Category Archives: Church & world

Servants of the Subversive Kingdom

Reading
Luke 19.1-10 

We had a guest preacher today: Dr Janice McRandal. Janice is a public theologian working out of Wesley Central Mission, Brisbane.

 

In April 1940 the DC Comics Batman strip introduced to the world the now well-known nemesis of their great American hero: The Joker. Always depicted as the dark otherside in the battle for good and evil, the Joker, with his warped and whacky humour and relentless attempts to cause chaos and destruction, played a crucial role in moving the Batman stories along. He was dark and twisted, and a villain who approached crime and weaponry with great creativity and flair. The Joker’s backstory was scant: indeed, for the longest time, we were told that the Joker was an ordinary man who fell into a vat of chemicals, bleaching his skin white, reddening his lips and, fatefully, driving him insane. It’s the kind of fantastical comic book origin detail that does just enough to create a villain and nothing more. The Joker was a plot mover slim on relatability and high on homicidal rage. 

But the Joker story has shifted significantly over the last 30 years, and in 2019, the most controversial film of the year is a re-telling that throws everything we know up in the air. Entirely dedicated to the Joker backstory, the 2019 Joker is brought into a real world as a real-life character that might even make sense. In this psychologically heavy retelling, the chillingly plausible origin story of the Joker humanises this character in ways never thought possible. And suddenly the Batman and Joker story is not at all what we thought. It requires a different approach, a different way of thinking and analysing of the story. Something else is going on here. 

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Surely the day is coming and now is

Reading
Jeremiah 31.27–34

 

The poet proposes a two-stage philosophy of history which is crucial for the full acknowledgment of exile and the full practice of hope in the face of exile. The negative has happened; the positive is only promised. The poem places us between the destruction already accomplished in 587 B.C.E. and the homecoming only promised but keenly anticipated. The oracle places us between a death already wrought and a resurrection only anticipated. — Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

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The last couple of Sundays, we’ve been visiting the time of the Exile, which was around five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Do you remember?—the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were taken as exiles to Babylon, and there they stayed until Babylon itself was defeated. Then they were allowed to go ‘home’, though of course most people who had known Jerusalem as home were dead by now. 

It’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of the Exile—for Israel, for us as Christians, for the whole world. 

It was in the Exile that they began to write much of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. They started to collect and put together the ancient stories of Israel were while they were in Exile. 

Scribes gathered together the old traditions to write the stories of the past, stories like the Flood, or the life of Moses. At the same time, prophets such as Jeremiah spoke new words into the current age.

In Babylon, the exiles had to work out a theology that responded to a place of defeat. The old idea had been that Yahweh was Israel’s God, and the other tribes and nations had their own gods. Yahweh was just the best of the bunch. Until he wasn’t, because the Babylonian gods had defeated him and shown they were more powerful. 

What could the exiles have done with this? I guess they could have decided the Babylonian gods with names like Bel, Nebo and Ishtar were the winners, so they should ditch Yahweh and pledge allegiance to them. 

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‘Seek the welfare of the city’

Note:
We held a Blessing of the Animals service earlier in our Eucharist.

Reading
Jeremiah 29.1, 4–7

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29.7)

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‘The city where I have sent you’ is Babylon. Jews in exile are to work for the well-being (shalom) of the empire and its capital city. The well-being (shalom) of Judah is dependent upon and derivative from that of Babylon. This positive attention toward Babylon is very different from the deep resentment toward the imperial masters generally and Babylon particularly as expressed elsewhere (in the Jeremiah tradition, see chs. 50-51, and also Isa. 13-14, 47). Prophetic faith is powerfully realistic about the political situation of the Jews in exile. — Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

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‘Seek the welfare of the city…’ 

Last week, we were immersed in the agony of the exiles in Psalm 137.

Let’s recap: the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding country were forced into exile in Babylon from the year 597 BC. Their great Temple was destroyed in 586 BC. They were a long way from home, existing rather than living in Babylon. Remember, Babylon was the superpower of its day, situated in what we call Iraq. 

In Psalm 137, they are grieving and more than that, they want revenge. Gruesome revenge. 

There were prophets who were speaking to their situation. Some were false prophets speaking fake news. So the prophet Hananiah said,

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 28.2–4)

Don’t worry folks, it’ll all be over soon. You’ll be home in two years. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jeremiah called BS on Hananiah. More than that, he said

Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord. (Jeremiah 28.15–16)

And, we’re told, Hananiah died within the year. 

Jeremiah has a different time span for the duration of the exile:

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29.10)

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Look and see

Readings
1 Timothy 6.6–19
Luke 16.19–31

 

…the poor person has a name: Lazarus; the rich and powerful person, by contrast, does not. In the world today the situation is reversed: the poor are anonymous and seem destined for an even greater anonymity. They are born and die without being noticed. They are disposable pieces in a history that eludes their grasp and excludes them. — Gustavo Gutierrez and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, On the Side of the Poor: A Theology of Liberation

Blessed are you who are in need;
the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who now go hungry;
you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now;
you will laugh.…

But alas for you who are rich;
you have had your time of happiness.
Alas for you who are well fed now;
you will go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now;
you will mourn and weep.                    Luke 6.20b–21, 25–26

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Let’s start with a story.

A young couple were killed in a car accident on the day before their wedding. They arrived at the Pearly Gates. St Peter felt sorry for them, and asked if there was anything he could do to make being in heaven even more pleasant for them. So they looked at each other and asked if it would still be possible to be married in heaven. St Peter looked a little thoughtful and said, ‘It’s never been done before. But leave it with me.’

About a hundred years went by. One day, they ran into St Peter and asked about the wedding. ‘Everything is being arranged,’ he assured them.

Another hundred years passed, and they saw St Peter in the distance. They reminded him about the wedding and said, ‘We know that in heaven, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and time is of no consequence…but we’ve been waiting over two hundred years.’ St Peter replied, ‘I am truly sorry. All the arrangements were made the day after you arrived but there’s just this one problem.’

‘What’s that?’ they asked.

St Peter said, ‘Have you ever tried to find a minister up here?’

When we hear a story about St Peter at the Pearly Gates, we know to wait for the punch line. We don’t imagine that we are hearing anything about what ‘heaven’ is really like. We know it’s not a theological treatise that claims to describe the future life. 

Similarly, when we come to the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, we don’t read anything about what life beyond death may be like. We’re reading a story that was told in different forms, possibly originating in Egypt. When people heard it, they knew it for the story it was. 

But what is the story about? 

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The Flow of Grace

Reading
Luke 16.1–13

Grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise. — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

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We’ve heard maybe the toughest parable in the whole of the scriptures today. A shifty steward has been ripping off his boss; his boss finds out, and sacks him. Before it’s too late, the shifty steward fraudulently reduces the amount his boss’s clients owe him. Not only do the clients think he’s a great bloke but his boss praises him too. And Jesus says to us, Be like him! What on Earth? 

I’ve heard that the great St Augustine once wrote about this parable, saying Jesus really oughtn’t to have  said that. Or words to that effect. (Actually, what he said was in Latin, so it was much more profound.)

So let’s see what we can make of this parable. 

First thing, and it’s really important to understand this: it comes straight after the parables in Luke 15 about lost things, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons. Why did Luke put it here? 

Here’s one reason: one word. That word is ‘squander’.

Now, I can go for weeks without saying ‘squander’. I’ve got nothing against the word, it just doesn’t come up that often. It was like that for Luke too. He only uses it twice: firstly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squanders his inheritance; and in the very next parable, the Parable of the Shifty Steward, who fraudulently squanders his master’s money. Coincidence? I think not. 

Let’s try and draw some more connections between these two parables. 

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Costly grace

Reading
Luke 14.25–33

 

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace? 

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

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There are some easy-to-miss words at the beginning of today’s Gospel Reading. Here they are again:

Now large crowds were travelling with him…

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus. Great numbers of people. You know what can happen when people get together in a crowd? They can become a mob very easily. A mob mentality can take over very quickly. 

Jesus needs to stay on mission. He doesn’t want a mob. He is starting what we could call the ‘Jesus Movement’, and he wants the people with him to stay on mission too.

So what does Jesus do? He gets them to count the cost. He sorts them out. Those who really can’t last the distance need to feel free to leave. So he speaks in the exaggerated way that teachers of his day had: 

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

Count the cost. In other words; If you follow me, you may find opposition from your family. If you follow me, you may be persecuted. Count the cost before you take another step. 

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Hope not fear … fresh words and deeds

Reading
Luke 12.32–40

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore”—“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. — from Laudato Si’, Encyclical of Pope Francis

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In the 1930s, dark storm clouds were gathering over the peoples of the world. The Nazi Party had come to power in Germany, and the other nations were watching with great anxiety. What would Adolf Hitler do? 

The churches of Germany found out quite quickly what Hitler would do. A program was begun of 

  • downplaying the Old Testament; 
  • declaring that Jesus was not a Jew, but of the so-called ‘Aryan race’; 
  • pushing baptised members who were of Jewish descent and other so-called ‘non-Aryans’ out of the life of the church; 
  • and of emphasising ‘manliness’ over ‘feminine’ values. The churches were pressured to put ‘German values’ above the gospel. 

This was the time that the ‘Confessing Church’ emerged. The Confessing Church was determined to keep the good news of Jesus Christ at the centre of the church’s life. The Confessing Church was a church of resistance, which numbered among its members the pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. 

It was a frightening time. The Nazi regime was reinforcing its grip on the whole of German society, including the church. 

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