. But John certainly wants to keep the connection with the blind man in our minds.

In the discourse of John 10, the “blind” religious leaders of the previous chapter are Ezekiel’s wicked shepherds and Jesus’ thieves. Jesus, mixing his metaphors, claims to be the opposite. He is the good shepherd who enters through the gate with the gatekeeper’s permission. He is the gate through which the sheep enter to find safety and protection and go out to find pasture. He has the interests of God’s people at heart, unlike the thieves who “steal, kill, and destroy” the sheep. Bad leaders sacrifice the sheep on the altar of their own greed, power-hunger, or need for control. Jesus sacrifices himself for the sheep that they may find abundant life. It’s a simple test of leadership: who gets sacrificed, the sheep or the shepherd?

Every person is a leader in some sense, and we are all called to be “good shepherds” who lay down our lives for our “sheep.” To the extent that others are sacrificed or damaged by our needs for control, power, or material gain, we are less “shepherd” and more “thief.” But insofar as we lay aside our needs, insofar as we embrace sacrifice so that others don’t have to, we are the good shepherds that Jesus calls us to be. And only in this way can we, and those we lead, find life.

Friday, 24 April 2020

ANZAC Day from Epping

Sitting in my home in Epping I am thinking about those who would have gathered with us early in the morning to remember. As we draw near to Anzac Day 2020 and reflect on the situation of how Covid-19 will affect our celebration I am reminded also of the many dimensions to this day and its meaning. This year we are unable to gather with friends, family and mates and share those elements of service and relationships deeply formed from our own or our family members Service. We are unable to touch deep within ourselves in that moment those things which are important to life.

I want to focus on another dimension of life on this day. My focus not only being on this Anzac Day but also on the Christian faith which just might be relevant to a nation’s war memories and the legitimate honouring of its war dead. It’s the insight of the apostle Paul who generated so much early Christian theology. Centuries later, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (among others) would draw on this insight to great effect. What was it? Christianity calls for reconciliation between enemies.

For Paul, the enmity at issue was between God and humans – a notion jarring to modern ears, but not to his own contemporaries. What would have jarred for his contemporaries was his novel argument that God was the peacemaker. St Paul inverted the common idea that peace would come through humans cringingly appeasing an angry deity. In Paul’s theology, it is God who makes the declaration of peace. God is the friend-maker. Enmity is over and friendship begins.

This is the deep Christian meaning of reconciliation. And this way goes beyond loving enemies. It’s the “what’s next?” step. Reconciliation seeks abiding friendships. If the wells of Christianity are to be tapped this Anzac Day, it could be to encourage, support and celebrate the friendships between peoples all over the world, all former enemies from wars.

We might well learn from the ongoing relationships that have, against all odds, developed between those Anzacs and the Turkish people from that point of the campaign of Gallipoli. For us the ideal we seek would be that previous enemies need not only to be loved, but to be lived with.

Lest we Forget

What Binds Us.

In this week’s reading from Luke 24, two of the disciples are headed to Emmaus. Surely, they were still reeling from the loss of Jesus, but something keeps them moving. As they walk along, Jesus falls into step next to them. “What are we talking about?” he wants to know. They respond: “Haven’t you heard? Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place?” In short, “What rock have you been living under?” (“Well, actually . . .,” begins Jesus.)

It is almost comical as the friends share a long account of Jesus’s death and resurrection . . . with Jesus himself. Was he just letting them ramble on because he found it amusing? Or because he knew they wouldn’t believe him if he tried? And for that matter, why didn’t they recognise him?

Maybe the answer, though far less funny than Jesus making rock jokes, is simple: they were heartbroken.

The Pixar movie Inside Out gets into the head of Riley, an eleven-year-old girl whose family has just moved to San Francisco. While her whole life thus far has been mostly happy, she struggles with sadness at leaving her friends behind and adjusting to a new school, city, and hockey team. The main characters— the feelings inside Riley’s head— work together to help her process all the change. Their biggest challenge turns out to be this: in the process of all that moving, the “Sadness” character touches some of Riley’s old memories and finds that her touch turns them blue. In other words, once sadness starts to move around inside of you, it can colour even your happiest memories.

In seasons of grief or just difficult transition, nothing looks or sounds as it should. We might find ourselves feeling lost and alone, and even those closest to us can’t reach us. Change and loss can leave even the most familiar things unrecognisable. I’d venture that every person in the pews (or chairs) prior to Covid-19 will be able to relate to this on some level. Even now many without the technology are probably feeling loss.

So how does love transform sadness? What does resurrection mean when we are lost and hurting? What does it take to draw the broken-hearted back into fullness of life and hope?

In the story I have shared that I read that is in Riley’s case, it had everything to do with the embrace of her parents and her place at the family dinner table. It seems like we could say the same for those disciples. He stayed with them, and they didn’t know him. They sat together, but they could not see him. Then he broke the bread, and they said, “Of course that was him. Of course, it was. Our very hearts were on fire, when he came around . . .”

The Emmaus Road story is also a lesson in being prepared to recognise the holy in everyone we meet, regardless of whether or not we were expecting to meet God in just that way. Stories of unexpected allies, strangers in need, or the formation of community in an unlikely setting would illustrate this truth well. I would suggest that you read Ann Patchett’s book “Bel Canto” or watch the movie “The Way” to further explore the transformation that can take place when people are drawn together through tragedy or in the midst of chaos.

Again, looking at a reading from this week’s lectionary, we can see that Psalm 116 presents an interesting tension: that of being free while also being a servant. Chris Tomlin’s arrangement of “Amazing Grace/ My Chains Are Gone” give us a way of exploring this in worship and provides us with a point of reference. If we use the images of becoming unbound— alongside the psalmist’s use of servant language — we are enabled to reflect and look at our own lives and how we deal with those things that bind us all.

I find myself asking myself about what “bindings” are harmful? Some that come to mind are addiction, other people’s definitions of worth, material wealth, abusive relationships, and so forth. As the psalmist suggests, that the ways of being “bound” might also give us life. These could include community life, marriage, pro-reconciling movements, peace and justice work, and so on. I wonder what we think and how we would ponder such images in our own minds. I also wonder how we might lead others into a deeper understanding of servant leadership and how it might transform the church, the workplace, and the world.