Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Not knowing what to say

When I was growing up we used to move pieces of furniture around in the lounge room and using pillows and blankets we would make a fort or a cubby or a tent. I wonder how many of you did the same thing! Some of you may even still do it!

All you need is a piece of material and a couple of chairs and you can change a lounge room into a place of adventure and experience.  We could hide from our enemies? We could camp in the wilderness? We could tell stories and our imaginations turned us into heroes and villains?

These moments of imagination and excitement found in the joys of childhood are in their own ways divine moments when we live naively and exuberantly.  It struck me as I considered what to say about the reading this morning that at some level this na├»ve exuberance is what affected Peter, James and John.  There they were, up on that mountain with Jesus, and Jesus appearance changed and the prophet Elijah and Moses appeared before them and their whole world was changing.

When Peter offers to make tents he is not thinking of a child playing in a lounge room but of an ancient custom of building tents at the feast of tabernacles.  It was a way the people remembered that once upon a time in an ancient past they had been exiles and pilgrims.

The men and the boys would pitch their tents, of to be more accurate their tabernacles, and ground themselves sin the story of a God who had walked alongside their people from those ancient times right up until the time in which they lived.

Building the tents pricked their imaginations to a history they had never known personally and took them on a journey of rediscovering that God had been with them through it all.

Of course, we are told that Peter said this because he did not know what else to say and I think the reality is that when we truly encounter the divine presence, when God shows up, often we are left dumbfounded.  The distance between God’s life and our lives seems vast.

Yet Peter’s response, as uncomprehending as it is, appeals to the habitats of faith that grounded him in God’s presence in the life and history of his people.  God had been with the people then and by offering to make the tents on that mountain maybe Peter was expressing an insight, however awkwardly, that his mind was struggling to grasp – God was with them in that very moment.

The gospel writer Luke seems to be having a little bit of a dig at Peter but it is a dig that we should see in the context of the fact that in this amazing moment amidst the confusion and terror the voice of God comes as encouragement and affirmation.  God says, “This is my Son, the beloved! Listen to Him!”  Peter’s now knowing what to say and his terror before God are not to be seen as something to be ridiculed but as a response of faith.

From the outset of today’s service I have invited you to think about why people come to church and even why you are personally here today.  For me, one of the answers lies in Peter’s response of wanting to build the tents.  It is here we learn the habits of our faith: how to pray; how to speak about God; how to listen to the scriptures; how to eat the bread and drink the wine; and so on. We learn the habits of our faith and we do so hoping that when the moments of revelation come we can respond.  When God shows up we like Peter will have something to say.

But more than that we come in faith that when we gather those moments of divine revelation can visit us as well.  Gathered here we are on the mountaintop and God is present.  Or like Moses, we are beside the burning bush.  I say this because I have a fundamental belief that when two or three gather in Christ’s name he is present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We come and we share each week in pitching the tents.  Remembering God and we remember too that it is not just us that pitches tents.  At the beginning of one of the other gospels the one written by God we are told that in Jesus God pitched his tent among us. 

In Jesus, God lived and died and rose again in order that we might know God and God’s love and forgiveness more closely.

None of us responds perfectly to God or to the revelations that we might experience in our lives.  None of us comprehends God accurately.  As a congregation we probably have more questions than answers but we come here each week and we reminded that even Jesus closest followers struggled to know what to say when God was right there in front of them. So, it is OK for us to come and to listen and to respond as best we can as we offer to erect the tents of our faith as we imagine the possibilities of God revealed to those who have gone before us and those who are yet to come.

Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”

It is good to be here and let us pray that we might encounter that terrifying and reassuring presence of God in this moment.  

Friday, 22 January 2016

One body in Christ?

I wonder what it means for you to feel like you really belong that you are part of something.

When Paul was writing his letter to the new Christian community in Corinth he writes to a fragmented group that was struggling for a sense of identity and had problems with division.

There were members of the community who did not feel like they belonged whilst others claimed a stronger sense of belonging and so deliberately excluded others.  In many ways this behavior of this early Christian community reflects the nature of many community groups and churches right through to our present day.

Paul’s response is to emphasis again and again the unity and bond that the group has not in their own acceptance of each other but in and through God’s love in Christ and through the Holy Spirit:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 

So it is he uses political imagery of the community as a body to help emphasize that every member has importance.  It is highly likely that this body imagery that was borrowed from the Roman statesman Marcus Agrippa and was also used by one of Paul’s contemporaries Plutarch.

As modern day Christians we are probably used to hearing this passage and thinking of it as somehow uniquely Christian but the reality is that it is not.  It is borrow political imagery designed to help people see beyond feeling of exclusion and inclusion and into the embrace of God’s love which is offered to all.  It is about saying that you belong.  But, and this is an important but, it is also about saying you, and you and you and them and they and us belong as well.

This invitation and challenge to invite belonging in the body of Christ is a challenging one. It has been eroded by denominationalism and by the theological traditions that influence us.  It has been further distorted through history by nationalism and cultural imperialism.  Yet still we are called into the one body.

My feeling is that this sense of belonging to God and to community is a salient topic for us to be reflecting on together as we approach Australia Day or Invasion Day, however you might see it.  Often what creates belonging for one group creates exclusion for another and debates around Australia Day or Invasion Day reflect this within our own culture.

Nearly twenty years ago now a little book entitled Rainbow Spirit Theology began to explore the meaning of an Australian Aboriginal Theology.  It is a book that pushes theological boundaries and reminds us of our chequered history.  The authors ask, “whether the Gospel, brought to us by missionaries, is part of the culture which enslaved us, or whether the power of the Gospel frees us to be our true to ourselves and our land.”  The Jesus present to Aboriginal people was a “white” Jesus which it could be argued had been domesticated by the English and European culture of the missionaries themselves.

For us to speak of being one body of Christ in Australia as we approach Australia Day-Invasion Day the discomfort of our history should challenge us to go deeper into the resources of our faith to find that common ground and seek reconciliation with the people that were dispossessed by the arrival of Europeans.

The Uniting Church in Australia in its decision to adopt a preamble to our Constitution has recognised the history and therefore the very people which had been previously ignored in our past.  This preamble reminds us:

Many in the uniting churches shared the values and relationships of the emerging colonial society including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples. They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land.

This act of confession is a step towards true healing and hope.  Returning to the book Rainbow spirit Theology we read:

Paul declares that Christ is the power of God which broke down the diving wall of hostility which existed between the Jews and the Gentiles of his day… Christ, who has broken down this wall, is among us now to break down the dividing wall which separates Aboriginal Australians from other Australian’s in this country.  Through Christ we can be one.  Through the suffering Christ we can be reconciled. Christ is calling us, inviting us to be a part of that healing, that reconciliation.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was encouraging them to see beyond their ethnicity and status into their life in Christ: Jews and Greeks, slaves and free.   It was a political statement and an unsettling one.  The boundaries created by our human communities and our socio-economic status were being transcended by God’s love, could the people of God follow and embrace this reality.  If we examine human history and the history especially of the church the truth is that this has always been a challenge for us and it appears more the exception than the norm that people find a true sense of belonging at the same time as accepting those that are different.

So it is that we too in our day as Australian Christians are being continually called beyond ourselves and our tribalism: Anglo and Aboriginal; European, Asian, Islander, African, American and so on.  We are continually being called beyond ourselves and our elitism: rich and poor, educated and uneducated, white collar and blue collar.  We are one body in Christ and in Christ’s body every member has a place.

As I contemplated this I was struck by a reflection about Australia Day by a young Muslim women, Fatima Measham, who is a reporter in Australia.  She who talks about belonging in this way, “Belonging is not something to be conferred, nor is it the default effect of being here. In the end it depends on whether we feel fundamentally safe being who we are.”

As Christians we find this sense of safety first and foremost in Christ but as Paul reminds us this should lead us into our belonging in each other.  To me when we encounter such a sense of belonging as being one in Christ we are encountering what Jesus preached about in Nazareth – the year of the Lord’s favor.  And when that year comes good news to the poor, the captive is released, the blind see, and the oppressed go free.  

So the good news is this, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. The question is of course can we accept that other individuals, different individuals, strange individuals are also part of that body? For whether we do or not, they are!

You belong, you and you and they and them belong – we are the body of Christ. This is the good news: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We are one body in Christ!

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Defined by Baptism

The reading from Luke 3 provides an opportunity for us to talk about something that is really
important. Something that is fundamental to who we are and more importantly to whose we are.

Today, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus hears that his cousin John is baptising in the wilderness and Jesus goes out to the Jordan River and Jesus is baptised.

He was not baptised using a little bowl of water in a building like this one – as many of us were.

Jesus was fully immersed in the river as a sign of being made clean by God’s love and mercy.

It was a dramatic sign of God’s cleansing love and a sign of God’s promise made real in Jesus – to get rid of the chaff and to clean the threshing floor of our lives.

Jesus baptism, and God’s work and promise in and through Jesus, are affirmed in God’s presence and the words that came from heaven when Jesus was baptised, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What Jesus did in baptism was identify fully with what it means to be estranged from God and through his life, his death and his resurrection he transformed estrangement to engagement.

Jesus is indeed God’s Son sent into the world to bring the fulfilment God’s promises in our lives – forgiveness, mercy and grace.

The invitation of the scriptures and the injunction of Jesus himself ever since is that people who hear the story of Jesus life and would like to commit themselves to Jesus story in their own lives are baptised.

More than that from the very early days of the church families were baptised, even children as a sign that God’s love was supreme.

Baptism does not require you to understand everything perfectly or to have a perfect faith.

Rather, it invites you to recognise Jesus as God’s son and to confess that it is in and through Jesus that God can draw us home into life with him.

Like me most of you here are baptised and like me for many of you your do not remember your baptism because your parents bought you in faith as an infant for baptism.

As a teenager I was given the opportunity to confirm what my parents did on my behalf and make a commitment to following Jesus.  An opportunity that did involve growing in my understanding of God’s love and forgiveness but an opportunity that was more a beginning than an ending understanding.

The same is true when we baptise adults, and again some of you here have been baptised as adults, we do not expect a perfect faith or a perfect understanding simply a willingness to be open to what God did in and through Jesus and to be joined into that by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It sets on a journey and relationships that defines the rest of our lives.  Once we are baptised our life is joined to God’s life and our lives are joined to one another’s lives as the church.

Each one of us will understand our relationship with God differently, each one of us may discover along our life journey new insights or challenges in our faith, each one of us will grow in our relationship with God but none of us ever really arrive at that perfection.

Rather we know that affirmation that Jesus himself heard belongs to us as well because our lives are joined to Jesus life. God says to us “You too are my Beloved, my son and my daughter”.

What defines us in life is that we are baptised people.

We live out the promise of God as we live out our baptism.

Yes this means being involved in the life of the church and worshipping God.

But more than that it means when asked that perennial question “So what do you do?”

Your answer should always be prefaced by the words “I live out my baptism…

I live out my baptism…

As a teacher, a programmer, a lecturer, a researcher, s sales assistant, or a retiree

Or maybe I live out my baptism…

As a mother, a father, a child, a friend, a grandparent, a neighbour, an enemy

Our baptism defines us as to who we are and more importantly whose we are.

In every setting we are in we are God’s children, loved by God and on a trajectory towards life with God eternally.

We live out our baptism not to earn God’s love but to celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus, to be a part of his story and to glorify God.

When we live out our baptism we also become living invitations for others to join us in the discovery of God’s life and love for us.

So often I read or I hear that what happens in a church on a Sunday does not relate to everyday life but if we understand that what happens on Sunday is a reorientation to living as baptised people every day of our lives and helping us to do that then what we do here matters to every other moment.

Living out our baptism can impact on our ethics and morals, it can shape our relationships with friends and enemies, it can influence our views of family, it can lead us into deep spiritual practices and reflection, it can help us decide how we will approach our work – living out our baptism can shape every other aspect of our lives.

The history and teaching of the church is as deep as it is wide and as we discover what it means to hear those gracious words of God you are my beloved and to live in the light of Jesus love, to recognise our lives defined by his love and to follow him.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Give me eyes to see

(A reflection on John 1:18 & Ephesians 1:9-10)

No one has ever seen God.
Abraham greeted three strangers in the heat of the day.

Jacob wrestled with a man until the break of day.
Moses stood before a burning bush as he worked through the day.
Elijah met God after a storm in the silence of the day.
But no one has ever seen God.

No one has even seen God.
I have looked into the eyes of a lover.
I have been present to see the birth of a child.
I have beheld the joy and laughter of my children.
I have seen the wisdom in eyes of my elders and mentors.
But no one has ever seen God.

No one has ever seen God.
The waves roll in and crash against the shores.
The bush and desert bloom with life.
The mountains reach towards the sky.
The stars wheel through space putting on nightly show.
But no one has ever seen God.

No one has ever seen God.
This is what John teaches us.
This is his controversy with people.
This is his conviction Jesus came to make God known.
This is his hope for a world gone blind.
No one has ever seen God, but Jesus.

Jesus has seen God, the eternal Word made flesh.
Jesus saw God at the moment of creation.
Jesus saw God as God chose a people for himself.
Jesus saw God as he walked through his life.
Jesus saw God in his death and in his resurrection.
And Jesus sees God now, eternally.

Jesus has made known what he seen to us.
Have we seen God?
Have we known Jesus?
Have we senses the Spirit?
Have we understood God’s love?
God’s invitation is found in the incarnation.

No one has ever seen God.
God, give us eyes to see,
God, give us ears to listen
God, give us hearts to hope.
God, give us minds to know.
Jesus come among us: let us see God.

I was struck this week by the audacious claim of John concerning our inability to see God.  “No one has ever seen God.” And, then alongside this message comes another message which sits in contrast with John’s words. In Paul’s words to the Ephesians, he says, “he has made known to us the mystery of his will.”

To live with faith is to live with tension in your life.  Tension because what we believe and who we follow in Jesus are not a matter of what we can prove.  Faith involves trust and hoping in things we do not see.  We do not see God clearly and neither can we reveal God to others.  Yet, God does not rely on our seeing of God to be God because according to the scriptures God simply is – and this God who is, is within God’s very nature love.

Now it may be that like me you have spent a little time reflecting on what 2016 might hold for you personally and for those whom you love.  Last week I invited people to write a prayer for 2016 - an expression of their hopes.  But as we think to the year ahead now in this moment: 

What joys? What sorrows? What challenges? What gifts?

What mysteries will unfold? What directions is God taking us?

The conviction of Paul writing to the community in Ephesus nearly 2000 years ago was this:
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” 

Whatever our personal journey might entail this year the overarching message of Jesus’ presence among us is a future in which all things will be gathered into God’s life – all things, all people.
Paul describes the early church community as the “first to set our hope on Christ” which to me implies that we will not be the last – God will continue to reveal and make known this promised future to others.

Being drawn towards God’s life means that we understand that there are times we have been or are blind to God at work, or that God feels distant and unreal, but that regardless of this God is still drawing us home.

Being drawn toward God’s life means that we understand that there are times that people we know and some we don’t may appear more like enemies than friends but that God is still drawing them home.

Being drawn toward God’s life means that we understand that there are times that we will experience sorrow and suffering, or see it in the world, but we will do so hoping that regardless of this God is still drawing us home.

Faith comes to us as a gift.  But the gift that we receive is not exclusive, we are simply the first recipients. The gift does not mean that our lives will be free of challenges. The gift does not make us better than others.

With this in mind let us face the year ahead with hope as we embrace the gift of faith let us also “live for the praise of his glory” and listen for Jesus who makes God known to us and helps us to see through our blindness.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Jesus is 12: I'm not ready!

You know I have to confess:

I’m not ready!

I’m not ready to deal with a twelve year old Jesus!

It’s December 27th the turkey and ham is barely digested! We are still eating the left overs and the lectionary wants me to deal with a 12 year old Jesus!?

I’m not ready.

My cousin posted on Facebook that she only had 3 more sleeps until she was able to start buying hot cross buns.

Really? Hot cross buns?  I’m having enough trouble coping with how 12 years passed us by in 2 days.

I am not ready!

The lectionary hurtles us forward at a frantic pace and we are given the glimpse of Jesus as a boy 
growing up. One glimpse of his childhood!

Baby, glimpse and then ministry this is all we get.

But today 2 days after Christmas I’m not ready.

I wonder how often in your life you have felt like this that you are not ready, that life has passed you by too quickly.

“I’m not ready” say the kids confronting the first year of school or high school, or young adults about to start Uni or Tafe or their first real job.

I’m not ready for the arrival of my first child, or the second, or more.

Where did those years go?

I’m not ready to be in my 30s, oh no I’m in my 40s then my 50s, how did 60 come around so quickly, 70, 80, 90!

I’m not ready to be this old.

I’m not ready to say goodbye to friends and family as they die: my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my child, my friends.

I’m not ready for time to go so quickly.

I’m not ready for death which sometimes crashes in unexpectedly early or creeps up on us slowly.

Why then does the lectionary hurtle us so quickly from Jesus birth to his 12th year?

Maybe because this is life.

It passes us by in the blinking of an eye – we are transient and momentary beings.

But here’s the thing Jesus, the12 year old boy that he was, growing in wisdom and stature as he was is God among us – experiencing life and time as we experience it.

I’ve often puzzled over Jesus self-awareness concerning his relationship with God but in this little glimpse of him as a boy I do get a sense that he was encountering time as we do and that he was going through the processes of change in life as we do.

In the ancient world in which he lived, Jesus, at 12 years of age was on the cusp of being recognised as an adult.

The Jewish bar mitzvah takes place at age 13 after which time he would have been held accountable for his own actions.

I wonder did he feel ready for this. Did Mary? Did Joseph?

The scriptures hint to us that just as we go through processes of learning and growth so did Jesus.  He has to get ready too.

Life goes quickly.

Often it does not feel like it does but when we look back over the years and experiences we know this to be oh so true.

This it reminds me what we used say when played hide’n’seek as kids “ready or not here I come”.

Here comes life!

How can we live in this frenetic life? How do we slow the pace? How do we live more intentionally?

I don’t think there any easy answers to these questions, the Bible is not a simple 12 step self-help book.

But I do think knowing that God shares this existence and experiences the passing of time and the changes it brings means that we can take heart.

We are probably never going to be completely ready getting ready is a process that we are always engaged in.

But I do think that Paul’s encouragement to clothe ourselves with love and let the peace of Christ rule within us can help us live richer lives.  To live focussed on what is important.

So I may not be ready but ready or not here comes life.

12 years passed in two days for us who are following the lectionary but how often do we start a sentence with “It only feels like it was yesterday” when we are speaking about thing that happened a life time ago.

Maybe the good news today is as complex and as mysterious as the notion of the incarnation itself, life is a gift that we are given, albeit a momentary one, but within the fragility of our days God is with us and God cares for us as we constantly get ready and feel unprepared for what God is preparing for us.

So, ready or not let us live in the light of God’s love.