Side by side

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.

It’s been a week of high drama.  In kindergartens, schools and Sunday school groups all around the world, there has been passionate longing, terror, envy, open strife and many tears.  Why?

Well, you see, in every nativity play, there are plenty of shepherds (and sometimes sheep), angels with sparkly wings and tinsel halos, a few wise men and Joseph and perhaps an innkeeper… but there’s only one Mary.  And most every girl wants to be good enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough, to be Mary.  Being part of the sparkly angel chorus isn’t really the place for a young girl who just knows she’s meant for the starring role.

(Full disclosure: I was always an angel.  Take that whichever way you’re inclined to believe it)!

Of course, aspiring to be Mary, or like Mary, is not just a problem with nativity plays.  We know that through Christian history, in different ways, Mary has been held up to us as the perfect woman; completely asexual, completely devoted to family, and with a meek and compliant nature that meant God’s designs unfolded within and through her without her needing to actually take initiative or do anything other than say “Here I am.”

And if real women found that an impossible ideal to live up to, well, that’s only because we weren’t as impossibly perfect as Mary was.

I say that, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but meaning the criticism of how Mary has been pliantly fitted into various – usually male – constructions of perfect womanhood, with little regard for who she probably actually was, or even acknowledgement that most of her life story is unrecoverable to us now.

So there’s something very comforting to me about this morning’s gospel reading. Because here we have two very, very different women.  Oh, they’re both clearly presented to us as good women – earlier Elizabeth’s been described to us as righteous and blameless in her way of life – but in every other way they’re contrasts.

Elizabeth is old; Mary is young.  Elizabeth is “barren” after many years of trying for a child; Mary is a pregnant virgin.  Elizabeth can look back on a long life of unfulfilled longing; Mary can look forward to a life of uncertain potential.

And together – between them – these two very different women hold the keys to the future; to God’s future.  Jesus and John the Baptist – the two boys who will be born from them – will need each other.  They will grow and learn together.  Their ministries will overlap, and they will encourage one another for as long as they’re both alive.

I remember being pregnant.  It was terrifying.  On the one hand, you feel total responsibility for the welfare of a little person who is completely dependant on you for everything; and on the other hand, you have almost no control over the things which will shape that child’s life.  Once they’re born and the more they grow, the more concrete that lack of control is; and you have to let your child take their place in the world and their community and hope and pray that disaster won’t strike.

Elizabeth and Mary might have had reason to be a bit less anxious than most; after all, if God had plans for their miracle babies, then presumably God was going to make sure those plans were fulfilled.  But at this moment, all of that is in an unknown future.

These two women have a moment of shared joy and hope before it all begins.  What God’s asking of them at this moment is openness to what God might be about to do; to give themselves, their health, their energy, their intelligence and creativity, to shaping the lives and minds of two boys who would grow to change the world for the better.

But the thing that I find comforting about that, is that it’s the same challenge to both of them.  Mary doesn’t stand alone here as the archetype of perfect womanhood; she stands alongside Elizabeth, and shows us that if God has plans and a place for these two very different women, God might have plans and a place for us too; even when we’re not the same as our heroes (or heroines); even when we don’t feel we measure up to any particular ideal.

This passage shows us very clearly that God works in and through very diverse people; that you don’t have to fit a particular image or be in a particular stage of life (important to remember in this culture which so worships youth); but that provided you come with the right attitude – of openness and willingness to collaborate with God, and the rest of God’s people – you’ve got something to contribute.

And this is so important for parish life.  You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators.  God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined.  Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the key people with particular roles like wardens and parish council – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.

You see, some of you are much wiser than me.  Some have more faith.  Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them.  Some will be better at teaching and explaining things.  Some will be much more encouraging or generous.  And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.

And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.

Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention.  But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  Indispensable.  It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.

Of course, try telling that to the kids in the angelic chorus, dreaming of being stars!

But we need to have a bit more maturity than that.  Mary and Elizabeth stand side by side and support one another as they prepare for a challenging future.  Let’s rather take them as our model, and seek to hold in trust between us the hope, the courage and the joy of what God is up to in our lives together.


St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon.  It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove.  Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing.  But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories.  And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.

Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.

Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us.  It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction.  It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with.  And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”

The story begins in darkness, early in the morning.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.

Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation.  She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back.  Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes).  And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.

And she weeps.  Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”  The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.

Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name.  John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him.  In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.

So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated.  She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord.  She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices.  She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.

All of this is well and good.  We too should seek with persistence.  We too should love the light and weep at the darkness.  We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice.  As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.

But wait; there’s more to the story.  The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved.  One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen.  Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.”  And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.

Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus.  Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her.  She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness.  Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.”  He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight.  And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.

The relevance of this is that all three are given their place.  Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter.  Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word.  And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community.  At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.

Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here.  John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach.  Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.

But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle.  He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex.  Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community.  More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!

So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.

By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.

That’s John’s version, anyway.  But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.

Rebekah the Matriarch

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost.  This morning I was the guest preacher in the Church of Christ where my husband is a member.  The Scripture the sermon is based on is Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 (really the whole passage).  The picture referred to is attached at the end of this post, as well as a bonus stained-glass window of the Matriarch Rebekah (or Rivqa, as her name is better transliterated).  The stained-glass window is one of a series of windows of the matriarchs commissioned for Beth Shaom Synagogue, in the Netherlands. 

Good morning.  I should start by thanking the elders for the opportunity to preach here today; I don’t get to be here very often, and it’s a real privilege, when I do have the chance, to also contribute in some way.

And this morning I want to look a little bit at the reading we had from Genesis.  It’s a stunning piece of text; the great romance of the old testament, and the details of the descriptions of jewellery and camels and veils in the wilderness are supposed to make our hearts thump as we’re swept up in the delicious drama of it all.

(I say it’s the great romance of the old testament, because of all the patriarchs and heroes of ancient Israel, Isaac is the only one shown to have married only once, with no concubines or maidservants or flings on the side.  Apparently Rebekah, even when she didn’t produce children for the first twenty years of their marriage, was the only woman he ever wanted or needed.  And I’ll say some more about that later).

But the part of the story that we heard today is kicked off a little earlier when Abraham, who’s getting old and obviously concerned about the future of his family, and the legacy that God has promised him through Isaac, decides that Isaac needs a wife.  And, more to the point, not a wife from among the people of Canaan, where Abraham’s family are living as foreigners, and where the local population are participants in the local pagan fertility cult, but from among Abraham’s own relatives, who are living some distance away but who worship the same God.

So we get the whole story with the faithful servant being sent off to find a suitable wife from among Abraham’s nieces.  And the servant finds Rebekah, as we heard described this morning, and the rest is history.

But it’s also more than history.  In the unfolding story of Genesis, Rebekah is also presented as something of a feminine archetype.  What I mean by that is, she’s held up as an example or model of what the ideal woman – and in particular, what the ideal wife – is to be, in the community which considers itself the heirs to Abraham’s promise.

But it gets even more heady than that.  As the identity of the Hebrew people developed, they often – and you see this in the writings of the prophets, in particular – understood the whole community to be like a wife to God.  As in, the relationship between God and God’s people was as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage.  And so all the ideas about what an ideal wife looked like, then carried over in some ways to be ideas about what Israel should ideally be, in their relationship with God.

And of course Christians picked up that set of ideas too.  In the new testament, we read in various places about the Church as the “bride of Christ,” and about the wedding of the lamb and the Church as the fulfillment of what we’re supposed to be on about.

So what I’m saying is, when we read the story of a matriarch like Rebekah, who is held up as such an ideal example of wifeliness, we can read it for clues to how the ancient Hebrews understood themselves in their relationship with God; and, following in the same line of thought, how early Christian leaders like Paul thought about the Church in our relationship with God.  There’s a clear line of these ideas being picked up and developed and handed on and reflected on some more, right down to us.

So what I really want to do this morning is look at the story of Rebekah, and see what it might have to say to us about the identity of the Church, as the people who are, collectively, in a relationship as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage, with the God we worship.

And I think the first thing to notice is this reality that Rebekah isn’t one of the local pagan women, but that she is culturally different.  Sometimes – although it’s a little out of fashion now – we talk about the need for the church not to be “worldly,” not to be caught up in the obsessions and deceptions that those who don’t know God get caught up in.  We need to understand those worldly things – at least enough to help others reflect on them in the light of the gospel – but we need to not buy into them.  And that’s what Rebekah’s being already a worshipper of the one true God represents for us.

Next, we see that she’s hard working, and generous.  Abraham’s servant meets her when she’s gone to draw water, heavy labour, but necessary for the household.  And when he interrupts her work, not only does she give him a drink, as he’s requested, but she also offers unprompted to water his camels.  That’s a lot of water!  A thirsty camel can drink over 100 litres of water in one go; and earlier in the text is says that Abraham’s servant set out with ten camels, so for each of those camels Rebekah did the heavy work of raising, carrying and pouring water.  Think about what it would feel like to lug a literal tonne or so of water around, one water-jar at a time, and you’ll see that this was significant physical labour.

Costly generosity and hospitality; absolutely fundamental virtues in the world of the ancient wilderness nomads, where this was how people survived.  I’m hospitable to you today, and you’re hospitable to me tomorrow, and between us we both might make it to see our children grow up.

But again, translate that to the Church, and we can see where this applies to us.  To be generous, to be hospitable.  To provide an oasis in our communities for people who are exhausted, starving, wounded or lost.  To foster relationships of mutual support and encouragement.  To be willing to put ourselves out, with back breaking labour if need be, to make that possible.  And when we realise that what’s at stake is not just survival in the wilderness, but people’s eternal fate, how much more should we be willing to put ourselves out?

The bit about Rebekah being “fair to look upon” is interesting.  Beauty is often a kind of story-tellers’ shorthand for this being a good person, because after all, the heroine is always beautiful, isn’t she?  We might want to question that assumption, in general, because people who are, for whatever reason, not seen as beautiful aren’t actually any less capable or valuable because of that!  But for the purposes of Rebekah’s story as it’s being told here, take it as read that she’s beautiful because she’s the heroine, and that that general idea of being good, desirable, and so forth, applies to her… and therefore, in the extended comparison we’re making, also to the Church.  Our beauty lies in reflecting God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s holiness; and so the more closely our character and attitudes reflect God’s, the more “beautiful” we will become in the sense that it matters here.

Also, Rebekah is, at the point where Abraham’s servant meets her, a virgin.  The virginity is important because it shows that her commitment is serious.  She hasn’t left someone else to be with Isaac, and she hasn’t been frivolous in her relationships to this point.  When she gives herself to her husband, there’s some gravity to her decision.  And it’s also worth noting that – remarkably for the time, and despite negotiations amongst her male relatives – it is her decision.  She’s asked whether she will go to be Isaac’s wife, and she says she will.

And again, we can see how this relates to us as the Church.  God has initiated the offer of relationship, but we each choose – consent, even – to take God up on that offer.  We come each to the waters of baptism of our own free will.  We make that commitment to turn to Christ, ideally with some seriousness and gravity to the decision.  And we can’t be compelled to do it, or sold into doing it, or otherwise forced; our relationship with God, to be what it should be, needs to be entered into freely, responsibly, and joyfully, just as Rebekah did with Isaac.

And the Church as a whole – as a body, even – needs to live out that commitment in the same spirit that we each individually make it.  Seeking to know God’s will so that we can say, in response, “We will,” and then live that out, as a matter of serious commitment, with integrity.

(As an aside, this matter of Rebekah’s consent is relevant for us in another way.  Based on this question put to Rebekah, in Jewish law it is required that a bride freely consent to her marriage.  We have continued this in Christian practice; a marriage is not valid without the free consent of both parties.  And the women of the church might have plenty of reason to be grateful for the custom – built on rabbinic interpretation of this passage – which says we can’t simply be traded as property between our menfolk!)

Anyway.  Let me skip forward a bit in the story, past the passage that we read today, and point out that later on it says that Rebekah was barren, and that it’s only after God intervenes in answer to prayer that she is able to conceive.  Her fertility – her ability to participate in God’s will for the world – only comes about because God enables it.

Our fruitfulness for God is usually less literal and more spiritual than the actual bearing of children, but it’s an important reminder to us that all that we’re able to do, only comes to us because of God’s gracious acts in creating and providing for us (again, what in slightly more old-fashioned terms Christians used to talk about as “divine providence”).  And this ought to be encouraging, because it means it doesn’t depend on us.  The kingdom of God doesn’t depend on our frail strength, our limited intelligence, our wavering steadfastness.  God used a barren woman to be the mother of nations.  What might he bring about in and through us, despite our faults and disadvantages?  We can be open and hopeful and look for the unexpected, because we know that that’s how God works in the world.

Then, it gets even better.  She’s pregnant with twins, and they’re struggling together in the womb.  Wondering what this might mean, she goes to ask God.  And the text says “God said to her…”  She didn’t need an intermediary, her husband, a priest, or whatever.  She went to God and God spoke to her, explaining that the two children in her womb will become two nations, and – more importantly – that God has chosen the one who will be born second.  Again, contrary to all custom of the time, God’s blessing and the dominant role will be given to the younger son.  And later on, after the boys have grown, Rebekah acts to make sure that this is how things turn out.

She sought God, listened to what God had to say, accepted it despite it being shocking, and acted in accordance with it.  This has led to her being seen as the first prophetess, and the first woman since Eve that Scripture says was spoken to directly by God, without an angel or other go-between.

We’re supposed to do that, as a church, too, aren’t we?  Seek God, listen to what God says, accept it – whether it conforms to our expectations or not – and then act in accordance with it.  We are, in fact, supposed to be a prophetic community, receiving God’s despatches to a broken world, living out what we hear so that it becomes real and concrete for those around us.

I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting the point.  This portrait of Rebekah that the author of Genesis offers us is one that the Church ought to be able to look at, seeing a family resemblance to who we are.  But before I finish, I want to show you something which might give you another image for some of the same ideas.

What you’re looking at now is, believe it or not, a wedding ring.  Not one that someone would wear every day, obviously, but a symbolic heirloom, handed down between generations of the same family.  For centuries, Jewish families have made wedding rings like this.  And the whole point is that the ring is given to the bride, and the building – which is a symbol both for the family home, and for the temple in Jerusalem – is built on the foundation of the ring; it stands on the solidness of the marriage.

In much the same way, the future that God is building in our midst stands on the foundation of our relationship with God.  Just as God worked through Rebekah, the ideal Israelite wife, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God had promised, so God works through us, the Church, the bride of Christ, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God has promised.  And – you might remember that earlier I mentioned that Isaac is the one patriarch who never had another woman in his life – in return, God promises God’s presence and love and joy to us, to a unique degree.  The flip side of the Church being for God, is that God is for the Church.

God calls us to be, like Rebekah, a community which is oriented to God rather than the world around us.  God calls us to be hard working, hospitable and generous.  God calls us to reflect God’s beauty to the world, and calls us to be single-minded in our freely chosen commitment to God.  God calls us to be open to God being at work among us, providing a future and hope, letting God bring about fruitfulness in and through our lives.  God calls us to be prophetic; seeking God’s words, listening to them, and living them out.

It’s a high calling.  It’s comforting to me, at least, to know that real men and women have walked in it before us, and have been blessed as they have done so.  But Rebekah the matriarch has long since surrendered her care and gone to her rest.  It’s up to us, now, to be a living portrait – or even, dare I say, an icon – of God’s grace to our world.

And I hope, as you seek to do that, this morning’s exploration of the life of this remarkable woman has given you a helpful resource to draw upon.


This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is 1 Peter 2:11-25.

Freedom!  It’s an ideal that has inspired everything from great works of art to nation-building, and yet for Christians, there’s a lot of tension in how we think about it.

On the one hand, we say that in Christ we are free from sin, free from the law, and ultimately – in an eternal sense – free from suffering.  On the other hand, we say that we are bound to serve God with the totality of our being, that we are bound to love others as we love ourselves, and that we are bound to be part of a movement in which achieving our mission means taking up our cross.

I think, too, for Christians today there is another tension.  We have inherited from the recent past a solid tradition of Christian action which has been about opposing the “powers that be” when they’re unjust; and yet we know that in many times and places, the Church has been one of those powers, or closely allied with them, and has not always been just.  Obedience to authority has long been a spiritual discipline.  The proper attitude to authority – conformity or rebellion or something else – is a matter of hot debate.

Are we confused yet?

And in the middle of this confusion we read today’s passage from 1 Peter, which has some things to say on these issues; but I think for them to be helpful to us, they probably need some unpacking.

So, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,” is where he starts with this train of thought.

Why, “For the Lord’s sake”?  What does it matter to Jesus, whether or not we accept the authority of the government or the various services under its umbrella?

I think we need to remember that this was a community which was already starting to experience official persecution.  Only a little bit later than this record we have historical documents – Roman correspondence from the area – which discusses torturing Christians to find out the truth about what they believed and did.  And the Romans forbade people to gather in groups of more than five, so that it would be hard for anyone to start an uprising.  There are records that in Bithynia – which is in the region this letter is written to – there had been terrible fires which couldn’t be put out, because this law against gathering together meant that even the fire brigade had been disbanded.  In today’s terms, we would say that the government was more than a bit paranoid.

So it seems to me that what Peter is saying here is, “don’t cause any unnecessary trouble.”  We are Christians, we need to live as Christians with integrity, but don’t stir the pot by doing anything unnecessary that’s going to upset the empire.  Don’t bring the wrath of the powers that be down on the church, for the Lord’s sake, because we suffer enough for the things we really do need to do.  Try to do the right thing, and to submit to the empire when we can.  I think it’s important here to realise that the words “as sent by him,” describing the governors, doesn’t mean that the governers are sent by God.  It means we ought, as much as we can, to relate to them as if they were sent by God, even when we know they weren’t; showing deference for the sake of not being treated badly.

While we’re fortunate not to live under the same kind of brutal or paranoid regime, I think there’s an important principle for us here; not to cause trouble about things which are not core issues for Christianity.  I leave it to you to reflect on what that might mean in our own context.

So Peter goes on from there to tell his listeners, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”

And there are a couple of interesting things about this.  I’ve already talked about how the thrust of his earlier comments seems to be, don’t cause unnecessary trouble.  And he seems to be repeating that idea here.  You’re free people, and you should live in that freedom, but don’t let that be an excuse for what our translation here calls evil.  But again, the word used here seems in this context to have the force of something like “social disruption.” The kind of evil Peter is talking about is the kind of evil that is subversive, creating turmoil.  So again, live free, but don’t start a riot.

And then the rest of the letter really goes on to unpack the implications of that principle in the social structures of the day.  Slaves are to be submissive, wives are basically property, and everyone needs to know their place and keep to it so that we don’t get into trouble.  Honour the emperor.

If I’m a little sour about that, I’m sure you can understand why.  Long after the paranoid and oppressive government was gone, this social system was held up as being “the way God wanted things,” partly because of the way Peter wrote here.  But I don’t think it ever was what God wanted; it was the way things were, in which Christians needed to endure.

But there’s one other interesting feature of the way Peter puts things here.  He says, “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”  It’s like a basic list of where the lines of obedience are, in this moment where we need to make sure we present the smallest possible target to the authorities.

God, emperor, “everyone,” – well, that seems to cover all bases.  But in the middle of that, he throws in, “love the family of believers.” And while I’m sure he does want all of his listeners to love one another, I think here in this particular context, he’s saying something a little bit different; esteem the church; be dedicated to it.  In that sense, the family of believers, with its system of leadership already beginning to form, also has a claim on the honour and obedience of each Christian.

Not that I get to tell you what to do; but that I think Peter is here positioning the church community as being owed something by each of us, alongside or perhaps as an expression of the reign of God.  It bears thinking about, what that might mean for us, too.

So freedom, it turns out – at least in Peter’s thought – might mean something a little bit different than “doing whatever I like,” and maybe something more like, “getting to participate to the full in things which are good.”  And that way of looking at things might be helpful, when we think again about the tensions I mentioned at the start; between conformity and rebellion, or freedom from evil and yet being bound in love.

So my challenge to you from this text, something to take away and reflect on, is “What would it look like for you to participate to the full in something good this week?”

St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr

This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-22.

I find the story of St. Agnes quite troubling.  While some of the details are hazy, it seems clear that she was a young woman – maybe twelve or thirteen years old – in a Christian family, while Christianity was still illegal in Rome.  Denounced to the authorities, probably by a young man frustrated at her refusal of marriage, she was subjected to various indignities and eventual martyrdom.

There are lots of aspects of that story that we could explore, but the one which caught my attention was the idea that for Agnes, as for so many of the early martyrs, this was a contest about who was in control.  Who gets to decide what I do, and what happens to my body?  (In particular, who gets to decide with whom I have sex?)

A third-century Roman woman might seem like an unlikely poster girl for bodily autonomy, but you could read Agnes’ absolute refusal to bow to personal or state pressure in that light.  Of course, she was killed for it.

Today’s gospel reading hints at similar tensions in the Christian experience.  “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”  It’s an expression that conveys a great deal of vulnerability.  When the sheep and the wolf eye one another, it’s not usually the sheep who experiences control of the situation.

And yet I have a hunch – formed over many years of pastoral conversations – that we don’t like to think about that very much.  We like to frame our understanding of the world as if we are n control of our lives.

But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control.  God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.

And so we have a tension between taking advantage of the scope we do have, and making the most of it; and accepting the constraints which shape our lives.  The Christian martyrs have heightened that tension in an incredibly pointed way; making choices which showed how brutal and how extreme the forces which control our lives can be.  And in doing so, making the most incredibly powerful challenge to those forces, by saying that they are not ultimately the most important thing.  Some things are worth dying for.

Here’s the thing; Agnes, in her refusal to budge on her commitment to Christ, unmasked the wolfish brutality of her society.  In surrendering even her life to it, she refused to compromise with it in any way; and the extraordinary thing about that is the way her death became a catalyst for change.  Even heartless Pagan Rome, which had seen so many brutal deaths, began to sit up and ask if this was really necessary.  It was a turning point in the persecutions.

But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us.  I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control.  We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place.  We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.

This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way.  Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances i about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency.  (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there).  And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.

And that’s before we even touch on questions of mental illness or other, less tangible, constraints on our lives.

But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to preserve the illusion of being in control, is that it means that the constraints on our lives go unnamed, unacknowledged.  The wolves, if you like, are allowed to stay camouflaged.

How many people don’t talk about poverty, because they are ashamed to admit that they don’t have economic freedom?  How many people don’t talk about addiction, because they are ashamed to admit that a substance or an activity has come to rule their minds?  How many people don’t talk about family situations in which they feel trapped, because they are ashamed to admit that all is not well?

And yet wouldn’t there be a freedom, even a reclaiming of power, if we could collectively look those wolves in the eye and acknowledge them?

And if there is any sin in any of these things, wouldn’t being able to be honest with ourselves about what is going on, be the first step to setting it right?  Or if there is any injustice, any oppression, at work in what we experience, isn’t being able to be honest about that, the first step to being able to challenge it?

What I’m suggesting is that the illusion of being in control of our lives can get in the way of our own best interests.  It can get in the way of our psychological well being.  It can get in the way of our social well being.  It can get in the way of our moral well being.  And it can get in the way of our ability to recognise those things which are wrong, and work to put them right.

If Agnes had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things.  It might not have been, on paper, a bad outcome; and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it.

But by refusing to do that, by looking the wolf in the eye and not flinching, she refused to compromise who she was.  Maybe one of the things she offers us as her legacy, is the courage to accept our own vulnerability, and to take a fearless inventory of the powers which shape our lives, knowing that none of them have the final word.



This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.

All Scripture.  What.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of difficult bits from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that when Paul wrote this, he found himself in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.

There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well.  To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But Paul says no, that won’t do.  We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to express the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an organ of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s care to provide for God’s creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives.  We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised.  We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun.  By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted.  By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion.  Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture?  Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.

So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.

On the radio

I’ve been on leave for the last two weeks, so not preaching and my blog has been quiet.  But one thing that did happen during that time was International Women’s Day.  And in honour of that, I was asked to be the guest on a radio programme discussing “Feminism and the Bible.”

The podcast can be found here:

To give a bit of context, this was broadcast on a community radio station which is intentionally GLBTIQ friendly.  I realise that many Christians are uncomfortable with such a stance, but my point of view is that I will talk about the Bible with anyone, anywhere; and with a potential audience of over 300,000 listeners, a radio station such as this lets me be heard by far more people than would typically be in church to hear me preach on Sunday!

A format such as this is difficult, because time is limited and none of our discussion points had as much depth or breadth as I would have liked; but if nothing else I hope that listening to this discussion encourages people to explore further, and not to write off Christianity (and ultimately God) based on a stereotypical view of Christians.

One disappointment was that originally, I was not to be the only guest, but there was going to be a Rabbi (a woman) as well.  But sadly she was not available and we missed out on what she could have contributed to discussion of the Hebrew Scriptures.