Turning life around

 

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

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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
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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:

Father,
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.

Amen.19

vicar@stjohnscamberwell.org.au

  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.

Third Sunday in Lent: Grace Period

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

Luke 13:1-9

6-months-9-months

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.

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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?

Where love and dying meet

Our Psalm for church today was the Twenty-Third Psalm, still the most popular choice of readings at a funeral, especiallypsalm-23 funerals of those who have some kind of Christian religious background, but were either luke-warm or lapsed in their belief in Jesus at the time of their dying. That fact that, in popular English-Australian culture, we still read the twenty-third psalm as words of comfort in the face of death, grabbed my attention as I came to reading the gospel of the day, which in itself take us directly to the heart of this easter season: that Christ died on the cross, once for all, to bring us to God. Christ, of course, utters these words about ‘the good shepherd’ before his death, recorded in a large chunk of Jesus teaching in the gospel of John, where Jesus is carefully instructing his disciples so that when all things become clear to them at a later date – that is after his resurrection – they will have everything they need to make sense of Jesus’ passion. Jesus tells them here, 4th-sunday-of-easter-gospel-john-101118-2-638‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.’ Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I think there is here again, the theme I have emphasised through-out lent and easter, that if Jesus death cannot be understood as a love event, then it cannot be understood at all  There is something mysterious about death and love, and it is perhaps summed up best in a phrase from Song of Songs that ‘love is stronger than death.’ Jesus’ parable about the shepherd points out that when there is a personal relationship or bond between the shepherd and his sheep, he will go out of his way to keep them safe, even putting his own life on the line for them. This is not an unfamiliar sentiment when we think about people who love. For example, a friend of mine told me that when his mother was sick he prayed that God would take 5 years off his life and add it to hers. A grandmother once told me that when her young child was sick she did a bargain with God that if the child lived she would devote her life to serving God. Have you not ever heard a spouse say, if only I could change places with my beloved and let their suffering be mine’? Love is prepared to suffer even death for the sake of its beloved, for love is stronger than death. So, perhaps we should not be surprised that love and death go together in Jesus passion. But why is this death and this love so significant that it changed the whole course of salvation history? Why is this death so significant that it means love for us? Is it not because Jesus was God? Well, yes, I guess we are used to hearing that. This is God dying on the cross for our sins, and yes, I do believe that is important – the sacrificial system within the theology of the old and new testament is too significant to be able to sweep under the carpet – Jesus death deals with our sin, whatever that means and however that happens, we’ll leave that for another day.  But the significance of Jesus death and love for us has a particular meaning if we view it through the parable of the good shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd, we are the sheep, we have – therefore – a personal relationship and bond with this shepherd. It is the bond of creation, of God who made us and us God’s children. We are Go’d sheep. We belong to God. Jesus’ death is the death of God-who-is-love, in order to keep those of whom God loves, safe in God’s care! Not exclusively us, I don’t think. For if Jesus came initially to the Jews and had sheep in other folds, why would we think that we were now his only fold? No, I’m fairly confident that we need to understand Jesus is the good shepherd of all who live, because Jesus is the God of all that is, and that God loves us, and loves all. Jesus death, is a death that enfolds us in the loving arms of God. It is a death for all people, and I suspect further for all living things, it is the death of the shepherd who knows his sheep by name and lays down his life in order to keep them safe. St John Cathedral Denver At a funeral, when I read the twenty-third psalm for a family that are mourning the death of a loved one, I am declaring that Jesus death is love for them. We may not understand it, and they may not even believe it, but I can still proclaim it and perhaps more than at any other time, they can hear that death and love must somehow be connected. Love is stronger than death, and in human terms, love doesn’t get buried with the deceased in the grave, we know it lives on. Love is stronger than death – in the passion of Jesus – and in God-terms, this one death, means love for us. The love is there, we need only lift our eyes upon the cross and open ourselves to it.

Holy Spirit : Love

Pentecost Sunday 2014, St Martins Community Church

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 5:1-5

I have been part of many memorable Pentecost Sundays, with creative children’s talks bringing the dramatic story of Pentecost to life! One year particularly sticks in my mind when our quietly spoken, tree-hugging youth minister brought a leaf blower in to church. Who knew the Holy Spirit smelt so strongly of petrol! There was quite a kerfuffle when the started smoking, but luckily it didn’t blow up or we would have had the flames in church as well as the wind! After we’d all taken our fingers out of ears, this dear, gentle man quietly explained the gift of the Spirit and the love of Jesus who gave it.

The disciples were gathered together and the Holy Spirit was given to them, in a way previously not experienced by people on mass. It came like a rush of violent wind that in Victoria we might associate with footage from the Black Saturday bushfires. The Spirit entered into each one there and they began to speak in languages previously unknown to them. A large crowd gathered in response to the roar – it seems the wind was loud enough to be heard from several streets away, and it becomes evident that these languages that had been given were human languages from far and wide, so that everyone who came could hear about the gift that had just been given to the friends of Jesus in their native tongue, the intimate language of their mother’s voice. The crowd could tell the message they were hearing was about ‘deeds of power’ but they could not make out its meaning, and so Peter, standing with the eleven, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to them, and about 3,000 people believe and were baptized on that day.

The disciples had been waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive, as Jesus had promised that it would. I’m not sure they were expecting tongues of fire, but tongues of language should not have surprised them. In John chapter 14, we have recorded some teaching on the Holy Spirit by Jesus before his death. He said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth … he will abide in you.’ (v. 15-17) The Spirit continues the teaching ministry of Jesus, and enables his disciples to both fulfill and pass on what they have been commanded: to love one another as Jesus has loved them.

Since the gospel message of Jesus is Love and the Holy Spirit’s role is to guide Jesus’ disciples deeper into that message, Saint Augustine concluded that the Holy Spirit is Love. Like all of us, Augustine had his favourite passages of Scripture, and his suggestion that the Holy Spirit should be synced with the Love of God is directly related to one of them, Romans 5:5: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ That is, God’s own Love, the Love that is so integral to God’s character the author of 1 John says God is Love, Divine Love is poured into our hearts when we receive the Holy Spirit.

This is really important, because often we fall into the trap of trying to fulfill Jesus command to love through our own strength, but we all know that human love can be fickle and unreliable. It’s not that I think divine and human love are a different type of love, by the way. I think love is love, and human love is cut from the same cloth as God’s love, but God’s love is perfect in a way ours is not. Ours is partial and evolves in quality and capacity over a lifetime, whereas the love that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts is perfect at all times and in all ways. Therefore, regardless of how well we have been loved in life – by our parents, siblings, friends, Lovers and fellow Christians, the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a bigger capacity for love, to keep loving even in the face of fear, failure, rejection, betrayal.

I watched the movie Philomena over the weekend. An old Irish catholic woman searches for the son that had been taken from her in the harsh, misguided years of Irish Catholicism which had no comprehension of healthy sexuality and no mercy to unwed mothers. In the end, we discover the most bitter betrayal – the nuns lied to keep mother and son from meeting, refusing the last wish of a dying man so that they never get to meet in this life. But, girded by her simple, life-lived faith, Philomena offers forgiveness to an old nun twisted by misguided zeal. Her journalist and atheistic companion Martin cannot comprehend her actions and, to my mind is quite reasonable in his exasperation: whereas Philomena leaves with a declaration of ‘I forgive you’, Martin says, ‘I cannot forgive.’ Indeed, how does Philomena forgive the obvious hatefulness in the person of God who kept her from her son? How is such love possible? Only through the gift of God’s own love for us into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, descending like a raging fire to ignite a love which transcends all hate, grief, brokenness and bitterness.

St John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic wrote a poem about it, called the Living Flame of Love, and since he wrote a theological exposition on the poem, we are in no doubt that he is speaking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve put copies of the poem around for you to read and take home, I’m just going to read the first stanza:

1. O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

2. O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.

3. O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.

4. How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

The poem talks about the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit initially as a wound – being cut to the heart – but then the shock recedes and gives way to a sweet, delicate breathing or touch. A touch, that tastes of eternal life, and rights every wrong.

When I received the Holy Spirit at age 15, I experienced a warm, tingly glow enter into my body from the top of my head, and falling all the way down into my toes, like stepping into a hot shower. It was a moment that fundamentally re-oriented my life from that point onwards, but its not the experience itself that has shaped my life, it is the love of Jesus and walking in his way. There is no evidence that I can give you as proof on the inward encounter with the Holy Spirit, but there is, I trust, evidence of a life lived in, from and through the love of Jesus. The ‘proof’ of whether or not I have received the Holy Spirit, is in the quality of my love of God and neighbor.

Going back to the story of Pentecost, I think we can see the link between Love and the proclamation of the gospel message for ultimately, if there is no Love, there is no message. If our words about Jesus take on a harsh edge of judgment and condemnation – a role Jesus has reserved for himself – then they are not the gospel message. The only way we can hope to pass on the gift of the Holy Spirit, is to speak about Jesus in a way that can only be described as loving.

Another mystic writing about Love and the Holy Spirit, who died a few decades ago as opposed a few centuries ago, is the Anglo-American Thomas Merton. Merton drew my attention to the fact that when the message of the Word of God loses its Love, the Word becomes mere words, meaningless chatter. I like that as a description of the crowd gathered around listening to the Word of God on the first Pentecost. At first, what they heard were a lot of words, which didn’t make sense to them, even though they were heard in their native language, the language in which they would express love and affection to their families! It was only when they understood the meaning of the message, that the cacophony of words became one Word, the Word Made Flesh. The One sent from the One who is Love.

And so this is where I want to finish today, with this reflection on our speaking and living the Word which is Love. The natural consequence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is to start speaking about Jesus, in the same way that we speak about all the people in our lives whom we love. I met a woman on a plane recently who’d just become engaged, she couldn’t stop telling me about the wonders of her man and was literally glowing with the warmth of love as she did so – that’s the kind of speech that comes from the Word Made Flesh.

The warning is, with the busyness and mundane duties of life, we all know that this woman radiating with the thrill of her pending marriage will not speak about her husband in the same way in a couple of years time. But hopefully, if the relationship progresses the way it should, there is a different kind of tenderness to her speech, a gentle peacefulness that comes from love refined. And if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, maybe that’s the kind of love that will characterize your speech about Jesus – the deep tenderness for the One who has been with you through thick and thin.

In the chatter of the world, our speeches about Love and Jesus as likely to be quiet moments of connection, like the one I had with this woman on the plane, rather than grand speeches to crowds of thousands. And because our message is love they are more likely to be conversations rather than monologue proclamations, it is likely your actions will do the preaching for you. There is no need for many words, no amount of scholarship and logic is going to convert a determined atheist, we simply offer a testimony – in our loving speech and actions – to the One Word, the Word Made Flesh, the Word of Love.

Maundy Thursday, 17th April 2014

Paradoxial power

Bible readings: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have two boys, aged eight and ten and we have just spent a few days away together down at Philip Island, which has made for quite a different Holy Week in some ways. And yet, entering into the world of my boys has prepared me for this evening in a surprising way. Eight and ten year old boys are deeply into stories: big, mythological stories with dragons, heroes, battles and big, big themes about what is important in life.

These stories we read today, are our hero stories, our mythology, the tales we tell each other and our children, to bring meaning and order into our lives. We tell these stories because they bring light into our darkness, meaning into our mediocrity, love into our brokenness.

Jesus of course, was not just a story, he was a man who lived and breathed and walked the earth. He was born into a story though, and stories were born through him, through his prosecution, his death, his lying in the tomb, and his rising again to life on the third day. So let us consider these stories.

This Maundy Thursday liturgy is a remembrance of Jesus last supper with his disciples, a celebration of the Jewish Passover, and an invitation to a new kind of supper in the Kingdom of God. The Passover Feast of the Jewish people was a fairly solemn affair, with lots of readings of the old stories, symbolic lighting of candles, symbolic eating of particular foods to match elements of the story. It commemorated the evening that God rescued the Jewish people from a terrible life of slavery in Egypt. They were in dire, desperate circumstances, having lived four hundred years as foreigners in the land, the privileged relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh long forgotten.

On this evening God had given Moses instructions for the people, that they were to eat knowing they were about to leave, and be ready to depart their homes at a moment’s notice. Blood across the doorway to their houses would indicate to the dark angel of death that their household was to be saved from God’s judgment on the cruelty of Egypt. They were to be spared from death in order to embark upon a new life as God’s people, a life where they would worship God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and no foreign power would restrict them otherwise.

The Passover, like most stories that make sense of our lives, is a story about power. God is the hero of the story. God wields the strongest power. Worldly power, even that of the infamous Egyptians, is no match for this God. God will defeat injustice. God will vindicate the righteous. God is generous with those faithful to his way. God wants good and true relationships with this people of his own making. God alone is to be worshiped and honored. It is an image of God’s power that befits the ancient world from which this story comes.

In this last Passover though, when Jesus institutes a new story, or rather reinvents the ones of old, Power is described in very different terms. When we retell the story of that last meal with his disciples, like we have in the words from 1 Corinthians 11, we read about Jesus taking a loaf of bread and then after supper taking a cup. Scholars think that each of these actions are referring to specific symbolic actions in the Passover Meal. Before the meal, bread was prepared without yeast. All the leaven in the household is removed, as a ritual representation of consciously removing sin from the household. Jesus is the body from whom sin has been removed. A body to be broken, shared, consumed for the same of God’s people. The cup after the meal is most likely to have been the ‘third cup’ of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption. This cup reminded all who drank from it that they needed a gift from God, to cover all the unavoidable mistakes and shortcomings of being human. In ancient Israel God provided for this in the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Jesus is initiating a new pathway, a pathway through his own sacrifice.

It is probable that the washing of the feet, which we enact again on this evening to remind ourselves of the type of God we worship, was also part of the Passover Meal, as it was a regular part of dining with God’s people. After an initial blessing, the diners would all ritually wash their hands to symbolize their religious cleanliness. That is, it was a declaration that one had obeyed the religious rules and done one’s best to come to the meal with a clean heart.

But Jesus takes on all the cleaning himself. He is the one who makes people clean, it is not something we do for ourselves, and probably the fact that the ritual hand cleaning was never a completed action should have informed everyone at the last supper of that fact. But they were still surprised that Jesus takes this on for himself.

Jesus takes on the dress of a servant to wash the feet. This is not the Mighty God who swept through ancient Egypt with the angel of death. This is the Compassionate God, who does WHAT EVER IT TAKES to bring his people to the place of worship.

Why the feet? Well, perhaps it was because it is the dirtiest part of us, especially in a world of dirt roads and open shoes. Certainly, Jesus went to the most extreme lengths to redeem the ugliest and most evil parts of humanity. Not a day after this meal he descends to the depths of hell, to redeem all who have fallen into the greatest pit of despair.

Perhaps also, I like to think, it has the metaphorical significance of walking with God. Our feet signal our intentions. The people of God had to walk out of Egypt, in order to go and worship. We too, need to set our feet upon the right path, and walk into worship of the Almighty, through the way of Jesus.

So when we tell this story of the foot-washing to each other and to our children, we tell of a hero who sacrificed himself. A hero whose love knew no limits. A hero whose sacrifice forged a new pathway to life

Note now though, if you haven’t already, of the very different kind of power in this story. This is paradoxical power. Power by service. Power by sacrifice. This is the power of non-violent protest. It’s not that Jesus is an anti-hero – that is, a hero who we are to learn from by what he doesn’t do – Jesus is a hero in whom we marvel, at the greatest power of all – the power of Love to bring us into worship with the God who is Love, the God who loves us, and has sent his only beloved Son into the world to redeem sinners.

This is power-in-vulnerability. Because Jesus is who he is, he doesn’t need to prove anything, he just needs to offer himself. He is God, he doesn’t need to do anything to become powerful, he just is, and so by making himself available to us, we are welcomed to encounter God in all God’s powerful majesty. Jesus unleashes his power upon us, just by being himself, just by opening his arms in welcome.

Now, centuries later, we who walk in his footsteps mimic this power in vulnerability.

An excellent example of this from the past week are the Christian leaders who staged a peaceful Easter “pray-in” in Julia Bishop’s office. They refused to leave until she answered their question on asylum seeker human rights. Last Sunday, thousands of Christians walked through the city in peaceful protest of a different kind, asking for a change in government policy over its treatment of asylum seekers. This is the power of love not violence. It will bring about change.

A different example comes from our inner walk with Jesus. In the prayers we experience in hard times, we discover a special power, gentle yet life-giving, which enables us to move on, even if its just the next step. In letting everything go and trusting that God hears the very cries of our heart, we discover the shape of the spirit there, we know God within, and we come to trust that the source of love is never far away in the darkness.

You see, this liturgy tonight, is an invitation to join Jesus in making yourself vulnerable. Vulnerable to God. If there is ever a time to embrace darkness, to embrace unknowing, to grieve for your losses, to feel the pain of disappointment, it is this next forty-eight hours. Don’t fear it, God is with you. Don’t avoid it, it is the pathway to resurrection. Just make yourself open to it. And let Jesus the Almighty, stoop to wash your dirty feet.