Thursday, 22 October 2015

Who is this Blind Bartimeaus?

Who is this dirty bedraggled beggar?
Who is this man lying in the filth at the side of the road?
Who is the Bartimeaus? This son of Timeaus?
This Son of the Unclean? The Son of Poverty?
Who is this blind man crying out?
Interrupting our pleasant morning gathered with Jesus.
Who is this man?

This man, this Bartimeaus, knows his physical blindness has excluded him.
He is shunned and shoved aside by the world.
His affliction holds him back from participating in the fullness of life.
It is easier for us to ignore him and hide the problems.

Who is this man?

This man is you and I and everyone single one of us.

He is our soul crying out from within the midst of our needs from within the midst of our afflictions – Son of David have mercy on me, have mercy on us.

This is both a very personal cry and it is the communal cry of the church on behalf of humanity.

We cry out from within our affliction or at least we should be?

We cry out because we have gotten older and our bodies are failing us and the issues of our health dominate our weekly endeavours.  We long again to be more active and engaged in our communities.

We cry out because we are far from home and we miss our families and our friends and although we have found some welcome here loneliness can still overtake us.

We cry out because we are anxious and we are depressed.  Our minds play games with us and seem to thwart our sense security and peace in life.

We cry out because we are trying to forge ahead into a new future.  Studying and trying to find our identity and be the people God calls us to be.

We cry out because our relationships are not as we would have them.  Some of us long to find a partner to share our life with whilst others of us miss dearly a treasured spouse long gone from our side.

We cry out because our emotions overtake us.  We find ourselves angry with other people or judging them and even knowing that in our secret hearts we hate some people – event hose whom we don;t know.

We cry out because the pressures of our work life have overtaken us.  We feel weighed down and beset by the stresses and strains.

We cry out “Son of David, have mercy on me”

We know our predicament: each of us has our hidden struggles and collectively we know as humanity we cry out or at least we should:

We cry out “Son of David, have mercy on us”

Have mercy on those who are in the refugee camps and fleeing across the world.  The young girls being sold as wives.  The people languishing for years with no hope in sight. The people who have no fixed address and no country to call their.

Have mercy on those who feel so driven by their predicament to believe that violence is the answer. Have mercy on the warmongers and those who exploit the fragile lives of those who are seeking meaning and purpose.

Have mercy on us who as a race are driven by progress and growth in a finite world with finite resources.  Have mercy on us who are destroying the ecosystems and the environment and even the climate.

Have mercy on us who perpetuate exclusion and division.  Who ostracise the first inhabitants of lands like Australia.  Who elevate one tribe and country above others at the expense of others.   

We cry out because we are Bartimeaus bus we also are susceptible to crying out for the voices to stop.

Like the crowd who were gathered alongside Jesus, the ones who had become his followers and friends, we too can silence our own cries, each other’s cries and the cries of the community around.

Instead of being honest that we are indeed Bartimeaus we claim a spot alongside Jesus and think we are the only ones who belong there – we forget that we need that mercy too as we shut up and try to silence the voices within us, around us and beyond us.

But Jesus, Jesus, hears the cries.  I believe hears the spoken and the unspoken cries and Jesus upsets us as he invites the blind beggar close – the sufferer, the needy one.

I was here on Thursday afternoon as the thunder and lightning came and as a storm hit, bucketing a torrent of water from the sky.

A noticed a man standing in the doorway and opened the doors of the church so he might shelter from the passing storm.

As he thanked me I joked “The church is always here to offer shelter from the storm” but this is no joke for this is who our Lord is.

Jesus hears the cries of Bartimeaus and of all us as we recognise the shortfalls and the difficulties and the afflictions and we cry out “Son of David, have mercy.”

Jesus desire is that we might have fullness in our lives, Jesus intent is for healing and for hope and for wholeness in life.

He says to Bartimeaus, your faith has made you well.

It’s always shaky ground to connect faith with healing. We spent the last 3 weeks thinking about that as reflected on the story of Job.   Yet, persistent and perseverance are part of our journey and more than that accommodating each other’s cries for mercy – finding tolerance and not blocking the way to Jesus but leading people to Jesus.

Who is this blind beggar at the side of the road?
This man lying in the filth and turmoil of life.
This man is you, it is I, it is everyone we meet who can admit their problems.

And our faith, our hope is this, that Jesus hears our cries:

“Son of David, have mercy on me”
“Son of David, have mercy on me”

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

King's Valedictory Sermon

Two stories driven by one question:

“What do you want me to do for you?”
“What do you want me to do for you?”

It is an existential question. 
It is a question that drives at the meaning and purpose of people’s lives.

As we come here on this night to celebrate with the valedictorians and to encourage them as they leave the community of King’s College such questions as the purpose and meaning of life are vital.

Whilst, you may be focussed on exams and final assessment for the semester once these are over the transition out of this community into the wider community confronts each you with basic questions about your meaning and purpose.

This evening I want to explore the two stories and the two responses to Jesus question as a way of opening up the possibilities for your lives as young men.

Now I am aware that for some of you that you may not hear Jesus question, “What do you want me to do for you?” in the same way that I do because you may not share my faith.  However, the question that Jesus is essentially asking is “What are you expecting from life?”  Or, possibly even, “what do you think that the world owes you?”

How you answer these questions and what stories you listen to that shape your existence have a great impact not only on your lives but on the community around you and even the whole world.

So, what might we learn from the two interactions: the first between Jesus and two of his disciples, James and John: and, the second, between Jesus and the blind beggar named Bartimeaus.

When Jesus asks James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” their response revolves around personal glory.  They want to sit at Jesus left and right hand – they want Jesus to elevate them over and above others.  Their goal in life, in following Jesus, is personal glory.

Now Greg, as the Master of King’s, often speaks of excellence in life.  Striving for excellence in your chosen field as an engineer, a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, in business or whatever it is that you have studied is appropriate.  But Jesus’ challenge is to remind the disciples and us that this seeking of excellence is not so that we can attain glory and honour and have our 15 minutes of fame.

Life is not simply about your personal self-advancement especially if that seeking of power, position and wealth comes at the expense of other. There is a bigger picture.

This bigger picture is expounded in the story of Jesus’ interaction with Bartimeaus.  Bartimeaus is a blind man and as such would probably have found himself ostracised from the community.  In Jesus time a persona ailment was often interpreted as a sign that they had done something wrong and looking at the meaning of Bartimeaus’ name it actual means Son of the Unclean.  The story teller Mark may have deliberately manipulated the name of the blind man to make this point.  Bartimeaus was excluded – his life was stifled and stymied at ever point.

Central to his desire then is that Jesus will have mercy on him and when asked by Jesus “What do you want me to do for you?” his answer is to restore his sight.  Restoring his sight will restore his life as he is drawn back into the community.

We may not realise how closely we are tied to Bartimeaus but for many us we too need a sense of mercy and a need to be restored to the fullness in the life of the community of this world.

We need mercy to be taught how to better to relate to others.  We know misogyny, racism, and exclusion are still rife in the Australian community. 

We need mercy to be transformed in how to better live in this world.  We know of the impact of climate change and pollution and an obsession with growth in a consumer driven culture.

We need mercy to be taken to the fullness of the life that we can lead. We know that many of us struggle with depression and illness and anxiety in a highly pressurized culture.

All of these things are about shaping our lives around abundance in life not just for some but for the whole – for the common good.

How you will answer the question “What do you want me to do for you?” or “What are you expecting from life?” remains vital because it shapes how you will interact with others and whether you see your purpose and meaning as you seek excellence in life about elevating your own glory or building the whole community of life.

Which brings me to my last comment, often in ancient literature the key point of the story is found in the centre and sandwiched between the question “What do you want me to do for you?” is Jesus’ assertion, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant!”

The meaning and purpose of our lives is shaped by the stories that we buy in to and how we interpret their meaning into our lives.  Jesus invites us all to be shaped by his story which is about serving others, restoring people like Bartimeaus and like you and I to the fullness of life and the potential we have to be part of the community of life in this world.

Jesus story is the story of God’s love for us and how God serves us by giving us life and reconciling us with God’s purposes. 

So when confronted by the question “What do you want me to do for you?” or “What are you expecting from life?” I think the answer to the question is to seek excellence in life by using the gifts you have to serve others. 

I wish you well in your final exams and assignments for this year but more importantly I pray that as you move from this community into the community of the world you might allow your life to be shaped in its meaning and purpose by a vision that is bigger than your own glory, crying out for mercy to be made into all that you can be for the sake of others as you use all that you are for the good of whole world.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Job to Jesus: Transcendence and Immanence

One question raised by the book of Job is along the lines,
“Does God even care about what happens to you and me?”

Job’s suffering is a conundrum and in the conversation that he is engaged with his three friends the story continually explores the correlation between a person’s experience of life and the providence and judgement of God.

Job’s questions are our questions:

Why do I suffer?
Why do those I love suffer?
Am I living a good life?
Why is there evil in the world?

It is a book which explores what is known theologically as theodicy.

Is God distant and uncaring?
Does God cause our troubles and ensnare us in difficulties?

When God finally speaks in the book of Job at the beginning of Chapter 38 God unleashes a torrent of questions and challenges which on their own emphasise God’s transcendence and sovereignty.

God and God’s ways are beyond human understanding. 
God is beyond our comprehension. 
God cannot be domesticated.

In the response God reflects on God’s power:

God speaks of the act of creation
God speaks of the movement of the seas and the seasons and the sun and the moon
God speaks of the power of the storm and the raging rivers
God speaks of the wonders of nature of the animals and the birds

We might easily interpret God’s answer to Job is no answer other than to emphasise how distant we are from God.

The great Reformation theologian Ulrich Zwingli once declared ‘We as little know God as the scarab beetle knows what a human being is.’ (Commentary on true and False Religion)

In a sense this is what God is reminding Job of – Job is not God and God is the author of creation with all its mystery and power and majesty and confusion.

Of course, in our modern scientific world God’s answer to Job may not seem to carry as much weight.  In the last few centuries humanity has grown so much in its understanding of the world around us, so much so that for many people God’s transcendence alongside scientific insight has led many to the assumption that God’s distance is a sign of God’s non-existence.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his lengthy tome “A Secular Age” explores how science has demystified the world. I this process of extracting mystery and replacing it with understanding, it appears that God has become even more removed from our sight and from our lives.

The notion that God is some uncaring distant being flies in the face of the idea that God cares for each one of us and God’s declaration to Job that begins in Chapter 38 seems to confirm this.

How do you and I maintain faith in this seemingly distant God? 
How do we continue to believe in this transcendent impersonal God?

As simple and as complex as the answer may seem it is found in Jesus words to his disciples.

“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

The counterpoint to Job’s experience of the transcendence of God is the disciples’ experience of the immanence of God.

The opening words of Mark’s gospel tell us a new and surprising story about God.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Word’s echoed and affirmed by the Roman soldier at the cross in chapter 15:

“Truly this man was God’s Son!”

In Jesus, God has walked among us.
In Jesus, God has shared our existence.
In Jesus, God has tasted the joys and sorrows of our human lives.

In Jesus, God has endured the horror of our mortality.

As much as God may seem transcendent in our personal experience God is no stranger to what it means to be one of us: God is Immanent! God is present!

The promise of Jesus to his disciples is that his presence in the world is to serve the world; to serve the creation; to serve us in our existence by sharing in it.

The sending of the Holy Spirit draws us into God’s very life participating in the mystery of God’s presence in the world.

Yet God’s presence remains a mystery.

It is not our place to domesticate God interpreting God into our suffering and our joys rather like Job confronted by the mystery of the transcendence of God we listen for the story of the mystery of God’s immanence with hope.

God’s transcendence and power breathes life into the whole creation and creates space for freedom and for living.  God’s immanence and intimacy in Jesus reminds us of the personal connection God has with our lives and God’s desire to serve us.

Like Job we still have our questions but faith is not about having all the answers it is about trust and hope that lies beyond our experience in God who is both above all things yet chooses in Christ to be in all things.

It is trust and hope that the great story of our existence has an author.
Trust and hope that the author of life cares enough to come along side us.
Trust and hope that in coming along side us we can share in the trajectory of God’s life:
Love, reconciliation, renewal, healing, mercy, fullness of life for all people!

God speaks from the whirlwind and in Jesus God speaks with human words.

“Does God even care about what happens to you and me?”

The mystery of our faith declares resoundingly and hopefully yes.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

How do you experience God?

Mark 10:17-31 
Job 23:1-17
Hebrews 4:12-16

I wonder what it is that you might expect out of an experience of God.  What emotions do you think might trigger if you were in God’s presence?  If you were experiencing God?

Take a moment to reflect on what you would hope to feel out of such an experience?

Whatever words you have used reflect your assumptions, your expectations and even your previous experiences of God’s presence in your life.

It is an important thing to reflect on for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because often the hope we have in these experiences or our previous encounters sustain us in our own journey through life and in our faith.  And, secondly, these hopes and experiences shape our witness of faith to others.

During my trip to Japan one of my hosts, a Buddhist in his spirituality, asked me the question directly “Do you experience God?” To which I answered “Yes” but, of course, then he wanted to know “How?”

How do you experience God?

We have already reflected on that a little bit in identifying some words and feelings that we might associate with encountering God but I want us to reflect a little more on this question based on the readings that we have heard today.

We are going to take a snapshot from Job, Mark and from Hebrews to explore what it means to encounter God.

In the reading from Job there appears to be a sense of God playing some great game of divine hide’n’seek. Job declares:

“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides,
and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right,
but I cannot see him.”

God remains elusive, mysterious, hidden.  But when we think on Job’s suffering and Job’s desire to come into God’s presence what we find is that Job wants to encounter to God to ask the question “Why?” “Why am I suffering?” What have I done?”

Job’s questioning very much arises out of the conversation he is ensconced in with his three friends.  In the previous Chapter Job’s friend Eliphaz has essentially said to Job “Look mate you must have done something wrong. Agree with God and be at peace.”

Last week Marilyn explored some of the difficulties around suffering in her sermon so I am not going to revisit too deeply what she said but simply to remind you that there are those among us, as there were in Job’s time, who interpret there situation in life as a reflection of their relationship with God: it is very much about reward and punishment.

As a minister I have heard this many times when people have asked me in the midst of a difficult time “What have I done to deserve this?”  Or, alternatively, when we judge what is happening to another person with phrases like “They made their own bed now they have to lie in it.”

Life is far more complex than this and the broader story of Job is about exploring this complexity and confronting with mystery.

Yet it would seem that Job is being influenced by this world view and importantly the assumptions made about divine activity in this world view.  Job’s desire to see God is a desire born out of questioning.

Yet despite God’s perceived absence seeing God has another element to it for Job – “Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him.”

If we were to simply consider some key words that might answer the question How do you experience God? Based on the encounter between Job and his friends we might use words like: reward, prosperity, punishment, suffering, absence, mystery, questioning, confusion, fear & terror.

How do you experience God?

Are these words that are helpful for our own journey of faith and for our witness to others?  do these correspond with the thoughts and feelings that we had at the beginning?

Let’s move now into the New Testament and to the reading about Jesus encounter with the wealthy young man.  Now for the purpose of this sermon I would want to remind you that when he hear Jesus speaking his words are God’s words amongst us.  To use the language of John’s Gospel he is the living Word of God.

When the young man comes to Jesus the initial reaction of Jesus is to ask the young man questions which seem to affirm his righteousness – the young man appears to have been doing the right thing.  And maybe what the young man was seeking was an affirmation that he was going OK.

I think this is something many of us seek too in our relationship with God a word of affirmation that we don’t have to change anything and that everything we are doing is right on the money.

Yet, as we heard, Jesus pushed him further “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

For any of us here today these are certainly confrontational words, the can cause a deal of discomfort.  How many of us have sold everything to give it to the poor and then followed Jesus?

I have had friends who inspire me in their faith who have pretty much done this but we know that the young man turns away and the disciples are left confused.

“Who then can enter the kingdom?”

The disciples appear in this moment to be operating out of the same world view as Eliphaz.  So once again God’s presence, an encounter with divine truth, leads to confusion, disruption and mystery.

And so we might identify these words as ones which reflect again what an encounter with God is like: affirmation, questioning, confrontation, disruption, confusion and hope.

Why hope? Because Jesus response which is often lost in the impossibility of a camel and a needle’s eye is that with God all things are possible which brings me to the book of Hebrews

In the book of Hebrews we are told, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”  Already this morning we have explored the differences that might occur in an experience of the divine – it can bring affirmation and peace and comfort but it might also bring mystery and confrontation and confusion.

It can be an experience of absence of an experience of presence and encounter.

Yet whatever our experience of God and life there is another story of God’s closeness to us. That where we might think God is hidden or absence or we might be interpreting God’s presence in a particular way God knows us and sees us intimately and in this God cares for us.

God cares for us so deeply Jesus came among us to share our lives and to become our great high priest creating the pathway between God’s life and ours through the power of the Holy Spirit.

For me this is a source of comfort and hope.  Whatever else I might want to say about my experience of life and of God the accuracy of my understanding is always limited and God and God’s love is not contingent, is not determined by my personal experience of God and life whether it is one which is positive or negative in a particular moment in which I find myself.

With God all things are possible and the possibilities of God are the possibilities we encounter in Jesus who comes to serve and save us, who reaches bringing healing and mercy, who is God ‘s love and grace walking amongst us.  This does necessarily negate your or my experiences of life and of God but puts them in the context of a bigger story that regardless of what we think we are encountering there is a bigger story of God’s love whose trajectory is for the reconciliation and renewal of all things in Christ.

Maybe as Paul describe it “a hope in things not (yet) seen”.

How do you experience God?