‘The ground mourns’ (Outback Sunday)

Readings
Joel 1.8–10, 17–20
Romans 8.18–27

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was still to come but the basis of it, the gradual ascent from beast to civilised man, dominated the psychology of Europe at the time. The first British visitors sailed to Australia contemplating what they were about to find, and innate superiority was the prism through which their new world was seen. 

When Darwin’s theory was put forward, it gave comfort to those who believed it was their right and duty to occupy the ‘empty’ land. As anthropologist Tony Barta commented: 

‘The basis of that view was historical: it held that the advance of civilisation was a triumphal progress, morally justifiable and probably inevitable. When Darwin lent his great gifts and influence to making the disappearance of peoples ‘natural’ as well as historical, his theory … could serve as an ideological cover for policies abhorrent to his humanitarian and humanist principles. Darwin’s fateful confusion of natural history and human history would be exploited fatally by others.’ 

Under the influence of these cultural certainties how would it have been possible for the colonists not to believe that Englishmen were on the steepest ascent of human endeavour? How would it have been possible for them not to believe that the world was their entitlement and their possession of it ordained by their God? — Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

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Today is Outback Sunday. What does the word ‘outback’ conjure in your mind? 

Is it images of Uluru, of bronzed shearers, of red soil? Or do you see Aboriginal people, perhaps living in indigenous dignity or post-colonial squalor? Do you see open-cut mines scoring vast gashes in the land, staffed by fly-in fly-out workers? Do you recall the murder of Peter Falconio, or do you dream of being a grey nomad? 

When European people first came here, they saw a vast alien landscape, empty, arid, and full of threat. Perhaps that’s why so many of us still huddle around Australia’s coastal regions. Life can be hard out there. 

‘Outback’ is an Australian word. We don’t read it in the Bible, but we do hear about the ‘wilderness’. Wilderness refers to ‘desolate, abandoned, and deserted places beyond settled areas, beyond the law and social controls’ (Alice M Sinnott, in Season of Creation). Like the outback, it’s a hard place, even a dangerous place. Mind you, the biblical wilderness isn’t necessarily desert; the Jordan River is in ‘the wilderness’, and there John baptises Jesus. 

Something that strikes me is — as I understand it — that we second comers see the outback as empty, miles from nowhere, while indigenous people find it to be their country, full to overflowing with food, with stories (like the tale of Tiddalik), with belonging. 

Last year Karen and I went to the Red Centre, and I had a marvellous experience. I couldn’t live there though, it’s just too far from familiar things for me. 

This picture shows Kata Tjuta from Uluru, at sunrise.  

In the language of the Anangu peoples of Central Australia, Kata means ’head’ and Tjuta means ‘many’. Kata Tjuta: ‘Many Heads’.  

You can see the heads, but at some point a question will naturally arise: whose heads are they? Our guide to Kata Tjuta was a young woman; she didn’t know the answer. Why not? She couldn’t know because it’s men’s business. No woman may know whose heads are represented here. I’m a man, so surely I am allowed to know? I can’t know either. It’s a mystery; I’m not allowed to know it, because I am not an Anangu man. 

To me, it is a wonderful sight, the equal of any I have seen. But to the Anangu, it is a sacred place. A holy site. It is home. 

I on the other hand stood in the Red Centre as an alien, a foreigner, though sympathetic. 

Yet not everyone is sympathetic. 

We have heard recently of a clash between Indigenous and European ways of living on the land. I’m speaking of Rio Tinto and Juukan Gorge. The traditional owners of this part of the Pilbara in Western Australia are the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people. 

Juukan Gorge is a place that has been home to people for 46000 years. That was in the last Ice Age. A cave there contained ancient animal remains and artefacts — including a 4000-year–old belt of human hair — that directly linked the DNA of the PKKP people of today with that of people 4000 years ago. 

In London, executives of Rio Tinto wanted to expand their iron ore operations in the Pilbara. They devised a plan to blow up this cave.  

They could have proceeded without blowing up the cave, but they chose to destroy it along with the priceless objects within. 

Why did they choose this destructive alternative? It was so they could get access to another 8 million tons of iron ore, worth about $135 million dollars. And it was all perfectly legal. 

When you’re in London, the remote Australian outback seems a strange place. What good is it, except as a place to mine? There’s only a few unimportant Aborigines there. The executives are answerable to their shareholders, not to those who live in such a godforsaken place. 

The cave is gone. Yet the shareholders were furious at what was done in their name. They turned on the executives who made the decision, who are now serving out their notice. 

Mind you, they will leave Rio Tinto as very wealthy people, and the cave is forever gone. 

The Scripture readings for today speak of the Earth groaning in pain. 

Joel says 

The fields are devastated,
   the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
   the wine dries up,
   the oil fails. 

Joel 1.10

And the Apostle Paul writes,

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now … 

Romans 8.22

Surely we can say that Juukan Gorge grieves. That the land cries out in pain. Surely we can grant the Earth a voice. 

In this Season of Creation 2020, the land mourns the past and fears the future. What will climate change bring? Are our forests safe, or rivers secure, our reefs viable? Will indigenous people suffer yet more loss?

I was taught as a child and in my younger years that ‘progress’ is necessary, inevitable, and good. Yet in the last, say, thirty years our inability to limit the destructive effects of so-called progress has become increasingly obvious.  

To progress now surely means to hear and work to heal the cries of the ground, of animals and plants who are in danger because we do not know how to change. 

I’ll never feel ‘at home’ in the outback, though it’s a wonderful place to see. I don’t have to feel at home there; but I do need to listen to those whose home it is. We all need to listen carefully, as people of prayer; and act prayerfully, as people who care. Amen.

West End Uniting Church 20 September 2020

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Earthlings from the Earth: Land Sunday

Reading
Genesis 3.14–19; 4.8–16

‘It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry we refuse to say thanks. Should we ever decide to say thanks, the next step on a moral nation’s agenda is to ensure that every Australian acknowledges the history and insists that, as we are all Australians, we should have the opportunity to share the education, health and employment of that country on equal terms. Many will say that equality is insufficient to account for the loss of the land but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start. 

‘The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginals did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity.’ — Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

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Last week, we looked at the Creation story in Genesis 2, the story of the Garden of Eden. 

We saw that the first earthly relationship established in the Garden of Eden is between the human and the trees, which were ‘pleasant to the sight and good for food’. 

We saw that trees thrive in forests, and that a forest may be described as a superorganism just as an ant colony may be. 

Let me also remind you that we said this is a story. It’s not history or science, but it is if anything more important than that: it is a foundational story. It’s foundational not just for Christians, Jews and Muslims but for the West as a whole. And, in these interconnected times, the whole world may share in it. 

In today’s reading, the story has taken a dark turn. Before we look at that, let’s look at something in last week’s reading that we didn’t touch on. Something to do with Land Sunday, today’s theme. 

Genesis 2.7, we read 
‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being …’

Let’s learn some Hebrew. Adamah is a Hebrew word: it means soil, land, even earth. When God forms ‘man’ the word is Adam. ‘Adam’ isn’t primarily a name, it’s the human God makes from the ground. Just as ‘Eve’ is not really a name; Eve means ‘Mother of all living’. 

So: Adam — the Human — is formed from Adamah — the Earth. 

We could say the Human is formed from Humus, the topsoil. 

Or better still, the Earthling is formed from the Earth. Adam is the Earthling from the Earth. 

This is why at a funeral service you may hear the words
Earth to earth,
ashes to ashes,
dust to dust …

as the coffin is lowered to the ground, or disappears behind the crematorium curtain. 

In this foundational Eden story, we are intimately connected with the Earth. Living in a city, we can easily forget that we are earthlings from the earth. The funeral liturgy is a place and time that keeps this connection firmly before us. We return, one way or another, to the Earth from which we came. 

Yet as the story goes on, the earthlings from Earth turn against one another. It begins as Cain kills Abel. 

These earthlings are no longer living in connection with one another, or with the Earth from which they came. In fact, we shall see that the ground itself has grown hostile. 

Back to the story. Adam and Eve 
‘heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”’ 

Now he has eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam is afraid of God. There is a separation between him and God. 

They say the best lie is close to the truth. The crafty serpent spoke a half truth when he said to Eve, 
God knows that when you eat of it (the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

This is how I read the story: Adam and Eve were children as far as maturity was concerned. God wanted them to grow to know good from evil, but not yet. 

The time would come when they could eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they needed to mature first. 

I imagine what it would be like if my four-year-old granddaughter were given the maturity of a twenty four year old woman. She couldn’t handle it. She is not ready for it. Yet. 

Adam and Eve grasped at the fruit, and received maturity too soon. 

What happens then? Everyone starts throwing everyone else under the bus. 

One:
The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ 

Two:
Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ 

And then the consequences flow. Hard. 

The serpent must go on its belly.

The woman will have pain in childbirth. 

Again, this is not history — or else we may be implying that snakes had legs and talked before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, or that babies had small heads beforehand that made giving birth easier. 

To the man, God says 
‘cursed is the ground because of you;
   in toil you shall eat of it
     all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
   for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
   and to dust you shall return.

This is a hard road to wisdom. It’s not the steady maturing that God had in mind for Adam and Eve, the Earthling from earth and the Mother of all living. It is a wisdom that comes through mistakes, failure, conflict, defeat. Ultimately — thank God! — it bears fruit as the wisdom of the cross as Jesus identifies with us unto death. 

The Earth is a place of hard labour for earthlings. We Australians live in a ‘sunburnt country,… of droughts and flooding rains’, in Dorothy Mackellar’s famous words. If the flood doesn’t get you, the bushfire will. If the drought doesn’t get you, the cyclone will. And the mossies will finish the rest off. 

In this difficult situation, it’s little wonder that earthlings turn against one another. The first murder, the murder of Abel by Cain, occurs in the fourth chapter of Genesis! 

It wasn’t meant to be this way, according to the foundational story of the Garden of Eden. The design was for us to live in peace and harmony with the land. 

The issue between Abel and Cain was Whose land is it? Does it belong to Cain the farmer, or to Abel the herder?

The history of Australia can be seen as a story of whose land it is. 

Every Sunday, we acknowledge the land we stand upon as land of the Yagera and Turrbul nations. These are the First Peoples of this place. They have never given up the sovereignty of their land, but we occupy it. 

The Aboriginal flag is our pulpit cloth. More than that, we live in a place where that flag is painted on the main intersection. (You can just see the roofline of this church on the left of the photo.) 

We are also a place in which Aboriginal elders such as Aunty Jean Phillips and activists such as Brooke Prentis have been and are welcome to speak. 

Is that it? Is there more we could do? If we acknowledge ‘Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement’ (Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu), then that is a question we should ask ourselves as we move into the future. A first step might be to familiarise ourselves with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

How do we live as earthlings from earth in Australia today? We need the wisdom of indigenous people to explore this further; as we meet on Yagera and Turrbul land, we must beware of only paying lip service to that reality. 

West End Uniting Church 13 September 2020

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God likes Trees

Season of Creation: Forest Sunday

Reading
Genesis 2.4b–22

One reason that many of us fail to understand trees is that they live on a different time scale than us.… Creatures with such a luxury of time on their hands can afford to take things at a leisurely pace. The electrical impulses that pass through the roots of trees, for example, move at the slow rate of one third of an inch per second.… trees need to communicate, and electrical impulses are just one of their many means of communication.… Life in the slow lane is clearly not always dull.…

In these times of dramatic environmental upheaval, our yearning for undisturbed nature is increasing. Countries around the world are enacting legislation to protect what remains of their original forests. In the United Kingdom, the designation ‘ancient woodlands’ affords some protection to woodlands that have existed continuously since at least the 1600s. Often formerly the property of large estates, over their history they have been intensively managed for wood and wildlife, and so, although the wood itself may be ancient, the trees that grow there may not. In Australia, the term ‘old-growth forest’ helps protect some ancient forests from logging, but as economic interests push back, arguments are inevitably raised about the precise meaning of the term.

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees

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Today is sometimes called ‘Forest Sunday’; we’re looking at the story of the Garden of Eden with a special focus on what it says about trees and forests. Let’s hear a bit of the story again:

… the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.…

… The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

God likes trees. Yet I have to confess that in my younger years, I didn’t take a lot of notice of trees. In my early years in England, I couldn’t tell an oak from an elm, a beech from a birch. Then I came to Australia and I had a whole new range of trees to be ignorant of: gum trees and wattles, rainforest giants and Moreton Bay figs. 

Oh, I knew that trees make oxygen for us to breathe, and so they were very important. I knew they threw welcome shade on hot summer days. I just neglected to get acquainted with them. 

But we can’t be unacquainted with trees any more. Not now we face a climate emergency that our political leaders seem to think is very a secondary issue, rather than a looming catastrophe. 

The vision that the story of the Garden of Eden gives us is one of relatedness between humans and the creation, all in the care of God. The very first relationship it mentions is that of humans and trees: 

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food … 

Trees are ‘pleasant to the sight’. They are beautiful, living beings. I find just looking at a forest scene relaxing, don’t you? Trees are not just things that we use for construction or paper products; we cannot just bulldoze them away with no consequence. They have value in and of themselves. 

Trees are enriched by being together, in forests. Only recently, I have learnt that trees communicate with one another. They do this through releasing chemicals. Peter Wohlleben writes

Trees also use the senses of smell and taste for communication. If a giraffe starts eating an African acacia, the tree releases a chemical into the air that signals that a threat is at hand. As the chemical drifts through the air and reaches other trees, they ‘smell’ it and are warned of the danger. Even before the giraffe reaches them, they begin producing toxic chemicals. Insect pests are dealt with slightly differently. The saliva of leaf-eating insects can be ‘tasted’ by the leaf being eaten. In response, the tree sends out a chemical signal that attracts predators that feed on that particular leafeating insect.

Isn’t that amazing? 

Trees in a forest ‘relate’ to one another. They are beings with a life that goes beyond their economic value to us, and even also beyond their value to us as things of beauty. They have a value quite independent of human life and needs. 

Let’s go back to the creation story. The story we heard today is the second creation story in the Bible; the first is in Genesis 1, and starts with ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ and then God creates through the seven-day week. 

The story of the Garden of Eden is second in the Bible, but it was written first. It’s the earlier creation story. 

And it is a story of course, it’s not history or science. It’s a foundational story for us, but it wasn’t written by us. It was written by farming folk for farming folk.

In the story of Eden, the work of the first human is tilling the ground, farming. Of course, there was no knowledge of previous epochs of time, of dinosaurs and of people as hunter-gatherers.

So God makes the first human, a farmer: 

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.… The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Most of the pictures we see of the Garden of Eden imagine a man and woman, with perhaps a strategically-placed leaf or branch covering their more sensitive bits, and perhaps an apple or a snake in the background. But Eden is a garden to be cared for; it grows things that are ‘beautiful to look at’ and things that are  ‘good for food’. 

The small-scale farming that this story reflects is a world away from modern agribusiness, with large-scale monocultures of cash crops. Our large-scale farming practices have resulted in the destruction of much of the world’s forests. 

Recall that trees are enriched by being together, in forests. Forest trees connect with one another in more ways than by sending chemicals into the air. Through their root systems, they establish interconnections that bring mutual benefit by exchanging nutrients. We can see forests as superorganisms much like ant colonies. 

Why would trees do this? Its for their mutual benefit. 

In a forest ecosystem, a microclimate develops which moderates extremes of temperature and stores water. In these forests, trees may live for centuries. 

Trees are social beings — if they are given the kind of conditions that old-growth forests provide. 

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food …

God likes trees. 

We are heading towards another summer here in Australia. Already, there have been small-scale bushfires this year; bushfire seasons are starting earlier. There are hopes that this summer will not see the disastrous fires we saw last summer, because a La Niña system is expected. Usually, but not always, a La Niña year is wetter than an El Niño year. 

There is absolutely no room for complacency here. If we have a better summer this year — and could it be any worse than last year? — it will be because we have more rain due to a La Niña event. 

We need a better national debate on forests and forest management, including listening to indigenous people and their wisdom — yet our political leaders seem to be reluctant to engage in anything approaching such a debate. 

Can we turn this around? We have no choice. We must. Or else we will bequeath a diminished existence to our children and grandchildren. 

So, to sum up: God likes trees. Forests are good for trees, and enable them to be social beings. We are losing forests; we’re in big trouble. We need to change. 

Let us be counted among those who seek to turn this around, whether by our vote, or the makeup of our garden, or our conversations with one another, or our engagement with climate change on a broader scale. 

West End Uniting Church 6 September 2020

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G-d is

Reading
Exodus 3.1–15

… The divine Name is not ‘I am an eternal Being’ or ‘I am a Supreme Being.’ No indefinite article appears in the divine Name. Nowhere do the Scriptures or the classical Christian tradition (for at least its first twelve hundred years) ever name God as ‘a thing’ among other things or ‘a Being’ among ‘beings’. — John W Wright, Connections, Year A, Vol. 3

By grace it is possible to have full knowledge of all other created things and their works, and indeed of the works of God himself, and to think clearly about them, but of God himself no one can think. And so I wish to give up everything that I can think, and choose as my love the one thing that I cannot think. For he can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held. — Cloud of Unknowing (14th century)

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Last week, we heard the story of the launch of the baby Moses in his little basket in the Nile, and how women and women’s business subverted mighty pharaoh’s plan for the ‘final solution’ of the ‘Hebrew problem’.

The story fast forwards from there, to Moses as an adult. He has been brought up in pharaoh’s court — but he hasn’t drunk pharaoh’s Kool-Aid. 

He sees an Egyptian taskmaster mistreating a Hebrew slave, and once he checks no one is looking he kills the Egyptian. Soon, he realises that the news of this killing has leaked out. Moses runs for his life. 

He goes to Midian. Where was Midian? To the east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in what is the north west of Saudi Arabia today. 

In Midian, Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian. This man must have been an important figure, but he gave Moses the pretty low-status job of being a shepherd, working away from his wife and son in the wilderness. With only sheep for company. 

Moses was at a low ebb, I reckon. Shiphrah, Puah and the other women had given him a promising start; now everything had crumbled to dust in Moses’ hands. 

Yet soon, Moses will be confronting pharaoh to his face. He will become the deliverer of his people. 

What happens to change things? — God comes to Moses. 

God comes by appearing to Moses in the burning bush; God comes to call Moses to deliver the Israelites. 

Naturally, Moses doesn’t want to return. There a price in his head to Egypt. He offers several objections. One is this: 

If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them? 

Moses lived in a world of many gods. Moses and the people of his day took it for granted that there were many gods. He was familiar with the hundreds of Egyptian gods, with names like Nun, Mut, Hathor, Isis and Osiris. 

Now there is one more god in the neighbourhood, the god of Moses’ ancestors. So what is his name? Moses needs to know, so if he goes back he could have some credibility. 

But knowing a god’s name isn’t just about credibility. If we know a god’s name, we can contain this god, define him, understand him. Hell, we could even control him, domesticate him. 

So, what is this god’s name? 

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Call the Midwives

Readings
Exodus 1.8 — 2.10
Romans 12.1–8

 

The liberation of the Israelite people in Egypt begins with Shiphrah and Puah. They are the mothers of a revolution waged by women. They likely enlisted untold numbers of birthing-women and expectant mothers in their resistance movement. It is not clear whether they deliver Moshe (Moses), Aharon (Aaron), and/or Miryam (Miriam). In any case their act of resistance sets the stage for those to follow. Shiphrah and Puah become the first deliverers in the book of deliverance. — Wilda C Gaffney, Womanist Midrash

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The Book of Exodus is the second book of the library we call the Bible. Exodus begins with a scenario that has repeated itself many times in world history. An emperor, king, president — or pharaoh — names a group of people as a threat, or undesirable, and moves to persecute, isolate or eliminate them. We could name anything from Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews to Pol Pot’s murderous regime to Donald Trump wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. 

In the Book of Exodus, it is the pharaoh of Egypt, the most powerful man in the known world. He has moved beyond any sense of gratitude for Joseph, the Hebrew who had delivered Egypt from disaster in the past. He now views the Hebrews as a clear and present danger, and he has a plan. 

The first part of it is to break the Hebrew people by subjecting them to hard labour, making ‘their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick’. 

The second part is to compel the midwives to kill every boy born to a Hebrew mother. Pharaoh commanded them, 

When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.

This was pharaoh’s way of addressing the ‘Hebrew Problem’. 

But pharaoh is subverted by women, and women’s business. And women’s business advances God’s cause. 

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Jesus said WHAT?

Reading
Matthew 15.21–28

My first reaction to the prompt ‘how my mind has changed’ was to give an account of how I have been wrong. I assumed, having once written a book called The Joy of Being Wrong, that I might address the topic simply by engaging in festive recantation. On reflection, the question asks for something much more subtle. As it turns out, my mind is of little importance. What is important is who has changed my mind. Both the big Who and the many, many secondary whos and whats we all represent for each other as we interact during our time on earth. For me, those secondary interactions occur in the light of the primary changer of my mind, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The One from whom we may also occasionally experience direct graces. — James Alison, ‘How my Mind has Changed’, Christian Century, 26 August 2020

… faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time; faith is about following the quiet voice of God without having everything figured out ahead of time. — Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

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This is a very rare kind of story: it’s rare because it makes Jesus look bad. He begins by ignoring the Canaanite woman, then he says he wasn’t sent to help her. And then he suggests she is no better than a dog, before he finally heals her daughter.

 So I ask the question: why include this story in the New Testament?

Mark and Matthew are the two Gospels that include it, and Mark was written first. The broad details are the same, but Matthew makes a tweak or two to Mark’s version. 

For example, Mark calls her a Syro-Phoenician woman; that is, a Gentile woman from part of the country we call Lebanon. In the Gospel According to Matthew, she is a named as a Canaanite woman. 

The Canaanites were historical enemies of Israel; so for Matthew, she was a particular kind of Gentile, one of Israel’s ancient foes. 

She was outside the covenant God had made with the people of Israel. Way outside. 

Matthew emphasises this in a way that Mark doesn’t. The woman has addressed him with a Jewish title, Son of David; but Jesus says, ‘I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to them alone.’ 

(But is there a slight softening on Jesus’ part? The disciples want him to get rid of her, but he explains the situation to her …)

The woman, though, remains on the outside. She falls down before Jesus and asks again, 

‘Help me, sir.’ Jesus replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ 

But she had a good answer: 

‘True, sir,’ she answered, ‘and yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’

Jesus appreciates her answer, and replies,

What faith you have! Let it be as you wish!

Remember last week’s Gospel reading. Jesus told Peter, ‘How little faith you have!’ Peter, one of the covenant people of God, has little faith; this unnamed outsider, this foreigner, this Canaanite woman, has commendably great faith. 

But why include this story in the first place? Let me present three possibilities: 

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‘Your path was through the sea’

Reading
Matthew 14.22–33

 

But now, Jacob, this is the word of the LORD,
the word of your Creator,
of him who fashioned you, Israel:
Have no fear, for I have redeemed you;
I call you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through water I shall be with you;
when you pass through rivers they will not overwhelm you … 

(Isaiah 43.1–2)

The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here. — Marcus Borg, The God we never knew

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We heard today of a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Storms blow up quickly there, very quickly indeed. My wife and I were in Israel seven years ago, and went out on the Sea of Galilee. As we crossed, a storm began to blow, and toss the little old fishing tub we were in. Our guide told us that had the weather been like that when we’d first arrived, he wouldn’t have let us board the boat. It would have been too dangerous out in the middle of the Sea. 

Today, we meet the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, storm-tossed, ‘battling with a head wind and a rough sea’. The people of ancient Israel didn’t think much of the sea; it was unpredictable, it was wild, it was the home of fearsome giant sea creatures. The stories they told of the sea were of God taming the chaotic waters at the creation of the world; of only Noah and his family surviving the great deluge; of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. 

I love Psalm 77. This psalm has a picture of God victoriously striding over the waters of the sea as though they were dry land. Towards the end, Psalm 77 addresses God in these words:

Your path was through the sea,
your way through mighty waters,
and none could mark your footsteps. (v.19, REB)

Psalm 77 reminds me of the story of Jesus walking on water, as a disclosing of his divine nature. 

This psalm was written by someone in trouble. Verse 2 says: 

In the day of my distress I sought the Lord,
and by night I lifted my hands in prayer.
My tears ran unceasingly,
I refused all comfort.

The disciples were also in trouble on the Lake, remember, ‘battling with a head wind and a rough sea’. They needed help. 

And many in Australia today are battling, people ill or dying with covid-19, people whose jobs have gone or are under threat, women and children under greater threat of domestic violence because of lockdown orders. 

The psalmist is troubled, so troubled that he begins to doubt God’s goodness:  Continue reading

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Transfiguration

Transfiguration: Malcolm Guite

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

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A Different Compassion

Reading
Matthew 14.13–21

 

God sent Jesus to make free persons of us. He has chosen compassion as the way to freedom. That is a great deal more radical than you might at first imagine. It means that God wanted to liberate us, not by removing suffering from us, but by sharing it with us. Jesus is God-who-suffers-with-us. Over time, the word sympathising has become a somewhat feeble way of expressing the reality of ‘suffering with’ someone. Nowadays, when someone says: ‘I have sympathy for you’, it has a rather distant ring about it. The feeling, at least for me, is of someone looking down from above. The word’s original meaning of ‘suffering together with someone’ has been partly lost. That’s why I’ve opted for the word compassion. It’s warmer, more intimate, and closer. It’s taking part in the suffering of the other, being totally a fellow human being in suffering.… 

Jesus is the revelation of God’s unending, unconditional love for us human beings. Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show us that the love we most long for is given to us by God, not because we deserved it, but because God is a God of love. — Henri Nouwen, Letters to Marc About Jesus

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[Jesus] saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. (Matthew 14.14)

A great crowd gathers in the wilderness, and doesn’t worry about getting sick. This is obviously a pre-Covid story.… But that’s not the main point today.

The main point is this: Jesus had compassion, and Jesus wants us to be compassionate too. To follow Jesus is to act with compassion. 

Compassion is an interesting word. It comes to us from Latin, like so many big words do. ‘Com’ means ‘with’; ‘passion’, ‘suffering’. 

Compassion: to suffer with someone. 

[Jesus] saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. (Matthew 14.14)

The New Testament wasn’t written in Latin, but in Greek. The Greek word for compassion is very interesting. It’s splangnizomai, to feel deeply. To feel it down in your gut. To know in your gut that something must be done to help, and then to make sure it’s done. Compassion. 

This is an odd time to talk about compassion. Earlier this week I had a very different sermon lined up, where the next thing I was going to say was this: 

What do you have compassion for? A member of your family? The homeless? People with Covid-19? Or do you have compassion for planet Earth itself? All of these are worthy of our compassion. 

But things have changed, and we are being more cautious this week. We are concerned about the community spread of Coronavirus. So, we are exercising compassion by keeping our distance from one another, rather than by getting close together. 

Maybe we’re wondering whether it’s even appropriate to even use words like ‘compassion’ in this situation. How can you show socially-distanced compassion, besides not coming to church? Let’s see.

I talked about where the word compassion comes from, its Latin and Greek roots. I think of compassion as empathy in action. 

We have empathy when we sense that we feel what another person is feeling, their sorrow, their joy. When we take the next step and do something with that empathy, we show compassion. 

A friend of mine told me once the she was walking along a stretch of road, a lonely stretch, miles from anywhere. A man was walking towards her in the distance, and she began to feel nervous. There was no one else around. She wondered if she would be safe. 

Then, while he was still coming toward her, he crossed to the other side of the road. They passed each other on opposite sides. My friend felt safe. 

She never saw him again, she doesn’t know who he is. But she still carries a sense of gratitude towards this man. 

Perhaps he could sense that it was a confronting situation for a woman, and decided to demonstrate that he was no threat. That’s certainly what my friend thought. 

I remarked to her that it was like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but this time the one who crosses on the other side is the one showing compassion. 

Sometimes, compassion looks different. We are trying not to spread Covid-19. We’re doing that once more by streaming the service rather than gathering everyone together. 

When we gather for worship — here, or online — we gather with the risen Christ in our midst. We are fed by Word and Sacrament. The Word comes to us in Scripture read and reflected on, the Sacrament in the broken bread and outpoured wine of the eucharistic meal. 

Today, we are fasting from Communion. This fast is a response to the unknown situation we face, which requires us to be careful for the moment. 

It’s ironic to fast from Communion today, because our Gospel story carries deliberate echoes of our eucharistic meal, our meal of thanksgiving. Verse 19 reads: 

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, [Jesus] looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled … 

It’s a clear echo of what we do in Holy Communion. We take the bread and wine, we pray our thanksgiving prayer, we break the bread, and we share it. 

And though we eat only a little, we are filled because in Communion, Jesus feeds us with his very self. We walk away able to give so much more that what the literal piece of bread and small amount of grape juice have given our body, because we have been fed not just by bread and wine, but we are fed by the Lord Jesus. 

This is a different time, calling for different expressions of compassion. Maybe you need to phone or message someone who’s isolated. Maybe you need to see if an elderly neighbour is ok for groceries. Maybe we’ll need to start wearing masks. 

And maybe in this time we can reflect, and pray, and ask God just what there is for us to do once this is over. Perhaps those questions about caring for the homeless, or for refugees, or for planet Earth itself may have a more active answer for us. 

Jesus says to us, as he says to the disciples, ‘You give them something to eat’. Let us use this time, to pause, and seek, and ask God how we may be compassionate followers of Jesus now and into the future. Amen.

West End Uniting Church 2 August 2020

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The Kingdom of God is like …

Reading
Matthew 13.31–33, 44–52

 

… a close examination of Jesus’ parables may well be the best way we have of ensuring that we will be listening to what he himself has to say, instead of what we are prepared to hear — provided, that is, we are willing to take note of the almost perverse way in which he used parables. — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

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Many years ago now, I was told that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I suppose that’s true, but it really leaves too much out. It’s only true-ish. Maybe it’s one-third true.

There’s another definition: a parable is a nice story with a sting in the tale. That’s better, it’s about half true. The parables certainly have a sting in the tail, but they’re not all nice stories. 

This is what Robert Farrar Capon says about the parables of Jesus: 

Jesus spoke in strange, bizarre, disturbing ways. He baulked at almost no comparison, however irreverent or unrefined. Apparently, he found nothing odd about holding up, as a mirror to God’s ways, a mixed bag of questionable characters: an unjust judge, a savage king, a tipsy slave owner, an unfair employer, and even a man who gives help only to bona-fide pests.

The parables of Jesus stop us in our tracks, frisk us, turn us upside down and shake us up till our pockets are emptied and then leave us dazed, dizzy, disorientated — but, maybe, more ready to find the right track. Maybe. 

Shall we look at a few? Let’s look at four very short parables, not longer stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. They are the Parables of the Mustard Seed, the Bakerwoman, the Buried Treasure, and the Pearl of Great Price. 

They are all ‘parables of the kingdom’. They point us to the kingdom of God in our midst. 

Firstly, The Parable of the Mustard Seed:
I like mustard, do you? 

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