Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Chore of Church

Readings Ex 12:1-14, Ps 149, Rom 13:8-14, Mt 18:15-20

There is a Simpson’s which begins with the family going to church. When they arrive home, as soon as the front door opened, Homer, (the dad), and the two older children, Lisa and Bart, raced inside stripping their clothes off as they went.

The mother, Marge, reacted saying, “Hey, calm down. You're wrinkling your church clothes.”

To which Homer responded, “Who cares? This is the best part of the week.”

Lisa added, “It's the longest possible time before more church!”

Marge replied, “Church shouldn't be a chore; it should help you in your daily life.”

To which Homer declared, “It should but it doesn't.”

This little interaction raises for you and I the question of what we are doing here in church and what our attitude about being here actually is.

I would want to suggest that the final interaction about whether or not church helps us in our daily life is a pretty common question concerning church for many people. It is kind of the ‘what’s in it for me” question.

Now I would not want to suggest that we don’t get anything out of church and in fact it is my hope and prayer that you don’t walk out the door after Sunday saying to yourself, “thank goodness that’s over, now I can get back to the real world.” But I would want to say that if the primary question we are asking is “what’s in it for me” then we have either lost sight of the object of our worship or have never really realised what the object is.

Our gathering together doesn’t primarily revolve around getting something more out of God but is a response to God’s goodness and grace in Jesus Christ. To shift the focus to what we are getting out of it is to shift the focus away from worshipping and giving thanks to God and onto ourselves. In other words like Marge and Homer indicate many of us want Church to help us in our daily lives or at least think that’s what it should be about.

Now I would emphasise that it can help us in our daily lives, but this help arises not out of treating Church like a self help group but through our encounters with the living Lord.

Of course the problem for the Simpson’s, particularly Homer, and Bart and Lisa, and for us is how to make sense of the Christian story and even more so how to make sense of what we have been given as the primary text to guide our faith – the Bible.

For example, today’s Psalm, 149, is not exactly that well balanced. In fact one commentator suggests that Psalm 149 is somewhat schizophrenic. It begins with these wonderful images of praising God, praising God with the tambourine and lyre and with dancing but then it moves into the somewhat bizarre imagery, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.”

Did you catch that? Two-edged swords in their hands! The explicit overtones of violence and judgement and vengeance are disturbing to say the least. How do we reconcile our visions of a God of love with this kind of imagery?

This confusion in trying to make sense of our faith is further exacerbated when we consider our reading from Exodus this morning in which God establishes the festival of the Passover. Now it is not the festival itself that is troubling to us but the events that surround it. What does the Passover remember?

It remembers that God spared the Israelites from the infanticide God commits on the Egyptians. God kills the first born child of every house and the first born among all the animals of the Egyptians. God, the God of love to whom you and I ascribe our belief, kills the first born children and animals of an entire nation so that there was “a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.”

Is it any wonder that Homer struggles to make sense of the archaic and confusing stories found in the Bible? Is it any wonder that we are often left asking how do we understand this God? And moreover how do we understand this Bible through which we have been given to know God?

How do we deal with the Bible when it speaks in the language of violence and bloodshed? I want to suggest to you this morning that there are a number of ways.

The first is to read the Bible as literally and historically true seeing God’s hand acting in all situations and even as condoning violence. Thinking about more recent history next Sunday we will commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11. This week our own high court is handing down its verdict on refugees. This is a stark reminder of the poverty and oppression from which many people in this world flee as refugees, whilst others endure drought and political atrocities.

Some Christians interpret these events as acts of God and in the case of September 11 have lead people like Franklin Graham, son of Billy, to describe Islam as "an evil and wicked religion." The Biblical history of violence and judgement for many opens the door to such violence and judgement, and so some interpret the war in Iraq as a Holy War.

This becomes more disturbing when we hear that tragedies like the drought in Africa or Hurricane Irene are God punishing people. The problem is that the Biblical precedent for such acts of God has already been set. The Passover was the last in a line of plagues and afflictions God had sent to torment Pharaoh and the Egyptians – locusts, hail and lightning, frogs, water to blood and so on.

Now that is one approach to the Bible, to see it as literally true and to see it condoning, justifying or explaining the violence and destruction that can occur in our world and in our own lives.

This is not an approach to which I subscribe.

The other end of the spectrum is to do what I wanted to do with the Psalm which was to take out my scissors and cut out the bits that disturb me. In doing this people pick and choose which bits of the Bible they will listen to and which they won’t.

Of course if I cut out all of the bits of the Bible that confused or challenged me I would probably end up with just a few pages left over. Sometimes we do this subtly by treating these kinds of stories as children’s stories or myths, so that we teach them in Sunday School but rarely preach on them or deal with them as adults.

The problem with this is that we are inventing our own religion and not taking seriously the Bible as the book in which we hear God speaking to us. And, as much as I would like to do this myself sometimes, I do not think that this is a valid way of dealing with the bits that make us feel uncomfortable. We are either part of this religion or we are not.

Another approach is to take the text seriously but to read it through the lens of the wider whole and the story of God’s grace in salvation history, especially the cross. If we understand that the wider theme of the Bible is that God is a faithful God who brings salvation and mercy because God loves then this shapes our reading of any text. It means that the overriding truth is the kind of truth that Paul encouraged the Romans to consider. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

This means we are still left with stories that can be uncomfortable but if we apply these themes they can begin to bring greater meaning to the text and sense for our lives.

For example, in terms of the Passover story we remember the history that precedes God’s act of infanticide. God had chosen Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and his brothers and been faithful to them but the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites. In fact they had been slaves for nearly 400 years when Moses turned up. You might also stop to remember the much romanticised story about Moses birth and his mum chucking him in a basket in the Nile River. Why? Because at that time Pharaoh had been killing off all the male children of the Israelites because they were becoming too numerous!

I am not trying to justify God’s actions, nor do I find all this violence a savoury topic, but it begins to build a bigger picture – God was saving the Israelite people from oppression and hardship. So the Passover celebrates the salvation and liberation which comes from God.

Whilst there is much that could be said about the Passover and what we might learn from it I will restrict myself to a two brief points.

First, the Passover is celebrated by families, not simply in the Temple, but by family groups. It is good for us to be reminded that our faith is something to be lived at home with our families.

Second, that in re-enacting the events families are reminded not only of their past but that God continues to liberate and save people.

In other words the Passover looks back to the historical events it remembers as well forwards to new acts of liberation and salvation being done by God. The Eucharist, or communion, encourages us to do the same to remember God’s salvation in Christ and look forward to the consummation of that salvation.

So in looking at the wider theme of salvation and liberation and grace we can begin to build a picture of God which is more positive and in tune with the notion of unconditional love expressed by Paul.

The same is true of the Matthew reading in which Jesus outlines a way of conflict management for communities of faith. Once again I could build an entire sermon around this but will simply point out a couple of things.

Jesus’ will is for communities to live in love with one another and to seek reconciliation when conflict arises. The process begins with going to the person who has caused you the problems. Reading between the lines this says, don’t gossip! If you have an issue with someone speak to them, not behind their back. If this doesn’t work get a couple of other people to help you try to sort it out. If this doesn’t work bring it before the whole community.

Now in all my experience of being a Christian and of being a minister I have rarely seen this kind of thing in action in a church group, or any kind of community for that matter. We don’t like airing the dirty laundry for others to see. I think we have a greater tendency to keep things to ourselves or maybe to speak behind a person’s back than approach them in a pastorally sensitive way to resolve the issue. But we should remember that the goal in these processes is reconciliation and rebuilding of relationships so that we might live our lives more fully. But what happens when reconciliation doesn’t work.

Jesus says treat those who won’t be reconciled like a tax collector or gentile. This, however, does not mean what we might think it means. What does Jesus do with tax collectors and gentiles? He finds room for them! He accepts them and he forgives them!

In Matthew 21, Jesus said to the chief priests, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

To treat people as tax collectors and Gentiles is not to exclude but is to forgive and even to share at the same table with them as Jesus is often seen to do. The prevailing message is one of love and grace – owe no one anything, except to love one another, for this is how God has loved us – without conditions!

Maybe as we grow to understand this we will grow into a faith like the German Pastor Martin Niemoeller who said after living through Hitler’s reign, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies."

To conclude I wish to return to the Simpson’s. The image prior to the Simpson’s arriving home from Church was Reverend Lovejoy preaching whilst the congregation dozed. Paul encourages us, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

Are you dozing? Is church more of social club than a spiritual encounter? Hear again Paul’s encouragement to be awake to the good news of God’s grace, to be awake to God’s ongoing work of love and mercy in our midst.

The alternative is to be self-centred, thinking that who we are and what we have is somehow due to our own efforts or because we simply deserve it. In which case we might pray, like Bart Simpson, “Dear Lord, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

Take a moment to consider God’s word to you this day.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Holy Ground

Peter Lockhart

The story of Moses turning aside to meet God in the burning bush is one that is both well known and well loved by many people. It is also a story which has great depth of meaning and can challenge us on many levels.

This morning I want to explore with you a number of aspects of the story and how they relate to us today.

First, I want us to consider the concept of Holy Ground.
Second, to think about, where it is that we might meet God.
Third, will be to consider what happens when meet God and how we will most likely respond.
Lastly, we will be looking at the concept of God’s presence through the lens of Jesus.

So, to the concept of Holy Ground! When Moses turns aside to see the burning bush God instructs him to take off his shoes because he is standing on Holy Ground. I took off my shoes this morning at the beginning of the worship to get you to think about this idea of reverence in God’s presence.

Why is the ground Holy? I think that the holiness is not in the earth itself, the dust and grit and grime, but rather the place is made Holy at that moment because God is there in a particular way with Moses.

This is an important distinction to make because I believe that throughout the history of both Judaism and Christianity we do see a tendency towards idolatry of place.

In the story of the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha, which occurs in the second book of Kings, it is interesting to see Naaman request 2 cartloads of the soil to take home with him so that he might worship Elisha’s God. It is as if God is located in the soil itself.

This kind of overplaying of the importance of land or ground or Holy Space has long been with us. It is not that I think have buildings or special places in which we believe we encounter is unimportant but I would want to challenge when we begin to hold on to the Holy Space or Ground over against the relationship with God, even unintentionally.

Think for a moment about our own church buildings and the concept of Holy Ground. This morning I was very deliberate about the acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Turbaal people. We have built our buildings and laid claim to this as Holy Ground over the top of another people, for which this land itself may have been sacred in some way.

As an aside this week there were celebrations in the Northern territory marking the 45th anniversary of the pastoral workers strike led by Vincent Lingiari. A strike that went for 8 years and led to one of those iconic images that is etched into our Australian history of the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of sand from his hand into Vincent’s hand. It was a symbolic retuning of sacred ground.

In terms of this building in which we meet whilst it may carry sentimental and historical value for us as a sacred space it should also be understood in a broader history of who we are as Australian people and that we have set this space aside for us to meet with God. I wonder this morning did you have that sense of taking of your shoes, did you come expecting that God would speak to you and call you to ministry or are you simply here going through the motions? The space only retains its value if we are expectant and responsive to the God who will send us from here.

As I thought about this taking off our shoes to enter God’s presence on Holy ground I was struck by me memories of the times I have been into Mosques to observe Islamic worship. There are rows of racks where the worshippers place their shoes before entering the worship space. They take off their shoes as they meet with God.

Yet I am also aware that in their daily prayer, which they are to engage in 5 times each and every day, people cannot always come to the mosque. So they take off their shoes wherever they are and facing Mecca pray.

The point seems to be that it is not the venue itself that is Holy but God’s presence whenever we enter into it. A concept which I believe we could learn from.

This leads me from these thoughts about Holy Ground to what it is that Moses was doing when saw the burning bush. Moses hadn’t gone to church; he wasn’t at daily prayer or listening to a sermon. Moses was at work.

He had fled Egypt and was accepted into the Midianite family that he had come into contact with, marrying one of Jethro’s daughters. Such was his place that he was trusted with the flock the family’s wealth.

Moses had not gone seeking God, no God had come to him in the midst of his mundane and probably quite difficult task of tending the flock.

When Moses saw the burning bush he turned aside; he stopped to be with God.

This is a reminder for all of us that Holy ground is not somewhere we construct like this building but somewhere, anywhere that God comes to us.

In the midst of our daily labour whether we are at home or in the community we should be looking out for the burning bush of God’s presence and we should like Moses be prepared to turn aside and listen for what God might have to say.

Too often I believe we want to restrict the possibilities of God speaking to us to church on a Sunday, or our daily devotionals, or when we are gathered in some holy huddle. But God speaks to us and meet with us anywhere and when he does God calls us.

This brings me to the third point about Moses response to God’s call. Moses response is to question his value, his gifts, his very existence: who am I?

This existential crisis for Moses is a denial and dodging of God’s call – I’m not good enough, why me, I’m not holy enough, can’t someone else do it.

I want to share my favourite story about the burning bush, it is a story told by Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the world Dominican order.

"In May 2004 I was taken to the monastery of St Catherine's, at the foot of Mt Sinai. At 3:30 pm in the afternoon, when all sensible people are asleep and 'only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun', we walked past the shrine of the burning bush and climbed the mountain of the Lord... As I walked past the shrine of the burning bush, I was delighted to notice beside it a large red fire extinguisher. It looked so old it might have been there since Moses. It seemed to symbolise our ambivalent relationship to the word that comes from the burning bush, and the perpetual temptation to quench it."

Timothy Radcliffe "Do Not Put Out The Burning Bush" in Don't Put out the Burning Bush ed. Vivian Boland, ATF Press 2008.

I wonder at times whether too many of us in our ambivalence are carrying a fire extinguisher in fear that the burning bush of God’s presence might come to us and God might call us to follow and serve.

Yet for those of us who are Christians is this not meant to be what we do. Listen for God and respond obediently to God’s call on our lives – even when we don’t think we have the capacity to do what God is asking of us.

Every one of us who is baptised is called into the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ – in our work place, in our relationships, in our families, in our community, the places where we can and do meet God.

This brings me to the promise of God and the conclusion of this sermon. God’s response to Moses existential crisis and doubt is the promise that God will be with him. It is a promise which gives Moses the courage to respond to God’s call.

As Christians reading this story the idea that God is with us is powerfully altered by the advent of Jesus Christ who is called Emmanuel – which literally means God is with us.

In Jesus God walks among us and the promise of the Holy Spirit is that our lives our drawn into Christ’s life, that he is with us and we are with him. But more than that, Jesus indicates that we will meet him in poor and prisoner and the hungry and the sick. God is with us in each other and in the people in the world around us.

This too is Holy Ground: people’s lives and their stories. I met a man in the coffee shop the other day and he shared with me some of his story. In that moment I knew I was on Holy Ground, the Holy Ground of his life, and that in our conversation I believe God was speaking to me.

The story of Moses and the burning bush takes us deep into our faith and what it means to meet with God, to listen to God, to respond God and to serve God’s purposes.

We are on Holy Ground now not because of these walls around us but because here God speaks the good news of Jesus Christ to us and calls us to go out into the world to meet God again and again in the moments of our days and our weeks and to respond in faith.

Friday, 26 August 2011

No Extinguisher Needed

Here is my favourite story about the burning bush:

"In May 2004 I was taken to the monastery of St Catherine's, at the foot of Mt Sinai. At 3:30 pm in the afternoon, when all sensible people are asleep and 'only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun', we walked past the shrine of the burning bush and climbed the mountain of the Lord... As I walked past the shrine of the burning bush, I was delighted to notice beside it a large red fire extinguisher. It looked so old it might have been there since Moses. It seemed to symbolise our ambivalent relationship to the word that comes from the burning bush, and the perpetual temptation to quench it."

Timothy Radcliffe "Do Not Put Out The Burning Bush" in Don't Put out the Burning Bush ed. Vivian Boland, ATF Press 2008.

Just as Moses was taken by surprise by God's voice on the mountainside I wonder whether carrying fire extinguishers really has any influence on theophanies. If God speaks it would seem that nothing will put out the flame even a denial of our existential value "Who am I that God would ask this of me?" Are we not people created in God's image? Redeemed by God's love? called by God's Spirit? Sent by Jesus? Who are we other than God's servants?

Peter Lockhart

Photo Creative Commons by Mike Martelli

Thursday, 11 August 2011

From cursed to blessed!

So, this Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and she has this daughter who is demon possessed.

And she cries out for mercy, she cries in hope. She cries almost hysterically, on behalf of her daughter, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”

The agony of her cry expresses the depth of her concern for her own flesh and blood.

Now, for many of us listening to the story nearly 2000 years on the idea of being demon possessed is obscure and maybe even nonsensical.

What was the child’s problem? Some may speculate along the lines of a spiritual warfare, literally a demon, others might consider that she had a mental illness or other intellectual or physical impairment. In the end it is hard for us to say, but I do not think any would question that the child was in a desperate state.

Despite this the mother’s plea seems to fall on deaf ears and I think somewhat surprisingly for us Jesus answer is silence.

Even worse the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, they want to exclude her and banish her problems from their presence.

As horrid as it may sound this would have been quite a reasonable response for Jesus and the disciples to make, to understand why means understanding who the Canaanites were.

There is a story in Genesis found just after Noah has saved his family and the animals on the ark. Noah gets drunk and shames himself by collapsing naked in his tent. His son Ham comes across his dad prostrate on the floor of his tent.

Rather than simply covering him up Ham ducks outside and informs his 2 brothers about his father’s state. They enter the tent and without looking at Noah’s nakedness cover him up.

Now it is a bit of an obscure story but it is important for this encounter. Because what Noah does in response to hearing how Ham had dealt with his nakedness is to curse Ham’s son Canaan.

Canaan and his descendents were to be the lowest of slaves and the history of the Old Testament bears this curse out. The Canaanites were scorned by the Israelites.

This is why when Jesus answers the disciples request his words seem so harsh and uncompromising. He addresses the disciples saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the woman humbles herself throwing herself on her knees before him she begs for mercy and Jesus responds once again in words which would not be surprising for any Jewish reader of the story.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog.

Abasing herself even further the woman owns the slur of being called a lowly dog and asks for the scraps from the table.

And here is the amazing part of the story Jesus crosses the social and cultural boundaries, he changes his mind and acknowledging her faith and persistence declares that the daughter has been healed.

It is an amazing story of God’s grace and for Matthew it was a pointed story.

Matthew wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus had died and ascended into heaven. By this time in the history of early Christianity a clear split was emerging between the followers of Jesus and the temple authorities.

Some Jews had become followers of Jesus but many had not, where the Christian community was really beginning to grow was in converts outside the Jewish people.

In this there appears to be at least some level of agenda going on in Matthew’s writing. He is demonstrating how in Jesus God had begun reaching out to people outside the inner circle of the chosen people. In fact Jesus was reaching across the boundaries into people whom had traditionally been understood as cursed.

Why is this important to us? Well, for a start it reminds us of God’s concern for us who are not of Jewish heritage and as a reprimand for those of us within the church who might want to behave as if God’s love has any exclusivity about it.

But what happens when we push our understanding deeper in this story and begin to unpack some of the symbolism of what is going in the characters in the story.

Obviously in the story Jesus is clearly understood as unique in his authority over the situation that is occurring, the demon possession. God has authority over all things under heaven and earth.

But what if we see the woman in the story symbolically? What if she actually represents Jesus presence in the world?

Does not Jesus come into the world pleading on the world’s behalf for the healing of the world and its people? He reaches out and lifts people from the predicaments that have interrupted their existence: teaching, healing, casting out demons, bringing hope.

Like the woman Jesus intercedes for we who are demon possessed.

Now I use that phrase quite liberally, not literally. For if demon possession is about those things which rob us of our humanity and of our lives then we as people experience that. We are like the daughter and we need help.

I think about the week that has passed and I have engaged in personal stories of pain and illness and immersed in global situations that are staggering in scope.

How do we deal with situations of personal pain and illness and conflict in our lives? What drives people to the brink of rioting? How do we come to a situation that in a world where there is enough food to go around millions are starving in the horn of Africa? At what point did we as people who understand and have a heritage of being dispossessed and being strangers in a strange land come to treat other refugees with such inhumanity?

The cursed woman is the Jesus who begs for mercy and for healing for us.

The healing of the girl is utter grace. She does nothing to deserve it. She does nothing to earn it. It is not her faith. It is not her belief. The woman pleads on her behalf and God acts and she is healed. This is the deepest expression of our Christian hope. That God will help us because Jesus pleads on our behalf. This may seem confusing at times when we cry out to God for healing for ourselves or for others and the answer appears to be silence.

Yet is not Jesus also in the child: Jesus who shares our human existence and suffers the depravation of dignity and darkness of Calvary – dying alongside us, as one us. The worst that can happen to any of us, the demon of death, God in Jesus experiences!

And healing occurs. Resurrection! Life beyond death! Hope beyond the realms of our thinking and possibilities. The demon of death is defeated. The demons we may experience in life and in the spectre of death are not the final word of our existence – the resurrection of Jesus is!

This is the message of grace that we as the church celebrate and we are drawn into living again as God’s people, no longer cursed by demons we are drawn like the disciples into following Jesus. As Jesus followers we participate in his mission and his ministry as a celebration of that self giving love for us.

We become the woman with Jesus, we cry out for others who are experiencing demons in their lives. We cry for justice, for peace, for healing. It is a fundamental aspect of our gathering together in worship to do this. We intercede for those who long for healing and hope – we pray against the hopeless and helplessness we feel and we like the woman persist for the sake of the daughters and our sons of all peoples.

But here too we are reminded of the Spirit poured out on the disciples long ago and on us now. This is the Spirit that empowers us not simply to be recipients of that unconditional grace, not only the women crying out but also bearers of grace and hope empowered to act in the world. Here we are reminded that we have within our grasped the means by which we can change the lives of others.

We are to use our wealth generously in helping others, to reach out to the suffering ones, to give of our time, to live sustainably, to bring healing and hope. To witness in word and action that the grace we have found is available for all others and even when we are suffering and afflicted by the demons that may beset us in our lives to hold on to the resurrection hope – that death is not the final word.

The good news is that Jesus reaches out and heals a girl, a girl who had not done anything in and of herself to pursue that healing. She receives the gift of a new chance and new life and is restored to her mother and her community.

This is our story, it is my story and it is your story, that Jesus has reached into our lives which just such a grace. So receive this good news and live it so that others might rejoice and share in the hope we have.

Photo Creative commons

Who Counts?

For those Aussies out there did you feel like you mattered when you filled in your census?

Do you feel like you count? That you matter?

I must admit as I filled out my form I was distracted by such existential questions, especially in light of the unfolding crises in the Horn of Africa & in London.

I wondered if people in the Horn of Africa feel like they count as more than stastics at the moment. I was horrified when expressing my concern over the issue that a person responded with a blaise comment about how its just another African drought and that they get themselves into these problems because they are always fighting among themselves.

I can't remember Jesus making such judgements as people came seeking healing - he looked and he had compassion. To do any less would be dehumanising, wouldn't it?

I also wondered about the young people of London whom I had heard speaking on the radio. How had so many people come to a point of feeling that they had to behave so badly to make their presence felt? Is it because they do not feel like they count?

And what about our own country Australia? The day of the census I heard an interview on ABC radio which raised questions about the forgotten indigenous Australians, left to their own devices by the majority in the community. It was only in 1967 that there was a referendum to include indigenous people on the Census, but I wonder if many still have a concern as to whether they count.

Certainly as I filled in the Census form I did not arrive at some existentially satisfying point personally. I was left wondering about whether counting people will actually lead to a greater sense of identity and purpose. I suggest the answer is no.

So what role does the church play in all of this? How do we help people know that they count? How do we form community? How to we affirm the purpose and existence of others?

Surely this is at the heart of the good news and mission of God to draw people into each others lives and into God's own life - a place where all people truly count.

Peter Lockhart (Photo Creative Commons)

Monday, 8 August 2011

Making Promises: Baptism!

Is it important to keep the promises we make, especially ones made in public?

Ask any of the Australian public about it at the moment and I am sure the answer would be yes. The thought that our PM may have reneged on a promise seems to be unforgivable.

But maybe its some promises we make and not others?

I have recently been reflecting on baptism (here) and it's integrity in our contemporary setting.

Many families who come seeking baptism are not currently attending church and once the baptism is done are rarely seen again. This, despite promises to engage in the life of the church that they make in the context of the baptism service.

When discussing this recently with congregation members I described the promises made in baptism as at least as important as the ones made at a wedding. They are a life-long commitment and involve choices about daily life and involvement in the worshipping life of the church.

This means as part of the conversation I begin to open up a commitment to attending church and church membership.

The question raised was whether or not it was right for me to put the 'hard word' on so early. The example given was that when you make a choice to marry someone you go through a courting period, then an engagement, before reaching the altar.

After reflecting a little more on this, what I have realised is, that for those people who have come simply to get the kids baptised the promises they are making are a bit like an arranged marriage. The people make the promises and then develop the relationship.

Of course we could be critical of this approach but I am caught in two minds as I picture Jesus walking along a beach and saying follow me to a bunch of fishermen. He called them and then they developed the relationship.

I continue to think that as long as I seek to faithfully convey the depth of promise that is being made, and being made in a public setting, then it is up to the family to live out that promise and the congregation, that also makes promises, to help them do so.

The question that parents and congregation should consider is that when the children we baptise are all grown up whether we will be able to answer the questions they might have for us:

Why didn't you take me to church?
Why didn't you tell me about God's love in Jesus?
Did you do everything you could to help me understand the Christian life?
You taught me about everything else, why not faith?
Why did you let others indoctrinate me?

Friday, 5 August 2011

Jesus terrifies!

I think that like the disciples there is a part of us that is terrified of Jesus.

Most of the time we like to think of Jesus as a friend or comforter, maybe a guide or teacher. Yet in some stories, like this one, the idea of Jesus, a man walking across a stormy sea, is utterly strange and confronting. The disciple’s terror may not simply be the strangeness of the situation by the fear that can be generated from within when confronted by something we don’t understand and cannot control.

Now, whether or not the story happened in the way Matthew describes could be a point of contention but Matthew weaves a marvellous tale for his listeners packed with depth of meaning that reaches to the core of our existence.

I just want to make a three quick points about the story.

The first is to say that the image of the disciples in the boat was adopted by the early Christian community as a symbol for the church.

The disciples facing the storm as experienced fishermen worked together and battle the storm, they were in it together and the believed that they would sink or sail by their own efforts.

Sometimes I suspect that we in the church feel a bit the same. We sail the stormy seas of life, thinking we are guiding the ship, thinking that we are in control and that it is we alone who have the capacity to defeat the elements.

Jesus’ appearance ultimately calms the storm and reminds us that even thought we think we have things in hand there are forces greater than our efforts, powers that can even demonstrate a command over nature: God.

As the church we should take confidence in this, whilst we battle the storm, Jesus comes to us and we are not alone.

This brings me to a second point about Peter. Peter demonstrated more than a little faith, in my opinion, to step out of the boat. If we are going to follow Jesus, going to him can mean taking the risk of stepping out of the boat.

There are times when we see the walls of the church and our gathering as a kind of life vest, a security blanket. We are OK to own our faith in this setting but when we step out into the storms around us we can suppress our journey with God and so hide from others the hope we have found in following Jesus.

Today the footprints (footprints are being to each congregtaion member) that you take with you are a reminder to step out in faith every day. Step out with your little faith and take the confidence that where ever you find yourself Jesus is there ready to reach out and give you a hand.

The third and final point thing is to think a bit about the sea and the storm. If we go back to the story of creation in Genesis the image of the beginning is that of God moving over the waters.

The metaphor that is presented demonstrates God drawing back the waters of chaos to make a space in which to create. There are the waters above and the waters below.

This metaphor carries into this story. Jesus walking on the waters in the midst of the storm – the waters of chaos and uncreation above and below. The deep roiling waters and the lashing storm threaten life.

But Jesus stands in the midst of the storm as a beacon of hope, he is unassailable.

As I consider the waters above and the waters below I was struck by the things which threaten us, things which threaten to unravel the world as we know it.

Above us loom the storms of climate change and rapidly depleting resources, natural disasters and millions of starving people in the horn of Africa.

Below us the churning of the waters are like: plummeting markets and drought and war.

And whilst these mind bending and massive issues rage around us the winds that blow through our own lives distract and we become frightened. Winds of loneliness, of illness, of broken relationships. Winds of unemployment, of depression, of constant change.

Here in the midst of the storm Jesus calls to us come and reaches out to help us in the midst of our fears and our doubts and our questions.

This is the hope we find in this story – God has not left us alone to the ravages of the storm but comes to us in the midst of it.

This is the good news that we celebrate today. The good news we celebrate in being together, to remind each other that God is with us. The good news we celebrate as we baptise and as we share bread and wine. The good news we are not alone that God is with us, that Jesus is here reaching out his hand to lead us through our life’s journey.

By Peter Lockhart
(photo creative commons)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Little Faith.

I found myself in a dilemma this week writing the sermon. My dilemma came from a couple of different angles but primarily it arose out of a question of faith and of preaching to a group of people that I do not know that well.

In the passage that we heard from Matthew’s gospel concerning Jesus’ appearance walking on the water the issue of Peter’s faith is raised. Jesus declares that he has little faith. As I read and reflected and discussed this issue of little faith the question arose when Jesus declares that Peter has little faith is he admonishing Peter or is he affirming Peter or is he simple pointing out a simple reality.

It comes back to how he says it:

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (angry tone)

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (caring tone)

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (neutral tone)

Now which ever you decide on the fact of the matter is that Peter is exposed as having little faith.

This is where my problem kicks in – I think people in general, but especially farmers are people who have great faith. How much faith does it take to sit on the property for year after to year waiting for the rains, buying fodder for the animals and holding off planting the crops until the rains come? And then when the rains finally come and the crop is looking good the mice turn up. What faith will it take to harvest a barely average yield and then plant again? In my mind this is an act of faith, not little faith, but strong faith, strong conviction.

So what does it mean to only have little faith?

How do we view Peter and the disciples in their predicament?

So as I mulled over the passage more and more I refocussed myself away from Peter and onto Jesus and what the passage tells us about him. From very early in the church Jesus ability to walk on water was understood in two ways. First, it demonstrates that he is divine. And second, that in walking on the water he demonstrates his command over the threatening depths that lie below. I just want to unpack those ideas a little more.

Before Jesus ever walked on water, other figures in the ancient world walked on water. For example, the Egyptian god Horus walked on water and Orion the son of Poseidon also had the ability to walk on water. In addition to this in both the Psalms and the book of Job we hear that the God of the Israelites walks on the water. I have sometimes wondered whether Jesus did these things because of the mythology associated or whether the gospel writers added these stories in to make the point that Jesus was the Son of God. Either way the focus of the miracle is to declare Jesus divinity.

So, Jesus is divine, what of the second point. In the mind of Israelites the sea was seen as a threat, and was associated with images of the deep and of chaos and of death. In Jesus walking on the water he demonstrates not simply a command over nature but over the chaos that opposes God.

In this case the story is essential about the disciples declaration concerning Jesus at the end “Truly you are the Son of God” which is then accompanied by the disciples worshipping him. In this response we might then conclude that the disciples, Peter included, have moved from a place of doubt to position of clarity in faith.

Yet if this were the case then you would expect that from this point onwards the disciples would get it as the followed Jesus, that they would be clear about who Jesus was and their commitment to him. This, however, as we know is not the case. Despite their declaration the disciples still struggle to follow Jesus with integrity – the question, the squabble, they doubt, they desert. Have they really moved to a place of great clarity in faith or not?

So we return to where I began what do we with Jesus notion of Peter’s little faith and how do we understand our own faith and relationship with Jesus, regardless of the culture of faithfulness associated with living on the land.

To gain some insights into this involves exploring a little more closely what actually occurs in the story as Matthew tells it.

We hear the disciples are in a boat, it is in the early in the morning and there is a storm buffeting the boat – interestingly we are not told whether or not the disciples are afraid as they had been when Jesus was asleep with them in the boat. It is into this scene – in the darkness of the early morning, in the midst of a howling gale, and a rocky sea that Jesus comes walking across the water to them – this we are told terrifies the disciples.

This raises all sorts of questions for me about how comfortable we really are in Jesus presence and why it might terrify us but I do not want to get side-tracked into that issue – I want us to concentrate on what occurs in the story.

Jesus tells the disciples that it is him and not to be afraid but the disciples doubt. It is at this point that Peter decides to test Jesus identity. If it is really you command me to come to you on the water.

The more I thought about this request the more troubled it made me as I considered the scene of Jesus temptation – “You shall not put God to the test!” But Peter’s testing of Jesus involves Peter taking the risk, not Jesus.

This creates a conundrum as Jesus says ‘come’ and Peter steps out on to the water. Now it is Peter who is at risk and as we know distracted by the wind he begins to sink. Peter has set out to test Jesus but what is exposed is that Peter has little faith and that he doubts.

What does he doubt? Given that the question revolves around Jesus identity I would have to say that Peter doubts Jesus identity. Paradoxically this doubt of Peter concerning Jesus is set over against Peter’s absolute trust in Jesus as he calls out, from within what has as his little faith, “Lord, save me!”

So as we think about the story Peter’s little faith causes him to doubt and question Jesus identity. Yet it is also Peter’s little faith that gives him the strength to step out onto the water but despite this he still fears and begins to doubt. Just when everything is going pear shaped and Peter sinks it is Peter’s little faith that prompts him to cry out for Jesus to save him.

Does Jesus fail Peter’s identity test? No, in fact the whole boatload of disciples shifts in their perception of Jesus as they worship him and declare him to be the Son of God, at least for the moment. But as we know this is not the end game – in the story to come in Matthew’s gospel we still have the complexity of the confusing behaviour of the disciples.

To return to my initial line of questioning is Peter’s little faith a good or bad thing, or is it just what it is. Whatever we might think what we do discover is that Jesus’ love and concern for Peter and the rest of the disciples survives their doubt of his identity. We find that Jesus love and concern is such that he will stretch and save those who are full of doubt and only have little faith. And that in his love and concern Jesus will continue to walk alongside the disciples as they follow him.

Maybe this is the lesson that we are meant to hear most clearly that Jesus love for us reaches out to us in the midst of our own doubts and fears; in the midst our little faith. This is certainly a message of hope especially to those of us who may get distracted by the wind or the buffeting of the waves.

To have little faith or great faith is not the issue so much as is the idea that Jesus has love and concern for us regardless of the strength of our faith. So as we cling to each other in the boat we call the church let us find some solace and comfort in the calm that Jesus offers, let us not fear Jesus presence but rather celebrate it and let us worship God together.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Which baptism, what school?

Is baptism simply another hoop to jump through so you can get your kids into the right school?

It seems that there are many people who think so.

A friend recently related a story of a Priest who asked a group of 14 couples coming for baptisms whether any were doing it simply to make sure their kids got into Catholic schools. 12 couples put their hands up.

This story reflects 2 dinner party conversations related to me where the conversation revolved around which church baptism led to which church school.

Of course, one can take the view that, even despite cynicism of this approach to infant baptism, it still provides an opportunity for the church to engage with the family and share the unconditional grace of God with those families.

Yet, is the hope of this proclamation taking place enough to retain the integrity of baptism?

I have never said no to parents who are willing to answer the questions within the baptismal liturgy and I always endeavour to help people understand the importance of the promises.

They are making a covenant (promise) with their children and the church, a covenant that they must take responsibility for.

The congregation also makes a covenant to support the parents and children of families come to grow in their faith.

The integrity can, and more often than not is, compromised by parents and congregations that have never really entered into the covenant fully.

So how to answer the question “Which baptism, which school?”

The one baptism of the one church (in Australia 11 churches recognise the common baptism) introduces your child to the school of Jesus Christ.

Baptism initiates children and parents into the life of discipleship, learning from Jesus as the one true teacher par excellence.

Is this not the school baptism draws us in to? Is the expectation of baptism as a requirement for entry into so-called Christian schools idolatry that diverts our attention from the main game? Do we really as baptised people invest enough time at sitting and learning from our master teacher Jesus?

Peter Lockhart

Photo from Creative Commons