Thursday, 27 March 2014

Driving out the blind man.

John 9:1-41

“And they drove him out.”

Undoubtedly these are the saddest words in the story of the healing of the blind man.

The Pharisees having dragged the healed man in for questioning reject his witness and ostracise him.  This man who had lived his life blind, begging as a marginalised member of the Jewish community is healed and then through no fault of his own re-dealt the same cards.  His lot in life remains on the edges of the community determined by those who hold power and influence. Their words effectively damn him:

‘”You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.’

The contrast between this story and the story of the woman at the well is remarkable.  The Samaritan woman, estranged in her own community, is able to share the good news of Jesus and people respond whereas the Jewish blind man is more or less dragged in, vilified and thrown out.  In the blind man’s own words the Pharisees would not listen.

How ironic are these words of accusation given that when the disciples had asked the question about the man’s sin and his blindness Jesus had declared: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

The correlation between a person’s lot in life and their sinfulness is brought into stark relief in this story and a challenge is issued to the traditional views of the time – sickness and misfortune were not necessarily to be viewed as a consequence of sin.

Whilst the story revolves around a particular healing event it is clear that John is also seeking to explore deeper issues concerning Jesus.  How to live life in relationship with God and to see God’s ways?  The final few verses of the passage underline this paradoxical situation in which those who claim to see – cannot.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

The claim by the Pharisees to be able to ‘see’ indicates their misunderstanding concerning Jesus identity and a denial of God’s miraculous works occurring through him. This issue aside their inability to recognise the blind man and his identity is also something of a concern.

One Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer remarks on her blog. 

It may be that the most damning point this Sunday's gospel has against Jesus' accusers is one that we easily miss: they did not know the blind man who was healed.

He sat and begged there daily, and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn't be sure of who he was -- others had to fetch his parents before they could be sure of the identification

Maybe it is that when we associate sin and suffering too closely, or when we assume that our prosperity is due entirely to our own efforts whilst others suffering is due to their sin, laziness or ineptitude, that we can turn a blind eye to what is occurring in the life of others who are right under our nose.  The man would have begged in the temple courtyard but the Pharisees did not see him.

We as people who claim to have seen Jesus and been transformed should hear the words of Paul to the Ephesians as an invitation or maybe even an injunction to live as people who were blind and can now see:

Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

As the days and weeks of Lent go by I am personally being challenged more and more in my own faith as to the lifestyle that I live as I ask myself ‘where are the blind spots in my life?’, ‘where am I turning a blind eye to those in need?’  These are uncomfortable questions and unless the discrepancies between how I live and how I am being called to live are exposed by the light of Jesus love it is too easy to go on living in the humidicrib of this wealthy and so called enlightened Australian culture.

Last week I watched a confronting documentary available free on the web called “Home”.  It is made by the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Home depicts the history and plight of this earth we call our home.

The cinematography is beautiful, the message confronting.  It raises questions which have been themes in my preaching concerning the care of our environment, pollution, deforestation, depletion of fish stocks, global warming, over consumption and the like.

Whilst I do not believe doomsday saying is necessarily that helpful recognising inequity and the seriousness of global issues is certainly a responsibility of us as Christians, more so as people, who were given dominion over the creation.

With this in mind I was lead to considering the 7 deadly sins which have been a part of the churches history since the fourth century.  Whilst they may have not been a part of the protestant tradition I was struck by 3 which seem to confront me in terms of my responsibility to live as a child of the light and where my blindness might lie and need more healing.

Gluttony and
Acedia, usually called sloth

It is not difficult to make the connections.  Our overconsumption of goods in the west and desire to own more are grounded in an economic system built on the phrase made famous by Gordon Gecko “Greed is good.”  Advertising is designed to have us buy things we do not need, when we buy the next item are we not simple buying more stuff, are we giving in to greed?

In my mind gluttony is one expression of our greed, an expression that many of us fail to recognise.  The great Indian philosopher Ghandi once said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed”.  The distribution and availability of food on our planet is a massive issue as millions go hungry every day.

Acedia or sloth is not simply laziness or lethargy but not doing good.  It is the sins of omission – the things we don’t do that we should.  Seeing the suffering of the nameless millions and like the Pharisees failing to recognise that here is a person who is just as loved, just as valued in God’s eyes, who may need our help means that as enlightened as we might think we are we are still blind.

When we live in the light of God’s love, when we like the blind man can say I once was blind but know I see, we see not just physically but we see through the eyes of people who hope in a coming kingdom of justice and peace and love and equity. 

It is interesting to note that in his great hymn “Amazing Grace” John Newton captured the words of the blind man.  Of course we who know the history of the hymn know that the blindness of John Newton from which he was set free was his blindness to the evils of the slave trade.  Newton’s encounter with Jesus, his healing from blindness, leads him to become an activist and advocate in the context of the tyranny of his age and ours as well: slavery.

This of course raises the issue for me what are the key social, economic, religious and political issues of our day and age that God is calling us to respond to. How are we to live faithfully, seeing, hearing and obeying?

Seeing again brings a response in how we live.  It begins for the blind man in his belief in Jesus and in his worship of Jesus.  But the witness of the New Testament and of Christian history is that an encounter with Jesus also leads to a transformed way of living, a way which may brings us into conflict with the powers of this world and the way things are done. 

Of course we may hesitate to change our lives because we ask ourselves ‘Can one person really change the world?’  My answer to this would generally be ‘no’ but the issues for me is whether I believe I am living as a faithful witness to God’s love in Jesus and the promise of renewed creation.

It is possible that the consequence of living our lives in God’s time, we will find not a welcoming embrace in our community, but that like the blind man, we are ostracised.  In fact, I sometimes find it surprising that more Christians do not find themselves being driven out by a community which is largely not Christian.  But, if we see as Jesus calls us to see, and, if we live as our faith drives us to live, then it only makes sense that we will live differently to others.

For, if we revel in singing the words “I once was blind but now I see”, we should also live as children of the light, because we have been healed and set free by the immense and unending grace of God that has touched our lives.  

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Is the Lord with us or not?

Reflections on Exodus 17 & John 4

“Is the Lord with us or not?”  How common a question is this? 

In the story from the book of Exodus we are told this is what the people of Israel were asking, “Is the Lord with us or not?”  At the first sign of trouble in many of our lives this is one of the first questions that slip from our lips as if we have been abandoned to some terrible fate that others excluded from.  Sometimes it is expressed differently in the words, “What have I done to deserve this?”

Of course, the reality is that people everywhere, those of great faith and those of none, face various trials in their life, or as Jesus puts it God, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Trying to make a connection between these trials of life and God’s actions is a complex and mysterious matrix to traverse, to the point at which many in our so called enlightened western community prefer to ask the question, “Is there a Lord or not?”

The source of such questions is based on whatever our personal understanding of God is.  Do we believe in a god who micro manages our lives; opening doors for us; providing opportunities; or’ trials and tests as if all according to God’s plan? Or, do we believe that the world is independent of God’s action, and that we have freedom in our decisions, and there is a certain ordered randomness of the natural events which occur around us?

Maybe it is we because we ask such questions of God and ourselves that we find ourselves here this morning, not because we are people who have discovered the answers, rather because we are people still searching for answers – in this sense we quarrel with God.

But if we are to listen to Jesus teaching and to be followers of Jesus there are all sorts of questions raised by what he says and does.

Consider for a moment the story of the woman at the well.  The circumstance of her interaction with Jesus suggests she is a woman who might indeed have some significant questions for God about how her life has unfolded.  Her conversation with Jesus certainly indicates that this is the case, but her questioning also involves a desire to listen and to find out more.

Jesus for his part thought speaks in cryptically symbolic language about living water and he names one of the key issues of her life:

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

There is a danger in listening for what Jesus might say to any of us, because it is more than likely he will name some home truths about who we are and what we have done in our lives, despite the fact we may see ourselves as faithful church attendees.

Jesus constantly had jibes for those who considered themselves to be the upstanding members of the Jewish community – the so called holy people of his day: the Scribes and Pharisees.  We should be wary of thinking that Jesus’ jibes do not apply to us because consider ourselves holy people.

For example, Jesus raised serious questions about the distribution of wealth and power and given that everyone in this room is rich we must hear Jesus words to the rich young man as particularly confronting “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”

Moreover, Jesus preserved his blessings for those who were poor, those who were hungry, those who were mourning and those who were in prison.

And Jesus injunction to those who follow him was that they should go and share the good news in word and deed teaching others so that the world might come to believe.

The Jesus that many of us would want to follow is an upright citizen who would not ruffle feathers or cause us to question our position and place.  However, the Jesus who the woman meets at the well is the same Jesus who turns over the tables in the temple: he challenges but the religious, economic, social and political systems of his time.

Put bluntly we have sought to domestic Jesus so that following him does not cost us too much. 

I think that John includes the questions that are not asked of Jesus and the woman by the disciples precisely because they were the questions on their minds “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

In short the disciples were offended.  Part of the irony of the story is that it is the woman with whom Jesus has had this chance encounter that goes off the to share the good news of her experience with Jesus whilst Jesus is teaching the disciples that this is precisely what they are supposed to be doing, “see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”

The Samaritans of Sychar believe the woman’s story and up the ante proclaiming that Jesus is not only the Messiah but he is indeed the Saviour of the world.  Given the tension between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus day this is an amazing outcome from the story, one that questions the very core of the disciple’s beliefs and ideas about their own religion.

Ultimately, the promise of the woman at the well is that Jesus is with us, Jesus is with unexpected people in unexpected placed.  Or, to go back to Exodus, the Lord is with us. This is the hope that we cling to despite our inadequacies as Jesus disciples that God is with us, that God is for us and that the future which is unfolding is God’s future. 

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Rampant Lions: Confusing Gods!

A sermon on Psalm 121 preached at Cromwell College UQ

As you came into the Chapel this morning, if you looked back, you may have seen the Cromwell College logo on the end of the dining hall.  I can remember on more than one occasion looking up to that symbol during my years as a resident here at Cromwell.

Cromwell College shieldNow as I prepared for today’s service the image of the Rampant Lion got me thinking about Oliver Cromwell, the so called Lord Protector.  The person the College is named after.  It was this that led me to the sermon theme, “Rampant Lions: Confusing Gods”. 

But a sermon is not a history lesson but as I said before is an opportunity to reflect on God speaking to us through the words of scripture.  So, as I was looking at the readings set down for the day, I kept coming back to Psalm 121 and its very first line:

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

This line has some powerful ancient imagery associated with it.

This Psalm is one of a group of the Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent.  What this means is that, this Psalm is one of a group of Psalms that were sung or recited, as the Jewish people travelled to Jerusalem for the festivals at the temple: maybe, Yom Kippur or Pentecost.  They were sung to prepare people’s hearts and minds for the religious event in Jerusalem.

The reason this first line of the Psalm comes as a question is not surprisingly because that is exactly what it is: from where will my help come?

Anyone who has travelled through southern Europe and the Middle East may have noticed what is on many hills in those regions.

Temples!  There are temples to the Greco-Roman Gods to Mars and to Venus, to Aphrodite, to Zeus and to Apollo and shrines to other minor deities.  You can imagine the dusty travellers literally looking to the hills, seeing the plethora of belief systems of gods on offer:  I lift my eyes to the hills – and there is Apollo and there is Zeus! ‘From where will my help come?’ they ask.  In response to the alternatives they are reminded of their faith and their history.  Will my help come from any of these no, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

This statement is loaded in its spiritual and theological meaning. The Hebrew people told a different story about creation to other ancient cultures.  They wrote down their story during the time of the Babylonian captivity, over 600 years before Christ.  It is a story that stands in contrast to other ancient world views about a single unoriginated God who made everything.  It seems logical somewhere back there is one single coherent cause of all things, an ultimate truth: God.

This is the God in whom the pilgrims put their faith and it is the same God we come to worship on this day.  It is also the same God made more fully know and present in the world by Jesus.

Yet, despite this allegiance to the creator of all things how we think about that God and how we might follow that God are certainly questions which are up in the air.  As human beings there is always a limit to our comprehension of god and the world we live in, so it is that more often than not our portrayal of God is unhelpful.

To given an example of this let me return to Oliver Cromwell and his symbol, the rampant lion.  What kind of God is found in the legacy of Cromwell?

Cromwell was a puritan and a devout man: he opposed the celebration of Christmas; he shut down theatres; he was deeply concerned about drinking; he prayed fervently; and, he certainly had a sense he had been called by God to what he was doing.

Yet the rampant lion reveals something of his understanding of God, the creator of all things, as a God who supported violence and war.  Cromwell was involved in the English Civil of the mid 1600s, where he rose through the ranks to become a leader.  He was involved in decision to execute the King, Charles I and he led campaigns in Ireland and Scotland.

The negative impact of his life is still felt today.  Just the other night I was down at the school chatting about my weekend with a couple of parents who just happen to Irish, so I mentioned Oliver Cromwell.  Immediately, the both declared “To Hell or to Connaught” and went on to explain how hated Cromwell was in Ireland and how he is still held responsible for much the angst and anger of the Irish against the English.  Almost, 400 years later this negative legacy holds.

Just to fill in a tiny glimpse of his Irish campaign Cromwell led the English army into Ireland to subdue the Irish, especially the Catholics.  It is reported at the siege of Drogheda and of Wexford his army committed massacres killing somewhere around 6000 people.  Among those killed at Wexford were many women and children.

After Drogehda Cromwell famously said, “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches.”

When we look to the hills, as the Psalmist invites us to, and see the alternatives and when we are presented with Christian history in which we encounter such images of people that followed God like Cromwell what do we do?

Is this the God of whom the pilgrims sang? A God that condones violence and bloodshed and even encourages it?  A God who could very well be represented by a rampant lion?  After all Psalm 137 finishes with these disturbing words:

“O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!”

If this is the God we believe in, the God that Cromwell believed justified the violence of his troop’s actions, then I wonder what hope there is for the church.  And I am little surprised when most of my contemporaries look to the hills and see other options as far more palatable.  Not so much other Gods but other choices about the worldview they well adopt.

It is little wonder that the inheritors of the work of thinkers like d’Holbeck and Marx and Nietzsche people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and A C Grayling have so great an appeal. 

The conundrum that I am speaking of, which we are participants in, might be more simply expressed in the fact that our congregation has too many vacant seats on a Sunday and that chapels like this one are rarely used for worship.  Churches are closing in Australia and only around 6-7% of Australians actively engage their faith by involvement in regular worship.

Can we here still look to the hills and choose to put our trust in the Lord who made heaven and earth?  I think the answer is yes and I believe the door has been left open even by the new atheists to look to the creator of heaven and earth.

A few years back atheists in England took out advertising on buses in England.  On the bus are the words, “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  ironically, by saying ‘probably’ ‘ they leave the room for the possibility that there might still be a God.

The answer is yes but I also believe it is an answer which comes with humility.  We must admit that there are times we do not know and cannot express the fullness of our creator and, more than that, that through our history misinterpreting this God has led to much heartache and pain.  we need to listen carefully to the story of this God and shaping our understanding of the creator of all things is the story of Jesus.  The appearance of Jesus in our human history and in our lives is undoubtedly a touchstone for us.

In the few verses I read from the New Testament we heard what for many is a well know phrase in the words of John 3:16.  It is a phrase grounded in this God’s love by sending Jesus into the world and we are told that this occurs because: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The creator’s intention, the one to whom we look, is a God not interested in condemnation, and might I dare to suggest punishment and violence against others, but in salvation.  This God is about all people living in the fullness of life and in the gift of community within the creation.  In Jesus there is a vision and an encounter with the maker of all things which gives us hope because we believe, ‘in him all things in heaven and on earth and have been reconciled’.  This is a message of hope for everyone.

The other day I was talking with the young woman who was making my coffee at Briki.  Many of the congregation know of my regular visits across the road for my caffeine hit!  She asked about the Commencement Service for the University that we just had and she wondered whether people her age were interested in religion.

My answer was to ask her did she think her friends were interested in questions like; where does the world come from, or how should people behave, or what is the meaning and purpose life.  Of course she answered yes for herself and she admitted other young people think about these questions too.  These are spiritual questions and I shared that for me the church is a place in which we explore these very questions.

She was right to point out the many different places people can explore these questions.  When people look to the hills there are many options but for me logically there can only be one creator of all things.  And, for me, the church and its faith are a place in which the exploration of who that creator is takes places.  More than that, it is the place in which we encounter the story of that creator walking among us in the man Jesus from Nazareth.

It is this story that shapes our hope and helps us as we explore the ambiguous images of God handed down to us by Christians through the centuries.  Oliver Cromwell believed in God and believed he was called by God to do what he did.  His faith was deep but looking back I am deeply troubled by the way he understood that God.  And maybe this is a reminder all of us only see a glimpse of the truth.

But as I come to the end of this sermon with the confused images of God we have encountered I am also reminded of a scene from the “Life of Brian” where the People’s Front of Judea are meeting and asking what have the Romans ever given us: clean water, sanitation, roads, education, peace...

Despite the ambiguities of Christian history when we ask what the church has ever done for us, a bit like the skit, we might begin to expand our vision and see how the story of God has been active: a sense of community, universities, scientific methodologies, schools, hospitals, social welfare, spirituality, a framework for our lives and the list goes on.

I believe this is good news for any person any person young or old and worthy of sharing in their search for meaning.  Yes, there are many choices but lurking behind them all is a single story, a single truth. It is a truth revealed in ancient words:

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
And sent his son among us not to condemn the world,

But in order that the world might be saved through him.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Eating an apple with attitude!

A sermon on Genesis 2-3 & the Temptations

As most of you know I took the theme for today’s service as “eating an apple with attitude”.  Now whilst the story we read from Genesis does not refer to an apple being the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil certainly historically the apple has often been associated with that fruit.

So what does it mean to “eat the apple with attitude” and what kind of attitude might we have as we eat the
apple – the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Well to let you know from the outset where this is going I believe one of the truths within this story is that like Adam and Eve we all reach out and taste the fruit, we eat the apple.

But, and this is the big but, we eat the apple with an understanding that despite this error God continues to reach out to us in love. So we eat the apple with an attitude both of rebellion and of humility.

So let’s explore this story and this theme a little more deeply.

Whenever I teach this story at school to grade 7 kids the question is asked of me “but is it true sir” by which the questioner is usually asking whether I believe Adam and Eve were real people.

In response I usually ask the students to put up their hand if they have a brother or sister.  (You can do this now too).  Now what I want you to do is to leave your hand in the air if you have ever blamed your brother or sister for something you did wrong.

Whether or not Adam and Eve actually existed or not, which is indeed a moot point, the story is true in each of us.  We are very good at conveniently blaming someone else and deflecting blame if something has gone wrong.

Just as they story is true at this point I believe the story is true in the ambiguous question it poses about the knowledge of good and evil, of morality.

So let’s focus on the tree and its fruit for a moment.

The very presence of the true and God’s instruction concerning are paradoxical.

Here is the riddle as I see it.  Adam and Eve are told not to eat the fruit.  But to understand that disobedience to God is wrong or evil Adam and Eve need to be able know the difference between right and wrong.

How can they know disobeying God is wrong if they do not know the disobedience is wrong or evil?

But if they already understand eating the fruit would be wrong then isn’t logical to say they don’t need to eat the fruit?

What is often presented as quite a straightforward story, a story we will to teach in Sunday School, I believe has some quite difficult and confronting themes.

What kind of answer might we find to this riddle in the story?  If we paused and looked back into Genesis 1 I think we can find an indicator in the first of the two stories about the creation of man and woman.

In Genesis 1: 26 & 27

‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
                in the image of God he created them;
                male and female he created them.

The little passage helps unlock the riddle in chapter 3.  Man and woman are made in God’s image:

So here is another truth the scriptures teach us which traditionally be describe as the doctrine of the imago dei.  Unfortunately, like most things in the truth Christians are no always in agreement about being created in the image of God means but let me suggest a few things.  Being made in God’s image means:

We are creative beings
We are made to be in relationships
We are loved and have the capacity to love others
We are given knowledge
And, here is the biggy, we know something about good and evil

It would be my contention that Adam and Eve having being made in god’s image already know the difference between good and evil.

So when serpent turns up with his crafty words and exaggerations he is not speaking to people who have no idea about good and evil but to people who have the capacity for doubt.

Whatever the serpent is the doubt he sews into the mind of Eve and through her Adam also is a doubt in their created nature, they doubt they are in God’s image and try to be like God: another paradox.

Going back to the idea of how truth is operating in this story one of primary the questions the story raises for us is this: do we doubt ourselves and do we doubt God?  The answer in the story is clear – we do.

And it is because we doubt we go seeking for knowledge, knowledge of good and evil, knowledge about God, knowledge about ourselves and knowledge about our world.

Now on a day we are celebrating the beginning of the university year I do not want to be suggesting that seek knowledge is necessarily wrong; whether it is of good and evil or of engineering, pharmacy, teaching business, law or whatever else you may be studying. However, when the motivation for our seeking is grounded in the denial of our created nature in preference for the existence we would carve out for ourselves then there are some serious questions to be raised and that is what I believe this story does.

Flipping forward into the New Testament for a moment the story of the temptation of Jesus is closely linked to the story of the garden.  In tit the temptation to define our own existence rather than accept our existence as gift is played out again in a different way.

In each scene that Jesus is tempted we hear a temptation that each one of us is susceptible to.  Jesus is tempted to turn the stones to bread: to use his gifts simply for his own needs and wants.  Jesus is tempted to put God to the test: to place his trust in things other than God.  Jesus is tempted to gain power: to use his abilities for the sake of his own prestige.

Once again these temptations ring true of the story in the garden we too can easily deny the purpose our gifts are given for.  Instead stones to bread it might be using our gifts for building our own wealth: big houses, cars, expensive gadgets and holidays.  There can be no doubt in our search for knowledge humanity has put God to the test, the rise of new atheism and its prophets echo Friedrich Nietzsche proclamation “God is dead” whilst many of us will use our knowledge and gifts to gain power and prestige for ourselves.

The scriptures tell us who we are and challenge us on that.  We eat the apple with attitude, we seek knowledge and our motivations are intentionally or otherwise about denying our created existence in preference for the identity we can make for ourselves.

But the stories do not finish with our failures or with God’s rejection of us for them.

Hear the good news of the Genesis story.  Despite the prohibition God makes, despite the indication anyone who eats the fruit will die Adam and Eve live.  Yes they die but not immediately, another debate point for theologians through history and God’s response involves consequences yes but also grace.  God makes Adam and Eve clothes and God sends them into the world.

This story of grace is then backed up by Jesus response to the temptations.  Where we fail Jesus resists and through the gift of the Spirit our lives are joined to his faithfulness.  The promise of his resistance of the temptations culminates in the resurrection of Jesus and the promise that death indeed is not the final word, just as death was not immediate for Adam and Eve God’s choice is always in favour of the creation.

The scriptures show us ourselves: we eat the apple with attitude; we pursue knowledge to set ourselves over against God and for our own selfish motivations but despite the confusion of our ways God continues to reach out in love for us.  God transform and resurrects our mistakes and leads us into new life. God clothes us again in Jesus resurrection and promises us new life.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

King's College: Enrolment Service

1 Samuel 8

1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’


Veritas Vos Liberabit, which you should recognise as the College motto “The truth shall set you free”.

As far as I can see there are at least two confronting ideas in this motto.

The first is to wonder about the same thing that Jack Nicholson wondered in the movie “A Few Good Men”: can we actually handle the truth? Can you? Can I?

And the second is to wonder at what kind of freedom we are talking about.  Have you have ever asked yourself the questions ‘freedom from what’ or even more importantly ‘freedom for what’?

My short hand response to these confrontations in the Kings College motto would be “We are set free to serve” but how do I come to this conclusion.

It may seem odd that I chose to have a story which dates back over 3000 years to help elucidate a response to the idea that as Kings men (and for the women who work here as well) you have been “Set free to serve” but I hope you noticed just how poignant the passage is for us this evening.

In the passage we have an aging prophet called Samuel seeking to do some succession planning in anticipation of his death he wishes to install his sons as Judges over Israel.

Yet, as the Israelites rightly point out, Samuel’s sons do not follow in his ways.  They are off message! So it is that the Israelites request that God appoint a king over them, like the other nations.  A plan which Samuel rejects and God questions as idolatrous, outlining that such a choice will have disastrous consequences.

Despite this divine warning God graciously accedes to the wishes of the people and the rest as they say is history. Saul is chosen to be King.

What does this have to do with us here 3000 years later?  Well, I believe it has a few lessons for us to listen to because this passage is not simply about challenging the idea of Kingship as a concept but is about power and authority and where we place our allegiance.

You may be thinking at this point that you do not have much authority or power in your life, especially if you are a student.  But the reality is everyone here is a place of privilege.  We are among the wealthiest people in the world, and we have been given the opportunity for education, if we have not already received it, and there can be little doubt that many of us will grow in our power and influence through our lives. 

In this sense as Australians living her ate Kings we have a great deal of freedom which is accompanied by the opportunity to exercise that freedom because of our education and access to power.

If we turn back to the reading for a moment I find that when we look at the issues associated with the application of power and authority there is a two edge sword. 

On one side we find that regardless of which way the Israelites choose it will be inadequate.  Neither a King nor Judges will be a perfect option.  Power and authority are always and ever open to misuse and misunderstanding because the limitations of our human capacity.  We are it seems never all that we should be or could be.

For me this is a reminder, that any who grow to have power and authority must be wary of the mistakes we will undoubtedly make and to approach our leadership with a sense of humility.

The other edge of the blade is that people still long to be lead and look to others to exercise power and authority in decisions about how a community operates.  In other words despite the problems and conundrums that leaders give to us we still need leaders.

As I indicated before because of the opportunities and privileges you and I have most if not all of us will be leaders and will exercise significant power and authority but how do we move beyond that conundrum that I have named, the imperfection of our leadership.

It is my view that in our own efforts we cannot but within the limitations of our own capacity we can seek to respond to the ideal of Jesus and the kingdom that he speaks of.

After his arrest Jesus was brought before Pilate and in response to the question in John’s gospel, ‘Are you a king?’ Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”

Jesus kingdom is not a place and so his kingship does not occur within a physical domain.  Rather Jesus kingship is connected to the idea of how God longs for and intends things to be within the creation.

The basileia tou theo of which Jesus spoke or the kingdom of God is not a place but is when and where God’s reign and rule is expressed within our lives.  Jesus exercise of power and authority occurs in his willingness to give up his life for others – not to fashion his existence around gaining power and prestige and authority for himself but to look to heal, help and reconcile people with one another and with God.

It is precisely in Jesus action of doing this that he sets us free from the problem of our imperfection.  His perfect response to having power and authority supersedes our inadequacies and errors.  Moreover, when we examine Jesus life we are challenged with a picture of power and authority which sits in a skewed relationship with what we know and experience in most of our lives.  Life is not about what I am going to get out of it for myself rather it is about what I give of my life for the sake of others.  In this we, are as I suggested, ‘Set free for service to others’.

This truth, the truth of Jesus gift of freedom from our abuse of power, is a difficult truth inasmuch as it suggests we are not in control of as much as we think we are.  Yet it is also a truth which sets us free for the purpose of leading and serving others in new ways.  This is the purpose of participating in the coming reign of God by putting others before ourselves, living against the mainstream and living for God.

So as we begin the year at Kings the good news is this Veritas Vos Liberabit.  Can we handle this truth and can we live this freedom which we receive as gift as we enter into this year at Kings?  The answer is probably only ever imperfectly but as we look to Jesus and have our notions of power authority turned on their head we are lead to consider what it means to be a community of God’s grace together.