During a recent visit to England, Ruth and I chose to experience a form of meeting we had not attended before. It occurred because I included in my enovel, "Cornish Pastiche", a Quaker meeting house at the Cornish village of Come to Good. I thought afterwards that I would like to find that meeting house.
Accordingly, on our most recent visit we drove to Come To Good, a few miles from Truro, and not only discovered the meeting house, but attended the meeting. The house is thatched, with whitewashed walls and is a listged building. Its lovely grounds were carpeted with bluebells and buttercups under the trees which provided shelter from the sun.
The meeting was an important experience, so much so that on the following Sunday, being no longer in Cornwall, we attended the Quaker meeting in Westminster in a very different setting. The meeting room there is in St Martin's Lane, between Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square. But the essence of the Quaker meeting united the two locations. One is a meeting house in a bluebell and buttercup, treed enclosure; the other is in the busyness and noise of central London.
The link is the silence in the meeting room. The meeting lasts for approximately one hour. Those present remain silent, though ocasionally one or another might speak, sharing a brief comment that might help those in the meeting to centre their thoughts. The point of the meeting is that in the silence we are better able to discern the voice of God within. I am convinced of the value of that exercise. Elijah had to let the violence of a storm abate befre he was able to here, in the silence, 'the still, small voice of God." That was certaily the case for me in those Quaker meeting rooms. The quietness makes room for the inteior voice of God to be heard.
WORDS FROM A MAN OF INTEGRITY, WISDOM AND FAITH
I mentioned in my blog my association with Cliff Magor, my wife’s father, lay preacher, church leader and MRA (now Initiatives of Change) supporter. In his short book, ‘An Unexpected Life’, he has the following paragraph:
Could we spend a few minutes looking at what ‘eternal’ life means? The French priest Michel Quoist in his book ‘Christ is Alive’ says that we have made a mistake in presenting the idea of ‘another life’ some time in the future which has no connection with this life. ‘There is,’ he says, ‘no other life; there is indeed only one life, and that is the life we are now living. And that one single life is the life which at the end of our days on earth will be profoundly transformed, transfigured, and restored in Christ, so that it may be lived out in eternity.’ ‘God,’ he says, ‘did not merely stitch one life, like a patch, to another, so that we might say, ‘Well, this life ends here, and the next one begins there.’ Christ added a dimension which gives life to all life.’ We are right, Michel Quoist concludes, ‘in wanting heaven here and now, rooted in the whole of our lives. Christ has given it to us. He has given us His life, and through it the Kingdom which is now among us.’ I repeat that in Christ we receive eternal life, we enter it now, William Barclay puts it so clearly that I’d like to quote him at some length. ‘Eternal life,’ he says, ‘is nothing less than the life of God Himself. What we are promised is that here and now there can be given to us to share in the very life of God. In God there is peace, and therefore eternal life means serenity…In God there is power, and therefore eternal life means the defeat of frustration. It means a life which is filled with the power of God, and which is therefore a life victorious over circumstance. In God there is holiness, and therefore eternal life means the defeat of sin. It means a life clad with the purity which is the purity of God, and armed against the soiling infections of the world. In God there is love, and therefore eternal life means the end of bitterness and hatred. It means a life which has the love of God at its heart, and the undefeatable love of man in all its feelings and in all its action. In God there is life, and therefore eternal life means the defeat of death. It means a life that is indestructible because it has the indestructible because it has in it the indestructible life of God.’
Such is the reading which attracted Cliff Magor He was a man of deep spirituality, so that is not surprising. Quotations from Quoist and Barclay are significant because both men sought to make spiritual concepts practical in their definition, or to put it differently, they sought to make understandable concepts which have a tendency to rest in mystery. They also wrote of the life-changing effects of faith and the life-lifting effects of the enlivened human spirit. That was the kind of man I understood Cliff Magor to be. It was my privilege to have met him. Much in his book inspires me. That we might differ in one or two theological nuances is of no importance. His faith and his spiritual depth, his integrity and his wisdom are examples to follow.
Are there men or women who have inspired you? If so, let others know about them. There is enough and more of the negative filling the airwaves. Faith matters; integrity matters; wisdom matters; spiritual depth matters. I thank God for people like Cliff.
It would, I think, surprise some people to know that Jesus had little to say about fairness.
He had quite a lot to say about generosity and about grace, but fairness seems to have been a small concern for him, if it was a concern at all.
Take this morning’s Gospel reading, for example. You can be sure of this much about it – it would not be a popular reading at a congress of trade unions. Because it tells us both what the kingdom of heaven is like, and what it is not like. And what it is not like is fairness.
What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus tells many parables of what the kingdom of heaven is like, and this morning’s reading is only one of them, but it is powerful in its implications.
The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a vineyard. He needs labour, so goes into the market place early in the morning, probably around 6 o’clock, and hires labourers, agreeing with them a denarius each for the day’s work.
That is exactly as it should be. A denarius was the correct daily rate for a labourer. We can say that they were engaged for “the Award Rate.” It was right and proper. The correct sum.
He sent them into the vineyard.
The vineyard owner, however, had not found sufficient labour for the work to be done. So about nine in the morning he hired some more labourers, but still needing more hands to the vines, at noon and at three in the afternoon he hired more men, and sent them into the vineyard as he had sent those hired before them.
We can take it that it is the time of the grape harvest, because he still did not have a sufficient number of men in the vineyard, and as late as five in the afternoon he hired still more and set them to work, even though only an hour was left of the working day.
Then came time for the payment of wages.
Those who had worked for one hour received one denarius.
Those who had worked for three hours received one denarius.
Those who had worked for six hours received one denarius.
Those who had worked for nine hours received one denarius.
Those who had worked the full twelve hours day received one denarius.
There are no doubt many ways of interpreting that pay distribution, but the one factor that can’t be denied is that it does not meet the requirements of fairness, and those who had worked in the heat of the day for the long period of 12 hours thought it was not fair. And so they complained.
You’ve given even those who worked for only one hour a denarius, and you’ve only given us a denarius, even though we have worked for the whole 12 hours. Where is the fairness in that?
It seems that one man in particular has spoken for them all, because it is to one man that the vineyard owner makes his reply. We might think of that man who spoke up as the Shop Steward.
We can imagine the employer with something of a puzzled look on his face. Fairness? What has that to do with the matter of wages for the day’s work?
No-one has been ill-treated. No one has been underpaid. And so he reminds the shop steward that he and the others who started at 6 in the morning agreed to a denarius as the correct rate, And so they have been paid. And he points out that what he, the representative of the 12-hours workers, is in reality complaining about is his, the employer’s, generosity.
So what is the parable telling us about the kingdom of God?
Is it that it is proclaiming the kingdom as the realm of celebrating the generosity and grace of God?
Is it that the kingdom of God is like celebrating the generosity and the grace of God?
That’s not the whole story of the kingdom of heaven, to use Matthew’s term for the kingdom of God, and each of the parables of the kingdom gives us another aspect of what the kingdom is like. This parable tells us that one aspect of what the kingdom of God is like is the generosity and the grace of God. That is something to celebrate. It affects us all – every one of us.
One of the stories in the gospels that I have a special love for is the account in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus accepting the invitation of a Pharisee to dine in his house. It was a very proper invitation, because both the Pharisee and Jesus were of the middle class of Jewish society. The trade of carpenter was a middle class occupation. Those who practised it earned their living and were able to make their way in the world. They made a useful contribution to society. And so the Pharisee extends a proper courtesy to Jesus.
However, while they are eating, a woman of the streets comes in, and no doubt the Pharisee gazes in horror at her. What is she doing here? Only the respectable have a place in a Pharisee’s house. Jesus meets that qualification. This woman of the streets certainly does not.
But worse is to come.
The woman stands by the reclining Jesus, and weeps. Her tears fall upon his feet. She dries them with her hair. And now, to the Pharisee a horror of horrors, she kisses his feet and anoints them with ointment from an alabaster jar she has brought into the room.
Was that right, that the Pharisee who had done all he could to live by the Law of Moses and the oral law which had expanded it, should share his guest with a woman who had deliberately lived by breaking it at every turn?
Where is the fairness in a man who has kept every precept of the Jewish law and a woman who has broken many of them repeatedly sharing even for a moment the comfort of a fine house?
Answer? It isn’t. But then, we live by the grace of God, don’t we? We don’t live by what, in our foolishness, we might believe we deserve from God.
What was present in that room, you see, at that moment, was something far richer than fairness; what was present was generosity in the love which had released the woman from the bonds of guilt that had for so long shackled her spirit, and she needed to express her own love in return.
It’s clear that this is not the first meeting between the woman and Jesus. Nothing could be clearer than that they have met before, and in his presence she has received release from her guilt.
Generosity, love, grace, were in the Pharisee’s house at that moment.
As was compassion.
So often, Jesus taught generosity; he lived generously;
so often Jesus taught love; he lived by love;
so often Jesus taught compassion; he lived compassion;
so often Jesus taught the grace of God; he lived the grace of God.
Which brings us back to the parable and the generosity and grace which characterise the kingdom of heaven, or, if it is a phrase which explains it better, the realm of God.
God’s realm, the parable tells us, is a realm of generosity and grace. That is what it is like.
When we know ourselves to be the receivers of the grace and the generosity of God, what does that do to the way we live?
I wonder if you’ll forgive me if I illustrate with a football example? The London football team I have supported since my boyhood, a team hardly anyone in Australia has heard of, is Charlton Athletic. Their home ground is in south-east London and they never win anything. During one season in the 1950s Charlton were near the foot of the First Division of the Football League, as it was known then, and in danger of relegation to the second division. In those days the teams which finished the season in the last two places in the First Division were relegated.
A brilliant Scandinavian centre-forward called Hans Jepson, who I think worked in the timber industry, had to visit London on business, and would be there for about six weeks. The Charlton manager, a man called Jimmy Seed, heard of it and was quick enough to contact the brilliant Hans Jepson and sign him on to play for Charlton during those few weeks in London. Charlton won every match during Jepson’s time with them, and finished the season middle of the league table.
When Jepson went back to Scandinavia, Jimmy Seed called him “Manna from heaven.” His gratitude was for all to see.
In our thoughts on the Kingdom of heaven this morning, gratitude for the generosity and grace of God is the appropriate response, for the generosity and grace of God are manna from heaven.
Our Old Testament reading this morning was about manna from heaven. The Israelites had been murmuring against Moses, telling one another they would have been better off remaining in Egypt rather than listening to Moses who had, it seems, brought them out into the wilderness of Sinai to starve and die. But God supplied manna from heaven, sufficient for each day’s need. His grace was sufficient for them.
His grace is sufficient for us.
It would be nice to conclude that the Israelites were overwhelmed with gratitude for the grace of God, but it seems in the story that they fell a bit short on gratitude. Perhaps they could learn something from Jimmy Seed, the Charlton manager who was unreservedly grateful for what he called his manna from heaven in the form of centre-forward Hans Jepson.
How much greater is the grace of God than any football illustration can tell; how much greater gratitude is called for from us.
The woman from the streets is a better example for us. When she invited herself into the house of a Pharisee her motive was not to disrupt a private dinner party. She entered the Pharisee’s house because she was compelled to do so.
What was compelling her? What irresistible compulsion sent her into the house in what was considered in her day and her country to be an intolerable intrusion, an act of gross distaste, a terrible social sin?
Gratitude. Uncontrolled, unmeasured gratitude for release from a burden of guilt that had acted as her private prison.
The Pharisee didn’t see the gratitude. He saw the sin. He saw the fairness of ostracization that sin, in his eyes, deserved. So he, too, has something to teach us, and it is that self-righteousness prevents us seeing the beautiful responses of others. It acts as a screen between our minds and the beauty of such qualities as love, and gratitude, and goodness. Self-righteousness can be an impenetrable screen.
So I leave these words with two thoughts. One is from the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The other is from the incident in the Pharisee’s house.
The first is,
Generosity and graceare infinitely more valuable than fairness.
The second is,
The generosity of seeing love, gratitude and goodnessin another is infinitely more valuable than the self-rightousness of seeing sin in another.
Both are to do with how God reaches out to us.
He reaches out to us in generosity and grace, and if he were to consider us only by our faults and failings there would be no communion with him at all. In Christ he reaches out to us in love, and we too know the gratitude and love of freedom from the guilt that otherwise would confine us. That is part of our turning to God to be freed from the worst that we want to put behind us.
The kingdom of heaven is like generosity and grace.
Thanks be to God for his limitless love.
S1004YLK2018sSermon edited for reading on website
28.10.18Yilki Uniting Church1030
Readings: Job 42:1-6, 10-17,Ps.34:1-8,Heb.7:23-28Mark 10:46-52
The Light and Shadows of the Morning
One of the loveliest parts of my day is the very beginning.
I start writing when it is still dark, at around quarter to five. The world in a sense is my own. The houses in our street are all in darkness. There is no noise of vehicles passing. No dogs are barking. I am in virtual silence until just before dawn when the magpies begin calling out on our deck. It is a magical hour.
As I sit working, I occasionally look out through the window and enjoy the blackness, the blackness which hides my small world from everything else. I am in my own world of the written word and of thought. And I rejoice in every second of it.
Something happens when the sky receives its first, very feint, glimmer of light. At that point I can just make out blurry outlines a shade darker in their blackness than the dark matrix of the hour.
I think of a blind man whose sight was restored in the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, not the one in the reading which sets the subject for this study – this was a healing which took place before that of the man whose sight was restored in this gospel reading. After using a traditional ancient procedure in dealing with optical problems, Jesus laid his hands on the blind man and asked him, “Do you see anything?” The man’s answer is fascinating: “I see men; but they look like trees walking.”
He could see just a little, but his vision was blurred.
The man who had not been able to see anything, could now see blurred outlines, vague undefined shapes.
In my morning hour I am in a sense blind to all outside my writing space, and when that first feint glow appears – the feintest of glows, I see blurred outlines, each in its blackness darker than the matrix of darkness. A glimmer of sight, but not yet real sight, not yet clear sight.
The man in Mark’s eighth chapter receives a second touch on his eyes from Jesus, and he sees clearly. The restoration is now complete.
My sight of the world outside is gradual. The predawn grows lighter, the sun as a pinprick of light appears where the sea meets the sky, it grows in size, becomes a huge fiery ball, then I see bright morning.
The early morning light comes in low rays, casting long shadows from the trees, which are now at their clearest, in all their colours in what are, at this time of year, still green fields. Now it is all revealed. I can see the whole panorama from my window. The movement from darkness to light, from the blindness of the dark to seeing, has been gradual.
This study is about the light and the shadows, because it is about a man who received his sight.
So let’s go to this morning’s story of the blind man who became sighted.
The Gospel writers never tell us of a healing without there being a meaning to the event – a meaning which arches over it. It is critical to remember that. The Gospel healings are always teaching us something beyond the healing act.
This reading of a man who receives his sight is no exception. It has an overarching meaning, and the meaning is there in the text.
So let’s remind ourselves of the story. Jesus and his disciples are on their way from Galilee to Jerusalem in company with a great crowd, a crowd weary and yet excited, as we’d expect because every Jew who could was travelling to the great city on the hill for Passover. They have skirted Samaria, as Jews making the journey always did, by taking the road on the eastern side of the Jordan for their walk southwards. They have recrossed the Jordan at the busy ford near Jericho to enter Judea, and now they are to proceed on the uphill climb to Jerusalem.
As they approach Jericho, a blind man called Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus (and the words he uses are very important), “Jesus, son of David, have mercy upon me!”
Now, I repeat, no healing takes place in the Gospels without there being a much deeper meaning to it. It’s looking for and perceiving that deeper meaning that contributes to making the Gospels such exciting reading!
In cases of healing the blind in the New Testament, the major meaning is always to do with enlightenment, that is, “seeing” a truth as it has not been seen before, and for us, the readers, “seeing” a truth as we might not have seen it before.
In the case of Bartimaeus, he partially saw a truth when he called out, “Jesus, son of David!”
His vision of the truth was blurred. He could see partially. He was in that moment before the dawn when sight is partial.
Now I know that Son of David is an important concept in Matthew’s Gospel, and in some of our hymn-singing. And certainly the expected, liberating - from - political oppression, restoring - Israel’s - sovereignty, Messiah was Jewish belief concerning the line of David. And Jesus belonged to that line. The book of Revelation, for example, portrays Jesus saying, “I am the root and the offspring of David, the morning star.” But “Son of David” was a very particular and precise form of words in Jewish society of New Testament days. To be called “Son of David” was to be hailed as the conquering Messiah whose anointing was to deliver the Jewish nation from the shackles of Rome.
That is how Bartimaeus saw Jesus as he passed him on the road, and cried out, “Jesus, son of David!” But you see, just a little later in Mark’s Gospel, in Jerusalem, Jesus rejects that title. Teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, he said to his listeners, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put (thine) enemies under thy feet.’ David himself calls him Lord; so how is he to be his son?”, Jesus asks. And we read that “the great throng heard him gladly.”
Blind Bartimaeus was blind not only as one lacking physical sight, he was partially blind in his understanding of Jesus. He had yet to learn that Jesus, whom he called Son of David, was anointed with a quite different purpose – yes, he was son of David, but he was to be a suffering servant Messiah.
Mark’s Gospel consistently paints that picture of the servant leadership of Jesus, the suffering servant Messiah.
Bartimaeus had yet no concept of a Messiah who served his people and whose suffering would be consummated on a Roman cross. Far from throwing off the yoke of Rome, he would suffer a Roman execution.
For the moment Bartimaeus’ picture of the Messiah was blurred. His understanding of Jesus was blurred. But the dawn would come and the ministry of Messiah Jesus would become clear.
It’s not that the title, “Son of David” was wrong. Rather, it was that there was an even more important truth about Jesus that was at that point not seen by Bartimaeus. The title, “Son of David”, had a nationalistic note to it, but Jesus, Bartimaeus had not yet realised, was coming not as a military general of an army of his people, but as a SERVANT to them.
Let’s return, now, to thinking about light and shade, thinking of light and shadow, light and shade, as illumination of our minds and our faith.
It would be helpful for us to commence with some words of Jesus that John records, and you know them very well:“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus is, John tells his readers, The Light of the World. So I like to think of Jesus as I think of that early morning sun.
(a)He shows us in the Gospels, as clearly as the morning sun shows the trees, their colours, the grass, the fences, that he is one who is a servant. He does not come to us with political power, or any kind of force. He comes as one who serves, and in serving he shows us a quality of our God.
Think for a moment of that occasion when Jesus was assembled with his disciples in a room, just before Passover, as John’s Gospel tells it. He is there with his followers, He is their leader, and as we see in reading the account, those followers, his disciples, have called him ‘Lord.” So what does he do, this man whose followers call him Lord? He ‘girds himself with a towel. Then he pours water into a basin, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet…’
It was customary in Palestine for a servant to wash the feet of a person who enters a house. It was done because the dust of the road made sandal-shod feet uncomfortable, and the foot-washing was relaxing as well as cleansing. It was a servant’s job. And Jesus does it. He becomes a servant to his followers. He carries out the most menial tasks for them and to them.
Think of Jesus as the morning sunlight. He shows us, as clearly as the morning light shows the trees, the flowers, the grass, that LEADERSHIP IS SERVANTHOOD. The light of Jesus shows leadership to be the joy of serving.
The notion that leadership is control, seeking position, is thrown into shadow. It belongs in the shadow.
Leadership is SERVANTHOOD. It is TO SERVE, which means that it is open to all of us. Bartimaeus had to learn that. He called out to the Son of David. Son of David he might well be, but Servant is more important by far in the person of Jesus. He is the Messiah who might well be Son of David, but not the conquering, political Messiah; he is the ‘Servant Messiah.’‘…he calls us now to follow him, to bring our lives as a daily offering of worship to the Servant King.’
(b)Bartimaeus had something else to be enlightened about – there was something else he was blind to. He believed, you see, as almost everyone in his day did, that blindness, was caused by sin. What a cruel notion that was.
Bartimaeus might not have been able to remember any particular sin, but he had no doubt that sin somewhere had caused his loss of sight – even if it were sin by his parents. He had no doubt that he was a sinner, either directly or by proxy. His blindness was proof of it. And so he calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, HAVE MERCY ON ME!” Bartimaeus could see only that God was a punishing God who brought the most terrible retribution for misdemeanours. If you were sick, your sickness was Divine punishment for wrongdoing. So Bartimaeus cries out, “HAVE MERCY ON ME!” Because if sin is forgiven, disease is healed. In Bartimaeus’ mind, the sin must be dealt with if there were to be healing. Hence his plea, “Have mercy on me!”
Now you won’t have missed something important there. If Bartimaeus believed that God inflicted sickness as punishment for sin, as just about everyone in his day did, he must also have believed that only God could cure him because only God could forgive sin. So in crying out to Jesus, ‘HAVE MERCY ON ME’, he is recognising that in some way God is working through this man Jesus. You can’t have one without the other. If you believe that God inflicts the punishment, then you must also believe that only God can remove the punishment. If you believe that your sickness is God’s punishment for sin, you must also believe that only God can forgive sin.
However, among Bartimaeus’ errors, there is one clear element of faith, and it is that in a way he did not need to understand, God was working through this man Jesus.
Jesus responds to that not with a correction of his mistakes, but with the words, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ Jesus, the Light of the World, shows Bartimaeus that God is Love, as he shows us that God is Love. That does not mean that when we do wrong it does not matter. It does. The repentant heart is the heart at peace with God. It is also the heart that is at peace with the shadows of life. Never overlook the truth that God is Love, as the First Letter of John so carefully points out The light shows the Love of God. The shadow, the darkness, contains the superstition, the cruel notion, that sickness and misfortune are inflicted by God because of sin. That superstition, that belief, belongs in the shadow. It has no place in the enlightenment of Christ, the light of knowledge that shines in the hearts and minds of his followers.
The eyes of the blind are still opened. The enlightenment of Christ shows us that God who is Love calls us to follow and serve, to be servant leaders in our Church and our Community. That, by the way, is what Bartimaeus did. Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well’. Did he go his way? No, he did not. He responded rather disobediently. Mark tells us this about Bartimaeus’ response: ‘…he received his sight and followed him on the way.’ He followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, yes, but we can also be sure that he followed him on the way of discipleship.
Jesus, the Light of the World, tells all who are his disciples, and you can read it in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.’ A disciple is the light of the world, Like a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. It is a reflected light of Jesus, the Light of the world, And the reflective element is our faithfulness in discipleship.
You and I are called to continue that ministry of the Light of the World. The city that cannot be hid is, of course, Jerusalem, set on its hill in the high country of Judaea, now Israel. But we, the disciples of Jesus are called now to be the city set on a hill, lights in the world, showing in our relationships, telling by the quality of the values we proclaim, sharing in the faith we live by, God who is Love, God who is Servant, in Jesus who calls us to be Love and Servants in the world.
Do we call him “Lord”? Yes, of course we do, and willingly. But we are declaring allegiance of a Lord who serves, and calls us to serve.
Sermon preached 27.8.17 at Newland Memorial Uniting Church
New Testament Reading:Matthew 16:13-20
PETERFIED OR PETRIFIED?
I wonder how many people here have been to Venice? I hope those who have love that city as much as I do. For me it is a glittering miracle in the Adriatic.
I wonder too, how many visitors to Venice know what they are walking on when they are in the city? And I ask that rather rhetorical question because when I talk with people who have been to Venice, I find that many believe it to be a normal city like any other except that it has canals running through it.
Not so.Not so.
Venice is built upon approximately 130 low-lying mud islands. The canals are the water between the islands.
How did that happen?
It happened because the Veneti people, those people who lived on the mainland by the lagoon where Venice now exists, fled to those islands to escape the tribal people we know as the Huns, when those Huns invaded the lands of north-eastern Italy. In time, the Veneti built their great city on the mud islands and connected them with those many, many hump-backed bridges that every visitor to Venice knows.
So what are visitors to Venice walking on when they stroll through the city?
Remember that it is built on mud islands, and on those mud islands every edifice in Venice is constructed. So how were they built,
the wonderful baroque church of Santa Maria delle Salute, constructed in thanksgiving for deliverance from a terrible outbreak of the plague,
the lovely church of Santa Maria del’ Orto, the home church of the painter Tintoretto,
the great Basilica of Saint Mark,
the glittering palaces of the Grand Canal,
the elegance of St Mark’s Square,
and for that matter every other building in Venice?
How did they do that?
The answer is -
by floating thousands upon thousands of larch poles out to the islands and driving them down through the mud until they penetrated firmer ground beneath. And upon those thousands upon thousands upon thousands of larch poles, everything in Venice is built.
Every one of those magnificent structures in Venice is built upon a foundation of wood. And every walkway is built upon a foundation of wood. So every visitor to the city, whether he or she knows it or not, is walking upon wood, driven through mud, and into firmer ground beneath.
So why hasn’t the city fallen down into ruin?=P=
Because the timber poles have petrified over the years. They have become stone, or rock.
What has that to do with this morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel?
Quite a lot because the Church is, Matthew’s Gospel tells us, built on rock, or stone. Matthew tells us that this is what Jesus said to Peter:
“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” RPT
So Matthew is telling us in his Gospel that Jesus has in some way built his church, and perhaps we can say is still building his church, on rock, or stone.
Now to make sure that we get the point, Matthew has used a rather clever Greek pun. This is what he has done – and you remember, of course, that the New Testament is written in the Greek of the day. He has used two Greek words which sound very similar. The Greek for Peter is Pétros, and the Greek for rock or stone is pétra. So Matthew relates that Jesus tells Peter,
You are Pétros, and on this pétra I will build my church.RPT
That makes sure that it will be remembered, doesn’t it?
It has been my privilege to visit Rome on a number of occasions, and it is rare for me not to visit St Peter’s in the Vatican while I’m there. It always interests me to look up into the dome of that great basilica, and see those words (in Latin), on the inside of the structure:
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Not being a Roman Catholic I cannot be certain of how the Catholic Church sees these words, but I have always been persuaded that it is Peter himself that the Vatican sees as the foundation of the Church. It is claimed that he was the first Pope, and I have no doubt that Peter went to Rome and was crucified there.
I went down into the necropolis – the underground burial plot - beneath St Peter’s many years ago, and stood next to the grave there which is claimed to be that of Peter, and I am inclined to believe that it’s authentic. It lies beneath the High Altar, which is the very spot where, as early as the second century AD, there was a shrine to Peter at the edge of a Roman circus – a roman circus of course being a chariot racetrack.
So Peter the person is very important in Rome.
But was Jesus saying that his Church would be built on the person of Peter? As always, the context is important. Peter has just declared,
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
You see, at the moment when Matthew tells us Jesus declared to Peter that he would build his Church on the rock, Peter the rock was expressing the most extraordinary faith,
and it was in response to that faith that Jesus spoke of building his Church upon the rock. Faith, we might note here, was one of the very central things that Jesus was concerned with in all his ministry.
Peter had just said,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
It was an extraordinary statement of faith.
‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the God who lives.’ It was extraordinary under any circumstances, but especially so since Jesus was about as far from the kind of person expected as the Messiah than anyone could be.
It would have been incomprehensible to most Jews of Jesus’ day that a carpenter from Galilee who preached love and peace could be the Messiah. The Messiah was expected to be a great deliverer of the people from subjection to Rome – he was expected to restore the Jewish people to the great days of the kingdom of David.
A peace-preaching carpenter from Galilee?
He couldn’t be further from the Messiah popularly expected.
Yet Peter proclaims Jesus to be so in an amazing statement of faith. He had the perception to see in this man something that was so far above the normal that he could see only Divinity
in his teaching,
in his healing,
in his compassion and
in his person.=P=
And he expresses it by calling him Son of the God who lives, in contradistinction from dead idols, and by calling him the long-awaited one, the Messiah.
Oh, yes, in his later behaviour he resiled from that, or so it seemed, when, in fear, he deserted Jesus when he was taken captive to the palace of Caïaphas and then to the Praetorium for Pilate’s judgment.
But here, in this moment away from the crowds, he is THE MAN OF FAITH.
So is it the man Peter upon whom the Church is to be built,
is it the man of faith upon whom the Church is to be built?
Remember, this is the man expressing faith who listens to the words
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,
And who would surely not miss the point that it was in that moment of faith, and never before it, that the building of the Church was mentioned.
I think we can safely conclude that the building of the Church was to be on THE CONFESSING FAITH MAN. As long as Peter was a man of faith, he was key to the Church.
That applies to us.=P=
The Church is built upon the confessing and practising faith of you and me and every other Christian who is a confessing and practising faith person.
Just over a week ago, Ruth and I were visitors to the old Moonta Mines Wesleyan Methodist Church. It is a magnificent building with a fine sanctuary, a working pipe organ, wonderful decoration and an internal balcony running around three sides of the building. And it’s large.
We spoke with a volunteer on duty in the church that day, and he told us that the church in its heyday was packed tightly with no space anywhere. The Cornish miners and their families did not miss a service. Today the average congregation in that enormous church is 16.
Were they people of faith in those mining days when the church was packed to capacity? I think it has to be noted that the mine captain kept a careful eye on who was in church on Sunday, and noted especially who was not there. And if you were a miner and you were not there you had to explain yourself to him on Monday morning.
We could conclude from that that they were there only because they had to be.
Yet the Cornish of those mining days were people of faith – devout Methodists for whom their faith was important.
I might illustrate that by mentioning a visit we made to another location, some years ago, this time in Cornwall. We went to Gwennup pit, a large excavation not far from a town called Altarnum.
John Wesley preached in the centre of that pit to a crowd of many thousands. And they were not compelled to be there. They were there because their faith was important. The Cornish miners and their families were people of strong faith.
Well, up at Moonta the miners are no longer there, and there are few to attend the church. And here at Newland there are far fewer of us than once there were. But lest you think I am about to sound a “Woe is us” note, be assured that that is not going to happen. There are more positive things for Christian preachers to say.
And I’m going to say it by contrasting the commendation Jesus said to Peter with the timber-turned-to-stone foundations of Venice.
It was FAITH that was commended by Jesus. That moment of almost explosive faith from Peter when he said,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”,
was a faith Jesus could do something with. In fact, he could found his whole religious movement on such a faith. Because such a faith – in fact, faith per se, is ADVENTUROUS!
Faith reaches out for new experiences.
What might Peter have been thinking, when he said’
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”?
He has just declared that this man Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited one who was to usher in a new age.
What might that mean for him?
It would mean, and Peter would have been very conscious of this in his exclamation of faith, that he would have to be as new in his being as the age would be new! RPT
And if this man Jesus was Son of the Living God, note the important word, LIVING, then he would have to accept that the Living God calls for LIVING FAITH. As you and I have to accept that. That means venturing faith. It means a faith which constantly asks,
“Where is God leading me to now?
What new experience is God leading me into now?
What new avenue of service is he leading me to now?
What new understanding of him is he coaxing me into now?
What new depths of faith is he encouraging me into now?
What new kind of person is he calling me to be?”
There is the meaning of Peter’s exclamation of faith –
it is living,
it is vibrant,
it is growing,
it is developing,
it is ALIVE!
Now contrast Venice, that wonderful city that I love deeply. It is, you remember, built on thousands upon thousands of larch poles. They have, as all Venetians are thankful for, remained stationary. And it is in their remaining stationary that they have turned to stone.
It is in their remaining stationary that they have become PETRIFIED.
The word ‘petrified’ means, ‘have become stone.’
Yes, it means to be frightened, but its root meaning, its major meaning is to become stone.
Think about that for a moment. We have a choice, as always we have in life.
We can choose living faith, or we can choose to stay the persons we are.
We can be as Peter in his commitment to living faith in the living God, or we can become as the petrified supports of Venice because we are content to remain as we are.
We can be, if you will excuse the word, PETERFIED – people of living faith in the living God,
or we can be PETRIFIED – people happy to stay where we are in our churchmanship, in our religious life, and perhaps even be self-satisfied. Perhaps afraid of a living faith?
That is the choice, and should you and I choose to take the adventurous way of Peter, the way of adventurous, living faith in the living God, we could take an important practical step of asking ourselves those questions I raised a few moments ago, and perhaps even writing down the answers.
They will be tempered by the fact that we are an elderly congregation. We know the effects of the years. So, within the limitations of our senior years, why not ask the questions as a serious contribution to our living out of our Christian discipleship?
“Where is God leading me to now?
What new experience is God leading me into now?
What new avenue of service is he leading me to now?
What new understanding of him is he coaxing me into now?
What new depths of faith is he encouraging me into now?
What new kind of person is he calling me to be?”
Peterfied or petrified?
The model is the way of Peter, who is recorded as saying,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”
As always in Christian living, the way forward is the way of faith.
Preached at Yilki Uniting Church, 13th August, 2017
Readings:Gen.37:1-4, 12-28Ps.105:1-6, 16-22, 45bRo.10:5-15Matt.14:22-33
FAITH, DIVINITY AND FOCUS
I know a little about storms. In my early working years as a merchant seaman I recall a particularly bad one. I was serving on a cargo vessel. The wind was immensely powerful, and the waves were enormous. Moreover, they were coming at the ship on her port beam, which means that they were directly side on, coming from the left as you face forward.
It was a wild ride, and my memory of one moment remains vivid. A particularly large wave caused the ship to roll so far to starboard that my overwhelming thought was, Is she going to come back? Is she going to roll right over?
She seemed to hang over on her beam for far longer than she really did. I looked at the other hands on the deck, men gripping the life lines, that is, the ropes that are slung fore and aft from the bridge during a storm to give hands something to grip and remain safe. Their faces were filled with the anxiety that I felt.
She came back after that roll that had made us all wonder whether our early demise had come. And I thought, The Old Man (that’s what we always called the Master of the ship, but never to his face) – The Old Man, I thought, must surely heave to now, take us off this beam sea course. But he didn’t. He made no course change at all. He kept the vessel going with the beam sea.
Was it foolish?
Then I reminded myself that the Master had many decades of experience. He was a very senior man. With all that sea experience, we could trust him to know what he was doing. And he did know. We continued with a very uncomfortable day, but the anxiety inside me had evaporated. He could be trusted. We could have faith in him.
Today’s Gospel reading is about a storm.
And it’s about fear.
And it’s about faith.RPT a storm, fear, and faith.
The core of the story that Matthew tells is of disciples in a boat on the sea or lake of Galilee in the midst of a serious storm. They are fearful, as they might be expected to be.
Jesus appears in the midst of the storm. Peter leaves the boat and walks over the water towards him. He believes he can do it because Jesus has bidden him to do it. That’s the point of the story.
But then fear of the storm takes over, and he begins to sink.Fear.
So there are the major elements of the incident as Matthew tells it; Jesus, Peter, the storm, fear and faith.
Peter, in his fear, forgets that Jesus can be trusted.
So what can we draw from this that applies to us, today, in our various experiences of life?
There is an American proverb that runs thus:
Courage is fear that has said its prayers.
It’s telling us that courage and faith are very closely related, and they are an antidote to fear.
I don’t read Latin, but I’m giving what time I can spare to learning it, and I find that the English word ‘courage’ has its root in the Latin cor, which in my still very early days of learning Latin I discover means heart. So, to have courage is to hearten, and to ENcourage is to ENhearten. That appeals to me because Jesus gave so much of his ministry time to enheartening people, to giving them heart. He was, to a very beautiful degree, an encourager.
John’s Gospel tells us of an event by the pool of Bethzatha, where a man who had been lame for 38 years lay. Do you remember what Jesus said to him? It’s very important.
Do you want to be healed?
Jesus wanted to get to the man’s heart. Was there a deep yearning there to be healed? We can’t really know.
We can read the words that followed as just a flat sentence, but if we let it speak to us, we’ll realise that there is a great deal more to it than just a command. He said to the 38-years lame man,
Rise, take up your pallet, and walk,
Just a command? No! It’s a “You can do this” encouragement to the man.
And there’s the link between faith and encouragement!
“I believe you can do it, so you can believe you can do it.”
In the midst of the storm on the lake, Peter (and probably the others in the boat, too) needed some assurance that they would survive. Perhaps Matthew is telling us that Peter saw his security in going to Jesus. So what point is made by Matthew when he tells us that Jesus said to Peter, “Come”?
As always when we read words from the Bible, or from any document, for that matter, we must first take note of their context. And the context here is clear. The storm has filled the disciples with fear, as well it might. I know the feeling. Matthew tells us, “they were terrified” and “they cried out for fear”, but Jesus said to them, and take careful note of the words,
“Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
You have, you see, all the elements there.
•Taking heart or being encouraged, that is, you can have faith that all will be well.
•The reason for being enheartened, for embracing faith is because Jesus, the Encourager, is with them in the storm.
•The enemy that is defeated by faith is fear.
Faith,Jesus the EncouragerFear.All there in the story.
I was encouraged during my moment of fear at sea. I was enheartened and exercised faith in Captain Thompson, the Master. Fear evaporated.
We have a great deal to gain in the worst moments of life, but also in the everyday moments when we realise that courage and faith work together. They are at their most effective when we allow ourselves to be encouraged by the great Encourager.
Think for a moment of another incident in the New Testament involving encouragement and fear. Some manuscripts put the event in John’s Gospel, some in Luke’s. It concerns a woman caught in the act of adultery.
Now New Testament times were times in Judea and Galilee when strict legalists held great power over people, and there were those who wanted to apply the legally prescribed punishment of stoning to the woman. The law said stoning was the punishment for adultery. The woman was in great fear. Who wouldn’t be with stoning imminent?
Jesus said to her accusers, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” The would-be stone throwers melted away, of course. But it’s the words of Jesus to the woman that matter. He said,
“Has no one condemned you?...Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
They were not words which minimised the wrong she had done, but they were encouragement. They amounted to, “I believe in you. You can believe in yourself. You can do better. You can succeed. Take heart.” I can well imagine the new confidence, the sense of release, the dispelling of fear that she had experienced.
It reminds me of a moment during my schooldays. I had been scrumping. Scrumping was the word we used for stealing apples from orchards and it was a well-known hobby among schoolboys. On this day the front of my shirt was bulging with apples.
To my great dismay, as I walked out onto the road, who should come along but the local policeman on the beat, PC Ross. He knew what I had under my bulging shirt, but he asked me to show him. Fearing the worst, I showed him the apples. Was he going to take me to the local police station? Was he going to march me home? To my great surprise, he did something better for me than that. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You can do better than that.” He warned me against doing it again of course, and he told me to take the apples back to the owner. But what I remember most strongly are his words, “You can do better than that.” PC Ross was an encourager to me that day. And I have never forgotten it.
The words, I believe in you. You can believe in yourself, in a sense encapsulate what we mean by faith. When we look at the story of Peter walking in the storm on the lake towards Jesus, we can read into those words,
Take heart, it is I; have no fear
the two strong assurances of faith,
I believe in you. You can believe in yourself, and
I believe in you. You can believe in me.RPT
The story of Jesus and Peter on the lake, you see, is skilfully written. In faith, Peter walks, water or no water, towards his Lord who has expressed confidence in him. Peter in return is expressing confidence in Jesus. It is only when Peter turns his attention to his fears that he begins to sink. Does he falter in faith? We are left to think that one through for ourselves. And that’s as it should be.
But here is an important point. Peter is not punished for his apparent lack of faith when the storm regains his attention. He is rescued from the consequences. And this is what Jesus said to the newly-rescued Peter:
O man of little faith, why did you doubt?
“You can do better, Peter. You had a little faith. You started out on the journey. You doubted, but you can recover from that, and live your life in greater faith. You can and you will do better.”
And of course Peter went on to become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, the very centre of Jewish Christianity.
I found myself thinking, when I set my mind to consider this passage about the storm on the lake, what the first readers would have drawn from it.
Those first readers were Jewish Christians of the latter half of the first century AD. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus had happened a long time ago. In the meantime those Jewish Christians had suffered considerable persecution from the Jews of the synagogues and in Rome terrible persecution from the Emperor Nero, a persecution that had taken very many Christian lives.
Perhaps there are some who don’t realise that the first Christians, most of whom were Jewish, suffered their earliest persecution from the Jews of the synagogues.
Their faith had been severely tested in the storms of persecution.
I think those first readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have taken great heart from this story of Peter, Jesus, and the storm on the lake. They would have been encouraged in their faltering faith and helped back to confidence in Christ.
And in reading the whole Gospel they would have noted that Jesus encouraged faith wherever he went, but not as one who insisted upon faith, not as one who demanded faith, so much as one who encouraged faith through showing that God could be trusted in every phase and aspect of life.
He showed the reason for faith – and the reason was the goodness and steadfast love of God. That, Jesus showed, was a reality that could be trusted, no matter what the storms that threatened were. God is Love , and remains faithful to us. We find that love expressed most vividly in Jesus of Nazareth.
And on the lake Peter let his attention stray from that.
There is a song that used to be sung in churches a generation or two ago. Do you remember it?
Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
Perhaps we find notions of looking into a wonderful face just a bit too sentimental for today’s thinking, but its truth is important to note.
Substituting fears for things in the story, there is truth in the conviction that the fears of earth do grow strangely dim when our eyes are on the one who calls us to faith, who tells us in all that he did in his earthly ministry,
I believe in you. You can believe in yourself.
I believe in you. You can believe in me.
So you can believe in God whose love never deserts you.
God who is Spirit is with us always.
5.3.17Yilki Uniting Church1030
NOT BY BREAD ALONE
I keep on my desk a small stone. It has quite a polished surface to it. It’s only. say, an average of 1” diameter. It’s mostly black.
If you didn’t know it were there, you’d probably not notice it. But it has an important place for me. It represents all that is not bread. Yes, it’s a symbol of the non-material realities that make life the best that life can be. As Jesus said, we can’t live by bread alone,
‘but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’
We have to come back to that, because the idea of words proceeding from the mouth of God is not an idea we can easily mentally digest.
But before we do, there is something more to say about bread, and it’s especially important on a communion Sunday. What I have to say is that bread at least appears to get a mixed press in the Gospel. Here, in the experience of temptation, bread can get in the way of the things that really matter, but later on in the Gospel we find, at the Last Supper, that bread represents the things that really matter.
We are going to look at both of those pictures of bread, but in the context of stone:
-That it, bread, can get in the way of the things that really matter and
-That it can represent the things that really matter.
So first in our thinking is bread that gets in the way of the things that really matter. Or to broaden the concept, material things that get in the way of the really important things.
This morning’s gospel reading focuses upon being tempted. And in no part of the reading is there a focus upon trivial temptations. I say that because the season of Lent, which has just commenced, is often trivialised when some people talk of giving up for Lent some things they won’t really miss, and are in any case on the perimeter of what life is about. The gospel reading is concerned with temptation at the level where life – your life, my life – is affected at fundamentally.
So our concern this morning is the temptation to turn stones into bread, that is, into consumables.
And we are going to note that Jesus had a word to say about that, and it was and is,
‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’
And we may take ‘Man’ to mean ‘Mankind’ there – that is,
‘Man or woman shall not live by bread alone, not by material, consumable things alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’
A few years ago, Ruth and I found ourselves in Venice at Carnivale time. I say, ‘found ourselves in’ because, although we had planned to be there, and booked our accommodation, we had not realised that we were so close to Lent, and Venice would be in Carnival mood. We first realised that something more than the everyday was happening in Venice when, while we were travelling on a vaporetto (a water bus), we were joined on board, at one of the stops, by Napoleon. We knew it was not the end of the 18th century nor the beginning of the19th, so what was going on? It was even stranger when, at the next stop, a plague doctor came on board. We knew very well that Venice’s last plague was during the 17th century.
Then the penny dropped. Carnivale was on!
I mention it because that word, Carnivale, or Carnival, describes at least one aspect of what Lent is about. The word ‘Carnival’ means, ‘Farewell to meat, - Carne, meat, and Vale, farewell. The carnival, which ends on Shrove Tuesday, is about farewell to meat – or, to use the Scriptural picture, farewell to bread, as the season of stones begins.
Farewell to the focus upon material appetites.
So let me come back to my stone.
It speaks to me of the non-material things that are implied in Jesus’ statement,
Man shall not live by bread alone,
But by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Now I said a little while ago that the idea of words proceeding from the mouth of God is a bit difficult for us to get our minds around.
We don’t need even to try.
Because we have a clever contrast here. We spend so much of our time consuming, either by mouth or by buying consumable items that if we want to discover the spiritual blessings of life we have to pause from all of that taking in, and listen to what God gives out.
You see, forget about words proceeding from the mouth of God – God is Spirit. The contrast is our taking in compared with God’s giving out. That is the basic point we need to appreciate. And that if we pause a little in our taking in, we can be in touch with what God gives out.
That is one of the basic points and blessings of Lent. We pause from our consumerist life and concentrate upon the spiritual blessings from God who is Spirit. And my stone says to me, “You, Tony Gates, cannot live by bread alone, by consuming alone, but by every blessing that God gives out and enriches your life with.”
And that is a very great blessing indeed. Because though we need to keep ourselves physically well, and we are foolish if we do not, our inner person, our spiritual self, is no less important. Time spent with the stone is time spent at the heart of God – a pause from the material, from the consuming focus.
It is time spent in building inner strength that sees us through the hard times.
A.J. Gossip, a preacher of long ago, once preached s sermon to which he gave the title, ‘When Life Tumbles In, What Then?’That’s a good question to ask. ‘If, and when life tumbles in, what then? What could I find in my spiritual barn to sustain me? What is there in my spiritual storehouse?’ The answer to that question lies in what I put into the barn now. Have I given all my time to bread? Or have I spent time with the stone? Time with God in quiet contemplation?
Jesus told a story about a man who built his house upon rock – that is, on stone, and a man who built his house upon sand. Only the house built upon rock survived the storm. It is a story about investment for the future, and especially for a future where life might collapse in upon us. And I might say here that few if any move through their time on earth without, at some time, the experience of life tumbling in. When it happens, what have we got stored in the spiritual barn? Is it that all we have is a barn stuffed full of bread?
Two or three or four years ago, Ruth and I went to Dachau, close to Munich. Dachau, as most will know, was a concentration camp during the era of National Socialism. It was a sobering visit. The dark cloud of death still hangs over Dachau. It is not possible to forget what happened there to Jews and to Christian priests. The darkest experience now is to look at the ovens, those means of cremation which had so sordid and evil a purpose. There is a convent now within the Dachau enclosure, I think of Carmelites. The convent is a ray of light in the darkness of Dachau.
There is also a chapel Ruth and I went into, and as I sat in the chapel I wondered what it was like, for the Jewish people especially, in their terrible hour when, for them, life tumbled in.
We know that some met their deaths singing psalms. But not all. When life tumbled in for them, what then?
We prayed in that chapel, and remembered that when life tumbled in for Jesus, and he was executed by the Romans on a cross, he prayed, not only,
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
And yet this is the terrible thing: neither Ruth nor I could pray that prayer, because, we reasoned, they, the representatives of the NAZI regime, DID know what they were doing. Were we right?
We can look at it objectively now and say, The NAZI regime collapsed, so there is at least some outcome of justice.
But that isn’t a wholly satisfying answer.
We can say, Hitler failed to obliterate the Jews.
But that isn’t a wholly satisfying answer.
We can say, we have learnt to be vigilant, and the continued existence of the Dachau site reminds us of our responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again..
But that isn’t a wholly satisfying answer.
You see, we have to admit that for ethics and reason, there is NO wholly satisfying answer, and perhaps never can be.
But we can say, if our spiritual barn is full, We know from our daily experience of God that there is an eternal dimension which takes care of it, and at least for now, that is hidden from us. But more importantly, reflection tells us that, horrifying as the crime was, our knowledge of God, formed from our daily spiritual walk with him, tells us that Jesus certainly would have prayed, on that day in the chapel at Dachau,
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Because in the mystery of the eternal, they DID NOT know what they were doing.
And that makes it possible for us, in reflecting upon it, to pray the most difficult prayer of all for the perpetrators:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
There is a word from the mouth of God;
there is God giving out.There is the non-material, but deeply spiritual, sustenance that the stone reminds us of, and if we want life to make any sense at all, we must not live by bread alone.
But don’t miss the positive side of bread in the New Testament!
One of the hymns we have yet to sing in this morning’s service has, as its last verse,
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in the broken bread made one,
so may your world-wide church be gathered
into your kingdom by your Son.
It comes from a 2nd century AD Christian document called the Didache. It describes Church order, not much more than a century after Jesus lived, and this is what it says about how thanks are to be given for the wine and the bread:
Concerning the Eucharist (that is, the communion service), give thanks in this way. First, for the cup; ‘We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David thy servant, which thou hast made known to us through thy servant Jesus. To thee be the glory for ever.’ And for the broken bread; ‘We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou madest known to us through thy servant Jesus. To thee be the glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered on the hills, and was gathered together and made one, so let thy Church be gathered together into thy kingdom from the ends of the earth; for thine is the glory and the power through Christ Jesus for ever.
This takes us straight into the service of communion, or to give it its historical title, the Eucharist.
In a little while we shall take the bread, and when we do it will not be getting in the way of the things which really matter; it will be representing he things that reallymatter. It will be representing the spiritual wholeness of communion with God through Christ..
It represents in one shade of meaning, the deepest relationship with the Christ whose love knew no bounds, and whose last words included,
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
In the moments of communion, that meaning invades our spirits in the reality of faith. It is our relationship with him who is the Bread of Life, the man of Bethlehem, Hebrew word which means House of Bread.
That truth of faith is in the communion service when we take bread.
But this truth of faith is also present:
That we are part of the great Church of Christ that spans the world, and looks to the day of its full uniting in the Christ whom it serves, as the grain is harvested from the hillsides and the grains are made one in the loaf we break.
Such is the message of stones and bread this morning, and in their different ways they tell the same truth – that life is abundant, that life is fulfilled, that life has firm foundations, when we give time and commitment to a daily walk with God who is Spirit.
The days are transformed into spiritual health and nourishment.
May that be the daily experience of all of us.
Somewhere around the year 50AD, something apparently insignificant in historical terms but in reality very significant happened, and the man who set it in motion had no idea of the literary importance of what he was doing, though he was well aware of its spiritual value.
It was a time of significant developments. Claudius, one of the more interesting of the the Roman emperors, had occupied the imperial throne for the best part of a decade. Britain, or at least the part of it which excluded modern Scotland, had very recently been incorporated into the empire as a Roman province and the city of Londinium founded by one Aulus Plautius. Jews had recently been expelled from Rome (though before long some were to return).The everyday language was Greek, a form known as koine which had subtle differences from that which we now call classical Greek - and very different from modern Greek. The Romans, of course, spoke Latin. The language of Judaea and its religious centre, Jerusalem, was Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke; his name in Aramaic was Yeshua).
In this time when the armies of Rome still controlled the mediterranean world and much of Europe, a man temporarily residing in the city of Corinth,and known in Christian circles but largely unknown elsewhere, began to dictate a letter to his amanuensis. Some time before, he had founded a local church in Thessalonica (the modern Salonika) the capital of Macedonia, named after a lady called Thessalonica, half-sister of Alexander the Great. It seems that now there was a problem concerning what was expected by some in the local church to be an imminent return of Jesus (Yesous in the Greek of the day). Something of the problem lay in whether those expecting that imminent return should be getting on with life as usual or turning their backs on the world and concentrating on the anticipated great event. Another problem in that church was the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. In Thessalonica as elsewhere, the apostle Paul, the man who was dictating the letter, on his earlier second missionary journey, had concentrated on the synagogue as a fertile field for winning converts to the Messiah (Christ) Jesus. Not surprisingly, this was not agreeable to every Jew in the Thessalonica synagogue and tensions grew. Those not pleased with the conversionof Jews and Gentile adherents of the synagogue to the new Christian faith worked to undermine the Christian loyalty of the converts and some attempted to blacken Paul's character. The issues had to be addressed, and the most important of them was the Jews - Gentiles problem.
So Paul, dictating to his amanuensis, spoke the first words of his first letter to Thessalonica:
"Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus to the community of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace."
What Paul was totally unaware of was that he was dictating the first words of that collection of documents we know today as the New Testament.
The order of the books as they appear in our New Testaments has the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at the beginning. That is perhaps an order which has as its justification the fact that the Gospels contain the foundational material of our faith - the material of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the earliest Gospel (Mark) was not written until at least 20 years after Paul's first letter to Thessalonica, which itself was written around 20 years after the crucifixion.
And so the first words of the New Testament written are very beautiful:
"Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus to the community of the Thessalnians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace."
To be wished the unmerited favour of God and peace is a beautiful blessing with which to open a letter and I can imagine that when it was read out to the congregation in Thessalonica those who had not met hom would have warmed to this man Paul and those who had not would have liked what they were hearing. We can assume that those who were trying to undermine him would have been cooler. Even so, it could have been the opening blessing that gave him a hearing for what he had to say as the letter progressed. His companions Silvanus and Timotheus would surely have been pleased to see their names included in sending such a blessing.
22.11.15Yilki Uniting Church1030
Readings: 2Sam 23:1-7, Ps 132:1-12(13-18), John 18:33-37 (Rev 1:4b-8)
Christ the King
“Hail, King of the Jews!” the Roman soldiers called out to the man being scourged and wearing a crown of thorns. The cry was so obviously a mocking reference to the greeting, “Hail, Caesar!” Caesar, of course, namely Tiberius, residing at this time at Villa Jovis on the island of Capri, was the temporal king of the Jews, ruling through his procurator Pontius Pilatus, better known to us as Pilate.
It’s interesting to note that in Luke’s narrative Mary, before her pregnancy, is greeted by the divine messenger with the words, “Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!” “Hail...”
The word Hail is a difficult one. And it’s important to note why, because it has a significant effect upon how we understand the soldiers’ mocking acclamation. The Greek word used in the New Testament here has both the sense of greeting and the sense of rejoicing and gladness. I don’t know of an English word that has both senses.
You see, in their mocking tones, the soldiers are greeting Jesus just as they would greet Caesar – they are greeting him in their mocking way as their ruler and wishing him joy and gladness. That’s the joke the soldiers are enjoying while the man they greet is being scourged in preparation for execution. In their sick joke they wish the suffering man with a crown of thorns on his head joy and gladness.
They had missed the point as badly as Pilatus had missed the point, when Jesus said to the procurator, “My kingship is not of this world.”
And in that interchange with Pilatus, he went on to say some words which
we can very easily dismiss:
“...if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews.”
Listen to the words again.“...if my kingship were of this world, my
servants would fight, that I might not be
handed over to the Jews.”
Jesus is saying here to Pilate,
“Listen. There are two kinds of kingdom at least. There is the one you know, the kingdom of Caesar who maintains his control with soldiers. But there is another kind. And that other kind is not a kingdom that the world knows, not like the kingdom of Caesar with armies to impose its will. It is not temporal. It does not claim lands for empires. It is a kingdom not of this world at all. It exists in the hearts of those who seek God and who accept the kingdom willingly because it renews their lives. It is known by my followers as the kingdom of God. The king is accepted voluntarily. The kingdom is not imposed, as the kingdom of your Caesar is imposed.”
And the crown of thorns?
It is massively symbolic for us. Massively.
Hymns like, “The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now”
are fine enough, but they miss an important point about that crown of thorns. It is not an item to be discarded when our thoughts turn to the Resurrection and Ascension. It is a permanent part, or should be a permanent part, of our thinking about Jesus. That crown of thorns speaks of the kind of king he is.
He is the king who suffers with his people.
One of the most enduring pictures I have in my mind of the Second World War is of a devasted area of London where everything is rubble after a German bombing raid. Rescuers are trying to find possible survivors. Some who have survived are sitting on whatever they could find to sit on. They have rugs around them and mugs of hot tea in their hands. In their midst are two figures. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. And the expression on the king’s face leaves no doubt that he is suffering the sufferings of his people.
I know of no better earthly example of a king who, in modern times, metaphorically wore the crown of thorns. He was suffering the sufferings of his people. Londoners loved him. By the way, he refused to leave London during the blitz, though the Prime Minister urged him to do so.
Jesus the king wears the crown of thorns as the one who suffers the sufferings of his people, the burdens of his followers
who take on the mantel he offers,
who walk in his way,
who place their trust in him,
who seek to live as those who are citizens of the kingdom of God, no matter what earthly kingdom or republic or commonwealth they belong to.
And as all that he is suffuses their spirits, they too learn what it is to suffer the sufferings of others with love, with compassion, with empathy, with faithfulness.
There is, in St Peter’s cathedral in Adelaide, a depiction of Jesus the king. You’ll see it in the transept on the Adelaide Oval side of the church. It’s a fine depiction, and when I first saw it, many years ago, I was disappointed with the sad face. Now I am not. The sad face speaks to me of one who suffers not the suffering of “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” , but suffering with and for those who suffer and are in need. It is the face of empathy – not the face of sympathy, because sympathy is feeling sorry for but not getting involved. It is the face of empathy.
There is another picture of our monarch that I want to mention at this point. It is to do with the parliament at Westminster. Many will already know that when the Queen makes her speech to Parliament, she does so in the House of Lords. It is because she is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. And so the members of The House of Commons all walk to the House of Lords to hear the speech. It is, for those moments, a separation of the monarch from the chamber of her common people. And there are historical reasons for it. It symbolises the will of the people not to be dominated by their monarch, and to be free to make their own laws without royal interference.
How different is the king shown in that depiction of Christ the king in the cathedral. The sadness of expression is that of one who is in every way identified with his people, with his followers, with those willingly within the kingdom of God. The depiction in the cathedral is called Christus Rex, by the way, Christ the King.
The kind of king we celebrate when we meet in Church on this Sunday of Christ the King is one whose spirit is found in the book of Isaiah, beginning at chapter 52, written about five centuries before Jesus was born. They are chapters which see Israel as God’s servant, suffering vicariously for others, leading through serving. They are chapters about servanthood, and the servant is one who suffers; it is a servanthood of empathy – of suffering with. Israel the servant-nation is personalised. Who does not know so well, passages like,
“He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God and afflicted.”
The Church quickly saw that this was a passage from Scripture that expressed who Jesus was better than any words they could find of their own. This was the spirit of Jesus. The servant. The King who suffers for and with his people.
We follow and serve a Servant King
We follow and serve THE Servant King.
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, wrote in a pamphlet in 1669,
“No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.”
Could we possibly have a better description of the crown of thorns than that?
No thorns, no throne...no cross, no crown.
There is the picture of the Servant King. This is no Caesar with his armies. This is the King who is with his people, their servant in a kingdom his followers accept voluntarily, and the kingdom of God is a present reality as well as a future.
So what do we do about our following of the Servant King?
Let me remind you of a nursery rhyme:
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under a chair.
Ruth and I were talking toward the end of last week about what we would do if we were introduced to the Queen. I had to admit that I would be nervous – afraid I would make some mistake – forget to bow or worse. I would be concerned that I followed the correct protocol. I would certainly buy a new suit for the occasion and want to look my best. I would see it as a wonderful moment, and I would never forget it.
How do we feel about the Servant King?
When we meet in prayer with him each day, are we as I might be if I were introduced to Her Majesty – aware of the special nature of the moment – or are we as Pussycat who went up to London.
Do we use our daily meeting with him for no better purpose than frightening a little mouse under a chair? Do we meet with him each morning with a sense of immense privilege, and open our hearts to learn how this day we can serve him within the kingdom of God more effectively?
Or do we conclude the interview of prayer with a perfunctory Amen and get down to writing up the shopping list?
Do we seek his compassion and spirit in order to live as servants who are in empathy with our needy neighbours, or do we frighten a little mouse under a chair?
Do we actively think about those in need whom we know about and seek the compassion of the Servant King so that too might be compassionate servants who seek to be with the friend who suffers?
Or do we frighten a little mouse under the chair?
Do we remind ourselves of the suffering that we learn about every day on the television screen or read about in the newspaper or in a World Vision Bulletin or a Medicines Sans Frontieres journal?
Do we remember that the Servant King is in the midst of that suffering, and calling us to be involved too?
Or do we frighten a little mouse under a chair.
Pussycat’s way of dealing with his royal meeting was to miss his opportunity.
In our morning meeting with the Servant King in our time of prayer, we too can miss the opportunity. We are called to far more important tasks than frightening little mice under chairs, but it is so easy for us to spend time doing things which are no more significant than that.
Remember that our Servant King says to those who would be in his kingdom,
If any man would come after me,
let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
For whoever would save his life will lose it;
and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s
will save it.
We are called to serve.
Could there be a better calling?
We are in the service of the Servant King who wears the crown of thorns, the crown that speaks of suffering with the sufferings of others.
We are not professional counsellors who remain aloof from the problems of those who ask our help.
We are servants who shoulder the burdens of others when we are invited to do so, as compassionate friends and servants.
And the Servant King with the Crown of Thorns is shouldering the burdens with us.
The Spirit of Talbot House in Victor Harbor
By Tony Gates
Many are unaware that Victor Harbor, through its branch of Toc H, has an ongoing link with the Ypres Salient of the First World War.
The branch reaches the age of 80 this year, having been established in 1935. Just as importantly, the roots of Toc H were established in the Belgian town of Poperinge 100 years ago on December 11th. Poperinge lies 8 miles to the west of Ypres (now known as Ieper) in the hop-growing area of West Flanders. The trenches of that terrible battlefield were therefore very close.
The needs of troops on breaks from the front line were many, not the least being recuperation. The British Army leased a house in Poperinge for that purpose. One of the most effective chaplains of the First World War, “Tubby” Clayton, was appointed to set up an Every Man’s Club in the house, which came to be named Talbot House. It was referred to by Army signallers at Toc H, code for T H (Talbot House).
Tubby Clayton generated a remarkable spirit in the club, which was always attended by very large numbers of troops from the trenches. A piano was constantly in use in the ground floor recreation room, always with many willing singers. A billiards table provided hours of enjoyment. Many simply relaxed in the garden at the rear of the house and enjoyed the peace which was such a contrast with the horror of the trenches. Hillarious evenings on some occasions and deeply moving evenings on others were spent in the concert hall set up in a separate building adjoining the garden. The chaplain’s office was approached through a door which proclaimed, “All Rank Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here.”
The top floor, which had once been a hop loft, was converted into a chapel which Tubby called The Upper Room. The altar was a carpenter’s bench, found in the garden. There could hardly have been a more appropriate altar in a chapel where the carpenter of Nazareth was remembered. Many thousands of servicemen climbed the stairs to receive Holy Communion in those terrible days of war. Some received their first communion in the Upper Room, many their last. The branch chaplain has been four times to Talbot House and his wife has been twice. He has climbed those stairs to the Upper Room many times, always with the sense that of entering a sacred place.
Talbot House, known as ‘a haven from hell’, was an oasis where a spirit of mutual support, encouragement and service were expressed in deep comradeship. Its effect was so powerful that after the war, when Tubby Clayton set up the Toc H movement to continue that spirit, great numbers of those who had served in the Salient and found a new spirit at Talbot House, joined immediately.
The spirit continues today in Toc H branches throughout the world, all involved in service to the community, all based on willing volunteering.
Most branches have a special project. At Victor Harbor the special project is the camp site in Waggon Road, a fine facility which has served South Australia for many years. Included among those who have used the camp site are young people with disabilities. There is little doubt that Tubby would have been especially pleased about that. Over its 80 years of existence the branch has engaged in projects to support a number of groups, including hospitals. Leprosy missions, migrant hostels and prison inmates.
The branch meets in its room at the Victor Harbor Railway Station once a month and welcomes any who would like to join in the work of supporting the camp site and being involved in other projects which might occur from time to time. The meetings always involve a ceremony which centres upon lighting of a lamp which reminds us that in service we have a light to share with the world. The lamp bears a cross with double cross pieces, the cross of the city of Ypres’ coat of arms.
Tony Gates, a member of Toc H, Victor Harbor, a man deeply interested in history, plans to write the story of the branch in 2016. He believes that 80 years of branch life is reason enough to put the history into a connected narrative.
A number of Toc H members from South Australia, including two from the Victor Harbor branch, will be going to Poperinge for the centenary celebrations in December. is expected to be a very moving occasion.
Enquiries concerning Toc H in Victor Harbor can be directed to Betty Dawe on 8552 1445.
Meetings are on the first Tuesday of each month at 2pm and the spirit of Talbot House is celebrated in gratitude for all that the movement has accomplished in 100 years and all that the branch has meant for 80. However, the future is the focus while the past is a reason for gratitude.
TONY GATES 2015
Around the year 70 AD a major document was produced in the imperial city of Rome. The writer is generally thought to have been a man named John Mark, a person with no apostolic authority, but who had known the apostle Peter well. In fact he had spent a good deal of time with him. He had probably listened to Peter's preaching many times and knew the stories he told by heart. Perhaps he also had access to pieces of teaching which were orally current in the young Church.
What were the circumstances when this crucial document was produced?
First, it is important to note that the only scriptures available to the Christians of the time were Jewish documents that made up what we call the Old Testament. But the documents available were not restricted to those we know in our Old Testaments today. There were other documents which were consulted. Moreover, the canon (offical collection) of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) had not yet been fixed. That was to occur 20 years later at a place called Jamnia, and at least one of the reasons was the Jewish need to establish what was authoritative for Hebrews in the light of other documents becoming available, including Christian. So it's important to note that there was no fixed Old Testament, but the Christians had access to the books which at Jamnia were given official recognition. They were read in Greek translation, rather than in the original Hebrew.
There was, of course, no New Testament. Paul's letters, however, had all been written and delivered to the respective churches. One of them, probably his most profound and most carefully thought through, had arrived in Rome a dozen years before, and had perhaps been read by John Mark. It is unlikely that he was unaware of its existence.
The Jewish temple in Jerusalem had either been destroyed or was about to be destroyed by the Romans.
The young Church had already endured persecution under the emperor Nero, so there were no illusions about the possibility of danger that could materialise at any time under Roman rule.
In these circumstances John Mark set about putting his stylus to papyrus and recording the important teaching and events of Jesus' life that he had learnt from Peter. It was to be the document we know as Mark's gospel.
No other Gospels were in existence. It would be at least five years and perhaps more after Mark's gospel's writing that the other two synoptic gospels appeared. The three gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are called synoptic because they see the life and work of Jesus in pretty much the same way, though not identically. John's gospel came 25 to 30 years after Mark, and is a very different kind of document from the synoptics.
Mark states the purpose of the document in the first sentence: 'The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.' Some of the manuscripts from which the gospel is translated add 'the Son of God.' So Mark's purpose is to declare in his document the glad tidings of Jesus Christ, or Yeshua the Messiah. A few sentences later, he shows the purpose of Jesus' ministry in the words, 'Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel".' Mark gets quickly to the point, ensuring that we know from the very beginning what the document is about. The story moves on quickly as time after time John Mark uses the expression 'and immediately'. There is a breathless progression through the preaching and healing ministry to the final conflict which brings about trial and crucifixion and the empty tomb.
When we read Mark we are reading the first New Testament gospel to be written, though it was not to become part of the New Testament for many years. It took a century, from approximately 50 AD to about 150 AD for all the books of the New Testament to be written. No doubt they were seen to be authoritative gradually as they became known more widely. When was the New Testament formed? We don't know. What we do know is that the first mention of it was in 367 AD when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his annual pastoral letter to the churches, mentions as authoritative the 27 books we call the New Testament today.
Enjoy reading Mark!
The second temptation that Matthew describes in the early part of his gospel is Jesus' ascent to the pinnacle of the temple. What rich symbolism there is in the pinnacle!
The temptation to star is strong at times, and among the biggest foolishnesses of life is succumbing to that temptation. Do we sometimes see ourselves in imagination in a metaphor of sailing through the firmament, the star of stars, to be admired by all those lesser of our fellow-creatures?
There is a dream I have experienced and know that others have experienced. In those strange moments in sleep when the mind acts without our bidding, once or twice we have been flying. I remember in one of those rare dreams being aware of how easy flying was. It seemed to be a natural part of being me. Was it putting into the uncontrolled mind of a dream a deep yearning that in conscious moments has no place at all, yet somewhere deep enough it has its being?
Can we admit that there are times when we wish to soar? I think perhaps we do. To soar is to leave the problem of men and women below us, to leave the difficulties of relationships below us. In flying we star. If those who are earthbound have any function, it is to admire us.
Isn't this what the incident of the pinnacle is saying about Jesus? I cannot believe that this man was different in that sense. He, as we, must have had his moments of fending off the temptation to look for admiration, to seek a starring role. All the evidence is that he resisted it, but it is unrealistic to think that he was not tempted.
In our dream of flying, we are not relating. We are starring. Is there, then, such a desire hiding within us to ascend to the pinnacle and be admired? Whether we launch ourselves from it or simply watch the view of those we hope are admirers below us, we star.The pinnacle of the temple is the symbol of wanting to be admired.
Perhaps in small measure the need to be admired is okay. That it is there, hiding behind the curtain of urbanity, disinterest or, dare it be said, piety, can hardly be denied. It is in its extreme, disfunctional form that it becomes destructive and we forget that the major value of people lies not in their willingness to admire us, but in their willingness to share themselves with us, to relate and enrich us, to offer us the privilege of knowing them.
I like to remind myself that Jesus, who was surely tempted as we are to look for the starring role, chose instead the path of the servant.
Preached at Newland Memorial Uniting Church on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 14th, 2014
(Readings: Psalm 126 Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 1 Thessalonians 5;16-24 John 1:6-8,19-28
James McConnachie, who is the editor of Author, the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors, earlier this year said this about reading: "...the true business of reading...is an encounter with another human consciousness - with a writer's voice".
That's one of the reasons why reading is exciting. We experience an encounter with another human consciousness - with the inner life of another human being. It isn't just words on a page.
This morning's Gospel reading gives us an opportunity of just such an encounter as James McConnachie was talking about. We have an encounter with the consciousness of not, perhaps, a writer's voice, but certainly a speaker's voice - that of John the Baptist. He speaks to us through whoever the author of John's Gospel was (and there is another human consciousness to encounter), but there is no reason to believe that this voice from the John the Baptist is not authentic. When asked who he was, he replied, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord'."
The advice that voice in the wilderness gives is that we should prepare, or make straight, the way of the Lord.
The background is important.
John the Baptist is echoing another voice, a voice from the Hebrew Bible that we usually call the Old Testament. That other voice is of a messenger whose name we don't know, but who had an important message for a group of people returning to their homeland.
They had been captives of the Babylonians in the area we know broadly as Mesopotamia. Specifically, they had been captives in the city of Babtylon by the Euphrates river. They had yearned for home, as expatriots do, and the great day had arrived. A Gentile, that is, a non-Jew, conqueror of the Babylonians, had decreed that they should return to their homeland. His name was Cyrus. He was a Mede from the area of Persia, and the Old Testament says that he was anointed by God for the task.
So a large group of Jews is returning to their homeland, liberated by a Gentile - the only non-Jew ever described as anointed by God for a task, the only non-Jew ever to be seen as a Messiah - and the unknown prophet of the 40th chapter of Isaiah declares:
"A voice cries:
'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places plain,
and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken'."
Every time I read or hear those words I hear the words and music of Handel's Messiah, but I also find myself thinking of the extraordinary feats of civil engineering achieved by Italian engineers on the road round the western coast of northern Italy. It is the most uneven terrain you could imagine. Towering mountains and deep, deep valleys. It is anything but even ground, yet even so, for motorists, and for that matter for railways trains, 'the uneven ground (has) become level.'
Anyone who has travelled that coastline either by road or rail will know the massive achievement that making the uneven ground level for travellers is. It has been done of course with tunnels of great length and viaducts of enormous height. And wherever possible, both road and rail have been made straight - something which could not be had they followed mountain contours or valley meanderings.
Magnificent civil engineering has made it possible for road and rail to be level and straight.
What has this to do with John the Baptist and with our own Advent preparations? Quite a lot.
It gives us some understanding of the mind of John the Baptist, an encounter with his consciousness and perhaps also that of the writer of John's Gospel. When John the Baptist described himself as a voice crying in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord," he was well aware of the passage in Isaiah which called for the ground to be prepared for the Lord who would be glorified in Jerusalem with the returning exiles. But Jerusalem must be prepared for it. People's hearts - those of the returning exiles and those of the people who had remained resident in Jerusalem - had to be prepared for the new day.
In John's time the new day was the coming of 'the Word made flesh', - the voice made flesh - the Gospel writer's way of introducing his listeners to the expected Messiah.
Let's follow this encounter with the consciousness of John the Baptist through for a few minutes, because it's very easy to forget that the personalities in the Bible were real people and real people have their own views of the world to share.
In the case of John the Baptist, we find it easy to think of him as a stern, unfeeling man who has only stern words to say. The picture of a man dressed in camel's hair clothing with a leather girdle around his waist and living on locusts and wild honey does not inspire thoughts of a warm-hearted man moved by compassion.
I had this view of John the Baptist until one day I saw for the first time, in Venice's Accademia Gallery, Titian's strinking painting of John. He stands straight-backed, sharp-featured, dressed in camel's skin. He has a head of thick, black hair, and an almost jet-black beard.
Yet that was not the whole picture of John in the painting, and at first I could not see what it was that suggested something else. Then I saw it. In the corner of one eye there is a tear. John is seen to be a man, almost like Jesus, weeping inside over Jerusalem.
I had never thought of John the Baptist in that way before, and I began to wonder why Titian had painted him in that way.
And my thoughts went to his message, the message of the voice crying in the wilderness. And I saw that this man, given his message, was identifying with the grace of God in the return of the exiles from Babylon.
In that great moment of Jewish history there was rejoicing, but there was need for more than rejoicing.
The exiles who had maintained their faithfulness to God were returning to a different Jerusalem from the one they had left. Some had remained behind in Jerusalem - had never been taken into exile. Some of these had inter-married with non-Jewish partners, and the later, but not much later, book of Ezra confirms that.
Those returning had been more faithful than those who had remained in Jerusalem. Moreover much of Jerusalem's city and walls had been destroyed or badly damaged. Other gods were being worshipped.
But most of all, a reformation was needed in Jerusalem. The path must be made straight and level if the glory of the Lord were to be experienced in the return to the homeland. The plight of the Jews in exile had called for compassion: the plight of Jerusalem had also called for compassion - but also for reformation - for turning round from the practices which had brought dishonour upon the city.
Later in the book of Isaiah Jerusalem is living with the disappointment of the great dreams of the return from Babylon not having been realised.
The passage from Isaiah read a few moments ago reflects that time when the return is well into the past; there has not been much of a reformation at all and the city iss till in ruins. Other gods are still being worshipped.
Yet still in the book of Isaiah there is optimism. The broken-hearted will be bound up; those who mourn will be comforted; they will be given garlands instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning; the ancient places in ruins will be built up; the devastations will be raised up, and so on.
All this is in the mind of John as he makes his proclamation to a much later people of Judah in the time of Jesus.
So in my encounter with the consciousness of John the Baptist I find compassion as well as stern warning. I find one who knows where he, as a Jew, has come from. I find a man whose compassion is melded with a warning that reformation is necessary. I find a man steeped in his Jewish scriptures who seeks the will of God as a passion in his life. This, I believe, is how John the Baptist saw his world, his God and his people. And we can share in that God-centred vision and consciousness.
How he has something to say in and to the circumstances of his own day and to ours?
The way of the Lord is yet to be straightened. The highway of our God is still to be levelled. The civil engineering of the spirit remains to be done. John points to the Source of personal, internal reformation who is also the resource for societal reformation in the One who is the Word - the Voice - made flesh who dwelt among us.
He points to an encounter with another consciousness, that of Jesus of Nazareth who, as the Christ of faith, leads us to open hearts, confession of our failure to be all that we are created for, and a new depth of relationship with God.
John leads us to an encounter with the consciousness of Jesus whose spiritual eyes saw his own reality as loving God and loving neighbour, and seeking justice, equity, mercy and compassion in society and peace with God for those who seek him. It is the loveliest consciousness of all and we can't help but be attracted by it and to it.
So in these days of Advent how are we - you and I - as individual seekers after a deeper spiritual relationship with
God, preparing the way of the Lord, making his path level and straight?
How are we doing our civil engineering of the spirit?
The best civil engineering projects are built on careful groundwork, and our groundwork, our foundational work, is time given to deepening our relationship with God in Christ.
Titian's picture of John the Baptist shows a lamb at his feet - John's Gospel's Lamb of God - and the head of his staff is in the form of a cross. That leads us to contemplation of the depth of love of the One to whom John the Baptist points.
It is the way of God and of us that we deepen that relationship with God in Christ, that we allow God to remove some of the barriers of spirit - the gradients and the obstacles of all within us that oppose the free working of the spirit of Christ, in and through times given to honesty in prayer, laying ourselves open before God without pretence, consciously allowing him to work within us - prayer too for one another, which is loving our neighbour as ourselves, as well as loving God with our whole heart and spirit and strength.
The time of Advent is one of the best of all opportunities to nurture and bring to fruition a new openness of heart. Let us resolve to bring in the spiritual earthmovers and bring the high places low and the low places high, so that a level and straight road is prepared in our hearts for his coming.
In the current edition of Sojourners magazine (September - October 2014), Eboo Patel, a Muslim American, shares some thoughts from his summer reading, including the statement that relativism and fundamentalism are today's most common religious paths. Patel defines fundamentalism as "Being me is based on dominating you," and relativism as "I no longer know who I am when I encounter you."
It is not difficult to see that we live in a time flooded with both positions. Neither has any significant contribution to make to improving society and solving the problems which generate division. Fundamentalism encourages division and relativism lives with it. To add a third position, those who chant the mantra that religion has caused most of the wars history records and therefore religion is anathema simply add to the problems through historical error.
There is always a better way of doing things and while both fundamentalism and relativism are to be avoided, there has to be a positive, contributing position. In fact, my faith is of little worth unless it has immediate bearing upon the real problems faced by the peoples of a fractured world. That means that the first step is understanding what my own faith can offer.
I speak and write most authentically when my voice and my pen are informed by my faith. I need to understand that faith as comprehensively as I can. My desire matches that of Patel's as he demonstrates it in his writing as a Muslim. Faith, be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim, can be an important contributor to building a better world.
My Christian perspective is that the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth waits still to be understood as a peacemaking contributor to a better world, while I note that major advances in social betterment have been effected by the Church. That's the hub of the position that lies between relativism and fundamentalism. To judge a religious position usefully, one should look to see how it benefits society. My faith should be judged well only when it works for social justice. The Hebrew prophets preached continually the need for justice and equity, compassion and mercy. They were political beings concerned with the removal of social evils. At times they thundered the message of social reform. Justice and equity are inseparable from faith if it is to be called Christian. It is a point where I can meet like-minded Muslims and Jews as people of faith who wish to make a difference in the world.
Jesus of Nazareth was a man committed to the same prophetic vision and was also one who encouraged people of faith to be peacemakers. "Blessed are the peacemakers" is a scene-setter for the Sermon on the Mount, and should anyone decide not to take that beatitude seriously, he or she has at least to recognise that the Sermon goes on to urge the readers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, thus highlighting that it is not peacekeeping that Jesus urges upon us, but the more creative and more potent activity of peacemaking. That means that people of faith at their best are those who are so committed to peacemaking that they are actively involved in it in their everyday relationships. They bring the Hebrew potency of Shalom to it, a deliberate outreaching in goodwill to create community well-being, understanding and a peacemaking environment.
Such peacemaking and problem-solving includes taking every participant seriously and being supportive of contributors, offering them a mind open to considering their positions on the basis of facts accessible to everyone that they offer in support of their position.
Those who have the most to contribute are those in whom such a faith is part of who they are. Self-understanding allied to a firm sense of personal and religious identity make possible a creative contribution to critical questions of social justice today. People of faith who are free of the two stated extremes can make the strongest contributions of all because they are not tied (or do not have to be) to the aims of political parties or national organisations. Faith communities are international communities and are well-placed to lead the way.
How can Chrisian faith, Jewish faith, Muslim faith contribute to social justice and increased understanding of what it means to be human?
Good starting points are Patel's article, 'A Theology of Interfaith Co-operation', the books he cites, 'The Heretical Imperative' (Peter I Berger) and 'Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?' (Brian McLaren), the foundation scriptures of the faith we hold, going out of our way to be informed about critical issues, and making connections with others who seek a better world.
It needs to be said that the scriptures should be read in a spirit which separates them from the frameworks imposed upon them by fundamentalists and others who want to control understanding and interpretation.
A recent edition of 'Sojourners' magazine tells us that American Senator Cory Booker, speaking at a "World Change through Faith and Justice" conference, declared, "When I claim to be a Christian, it should be a radical statement."
Any objective reading of the Gospels will suggest that Senator Booker was right in his claim. Jesus of Nazareth was one with the prophets of the Old Testament in promoting a teaching of commitment to justice and equity, compassion and love.
Personal faith is important, and the building up of the Church as a community whose members love God with all their heart and soul and daily deepen their relationship with him is critical, forming the faith and empowerment base from which to reach out and seek justice and equity under the command to love our neighbours as ourselves. The neighbour, of course, is the person in need, no matter where in the world that person is to be found. He or she might be in northern Iraq suffering under the terrorism of ISIS, "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" which increasingly presents itself simply as "The Islamic State". The person in need might be in Honduras, where President Hernadez's military police have established a state of terror. The inequities might be at home in Australia where the gap between the richest and the poorest becomes greater each year, as it becomes greater in other western nations and the poorest are the marginalised. They, the marginalised in our own culture, are also our neighbours to be loved as ourselves.
The easy response is to make a donation to the Salvation Army or, if we want to improve living conditions in other countries, to World Vision, or to another charity. That is important, and not be decried. We must go on giving as best we are able. Yet that alone is not loving our neighbour as ourselves. Radical faith has more to do than that. First, we need to be informed, to learn from whatever reliable sources we can find what life is really like for the neighbour-in-need. Unless we are informed about what is happening in Honduras, in Iraq, in Syria, in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in the recent denial of democracy in Hong Kong by the Chinese Government, in the world of disability in Australia, in the world of the unemployed, in the world of the down-and-outs, we can have little effective influence. Speaking from ignorance is never helpful.
With improved information and understanding we can write to newspapers and politicians and any responsible agencies, setting out our arguments for the need for justice and equity and the actions which seem, on the evidence, to be appropriate to bring about peaceful but effective change in a spirit of compassion and love. Love is here defined as always wanting the best for one's neighbour, no matter what colour his or her skin or the nature of that person's faith or lack of any.
"When I claim to be a Christian it should be a radical statement," declared Senator Booker. The senator was surely right. To be a Christian is about personal faith, but it is also about influencing change. The fight for justice and equity is not an optional extra.
The third temptation that Matthew records Jesus being subjected to is to do with political power. The setting is 'a very high mountain'.
The high mountain is the symbol of decision. From the high mountain you can see as you can see from no other place. The good country and the bad can be seen.
The life of power can be seen from the spiritual high mountain. So can the life of servanthood. It is not always easy to see which is the good. We might say, "If I had the power to do it, I would end poverty." That, surely, is altogether good. We might say, "If I had the power to do it, I would build a hospital in every village, even the smallest, and finance their operations." The chances are that we would not. The history of the use of power shows that we almost certainly would not. The statement, 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' is seen to be far from cynical but rather a container of truth which is borne out in all that history shows us of the use of great power. In the end, power has a habit of using its user.
On the high mountain we can choose differently. From the spiritual high mountain we can also see the Vision Splendid, and it is a vision of servanthood, of making a difference in the world of quality and degree that power cannot make. Indeed, servanthood is the necessary counter to power. As power corrupts, bringing disintegration to identity, so servanthood is discovery of personal essence. It is the life which is found in its losing. As a person shares himself or herself in serving, he or she becomes more himself or herself. As a river is only a river by flowing, so one becomes oneself as life flows in sharing. The paradox is that life increases; the flow brings no depletion.
The high mountain is the place of choosing. The choosing has to be done well, because the choice contributes to forming the life of the chooser.
The high mountain is the symbol for choosing. Look at any high place and meditate upon it. What will you choose? What shall I choose? They are the moments which form us.
In my study of Matthew's Gospel I have just arrived at the first four verses of chapter 4. Jesus is, as Matthew writes it, 'led up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.' That first statement is important. The purpose of the wilderness experience is temptation. When he became hungry Matthew states that 'the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." That is an extraordinarily rich statement for spiritual reflection, even for meditation. It is especially so in the light of the response Matthew records: 'But Jesus answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"'
The scriptural identity of 'the devil' is presented here in his 'Job' role of the 'tempter', whose activity is not without benefit for us.
Why did 'the tempter' become an important part of Jewish belief? There can be no definitive answer, but it is reasonable to surmise that our human understanding that we grow or fail to grow under the pressure of temptation had more than a little to do with it. Each time we are tempted we grow a little or we wither a little. Temptation resisted is growth here or there, character developed and strengthened. To indulge temptation is to hang onto a link with infancy. Thus, temptation is always an opportunity. The tempter, in Jewish faith, therefore, is not necessarily an evil influence, and can as likely be seen as a beneficiary. Did the devil, or Satan, become an evil opponent of God in Judaism? I invite you to do your own study of the Old Testament, if possible in the chronological order of composition of the books, and discover your own answer to the question. What is undeniable, however, is that in Christianity such a development did take place.
How did Jesus see the devil or Satan? There is no doubt in my mind that in his response to Peter he perceived the devil, or Satan, as the Tempter. There is no other way to understand the words, 'Get thee behind me, Satan!' They acknowledge the temptation he was facing.
In this present temptation, stones and bread are featured. Jesus is hungry. Whether he had the power to turn stones into bread or not is unimportant. What matters is that if he had turned them into bread, he would have lost.
Extended time in the wilderness, in a spiritual sense, perhaps including fasting, is represented by the stone. The stone is an opportunity because the wilderness, the temporary retreat from the world, is an opportunity. The opportunity is for growth of a deepening spirituality, a growing towards God. The bread represents falling to the temptation of abandoning the spiritual opportunity, giving up on the discipline, and therefore loss of growth in grace, growth in faith, growth of absorption into the Divine.
I think the two objects, a stone and a loaf, on display, would be fine symbols of temptation mastered and temptation succumbed to, opportunity grasped and opportunity missed.
Value the stone.
Preached 29.1.17 at Yilki Uniting Church
Readings: Micah 6:1-8, Ps.1, Ps.15, 1Cor.1:18-31, Matt.5:1-12
Beatitudes, the Life of the Kingdom’s People
It’s sometimes said you can judge a man by the company he keeps. Maybe you can judge a woman by the company she keeps too.
Psalm 1 agrees with that.
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers.
I wonder what he meant by blessinng?
Search your minds for some history. The name of the Archbishop of Cyprus in the 1950s through to the 1970s was Archbishop Makarios. It’s his name I want you to think about, Archbishop Makarios.
That word μακάριος is used here as the first word of Psalm 1 in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, a translation made in Alexandria, an Egyptian city of considerable Greek scholarship, in the 3rd century BC that we call the LXX.
Μακάριος, is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers.
It’s the word used for those ‘blessings’ in Matthew’s Gospel, the ‘blessings’ that we call the beatitudes.
Μακάριος certainly means Blessed, to receive God’s favour. But it has another meaning, too, a meaning which comes out in James Moffatt’s translation of the New Testament. Moffatt translates the first beatitude,
Happy the poor in spirit!
For theirs is the reign of heaven.
Μακάριος the poor in spirit!
Happy the poor in spirit!
The Psalm is about happiness!
The beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel are about happiness!
Psalm 15, also read this morning, is about happiness of those
whose lives are free from a slanderous tongue,
from evil action,
from reproach against others;
they are those who try to do the right thing,
who try with all their heart to speak truth,
who do not exploit others financially,
who are immune from taking bribes,
in short, who are people of integrity;
they are the people who are fit to enter the house of God, according to Psalm 15. And you can tell from the Psalm they are the happy ones. Their religion is not a burden, but release!
Who does not seek happiness?Maybe it’s a good idea to state here what we mean by ‘happiness’. In biblical terms it’s a deep contentment, and joyful celebration of life. It’s expressed in the Jewish toast when drinking wine, “Lo Chaim!” “To Life!”
I think most people would love to experience deep contentment, yet joyful celebration of Life!
to walk in the counsel of the wicked, as the Psalm puts it, to stand in the way of sinners, to sit in the seat of scoffers, is destructive of life.
However, writes the Psalmist, the happy man (and therefore the happy woman) is different:
His delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by rivers of water,
that yields fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In the Flinders Ranges. I learnt to appreciate the great red river gums. And I learnt that you could always discover where there was a stream or a dry creek bed because all you have to do is look for a long row of red river gums. Even though they have to sink their roots deep down to reach the water, they always find it by the bank of a stream or a creek bed. And they prosper. They are healthy.
The happy person is like a tree planted by rivers of water.
The Psalm-writer tells us that his delight is in the law of the LORD.
What does he mean by the law?
The Hebrew word is תּוֹﬧﬣ.
It means ‘law’, but it means more than that. It refers especially to the first five books of the Bible. But it includes the way of life, the faith, the celebration of being the People of God.
It is the treasury of what it meant to be the Jewish people of God. The Psalm tells us that the study of the Torah of the Lord, is a delight of the happy man.
Let’s move now to the New Testament, which is especially concerned with human happiness, understood, remember as deep contentment and joyful celebration of Life.
The world at large would be very surprised at what happiness is, according to Jesus.
What is it that makes a person like a tree planted by rivers of water?
What is it that, in Psalm 15’s terms, takes a person brimming with happiness into the Lord’s house?
Micah adds his own wisdom by telling his readers that it isn’t burnt offerings that God requires, but justice, loving kindness and a humble walk with God.
There is the beginning of human happiness: the pursuit of justice, the outflow of loving kindness and a daily walk with God.
Matthew has, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, words of Jesus which provide us with a number of human conditions which are blessings of walking with God. They are the condition and behaviour of the person who is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of heaven is Matthew’s term for the kingdom of God). They are all introduced by μακάριος. Happy and blessed is the person who lives according to the beatitudes.
They are the ingredients for deep contentment and joyful celebration of Life!
I have to divert slightly at this point and tell you that something I looked forward to on one of Ruth’s and my visits to Vienna was tasting Sacha Torte, that glorious chocolate gateaux of a thousand rich flavours. So before going we booked a table for afternoon tea in the Hotel Sacha. When the day arrived we were treated as though we were a thousand times better off than we are, taken into the hotel by liveried servants and conducted to our table. When the Sacha Torte arrived we discovered that it was finer than our highest expectations could possibly have been!
For a long time afterwards, I wished I could find a recipe for Sacha Torte, but the hotel guards it jealously.
Well, this list of beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel is a recipe for the Sacha Torte of Life. It is the recipe for Life at its very best, or, as Jesus once called it, Life in its abundance.
And the first thing you’ll notice as we go through some of them is that
nowhere is it said that money brings happiness.
Or prestige or position.
So much time is given in our society to achieving those things. Jesus in the beatitudes says in effect a daily walk with God is the way to happy living.
Jesus sums up the life of happiness in the beatitudes, the ingredients for life at its best.
We’ll look at three of them now.
One of those beatitudes is,
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.Μακάριος are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Happy, blessed are the meek!
Somehow, to be meek doesn’t , sound very attractive, does it?
Fortunately, ‘meek’ is not the best translation. Again I take you to Moffatt whose translation is,
Happy the gentle!To put happiness into biblical understanding, Deeply contented and joyfully celebrating life are the gentle.
You can still have backbone and be gentle.
The gentle are approachable.
The gentle have the soft edges that make them able to encourage those in trouble,
able to love and be loved,
to bring quiet strength that inspires others,
to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.
In fact, to be priestly to another. To be priest to another who is suffering or perplexed. To share yourself as a gentle person – a gentle person with inner strength.
Jesus was the best example of all. All that we can read of him tells that he was an innately gentle person with an inner strength that inspired his followers. He was never ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. But he was ‘gentle Jesus, strong and inspiring, compassionate and caring.
The kingdom of heaven is a realm of the gentle, the people of inner strength but gentle in relationships, people happy in their being so.
I think of a man who was minister of a Baptist church near Adelaide, quite some years ago now. His name was Frank. Frank wasn’t much of a preacher, neither was he especially good at leading Bible studies. If you rated him purely on academic ability and preaching ability, I think he’d have had very moderate scores. But he was a gentle person, he knew the faith he stood for, and he was approachable. I talked to him one day about all the reasons I felt made me unfitted to apply for training for the Christian ministry. He was gentle, and firm, and left me in no doubt that a call to the ministry was not a matter of merit, but of the grace of God to be found in Jesus Christ. I am grateful to Frank for reminding me of that at a time when I seemed to have forgotten it. Frank, the gentle man of inner strength, reminded me of the grace of that other gentle man of inner strength whose fortitude and faith led him to a cross and led me to the calling of a pastor and preacher.
We aspire to being gentle as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.Happy the gentle!
Another beatitude about the life of the citizens of the kingdom is,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.Another ingredient in the recipe for a life of deep contentment and joyful celebration of Life.
I suppose most of us are familiar with the accusation sometimes made against us that we are hypocrites because we believe that, being churchgoers, we are better people than others are. Yet we don’t believe that at all. In fact we believe that we are far from worthy of the person in whom we place our faith. In a way that those outside the Church might find difficult to understand, we are part of this movement that is called Christianity because we know we fail. We are not smug; we don’t believe we are better than anyone. We don’t believe necessarily that we are good. What we can say is that we are triers, and we know that we are forgiven.
The beatitude is not, ‘Blessed are those who are righteous’. It is,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The outcome is not that we shall be perfect or in any way superior. It is that we shall be satisfied.
The satisfaction is not that we attain perfect morality, compassion, devotion, faithfulness, or any other aspect of living that Jesus showed us in his own living and teaching; it is that we make progress, and we know that we are forgiven.
Happy they who hunger and thirst for uprightness!
We know how far short we fall, but we are happy in our commitment to continue in the grace of God in Christ and in the depths of prayer to move towards the best that we can be. Such are the forgiven citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Think about one more of Jesus’ beatitudes. One more of his ingredients in the recipe for deep contentment and joyful celebration of Life, recipes for the Sacha Torte of Life!
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
Μακάριος are the peacemakers!
Happy the peacemakers!
Another characteristic of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven is that we are, or aspire to be, makers of peace.
Note that we are not called to be peacekeepers, but to be peacemakers.
Peace is one of the deepest yearnings we have. Isaiah has those great verses of longing for peace that are probably as well-known as any verses of the Old Testament:
…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.’
That yearning for peace is so strong that it is repeated word-for-word in the book of Micah.
Sadly, peacemaking is something we are not very good at, but we are very skilled in war.
Sometimes we bomb a place into a lifeless mess and celebrate a victory, no matter what the cost. Tacitus has a word for us on that:
They make a wilderness and call it peace.
We are as good at that as anyone was in Roman times.
We can do a great deal worse than making our major prayer for Australia that it might learn the value of ploughshares and pruning hooks. Many of us who love this country long to see it become a nation that spreads the leavening power of peace. What a distinction in the world for Australia that would be! To be the peacemaking nation!
It can start with us. Besides being citizens of Australia, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom of peacemaking led by the Prince of Peace. The name given to the child who reveals God in the book of Isaiah and seen by Christians to be the name so appropriate for Jesus of Nazareth. We serve the Prince of Peace. It starts with us.
Happy the peacemakers!
There is much more in the beatitudes about what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, about the life of those of the kingdom. Read the first twelve verses of Chapter 5 of Matthew again – over and over again until you know the passage well. Happy are you, happy am I, if we make them our way of life! If those verses of blessing and happiness are taken into our lives as our genuine aspirations, we shall make a difference. We shall know the happiness of the peace of God which passes understanding.
But we ought to understand that we cannot criticise politicians or any others who are not peacemakers unless we are peacemakers ourselves – in our families, in our church, in our community.
There is one more reading for this Sunday. It comes from the 1st letter of Paul to the church at Corinth. He reminds us of two important things to remember if we are tempted to think we are a small, powerless group.
(1)The first, is that the wisdom of God is not the wisdom of the world. In the letter, Paul asks the rhetorical question,
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
The wisdom of the world seems to be the wisdom of accumulating
influence for personal gain,
doing better than the next man or woman,
being assertive so that you get your way.
That is the wisdom that God makes foolish. It’s foolish because it solves no problems and makes a good many more; it’s foolish because it divides people rather than unites them.
It’s foolish because it makes for war rather than for peace.
God, Paul writes, has made foolish such wisdom.
(2)The second important thing in this morning’s reading from the Corinthian letter is that Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God. He is telling us that in opposition to the wisdom of the world, Love is the transforming power in the world, love seen in one who was prepared to go to a cross. Yes, that seems foolish when seen alongside worldly wisdom, but we need to remind ourselves that our faith is a transforming faith, it is a faith nourished by the grace of God, and in our aspirations to be the best people of the kingdom we can be, and to make a difference in the world, God-in-Christ is our continual strength and inspiration.
We are citizens of a blessed country, where all that we need materially is available to us. It is a country we love. Australia is in our blood. But it is not perfect. There is much to be done in the fields of justice and equity, neighbourly love, faith-building and peace-making.
Let us also think of our citizenship of the kingdom of Heaven and the contribution we can make through our dual citizenship to this country, to our community, to one another in the Church.
The way of being that makes the difference is the life of citizenship of heaven seen in the beatitudes of this morning’s Gospel reading. They are our aspirations, and we aspire to them in the transforming, empowering grace of God.
There is no Fear in Love.
A sermon preached at Yilki Uniting Church, 10th August 2014
The apostle Paul wrote, in that remarkable letter to the Christians in Rome, "...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
There is a certain view of the Bible that will allow those words from the pen of Paul to plant fear into the minds of some who are not really sure of the their faith. "What it is that I'm supposed to believe in my heart? Do I believe it? And if I don't really believe it, is there something terrible that I'm not going to be saved from?"
I want to tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a man who strayed from his own country into the world known as the Land of Fools. He saw a number of people flying in terror from a field where they had been trying to reap wheat. "There is a monster in that field," they told him. He looked and saw that it was a watermelon.
He offered to kill the 'monster' for them. When he had cut the melon from its stalk, he took a slice and began to eat it. The people became even more terrified of him than they had been of the melon. They drove him away with pitchforks, crying, "He will kill us next, unless we get rid of him."
It so happened that at another time another man also strayed into the Land of Fools, and the same thing started to happen to him. Instead of offering to help them with the 'monster', he agreed with them that it must be dangerous, and by tiptoeing away from it with them he gained their confidence. He spent a long time with them in their houses until he could teach them, little by little, the basic facts which would enable them not only to lose their fear of melons, but even to cultivate them themselves. (Scwenck, Robert L., Digging Deep, p.5)
What does that story tell us? A number of things.
First, take the man who arrived in the Land of Fools and decided to kill the monster for the terrified people. He thought they were afraid of the monster, and to a degree he was right. But his error was in believing that by killing the monster - that is, eating the watermelon - he would remove their fear.
In fact, he heightened their fear because if a man can eat a monster, he must be a far greater monster than the one he eats, and a bigger threat by far.
The story is a myth, but it is absolutely true. Fear breads fear, and it is not easily removed by logic or reason.
Now to the second man. Yes, he could see that the workers were terricied of the monster. They were motivated by fear, but saving them from the monster would not remove their fear. They needed saving not from the monster, but from themselves.
Now you'll notice in this myth-packed-with-truth that the first man used logic, and it was disastrous. The second man used love, for love includes working patiently with people for their release from fear and movement into security of mind, and it was hugely successful. He identified with them. "Yes, it's a monster and it's dangerous. Let's be very careful of it." And it gave him time to be with them and lead them step by step, little by little, to the truth about the watermelon, and in time the monster evaporated, and it its place came food.
Fear was removed when a man brought a spirit of love into the Land of Fools. He knew that the workers needed to be saved from themselves, because all of the causes of their fears were in their own minds.
There is, you see, no fear in love.
What has that to do with us? Everything! Because so often we need to be saved from ourselves.
Can we say that it's true that the causes of so much that from time to time we fear are found within our own thinking?
My wife Ruth supplied me with a quotation a few days ago. It is this: "Today is the tomorrow you feared yesterday, and everything is fine." It isn't a truth that applies to every circumstance, because some todays bring to reality the fears we had yesterday, but I venture to say that for a great number of our fears it holds true. "Today is the tomorrow we feared yesterday, and everything is fine." It tells us a great deal about the things we fear and which have their only reality in our minds.
Roosevelt might have put it over-strongly when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (Inaugural address, 4th March, 1933), but the claim is not without truth, at least some of the time.
Robert Frost put it succinctly when he wrote,
"They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places." (Desert Places, 1936)
There you've put your finger on it, Mr Frost. Our own desert places - where hope can be a rare visitor and fear has unimpeded access.
In our own desert places we fear that which never deserved fear, and its lack of deserving is illustrated by the fact that many of the things we fear pass without any adverse effects at all.
Do we fear a confrontation with someone? It doesn't always happen. Do we fear conflict? It usually turns out to be profitable. Not always perhaps, but usually so. Are we afraid of a health development for the worse? Sometimes there is good cause for fear, but often we fear what could be rather than what is. Are we afraid that we shall fail someone, fail ourselves, fail God or fail a test in life and we are not really sure why we are afraid, but we are? Perhaps others are not afraid that we'll fail at all - but we are.
So let's go back to the myth or the parable of the two men who went into the Land of Fools. One of them loved the workers away from their fears to salvation from themselves. The First Letter of John has something to say about that. The author writes, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18, RSV) Love casting out fear is a beautiful truth.
I say from my own experience that there have been many more occasions than I can remember when love has been the best antidote to fear that I have had. Almost as metal is purified, I have felt fear slowly but surely removed in the knowledge and experience of the love of someone close. Thre is no more powerful antidote to the fears that sometimes trouble us.
Harry Emerson Fosdick's magnificent hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory", has thee fine lines in the second verse:
"Fears and doubts too long have bound us;
free our hearts to work and praise."
The point in those lines is that fear is a binding influence upon us. It can immobilize us as effectively as chains can bind us.
Martine Luther King recognised that in the struggles for emancipation in the American South. There was every reason for the freedom marchers to be fearful. The whites had all the aces and the record of brutality against blacks was a long one. What would happen to them, the blacks, in their great march towards justice in Wasington if things were to turn nasty? Martin Luther King knew that the greatest enemy of success was fear, and so he preached, with persuasive convicion, the truth from the 1st Letter of John: "There is no fear in love." And this was the application he made: "Love the whites; don't hate them." He called the collection of those fighting-for-freedom sermons and speeches, "Strength to Love". Isn't that a magnificent title for what effectively was the plan for justice in the American South?
Where, then, is love found? It is, of course, found in our friends, our family, our loved and loving ones, whose love we know every day and we are grateful for it, But we should remember that love is a Divine matter, a Divine quality, a Divine reality.
The 1st Letter of John is one of the most beajutiful documents in the New Testament. It was written because the Church of the day was under threat from a pernicious philosophy we call Gnosticism. There were various strains of Gnosticism, but they all had in common the assertion that there was no knowing God without special, esoteric knowledge gained through the Gnostics' mystical ceremonies. It was a kind of within-the-club knowledge that was denied to others.
The 1st Letter of John deals with that not by urging argument with the Gnostics, and it leaves its readers in no doubt that there is no need to fear this claim to exclusive knowledge the Gnostics boasted of. No, the way to deal with it was to remember this: "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love." ( 1John4:8 RSV).
Never mind the Gnostic claims - knowing God is a matter of love.
A little later in the document the author writes, "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1 John 4:16 RSV)
And when the apostle Paul in the letter to the Romans speaks of salvation he has as the background to his message the God who is Love as strongly as the writer of the 1st Letter of John has it in the background of his document. Paul tells us that the love of God - God who is Love - is seen most potently in all that we know of Jesus the Christ whom we gladly call Lord because all that he was in Galilee and Judaea we want to be here in Encounter Bay and Victor Harbor- because the love of God he showed so strongly in all his relationships and teaching and readiness to love to the end, though it led inevitably to a cross, is a love beyond all that we could otherwise imagine
- because there is no fear in love.
We can choose to live outside the love that Jesus showed so clearly. We have freedom of will to choose whatever we want to do - to call Lord whatever we want to call Lord - but it's at least important to note that one compromise leads to another, that one example of prejudice breeds others, that the habit of self-focused living breeds an ever-hardening attitude to others and less and less of satisfying life for ourselves. Paul points it out in the first couple of chapters of his letter to Rome. It's a downhill slope whose steepness ever increases.
It doesn't have to be that way.
"God is love, let heav'n adore him;
God is love, let earth rejoice" declares one of our hymns,
"let creation sing before him,
and exalt him with one voice.
God, who laid the earth's foundation,
he who spread the heavens above,
and who breathes through all creation,
God is love, eternal love.
In God's perfect love, expressed most fully in Jesus, we find our wholeness, which is salvation in the New Testamentr, including the writings of Paul. It is salvation from the worst in us, from our fears and from our self-focus, from our hardness of heart, from our neglect of the spiritual and from our embrace of the passing, the inconsequential.
Wholeness in God's love is richly flowing life.
"O love that wilt not let me go," wrote George Matheson, who knew something about restoration and wholeness in the love of God,
"I rest my weary sould in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow,
may richer, fuller be."
Celebrating the declaration that God is Love, we sing now George Mathesons's hymn, No. 602, O Love that wilt not let me go.
16th July, 2014
Broken Hill is a place where the 'hardware' of faiths meet in an interesting way. Look around the town and its hinterland and you'll find interesting evidence for the activity of Muslims, Jews, Christians and the spirituality of Aborigines and other cultures.
One of the fascinating centres for me is the Broken Hill synagogue, now a museum but once a place of worship, a centre of Judaism in the town. It's a very beautiful building, inside and out, in Wolfram Street. Many Jewish people have made major contributions to the life of the town over most of its existence. However, their faith was important and the synagogue became their spiritual centre in what was, in the very early days, a remote outback town. Each Sabbath worship was conducted here and the declaration which has sounded down the centuries has rung out, Shama Y'Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai ehud - 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!" The synagogue is cared for by the Broken Hill Historical Society whose members have set up display cases with important artifacts, including Hebrew copies of service orders and Torah. The pulpit, pews and ark (where the scrolls of the scriptures were kept), are as they were during the worship life of the synagogue. A particularly beautiful scroll hangs before the ark. Synagogue worship is ancient and became especially important in "the Dispersion" or "Diaspora" after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Another building admistered by the historical society is the iron-construction mosque in William Street, commonly called the "Afghan Mosque". It's on the outskirts of the city and approached through a cyclone gate ( a key has to be borrowed ) and a double row of palms. Around the mosque itself are many fig trees and somehow that seems appropriate. Also outside the mosque is the trough used for feet washing, important for Muslims attending mosque worship. Visitors now are asked to be respectful and remove their footwear before entering the Prayer Room. The mosque consists of an ante-room and a prayer-room. The ante-room contains a number of artifacts of considerable interest. The prayer room is beautifully carpeted with rugs, all of which depict Islamic themes. A recess at the far end of the prayer room from the ante-room faces toward Mecca. In the recess, back to the worshipers, the worship leader led the prayers. Copies of the Koran are kept in the mosque, some very beautiful in their decoration. The mosque was used by the camel drivers, or perhaps I should say those who were Islamic. Some were Afghans, some Indians. It has been my pleasure to visit some magnificent mosques, including the superb mosque in Kuala Lumpur, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. While the Afghan Mosque in Broken Hill does not have the magnificence of those great buildings, it appeals to me more because it was a place of familiar worship for those camel drivers so far from their homelands and other Muslim people.
Then there are the churches representing the Christians, the other Abrahamic faith. While we were in Broken Hill recently my wife Ruth and I attended the Uniting Church in Sulphide street for worship where we were welcomed very warmly. The Uniting Church meets in a fine building where the central activities of Christian worship occur: reading of the scriptures, preaching, Holy Communion and prayer. As is the case for synagogues and mosques, the activities of Christian churches have been practised for millenia. Judaism is of course the oldest of the faiths and is the ancestor of both Christianity and islam. There are other fine churches in Broken hill, including the impressive Roman Catholic cathedral in a magnificent position on an emminence which overlooks the city. At the Uniting Church service we attended worship was led by a lay couple, who carried out the duty and privilege very effectively and reverently. As is the case with many Protestand churches, lay people are encouraged to lead where lay leadership is needed.
The Living Desert is not far from Broken Hill. Within its boundaries there is a superb Sculptures Symposium. Sandstone rocks of considerable size have been sculpted by artists from many parts of the world. In each case an aspect of spirituality is easily discernible. For the purpose of this brief essay, I mention only "The Dreaming Serpent" by an Aboriginal artist. The serpent is seminal in Aboriginal dreaming. Creation and the serpent are closely associated. I have been to the sculptures many times, but on a recent visit I spent quite some time inspecting it and meditating on the place of the land, of nature, and their importance in aboriginal spirituality. As I looked around at the great expanse of the wide land before me from the hill of the sculptures it was not difficult to see how land and spirituality are linked. I was grateful to the Aboriginal artist who through his art led me to think deeply about the wide land all around me, and let its magic seep into my deepest levels.
Broken Hill is a place of faith intersection. It always fascinates me,
_______________________________________________________________________________________ A more expanded version of this article will appear shortly.