Turning life around


At one point or any another, most us have, or will in the future have to, turn our lives around.


There is no such thing as a smooth run in life, where we get everything right the first time. If we think about life from the perspective of psychology, for example, there is an understanding that we reach a point in the growing up process, where we grow out of childhood, and need to take on a new maturity for the future. In depth psychology there is a particular emphasis on this not just at the stage of adolescence, but in the middle of life. I had my mid-life crisis a little early at age 38, but it did help at the time to realize that I wasn’t unusual to be going through such a thing!

Leave psychology behind and think about the last novel you read, novels are almost always telling stories about a life journey in one way or another – and they are never smooth. It’s the twists and turns of life that make it interesting! We love be entertained by Drama, but we are sometimes slow to accept that it is a normal and natural part of our lives.

Now then, think about the life journey from a spiritual perspective. There is no spiritual or religious tradition that I can think of, that does not incorporate an understanding of the need to ‘turn our lives around’ at some point. And here today, in these readings designated for our spiritual nourishment and growth in faith, we have stories of people making radical corrections to their lives.

Spectacularly, Saul becomes Paul. The persecutor of Christians becomes prime apostle to the gentiles (Acts 9:1-6).

The Psalmist praises God for his delivery from sheol, from the depths of despair to new hope. From grief, to joy (Psalm 30).

In John’s gospel we have the story of Peter’s forgiveness for his denial of the Lord on the night he was betrayed, his restoration to loving relationship with Jesus, and commissioning at the founding apostle of the Christian church (John 21:1-19).

Then in Revelation, we have the greatest conversation story of all – Jesus turning life turning around for the whole of humanity (Revelation 5:6-14).

In the story of Revelation, the narrator had been weeping, because he looked upon the devastation of the earth and saw no-one who could repair it. Much like we do at times when we look upon our world. When we pray again for Syria, or when we are confronted again by a friend who’s life is in tatters. Where will our help come from? Who can save us from such a mess?

Then, the narrator of Revelation sees a Lamb who had been slain. A curious image if this were a drama set in real time and space, but apocalyptic literature is more like the fantasy novels my 12 year old loves to read. The Lamb who was slain is the Prince of Peace in disguise. The author knows that his readers will recognise the symbol as referring to Jesus of Nazareth. This lamb, this Jesus is worthy and able to turn the world around. The heavenly creatures and elders sing of him,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,

for you were slain,

and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

and they shall reign on the earth.”

But note the difference between Jesus conversation and the apostles’ Paul and Peter. When Jesus turns life around, it is not for himself, and it is not just his own life. Jesus brought about a new era for the sake of people from every tribe and language and nation.

Jesus’ turn about, lays the foundation for Paul and Peter, and for all of us. Jesus turned life around – once for all. His death is a conversation of life from grief to joy – once for all.

I spent the week contemplating the gospel of John and Jesus’ three-fold question of Peter – Do you love me? It is undoubtedly a story there for us to see that Peter’s betrayal is forgiven and is therefore an example to us that no matter what we have done to deny Jesus there is a way back into relationship with him. It is also a story that is probably there at the end of the gospel to give weight to Peter’s authority as founding apostle of the Christian church.

But as I thought about Peter’s story I couldn’t quite work out how to say something meaningful about our stories that didn’t seem trite or sentimental. Then I returned again to Jesus, to the story of Jesus and noticed this very different kind of restoration or conversation story – a conversation enacted for our sake not for his. There is nothing trite or sentimental about that. Thank God – because there is nothing sentimental when we are in the midst of the darkness of despair, and hearing the call to get ourselves out of darkness and turn back towards the light.


Jesus lights the way. That is why we will pray for Syria again today. That is why I will pray for my friend’s tattered family again today. That is why I will pray for healing again today – because from the eternal point of view, Jesus has laid the foundation for a new story for life.

Fifth Sunday in Lent: A Fragrance of Christ – by Fr. David Moore

Last Sunday I enjoyed a rare event, worshipping at my local. (Usually I’m only there midweek.) I was blessed with beautiful music and this beautiful sermon. David usually shares his sermons on the parish website and they are always worth a read: stjohnscamberwell.org.au

a fragrance of christ

a sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 13 March 2016 at St John’s Anglican Church Camberwell by Fr David Moore, vicarthe lections: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:3-14, John 12:1-8

Lent’s final Sunday in this ‘Year C’ magnificently and terrifyingly illuminates the complex reality of the human heart – and the fact of the stark choice before all of us. Joy? Or calculation?

Today’s story is familiar to us. It’s among the best-attested Gospel episodes – told by all four evangelists, each in their own way, serving their particular theological purposes.1 John alone locates the event at the very eve of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.2 The story stands as a clear symbol of the choice everyone is going to be confronted with in the terrible events to come: Joy? Or calculation?

Caiaphas’ famous bit-part immediately preceding today’s story classically portrays the calculating mind: “You do not understand,” he tells his rule-keeping legalist colleagues, “that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed”.3 This is equivalent to a contemporary manifestation of calculating joy-less logic: the argument that the unity of the church can be accomplished by the persecution of homosexual persons. NO perfume, thank you very much!

What’s the problem with the outpouring of perfume? In Luke’s account, uniquely, the objection is that the woman applying it is a ‘sinner’.4 John follows Matthew and Mark in identifying money as the root issue.5 In Mark it was ‘some’ who objected.6 In Matthew it’s the ‘disciples’ who were ‘angry’.7 John alone singles out Judas as an individual manifestation of malevolence.8 “Why was this perfume not sold for [one year’s wages] and the money given to the poor?”9

We’re already alerted to the fact that the calculating mind is joy-less – quite literally, kill-joy – unwilling to live in joy’s fragrance. Now we can hardly be in any doubt as to Jesus’ attitude: he swiftly and thoroughly rebukes the calculating mind! “Leave [Mary] alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You do not always have me.”10

Note that responsibility to deal generously with the poor is unquestioned, and assumed – by all the prophets and the entire weight of Jewish tradition. But genuine concern for the poor by the rich would in fact result in Sabbath economics reform of the entire economic system which favours the rich – not mere charity crumbs from the table. Recapitulating and summarising his no-holds barred assault on the religious establishment in that long episode in chapter 9, Jesus effectively says: Your excuse for rejecting joy is illegitimate – indeed dishonest.

So… ‘six days before the Passover’, in the home of the miraculously-raised Lazarus,11 in the midst of the celebration of ‘dinner’, an extravagant gesture of love in the pouring out of the ‘costly nard’, “the house … filled with filled with the fragrance of the perfume”.12 The calculating and joy- less spirit is emphatically rejected by the Jesus who will himself shortly pour out – and ask the Father to receive – his life as an extravagant fragrance.13

Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50 John 12:12ff
John 112:1520ff
JLouhkne 171:3:570,39

1 2 32 43 45 56 76 87 89 9

  1. 10  John 12:7-8
  2. 11  John 11:1-44
  3. 12  John 12:3

LMuakrek 71:43:74,-359; Matthew 26:8-9 Mark 14:4-5; Matthew 26:8-9 Matrtkh1e4w:426:8
JMoahtnth6e:w702-67:18; 12:4

J J o o h h n n 6 1 : 2 7 : 0 5 . – 7 T 1 h ; e 1 a 2 m: 4 o u n t o f ‘ 3 0 0 d e n a r i i ’ w a s t h e e q u i v a l e n t t o a y e a r ’ s w a g e s f o r t h e a v e r a g e w o r k e r . John 12:5. The amount of ‘300 denarii’ was the equivalent to a year’s wages for the average worker.

13 John 17

Jesus’ invitation to us is to repent – from joy-less calculation, to celebrate in the fragrance of profligate and abundant love! St Paul got this – and implored that Christ’s disciples are to be the fragrance of Christ.14

Here then is Lent five’s invitation to us. In what ways might we be captive to the calculating mind? Why do we resist joy and delight and love? Why do we refuse to take what our recent guest Sarah Bachelard called the ‘risk of delight’? In her marvellous Lent lecture Sarah observed: “We live in an essentially utilitarian culture, and seek for our value and fulfilment in our usefulness, our accomplishments, in the ‘good’ we do”.

I invite us all to hold that thought for a moment… Let us reflect on all the ways in which we wittingly and unwittingly reduce all things, and all persons even, to mere utilitarian value…

Sarah reminded us that “this is where the notion of God creating from and calling forth joy is so subversive… How can we glorify and enjoy God, unless we take joy in the gift God has given? Joy is the meaning of human life, joy in thanksgiving and thanksgiving as joy.”15 Lazarus’ sister Mary models for us joy in thanksgiving, and thanksgiving as joy.

We’ve also heard St Paul this morning, writing to the church at Philippi, confessing that all his calculations were empty, meaningless, all his proud accomplishments counted as nothing.16 Joy, he realised, is coming to know Christ by sharing in his sufferings, sharing in the power of his resurrection, by becoming like him in his death.17

Therefore, preparing us in this last week of Lent for the great spiritual undertaking of Holy Week, today’s gospel makes the choice before us very clear. Calculation? Or, joy?

“You shed your fragrance,” wrote St Augustine, “and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you”.18 Either we align ourselves, then, with the scheming and calculating mind of Caiaphas, Pharisees, and Judas; or we align ourselves with the feast of Lazarus and Martha and Mary, and especially with Mary, pouring herself out extravagantly, filling the house with the fragrance of joy and delight and love.

To conclude, I invite us to pray together our 2016 parish prayer, the prayer of Charles de Foucauld, a man who poured his life out as the fragrance of Christ:

I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will. Whatever you do,
I will thank you.

Let only your will be done in me, as in all your creatures,
and I will ask nothing else.

Into your hands
I commend my spirit.
I give it to you freely with all the love of my heart.

For I love you, Lord,
and I need to give myself into your hands,
with a trust beyond all measure, because you are my Mother.



  1. 14  2 Corinthians 2:14
  2. 15  The Reverend Dr Sarah Bachelard, ‘Risking Delight: Yearning for Joy in a World of Pain’, public lecture hosted by the Education Committee of StJohn’s Camberwell, 3 March 2016.
  3. 16  Philippians 3:4,7
  4. 17  Philippians 3:10-11
  5. 18  St Augustine of Hippo, George Appleton (ed.), The Oxford Book of Prayer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp5.
  6. 19  As rendered by John Halsey in “Prayer, Politics and Transfiguration”, in Kennedy S (ed), Spiritual Journeys: An Anthology of Writings by people

living and working with those on the margins, Veritas Publications, 1997, pp61-72.

Fourth Sunday in Lent (almost)

I didn’t preach last Sunday, the fourth in Lent. And whilst I had planned to do the discipline of digesting the readings and writing few thoughts for the blog regardless, it didn’t happen and I let it go!

I have, however, been lecturing on LOVE in lent. Giving three lectures for the ecumenical council of Heidelberg/ East Ivanhoe. So it has occurred to me quite belatedly, to post a favourite snippet from last week’s lecture on “God is Love.” 

Here ’tis… Picking up from the observation that Augustine equated divine work of love with the gift of the Holy Spirit.


Saint Augustine was so moved by the image of Romans 5:5—the outpouring of the gift of God-who-is-Love into the human heart—that he functionally equated the gift of Love with the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is, for Augustine, they are one and the same thing—the Holy Spirit is Love.

. . .

In the tradition of Christian theology across the centuries, generally speaking there are two suggested locations for the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. The first, which I would guess is the perspective most familiar to most of us, is that the Holy Spirit is present in the work of redemption. We receive the Holy Spirit in conjunction with receiving the testimony of Christ, as a seal of our salvation from sin in Christ. Hence, the Holy Spirit is primarily Christ’s spirit, as the son proceeded from the Father, so the spirit proceeds from the son.

There are a number of theological difficulties that. I believe that it has locked Christians into an hierarchical authority structure for both God and church. If there is no love outside of redemption then we are all doomed, so lets not go there.

There is another perspective that locates the Holy Spirit’s presence in the work of creation. At the foundation of the world as narrated in Genesis chapter one, the breath, ruarch, spirit of God enlivened the word of creation.

Some theologies, take this to be grounds for a kind of universalism. Love, the Holy Spirit, is the creative life-force, the universal energy that sparks life. I have many friends whose hold to this theological narrative. But if the weakness of love exclusively located in the Christian story is authoritarianism, for me, the weakness of love located in a single universal story is that it is in danger of ‘flattening out’ the rich diversity of human experience and difference is essential for love.

Love requires an ‘other’ to be in relationship with. Even when we speak of loving ourselves we assume we are talking about different aspects of our self. This relationship must be allowed freedom to from, or else it is not love, it is coercsion or control. Love is a connection with someone or something thing that is not our singular self.

Feminist Luce Iragaray, and actually Simone de Beauvoir before her, argued that articulation of the feminine is essential because of this of human tendency to reduce difference. If the feminine is not articulated then the default story is masculine. The same goes true for religious singularity. If only one religious story is spoken then only the most dominant story gets spoken. This is no ground for inter-faith dialogue. So, if we are to entertain a religious universalism, love demands that it is personal.

In Christian mysticism, the personal and the universal come together. In prayer, there is only the individual, perceiving body, and the experience of the moment or the encounter. So for the mystic, the separation of redemption and creation is not an option. These two possibilities of love in Christ and love in all creation find their integration and that was the subject of last week’s lecture.

So, in the wisdom of Catherine of Siena, the love mystics perceive:

All has been consecrated.

The creatures in the forest know this,

the earth does, the seas do, the clouds know

as does the heart full of


Strange a priest would rob us of this


and then empower himself

with the ability

to make holy what

already was.


To love in Christ is to come back to our true selves. Our true home. As Augustine said, ‘our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.’ The love present in creation and redemption are one single thread of divine love in the universe, not two separate strands. They are the same because God is the same.

Third Sunday in Lent: Grace Period

Sermon for St Andrew’s Aberfeldie, Sunday 28th February

Luke 13:1-9


On Monday this week I had to submit a form. It was an acceptance form for the secondary school to which my second son had been offered a place. I didn’t submit the form on time and the admissions office sent me an email! I rang the admissions office and explained why I hadn’t submitted the form and they gave me a ‘grace period’ of one week, to resolve the issue and get the form in to them.

It seems to me the message of the gospel today is that lent is a grace period.

‘Grace’ is of course a very loaded and heavy word in Christian theology. But today, I mean it in the worldly sense of ‘grace period’—defined by The Free Dictionary as:

“A period after a due date or deadline during which an obligation may still be fulfilled without penalty or suspension of benefits.”

The ‘grace’ is the gift of time. Time to fulfill an obligation, to do the right thing, to restore whatever it is that is threatening a good relationship between you and the other party.

10832361263_26b0211e6b_bConsider the parable of the Barren Fig Tree. A man had a fig tree in his garden that had refused to bear fruit. A fig tree is there to provide fruit for the household, so the tree is not really fulfilling its obligations! The owner is quite right to consider cutting the tree down, so he can grow something else that will feed his family. However, the gardener suggests that the tree should be given another year and with some TLC it could come good. Let’s hope so!

The owner, has given the tree a grace period. Why? Because he wants the tree to bear fruit! He has no interest in cutting it down really, but he is right to cut back that which is not flourishing in his garden.

This parable really seems to come out of the blue in the context of Luke chapter 13. Jesus is teaching and there are whispered around the room about some Galileans who had been sacrilegiously killed by Herod. He makes the point that it is no fault of their own that they were the ones who were killed, it could have been any Galilean in the wrong place and the wrong time. Likewise he refers to a tragic accident in Siloam when a building collapsed and people were killed. It was not their fault they were standing underneath the tower of Siloam at the time it collapsed, but they suffered for it anyway.

Then Jesus says to the crowd, if you do not repent, you will perish. The contrast seems to be comparing—on the one hand, the uncertainty of death, and—on the other hand, the certainty of death. If I can rephrase it I would say, “bad things happen to good people, but sin always has consequences.”

Delivered as a warning from Jesus, it seems to be directed towards people whom he called hypocrites in chapter 12 verse 56.

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? . . . Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”

The implication being, in terms of the Kingdom of God, that if you know that you are not pleasing God or abiding by the ways of the Kingdom and you do nothing about it, you will suffer the consequences.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts, for ‘Your ways are not my ways’ says the Lord.” – Isaiah 55:6

Lent is a grace period for stubbornness, slowness of insight, and failure to fruit.

This year, I have thought a lot about Lent as a spiritual practice. What is the purpose of fasting, of solemnity in liturgy, of simplicity in lifestyle? How can we translate traditional practices of Lent into a fresh and life-giving spirituality? We can’t really understand the purpose to Lent separate to Easter and the Passion of Jesus Christ, for it is fundamentally about preparing to rehear the gospel narrative or being to undergo another cycle of death and resurrection in order that if die with Christ we might also live with Christ.

So Lenten spirituality prepares us for the renewal of life, the renewal of faith in Jesus, the renewal of love.

My children set up some new shelves in their bedroom yesterday. Their stuff was constantly covering their desk making it unusable, so they needed to clear some space. By building the new Ikea shelves and putting precious things away in their place, and throwing out the junk, they made room for new work to happen at their desk!

Essentially I think that’s what we do in Lent. We put the precious things into a place that is good for them, and we throw out the junk. And we do it, not just because we know its good for us, we do it because of our ongoing relationship with God.

That’s the important thing about a grace period, it’s a grace to provide you with more time to fulfill your obligations to a relationship, to something you have promised. Something that at some point you have presumably agreed to. Entered into willingly. The boys didn’t get in trouble for their messy desks before the extra shelves arrived, and they were given a whole day in which they could construct them and sort out their stuff in-between their own play. If, however, they hadn’t cleaning up their desk by the end of the day, sadly, there would have been consequences!

And I can imagine the sadness of the owner who really would cut his tree down if it didn’t bear fruit after another year of extra care an attention. I can imagine his disappointment and regret that the tree fell short of its potential.

fig tree fruitWe, as Christians and as humans, fall short of our potential when we fail to grow in gratitude for the life and love given to us in Jesus Christ. We fail to meet the obligations of grace, when we compromise the freedom of that love or deny the privilege that it is to know God. But …

“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” – 1 Cor 10:13

And that is why Lent is a Grace period. Because it is a period of testing, in order that we might become our very best, dying and rising with Christ on

Second Sunday in Lent: Lamentation

Sermon notes for Oakleigh Anglican Church, Sunday 21st February 2016

Luke 13:31-35

(Other readings for Lent 2: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1)


Lament is a prominent theme in Lent.

I guess really lament is a common theme in life, it came up in a conversation with my mum during the week. We were discussing a book by Joan Chittester, called The Gift of the Years. It’s a beautiful book made up of wise thoughts about growing old gracefully. More than that really, it’s actually about re-discovering your life purpose of life in ‘old age.’ Mum had just read the chapter on ‘adjustment.’ Now there’s a great word for growing old! There’s a big adjustment to make to fully embrace that life-stage, as of course there is with every life-stage. And in the adjustment, there is much that has to be let go of. But there are things are worthy of our deep, deep grief, and letting go of them requires a very suitable lament, or mourning. The loss of my Dad being the prime example for my Mum.

For me in the middle of life, some of the major adjustments of the last few years have been the loss of time to myself upon having children; the end of many years of education upon graduating with my PhD; and the frustration and burden of postgraduate unemployment.

In my discussion with Mum, we pondered the fact that grief and adjustment take so much longer than either of us expect! Lament, to me, shows up in these times as the on-going work of naming a grief, feeling it, and letting it go. And we do this again and again with the major wounds in our life. It can take years to get over a a divorce, a retrenchment, a debilitating illness, or the loss of youthful vitality! After the first acute pangs of grief are over, the pain and the ‘adjustment’ lingers on. So anniversaries and special occasions bring a greater awareness of these losses, and there is a rightful place for lament at those times. Lament as a process of naming a grief, feeling it fully, and letting it go.

That is how I understand Lament to function in Lent. It is a season, a special occasion by which we may deal with the lingering affects of our brokenness. The long ingrained remnants of pain and hurt from our sin, and from sins done to us.

Lament has a special place in this season of Lent, to name these hurts in our lives, feel them fully, and then let them go. And I think that is why the wise ones who put together the lectionary readings, placed this gospel story here to be read and reflected upon today.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jesus laments.

Jesus had been travelling tirelessly through village and town, teaching about the Kingdom of God, slowly making his way towards Jerusalem. Somewhere along the way, some Pharisees turned up to where he was teaching and warned him that he should make himself scarce, because Herod was trying to kill him. Whether these Pharisees were friend or foe is not mentioned in the text, but the Pharisees do not usually appear in the gospel stories as ‘pro-Jesus.’ There is no other evidence offered by Luke in his gospel that it was Herod who was rooting Jesus out. And Jesus response focuses on the religious threat at hand rather than a political threat to his person.

He says, if I may rephrase, ‘today, tomorrow, and the next day, I will go on preaching and walking steadfastly towards Jerusalem, because that is where my mission ends. I am a prophet on the way to the Holy City, coming in the name of the Lord.’

Jerusalem, City of David and centre of the nation Israel, the nation born of covenant with Yahweh. The city in which the temple of Yahweh stands as symbol of a privileged relationship between Yahweh and the people whom he called through the ancient Abraham.

The city that kills the prophets Yahweh sends to it. The city that does not or will not recognise those wise ones with their cries, ‘Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

How Jesus longs to gather up the beloved Jerusalem in his arms, like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing. How Jesus longs to love his brothers and sisters of the covenant, but they do not recognise him.

The lament over Jerusalem is pointed at these Pharisees that have come to ‘warn’ Jesus. It seems to me that Jesus has perceived a deceit in their visit. Smiles covering over a hardness of their heart, using a convenient ruse to try and get rid of him from their town. Get him to move on with preaching tour, with his message of the immanent Kingdom of God and the call to repentance.

Perhaps this is how it always is when religion—be that the people of Jerusalem or the people of the Church—gets old and stale. In my community, the most common declaration of religious affiliation would be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ I think what Jesus is confronting here is the opposite. He is describing a Jerusalem that is ‘religious but not spiritual.’ To reject the prophets of God is to reject a conversation with God. And to reject a conversation with God is to take the spirit out of the Jewish religion – for worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem is entirely about being in an ongoing and alive relationship with God!

Jesus lament over Jerusalem models for us a very particular type of Lenten discipline. This Lenten lament is a call ‘repent’ religion.

Repentance in Lent is not just about giving things up, it is really about purgation or purification. Sorting out the things that lead to life from the things that lead to death. In particular, we locate the things that do not lead to life and clear them out, in order to make space for the new life in Christ that is the fruit of Easter Day. So Lenten spiritual disciplines include a whole range of practices that lend themselves to self-examination and humility, and our religion needs the discipline of repentance just like every other aspect of our life and faith. Lament is the specific practice of naming a sin, and mourning the harm it has done.

To lament our religion, is to recognise and mourn, the ways that our religion is leading to death rather than life. It’s not to throw it out entirely. It is simply to allow the prophets of God to speak truthfully about our religious state of affairs. Note carefully the loving nature of this return to relationship. Jesus longs to draw his loved ones close, to cuddle them under his wing. Lament does not result in harsh judgment or violent condemnation. Lamenting our religion should result in a softening, just like when our mother took us in her arms we relaxed into her body. In the marvellous warmth of her love anger or hurt we felt slipped away. We got up ready to rejoin the game or able to be kinder to our sibling, or more willing to do our chores.

Lament clears the way for a return of love.

Lamenting the brokenness of our religion is of course, primarily a corporate affair. So this Lenten practice might require us to have some conversations with one another in the church. Not just winging, but really specifically identifying the signs of life as opposed to the signs of death and supporting each other to choose life. What do we keep on doing just because we’ve always done it? Can we return something that is a burden back to being about God, about drawing close to God and expressing our relationship with God?

So in our prayers, we remember the conflicts of the Holy Land. We remember the conflicts between religion. We feel the pain. We pray for those still suffering. And we trust them again to God’s care.

We name the terrible sins of the church made public by the royal commission. We publicly state our prayers of deep regret and apology. We trust in God’s forgiveness and redemption of the church.

We acknowledge the difficult public debates of asylum seekers and same-sex marriage in which the church is intimately involved. Sometimes standing up for what is most loving, sometimes seeking the protection of self-righteousness. We acknowledge the complexity of these issues and we trust again that God’s grace will be sufficient to equip us for this ministry of debate.

We feel the full force of our empty pews. We lament that there are people who used to sit beside us but who no longer do. We feel the sadness of our children and grandchildren choosing a different spiritual path. And we note the deep disappointment that the church that we love struggles to fulfil all our expectations.

First and foremost, however, this Lenten lament must begin with ourselves. We must examine ourselves for the place of faith and religion in our own lives. Do we use our religious status to shield us from the divine, or to bring us into greater contact with God and our truest selves. Exposure to the perfection of God is often uncomfortable. And yet, when we entrust ourselves to it, we experience the warmth of embrace that Jesus describes, like a hen gathering up her chicks. Saying yes to spirit without the trappings of religious rules is like throwing ourselves into our mothers arms, to relax fully into her warmth and feel ourselves awash with love. We let go of hurt and grief here in this embrace. We clear away a little more of our old wounds and bad habits.

Through a Lenten lament of our religion, we clear a way for new life in the spirit, and make space for resurrection.







First Sunday in Lent: Temptation

I dare not promise 6 reflections for the 6 sundays in lent, but I can pass on the first one. Offered today at the community of St Matthews Anglican Church in Ashburton.

You may like to follow the links to read the readings for the day, or you may be familiar enough with the story of Jesus’ temptation to read straight on: Deuteronomy 26:1-11Psalm 91:1-16Romans 10:8b-13Luke 4:1-13.

40 Days of Lent15473737130_017015fe1c_z

Here we are, standing on the edge of another metaphorical desert. Another year of Lent where we practice the disciplines of restraint and resistance. On the other side of the Lenten desert is the green lush of new life, the Day of Resurrection.

Christians are not the inventers of this kind of desert spirituality. Indeed, the Lenten journey deliberately echoes the much more ancient journey of the Jews, the forty days of desert after the exodus from Egypt, the story of which is recalled in the reading from Deuteronomy 26.

More generally, periods of ritual denial and testing often precede traditional rites of passage, like young boys being sent out into the wilderness to become men, or year 12 leavers travelling overseas for a year before they commence University education. And in the passage of a human life, the old and wise tell us that long periods of drought are normal, in journey of a lifetime. Furthermore, they tell us that in hindsight, these times of testing are seen to be forerunners to blessing, as we learn hard lessons of loss, love, grace and forgiveness.

The Temptation of Jesus

The temptation of Jesus is more than a model of human suffering of course. The story of Jesus’ 40 days stands in the gospels as evidence of his authority and authenticity. It invites us to trust in Him, as He trusted in His Father in the desert.

But following the invitation of the early Christian leaders who chose Jesus’ temptation as a model and inspiration for Lent, let us consider the nature of Jesus’ temptation as a model for how we ourselves might transgress both the desert of Lent, and the deserts of life as they come along.

Straight after Jesus is baptized, that is after he publically declared his trust in God, the Spirit sends him out into the desert where he does not eat for 40 days. Along comes ‘diabolou’ – literally ‘the slanderer.’ We get ‘Satan’ in some translations for the Greek work diabolou is equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘Satan’ – literally meaning ‘the adversary,’ one who obstructs or resists. Diabolou, the slanderer, is perhaps more relevant here as we hear the repeated citation of scripture from Jesus, and even a word from Psalm 91 slips from the lips of the devil himself, tempting Jesus to distort the word of God for his own purposes.

Jesus resists the slanderer, and is left to rest and recover from the test, though Luke suggests ominously that the battle is not over and that the devil will return at another, opportune time.

The Temptation of Israel

The three tests set by the slanderer remind us of three most significant tests faced by the ancient Israelites in the desert after they exited Egypt.

First, there is only so long one can walk about in a desert without food. Can we truly trust God to provide for the needs of the body in all circumstances? The slanderer invites Jesus to use his power to circumscribe God’s provision, but Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 8:6,

“one does not live by bread alone.”

In the stories of the Israelites in the desert, almost immediately after they had crossed the Red Sea into freedom, they began to fear that they would die of starvation. God provided for them with the miraculous provision of bread or manna rained down each morning. Gathering the manna became like a spiritual practice, for the Israelites had to trust that God would continue to provide.

The second temptation brings to mind the struggles we all have with making our way in the world. A thirst for glory and authority might indicate that this is a test just for the overly ambitious, but that would be a mistake. On an ordinary, every day level, we all need to know our place in the world. Sometimes it would be enough for me just to have a predictable rhythm to my weekly diary! To feel like I have some control over my life! Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 6:13,

“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

When Moses had ascended into the clouds on top of Mount Zion, drawn into a private conversation with God from which the ten commandments would emerge, the Israelites gave up their faith in God’s ability or willingness to provide for them. Before Moses could return from the mountain top, the people had built a god for themselves, an idol designed to make themselves feel safe. A life plan they thought they could control. What a mistake that was, and always is: to expect that we can control the unfolding of the universe and eliminate the unpredictability of God.

The third temptation of Jesus by the slanderer had an more explicitly religious theme. The slanderer takes Jesus to the place of wisdom – the Jerusalem temple – and quotes scripture at Jesus, inviting him to prove himself with what would be a miracle. Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The original context in Deuteronomy expands to say,

“do not put the Lord your God to the test as Israel did at Massah.”

In the desert journey of the Israelites, having dealt with their fear of hunger, they soon turned to the issue of water security. At Massah, the people complained of their unending thirst, and like before, God provided. Moses struck a rock and water poured out. But God was not pleased that Israel still refused to trust in God’s provision for them, so Massah became known as a place where God’s people stubbornly tested God.

The Fruit of Temptation: Steadfastness

What does resisting temptation do for us? In the gospel narrative, the temptation of Jesus proves his trust in God alone. Proves that Jesus is single minded about his ministry, his message and the manner in which he will conduct himself.

For us, resisting temptation develops a similar characteristic. It trains us in having a single focus and staying on track. For example, the spiritual practice of fasting in Lent, is a type of resisting temptation, but as anyone who has developed a discipline of fasting will testify, it is not at all that straight forward. Rather, refraining from food for certain hours in the day, or certain types of food for the whole season of Lent, invites us to pay more attention to our food intake, and then redirects our attention.

When we fast, we discover what we really hunger for. We discover how often we eat to satisfy an emotional hunger rather than the physical need of the body for sustenance. Our attention is also directed to the sources of nourishment. Are we grasping for more food than required at the detriment of others? Are we dependent on sustainable methods of producing food?

Paying attention to the process of eating allows us to let go of things that do not bring life – whether that’s a certain type of food, or a certain type of anxiety, that does not trust that there will be enough.

Letting go of things that do not bring life includes more than food that is bad for us. It even includes, as the slanderer has shown us, the letting go of beliefs or interpretations of the word of God that are not life giving! That is why silence is another spiritual practice of Lent. In silence we let go of words in order to sense what our words are hiding. Slightly distorted teaching that justifies our own prejudices perhaps. As for fasting, refraining from words focuses our attention, and creates an opportunity for us to examine the way we construct our stories of truth.

The way of the desert is the way of fasting and silence. Perhaps ‘testing’ is not the most positive way to view these two great spiritual practices. For they are simply disciplines that invite us to pay attention to what is truly life-giving.

What is truly nourishing? What is truly purposeful? What is truly wise in your life?

A Rule-of-Love

Painting by John Zurier, Sorgin.

Painting by John Zurier, Sorgin.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  John 15:9-13

Notes from a Sermon, 10 May 2015

Jesus commands us to abide in love and keep his commandments. But this is not, it seems, merely a pre-ordained set of rules, for Jesus clarifies, ‘I command that you love one another’ (John 15:15).

New Testament scholar Leon Morris has suggested that Jesus is emphasising a particular quality of love in this teaching to his disciples, rather than proscribing particular behaviour in a set of rules, which was how the old covenant commandments had come to be treated. It is not the command to love that is new, but rather the motivation and relational centre that is new, and which we recognise as Christians as ‘the new commandment’ to love one another as Jesus has loved us.’ Morris says, ‘the meaning appears to be to make the commandments one’s own, to take them into one’s inner being.’ Hence, the phrase ‘abide in my love.’

In the first letter of John the disciple whom Jesus loved (for that is most likely who the letter is attributed to) says that our love for Christ shall be known through our keeping the commandments. In particular John had in mind Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as he loved you. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ The way of Jesus is committed relationships. Hence, it is no surprise that the monastic tradition offers us some help here, with a handy bit of language to describe the call to live by the commandment to love.

Painting by John Burier, After Paulo Shiavo 2013

Painting by John Burier, After Paulo Shiavo 2013

When a group of Christian men or women set up a new monastic order, seeking to leave the everyday responsibilities of life behind in order to fulfil the commandments in a more direct way, they inevitably set a form of guidelines which will mark out their particular way of life, based largely on the charism of a leader, like Saint Francis, or Saint Ignatius of Layola, Saint Theresa of Calcutta. These guidelines for living are called a Rule-of-Life. The Rule of Saint Benedict for example, which Benedictine monks and nuns have followed for 15 centuries, has 73 chapters, each of which contain instructions on different aspects of community life meal times and manners, ownership of property and the hours of prayer and labour.

In addition here is another phrase – ‘the rule-of-love’. The rule-of-love is more or less the opposite of a rule-of-life: it prescribes the ethos and the value of the community rather than the specific habits and actions required to express faithfulness to God. A rule-of-love is a matter of the heart. It is internalised, whereas a rule-of-life is externally imposed for the sake of community.

The rule-of-life is a vision statement, whereas the rule-of-love is a values statement.

It is the rule-of-love that is essential in our present cultural context, where the understanding of love is changing so substantially and so rapidly. Love used to be held sacred in marriage for example. Now romantic love is held up to be the ideal, boosted by Hollywood driven fantasy’s of perfect bodies and perfect lives.

Love also used to drive our social institutions – think for example of the way ‘charity’ has changed it’s meaning over the last couple of centuries. It used to mean love, now it means handing over some money somewhat resentfully.

Love used to mean commitment and obedience even in the face of death. Think for example what it meant to love one’s country and head off to war! Now, the biggest obligation n of love is to ‘follow one’s heart.’

So, should it surprise us that Christian theologians and Church leaders and faithful followers across the globe are now in sometimes radical disagreement as to what is loving and what is not? Is a couple living together before they are married breaking Jesus command to love? Is a child moving across the globe where they have no capacity to care for their elderly father and mother breaking the commandment to love as Jesus loved? Is walking past a bigger in the street failing to love?

At the moment, when we are in dismay as to what the ‘rules’ are, we must turn to the rule-of-love and follow our hearts. God has placed love into our hearts by the holy spirit, so even if we don’t have socially established norms, even then we can abide in love and make a decision to love as Jesus loved. Because love is in us. All the time. In all circumstances. If we are abiding in Jesus love, through the holy spirit, we always have a choice to turn to that love and translate it into our own love for others.

Note. I came across the work of John Burier in a 
Huffington Post article which you can read here.