Monday Morning Again …

A quick and necessarily brief look at next Sunday’s RCL texts before commuting to a three-day workshop on palliative care …

Isaiah 50:4-9

What it is to know your way! The prophet (the one who speaks forth YHWH’s message) reflects on his task. From his waking moments, the message consumes him, resisting all distraction and opposition. Nothing will dilute or deflect the words that have been given for him to convey. His outlook is crystal clear and his face is set towards the course that lies ahead.

Psalm 19

A celebration of orientation towards YHWH that becomes a joyful reorientation to the life we are given to live.

James 3:1-12

A timely warning for those who teach or “speak forth YHWH’s message.” Words are powerful and open to abuse. Always remember your orientation and stay centred, adopting the stance of the prophet in Isaiah’s text. Beware the sabotage of ego and the siren call of our surrounding culture in which we participate, sometimes critically but often uncritically.

Mark 8:26-38

The great “hinge” on which the door of Mark’s gospel swings. Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am”, posed to the disciples in an alien environment, pulls forth from Peter the only viable response he can make. From this time, Jesus turns his face to the inevitable Jerusalem climax, calling on his followers to take up the cross and follow him. One might reflect that the sacrifice we are called to is a “whole life event.”

Monday Morning Musings

A peek at what’s coming up next Sunday

Proverbs 22:1-23

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In these golden years of retirement with the spring sunshine streaming onto my desk, I hear this text as if the ruminations of a wizened old man in a rocking chair on his front verandah. In his reminiscing, he is reeling off all the life lessons he has learned and there is still fire in the belly. Suddenly (in the middle of verse 17), he sits up and leans forth, a fierce shimmering in his eyes! He is leading up to a summary life commandment for any who will listen: Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Psalm 125

Opening_parliament_house_1988Here is an expression of confidence that the good and righteous will prevail. It has been an interesting week of debate over the role of the new Prime Minister’s personal faith in his public life and particularly as a head of state. As his position came about through a very non-edifying “ides of March” display that is still playing out and critics analyse previous cabinet minister policy formation in the light his faith stance, it is clear that this Psalm comes under the category of Walter Brueggemann’s “Psalms of Orientation” – not quite addressing the period of disorientation we are experiencing right now. It’s a psalm that tells us where we ought to be. We look to the psalms of “disorientation” and “reorientation” that will hopefully put us back on track. My wistful hope is that the church in this country will not delegate its responsibilities to elected public officials but instead adopt its correct prophetic stance as salt and light as participants in a robust democracy.

James 2:1-17

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In these early days of retirement and working out a reorientation to our finances, this passage throws down a fresh challenge. As I look at the spreadsheet indicating assets, including realised lifetime investments and dramatically decreased income, I realise two things. Although we have generally lived close to the wire, we dwell amongst the richest in the world, yet to manage this requires some astuteness if we are not to become a burden to others when the treasure house gradually depletes through the sheer cost of living.  Our donations to charity and regular church life are under review. James’ text, it seems, is mostly a warning against showing partiality according to wealth and influence, preferring the well-positioned over more dependent members of the community. Conversely, it is also a timely reminder to always prefer the option of serving the poor.

Mark 7:24-37

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Mark’s Gospel has Jesus breaking our expectations twice if we have not come across these two stories recently. On the surface, it seems he only reluctantly heals his foreign petitioner’s daughter after she chastises him with the depth of her faith. The same reluctance in the healing of the deaf stutterer, again in foreign territory, leads to  Jesus swearing his disciples to secrecy. Why does Mark’s gospel tell these stories in this way? Does it have something to do with the first hearers of this gospel finding themselves under great duress as they fled Nero’s persecution? Danger, risk, speed, furtive exchanges, and mistrust might have marked their habitual discourse. Does Mark’s gospel cast Jesus as a fellow traveller who does not abandon his followers in their emotional extremity?

Dipping into the Lectionary…

Let’s see what’s coming up this Sunday, 2nd September 2018…

Song of Songs 2:8-13

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This is from one of the most delightfully sensuous texts in our sacred book – certainly apt for the first weekend of Spring in the lands south of the equator. Eugene Peterson cites the Song of Songs for the intimate language of prayer that points to the bond between YHWH and his chosen. No hard and fast doctrine here – just delight and anticipation in the presence of the Beloved – from one to the other and back.

 

 

 

Psalm 45

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Lest one think all sensuosity is locked up in the Song of Songs, Psalm 45 uses similar language filtered through a hymn of praise to king and daughter. One could be forgiven in losing oneself in the ambiguity. Is the praise directed to the king and his court, or maybe it’s God and God’s chosen ones? In the minds of the ancients, the two were often indistinguishable. The king was meant to represent all the aspirations and ethos of the nation Israel who, in their most aware moments, deeply knew that everything they were and had was as a result of being the apple of YHWH’s eye.

James 1:17-27

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Verse 27 is the well-known climax of this text, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This is the outcome of the kind of relationship with the Divine that is spelt out in the earlier Hebrew texts. This text references the good gifts from “the Father of lights” and the reciprocal stance that is the natural result of receiving them – a benevolent stance towards one another, reflecting the love received from the Creator. The task of devotion is to lay aside all that does not express this loving relationship.

Mark 7:1-23

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_PhariseeAnd here is the shadow of all the life, love, goodness and light in the preceding texts. Jesus, in whom all this is embodied, is opposed by the very guardians of this tradition. The problem is they have built so many walls around these precepts that they are no longer recognisable. The harshest words of Jesus are reserved for those who are so dedicated to enforcing the keeping of invented rules and regulations that the essence of receiving the gracious invitation to the fullness of life has become inaccessible.

Something New Under the Sun?

Opening_parliament_house_1988     What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

This is the most all-embracing commentary I can find on the very public exposure of the malaise which passes for parliamentary democracy in our Capital these last few days. what usually happens behind closed doors has been out in the open for all to see.

We have a new Prime Minister but the usual optimistic elation is tempered by expressions of public disgust and outrage that emerge from the exhaustion of dealing with an inept process that has, for some time, put party interests above the aspirations of the people.

That the new Prime Minister is a professing and active evangelical Christian is evoking many calls from the Christian community to “get behind this man” with constant prayer and (dare I say) uncritical support. Others from the Christian community will want to continue to call him to account, pressuring him to abandon policies that dehumanise and punish legitimate asylum seekers, debunk the need to address climate change, and diminish welfare support. This is fine – it is democracy at work.

The true call to the Christian community is to ensure that we find our rightful place in the toxic mix that passes for western democracies today. The two activities outlined above do provide the correct role for the church in a difficult political environment.

Prayer – directed with integrity for discernment not only on how to intercede for our public officers but how we ourselves will engage in the democratic processes available to us. We are representatives of a third way. Our agenda is well-expressed in the great texts of Micah and Amos and Mary’s Magnificat. The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount spell out a Christian manifesto.   Informed prayer – public and private – will surround our political leaders and our church communities. Such prayer will enable Christian communities to demonstrate and model the changes they wish to see.

Prophecy – closely linked to prayer and seeking creative ways of being a Nathan to our political leaders. Picking up Eugene Peterson’s ministry of “nay-saying”, prophecy involves a forth-telling that cuts away the dead branches that serve neither “love of neighbour” nor “love of God.” This is a challenge in a neo-liberal climate that elevates the interests of the individual above all else, sometimes cleverly disguising itself as being “good for the other” in the long run.

If Christian communities across the land approach a humble strategy that effectively combines these two activities, there will indeed be “something new under the sun.”

We may even see some change in a parliamentary system that has not seen a Prime Minister complete a term over the last ten years!

A Quick Foray into next Sunday’s RCL

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I’m missing engagement with the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ve lived and breathed it the 47 years I was in formal pastoral ministry. So here’s a quick glimpse at what’s coming up this Sunday.

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43

A high moment in Israel’s story. Under Solomon’s reign, the first Jerusalem Temple is completed. Solomon’s prayer of dedication eclipses nationalism through a particular petition that the foreigner may find inclusion here – a particularly poignant point as news comes through that Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, the overseer and architect of our notoriously cruel and inhumane “border protection” regime, has resigned.

Psalm 84

This is a hymn of praise often used in the dedication of buildings erected for public worship and draws on the elation of those pilgrims who have ascended the Temple Mount of Jerusalem and entered its courts with praise and thanksgiving. The content of the text, however, draws attention away from bricks and mortar and focuses squarely on the affirmation of being orientated to God’s presence wherever we are.

Ephesians 6:10-20

“Put on the whole armour of God…” I recall the huge Sunday School anniversaries where we children, arrayed on Meccano-like tiers, watched a presenter dress a lifesize cut-out of a Roman soldier with helmet, breastplate, sword, shield and sandals. I think we learned more about ancient battlefield dress than what the metaphors represented – an ever-present alertness and preparedness to give account for the new way of being human together through Christ’s transforming intervention.

John 6:56-69

And so closes the lengthy “I am the Bread of Life” discourse. Jesus has given his hardest and most central teaching, often aligned with the mystery of the Eucharist. We are nourished by consuming Jesus as the Christ totally into our being – symbolised by “eating his flesh.” Not cannibalism, but a total merging of our conscious and unconscious entity with that entity that is Jesus in a way that he actually consumes us through our consent. A hard teaching indeed and many followers leave Jesus at this point. Jesus asks his close circle if they will also leave because of this teaching. Peter replies with the well-known response: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

 

A Welcoming Ragtag Band

Schopin, Frederic, 1804-1880; The Children of Israel Crossing the Red SeaYesterday I listened to a Roman Catholic priest address an ecumenical but predominantly Roman Catholic gathering on Baptism and Meditation. In illustrating the practice of meditation (properly “contemplation”) as an act of creating hospitable space for us to become aware of God’s constant hospitality towards us, he described how, following his full observance of the exhausting yet rich rites of Holy Week, including Passion Friday and the Easter Vigil, he sought refuge from liturgy and theology by attending his local Church of Christ, where he could simply “be.” He knew the minister, yet the church was large enough for him to be lost anonymously in the Easter Sunday crowd (or so he believed). Nevertheless, he was overwhelmed by the hospitality offered him as an anonymous visitor. He said this is what it is like to live out of our baptism which has more to do with relationship than correct liturgy and theology!

He reflected on the Hebrew word qahal (translated by the LXX as ekklesia, or in English, “church”) referring to the “ragtag band of slaves escaped from Egypt (through the waters of the Red Sea = baptism) and the journey to the Promised Land.” I discovered that Hebrew commentary on this term is more nuanced, but the history of Christian theology, particularly the African-American emancipation story, reflects such an understanding. The connections become apparent. One of the marks of the qahal was its hospitality to the foreigner in its midst. If the discipline of regular wordless contemplation immerses us in the grace of the Holy One, how can we not be hospitable to the other? How can our worshipping communities not practice this same hospitality?

I felt confirmed in my conviction that the best way Jenny and I can respond to our vocation in this new stage of retirement is to continue to expand the stance of hospitality through whatever opportunities present themselves.

 

How will the Uniting Church hold two views on marriage?

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My mind and heart have been quite exercised in recent times as members of my church tribe (Churches of Christ in Australia) respond to the change in secular marriage laws that now accommodate same-sex union. The traditional discretion allowed to officiating ministers has been effectively withdrawn where same-gender applications for marriage are concerned as our “rites” will not allow it. To raise the matter in any of our forums is fraught with the risks of polarisation and disintegration. The Uniting Church in Australia, at last week’s 15th Assembly, adopted a position that allowed the existence side by side of a rite of marriage exclusive to a heterosexual relationship and a rite that allowed Ministers of the Word to officiate over same-sex unions.

On congratulating a Uniting Church minister yesterday on the step forward, the response was, “How ridiculous to hold two equal positions.” The pain and struggle of that communion’s 30-year debate are evident and will remain for some time to come.

However, the Uniting Church’s freshly articulated position, as liminal as it seems, is way ahead of my communion’s, where there is little opportunity to even raise the issue, let alone discuss it. Like the Uniting Church, we hold ‘unity in diversity” as one of our critical values. In holding “two equal views” on marriage, the Uniting Church is demonstrating that principle in a way that, in spite of looking ridiculous, models what it looks like.

Members of the Uniting Church now face the challenge of living with two opposite official views on marriage. How will they negotiate the space between these two views?
Cathie Lambert, a participant in last week’s assembly, offers this very thoughtful reflection on her blog at Deep Water Dwelling.

I would commend this reflection to our own communion, for I fear that much of the mainline church in this country is simply mirroring the cynical polarisation of our contemporary political scene as evidenced in the totally unnecessary and divisive plebiscite. Deep listening to our sacred text, collective lived experience of 2000 years and enlivening presence of Spirit is surely sufficient resourcing to counter such contemporary manipulations.

Discovering old journals

Packing to move house is like an archaeological dig. Every now and again as you negotiate the “toss” and “keep” piles of stuff, you come across something that says “pause”. Today I discovered a journal I began to keep when I was considering acceptance of the call to train for ministry. It nearly went on the “toss” file because it’s hidden behind a cover that says “English Exercises”. The first entry is dated 16th March 1969.

It was sober reading depicting my struggle with the issues of discernment for both the faith journey and the times. My horizons were quite narrow and unashamedly and rudely evangelical, even though I had been formed in a broader representation of Churches of Christ. At the same time, I struggled with a recognition of this something that sat awkwardly, attempting to filter strident influences from other sources through what my fledgeling faith discerned as a gospel of love. My reflections on whether or not to become involved in the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign predicted my future journey into a gospel pacifist outlook, even though I sought leadership from the churches in vain.

Now, as I near the end of sustained involvement in church ministry life some 49 years later, I see that while I have changed much, much is still the same. To be sure, I move through difficult circumstances and challenges with more poise, dignity and authenticity than then. But the questions still remain, the search for a genuine expression of the gospel of love amongst the people I am called to serve, wherever that may be. My greatest caution is to not stop the questing, for I have come to understand that the answer is in the never-ending question. So it looks like Wondering Pilgrim must continue his journey!

Swinging on the Vine

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Somehow I felt I had to justify this sermon title for John 15:1-8 at our combined Uniting Church/Church of Christ service this morning.

During the week, with ANZAC Day music playing in the background, while I exegeted the Greek text of “abiding,” my attention was drawn to jazz variations of the ubiquitous commemoration hymn, “Abide with Me.” Here is what I listened to and played to our combined congregations this morning.

 

The “I am” sayings attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel are the set piece that gives rise to expansion, repetition and poetic exploration much in the way a jazz orchestra explores a theme. While we listened to the BJO’s rendition of “Abide With Me” we noticed the cornet setting the main theme as the accompanying instruments almost champed at the bit, waiting for their opportunities to respond, improvise and interpret, the cornet later rounds them up bringing them back to the central theme.  We then looked at the John 15 passage, observing how the text works in much the same way, illustrating the unity to which abiding in Christ individually and collectively identifies and which cannot be separated.

Yep, we were swingin’ on the vine!

Thomas – the beloved disciple?

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ThomasYesterday was my 43rd Thomas Sunday since ordination, meaning that I have possibly preached this many times on the account of Thomas “not believing” until he had encountered the Risen Christ himself and verified by the visibility of the “marks” of crucifixion.

My understanding of this encounter has gone through a lifetime of development, moving from the Sunday School scolding “to not be a Doubting Thomas” to an appreciation of the complexity of Thomas’ courage and questing faith.

As I was contemplating what further might be said when preparing for yesterday’s 43rd (and possibly final) Thomas Sunday homily, the thought struck me that Thomas could actually be the anonymous “beloved disciple” mentioned at six key moments in the Fourth Gospel and traditionally identified as its bashful author, the Apostle John. After all, according to our account, Thomas had an unidentified twin (Didymus), never named and only mentioned on this occasion.

Now the Fourth Gospel is full of enigma and double entendre and was almost rejected on several occasions from the New Testament canon for its alleged Gnosticism (an early church heresy that feted “special knowledge” and separated spiritual and material realms.)

I have come to approach John’s Gospel as something like the playing out of a Greek drama on a cosmic stage, with each character’s encounter with Christ portraying the questions, dilemmas and struggles of the attending audience, namely you and me. The idea that both Thomas and “the beloved disciple” have represented different aspects of us who are growing in our following has fleetingly appeared in my presentations over the years. But to conflate the two – Thomas and the beloved disciple together – this is a new and exciting thought.

In case I was in danger of birthing a new heresy, I hit Google in the hope of finding some supporting scholarship and found this: The Apostle Thomas as the Beloved Disciple

I found Charlesworth’s arguments compelling and worth exploring invitationally with my congregation, particularly as, over the years,  we have had fraternal connections with Christians from Syrian and Indian traditions, each of which trace their origins back to the faithful work of the Apostle Thomas.

I once nominated Thomas as my patron saint because of my constant questing. I guess this will not abate and I hope it doesn’t.