Beginnings, Endings, Completion

“When did God begin?” was the tongue in cheek question blurted out as a challenge to the RE teacher. The boy wore an analog timepiece. The teacher said, “Show me your watch.” The boy put forth his wrist. “Trace the circumference with your finger. It’s a perfect circle. Show me where the circle begins and where it ends.”
An inspired answer! Someone reminded me this week of a sermon I delivered more than 30 years ago in which chronos time (measured in linear terms like the hands of the watch) is surrounded by kairos time (significant events where awareness of the eternal encompassing the temporal, like a circle without beginning or end, breaks in).

Next Sunday’s readings bring us full circle on the lectionary year, using the language of sovereignty (The Festival of Christ the King) to celebrate this all-encompassing mystery of completion in endings and beginnings.

2 Samuel 23:1-7 

Hence, the dying words of King David point to confidence in a continuity for his realm that rests in the ways of the Holy.

 Psalm 93

This same confidence is echoed in the psalm celebrating the sovereignty of YHWH

Revelation 1:4b-8

The vision of the Sovereign Christ, the Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, begins a dream-like journey of Completion (or Fulfilment) for all things narrated by John on the island of Patmos where he is exiled.

John 18:33-37

Pilate stands as an agent of temporal empire in all its expressions (even today’s!) non-plussed, incomprehensive, yet strangely drawn to tho the figure that stands before him, speaking the language of kairos of which he alone is Sovereign.

This Sunday also marks the change from a year dominated by the necessary pathway of trial and suffering that is part of the disciple’s journey portrayed in Mark’s Gospel. The cycle now takes us to Luke’s Gospel, which during the coming year, will have us exploring the pathway of mature and committed service for the sake of others – a focus on community building that includes but goes beyond the walls of the church to serve the world. The anticipation of Advent and the joy of Christmas will provide the portal through to that path!

Our anxious times

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Next week’s texts are suitably apocalyptic as we approach the climax of the church year. They coincide with a week following the centenary commemorations of the end of the Great War “to end all wars.” Yet there is a global unease as the world retreats into defensive poses in the wake of natural calamity, shifting balances in world power and economic and political angst. An apt metaphor for “Apocalypse” is “drawing back the curtain to see things as they really are.”  Our texts hint at this.

1 Samuel 1:4-20 

We visit the anguish of Hannah, grieving and taunted for her barrenness in a society that measured its wealth and prosperity in creating descendants to ensure tribal viability. It is the soil for the beginning of the story of the birth of Samuel, Israel’s kingmaker and the unfolding narrative of human salvation. Even in the midst of hopeless despair, destiny is awoken.

Psalm 16

This could well be Hannah’s prayer. The Psalms provide instances that allow the fullness of expression of human anguish to train through to expressions of trusting hope that speak of guarantee and not merely wishful thinking.

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds …” This is the “therefore” of the thorough discussion and comparison of Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice with the perpetual sacrificial rites of the old priestly system. There is a particular way to live even in the midst of what some have called the age of spiritual melancholia – the way of agape love spelled out in mutual acts of care and encouragement.

Mark 13:1-8

The little apocalypse – Jesus urges the disciples to keep their focus on the reality of the way of the kingdom against the distractions of the times.

Widows’ wisdom

The texts for next Sunday, November 11, feature the wisdom of two wise widows born centuries apart. Both provide touchstones that anchor active and thoughtful engagement with robust faith.  

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Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 

We get a peek into ancient welfare systems and ancient middle eastern tribal succession rites infused with the tenderness of interpersonal relationships involving an outsider, Ruth, who is welcomed into the intimacy of the inner circle. Directly through her came Israel’s eventual monarch of note, David, and then eventually to the one who would be recognised as Messiah, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Hence grass-roots Christianity has always had a bias to recognising the Christ in the alien, the other, the stranger – a pertinent reminder in this age of so-called “border protection.”

Psalm 127 

Again, the Psalm echoes the acclamation of Ruth’s successful marriage to Boaz, affirming that the striving of the human spirit to overcome complicated, vexing and tragic circumstances falls within the purview of divine destiny, evoking a confidence in a continuous orientation to the ways of God revealed in Israel’s faith.

Hebrews 9:24-28

It is incorrect and disrespectful to think of Jesus’ role as High Priest superceding the sacrificial system of the original Hebrew covenant. Rather, Jesus completes it, bringing it to its zenith, its fulfillment. This is how it should be addressed in interfaith dialogue and understandings.

Mark 12:38-44

Echoing the wisdom and trust of Ruth’s Naomi, the widow at the temple treasury provides a non-conscious contrast against the show-off religiosity of those who wear the masks of piety and righteousness. That Jesus would point this out to his disciples after a strong verbal rebuke of the scribes whose talk doesn’t match their walk cements the immanence of his arrest, trial and execution.

Love wins!

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Love trumps the vast sweep of the human story. The texts for next Sunday (November 4) celebrate this reality

Ruth 1:1-18 

Here is a micro-story that becomes a lynch-pin in a wide sweeping arc that embraces Jewish and Christian salvation history. Sharing the fate of many who battle for survival in a world that still experience famine, cross-border xenophobia and the tension between security and personal loyalty, Ruth steps out and takes a risk that we see replicated over and over in today’s refugee movements. Sacrificial allegiance to one another shared in extreme duress has been the mark of many coming through resettlement.

Psalm 146 

Ruth, a widowed Moabite, pledges allegiance to Naomi’s Israelite deity in her determination to remain with her also widowed mother-in-law. Her demeanour through the remainder of her story carries something of the expression of trust celebrated in this psalm.

Hebrews 9:11-14

The comparison and contrast of the once-for-all sacrifice of the living Christ with the old sacrificial system of Israel continues.

Mark 12:28-34

Sometimes the boon is to be found in something old and familiar (like a pair of old slippers). The questing scribe who discovers from Jesus that the most precise interpretation of the Law (in which he is an expert) is “Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself” possibly exhibits an “Aha!” moment of fresh insight. Jesus declares he is not far from the kingdom of God.

Reorientation of trust

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Again, a common theme runs through the selected texts for next Sunday, October 28th.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

  • Sad and sorry Job, accommodating God’s ineffability, reorients his trust in God.
  • God rebukes Job’s “oh so right” would-be comforters and feeds them humble pie.
  • The closing elysian scene sees Job’s good fortunes and family richly restored.

So what’s the point of the Job saga? What role did it play in the faith community from which it arose? How does it play out today?
Now as then, with prosperity doctrine married to the politics of economic rationalism, we are offered a counterpoint that upholds the dignity of the individual and a warning against confusing God with mammon.

Psalm 34

This prayer of praise echoes the stance of one who, like Job, is reoriented to trust in God in spite of a rough time. Against the zeitgeist of a retributive religious system, the psalmist concludes: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Hebrews 7:23-28

Contrasting the work of Jesus as eternal High Priest against the appointed high priests of the old sacrificial system, we come to the crux of the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ has ushered in a new age, a new way of being before God. The old system repetitively cycled God’s people through the need to have their short-fallings made good through the ministrations of equally fallible high priests. The non-fallible Christ, taking on the role of High Priest, breaks the cycle, presenting God’s people as perpetually right with God. Does this mean we no longer sin? No, discerning, confessing and repenting is still part of our inner spiritual cycle, but with an infinitely more confident trust in our calling to Christ-likeness and the fulfillment of Christ-like vocation.

Mark 10:46-52

The healing of blind Bartimaeus is pregnant with meaning in Mark’s telling. An intriguing place to begin is by noting that from all gospel incidents of Jesus healing the blind, it is only here that one is named. Our attention is drawn immediately to the interplay between the identity of the blind man (“Son of Timaeus”) and his raspy calling out to Jesus as “Son of David.”  One commentator delves into the Aramaic roots of the name Timaeus postulating its ambiguity of meaning. Does Bartimeaus present as the “son of fame” or the “son of shame?” Either needs rescue from metaphorical blindness if they are to see with the vision of the way of Christ! Bartimaeus trust is uninhibited as he abandons his cloak and, seeing, falls in behind Jesus as he enters his final days.

Who’s running this show?

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Next Sunday’s texts seem to focus on answering this question that often arises when we are frustrated. Things are out of control – who’s running this show? I’m in charge here and am being ignored and need to assert my authority – who’s running this show? We are confused, depleted, burned out, and have nowhere to go – so who’s running this show. We turn to the texts.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Job the good has relentlessly clung to a trust in God who has seemingly allowed Job’s terrible suffering without any hint of intervention. Even so, Job has deigned to question God’s wisdom in a form of the “Who’s running this show?” accusation. The response comes from the midst of a whirlwind – an appropriate metaphor for the ambiguity of the Divine under such circumstances. Martin Buber writes,

“But how about Job himself? He not only laments, but he charges that the ‘cruel’ God had ‘removed his right’ from him and thus that the judge of all the earth acts against justice. And he receives an answer from God. But what God says to him does not answer the charge; it does not even touch upon it. The true answer that Job receives is God’s appearance only, only this, that distance turns into nearness, that ‘his eye sees him,’ that he knows Him again. Nothing is explained, nothing adjusted; wrong has not become right, nor cruelty kindness. Nothing has happened but that man again hears God’s address.”

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

This Psalm is the natural response of the person who has arrived at Job’s experience of reconciliation with the notion that God’s sovereignty is not dependent upon or even related to our goodness or otherwise. The Holy has its own agency and acts accordingly. We are to attend to our own responsibilities without thought of divine reward or retribution and adopt an orientation to simple trust in what God has deigned to reveal of God’s creative purpose. After all, it is God who is running the show!

Hebrews 5:1-10

The unfamiliar terminology of this text further explains the link between human suffering and ultimate order. The “order of Melchizedek” under which Christ endured a high priestly suffering delves into an ancient pre-Israel notion of the link between striving and destiny. Human striving and divine grace are linked. To ask the question “Who is running the show?” is to place oneself in a place of the possibility of transition to an even deeper query: “How does human suffering find meaning in the light of Christ’s redemptive action?”

Mark 10:35-45

James and John want to run the show but they are not yet wedded to the way of Christ. Perhaps they need to enter more deeply into the experience of Job’s awareness and realise that they are walking with a whirlwind. Jesus puts it to them in the form of his own question – can they drink from his cup and enter the same experience of redemptive suffering that he must enter? He ultimately simplifies things for them. If they want to be in charge they must paradoxically adopt a servant’s heart.


Not for Sissies!

stop complaining

I well remember a man, somewhat advanced in years, telling me that “growing old is not for sissies!”
Next Sunday’s texts remind us that living the life of faith can be much the same.

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Is there room in contemporary experience for the twin terror of God’s absence and God’s presence? Can we know both at the same time? Job maintains a God-focus even from the bottom of the pit of his despair – he would contend with God if at all possible but at the same time shrinks from God’s total “otherness.” Both absence and the presence are impossibly felt at the same time. No easy answer – simply a call to attend to the paradox of God in the midst of life’s toughest struggles.

Psalm 22:1-15

Jesus poignantly recited the opening phrase of this psalm while hanging on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the devout Jew, to recite the first line of a psalm is to hold the hymn in its fullness. It is evident that the lived experience of God in simultaneous presence and absence is strongly expressed through the faith of Israel and there are no qualms or reticence in giving this feeling strong expression.

Hebrews 4:12-16

The burden of the writer of this work is to lead Jewish Christians to a sound understanding of the work of Jesus as Messiah in reconciling humanity to the Creator. He does not mince words in relaying how God’s word is like a two-edged sword, inflicting painful cuts that divide “soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” Jesus’ work as “High Priest” however, introduces a fresh element to the equation, enabling confidence and trust in knowledge of God’s favourable stance towards humanity.

Mark 10:17-31

A would be follower of Jesus retreats when he learns what would be required of him. Peter voices the protests of his peers about all they have given up to follow Jesus’ way.  It is apparent that following Jesus is not for sissies! All over the world are multitudes who pay the cost to follow this way – in recent days I have heard of persecution in India, suppression in China and, last night, a young Palestinian speak of living the non-violent life of Christ’s way under the severe duress of occupation. Mark’s Gospel was penned by a community experiencing extreme duress as the result of becoming Christian. It is an expected part of the Way.

 

Next Sunday’s Texts – Embracing Pain

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October 7th is also World Communion Sunday. How do these texts relate?

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 

008-jobHere is the counterpoint to any popular “prosperity” gospel. Bad things do happen to good people. Here we see the beginning of a morality tale. Let’s not get side-tracked in the detail of ancient storytelling devices (did God really allow himself to be manipulated by Satan into using Job in some sort of cosmic gladiatorial contest?) Here the stage is set for the real contests that life sends our way. There are no slick answers but something precious emerges from the struggle. That’s the message these opening scenes are meant to convey.

Psalm 26 

Indeed, this might well be Job’s psalm. The poet holds fast to belief in the hold of his integrity against adversity and trusts the Holy One to be faithful even when all evidence of such faithfulness is hidden.

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

The anonymous letter to the Hebrews begins with a majestic announcement of the fulfilling role of Christ as the climax of the series of seers and prophets anointed to speak God’s Word to Creation. The later Hebrew cosmology of angels is used as a comparison to the glory to which humanity is called through the sacrifice of the Christ. Voices from early times onwards have called for the separation of Old and New Testaments and Hebrew imagery from Christian teaching, but this would amount to historical revisionism. We need to know and embrace our full story, especially those episodes that are beyond our cultural understanding. The New Testament is replete with imagery from the crucible of Judaism and is instructive in how its expression reached beyond the faith of Israel to embrace the whole cosmos.

Mark 10:2-16

This passage has recently been used as a bludgeon in the same-sex marriage debates. The context reveals that Jesus was opposing the patriarchal concept of women and children as chattels, easily disposed of with a ticket of divorce. Marriage bonds are sacred in their mutual accountability. In the same breath, you must become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God. With these utterances, Jesus crossed significant cultural boundaries and exposed himself and his followers to increasing risk and danger.

Esther, David, James and Jesus walk into a church…

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Next Sunday, many churches will reflect on some or all of these passages. Is there a common theme? I think there is. I’ll not reveal what I think it is, I usually do that annoying teacher thing and ask, “What do you think it is?”

Esther 4:1-17; 7:1-10; 9:20-22

Esther uses her influence in Emperor Xerxes’ court to save her people from a dastardly political plot that trumps any contemporary trickery to be found in Washington or Canberra today. Her story is celebrated annually at Purim, a Jewish celebratory festival. It is gripping reading, and the entire book never mentions God!

Psalm 124

“What a close call was that?” seems to be the prompt for this Psalm. People look back at a narrow escape from a dire consequence and remark “Someone up there was looking after us!” The Psalmist (David?) knows Who, declaring “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

James 5:13-20

How do we engage with each other when suffering? Here we have a cameo of how early church life might have been experienced if James’ exhortation was heeded. Mutual accountability, tapping into the practice of prayer and practical support are core and emulated in local church communities throughout the world today.

Mark 9:38-50

The urgency of Mark’s gospel extends to an inclusive rather than exclusive stance for Jesus’ followers. So serious is Jesus about breaking down barriers that separate us from each other that he proffers exaggerated measures to ensure that the faith he is passing on is kept undiluted. Love is unqualified and “salted with fire.”

Wisdom where?

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Another brief romp through the lectionary for next Sunday, September 23

Proverbs 31:10-31 

Where is wisdom to be found? I recall many years ago, in the last millennium, when we young bachelor ministers in training listened to a lecture on how to pick “a suitable minister’s wife.” Such was the swiftly changing generational aspirations and sensibilities of the time that the topic was swiftly dropped. We baulk at the language of patriarchy in this passage and, in so doing, put ourselves in danger of dismissing cultural intelligence. It is the wisdom of the time and place and reveals a picture of domestic poise, order and productivity. Where power and authority typically resided in the male, the text provides a counterpoint and maybe even a subtle counterpoint to such notions of male hubris.

Psalm 1 

Where is wisdom to be found? “In the law of God” – that is the Torah – the teaching of a way of life that emerged as a band of escaped slaves were formed into a community destined to be a blessing to all nations. Immersion, saturation, and marination in such teaching lead to strength and fruitful results. Otherwise, all fades and is blown away like dust.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

Where is wisdom to be found? In you, says James – that is when you live the life to which you have been called, drawing on the “wisdom from above” which is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. This wisdom does not come gently, however – we are prone to be drawn into conflict and dispute against which God’s Spirit in us strives.

Mark 9:30-37

Where is wisdom to be found? Jesus contemplates and prepares his followers for his coming death as they journey through Galilee. He catches some of them discussing succession – possibly who’s going to be in charge when he’s gone. He brings a small child into their midst. Where is wisdom? Look no further than welcoming this child and serving the least influential of all.