Category Archives: Lord have mercy

Creation groans

Reading
Isaiah 65.17–25

 

Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart. — Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club 

Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea as a result of people’s actions, so he will make them taste (the consequences of) some of their actions, so that perhaps they will return (to righteousness). — Quran, 30.41; and

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left. — Isaiah 24.5–6

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Creation groans; and we are part of creation. So let me ask: did this last week frighten you? Like we’re on the edge of a precipice? About to fall into an abyss if we don’t burn to a crisp first?

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Two prayers

Reading
Luke 18.9–14

The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the publican is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker. Such portrayals belong in cheap novels. If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. In Jesus’ story, what both receive is ‘in spite of’, not ‘because of’. When the two men are viewed in terms of character and community expectations, without labels or prejudice, the parable is still a shock, still carrying the power both to offend and to bless. — Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation series

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We heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector today. So I have given in to the temptation of telling you this story:

Two ministers are on their knees at the front of the church, crying out to God, saying, ‘I have sinned. I am unworthy, I am unworthy’. Just then the cleaner walks in, and seeing this rare sight she also kneels with them saying: ‘I have sinned. I am not worthy, I am not worthy’. The first minister turns to the second. He sneers, ‘Now look at who thinks she’s unworthy!’

I had a conversation over coffee with a friend this week. She’s had very varied church experiences over the years, but for a number of good reasons it’s hard for her to be part of a local church right now. She told me that she had difficulties with the idea of going back to a pentecostal-type church because of the need they have to hide their vulnerabilities and present themselves as ‘victorious’ Christians. All. The. Time. 

Later that day, the thought came to me: Thank God I’m not in a church like that! And I fell straight into the trap of the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

See how I did that? It’s so easy to do, a game anyone can play. So let’s look at this parable, and let’s have a bit of empathy for the Pharisee from the word go. 

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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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No foreign land

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 6.23.07 pm

A weeping angel, but not from Dr Who: part of a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, showing that even the angels weep at the death of Jesus.

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Thirty-odd years ago, Karen and I were living over in Granville St. An elderly Greek couple lived across the road, and we were aware that the husband was very ill. 

In the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, a great wailing began in their house. It woke us up. We looked at each other; we knew his end had come. When it was light, we went across the road to offer our condolences and were welcomed inside. The house was packed full of people. We didn’t know any of them, and none of the conversation was in English. Everyone but us seemed to know what to do. We had a drink and nibbled on something, sat there for what seemed a long time (but really wasn’t) feeling useless and uncomfortable, and then said our goodbyes.

We tend to be uncomfortable with grief, and unschooled in lament. Today’s Old Testament passages are grief-filled laments. You may feel uncomfortable. I invite you to stay the course. Don’t bail, as we did.

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Whose story?

Reading
Mark 10.2–16

 

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (‘anything goes’) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation) are the only alternatives. We can acknowledge that we see and interpret ‘in a glass, darkly’ or ‘in a mirror, dimly’ and that we know ‘only in part’ (1 Cor. 13.12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all to the Holy Spirit. — Merold Westphal, Whose Interpretation? Whose Community?, Kindle ed’n, 2009, p.18

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I became a Christian at the age of fourteen after accidentally going to a Billy Graham rally. (Yes, it was a genuine accident!) I didn’t go to church for some months after that, but eventually I my best friend asked me to his church. I went, and I found that it was a Plymouth Brethren congregation. There are varieties of Brethren church; mine was the most ‘open’ there is. But they are mostly a fundamentalist group. In my time in the Brethren, I gained an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures, but really I didn’t learn good habits of interpreting scripture. 

I was taught that the bible is a book chock-full of propositions and facts to be believed without question. I was taught that the way the Brethren read the bible is the only way to read it. 

So there were no contradictions in the bible. The bible taught a literal six-day creation of the world, which occurred only a few thousand years ago. Jesus was coming again by the end of the 1980s. And women were not allowed to speak in church.

Moving out of the Brethren became another conversion. It was just as profound as my first conversion, and taught me not to stand on a supposedly inerrant bible.

It also taught me that we need to ask questions of the scriptures. I’d like to ask one of those questions today of the Gospel Reading. The question is Whose story is the text telling?

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The Seven Words from the Cross

Seven Words: A Good Friday Meditation

The Seven Last Words are the seven last sentences, or phrases, or sayings, uttered by Jesus as he hung on the cross on Good Friday, at least as recorded in the Gospels.

 

The First Word
Luke 23.26, 32-34

The soldiers led Jesus away, and as they were going, they met a man from Cyrene named Simon who was coming into the city from the country. They seized him, put the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.… Two other men, both of them criminals, were also led out to be put to death with Jesus. When they came to the place called ‘The Skull’, they crucified Jesus there, and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.’

Hannah Arendt was a Jew who left Nazi Germany for the USA in 1933. She once wrote:

Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.

Jesus reversed history by forgiving his torturers. Jesus has given the world a second chance. He said

Father, forgive them;
for they do not know what they are doing.

People who hung on a cross were not meant to ask forgiveness for those who were killing them; they were jeered and sledged mercilessly, and they were expected to return jeer for jeer, sledge for sledge, until exhaustion took its toll. It was all part of the sport.

But Jesus forgave, and history can and one day will be reversed.

Teach us how to forgive, Lord. Teach the nations how to forgive, instead of seeking an eye for an eye. Amen.

 

The Second Word
Luke 23.29–43

One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, ‘Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.’ And he said to Jesus, ‘Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!’

Jesus said to him, ‘I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.’

Truly I tell you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.

Tradition gave the penitent thief a name, did you know that? He is called ‘Dismas’. He said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.

Dismas is a great example of faith to us: Jesus was enthroned all right, but his ‘throne’ was a cross, the place of degradation and shame. This was his only kingdom.

Can I see what Dismas saw? Can I see signs of Jesus’ kingdom as I look around the world today?

How is it coming? Does it really come as the hungry are fed and the homeless are sheltered? Or is that wishful thinking?

Lord, I believe—help my unbelief. Forgive me, Lord, and increase my faith. Amen.

 

The Third Word
John 19.25–27

Standing close to Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing there; so he said to his mother, ‘He is your son.’

Then he said to the disciple, ‘She is your mother.’ From that time the disciple took her to live in his home.

Woman, here is your son.

Things weren’t always smooth between Jesus and his mother. In the Gospel According to Mark, there is a time when his mother and the family come to take Jesus away, because he was obviously mad. That day, Jesus asks a question:

Who are my mother and my brothers?

He looks at those who are gathered around him and says

Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Friends, Jesus names us, you and me, as his sisters and brothers. He has created a new community, a whole new family through his love poured out for us.

Can we enter into these new friendships, these new kinship networks, that are created by his Spirit among us?

Can we love one another, as he has loved us?

 

The Fourth Word
Mark 15.33-34

At noon the whole country was covered with darkness, which lasted for three hours. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

William Willimon, a Methodist from the USA, reminds those of us who believe that

God the Father did not save God the Son from the cross or rescue him from this agony. — Thank God it’s Friday

God the Father did not save our Lord Jesus from Calvary, but the Father was there with our Lord throughout that whole ordeal.

1700 years ago, Cyril of Jerusalem reminded us that it was right here Jesus that truly took our place on the cross. We know what it means to be separated from God, through sin or disobedience, though despair or unbelief, through grief and loss, through serious illness and as we face death.

We are separated from God; Christ knew that separation in order to be one with us.

Yet God was still there with him on the cross. My God—for you are still my God—why have you forsaken me?

As he cries out, Christ is for ever with us who are lost, so that we may find our way home.

 

The Fifth Word
John 19.28-29

Jesus knew that by now everything had been completed; and in order to make the scripture come true, he said, ‘I am thirsty.’

I am thirsty.

Did Jesus get thirsty? Sometimes, we are strangely surprised when we realise that of course, the answer to this question is Yes.

Jesus calls out, I thirst.

Jesus calls out to us today, I thirst—where people have to walk miles to fetch water; or in places like Flint, Michigan where their drinking water is contaminated by lead.

Jesus calls out to us today, I hunger—where drought or blight causes people to face famine.

Jesus calls out to us today, I am homeless—yes, on the streets of Brisbane.

Jesus, you thirst today. Give us hearts to quench your thirst. Amen.

 

The Sixth Word
John 19.29–30

A bowl was there, full of cheap wine; so a sponge was soaked in the wine, put on a stalk of hyssop, and lifted up to his lips. Jesus drank the wine and said, ‘It is finished!’

It is finished.

Lord, we are grateful that you didn’t say, ‘I am finished.’

Your work was finished. You accomplished the mission the Father had given you in your life and your death.

You now hand it on to us. You said we would do greater things; help us to trust you and your Spirit amongst us.

Lord, strengthen us. Keep us faithful to you. Amen.

 

The Seventh Word
Luke 23.44-49

It was about twelve o’clock when the sun stopped shining and darkness covered the whole country until three o’clock; and the curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father! In your hands I place my spirit!’ He said this and died.

Father, into your hands
I commend my spirit.

Lord Jesus, once you said,

Blessed are the pure in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of God.

And Psalm 51 says,

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

And also

The sacrifice acceptable to God
is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.

Deliver us from the ego-prison of our self-righteous spirits. Give us each one a renewed spirit, one we too may commend to your God and our God, to your Father and our Father. Amen.

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Reading

Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. — Augustine, On Christian Theology

The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour. — First Helvetic Confession, 1536

You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … — Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought down its final report on Friday, after 4.5 years. The life of the churches has changed for good in the light of the Commission.

One survivor of child abuse said on Friday:

Care and compassion has already lifted tenfold. We need to make sure we keep people alive and in a good place, by making sure they’ve got the counselling care they need.

It has taken a royal commission to bring this care and compassion to this man, and no doubt to many others.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we heard these words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;…

I think we can see who are the oppressed, brokenhearted ones are in this situation. It is the children who have become adults with burdens that were never lifted from their backs.

Jesus once placed a child in the midst of his disciples. The story is in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

The disciples hanker after greatness; Jesus shows them what greatness is in God’s eyes.

To be great is to take the place of a child, to embrace humility, to serve others. There is no other way; this is the way of the cross.

Time and time again, we have seen that the way church leaders took is another way altogether. It has been to protect their church’s good name, to keep their mouths closed, to disbelieve what they were told. Or they can’t remember anything about it.

The end result has been to deny care and compassion to the children in their care.

Perhaps I should read the next verse in Matthew18:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

It’s a grim warning.

The consequences for the churches are also grim. Many non-churchgoing Aussies have lost any faith they had in the church as a community in which the love of God is to be found. Our moral authority is at record lows.

What should be our response?

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