Monthly Archives: March 2011

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A, 3 April 2011)

Blessed are ‘us and us and us’


Readings
Ephesians 5.8-14
John 9.1-41

Our beatitude today is:

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.

And we’re looking at the person we know as ‘the man born blind’.

One thing is clear: there was no mercy from the disciples for this man born blind. They had a question that was a theological hand grenade for Jesus. It was this:

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

There’s only one way this kind of thing can happen as far as the disciples are concerned: sin. That’s already decided. The only questions on their lips are: Which sin? Whose sin? His, or his parents’ sin? Was it passed down from parent to child? To them, the man born blind is an ‘object’ of theological speculation. His disability must the result of some kind of sin; in other words, there’s ‘something wrong’ with him.

But you know, there are others in this story who lack mercy; it’s not only the disciples, wanting to know which ‘category’ of sin caused the blindness. We also have the Pharisees, who are divided about whether Jesus is doing God’s work; and the man born blind’s parents who cower before the authorities in fear, unable to stand up for him. Not one can see that God is at work, and so they show themselves to be spiritually blind in their lack of mercy.

By the time we get to the end of this story, there are only two who see it all: Jesus, the Light of the world; and the man born blind.

What did Jesus say the purpose of this man’s blindness was? It was

so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

In other words, we can reveal God by the way we respond to people in need. We can work God’s work. Or, we can hide God’s presence by the way we respond. Which do we want it to be?

These days, we would say that ‘the man born blind’ has a disability. If we can say, ‘Blessed are the merciful’, then I am convinced that a ‘merciful theology of disability’ will reveal God’s work. What I’d like to know in the light of our Gospel reading and today’s Beatitude is: how does ‘mercy’ apply to our relationships with people who have a disability? Could my attitude and yours be called ‘merciful’?

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A tattooed God

I just love Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55). Some of my favourite verses are in chapter 49:

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…

I absolutely love that God is pictured here as a woman with such compassion for her children that she has engraved (tattooed!) their names on the palms of her hands. I am (still!) learning to rest in the hands of this God.

 

 

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“Christianity for Lent”

I’ve come across a blog written by a former Christian who has given up apostasy for Lent. He is trying to practise the Christian faith, but as one who no longer believes. It is an enlightening read. Take a look and follow it here.

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Third Sunday in Lent (Year A, 27 March 2011)

I’m on an ill-deserved weekend away at Coolum with Karen. (Having a fabulous time, wish you were here etc etc.) Here is some evidential proof of just how fab it is here:

 

 

I am grateful to the Rev Dr David Pitman for preaching this weekend, and continuing our series on the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the pure in heart

 

Readings
Exodus 17.1-7
John 4.1-41

 

Jesus said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

(Matthew 5:8)

The phrase, a “pure heart”, occurs only 5 times in the Bible. We can read about having a “clean heart” on three other occasions. The various contexts in which these passages can be found suggest that the words “pure” and “clean” can be used interchangeably…..except for the time Jesus uses it in the Beatitudes.

This is very interesting because, as we might expect, the use of these words is linked in Scripture to those personal qualities and behaviour we associate with living lives pleasing to God…honesty, integrity, love for others, sincere faith, avoiding controversy and quarrels, obedience.

Jesus, however, makes no attempt in this particular beatitude to define the significance of “pure”, nor what it means in reality to “see God”. We have to look elsewhere for clues as to the message he wanted to convey.

To that end, we turn to the story in today’s reading from John’s Gospel…the encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman.

One of my teachers at University 45 years ago was a Professor of Philosophy. I attended his first lecture for the year as a raw and somewhat naïve 18-year-old, and hardly understood a thing that was said. I went away from that lecture with a poor opinion of philosophy and an even lower opinion of the lecturer.

The following Saturday I was playing cricket for Teacher’s College against Adelaide University, and guess who was playing for the Uni team?

In that totally different context I discovered that the Professor was a friendly and engaging person, and I went to the next philosophy lecture in a completely different frame of mind. The lecturer was now my friend. Meeting him as a person had made all the difference, though it still took me most of the year to come to terms with the language and content of the course.

This story from reminds me of that experience. In her meeting with Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman hardly understood anything that Jesus said. The theology was a mystery to her. But her face-to-face encounter with Jesus changed her life. It was his response to her as a person that made the difference in the first instance. She may, in time, as I did with my introduction to philosophy, have come to understand the deeper meaning and significance of what she heard, but it was the way Jesus treated her and the manner in which he spoke to her that really mattered.

From our perspective, that is an important insight. When we read the gospel records it is abundantly clear that people mattered far more to Jesus than correct theology; relationship always had priority over orthodox doctrine. We need to remember that in the life of the church!

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Second Sunday in Lent (Year A, 20 March 2011)

Today, we return to our series on the Beatitudes as we look at the story of Nicodemus.


Blessed are those who hunger for justice

Readings
Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
John 3.1-17

Lament

Many of the psalms are psalms of lament. People cry out to God in their distress, and God hears them.
Let us join in a prayer of lament:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:
they will be filled.

People suffer, struggle, there seems no end in sight:
where are you, Lord?

Earthquakes and tsunamis rage, radiation levels rise:
where are you, Lord?

Help us find you
in the faces and lives
of the helpless and destitute.

Help us find you
and be ready to welcome you,
whatever your disguise.

And give us compassion
that we might open our hearts to those in need;
and in serving them, be served;
in loving them, find love;
and in knowing them, know you. Amen.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice:
they will be filled.

The Proclamation of the Word

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be filled.

Or, we could say:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. They will be filled.

It’s the same thing. If you are righteous, you are just in your dealings with others. If you are righteous, you want justice for others. So I like the way the Revised English Bible translates this saying:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.

When you hunger and thirst, you’re thinking about one thing. How to satisfy that need. You’ll eat just about anything; you’ll not care that the water you’ve been given is room temperature, or that the bread is a bit dry. You’ll think of little else until that need is satisfied. I’d suggest it’s the same with hungering and thirsting to see right prevail.

Today, we heard the story of Nicodemus. Was Nicodemus a seeker of righteousness? Did he ‘hunger and thirst’ for the righteousness Jesus talked about? Remember, he said: ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’? I doubt that Nicodemus hungered or thirsted.

He came to Jesus by night; perhaps he was putting himself at risk visiting Jesus. He was after all a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin; he had a position to protect. So he came in secret. For a conversation.

I’ve enjoyed thinking of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as a game of tennis.

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Uniting Church protests at Christmas Is incident

MEDIA RELEASE from UnitingJustice

Detention on Christmas Island must end

17 March 2011

The Uniting Church in Australia has expressed its horror at the excessive use of force against asylum seekers on Christmas Island this past weekend.

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Rev. Alistair Macrae said today, ‘The confirmation by the Immigration Minister that “beanbag” bullets along with tear gas were used against an unarmed group of people partaking in a peaceful demonstration is of extreme concern to us.

‘Uniting Church members around the country have expressed their own distress about this incident. We fear that this use of force against already traumatised people will compound their trauma and despair.

‘This action is reminiscent of the worst of the Howard Government’s punitive treatment of people seeking our protection. It appears that it was the deployment and actions of AFP officers that lead to an escalation of what had been a peaceful protest,’ Rev. Macrae said.

‘This incident confirms the total inappropriateness of immigration detention on Christmas Island,’ said Rev. Elenie Poulos, National Director of the Uniting Church’s national justice and advocacy agency, UnitingJustice Australia.

‘When you detain people for months on end in overcrowded and unsuitable conditions, providing little information about their case and prospects of release, it is understandable that their frustrations and desperation will boil over.

‘While the Government’s commitment to the removal of children and families from detention is a welcome step forward, it is clear from this event and the countless other incidents in detention centres across the country, including a hunger strike only recently ended at Villawood, that the detention environment is unfit for any human being – man, woman or child.

‘The continued use of mandatory detention for asylum seekers on Christmas Island and in other locations on the mainland is a breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations and our duty of care to vulnerable, traumatised people.

‘We await the release of the full terms of reference for an independent inquiry into this incident which fully investigates the use of force in the detention environment. We also reiterate the Church’s call for an end to the inhumane, damaging and costly policy of mandatory detention,’ said Rev. Poulos.

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Natural Disasters: Lament, community and the death of theodicy

Last week, I came across an article by Rev Dr Andrew Dutney, President-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia, with the provocative title: Does God hate Queensland? This was before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power disasters of Japan.

We had a bad summer with floods and cyclones; the photo at the top of the page was taken across the road from our house to show how high the water came during the flood. Japan is faring far worse than us.

How do Christians respond?

Theologians have classically gone for theodicy, the justification of God in the face of evil and disaster. Why does God let these things happen?

There are two broad kinds of theodicy: one which says with Augustine that the creation fell from perfection with Adam; the others says with Irenaeus that the world began in an immature state, and that suffering is necessary for us to mature.

Dutney points out that

theodicy works for some but not all cases. There are far too many examples of suffering which are so grotesque or so excessive that they make it impossible to devise an explanation that is both rational and morally tolerable. In any case, it would be offensive even to try to explain such suffering away.

He also makes the very important point that ordinary Christians haven’t gone all the way with the theologians in trying to justify God’s ways. Rather for them,

the experience of suffering does not challenge belief in God as such, but rather forces the question, Where in this suffering is the God in whom I believe?

Theodicy has a limited place. The scriptures allow far more lament than we have allowed for ourselves in our services until recently. Thumb through the Psalms for example upon example, or read Lamentations; Uniting in Worship 2 has put lament into the ‘mainstream’ of the Church’s worship. For Dutney it is simply that:

There is suffering which will not be explained into quietness by church leaders, philosophers or theologians.

In the floods in Brisbane, people were bowled over by the number of people who came to help. And community is another discovery in disaster:

It turns out that our possessions are less important than our family, friends and neighbours. It turns out that we can trust strangers to enter our (shattered) homes and deal gently with our treasures – in fact we rely on them to do so. It turns out that my neighbours need does matter more to me than my own in this situation. It turns out that sitting in the rubble of the lives that we’d worked so hard to create we can laugh and experience genuine joy in the inexplicable gift of being alive – together. It turns out that when we look up and see what natural disaster means in Haiti and Pakistan we do recognize in a new way the responsibilities – the opportunities to help – that go with the advantages enjoyed by Australians and New Zealanders even in times of devastation. Who knew?

None of this justifies or minimises human suffering. But we survive—and we survive together.

Read Andrew’s article for yourself.

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