Some reflections on discipleship.

This is a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Mark 8:31-38.

What do you get out of coming to church?  That might be a dangerous question for me to ask.  I might find out that actually, you don’t get much out of it at all; that you spend half the service mentally making shopping lists and pondering the plot twist in last night’s TV show.

Forgive me, I’m being provocative.  But there’s a point I want to make about what the purpose of coming to church is.  So often, when I talk to couples wanting to have their child baptised, or to get married, who aren’t regular church goers, they’ll tell me that they don’t need to come to church because “I know what I believe.”

And this bothers me a bit, because – while I know what I believe, and I even have a degree in it – I don’t imagine that that means I don’t need to be at church.  Because the church service on Sunday isn’t only, or even mainly, about telling you what to believe, or, even worse, what to think.

It has three main purposes; first, to allow us to connect with and relate to God, as actual persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a set of doctrinal ideas.  Second, to help us integrate what we experience at church into how we think and live.  And third, to build us up as a community who can act together to make a positive difference in the world (what in church jargon we call “mission”).

This goes beyond telling you what to believe, and into the realm of inspiration, of shaping the imagination, of forming a vision and a sense of purpose and commitment to action.  It’s starting with what we believe, and then pushing beyond that, to ask ourselves, so what?  We believe in God, so what?  How will that matter all the other six days when we’re not here, and we’re going about our lives as students and workers and grandparents and doing whatever we do?

This is also, by the way, why things like the architecture of churches matter.  It’s not just about what’s beautiful or appealing; because what we experience while we’re in the building, and how we move through it and relate to one another in it, shape our deep convictions about God, and how we act out those convictions.

This church (St. Mark’s), for example, which was so unusual and modern when it was built, literally gives structure to the idea that we ought to be open and transparent to the community around us; that we should be outward looking, and that we should see our worship as intimately connected with (rather than separated from) the life of the whole created world.  Experiencing worship here was meant to help the worshippers – that is, all of us – form habits of thought shaped by the same convictions.

Anyway.  I could go on for ages about basic liturgical principles, but I’ll resist the temptation.

For now, let me come back around to today’s gospel reading, and in particular, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

We tend to get hung up on the “Satan” bit; it’s so harsh, so confronting, and we cringe as we identify with Peter, at the idea that we might ever be rebuked in similar terms.  But if we focus on that too much, we might miss two other important points in what Jesus says.

Notice the reason Jesus gives for the rebuke: You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.  I wonder what the background to this was; was Peter, over dinner at a disciple’s house or on the road, mulling over all he had experienced with Jesus and dreaming dreams of political and social glory?  Was he looking forward to the day when Jesus’ messiahship would become known, no longer a secret, and there wouldn’t be any more trailing around dusty country roads but perhaps more of a life of city comforts?

We can’t be sure.  But whatever he was thinking about, imagining, it wasn’t God’s picture of what all of this was about.  And out of all of this imagining a wrong-headed, a very human, perhaps ego-driven set of fantasies, as a result of that, came Peter’s rejection of what Jesus actually needed to do.

He’s illustrating the principle I was talking about in terms of worship; what you allow to shape your imagination, what you spend time reflecting on and integrating into your sense of self; that’s ultimately going to shape your behaviour.  So just as worship matters for us because it’s an opportunity to get, if you like, a God-sent reality check, Peter needed a God-sent reality check to remind him that his fantasies were sending him off in the wrong direction.

Worship redirects our attention and sets our mind on divine things… or at least, it’s supposed to.

And notice the other thing Jesus says to Peter: Get behind me.  Often this is read as “get out of my way,” and that wouldn’t be a wrong way to read it.  But I’d push further and say, “behind me” is where a disciple belongs.  A rabbi would walk at the head of a gaggle of disciples who came behind him; observing his conduct, absorbing his teaching, and asking questions as they went.

Jesus isn’t just telling Peter off, he’s also telling him what he needs to do to get it right; get behind me, get back to being my disciple.  Quit daydreaming and pay attention to what I’m showing and telling you.

That’s not a twenty-first century model of discipleship.  Fortunately for us all, perhaps, today discipleship tends to involve much more reading and much less hiking around the countryside.  But the basic principle remains the same; get behind me; put yourself in a position to observe, absorb and integrate the lessons of our master.

So my challenge to you, today, is how do you do that?  Coming to church is good, and I’d encourage it, but I’d also argue that it’s not really sufficient.  Peter and the others followed behind Jesus all day, every day; at the very least it would be normal and healthy Christian practice for us to find some time every day to deliberately put ourselves in mind of divine things (rather than human things), and to “get behind” Jesus as the one who teaches us on the road of life.

How can you get behind Jesus, as his disciple, that little bit more this week?  Small changes in habits are more likely to be sustainable and to become part of your life.  So maybe pick one small thing that would let you do that, and give it a go; and if we each do that, we’ll find we’re much more on the right track – together – than getting lost in human wrong-headedness.  And that would be a very good thing indeed.

With joy and dedication

This is a reflection for a midweek Eucharist, on the feast day of St. Matthias. It was also the occasion of the 58th anniversary of ordination for the priest presiding.

We know so very little about St. Matthias that preaching on his feast day can be something of a challenge!  But the fact that, today, Fr. Bill is celebrating 58 years of ordained ministry, led me to think about today’s sermon in terms of ministry.  There’s no doubt ministry has changed an extraordinary amount since St. Matthias was chosen to be an apostle, (or even since Fr. Bill was ordained!) but some things are a consistent thread through all those changes, and it’s good, from time to time, to reflect on them.

At an ordination, one of the most important parts of the service is called the “exhortation.”  It’s the part where the bishop addresses the person or people to be ordained, and spells out to them, exactly what the church understands they are doing by ordaining someone.  If you want to know what the Anglican church believes and teaches about ministry, reading the exhortations in the ordination services is a really good place to start (and if you’re curious I’ll be happy to show you where to find them).

And in the exhortation at a priest’s ordination, the bishop starts by saying, “Our Lord Jesus Christ summons us all to obedience and discipleship.  In baptism we are called to be a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, to make Christ known in all the world.” 

This sets the ministry of the clergy in an important context.  It is not set apart from the ministry of the whole church.  It is certainly not to carry out ministry on behalf of the rest of the church.  Christ summons us all to obedience and discipleship, and to the work of making Christ known in all the world.  The job of a priest is to enable and equip and encourage the whole people of God to take up their work as a priestly people. 

This is sometimes a challenging reality.  It’s challenging on my side of the equation – as I seek to find the right balance between encouraging and outright arm-twisting – and it’s challenging on your side, also, as so many of you balance lives full of many pressures, and wonder where church fits in that bigger picture.  There’s also the reality that what the church as an institution most demands is not always a neat fit with our own gifts and enthusiasms, and there can be a degree of frustration in balancing maintaining communal practices against what I might describe as spiritual self-actualisation. 

I mention all of this simply to say that when it comes to ministry that is truly shared and fulfilling for the people of a church community, the reality is often a lot more complicated, and less satisfying, than the ideal might suggest. 

But that doesn’t mean we give up!  Further on in that exhortation, the bishop tells the ordinands to “take up your calling with joy and dedication.”  I think that’s really a message for all of us; if Christ summons us all, then all of us ought to take up our calling with joy and dedication.   

So today, as you seek to draw closer to God, where do you feel that summons to deeper obedience and discipleship?  And how will you respond with joy and dedication to that call of God on your life?

Where we find our safety

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Genesis 9:8-17.

One of the great gems of this city (which we’ve discovered so far) is the botanical gardens.  Beautiful, peaceful and great community space, and with what look like really good educational and conservation programmes; really a treasure all around.

The thing is, today, botanical gardens are thought of as scientific places, at least in part; the bigger ones often have labs tucked away for genetic research and selective cultivation and all sorts of arcane botanical activities, with an eye to sustaining diversity and preserving species in the face of climate change, and all that sort of stuff.

But they didn’t start out that way.  Botanical gardens as we know them have two historical roots; the medicinal gardens of monasteries, and the university gardens attached to medical schools; both interested in plants, not for their own sake, but for what they offered human beings for health and wholeness.  As Europeans began to seriously explore other continents, they brought back exotic plants, which found their place particularly in the university gardens, where they were studied, classified, and so on; and the modern science of botany came into its own.

But the point about this is that both of these activities – raising medicinal plants, and collecting exotic ones – were given religious value in the society of their day.  The monastery gardens were seen as a kind of return to Eden; or a looking forward to the end of time, when God has promised us a city where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.  And the university gardens, once they started holding collections of exotic plants, were seen as a kind of recreation of Eden, too; where the many species dispersed over the world by the flood could be reassembled to grow together, as they did in the beginning.

And it was that bit – of reassembling species that had been scattered far and wide by the flood – that got my attention.  Because one of the questions about the flood story is, which way is up?

What I mean by that is, do we see the story of the flood as a continuation of the fall, a bad thing, something which is about alienation from God and which we might want to reverse?  Or do we see the story of the flood as being about restoration of human relationship with God, a good thing which results in blessings for us as human beings?

Both perspectives are possible.  You can look at the story of human beings, from Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden, the murder of Abel, the growing wickedness of humankind, and the eventual wiping out of everything except Noah and his family and living cargo, then the tower of Babel, as one long story of falling further and further away from God.  By the time you get to the people being scattered into different language groups after the tower of Babel, the reader has really got the point: we are so, so, so very fallen.

So when Abraham comes along in the next chapter, and God calls him and makes a covenant with him, Abraham becomes the beginning of a new hope; we see God and human beings – or a specific human being and his family, anyway – moving closer to God for the first time.  And Abraham becomes the wellspring, if you like, of all relationship with God for those to follow.

That’s one way to look at it.  But there are hints of a more complex reality in the text.  Cain and Abel are both born after Eden, and both worship the Lord.  Even after Abel’s murder, Cain is under God’s protection.  Noah and his family found favour with God, even amongst his community’s wickedness.  And – as we heard in today’s passage – after the flood there is a new beginning, of sorts; God promises never again to destroy all flesh in a flood.  There is now a covenant between God and all flesh, of God’s protection; even before Abraham, there’s a bond between God and the people made in God’s image.

What I’m suggesting is that while, on the one hand, we need to take our fallenness seriously; on the other hand, it’s a mistake to focus on that as the only relevant fact about our relationship with God.  The early chapters of Genesis, in their kind of mythic take on what it is to be human, show us a complex picture in which God protects us and reaches out to us, even while acknowledging our fallenness and seeking to overcome it.

This is where I think this reading is relevant for the beginning of Lent, too.  We are fallen; we are sinful; we are dust that has lost its way.  If we don’t admit that, we’re just kidding ourselves.  But on the other hand God cares for us, God reaches out to us, and God seeks new beginnings with us; not as a one-off but on a continual basis.  And if we don’t get that, then we don’t really understand who God is.

“Never again shall I cut off all flesh,” God promises Noah.  We live under the umbrella of divine protection.  Not just Jews or Christians but every human being has that pledge of God’s fidelity, whether they know or understand it, or not.

So what does that mean?  It means we don’t need to be afraid to face up to our failures.  We can look at our fallenness, our sinfulness, our fearfulness and human ugliness without flinching, because we know God sees all of that, and yet does not flinch from loving us.  We know God’s attitude to us; we know that nothing we do can make him love us less.  Not even our worst moments define us as outside God’s love or God’s reach.

This means we don’t have to hide our weaknesses; we don’t have to pretend, to ourselves or to others, to be better than we really are.  We don’t have to mask our true selves. (As an aside, I was amused this week to see a meme from an American pastor, obviously fed up with the angst about mask-wearing in the pandemic; who told his congregation he didn’t know why they had a problem with wearing masks to church, they’d been doing it for years. And I think we all know what he’s talking about). But we don’t have to live with the anxious idea that we are only one bad decision away from being rejected.  We can know that we are safe and secure… which gives us the emotional foundational we need, to do the difficult work of personal growth, repentance and change.

The point of the flood story isn’t about the insoluble puzzle of the boat and the animals; how they all fit, what they all ate, and all of that; we reach the point today, where all flesh receives the promise of God’s protection, the promise of basic safety.

And this is where I think those renaissance gardeners, trying to recreate a garden as it might have been before the flood, had it wrong; to undo the flood would be to undo that promise of safety.  It would put us back into a primeval world where God’s protection against the elemental and chaotic forces of the world was not yet promised; not yet understood.

But we have that promise.  So as we embark on Lent, and try to take this seriously as a season of preparation, a season of penitence, a season of spiritual growth, let’s hold on to that promise of protection, of safety and of care; that covenant bond between us and our creator.  Because if we know that we really are safe, we have what we need to try to deal with some of the primeval, chaotic or dark aspects of our own souls; and to do the painstaking work of becoming who we are created to be.

And that’s a recreation of Eden that is worth striving for.

Prophetic identity

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it reflects on is Isaiah 40:21-31.

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what it means for us, that so many of the books of the Bible are written by, or about, prophets?

The Old Testament gives us Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on; but even the New Testament has prophets and prophecy as a significant recurring theme.  Do we assume that that was just for back then, and that a prophetic identity is not for us?

I think that would be a dangerous assumption.  And while not everyone is a prophet – and I’m certainly not going to claim any particular prophetic gift – individual prophets always functioned in a community who were called to take on a prophetic role in their wider context.

Think about it; the Old Testament prophets encouraged the people of Israel, as God’s people, to live in a way which displayed God’s ways to the world.  And New Testament prophets functioned similarly in the early church.  Even Paul says that prophecy is for the benefit of unbelievers or outsiders.

I would argue that the Church is meant to have a prophetic aspect to its life and character, and what I want to do this morning – prompted by considering our reading from Isaiah – is unpack that idea a little bit.

So what does it mean to be a prophetic church?  If we have a look at the way prophets function in their communities, we see that they are, as one author described them, “radically concrete.”  That is, they talk to a particular group of people, and take on their political, military, economic and religious lives as all being valid areas of concern.  It looks at all those dimensions of our lives – and more – and brings to the forefront of our attention those situations where our hearts and our behaviours need to change.

We can hear Isaiah doing that today, as he asks rhetorical questions – “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?” as part of his strategy of reminding the people of Israel that their current circumstances in exile do not – or should not – define the horizon of their hope.  The powers holding them in exile are as puny and insignificant as grasshoppers compared to God.

This calling to attention those things which need to change is not the easiest part of being the Church.  It seldom makes us friends in powerful places, and it can earn us a great deal of resentment and angst.  More than that, it requires something of an internal tension; on the one hand, being aware – sometimes painfully aware – of present reality and its shortcomings, and on the other hand, being deeply aware of how God wills things to be, and being pulled to work towards God’s will.  This internal tension I have seen described as “living in the gap between vision and reality,” and it’s not always a cosy gap at all. 

In a way, the planning day yesterday was something of an exercise in being conscious of that gap; on the one hand, taking an honest account of how things are now, both in our parish and in our wider community; and on the other hand, listening to God to catch a glimpse of God’s vision for our parish and community.  I’m encouraged that we were able to do that together with goodwill and cooperation, and define some goals for the weeks and months ahead.

Of course, the listening, talking and planning stage is not the whole story.  If we are going to live faithfully to our prophetic calling, we also need to act on what we have received, heard and planned, and I look forward to working with many of you to see some of those visions become concrete reality.

Lliving in the gap – and learning to take meaningful action to bridge the gap – between vision and reality takes particular habits of thought and skills of community.  And we build those habits and skills through our patterns of discipleship.  We can consciously shape the way we function as a community either to be open to a prophetic aspect to our identity, or not; but our discipleship is likely to be far healthier if we do.  We see that represented powerfully in Isaiah’s servant songs, but even in today’s passage we see hints of it, as “those who wait for the Lord” are promised renewed strength and lasting endurance in their way of life.

That it is “those who wait for the Lord” who receive such promises suggests a number of things about this way of being.  First is that we have to know who God is.  Even Jesus went around healing before he taught; experiencing the healing helped people grasp who it was who was speaking to them, and therefore the weight they could put on his words.  And we need to know who God is; who God is for us, and we need to be confident both of God’s power and God’s profound compassion.  When we know those things about God, we can understand the scope of God’s vision for humanity, and approach our own part in it with confidence.  When we understand how God wants to work for our good, and how capable God is of bringing that good about, we can find our part in that good in a coherent and life-giving way.  We can take up our prophetic role and find our prophetic voice.

In our passage from Isaiah today, the people complain of lack of justice; that what is right is hidden and disregarded by God.  But the prophet corrects them, and asks them again, haven’t they known and heard?  Justice is a fundamental attribute of God’s character, and he does not grow weary in it.  (Justice here means more than a kind of legalistic score-keeping, and something more like the trait of using one’s power and ability for good).  That’s the God we know, and worship, and whose reign we proclaim.  And our lives ought – by also using our power and ability for good – ought also to show the world around us that quality of God’s justice.

What I am trying to suggest is this; we read the books of the prophets not only as containing messages from God, but also as holding up for us one ideal, one image, of what a Christian community should be, and how we should relate to the world around us.  A prophetic identity is a part of who we are, and Isaiah models that for us as well as any of the other prophets.

Have you not known?  Was today’s repeated question to Israel, but perhaps it’s a question to us too.  Have we not known who God is, and therefore who we are in relationship with God?  Deep things for us to ponder!

About bitterness

This is a reflection for a mid-week Eucharist. The Scripture it reflects on is Hebrews 12:4-7, 11-15.

I wonder if anyone has ever shamed you for your anger or upset, telling you not to be bitter?  I know that in some parts of the church, the warning in today’s reading from Hebrews not to let a root of bitterness spring up, has been taken to mean that anything other than emotional positivity is a danger, not just to the person feeling it, but to the corporate life of the church.

That’s a dangerous misconception, on two fronts.  Firstly because there are times when it is right and even good to be angry – even Jesus got angry sometimes! – or upset.  This Scripture is not meant to be an admonition to repress all those emotions and keep everything superficially light and sweet; and when we read it that way we risk guilt tripping ourselves or each other into some rather emotionally unhealthy places, not to mention sweeping real issues under the rug.

But this sort of thinking is also an issue because if we miss the point like that, we miss what the author is really saying here.  And what he (or she) is actually saying is also important.

It helps to understand that verses 14-16 are one long run-on thought.  So what we have as verse fifteen is an expansion and explanation of the thought started in verse fourteen: pursue peace with everyone.  So the “root of bitterness” the author is talking about here isn’t about being angry or upset (or whatever emotion); it’s about the attitude that refuses to seek peace.  You can be angry and yet still seek reconciliation (although the path to reconciliation may lie through your anger being heard, validated, and acted on).  You can be upset and still work towards peace with the person who’s upset you. 

But when you come to the point when you don’t want peace, you don’t seek reconciliation, and you’re not willing to do the work of restoring the relationship…. That’s the issue this reading is highlighting.  And the defilement it mentions is a fractured household or community that can no longer pray and live and work together.

Pursue peace with everyone.  Even when it’s hard work; even when it comes at a cost.  That’s what we’re being encouraged to do.  So the question for today might be, where do we each need to pursue peace, today?

Beyond individualism

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it reflects on is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Some of Paul’s letters deal with social situations so far removed from our own culture, that we have to do some work to understand what’s going on, and what he’s talking about.  Today’s reading from Corinthians is one of those, I suspect; so let me start by filling in the background a little bit.

In the first century, in a city like Corinth, meat was – if not luxury food – in somewhat limited supply.  The main suppliers of meat in the marketplace were actually the temples; people would go to worship their god or goddess of choice, sacrifice some sort of bird or – if the situation were significant or the worshipper was very wealthy – a larger animal, and the temple would then sell the meat to the public.

It was a win all around; the population got meat, the temple got money, the gods got worshipped, and – for the consumer – you got to participate in this pious system by eating meat which had been given to the gods, and so, by extension, to participate in honouring those gods.  Perhaps even attracting some sort of blessing from those gods for doing so.

It was not, conceptually, anything like picking out a pot roast from the fridge section in the supermarket is for us; but had a whole range of social connections to other people and their gods, and the worship of those gods.

And that worked just fine, as long as everyone basically shared the same worldview and religious system, and had no real problem with each others’ gods.

Enter the Christians, who of course didn’t have the same worldview and religious system as the pagan population, and who did have significant problems with the pagan gods, and their worship.  And who then had to work out what their attitude and behaviour was going to be in this matter.  And – because it seems some things never change – who managed to disagree about that.

From what we can tell from the letter, it seems there were two main opinions on how Christians should react to meat sacrificed to idols.  On the one hand, there was a group who said that the idol was powerless, there was no real god there to worship, and as such the meat that the temples were selling in the marketplace was spiritually no different to meat you might butcher yourself.  Go ahead, buy and eat, or accept it as a guest, without having any issues with it.  Knock yourself out.

On the other hand, there was a group who felt that participating in the worship of that idol was, in some sense, still wrong, and that Christians should avoid that meat.  Not buy it, not eat it, and not accept it if given it to eat by a host.  Better safe than sorry, perhaps.

And it seems that Paul was asked for his advice in the matter, to settle the dispute, because this part of the letter seems to be his reply to a question posed by the Corinthians.

And this is where it gets interesting, because, Paul agrees with the group who say that the idol is no god and you can go ahead and eat.  But – and this is the key thing – he says you shouldn’t do it, if it’s going to cause your brother or sister to do something they believe is wrong.

So even if you know that you can do something, if someone else believes it’s wrong, and might be encouraged to do something they believe is wrong, because they see you doing it; better to refrain.  Your brother’s conscience is more important than your appetite.

This is, I think, something we struggle with in our society.  Not the meat market and all of that, but the idea that we each have some responsibility for each others’ consciences.  We tend to be very individualistic; my conscience is my business, your conscience is your business, and the less we talk about that, the happier we generally are.

But I would suggest that contemporary Western individualism is not something Paul – or Jesus – would have understood.  And I’d go further to say that in some ways, it distorts the picture of human wholeness given to us by the earliest Christians.  While we each need a healthy sense of our own personal identity, our society tends to encourage us to carry that to a point that is destructive of healthy communal identity.

To put that another way, my best human self isn’t something I’ll find by striving to be as independent and internally isolated from others as possible, but is something I’ll find in relationship, in connection with others, in shared life.  Each of us, even before we are born, are beings-in-relationship; and the paradox of being human is that it’s only in relationships that we can be most fully and authentically ourselves.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the gospel breaks down the old social categories.  Elsewhere in his letters Paul writes that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;” or again, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”  Why?  Because those social categories put barriers between people which made authentic loving relationships impossible.  This is not about abolishing diversity, but about overcoming divisions.

When the gospel calls us to be human beings in relationship, anything which impairs that relationship – anything which creates dynamics of resentment, mistrust or envy between human beings – is called into question.

And this is where this principle becomes relevant for us.  We have a society riddled with resentments, mistrusts, envies and so on.  A glance at all the competing arguments about how best to observe – or not observe – Australia day would tell you that.  Being aware of refugees in detention centres, or all the arguments about how to structure tax reform or how best to care for our most economically vulnerable citizens, says some more.  We have divisions where there ought to be diversity held in mutually respectful and advantageous relationship.

The overriding principle Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians was that we’re in this together.  Your success is my success; your suffering is my suffering.  Your sin is – to the extent that I could have prevented or discouraged it – my sin.  And vice versa.

Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak, Paul wrote.  If we share responsibility for one another, we are also all supports and resources to one another in our need.  We are stronger together than we ever could be each on our own.

It’s probably not something that comes naturally to us, to think of ourselves in this way.  So I’d encourage you to ask yourselves; this week, what one thing could I do to reach out and build or strengthen real relationship with someone else?

If we all did one thing each week, how might our community be transformed, a year from now?

Seeds and beginnings

This is a reflection for a mid-week Eucharist. The Scripture it reflects on is Mark 4:1-20.

Seeds are beginnings.  Hold a seed in your hand, and you’re not just holding what you can see; you’re holding the potential for everything it might grow into.  Nestled into that tiny package is all the information required for something much larger and more complex, along with a store of energy to give it all a kick-start.

So these parables of seeds that Jesus tells; they’re all to do with beginnings.  And in today’s parable, particularly, beginnings of people’s relationships with God.  Suppose we listen to this morning’s parable as if we – this parish – are the sower.  What would it mean for us to go out to sow?

One way of looking at it, is that it would mean creating opportunities for the word of God to reach its destination in the human heart, there taking root and flourishing as a new, or perhaps re–newed, relationship with God.

So, if we’re talking about connecting human hearts and the word of God, really we’re talking about relationships.  The evangelist haranguing passers-by on the street corner is generally ineffective, not because people don’t hear the word; but because he doesn’t forge any meaningful connection with the people.   He’s yelling at them, but – in terms of this parable – the seed isn’t finding any soil.

Part of our job, then, as sower would be the forging of relationships outside the already existing parish community, and with the wider local community; because it’s in the context of real relationships that we’re going to be able to offer the opportunity of new relationship with God in a meaningful way.  And it’s timely for us to be thinking about this, as we approach our planning day next week.

Sometimes trying new things, or different things, in an effort to build new relationships, leaves people concerned that if it doesn’t work, it will have been a waste; a waste of our time, energy, and resources.  But when we’re talking about exploring potential it’s the only way to do things; because we can’t know ahead of time which seed will give us nothing, and which will reproduce a hundred-fold.  So we give things a go, and then move on from the things that don’t work without regret.  We tested their potential in the only way we could.  And hopefully we learned something, and maybe even had some fun, along the way!

(It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself didn’t have a great success rate, if by success we mean everyone who heard him teach becoming part of his new community of believers.  Most people heard his teaching and walked away.  So we can hear this parable in part as Jesus saying to his disciples, “The numbers aren’t the point.  What matters is that some people respond, and the only way we can get to that point is giving as many people as possible the opportunity to respond.”)

And if we do this, it will be worth it.  We will see a harvest of people who respond to God’s offer of relationship, discovering faith and hope and love as they do.

As I said earlier, seeds are about beginnings.  We don’t need to feel that we have all the answers right now.  It’s enough that we have the attitude of a sower; someone who wants to plant something worthwhile and see it grow to full maturity.  That’s enough of a beginning for God to work with.  And I suspect that for us, it will be enough for us to be thinking and praying about, to start with, too!

A matter of concern

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it reflects on is Jonah 3:1-10.

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” 

That’s a quote from the American Christian author, Anne Lamott, but the message is timeless.  In fact, it could be the bumper sticker version of the book of Jonah; an object lesson in not expecting God to share our hatreds and resentments. 

The book of Jonah is short, and in some ways deceptively simple; we think we know the story well, but when we reread it, we can be struck by the nuances and the details, and what those suggest to us about God, and God’s relationship with human beings. 

For today, I want to explore the claim that we see in verse 10 of our reading, that “God changed his mind” about Nineveh.  And I’m going to suggest that the reality is a bit more complicated than that. 

Let me give you a quick recap of the story so far: The action begins when the prophet Jonah hears the word of the Lord, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah, instead, flees in the opposite direction, and has a series of adventures in which he is thrown overboard from a ship, and swallowed by a big fish (who spews him out on dry land).  That brings us to the beginning of today’s reading. 

And in today’s reading, God again tells Jonah to “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  And this time Jonah goes, and he tells the people in Nineveh, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 

But the people of Nineveh repent, and the city is not overthrown.  But the question that occurs to me, in reading this, is, did God really change his mind, or is that what God intended all along?  In fact, if we keep reading into chapter four, we find that this seems to be exactly what Jonah thought God intended all along, as he objects bitterly, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

After all, if God wanted to punish the city of Nineveh, he hardly needed to send Jonah as a messenger first; choosing to send Jonah only makes sense if God intended a different outcome all along.  And the final words of the book are God speaking to Jonah, and saying, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ “

“Should I not be concerned…?”  But if concern was what motivated God all through the story, then it isn’t that he’s changed his mind about the overthrow of the city, but that in his concern, he has worked to make that overthrow unnecessary.  It’s not God who’s changed, it’s the city (and, possibly, Jonah, although his last words in the book are that he’s still angry enough to die!)

But why am I making such a point of this?  Because of what it says about God’s character.  Here’s a big city – big by the standards of its time, anyway, and the capital of a mighty empire – full of wickedness.  And we know, from historical records, that the people of Nineveh were extraordinarily cruel; fighting wars of aggression, taking people captive as slaves, and not being shy about engaging in horrific torture to terrorise the people in submission.  It’s fair to say that these were not nice people.

And in the time that our story is set, these were the aggressive and oppressive neighbours of Jonah’s people.  No wonder he doesn’t want God to be merciful to them; mercy to the Ninevites will, in Jonah’s mind, almost certainly equate to ongoing brutalisation of his own people.  What is God doing?  Why is God taking the side of the bad guys, showing them mercy and offering them hope?

And we get an answer to that question only at the very end, with God’s final “Should I not be concerned…?”

The implication is that yes, God should be concerned, and by extension that Jonah should be, if not concerned himself, at least a willing agent of God’s concern; an expectation that leaves Jonah angry enough to want to die.

So what do we make of this?  I would suggest, first, that in fact God did not change has mind, but has acted consistently throughout the story of Jonah, showing his concern, compassion, and grace even to people who might reasonably be considered not to deserve it. 

And I would suggest that we can extrapolate from there.  If this is God’s consistent attitude towards the Ninevites, then it is also God’s consistent attitude towards everyone.  Not – as Jonah would have it – only towards his chosen people, or to a particular religious group, but to everyone.  When we see people lost in systems of violence and oppression, we can hear God’s words about Nineveh as applying today as well: “should I not be concerned about people who do not know their right hand from their left?”

And, finally, if Jonah – as one of God’s chosen people, and as a prophet – ought to have been willing to be an agent of God’s concern, then we, as the church, ought also to have the same willingness. 

And this is where the rub is, of course.  Because it’s one thing to argue that Jonah – dead millennia ago – ought to have been open to God’s concern about the Ninevites – also dead millennia ago.  It’s another thing to argue that we ought to have concern for (to pick an example) militant Islamic radicals, or whomever you perceive as the biggest social and cultural threat of our day.  And to argue that we ought to be willing to act on that concern to promote the welfare and prosperity of those people.

But this is the subversive message of the book of Jonah.  It calls into question our prejudices, our biases, and our bigotries, and reminds us that God’s concern is always bigger than we like to think, and always includes people whom we would prefer it really rather not.  God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” and the exchange they have suggests that Jonah would do better to leave anger behind, and embrace God’s point of view and concern.

The challenge for us is to examine our own attitudes, and embrace God’s point of view and concern, and to become agents of grace and mercy in our own context.

Priesthood

This is a reflection for a mid-week Eucharist. The Scripture it reflects on is Hebrews 7:1-17.

In today’s reading from Hebrews, the author is making an extended – and rather confusing and obscure – argument about Jesus as our priest for ever.  He is contrasting Jesus’ priesthood with the priests in the Jewish temple, and with other forms of priesthood we see glimpsed in the Old Testament.

I thought, though, that it might give me an opportunity to talk a little bit about priesthood, and perhaps clear up some common misconceptions.  You see, in English, it’s unfortunate that we use the same word – “priest” – to talk about two quite different sorts of roles.

The first is the sense of priest as “the person who offers sacrifice on behalf of others.”  This is the sort of priest this reading is talking about; the primary function of Old Testament priests was the offering of the community’s sacrifices.  And it is this sort of priest that the author of Hebrews is saying that Jesus is, in a way that surpasses any mere mortal priest.

So far, so good.  But the second meaning of “priest” in English is “elder.”  It comes to us from the Greek word, “presbyteros,” which has over time been shortened to “presbyter” (think of the Presbyterians), “prester,” and then “priest.” 

That is the sort of priest that Christian clergy are.  We are not those who function to offer the sacrifices of the community; we are the elders who function in the way we see in the New Testament church; as leaders of the community, in prayer, in teaching, in practical matters, and as an example.

Now that’s important, for a couple of reasons.  One is that the kind of priest Jesus is, is unique in the church.  He offered himself in sacrifice, complete and perfect, and we no longer need to try to relate to God through pouring out the blood of animals. 

Understanding this is important in understanding the shift from being a community whose practices are based in the Old Testament, to being a community of the New Testament.  All the things the Old Testament systems of sacrifice were intended to accomplish, were completed and perfected in Christ.  We can add nothing to them, and our worship is organised around participation rather than sacrifice.

But the other reason it’s important is that it helps us to understand our relationships in the Church.  I find that people often have all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas about what priests are, or should be, and what we should do; but if we are careful to understand my role through the lens of a New Testament community elder (even if I am, hilariously, the youngest person in the room), a lot of that kind of falls into place.

The whole argument the author of Hebrews was making is that there has been a change in the priesthood; Christ is the final, perfect, indestructible priest who has offered himself in sacrifice, such that no further sacrifices are needed.  By extension, then, priesthood in the church is something else altogether, and is not about offering sacrifices.

The good news in this is the confidence we can have in our own worship, knowing that every necessary offering has been made on our behalf, and we can relate to God without needing any intermediary.  And we have complete freedom to come to God with confidence, knowing that the way is open to us, and that God is always ready to receive us with love and joy.

Emphasising a positive

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it reflects on is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

So often Christianity comes across as being negative about our bodies, and especially sex and our sexuality, that when we hear yet another warning against sex in some form (as we did today in Paul’s comments about prostitutes), it’s easy to kind of let that blur into the background negativity.

But Paul wasn’t really being negative; he was trying to emphasise a positive, and point out that the positive of relationship with God then unfolds in particular ways.  His argument about why you can’t run around having a good time with prostitutes is not really about sex at all, but his point is that you can’t “become one” with something that’s incompatible with God, at the same time as “becoming one” with God.  Because “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

The thing about this “becoming one spirit” with God, though, is that it helps us to understand what salvation really means.  Salvation is an immense gift, but sometimes we’re tempted to think of it only in terms of what happens after we die (getting into heaven, or at least, staying out of hell).  But what Paul is trying to get across here is that salvation isn’t just about that; it’s a fundamental re-shaping of our lives now, so that our lives become a participation in the life of God.

Last week we thought a bit about baptism and what it means for us, this sacramental reality of dying and rising with Christ.  And I say sacramental because I want to say something stronger than “symbolic;” we know that people don’t physically die in the font, as if I were to drown them, but something real is happening in them nonetheless.  Their story and Christ’s story, their life and Christ’s life, are being joined together in a way that can never fully be separated.  They are beginning to participate in the life of God; they are becoming one spirit with God.

The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, Paul said in today’s reading; and elsewhere he refers to our bodies as “weapons of righteousness;” a weapon is wielded with a purpose, and the implication of Paul’s words is that God wields – or at least sends – us into the world with a purpose, too; one that shouldn’t be undermined by getting involved in things incompatible with that purpose.

This all means that becoming one spirit with God – participating in God’s very life – is ultimately about action.  About being in the world, doing the things God would have us do.

As this is what it means to be Christian, then we can’t say that Christian belief or faith is just a matter of assenting to the Creed (without crossing your fingers), or even trusting God’s goodness.  It has to be more than that; a taking up or embrace of our whole being into God’s being in such a radical way that we consistently act as living extensions of God in our world.  That’s what it means that we have died and yet have been raised to new life; it is a new life; the life of God, with its priorities and loves and joys.

In his other letter to the Corinthians (well, the other one that we still have, anyway), Paul puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Participating in God’s new creation – becoming one spirit with God – means our transformation; and in different places in his letters Paul talks about how that transformation means we become the glory and the righteousness and the justice of God; ultimately we become the image of God; the image of God that we were originally created to be, before sin and the fall meant our alienation and disfiguration from that image.  So we become like Christ – the perfect image of the invisible God – by participating in the life of Christ.

And here’s the thing: all of this points us towards mission.  To be transformed into the image of God revealed in Christ; to participate in God’s new creation and to become God’s righteousness; to discern and do God’s will; to present our bodies to God as a temple for the Holy Spirit, and as weapons to be wielded for his purposes; all of these things mean that we are meant to be in service to what God is up to in the world.

Becoming one spirit with God means that God’s purposes become our purposes, and God’s priorities become our priorities.  God’s mission becomes our mission.  Those of us who believe the gospel and are baptised enter into a life of participation in God’s mission, along with all the other people who have also entered into that life.

That means that our salvation, our renewal in Christ is not the point; it’s not an end in itself.  It’s part of a much broader and deeper divine agenda; to bring together a body of people who participate in the new creation, doing God’s will in the world.

And let me push this just a little bit further; this is for all Christians.  Not just for the clergy or the particularly educated or gifted.  But each Christian person, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, participates in the new creation; and carries out a living witness to the gospel.  This is what it means to be part of the church; every single person has a part to play in the mission of God.

Do you know what your part is, today?  Do you feel equipped for it?  If not, what do you need in the way of equipping?  (That’s not entirely a rhetorical question, by the way.  My role in this mission is to see to it that you are equipped; so if you see that your knowledge or skill or confidence is lacking in some way, tell me; and together we’ll find a way to work on that).

But to come back around to the prostitutes, this is why Paul says “no.”  Not because it’s a matter of being a puritanical killjoy, but because it’s incompatible with the mission.  To exploit a woman’s body for pleasure does nothing to recognise or honour her as an image of God, or to encourage her towards becoming a co-worker with you in God’s purposes for our world. 

“Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  It is a process of becoming; we grow into it over time.  But what I wonder now, is where do we need to grow into it some more, here in this parish, in order for us to live that out most fully?  What needs to happen for us to move another step closer to being one spirit with the Lord?  I leave that with you to reflect on.