Saturday, 30 March 2013

"The Best Easter Ever"?

Last week one of the advertising fliers that we received in or mailbox had on its cover a picture of chocolate Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies. Emblazoned across the top of the page were the words “The Best Easter Ever”. This image struck me as a reflection of the problems of our culture.

We keep hearing childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic in Australia and this is not surprising when we also hear that in recent years Australia has per capita been close to the top consumer of chocolate at Easter. We know too that much, if not most of the chocolate we consume, comes from plantations where young children are forced to work to pick the cocoa beans. Most of us would agree this is slavery.

If these chocolate products represent the “Best Easter Ever” then does this suggest that the best we can do as human beings is exercise our greed and exploitation to our own detriment and the detriment of others. Our ignorance in these deeply serious matters of what we do as a culture, even as Christians, is a sad indictment on our culture and on this day invites us to reflect again on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus; which is about how we live now and our hope for the future.

This morning we heard Paul’s letter to the Corinthians seeking to affirm the reality of the resurrection and its importance. I suspect that many of us we get caught in seeing the cross alone as the redemptive act or we focus on Jesus’ teaching as something to follow and so we see Jesus being raised as simply an affirmation of God’s victory. Yet the resurrection has power in and of itself as part of God’s transformation: how we live now and our hope for the future.

I want to pick up on these two aspects of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus this Easter day in the prayerful hope that in hearing these perspectives something within your life may be changed now and that you might find hope for the future.

So what does the resurrection say about the God’s will for us now and for the creation in general? I began the service this morning by telling the story of the Ragman. For me this is a powerful parable of God’s will expressed in and through Jesus. The implication is that God wants wholeness for people’s lives and in Jesus death he takes the suffering of others into himself and transforms it into wholeness. When he raised Jesus from the dead the scars of the suffering may still have been evident but there has been a renewal.

The resurrection says to us that Jesus prayer that it may be “on earth as it is in heaven” and his words in John 10 that he came “that we might have life and it abundantly” point to God’s concern for us as we live now. Too often I hear Christians express an understanding that they believe in Jesus because they want to go to heaven, or not hell, when they die.

The resurrection and Jesus invitation for the disciples to continue to share the good news says that this life and this world matter to God and that God’s will is for the reconciliation and renewal of this world.

When we see people healed, when we see peace established between warring enemies, when we see dignity restored and communities flourish it may just be that the reality of the resurrection is coming home to us.

Furthermore, when we see oppressions and division, when we hear of hurt and mayhem, when we feel the horror of our own mortality then we might be reminded of Jesus own journey through these things towards resurrection as a sign of hope.

When Jesus is raised from the dead God reminds us that this world matters for in Jesus we see the promise of a renewed creation and if we live as participants of that new creation we live now as people of God’s peace and mercy and love for we have been raised with Christ already and we can bear that hope in all that we say and do, it changes how we live now.

Having emphasised that Jesus’ resurrection is about healing and renewal in this life I also want to affirm it as our hope for the future.

A few years back a Christian lady in her 80s said she did not believe in the resurrection and the idea that death was the end did not trouble her too much. This particular lady had lived in Australia as a well respected middle class person and whilst there has been struggle in her life overall it had been pretty good. Now on one hand it may be a real blessing that she had come to a point of feeling like this, accepting her mortality with such grace, but for me I was left wondering about those who had a much more difficult experience of life.

I wondered about people living in such deep poverty that they had seen children starve to death. I wondered about the ones who died young due to preventable diseases because there were no medical facilities or no cures. I wondered for those embedded in places of war and hatred. I wondered for those who wandered through life filled with anxiety and depression.

Now whilst there is of course the longing for the transformation now that I spoke of before, which accompanies our call to discipleship, the resurrection does indicate that beyond the deepest darkness of death there is something more, that somehow our life with God and each other continues.

What that actually means I do not believe any of us can say with any authority for none of us have been there. However, I believe we hear a hope which transcends death in Jesus rising from the dead and in the promise that we have been raised with. We have a hope in the future.

The resurrection is one of those stories from the Bible which is incredibly difficult to believe and understand but as we contemplate it I believe it gives to us signposts of how we should live now as well as hope for the future beyond death. In the midst of a culture who thinks a few chocolates is the “Best Easter Ever”, it is good to be reminded that against the backdrop of the deep suffering we inflict on both others and ourselves God comes in Jesus to take on our old rags and give us to us new ones: hope that it may indeed by on earth as it is in heaven and that having died with him we will also be raised with him.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A few words for Friday.

What can one say on such a day as this?

In some ways what we have heard speaks for itself. The depth of betrayal and suffering that Jesus endured for our sake is in some ways incomprehensible. Yet, for 2000 years Christians have pondered the text and poured over it – suggesting this reason and that for Jesus death, especially in respect to God’s part in the event. Did God plan it this way? Was it God’s will? Is God’s way of dealing with sin such violence as this infanticide?

Following closely the story we should note that it is Caiaphas who prophesies the need to kill one man in the place of the many. It is Judas who betrays him. And, it is Pilate who ultimately allows the even to occur. Where is God in this picture – once again I recall Jesus words to Philip, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”

For there to be any coherence in the eternal Godhead the Father hangs with Jesus on the cross – the Father is not pitted against the Son, he is with the Son just as Psalm 22 affirms:

he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

So in Jesus’ death the world crucifies God. Humanity nails its creator to the cross. This is the pinnacle of Adam’s grab for divine power. It is a grab for divine power that we all participate in, and some of us even demand.

We want to be the rulers of our own lives and our own destinies and never more so than in our modern age. We have so much power and wealth at out finger tips. There are those who even claim that we are the last mortal generation.

From the renaissance and through the enlightenment up to this present era the West have been laying Christ out on the slab not to rise again but to remain dead! Our culture not only wants to kill God as was done so long ago on the cross but our culture seeks to ensure that he does not rise again. For most Australians their view of Jesus Christ is that rigor mortis has well and truly set in and that there are other far more appealing possibilities in life without God.

Jesus died because we nail our Creator up, because we abandon God on the cross, because we want to leave Christ on the slab.

This is God’s gift to us that though we deserve to return to the nothingness from which we were made, it is he who descended into death and hell to meet us there and bring us home.

Here I do not find an angry God being assuaged by the death of the pure sacrifice, rather I see a God who willingly sacrifices all in opposition to the violence which we demand.

On this day that humanity kills its Creator we remember that in God accepting this end in Jesus there is now nowhere that we go that God has not been before, not even death. And this descent into death in itself is not the last word because Sunday is coming.

Judas: faithfulness to turning away

Gazing across the table Judas watched in fascination as Jesus stripped off his outer robe. Taking a towel he wrapped it around his waist.

Judas wondered what he was up to now. No doubt there will be another lesson here.

There was always a lesson with Jesus - another thing to learn, another mysterious statement, another parable. Everything with him was, well, so deliberate, as if everything hinged on the next word which came out of his mouth. It was always life and death and it had become so confusing for Judas, so dangerous.

As Jesus took the bowl and towel Judas was reminded of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus shouldn’t have spoken to her. It was just wrong. It was unclean and Jesus had kept drawing the disciples in and spiralling them down, down, down into his well of intrigue and mystery.

Something had to be done; someone had to bring some common sense to the situation. Surely not everything the Pharisees and Scribes said was wrong; they were the leaders after all... people chosen by God.

Judas knew the Temple authorities wanted to bring Jesus in for questioning; it had been playing on his mind and weighing on his heart. Was this the right time for Jesus to rise as the Messiah? Maybe if the authorities listened to Jesus, listened properly, they would see sense and back his claim to be the Messiah.

Judas believed in Jesus claim, he would not have kept following if he didn’t. But the stakes were all askew; the risk of losing Jesus into some unpopular obscurity was growing. Maybe, just maybe if they questioned Jesus, they would see sense and follow Jesus too. Then the Romans would really know the power of God – wasn’t this what the scriptures promised the Messiah would do, restore Israel.

But who would let the authorities know where Jesus was? How could the situation be brought to a head? How could Jesus be forced to play his cards more openly and be the Messiah they all wanted him to be?

Judas pondered these questions as Jesus began to wash John’s feet.

John was Jesus favourite, the most loved of the disciples. Yes Peter was their leader, but John and Jesus there just seemed to be a special bond.

Judas caught himself thinking I wish I was that close to Jesus. He remembered the day that Jesus had invited him to be a disciple, to follow, to join, to learn. He had felt special that day and many times since, but he had also grown to feel he was not part of the inner circle.

So often he didn’t quite get what Jesus was on about that’s why Judas had been siphoning away some of the funds, just in case things went south. After all Jesus’ attitude at Lazarus home when Mary wasted that perfume on his feet was simply irresponsible. Jesus had rebuked Judas criticism of the waste.

But Judas wasn’t the only one who struggled with Jesus actions. As he surveyed the others around the table Judas remembered how imperfect they were as well. Even James and John jockeyed for power, as if they were not favourites already. As for Peter he was always questioning what Jesus was up to – once Jesus had even called him Satan.

Just as this thought struck him across the room Peter began arguing with Jesus, again. Peter didn’t want Jesus washing his feet. Judas tried to concentrate as Jesus words about what he was doing seeped into Peter but as always his words seemed elusive, more images and ideas than concrete reality. What did he mean that ‘not all of you are clean’?

The Messiah was supposed to be leading them into power not grovelling at their feet. It just felt wrong.

Jesus moved around the room and came to Judas feet. Tired of being confused Judas stretched out submitting to Jesus’ humble act and let him wash his feet. It was normally the task of a slave but Jesus had kept going on and on about serving others. As Jesus dried off Judas’ feet with the towel around his waist, Judas felt a sense of relief, a release even. It was more than having the grime of the day washed off. Maybe it was simply that the awkwardness of the act was over, but Judas felt as a weight had been lifted.

Finally, Jesus settled again, washing so many feet took time and they were hungry. He kept speaking; he was always speaking, always teaching, but in these last few days even more so as if things were coming to a head.

Judas recalled that the disciples had tried to warn him off a return to Jerusalem but Jesus wouldn’t listen and even now he was speaking in riddles about his demise.

‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’

What did that mean? They had all broken bread with Jesus, they were all his companions!

To Judas, Jesus seemed particularly agitated this night and lying as close as he was to Jesus, just beyond John, he could almost feel Jesus troubles weighing on him as well, he felt like reaching out and taking Jesus hand... a sign of support maybe or reassurance. Judas wondered what the others would think about him doing this so he held back and waited.

Jesus had gone quiet and the disciples cast glances at each other. Judas too looked at the faces of the others.

He could sense their emotions: fear, expectation, curiosity, trepidation and more than a little confusion, but something else too, love. They were an intimate group, they had become close friends on the road together and they looked to Jesus to lead.

Judas had looked to Jesus too; he still wanted to, he wanted to believe in Jesus. He looked at Jesus across the table and their eyes locked for just a moment, a moment which seemed to unfold into eternity for Judas. It was as if he was standing naked before Jesus and Jesus could see his soul.

Judas knew he couldn’t hide his doubts or fears from Jesus, he knew at that moment that Jesus had seen Judas struggle with how to bring things to a head, of how Judas had become more and more confused and disillusioned with Jesus as the Messiah that wasn’t taking God’s people to the glory that he expected. The moment was but a glance but Judas felt as if it were a lifetime, so he dragged his eyes away and cast them down.

A wash of pain seemed to come over Jesus face as Judas looked down and he declared, “Very truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

Around him Judas more felt than saw the disciples looking at one another, suspicion and fear growing in the room to an almost palpable level. Judas fixed his stare at the bread in front of Jesus, it was better than looking into anyone’s eyes.

Peter was gesturing at John, who then leaned back into Jesus chest. John whispered a question but because Judas was close he heard the question too. “Lord who is it?”

As Judas continued to fix his gaze on that bread in front of Jesus, Judas wondered too, wondered if the others had heard the question, wondered who was going to hand Jesus over to the authorities, wondered what would happen if Jesus was handed over.

Secretly this is what Judas had wanted wasn’t it – someone to hand Jesus over so things would come to a head, so that God’s will would be done – that the Messiah would shine for all the world to see.

Jesus replied, “It is the one to whom I give the piece of bread when I have dipped it into the dish.”

Judas who had been gazing at the bread watched as Jesus hand took the bread from the plate and dipped it into the bowl. Who? Who will take on this dreadful responsibility?

And Jesus reached out his hand offering the bread to Judas. Judas thought to himself, the Lord has broken bread for me, we are companions, I must take this bread and I must eat.

As Judas felt the touch of Jesus hand as he was receiving the bread Jesus said under his breath “Do quickly what you are going to do.” There was pain and fear in Jesus words, but trust as well, hope and acceptance as if things were fait accompli.

At that moment Judas knew it was he who had to go against Jesus, he had to go and let the authorities know where Jesus was, he would change the course of what it meant to be faithful by being faithful and obedient to Jesus words to do quickly what he was going to do: to turn away. Surely Jesus knew what he was doing sending him out in such a way.

With a new hope in his heart that Jesus would be the Messiah he had always dreamed Jesus would be Judas left the room and went out into the night. But despite the fullness of the moon and Judas illusory hope a blackness descended around him, a fear and trepidation, which he wore like a cloak as he scurried towards the temple – faithful he believed to Jesus words he would “do quickly” what he was going to do –this dark and terrible thing to betray Jesus.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Faith: not certianty... journey!

by Peter Lockhart

“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” And, why is this woman at Jesus feet so inappropriately with her hair unbound? Why is the smell of perfume so strong? And why is Lazarus there? And Martha? Why is the Passover mentioned?

And even if we can get to the bottom of all of these questions, how will it help you and I as people living the faith in 2013?

Each week as I prepare the sermon I wonder how what is said will help you live the faith. It is my hope and prayer that you will have gained a new insight to help you in living the faith as you read and refelct on this.
So what can we get from this passage, which flops about like a fish out of water, with all its questions, to help us live the faith.

During the week as I contemplated the story, with all its questions, through the lens of light of living the faith, I was struck by the notion that faith is not about certainty it is about journey.

Faith and doubt are not opposites but companions; in our relationship with God truth and understanding are like slippery eels we grasp after, as Paul says for now we only see through a dark glass, it is only later we will see God face to face.

With this in my mind I want to explore three of the characters within the story that we heard and hopefully by looking at their journeys find something to help us in living the faith.

The passage that we read today is part of a longer story beginning in chapter 11 and it revolves around the person of Lazarus. At the beginning of our passage from chapter 12 we are told ‘Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him... and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.’

In this sense the focus character of the 2 chapters appears to be Lazarus, but what do we know about his journey? The answer is very little. Despite being raised from the dead we actually hear nothing from Lazarus lips. Lazarus has journeyed into death and the story sets him tantilisingly in front of the audience but leaves us with our questions.

How did he die? Did he know he was dead? What did it feel like when he woke from being dead? How does he feel now? What did he experience? Has dying changed his view of living?

None of our questions are answered. Lazarus journey remains more than a bit of a mystery.

Yet Lazarus sits as a guest at the meal; he is a sign and symbol that death can be defeated and is no longer the last word.

Lazarus' journey into death and life again is a precursor to the journey of death and resurrection that Jesus himself will take. It reminds us that God, in Jesus, willing accompanies us through all of the experiences we will face.

There is a sense in which Lazarus' resurrection also reminds us that Jesus' resurrection, as important as it is, is not necessarily the most unique aspect of his journey, rather there is more to Jesus than saying he rose from the dead.

When we look at this central figure of Lazarus I suspect he had far more difficulty in making sense of his experience than we do and had just as many questions, but that Jesus' journey mirrors Lazarus is a matter of faith and hope for us all.

We are left questions, but Lazarus' journey and more importantly Jesus' journey alongside him are a source of hope: faith is not about certainty it is about journey, a journey from death into new life.

Whilst Lazarus may appear to be the focal character of the event, having been raised from the dead, Mary is a central character from the outset. In anticipation of the story we heard today, at the beginning of chapter 11, the context of Lazarus is given; he is the brother of Mary, who anointed Jesus feet.

Already, John is trying to get his listeners to consider Mary’s role through the Lazarus story.

As the broader story unfolds when Jesus comes to Bethany he is first greeted by Martha, Lazarus other sister, who then goes to fetch Mary from home.

When Mary comes out and sees Jesus she falls at his feet but not with perfume and love, she falls at his feet in grief and accusation, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’

There is faith in this statement that Jesus could have acted but there is also a sense of judgement, a questioning of why? It is a question that many of us will ask through our lives. Why did you let this happen Lord? Why me?

Here again we find more questions than answers, there is uncertainty about suffering and death and the grief it causes.

Jesus response is to share Mary’s journey. According to John’s story, Jesus already knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead but now in the moment of Mary’s grief Jesus too is filled with compassion. John tells us, ‘Jesus wept.’

Contrary to the famous last words of St Francis, 'Welcome sister death’, we see the depth of God’s love and concern for us in the journey of death and mourning. God weeps when he sees the pain that we experience when someone dies.

Yes, Lazarus rising gives us a new hope. Yes, Jesus own resurrection declares that death is not the final word. Yet, God still weeps in the face of the mystery of the loss and sadness death brings. In Jesus, God knows our pain.

The scene moves from Mary with her tears and accusation to the tomb where Lazarus is raised, then transitions through the plotting of the Jewish leaders and into the celebration dinner where Mary appears again at Jesus’ feet. Here there is an echo of the scene before.

It feels like the culmination of the story which began in chapter 11 which foreshadowed this action of Mary. But now her actions express generosity and love, and thanksgiving and tenderness. The unbinding of Mary’s hair is an incredibly intimate and would have been thought inappropriate as she wiped away the excess oil with her own hair.

There are a range of interpretations of Mary’s action by scholars at this point. Was she aware of Jesus impending death? Was she anointing him for the burial to come? Was she anointing him as a king? Was it simply an overblown foot washing, welcome Jesus into her home? Is it preparing us for Jesus own action of washing the disciples feet? Is Mary’s intimacy too much, too sensual?

Which of these it may have been remains unclear to me but Jesus interprets her actions into his own impending death. The smell of the perfume accompanying the celebration contrasts the stench of death, mentioned earlier in chapter 11 as the came to Lazarus tomb. The perfume suggests the fragrance of life and hope surpasses the odour of the tomb.

Jesus’ accepts her gift and shares openly her generous act just as he had shared her grief earlier on. It appears Jesus willingly accepts the journey she is on with the range of emotions and whilst questions may remain his love for her is evident. Her faith is not about certainty it is about journey, Jesus journey with her through the range of emotions she experiences.

Finally, we turn to the complex character of Judas. In this scene we hear from Judas what seems to be quite a reasonable question. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Of course John lets us into the secret motivations of Judas setting him out as the villain of the story, but is he really?

The journey of Judas is one of the most difficult to deal with in the gospels. Chosen by Jesus to follow, it seems he is destined from the outset to hand Jesus over to the authorities.

In John’s gospel when this occurs the word used for the so called betrayal is associated less with betrayal and more with the handing over of a temple sacrifice. He has a part to play, an unsavoury part no doubt, but if the death of Jesus is inevitable can Judas be held accountable?

Is Judas any guiltier of turning away than Peter in his threefold denial? Or Caiaphas, described as a prophet in chapter 11, in his pursuit of Jesus to become a sacrifice on behalf of the nation? Is he guiltier than Pilate who washed his hands? Or the soldiers who scourged Jesus and nailed him to a cross? Is he guiltier than Thomas in his doubt?

Judas has a solitary and sad journey and whilst John paints him here as villainous in his motivations it appears that his journey is one journey among many others heading away from God and that in his unfaithfulness to Jesus, he will play his part in the grand scheme of salvation.

Whilst Judas hidden motivations are revealed it could be argued that this makes him no worse than many of the other characters in the story and we sit with the uneasy knowledge that Jesus, despite knowing that Judas would betray, him does not intervene either to alleviate Judas of his terrible part nor to interfere with where Judas actions will lead Jesus.

Can we be certain that Judas journey leads to condemnation for Judas when it appears that in his own way he fulfils what is necessary to lead Jesus to the cross? Judas continues to journey beside Jesus and Jesus with Judas. Faith is not about certainty it is about journey, Jesus journey alongside even those who betray him.

The journey of Jesus with Lazarus, from death to life, with Mary, through her emotions and experience, and with Judas, who so obviously turns away can give to us hope in our own lives as we seek to be people living the faith in 2013.

We can find hope that as we confront the mystery of life and death and the hope of new life that God journeys with us. We can find hope that in the midst of our sorrows and celebrations God feels our emotions and journeys with us. We can find hope that in the moments we find ourselves travelling away from God Jesus is still with us in the midst of our confusion.

Sometimes the questions of our faith remain questions and we do not find answers. We cannot prove empirically what we believe by faith yet we can declare our hope that alongside us in our journey through life God is with us and knows the depth of what we are encountering because Jesus journeyed with people, who though from a different time and place, in many ways are just like us.

This is good news, it was good news for Lazarus, it was good news for Mary, and in some mysterious way I believe it was good news for Judas, so too I believe it is good news for us. Faith is not about certainty it is about journey, the journey of Jesus with you and I: wherever, whenever and however we might find ourselves.

(Image Daniel Hartmann Creative Commons)

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Shame: God exposes Legs!

The Prodigal Son: by Peter Lockhart

Today we heard the parable usually referred to us the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’. It is a reasonably well known Biblical story and one which is quite popular to teach kids – it makes a good story. The problem with it being treated like a moral tale for kids is it sets up long term Sunday School thinking about the meaning of the story.

This morning I want us to dig a little deeper into this parable and consider again its meaning and whether it may need a new title and just note that whilst Jesus did tell this story in response to the grumblings, when we look back at the gospel we notice that Jesus has already told 2 stories on the theme already: the lost sheep & the lost coin.

Turning now to the parable, to begin with I want to invite 3 people to put themselves in the role of the Pharisees and Scribes. You can come and sit here. Now it is important to understand why Jesus told his story, or to be technical it’s context.

These Pharisees and Scribes were critical of Jesus associations with tax collectors and sinners, and when you read sinners here you may very well read into this: prostitutes.

The Pharisees and Scribes are often found to be in a bad light in the gospels but the reality is that these were the moral and spiritual bastions of their time – our equivalent would be the ‘pillars of the church’, lay and ordained.

As the moral and spiritual guardians they believed that by hanging out with sinners Jesus holiness was becoming contaminated, or in their words he was becoming ‘unclean’. Being unclean meant that the contamination that Jesus carried would exclude him from engaging in spiritual activities and that he could also contaminate others.

It was like our mother’s concern about any of us ‘running with the wrong crowd’, except the implications were far worse.

In response to this quite legitimate concern of the Pharisees and Scribes, given their understanding, Jesus tells the following story.

Before I move to the story I also want a group of disciples. This is the other audience to Jesus parable. Men and women who have already decided to follow Jesus and are trying to make sense of what that could mean.

We need someone to be the father, and two sons.

To help your understanding of the story it is important to know that the Jewish culture of the time was what could loosely be described as an honour-shame culture. The honour of a family within the community was an important marker of place and identity and in this kind of culture what one member of the family did had ramifications for the rest.

Jesus tells his listeners that the younger of the 2 sons decides to go out alone and asks for his share of the inheritance. We might find this offensive that a son would ask for his share before his dad is in the grave but during Jesus time this was not an uncommon thing. A younger son, especially a younger son, might ask for his share earlier.

Before the younger Son goes off I want to put the older son to work over here, a loyal and faithful child out working his father’s fields.

The son, we are told, goes off into a far country, which is here near the entrance of the church. There he has parties and uses his money in ways that are well to put it bluntly wasteful: which is what the word prodigal actually means.

So deep is the financial mess that the son digs himself into is that he has to find work to meet his basic needs. And so he gets a job feeding pigs.

Remember Jesus is specifically telling this story to help the Pharisees and Scribes understand Jesus own behaviour and this image of the younger son feeding pigs would have been particularly abhorrent.

According to Jewish law and tradition pigs were unclean animals, so much that it was forbidden to eat pork. The boy is so hungry that we are told he wanted to take the food from the pigs to eat!

The younger son comes to the realisation that even his father’s servants are treated better than this so he determines to go home, ask for forgiveness and become a hired hand for his father.

So the son begins his journey home from the far country with his plan to beg for mercy, forgiveness and a job.

This is where the story gets really interesting and really confronting because it is pretty clear to anyone that the father in the story is meant to represent God.

The father on seeing the son on his way home jumps up, and get this, he runs towards the younger son, embracing him.

This may not seem like much to us but a man who ran like this in Jesus time would have been bringing shame on himself. It was below his station and more than that in the act of running he would have exposed his legs in a way which would have been considered indecent.

I am reminded at this moment in the story of when King danced with such joy and enthusiasm that his robes also flew up inappropriately.

The father risks bringing shame on himself in order to greet the son. This is the depth of his love; he is willing to shame himself and expose his legs, even before the son has offered his confession.

This is the other salient point before the father knows what the son is about to do he welcomes him home with exuberance.

The son offers his apology but in the face of the onslaught of the father’s love and compassion the offering of the son is almost lost in the father’s eagerness to order a new robe for the son, to offer him a ring and to order a feast be prepared.

Everything that is happening in this story is challenging the bedrock of the Pharisees and Scribes understanding of God’s relationship with the world. God does not want to exclude the unclean and unholy but embrace them and welcome them home.

This is a difficult thing to understand and the older son who is working in the field, doing the right thing, as it were, now comes back into the picture.

The older son on discovering what is happening refuses to go into the celebration; he judges both his brother and also his father harshly for their actions. Once again the father’s compassion and love enlarges to embrace the older son as well. The father affirms the older son’s actions and reminds him of how much they have shared, saying, ‘all that is mine is yours.’

The older son is not reproached but the father with gentle understanding and compassion reaches out to draw him into the celebration as well.

The message is confronting as Jesus is affirming the efforts of his critics, the Pharisee and Scribes, as well as letting them know that God’s love is big enough to transcend the boundaries, imagined or otherwise, between the holy and the unholy.

Now I do not want to deny that there is a clear association between the older son and the Pharisees and Scribes, nor between the father in the story and God. The younger son though is a bit of a conundrum and there could be a clear danger for us to begin to read ourselves into the younger son.

So often our approach to these stories is like Narcissus at his pool, trapped staring into the pool seeking our own reflection. But here I think there is another approach.

There is an ancient tradition of interpretation that associates the younger son with Jesus. The younger son represents Jesus journey from exclusively divine being into the far country of created existence. He associates himself with our prodigal existence, wasteful of God’s love and the wonder of creation; he goes to a place that is Godforsaken, not feeding pigs but on the cross. And then, rising from the grave he returns to the Father where he is welcomed with joy and as he returns we journey with him into the Father’s embrace.

Now if we return to the other 2 parables which precede this one they are stories in which God seeks out that which is lost, lost sheep and lost coins. I believe in this parable Jesus elucidates just how far God is prepared to go to find us – God will journey in Jesus to the far country of our existence to include us.

For the Pharisees and Scribes this means adjusting their worldview to the possibility that Jesus association with tax collectors and sinners is not about him becoming unclean but an expression of God’s reaching out in love.

For the disciples who want to follow Jesus, not only is there a warning not to become Pharisees and Scribes, but there is an invitation to follow Jesus to the margins, to the places that we may think of as God forsaken and with Jesus declare good news to those who are lost.

At the beginning of the sermon I suggested maybe a renaming of this story.  Maybe it could be more focussed as the Loving Father or Everyone's invited but I think I like the confrontation with th idea God would go as far as to shame himself to welcome us home so I like "God exposes his legs!" I know it is a bit obscure but it turns the parable and its interpretation in a different direction - God's movement to us.
We believe in a God who runs to meet us in Jesus, risking shame, exposing his legs, because love and mercy and compassion flow so deeply that the shame is more than worth. We believe in a God who would not only dine with tax collectors and sinners but clothe them and provide the feast. The good news is that we believe in a God who loves us and all people this much. Take a moment to consider God’s word to you this day.

Photo Creative Commons

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Identity, Journey, Future

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,

and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

When I began thinking about this service to celebrate the commencement of university and looked at the readings the first phrase that popped out at me was this one.

I have to confess that when I lie awake in the watches of the night it is not usually because my soul is satisfied and I am filled with joyful praise.

When I lie awake it is usually because I am filled with worries – ‘Who I am?’ ‘Where am I going?’ ‘Will I do the right thing in tomorrow’s meeting?’

Apparently, my inability to sleep is not an uncommon problem. So often when we are weighed heavily by issues of identity or purpose or meaning they keep us up at night.

It seemed pertinent then to take a theme for the service which might lead us in a different direction in our worrying and in it seemed relevant given we are considering the process of learning and formation that occurs in young people through university to focus on three topics: Identity, Journey and Future.

Who am I?
Where am I going?
What is in store for my life?

Now at the beginning of the service I hopefully pricked your interest in the call to worship as I handed out a number of what might have seemed obscure objects.

I am going to use the objects to help explore these issues of Identity, Journey & Future.

The first item I gave out was a mirror. As we search for our own identity the way we view ourselves is I believe monumentally influential.

When any of us look into the mirror who do we see? How deeply do we see who we are? Can we see our past: failures & successes? Do we see the inner thoughts of our hearts and souls? Do we like what we see?

Sometimes looking into mirror is fraught with danger because what we see and come to believe about ourselves can be detrimental to our self and to others.

Maybe looking into the mirror is not enough in discovering our identity.

Now somewhere there is a camera.

If you want evidence that you came to church for your parents I will take a photo now.

I chose camera to get you to think about how others view you. So often the way we feel about ourselves and think about our lives is determined by the attitudes of other, be it our friends and family or be it the culture that has developed around us.

I think the camera is a good choice to get us to think about this because so often what we see on screens & in magazines infects our minds. We live in a culture which at its heart teaches us that to have a good life we must be happy and then continually tells us that if we do not have certain things we cannot be happy.

I know Isaiah’s culture was vastly different to our own but his question still rings entirely true: “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”

Just as finding our identity by looking into a mirror is limited so too finding our identity in the opinion of others is fraught with difficulties.

Let me share a perspective with you on your identity that may add another dimension. Here I have a set of heart shaped glasses. Glasses which for me represent the eyes of love through which God views us.

Fundamental to my understanding of God and my life is that God loves as I am, despite what I might think about myself, despite what others might want to tell me about who I am, God loves me.

For many years now I have critiqued the idea of self-esteem as inadequate for the resilience needed in life. For me this resilience comes not from within myself and how I view myself at any point in time but in the constant reminders I received from the community of faith that God loves, God loves me, and God loves you... deeply, insistently, constantly, unconditionally. It is God’s view of me and of you that can so shape our identity as people who are loved.

This brings me to the second topic of Journey! I have a compass and a map to represent the idea that our life is a journey.

I think that more often than not we think that we have to go it alone. The compass and map reminded me of the old craft of orienteering as individual set out through the terrain to find the markers on their journey. Maybe the lonely individual geocaching in their room and then heading out is more contemporary version of this.

But are we really alone on our journey?

In the reading from John we heard about the sending of the Holy Spirit, and Advocate to teach us, but more than this, the Spirit binds our lives to God’s life and to one another’s lives.

I have here a knife and fork to represent that we are community. In many cultures meal sharing and hospitality is a way of establishing community. I have a personal belief that I break bread with another person, when I share a meal, my relationship with them is changed. Literally the origins of the word companion means ‘with’ ‘bread’.

God joins our lives into one another’s lives that we might be companions on the journey of life. This means both being available to one another and also being prepared to seek out others when we need help. All of us are part of different communities the strength of which relies on your commitment to being part of those communities, the willingness you have to give yourself to others and to receive from them.

Now whilst there is uniqueness to each of our lives and the journeys we are on we should also know that others have gone on similar journeys before us and most importantly, God in the person of Jesus has journeyed through life as well. We are certainly not alone on our journey.

This brings me to the question that Thomas’ asks, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’

This is a question of both our journey and our future and it is to the future I now turn.

Part of my reading in preparation for this week has been the book “Out of our minds: learning to be Creative” by the English educationalist Sir Ken Robinson.

I have a clock here which represents the linear understanding time that I think is present in Robinson’s book. Robinson argues that to move ahead into the future in our systems of our education we must stop looking back at the past. His critique of our contemporary educational approaches certainly has some food for thought but I wonder what future he is looking towards and how we as Christian people might understand the relationship between the past, our future and the present.

The Hebrew people had a sense of walking through history looking backwards. They looked backwards to identify signs of God’s faithfulness in the past to give them hope for the future. There is still a linear understanding of the movement of time here.

But as Christian people I think we might view time a little bit differently. Yes, we still look back but we look back to a specific event in history which in its way transcends history. Can I have the bike wheel.

There are a number of theologians like John Calvin, T.F. Torrance and Wolfhart Panneberg who have grappled with God’s relationship with time as a created thing. The analogy which I find most helpful is that whilst our experience of time might be linear God experience is like the centre of a wheel, because God stands outside time. God relates to all points of time from the centre. That’s
We look back to the death and resurrection of Jesus for when we see the risen Jesus we are catching a glimpse not simple of the past but of the future. In the passage from John once again we read, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”

Jesus departs from the disciples in order that he might travel to them from the future.

What this means for us as Christians is that we look back into the past where we encounter the story of Jesus, who is raised from the dead and goes to be with God, beyond time. Yet Jesus promise is that he is coming to us, so it is that looking into the past we see the future, centred on resurrection and recreation, and encounter that future not yet arrived in our present.

We celebrate this promised future when we share bread and wine, signs yes of Jesus death, but also a foretaste of the promised life to come.

The future that we look to is not a future simply dominated by possible climate catastrophes, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence and all the wonders and terrors we might bring about as humanity but a future in which we will know the fullness of our identities as loved, that we will celebrate the journey of life that we have been given and that we will be embraced by the promise of peace and shared lives for eternity with God.

So as you lie awake in the watches of the night, maybe concerned about who you are or where you are going or any of the myriad of questions that may be connected to these things maybe you can find some space and maybe I can as well to remember that God views through eyes of love, that we are not alone on our journey and that our destination is a place where the fullness of God’s life and peace will be shared with all people.

This is the good news of God’s love and I invite you now to contemplate for a few moments your identity, your journey and the promise of the future which God gives to us.

3Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.