Category Archives: church year

Not the mountain, the plain

Reading
Luke 9.28-43

There is a terrible cruelty to it. Baptizing them as children, teaching them in Sunday school, hosting lock-ins & game nights in youth group, encouraging their calls to ministry, and then, when they work up the courage to tell the truth about their sexuality, kicking them out. — @rachelheldevans, Twitter 28.02.19

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record—that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life. — Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, p.186 (https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/downward-mobility/)

The transfiguration is something any old atheist could understand: ‘glory’ is a body and face shining with supernatural light. This does not unsettle my pagan presuppositions of what ‘divinity’ and the ‘supernatural’ mean. What we need faith to see is this: that the dead Jesus, forgotten and abandoned, naked and hanging on the Cross, is truly the Love of God Incarnate. In the wounding of his fragile being is the fullness of the divine glory. He is not ashamed to be our God. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God, p.135

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There’s a tradition in preaching on the Transfiguration of Jesus, that we talk about ‘mountaintop experiences’ that we take down to our everyday lives on the plain.

So where do we start today, on this Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus? Do we start on top of the mountain, along with Peter, James and John, with Moses and Elijah in glory? Do we begin bathed in the reflected heavenly light coming from Jesus? Do we start with a privileged glow mixed with strange feelings of awe or even dread?

Well no, not today. Today, we must start on the ground, along with the helpless, hapless and confused disciples who couldn’t expel a demon from a young lad, the only son of his father. That’s where we are today, at the bottom of the mountain. 

We have to start—and stay—on the ground today because as Christians in Australia, as members of a mainstream church, many people see us as representatives of something that is not only wrong but despicable. There’s a man I know who frequents the same coffee shop I do. We get on, we pass the time of day. The first time he saw me in a clerical collar he wondered if I should be wearing one, because it could make me look like a ‘paedo’. 

This week, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of child sexual abuse. The charges relate to acts committed in 1996, while he was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell had forcefully denied all charges, but now that a media ban has been lifted the news is known within Australia. 

A number of prominent figures have leapt to his defence, he will mount an appeal, but the fact remains: today, Pell is a convicted child abuser. 

We have to stay on the ground and not go to the mountain today because last weekend one of our sister churches in the USA, the United Methodist Church, discussed the place of LGBTIQ people in their church. Their special conference began with hopes of full inclusion of people regardless of their sexuality. Instead, the conference voted to accept the so-called ‘Traditional Plan’ which keeps the current exclusions of LGBTIQ people in place. 

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Now, but not yet

Readings
Jeremiah 33.14–16
Luke 21.25–36

 

Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic ‘final solutions’…, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, Kindle edition, loc.82

The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. — Tertullian, Treatise 7, On the Mortality, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers2/ANF-05/anf05-117.htm

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Yitschak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli activist on 4 November 1995. Rabin was the prime minister of Israel; in 1994, he had received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat for building peace in the Middle East. That peace seems a very long way away now. 

A short time after his death, there was a memorial service for Yitschak Rabin in the Mary St Synagogue here in Brisbane. I went to this service as the representative of the Uniting Church. 

After the service, I was filing out behind two Jewish men. They were saddened, they were thoughtful. One said to the other, ‘It’s almost enough to make you wish the Messiah would come.’ 

There was a little playfulness there—it’s almost enough to make you wish the Messiah would come—but you couldn’t miss the genuine longing in this man’s voice. A longing for peace with justice. For all people, whoever they are.

We share this longing with Jews, but wait—there is a difference. We claim the long-awaited Messiah has already come. His name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. 

The Messiah has come, but like those two Jewish men we still long for peace with justice.

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Jesus Christ: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth

Reading
Revelation 1.4b–8

Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with the eyes of the man with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experiences and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes—promise, exodus, resurrection and Spirit—come alive. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Kindle ed’n, loc.394.

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It was a Sunday. John was on the island of Patmos. Patmos is a Greek island, but John wasn’t there on holiday. He had been exiled to Patmos, confined there, imprisoned there. I doubt they had a cocktail hour or any all-you-can-eat buffets on Patmos.

It was a Sunday, the ‘Lord’s Day’, and John was ‘in the Spirit’. His eyes were opened to a vision in which he  Continue reading

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In Sympathy with God

Readings
Revelation 21.1–6a
John 11.32–44

As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. — Fred Rogers

We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God. We are crying out for his righteousness and justice, and are not prepared to come to terms with mass death on earth. 

But for me theology also springs from God’s love for life—the love for life that we experience in the presence of the life-giving Spirit and that enables us to move beyond our resignation and begin to love life here and now. These are also Christ’s two experiences of God, the kingdom of God and the cross, and because of that they are the foundations of Christian theology, as well: God’s delight and God’s pain. It is out of the tension between these two that hope is born for the kingdom in which God is wholly in the world and the world is wholly in God. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God…’ — Stephen Morrison, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English, Kindle ed’n, loc.323

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What is a saint? A man, a Jew called Abraham Heschel once said that a prophet is someone who lives in sympathy with God, with God’s tears and God’s dream for the world in her heart. 

Perhaps we can also say that a saint is someone who lives in sympathy with God.* In particular, a saint is a person who actively hopes in God’s promises, and who cries when God cries.

God does cry at the injustice and madness of the world. Shirley Erena Murray, a wonderful hymn writer from New Zealand, says

God weeps
               at love withheld,
               at strength misused,
               at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
                                                         God weeps.

In each of today’s readings, there are tears. 

In Isaiah: ‘Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.’

In Revelation: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more….’

In the Gospel: ‘Jesus wept.’ When God becomes a human being, God sheds tears. A person who lives in sympathy with God will cry at what makes God cry. 

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Why a Sabbath?

Readings
Deuteronomy 5.12–15
Mark 2.23 to 3.6

Definitions of Sabbath seem to matter far less to Jesus than honouring the purposes of Sabbath and meeting real human need. — John Wilkinson in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Kindle ed., loc.2879

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I remember being bored out of my skull on Sundays when I was a kid. There was nothing to do. My family weren’t churchgoers and that made Sunday even worse. 

Anyone else remember that? Our society still ‘does’ Sunday, but not in the same way any more. We have church, but we know most people aren’t churchgoers. And we who are here now can do whatever we choose after church. I could shop for new clothes, have a meal, go to the cinema, go to a sports game…anything I wish.

Some years ago, I was in Norway for a short time. It was a Saturday, and I was leaving the next day on Sunday afternoon. I already knew the shops would be shut on Sunday; they really do Sunday there, at least in the town I was in. I had seen something that would make a good gift for someone, but I’d dithered over buying it. In the end, I decided to buy it so I went back to the shop around 4.30pm. To my dismay, I found it had shut at 4pm. They closed early to prepare for Sunday.

My first reaction was anger that they’d shut their shop—anger at myself as much as anything. My second was to try to admire their Sabbath practice. I tried hard. I have to admit that try as I might, I wasn’t really able to sincerely admire them—I would much have rather they’d been open so I’d be able to go in and buy the gift I wanted to purchase. 

If keeping Sunday as a day of rest was important to those people, the Sabbath laws were absolutely central to Israel’s life. The sabbath, along with circumcision and the food laws, were the identifying marks of Israel. They are still the identifying marks of Jewish faith today.

In ancient times, no people other than the people of Israel made provision for a weekly day of rest. Why did they have the Sabbath day? There are two reasons given, one in Deuteronomy and one in Exodus.

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The Trinity of Love

Readings
Isaiah 6.1–8
John 3.1–17

‘Jesus’ signifies the human being whose personhood is eternally caught up in relation with God and the Spirit. The name of the Trinity signifies the eternal bond of tripersonal love revealed in the man Jesus. Christians know, as deeply as they know anything, that God without Christ and the Spirit is remote and unavailing, that Christ without God and the Spirit is a martyred saint, that the Spirit without God and Christ is power bereft of form and direction. Faith lives from the interconnection of the three. — R Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity, Kindle ed., loc.198

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The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

That’s 2 Corinthians 13.13, the last verse of that letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. 

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

That’s the second-last verse of the Gospel According to Matthew. 

The New Testament is full of passages in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are spoken of in one breath. These passages are building blocks of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

It’s Trinity Sunday. So let’s make time for a little art appreciation. 

Why art appreciation? Because a picture paints a thousand words; and even thousands upon thousands of words may still obscure the beauty of our God, the Holy Trinity of Love. 

Rublev

This is an icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, painted (or ‘written’) by a monk called Andrei Rublev about 600 years ago. 

It’s based on the story of three angels who pop in on Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18. Abraham gives them a meal. Before we get very far into the story though, the angels are being spoken of together as one being: the Lord. 

In other words, by the end of the story the three are one. You can see why that excited people’s imaginations with thoughts of the Holy Trinity.

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Dry Bones Living

Readings
Ezekiel 37.1–14

There is no way to Pentecost except by Calvary; the Spirit is given from the cross.… The Holy Spirit’s function is to reflect in us the likeness of Christ—of his truth and love and power—but how could he do that with any authenticity or completeness, if he did not also lead us into the likeness of his suffering? There could be no real reflection of Christ that did not consist of bearing his cross. Thomas A Smail, quoted in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

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Can these bones come back to life?

It was ‘only’ a vision, but still Ezekiel felt uncomfortable. He was standing in a valley of dry old bones. And God was asking him a very silly question.

Mortal man, can these bones come back to life?

What to say? Standing in a pile of bones bleached white by the sun was not inspiring Ezekiel’s confidence. If he said No they’re dead and dusted, he could be accused of doubting God’s power. But if he said Yes Lord of course, he might have to say how on earth that could possibly happen.

So he takes the cautious path:

Sovereign Lord, only you can answer that!

Ezekiel tosses the ball right back into God’s court. But God has been around the block a few times more than Ezekiel and tosses the ball right back to him:

Prophesy to the bones. Tell these dry bones to listen to the word of the Lord. Tell them that I, the Sovereign Lord, am saying to them: I am going to put breath into you and bring you back to life. I will give you sinews and muscles, and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you and bring you back to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

How can dry bones hear anything? Yet Ezekiel prophesies, and the bones become a mighty people. No one is more surprised than Ezekiel.

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