Monthly Archives: December 2010

On the Third Day of Christmas…

…my true love didn’t give me three French hens—not to worry, birds are messy anyway!

Instead, we had two wonderful friends over, Sue and Henry. We shared lunch, had something nice to drink and whiled away the afternoon with pleasant conversation (and a bit more food and drink…!).

We’re having a WET summer here in Queensland, and here is the view from our house during part of the afternoon (see the drops falling from the gutters…better get to them soon):

At one stage the wind really got up—you can see the trees bending with it:

The rain settled later, so we went for an early evening stroll by the river. Here is the path down to the rowing club’s jetty:

Eventually, the sun set:

When we got back, there was a tawny frogmouth in our neighbour’s garden. We’re quite lucky here; we see frogmouths regularly:

Here’s looking at you, kid!

All in all, a fab day, fab friends and a fab way to chill after three days of services. Thanks, Sue, for the photos!

 

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First Sunday of Christmas (Year A, 26 December 2010)

We are Christmas people

Readings
Isaiah 63.7-9
Hebrews 2.10-18
Matthew 2.13-23

Christmas is intended to be a jolly time, whether you’re into Santa or the Nativity of Jesus. On the one hand, it’s about presents, food and drink; on the other, it’s about the cutest baby you ever saw. But that isn’t the whole Christmas story by any stretch of the imagination. And Christmas isn’t necessarily a wonderful time. It can be a time that brings losses and griefs to the front of our minds. It can be a very sad time, a time for tears.

Today, we heard the part of the Christmas story that has to do with loss and grief. The bit you don’t hear about while you’re dashing through the snow or sitting on Santa’s knee.

Of course, it’s the part where, in Matthew’s Gospel, Bethlehem loses all its boy children under two years of age. It’s called ‘The Slaughter of the Innocents’.

Listen to this:

The very story of Christmas is dark. Mary and Joseph, already fraught in a situation full of tension, are forced to participate in a census carried on by oppressive occupiers known for cruelty, corruption, and bullying. The town is so crowded, there’s no comfortable place for the pregnant girl about to deliver her child, so the couple settle for an animal’s hut or cave, neither clean nor pretty. Meanwhile, the local king, a paranoid maniac, orders the massacre of all the male children under the age of two in a savage act of terror. The mother and father escape, carrying with their child the guilt of survival.

Wherever you look in the Christmas story, there is discord. Mary was unexpectedly pregnant in an unforeseen way, which many would not understand; the Romans were brutally occupying the land; Herod was so murderously vindictive it was said his pigs’ lives were safer than his sons (a great pun in Greek; his huoi were safer than his huioi).

The women of Bethlehem were left grieving, while Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt. Does God care about kids? We know the answer is ‘yes’—but it’s not obvious from the story of the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’. After all, only one is saved—God’s Son. The rest seem to be expendable.

Jesus was born in a difficult and dangerous time. We shouldn’t think that Jesus was born into a relatively peaceful place like Centenary. Jesus was a marginal person, a ‘wanted’ baby dead or alive, preferably dead.

Christmas isn’t much better for many children today; and when we make Christmas all sentimental, we miss this reality. For most children in today’s world, life is difficult and may be dangerous: they may not have enough to eat; they may have illnesses like malaria or typhoid fever; they don’t have an education. Their parents may have died of AIDS. They may live in places where life is insecure because of civil unrest or war.

And it’s the same on Christmas Day.

Some children are conscripted to fight. Others are the victims of sex trafficking. Some work long hours in sweatshops to provide cheap clothing for Australians. Others are the children of asylum seekers who spend long stretches of their childhood in detention camps.

And it’s the same on Christmas Day.

God does care. The clue is in the birth of Jesus. Hundreds of years before, this was written in the Book of Isaiah:

God said, ‘Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely’;
and he became their saviour
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.

For the people who first heard this prophetic word, God was present in the way they were brought from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem.

Jesus fulfilled this prophetic word. He fulfilled it because in him the eternal God became human. It really was ‘God’s presence that saved them’. It was Emmanuel, God-with-us, who shared our lot. As our Hebrews reading says,

Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

God does care. God became like us in every respect. We proclaim this astounding truth: God eternally shares our humanity—and the humanity of every suffering child.

God is not far away from any suffering child. God is close to all who suffer, because they are God’s beloved children. And Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

What’s this Christmas been like for you? Not everyone has had a wonderful time. For many in our world, it’s just another day. Whether our own Christmas was happy or not, we are Christmas people—people of hope, and joy, and peace, and compassion.

It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them…

We are Christmas people: God’s presence is with us. It’s only when we go through life with our eyes closed that we fail to see what God is doing.

God is working in the mess of life to bring salvation. It may not be at the time of our choosing, but the timing is important: God is forming us as his children, and that takes time.

Children of God look out for one another. They help where another is suffering, whoever that child may be; they try to relieve suffering; they address government policies that cause suffering. They work with God to bring healing in the mess of life, wherever there is hardship.

There are many ways we can help—Operation Christmas Child; the Christmas Bowl; Kids Hope; Maiti Nepal; refugee resettlement projects. The list goes on; the mess goes on; God’s saving work goes on. And never ends.

It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them…

Thank God for sending his Son Jesus, and for pouring the Holy Spirit out. Thank God for opened eyes, and ask that they be opened wider in 2011. Thank God for the call to be Christmas people, people of justice and peace, and children of God!

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Christmas Day (Year A, 2010)

What God wants for Christmas


Readings
Isaiah 9.1-7
Luke 2.1-20

What did you want for Christmas? What were you hoping for? Did you get it? Or like our family, are you still waiting? (We give our presents after Christmas morning service.)

A couple of Saturdays ago, the Anglicans set up a ‘Tree of Hope’ in Middle Park shops. It was an ordinary Christmas tree, and people were invited to write on small cards their messages of hope—their prayers, their desires, so they could be hung on the tree. The message written on each card was also prayed for. (We were invited to advertise our service times there, and we aim to have an ecumenical ‘Tree of Hope’ next year.)

What did people pray for or desire? Here are a few things:

  • I hope everyone, including me, finds something to love in each day
  • We wish all a healthy and happy Christmas
  • That soon we will have world peace, justice for all children and love our fellow man and woman
  • I hope they get a cure for all cancers soon
  • May God’s gift of love be rich and tangible the whole year through
  • To those families loving and living with children with special needs
  • Hoping to move into a house
  • For peace and for the children of the world to have a peaceful Christmas filled with love and joy
  • May there be peace in the world

And there is more, all in this vein. Wonderful desires and prayers each one!

I did a ‘Wordle’ diagram of the words that came up in people’s requests. Here it is:

 

You can see the words that were used most. They’re the biggest ones. We can expect that ‘pray’ and ‘Christmas’ would be there. And we see words like ‘hope’, ‘health’, ‘good’, ‘love’, ‘please’, ‘happiness’, ‘joy’, ‘everyone’.

But there’s one word that’s just as big as ‘Christmas’ and ‘pray’. Can you see it? It’s ‘peace’. People want peace.

We live in a world in which any peace is fragile. We hear about suicide bombers, soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the threat of aggressive countries obtaining nuclear weapons, the possibility of war between North and South Korea. And we’re glad we’re here.

Christmas is the time of year when we are again reminded that God’s desires and our deepest desires are the same. They are for many good things, but the greatest is for peace. The angels sang at Jesus’ birth:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!

Our God desires peace. Many people at the Tree of Hope desire peace. It’s an absolute scandal when people who claim to belong to Jesus Christ do not desire peace.

We heard during the year of an American pastor with a congregation of about 50 people who was going to burn the Koran, the Muslim holy book. He was persuaded not to, but as a consequence of his threat Christians were killed in Pakistan. It’s a sad story, and as I said, it’s a scandal.

Let me tell you of another story, which hasn’t made the mainstream news outlets:

Steve Stone is the pastor of Heartsong Church in Tennessee, USA.

This church welcomed an Islamic community centre to their neighbourhood. The story of the church’s hospitality was aired on CNN. Shortly afterward, Pastor Stone received a call from a group of Muslims in Kashmir who’d seen the segment. They shared with him that after watching it, one of the community’s leaders said to those who were gathered: ‘God just spoke to us through this man.’ One man went straight to the local Christian church and proceeded to clean it, inside and out, because of his desire to be a good neighbour too. These Muslims told Pastor Stone, ‘We’re going to keep taking care of this little church for the rest of our lives.’

When we desire peace and put that desire into action, it’s contagious. We don’t live in a peaceful world; we live in a fear-filled world. In this world, we who celebrate the birth of Jesus are called to receive his peace. Jesus says:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Let’s put Jesus’ peace into action in our family, our neighbourhood, our place of work, our church. If we do, we’ll find that peace is catching.

Did you get what you want for Christmas? I hope so. I believe that most of us want peace too. God has already shown the way—the way is Jesus, born at Bethlehem all that time ago. Let us be people of peace in 2011.

 

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Christmas Eve (Year A, 2010)

The human Saviour


Readings
Isaiah 9.2-7
Luke 2.1-20

How human was Jesus?

It’s a trick question. We can be certain that Jesus was as human as we are. We can be 100% certain that Jesus was 100% human.

But you know it seems to me that we want to ‘protect’ Jesus from being human. You just have to think of the carols we love, and the words we love to sing. Take Away in a manger, which we’ve just sung:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

Are we sure about that? Little baby Jesus didn’t cry? I think we have built a kind of ‘fence’ around Jesus so that we protect him from any hint of sin or imperfection. If Jesus is sinless and perfect, he couldn’t have cried when he was a baby, right? Wrong.

Crying is all babies have.

What’s that empty feeling in my tummy?
I’d better cry! I’ll be full again soon.

What’s that sticky feeling in my pants?
I’d better cry! That big person will come and clean me.

Babies cry, and you can be sure Jesus cried when the cattle were ‘lowing’. We don’t have to protect Jesus from being human.

I was delighted a couple of weeks ago to come across a poem called Noel. It was written only last month by a local person. It’s a poem about Jesus’ humanity, and it pulls no punches. The author of this poem has an amazing mind. She is a woman in her late thirties who has a diagnosis of intellectual impairment. Her primary means of expressing herself is through ‘facilitated communication’. Despite having very limited functional speech, she has a startling ‘voice’! I had a ‘conversation’ with her last week. It was only possible because a psychologist used facilitated communication.

The poet is a person of faith. She believes as I do that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, ‘the Word made flesh’, the Son of God become one of us.

She believes this, but she doesn’t have to protect Jesus. She needs Jesus’ humanity to be a full humanity. I’m guessing, but I reckon that she needs the full humanity of Jesus because she has been ignored; rejected; despised; shamed—just like Jesus was. She identifies very closely with him.

Listen to her poem, Noel:

Noel

The 1st Noel
The baby did cry
His mother could not quieten him
Christ, the noisy saviour

The 2nd Noel
The baby did crawl
His mother could not stop the falls
Bruised Christ, the bloody saviour

The 3rd Noel
The baby did run
Poor Maria could not catch her son
Running Christ, the quick elusive saviour

The 4th Noel
The baby did tantrum
Maria did cry with embarrassment
Christ, the mad bad saviour

Jesus is fully human, with all that means. He was a boy; he exasperated Mary and Joseph at times. He stayed back at the temple when he was twelve, and frightened them half to death. Another time his mother Mary thought that the adult Jesus was mad and bad, and came to have him taken away. He eluded capture on more than one occasion. And later, Jesus fell on the way to the cross—and bled for us.

It’s crucially important that Jesus is completely human. When we are rejected, misunderstood and alone, there is one who has been there, who knows and cares about us. But more than that, one who is alive today. We’re not remembering the birth of a dead hero today. We’re celebrating the birth of a risen Saviour, the living Lord Jesus. All his suffering has been taken into God and has been transformed and filled with meaning.

That meaning is, of course, that he taught us the way to live. That he lived and died for us to bring us life and healing. That his Spirit lives within us now. Our lives, with their seasons of joy and sadness, also have meaning as we relate to Jesus. Christ is the noisy bloody quick elusive mad bad Saviour. All for us.

The woman who wrote these words has become a three-dimensional person to me. I could easily have ignored her; after all, she can’t speak much at all. I could have assumed that she had nothing to say. But through her poetry and with the aid of facilitated communication, I have found that she is an interesting and highly articulate person.

As we celebrate Christmas, let’s remember that Jesus is fully human. Let’s allow ourselves and others to be fully human. Let’s look for the humanity of others, especially those who are hard to understand or accept. Let’s walk the way of Jesus. Amen.

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WCC Christmas Message 2010

from the World Council of Churches general secretary

The nativity of Jesus Christ is proclaimed by angelic choirs in the heights of heaven, and the joyous news is echoed afterwards by modest shepherds in fields near Bethlehem. Meanwhile, a mother and father care for their newborn child. No place for this family could be found in the inn, so they shelter among livestock. The circumstances are strikingly humble, yet their infant is the occasion of the angels’ song:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favours!”

Luke 2:13-14

The splendour of Christmas highlights many contrasts in our surroundings. First of all – it is all about what we are given – surprisingly – by God. This revelation of glory in heaven is given to people living off the land, dependent on simple blessings found in fields and farmyards, in caring for sheep and celebrating a new birth. It is they who first hear the promise of so much more than bare survival or the simplest pleasure. They dare to imagine the real possibility of peace on earth. The song of angels encourages them to give glory to God alone and to seek peace with others, far and near.

Conditions in the world today are marked by contrasts at least as great as those in Jesus’ time. Everywhere we see wildly contradictory instances of poverty and wealth, systems of tyranny and of justice, brutal violence and sincere attempts at reconciliation. Through it all, we are keenly aware of the need for a peace worthy of the name: just peace for all.

In this season, and in looking to the New Year, we in the World Council of Churches find encouragement in the potential for seeking peace that is to be afforded in May 2011 at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Kingston, Jamaica. Taking as its motto “Glory to God; Peace on Earth”, the IEPC will serve as a culmination of the churches’ Decade for Overcoming Violence (2001-2010) and an occasion to renew our common commitment to the establishment of a just peace among peoples.

We encourage you to make certain your church is participating in the IEPC as all WCC member churches have been invited to send representatives to the convocation. For the World Council of Churches, peace is a vital part of living the fellowship and building Christian unity.

In these days we hear anew the opening accounts in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Our hearts and spirits are refreshed once more. In response, we rededicate ourselves to the praise of God in highest heaven and to our ministries of peace on earth.

May the blessing of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you always.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General secretary,
World Council of Churches

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Advent wisdom from Richard Rohr

I love Richard Rohr’s insights and way of putting things. This is from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr:

Jesus said it to us quite clearly: “Why do you worry like the pagans do?  What shall I eat? What shall I drink?  What shall I wear?”  (Matthew 6:31).  But for some reason, the human mind feels most useful when it reprocesses the past and worries about the future.

For some reason, the mind cannot just be present to the moment, where it could find delight in the “birds in the sky” and the “lilies of the field” that Jesus has just described as the simple antidote to all of our “worrying.” He says “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself” (6:34).

Jesus clearly lived in the now or he could not have talked so foolishly.  When we live in the present we tend to notice the natural world, when we live in our heads, we compare, worry, and judge.

Great wisdom. Maybe in a few Advents’ time I’ll have put it into practice.

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Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A, 19 December 2010)

It’s not easy being Joseph


Readings
Isaiah 7.10-16
Matthew 1.18-25

 

Sometimes, a young couple expecting their first child will say to me, ‘We’re not going to let having a baby change our lives.’ I just smile. Having a child is like a freight train colliding with your life. Nothing is the same ever again. And everyone finds that out sooner rather than later.

Mary and Joseph were no exception to this universal rule. Usually on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we look at how Mary the Mother of our Lord was affected by the coming birth of her first child. We look at Mary’s story two years out of three. But once every three years, we look at the announcement of the birth of Jesus from another perspective. Today, it’s Joseph’s turn.

In Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary were ‘betrothed’ to be married. We don’t ‘betroth’ children to each other any more; it meant that they were promised to each other. Joseph and Mary’s families had arranged that one day they would get married. When they were both old enough.

The decision had been made for them; a betrothal was serious stuff. Joseph and Mary were a genuine ‘item’—a celibate item, but an item nonetheless. Only a divorce could separate them. And a divorce could only mean a scandal.

So what could Joseph do when he finds out that Mary is pregnant?

One thing is clear about Joseph: he is ‘a righteous man’. In other words, a good man, an honest man. Desmond Tutu would say he has ubuntu. I wonder if Jesus may have been thinking a little of Joseph when he said to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’. He had to learn that kind of thing from someone.

Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. He once said,

There are very few people who realise what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands and let themselves be formed by his grace.

I see Joseph as ‘a righteous man’ who abandoned himself into God’s hands, just as Mary did when she said to the angel,

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

So as a man abandoning himself into God’s hands, what is Joseph to do about Mary? He may be a righteous man, but he’s not ‘hardline’ righteous. What do I mean by that?

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