Monthly Archives: August 2010

A moment (just!) of ubuntu

I preached a few weeks ago about how the way of ubuntu is starting to speak to me, particularly through the writings and life of Desmond Tutu. Eureka St has a story today about how a young man with no money for a ticket was ‘voted’ onto a bus.

The story is called Vote 1 bus ‘bludger’. I’d like to think of it as a moment of ubuntu, of a fair go.

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19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 August 2010)

It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom

Readings
Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
Luke 12.32-40

For the rest of the month of August, we have  a series: we’re looking at Mission and Stewardship. So to begin, I want to share a quotation with you that I hope you will remember always:

The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the early part of the Second World War, said that. ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.’

It’s a great thought, isn’t it? The Church exists so that others may benefit. I think it’s a tremendous thought. Problem: I suspect that many church members don’t believe it. Or if they do, they don’t realise the implications.

Because while it is a great and a tremendous thought, it’s not a nice and consoling thought. It’s really quite a disturbing thought.

The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Why is that a disturbing thought? Let me ask another question: Are you a member of the Church? The Church doesn’t exist for your benefit. I’m a member of the Church. The Church doesn’t exist for my benefit. The Church is the Body of Christ—we are the Body of Christ—so we exist for the benefit of those who are outside the Body. The Church does not exist to meet your needs or mine.

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“It is your Father’s good pleasure 
to give you the kingdom”

Devotions: Bremer Brisbane Presbytery meeting

Readings
Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
Luke 12.32-40

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Luke 12.32

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11.1

Faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen’, the gift of God that enables the believer to stand firm in the midst of difficulties and trials. Or at least, faith reminds the believer where to go to find help in the midst of those difficulties and trials.

Faith is ‘the assurance of things hoped for’, the means by which we lean into a hope-filled future—not because we’re optimists by nature, but because it is God’s future.

Hebrews 11, the great faith Chapter, gives us examples of those who lived by faith in Old Testament times: Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Rahab and others. It tells of those who

through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

More than that though, it tells of those who

were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two (according to tradition, the prophet Isaiah met his death by being sawn in two by a wooden sword), they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

All of these, whether so-called ‘winners’ and so-called ‘losers’, had faith—they had conviction that gave them the power to conquer or endure; they had assurance that there was a promised future in God’s good time.

We too live by faith. Yet unlike these Old Testament heroes, we see the promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ; but like them, we see it by faith.

But there is one further dimension to our faith. It is built on Jesus himself, upon God’s taking flesh and living our life. It is built upon God’s humility in dying our death. And it is built on God’s authority over death.

We see more clearly than our ancestors that God is a seeking God, a finding God, that God is looking for partners in bringing about the new creation. We have the word of Jesus:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Isn’t that wonderful? It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, little flock though we may be. It is the Father’s pleasure for us to work with him in revealing the nature and the contours of that kingdom in our own day. It is the Father’s pleasure for us to live faithfully, whether the ‘results’ of our work look like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ to us.

There’s a sense to me at least that Hebrews 11 describes a heroic quest for the promises. I’ve already used the word ‘heroes’. Yet for me, faith isn’t heroic. Really, faith is all we have. Whether we are ‘successes’ or ‘failures’, whether life is going well or badly, whether we ‘escape the sword’ or are ‘sawn in two’.

And we have faith because in and through Christ, it is God’s good pleasure.

Now, today, it is our turn to live this life of faith. To live with conviction about the present and assurance for the future. To receive the kingdom, and to be generous in sharing it with others. It’s God’s good pleasure. Amen.

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Skin

I went to see Skin today—I thought it was well worth seeing. That it is based on a true story makes it even more remarkable. (FWIW, Rotten Tomatoes gives it 87%.)

UK-born Nigerian-Jewish actor Sophie Okonedo plays the central role of Sandra Laing beautifully (Ella Ramangwane plays the younger Sandra), and Alice Krige plays her mother well. You could almost (but not quite) believe that Sam Neill was Afrikaans.

Skin is unsentimental hopeful sad loving poignant despairing; it’s an “it is what it is” film. My eyes were moist leaving the cinema, and I always feel a film that moves me is worthwhile.

Here is Sophie Okonedo talking about the film:

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Richard Rohr on being in the darkness

A profound reflection from Richard Rohr (in Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer):

I think Jesus’ primary metaphor for the mystery of transformation is the sign of Jonah (Matt. 16:4, 12:39, Luke 11:29). It’s taken on a great significance for me. I was reading the Gospel passage in which Jesus says, “It is an evil and adulterous generation that wants a sign” (Luke 11:29). He said the only sign he will give us is the sign of Jonah. That’s the only sign Jesus offers. Think of all the other signs, apparitions, and miracles that religion looks for and seeks and even tries to create. But Jesus says it is an evil and adulterous generation that looks for these things. That’s a pretty hard saying. He says instead we must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call. That’s the only pattern Jesus promised us. Paul spoke of “reproducing the pattern” of his death and thus understanding resurrection (Phil. 3:11). That teaching will never fail. The soul is always freed and formed in such wisdom. Native religions speak of winter and summer; mystical authors speak of darkness and light; Eastern religion speaks of yin and yang or the Tao. Seasons transform the year; light and darkness transform the day. Christians call it the paschal mystery, but we are all pointing to the necessity of both descent and ascent.

The paschal mystery is the pattern of transformation. We are transformed through death and rising, probably many times. There seems to be no other cauldron of growth and transformation.

We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the great language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out. Answers are not what we are here for. When we look for answers, we’re looking to change the pattern. When we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. The good energy is all in the questions, seldom in the answers. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. Instead we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer.

Simone Weil said, “It is grace that forms the void inside of us and it is grace alone that can fill the void.” Grace leads us to the state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaningless in which we ask, “What is it all for? I don’t want to wake up tomorrow.” A woman called me yesterday whose husband had just died. She could not imagine why she would want to live and couldn’t imagine how it would ever be different again. All I could do was just tell her, “Believe me, believe me.” She said, “I’ll trust you.” I told her, “Some day this immense bottomless pit of pain will go away.”

It should be the work of Christians who believe in the paschal mystery to help people when they are being led into the darkness and the void. The believer has to tell those in pain that this is not forever; there is a light and you will see it. This isn’t all there is. Trust it. Don’t try to rush through it. We can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it. That means that in our life we have some blue days or dark days. Historic cultures saw it as the time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. It becomes sacred space, and yet this is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God who works in the darkness—where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret.

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18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 1 August 2010

Baptism: A matter of death and life

Readings
Colossians 3.1-11
Luke 12.13-21

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

LP Hartley started his 1953 book, The Go-Between, with this wonderful sentence. It’s just about become a proverbial saying, and it would be hard to find a better way to begin a book. Or a sermon, for that matter. So why not? Let’s do it:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

But first, let’s think about how we do something now. That something is baptism. Most times, we baptise babies or small children. It’s easy to get caught up in how cute they are. It’s possible to think of baptism as the way cute babies become part of the church family.

But when we read the bible, we see that baptism is spoken of very differently. It’s a matter of life and death. More accurately, it’s a matter of death and life. It’s about the person to be baptised dying with Christ and rising again with him. Sometimes, we forget that.

I think we’d be doing baptism better, and being reminded of what it means, if the font were shaped like a cross. And we laid the baby down in it. It would be challenging in the extreme, but it would show what baptism is really about.

Let’s now switch to the past. Don’t forget:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

I want you to imagine that you live in Rome in the fourth century AD. You wear Roman clothes; you eat anchovies and olives and rancid feta cheese, and quaff poor-quality red wine diluted with unsafe drinking water. It is a foreign country, and they really do things differently there. Including baptism.

You were brought up a pagan, but you’ve been converted to Jesus Christ. For three whole years you have been instructed in the Christian faith. In that time, you have never been to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. You haven’t been told what happens there; you have been dismissed after the ‘prayers of the people’ to continue being taught and formed in the Christian faith.

But now, Easter is approaching; and at the Easter Vigil, at last you’re going to become part of the Christian Church in baptism.

You haven’t been told what will happen then either. Back in your day, way back in the fourth century, the life of the Church was kept secret from all except those who had been fully initiated. They do things differently there, remember? Continue reading

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