Sunday, 27 December 2015

Jesus is 12: I'm not ready!

You know I have to confess:

I’m not ready!

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

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

I’m not ready.

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

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

I am not ready!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did those years go?

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

I’m not ready to be this old.

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

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

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

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

Maybe because this is life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life goes quickly.

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

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

Here comes life!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Light Shines in the Darkness

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The story of Christmas is the story of God coming among us and affirming the life of the world – the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

It is very easy to lose sight of this positive message from this ancient story – this message of hope: God cares about what God has made!

So often I believe the Christian story has been dominated by a more negative narrative.  Looking back through 2000 years of Christian history and theology we find tales of judgement, of who is going to the good place and who is going to the others place, of who is in and who is out, and we find stories of moralism and exclusion.  The good news is only good for some.

I believe that this negative narrative can so easily shape our whole world view, our approach to life and our proclamation.  So often we use the negative narratives that surround us to feed the negative narrative of the church as if by this people will turn to God.    

I confess there have been many times that I have bought into this kind of negativity. I wonder whether the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s famous book “The Population Bomb” which coincided with the year of my birth in 1968 has contributed to my willingness to listen to the so-called prophets of doom.  Or maybe it was assassination of Martin Luther king Junior or the Vietnam War and the shadow of the Cold War.  This was the world that I was born in to.

But since then the prophets of doom have been so many especially in relationship to the issues of climate and over-consumption and finite resources.

For me John Carroll’s book “Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture” as well as Clive Hamilton’s book “Requiem for a Species” were certainly formational.  These books fed the concerns that I have for the way that we are conducting ourselves as a human species.  Since reading them other books like “Climate Code Red” and Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption” have also feed these negative narrative.

Now, let me be clear I do not doubt the seriousness with which these authors raise concerns for us.  As human beings living on this fragile planet we are very much in a precarious situation – the future feels uncertain and I do not put much faith in human beings.

The fears and concerns that I have, and no doubt that many of you share, are fed by the constant news cycle which likes to sensationalise and play on our fears.  Anyone who reads or watch the news whether it is online or in more traditional formats will be aware of the weight that the news corporations place on our shoulders continuously.

The negative narratives sell and the temptation as a Christians is simply to say, "See we do need God" as if somehow we are above or beyond all these problems – but we in church are as complicit with the problems of the world as the next person and this is ironic since we are supposed to have a story which is meant to be good news.  Good news which we celebrate on Christmas Day.

Jesus' birth is God’s commitment to what God has made – life.  This is good news “the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On this Christmas day it would be easy for me to be sentimental and say to you we just need to love each other more, or to say that the negative narrative of God's wrath and judgement will be countered by your personal salvation but I believe God’s vision is far bigger than the salvation of individuals and God's very nature is love.

God’s desire is for the life of the world.  The closing chapter of the scriptures provide us not the vision of a destroyed creation but of a new heaven and earth – a coming kingdom dominated by God’s peace

One of my good friends and mentors was the Catholic Bishop Michael Putney who always used to speak of looking for times in which “peace breaks out” to look for the signs of God at work renewing and recreating the world.

To put it another way he was encouraging me not to listen to the negative narrative, which is a particular predilection for Protestants, but to listen for the positive presence of the Prince of Peace, Jesus: who was born in Bethlehem and who has walked and who now walks among us.

As I contemplated this notion of the positive presence of Jesus with us I was reminded of the research of the Swedish Doctor Hans Rosling shared on the TED website. In a talk from a few years ago Rosling points out that less people are being killed by natural disasters and fewer people are living below the poverty line.  A report put out this year by the World Bank tracking development goals recently confirmed again that fewer people on the planet live below the poverty line.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  People are getting access to greater wealth and I believe that this will lead to better lives.  John 10:10 says that Jesus came that we might have life and life abundantly.

Alongside this good news I came across a statistical research video produced by Neil Halloran which looks at the number of deaths caused by wars and conflicts from World War 2 until today.  World War Two stands out as a travesty in human history but what was really interesting is how since World War 2 that overall we are killing each other less as a species.

In 1989 John Lewis Gaddes coined the phrase the Long Peace to reflect the changes that have taken place in significant world conflict since the 1950s.  Whilst through this period and into our present time there have been continued conflicts statistically the number of people killed in these conflicts has reduced dramatically.

Don’t get me wrong, anytime Cain raises his hand against Abel, when we kill each other in war or in times of peace it is a travesty.  But the good news is that we are getting better as a race.  This is not to diminish the serious situation that has been unfolding in Syria and Iraq but overall we are doing better and we should hear this as good news

“What has come into being in him was life!” Life is a precious gift and we need to continue to learn to value the lives of others more deeply for it is in others we meet Christ presence with us.

And finally, the recent Paris Climate Agreement has given us some hope in the area of the warming of the planet. The will and the commitment to meeting this challenge for all humanity is changing.

God’s desire for us is life and the promise of God is that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The positive presence of the Word of God becoming flesh does not mean that everything is going smoothly.  The scriptures tells us that he came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.  God’s presence alongside us does create conflict within us and confronts us with the problems of our own lives and of the community of humanity in which we live.

Sentimentalising Christmas does not take the Word becoming flesh seriously, neither does focussing on a negative narrative proclaim the hope of Christmas.  On this day we remember that God’s desire for us and the whole creation is life and life in all its fullness and on this day I would encourage to seek out the signs of this promise - to see where peace is breaking out as Michael would have said!

This is indeed the good news: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

It is my hope and prayer for you this Christmas that you will encounter in your own life the positive presence and power of the Prince of Peace, the Word of God made flesh.  And, that this encounter will help you to live in with hope.

(Photo: Courtesy of Rod Shea Instagram)

Friday, 18 December 2015

Blessed be the fruit of your womb!

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb”

Blessed – joy, hope, anticipation, expectation, new life, congratulations as an existence is coming into being.
This joyful interaction between Elizabeth and Mary sets the scene for Jesus life and in many ways is an interaction that is played out all of the world all the time.
I asked myself this week, “Is there the fruit of any womb that is not blessed?”  Or maybe to ask the opposite question, “Is there any child that has been brought into existence that is cursed?”
Though I might want to answer ‘yes that the fruit of every womb is blessed’ I realised as a reflected on this that there are times, far too many times that a pregnancy is unwanted. In some cases pregnancy feels unsafe and insecure and may have been the product of poor decisions or even violence.  In these cases the mother often feels far from blessed – they feel burdened and afraid. Yet the fruit of the womb, the innocent child within – are they still not blessed.

And what does the blessing look like as a life unfolds?

I wrestled with these paradoxes and was drawn back to Jesus own life and the fact that this birth story was probably added by Matthew to help us understand who Jesus was and what God was doing in and through him.
The scene for Jesus life is set with these words: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb”

Blessed is Jesus who we find in a garden praying in chapter 26 of Matthew’s gospel.  His closest friends Peter, James and John were asked to watch him but keep drifting off into sleep.  Jesus prayer is filled with angst and echoes the isolation and fear he is feeling “let this cup pass from me” but if it cannot “let your will be done”.
“Blessed is the fruit of your womb” who as he prays Judas gathers a crowd to come and betray and arrest Jesus and to take him away.  A friend, a follower, becomes his betrayer.

At any moment do we think that God has stopped blessing Jesus?  The answer feels like it should be yes, the answer is difficult and raises the question within us, “why is there such a paradox that this one who is meant to be blessed suffers betrayal?”
And we read into Chapter 26 of Matthew and see the temple authorities handing Jesus on to Pilate and demanding that he be put to death.  We see the machinations of the politicians and the leaders and those who hold power and we see how someone can get caught up in these machinations.

Jesus appears powerless against the weight and way of those who hold authority in the systems of his time.  And Pilate interviews Jesus and makes a choice to let the crowd decided.

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb” when the crowd yells in preference for a common criminal rather than Jesus.  His people, possible some of which heard him teach or saw him heal or waved palm branches as he entered Jerusalem call for his downfall.

What does it feel like to be blessed?  Surely not to be left high and dry by those who are meant to love you.
And Jesus, we are told is handed over to the soldiers, and Pilate the politician washes his hands and refuses to take responsibility for what is about to occur – he claims his innocence.  But are any innocent who let the innocent suffer?

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb” who is mocked and tortured by soldiers; who is dehumanised and degraded.  Any dignity that was once held by this man is stripped away as his clothes are taken from him and as he is led away to be crucified.
“Blessed is the fruit of your womb” who will be hung on a tree.  According to Leviticus anyone hung on a tree is cursed by God.  This sad and sorry and brutal picture unfolds before us and Elizabeth’s expectant cry on seeing Mary must have seemed so distant for Jesus mother now: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” – who hangs discarded and despised on the cross breathing his last moments – crying to the God who thinks has now forsaken him.  How is the fruit of this womb blessed as he breathes his last and dies such an ignoble death?

And the world shakes and darkness falls and the last words spoken in Matthew by the cross are the paradox that Jesus has been living.  The Roman soldiers says in wonder, “Truly, this man was God’s son!” “Blessed is the fruit of your womb”
In Chapter 28 we are told that days later Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  But the body is gone and an angel appears before them tells them that Jesus is no longer there for he has been raised.  Go and tell the disciples.  Go and tell the world.  Go and tell that Jesus has been raised. “Blessed is the fruit of your womb”

And the women encounter Jesus on their way and the paradox and the miracle and the mystery overflow as they tell the disciples and the disciples gather and Jesus appears before them for one last moment, for one last time and he says to them:
“Go into all the world, make disciples, baptize and teach them everything I have commanded you.  And remember I am with you always.”

What should we as Jesus’ followers teach?  The gospels are full of stories.  Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, he spoke women, he consorted with Samaritans, he challenged the authorities, he cast out demons, he healed the lepers, he drew in followers, he lived, he died and he rose again.
“Blessed is the fruit of your womb” what hope this life gives to us for at no point should there be any sense that Jesus was not blessed by God.  God’s blessing was not restricted in any moment in which Jesus was.  Whether he was disappointed by sleeping friends, betrayed by his friend, made powerless by authorities, judge by a rampant mob, mocked and cajoled by soldiers, or even in the abject moment of death, when he felt deserted by God’s presence.  Jesus was blessed throughout because God was in him and God was with him and God’s love never left him and this is God’s love for us as well.

“Blessed is the fruit of every womb” – blessed are you who came from your mothers’ wombs and blessed am I.  Blessed are our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and for every generation that has been before and is to come. This is our hope that through the Holy Spirit our lives are joined to his life, to Jesus life, and whatever our momentary experience might be God will not desert us.
Blessed be you who are poor in spirit, blessed are you who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful and the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted and the reviled.

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb”
This is the love of God declared in that moment of joyful anticipation between Elizabeth and Mary.  They do not know the story that will unfold but the conviction must be that the blessing never leaves. And, more than that, that this blessing of Jesus, who is "the blessed fruit of this womb", is God’s life lived alongside ours.  It is a reminder of God’s presence with us and it is our hope that our sufferings and death are not the final word but the blessing and promise of new life will overcome all our sorrows.

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb”  “Blessed is the fruit of every womb”

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Illusions of scribes & widows

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight O Lord
our strength and or redeemer.

I wonder what it is that you have already decided about the story we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning.  Jesus is at the temple and he criticizes the behaviour of the scribes then goes on to observe people putting money in the treasury, highlighting the actions of a poor widow.

Most of us have a gut reaction to a story, an initial response.  It has been my experience as a person who has chaired many meetings to notice how rarely a person will shift from their initial position.  So the question is for me as a preacher and for you as listeners and any of us move beyond our initial reactions and even if we can will we make a rationale decision.

In his book “Predictably Irrational” the behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely explores the illusionary nature of our decision making.  He begins by explaining how our minds deal with optical illusions like this one with the two tables.

The table on the left appears to be much longer in its length than the width of the table on the right but when we actual measure the distance what we find is that our eyes are deceiving us.  And, even when we know this, our minds still tell us something different.

Ariely’s point is that if our minds are doing this when we use something as functional as our sight what occurs when we are dealing with more complex issues and ideas.  How are our minds creating illusions for us?

The question for us then as we deal with stories from the Bible is what illusions are we creating and what assumptions are we making that might be keeping the truth from us.

As a preacher it is my hope and prayer that in the course of my speaking about the illusions and metaphors that I have understood and that in your listening and interpreting what I say through your own illusions and assumptions the Holy Spirit might be at work acting to reveal the truth that lies beyond our illusions.

With all this in mind and given that it is exam time at the Universities I thought we might get into the spirit of things by having a little multiple choice quiz this morning to both expose some of our illusions and hopefully open the door to other possibilities that might transform us.

I have formulated 4 sets of questions for your consideration as you reflect on the story of Jesus at the temple and what that mean for you and me.

The first is this. 

In this passage Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us) that:
  1. People with religious authority tend to be corrupt and exploit others
  2. People who wear robes or other signs of their office are not to be trusted
  3. People who wish to be greeted with respect in the marketplace are egotistical
  4. People who say long prayers are insincere show offs 
  5.  All of the above
  6. None of the above
If we go back to where I started I wonder which of these you feel an affinity.  In my time as a minister I have attitudes from people within the church that reflect each of these options.  I wonder where you sit!  What is your answer?

The second question relates to Jesus observation as he sat opposite the treasury.

In this passage Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us) that:
  1. People should give as generously as the poor widow to the temple/church
  2.  People who are poor should not be exploited by organised religion
  3. People who are poor are better than people who are rich
  4. People who are poor should be cared for by the temple/church
  5.  All of the above
  6. None of the above
In the 20 years since I began preaching I can tell you that I have preached more than one of these options. And I have a pretty strong opinion about which of these you should choose.  Which way are you leaning?  Is there an option that is not there that you might prefer?

The third and fourth question drive us a little deep because number 3 drives us to think about what this means to us, it is the “what’s in it for me?” kind of question.  Number four is about the bigger picture: what is the good news really about.

So, question three: What is this story asking of me?
  1.  I should give more money to the church
  2. I should give less money to the church
  3. I should not say long prayers or wear long robes or symbols of authority
  4. I should not trust people in authority
  5. I should not try to gain fame so people respect me
  6. I should try to see situations differently like Jesus does
  7.  others...
The list is not meant to be exhaustive but once again highlights what scholars and everyday Christians might take away from the passage.  I wonder what it is that you began with as your idea, is there a new possibility nudging in your mind.

And so to the last of the multiple choice questions, a key question.  When we look at this story in the context of the whole story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection what is the good news?
  1. Jesus loved the scribes and forgave them
  2. Jesus loved the poor widow and released her from her burdens
  3. Jesus loves us whether we are like the scribe, the widow, or even his closest followers, the disciples
  4. Jesus wants to help us to see the truth of people’s lives and to respond with generosity
  5. all of the above
To go back to where I began with Dan Ariely and his Behavioural Economics, his research shows us that we are inclined to make irrational decisions often choosing the easiest or more convenient option, even if it is irrational.

Yet, as we gather in the power of the Holy Spirit it is my prayer that our eyes might be open and our ears hear afresh this story to move beyond our illusions and biases and to be transformed by a life changing message of hope.

Take time to reflect on the quiz questions – what is the good news and what is God calling you to do in response to this message of God’s love.