Thursday, 20 November 2014

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns!

Christ the King Sermon 2014: Peter Lockhart

Today is the last day of the liturgical calendar.  It is the end of our Christian year.  Not unlike New Year’s celebrations at the end of December, or possibly even our birthdays, it is a time for both reminiscing and a time for looking ahead. 

The readings for the day lend themselves to helping us as they give us some criteria with which we might assess our faith: the criteria of our engagement with those who suffer.

The imagery from the readings that we heard from both Ezekiel and Matthew are images which contain an edge of judgement.  God, or Jesus, is described as a shepherd separating the flock into those who are righteous and those who are not.

The notion of Jesus acting as a king sitting in judgement over his people is not one that we might necessarily be comfortable with.  And even more tempting is to go down the path of trying to work out who is and who is out and why.

Of course most, if not all preachers, would encourage their congregations with the notion that they are numbered among the righteous or if not an invitation to become one of the righteous ones would be given.

But I do wonder whether this is the most helpful approach and on deeper reflection on the passages, especially the one from Matthew I would like to offer you a slightly different perspective which can be encapsulated in three ideas:

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns! 

Let me unpack these three interlinked ideas with you.

Firstly, ‘it comes as a surprise’.  In his commentary on the passage David Lose from Luther Theological Seminary notes that for both those who are identified as ‘sheep’ and those who are identified as ‘goats’ the judgement comes as a surprise.

After Jesus has outlined when he was present in both cases the response is to ask Jesus the question “When was it that we saw you.”  I must admit that the repetition of this phrase really struck me as I thought about this passage this:

When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

This notion of being surprised emphasises a couple of things for us.  The first is that it was not through careful planning and behaviour that the sheep or goats are judged but on actions that they were simply not aware of.  And, secondly, and possibly also more disturbingly, it is God alone who makes the judgement.

Unlike the sense of assurance of salvation that the eighteenth century evangelist John Wesley spoke of, in this passage we encounter that those who are chosen are rather surprised by their inclusion.

God alone decides the who and what and why and wherefore of salvation. Listening carefully to broader span of the New Testament we are also aware that the judgement day is the day of Jesus own death.  A factor which should be considered as we listen to Jesus words. 

Nonetheless, as we listen to this parable and to other teachings of Jesus around it what appears most certain around notions of judgement is that is God who decides and not our plans for inclusion that matter.  If our behaviour saves us it is not through our deliberate actions but the surprising choices that God makes.

This releases from the concerns about trying to do good deeds to save ourselves and allows us to turn to God in trust and faith knowing that the word of judgement encountered in Jesus death is matched by a word of grace exclaimed in Jesus resurrection.

We do not carry the burden of saving ourselves but trust in a God whose mercies are new every morning for God’s grace, ‘It comes as a surprise!’

Which brings me to the second phrase or point: That God is present!

The notion that God is present with us can be fairly vague but not in this reading.  God is present in a very specific way as an extension of the incarnation.

The incarnation extended and apparent not in the presence of the people of God but rather more confrontingly in those that Jesus describes as the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.

In identifying his personal presence within these people Jesus continues the tradition and understanding expressed by the prophets like Ezekiel: God has specific concern for those who suffer in this life.  Salvation is not meant to be an after we die event but a restoration of humanity and community to those who are excluded in this life now.

One of the things that this challenges us on if we reflect on our personal journey of faith is whether or not we have viewed others as being Jesus with us.

As we engage with other human beings our starting point as Christians should always involve the idea that Christ is already present.  The notion of incarnational ministry, which is often expressed as we who are the holy ones being Christ for others, is actually around the wrong way: others are Christ with us.

Which brings me to the third idea if we understand that salvation comes as a surprise and that God is present then as people who know this we are invited to respond as we share in God’s concerns!

Growing up I kind of had this idea that being a good Christian was primarily about moral decisions accompanied by attendance at worship.  Don’t drink too much, or swear, be polite and kind, no sex before marriage, work hard and be honest.

But in Jesus judgement the criteria are far more confronting for us.

Feed the hungry
Give water to the thirsty
Welcome the stranger,
Clothe the naked,
Heal the sick
And visit the prisoner.

Marrying these comments with Ezekiel’s similar prophecy concerning judgement I believe that the criteria to which we are responding to be Christian and the call to follow Jesus must necessarily involve us in those God is concerned for.  Otherwise we simply and silently participate in the systems that allow others to suffer.

Listen again to Ezekiel’s words:

18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? 20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

On a global scale we are among the fat sheep and as our reflection on abolitionist Sunday has reminded us many of the slaves around the world are propping up our lifestyles.  We are trampling on their pasture and muddying their waters.

So as we look ahead into the year to come, as we begin again next week our advent journey let us think about what it means for us to be Christians personally, followers of Jesus, and corporately as the people of God who gather in this Uniting Church.

The good news is that salvation comes as a surprise! Something out of our control that we do not need to worry about. That God is present!  Which calls us to honour other beings as a continuation of God’s presence in the world in Jesus. And lastly that we are invited to share in God’s concerns for those who are considered ‘The least of these’! 

For when the least of these experience God’s grace in the meal provided, in the clothing given, in the welcome of the stranger,  in the healing of the sick or the release of the prisoner then it may be actually true that it is on earth as is in heaven, even if only for a fleeting moment.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The parable of the talents or the cruel master?

As we gather around the scriptures each week in church and listen for Jesus word to us I sometimes wonder how we actually perceive what we are doing.

What are you expecting as you listen?  Are you possibly hoping that what the scriptures and sermon do is become a mirror reflecting our already established world views and spiritual ideas back on ourselves?  Or are you hoping that instead of a pane of glass in the frame, a window which helps us look into the real world of God’s love and the promise of a coming kingdom?

This is a fundamental and important question for each one of you and me to grapple with.  What is that we are doing as we listen?  I think if we take seriously the idea that when Christ is present he is inviting us to look through a window and not into a mirror serious questions arise around the nature of the real world.

It seems somehow a little more weighty to make such claims as this today whilst the G20 meets in Brisbane.  I saw a comment in response to some of the alternative G20 activities, protests and meetings and so on, that at least the world leaders meeting at the G20  live in the real world like the rest of us.  But what is the real world and what is Christ calling us to?

So as look at the story that Jesus told this morning I believe we need to remember the basic convictions of the Christian faith and use that as our frame around that mirror. 

God created all things. Human beings were given a special place and relationship with God, and the creation.  Human beings have not responded faithfully in that relationship.  Jesus came into the world and lived as God among us.  Through Jesus’ life death and resurrection God has renewed the relationship and shown us mercy.  In all of this the frame through which we look is the framework of grace, which is ultimately embodied in the person and work of Jesus.

All of this is rather a long introduction to talking about the parable that we heard today.  Clearly this is a difficult parable.  And from my research around it this week I have found it is one which has caused much debate in the church, particularly in the last few years.

The traditional interpretation of this parable is to think of the Master who goes away as God and then to spiritualise the talents as some kind of ‘gifts’.  I will come back to that issue because first I want to share with you one of the commentaries I found about this passage during the week.

Not from a spiritual website but a business one called “Early to Rise”. I assume it is echoing the old saying, ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy and wise.’  It said this:

Why do some people retire rich and most people retire poor? This question has fascinated philosophers, mystics, and teachers throughout the ages. There have been so many men and women – hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions – who started with nothing and became financially independent that people are naturally curious to know why it happened and if there are common rules or principles that others can apply to become wealthy as well.

The Parable of the Talents is one of the stories told by Jesus to illustrate a moral lesson. The message in this case (from the Gospel of Matthew): “To him that hath, shall more be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.”

What does it mean?

In the modern world, we say it this way: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The fact is that people who accumulate money tend to accumulate more and more. People who don’t accumulate money seem to lose even that little bit that they have.

What the author of this website has done is taken the parable at face value to affirm capitalism, the growth of wealth and dare I say – greed!
It reminds me of a time when a congregation member asked me where the passage “God helps those who helps themselves” is found in the scriptures.  To which I answered truthfully it is not.  But at face value this parable interpreted as an affirmation of using our gifts to amass wealth seems to echo such a sentiment.

In this situation, especially in our capitalistic and individualistic society, the parable is being used as a mirror to make us feel comfortable, worth and even self-righteous.

I have seen this kind of thinking to justify the idea that the poor are poor because they have not used their gifts appropriately or even worse done something to deserve their fate.  On the other hand, those who have wealth are using their gifts appropriately and are being rewarded with more.  If Jesus is understood in any way to be affirming this system then Jesus is actually patting us who ‘have’ on the back and deriding the poor.

I have to confess that this kind of reading of the parable is questionable if not downright destructive as it could be used to justify ignore those who are poor because the have not used their gifts.

Now of course there is the argument that the talents are not to be understood as money but as spiritual gifts. But even this kind of interpretation can lead to a spiritual elitism and self-righteousness.  I found this reflected in some of the comments made on blogs on this parable.  One person suggesting that one of the commentators obviously had not been given the spiritual gifts to understand the parable and so would be excluded and judged for their interpretation.

It seems to me that holding the notion that the focus is on how we use our talents leads us towards the dangerous area of works righteousness and elitism, in other words looking narcissistically into a mirror.

But how can we retain the frame of grace and smash the mirror and so look through the window into God’s future and promise.

As we look again at the parable despite the error of some English translations this parable does not begin with the words the kingdom of heaven is like in fact at the end of the parable the opening sentence following the story is ‘but’.  “But when the son of Man comes.”  In other words the parable is not representative of the kingdom, of anything it is quite the opposite!

As a helpful corrective I went back and read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus found in Matthew 19.

The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Given this story I suspect that Jesus would be reticent to affirm wealth and those who pursued wealth as the master in the parable does.  This made think more about Jesus audience and I was thankful to Richard Rhorbaugh for his insights on the passage who argues that most of Jesus audience would have been poor, probably farmers and fishermen living hand to mouth.  The daily economy of their lives was not lived within a capitalistic culture but an agrarian one where labour was not about building a portfolio. It was about simply living day to day.

In fact the culture and philosophy of the era leading up to Jesus parable had raised some significant questions around the generation of wealth. 

Aristotle in his Politics saw retail trade as unnatural and was critical of making money or wealth as if it were an end in itself. Trading goods, which first two servants engaged, was thought of inherently evil. Plutarch similarly attacked those who amassed wealth in his writing On the Love of wealth.  Much later in the fourth century, the Christian scholar Jerome wrote, “every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief.” (In Hieremiam, II, V, 2: CCL LXXIV 61)  For we who are wealthy and live a market based consumerist culture can only hear all of this as a critique of how we live.

This takes us back to Jesus audience.  To a peasant, the poor person listening to this parable, the Master in the tale would have been a terrifying figure.  It is not surprising that the servant who buried his talents in the ground describes the master as harsh, the Greek word here could actually be translated as cruel.  He was perceived as harsh and his judgement appears consistent with this.  And might I say inconsistent with Jesus teachings about God’s mercy and forgiveness earlier in Matthew.

To help fill in some context for us who not part of the Jewish tradition in the book of Exodus we read that if someone entrusted with an amount of money loses any of it they will be held to account over the loss and taken before a judge.  In response to this passage the Rabbis agreed that a person burying the money was not responsible for any loss.  It was thus viewed as a wise course of action to bury the wealth.

In addition to these problems the Master suggests that servant with one talent could have invested it, which means the Master is encouraging usury.  The lending of money to gain interest was once again at best questionable and at worst an outright sin.  Jesus himself is recorded as saying in Luke 6:35 Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.

Finally, the servant also says of the master reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. The master has a reputation for taking what is not his and the master does not deny it.

Even when we spiritualise the talents the notion we are left with is one that appears contradictory to the story of Jesus life lived for us to draw us back into the relationship with God.

Where does this all this leave us?  With an image of an unmerciful, judge that will punish those who don’t make more for someone who is already wealthy beyond measure.  This vision has little room for the concept of God’s concern for the poor.  The Master is a still a tyrant and it has been suggested by some that Jesus is being quite specific about which tyrant he is attacking: Herod’s Son Archelaus who had gone off to Rome to seek the support of the Emperor.

Is it not more likely that as we look at this parable it is setting us up to hear what Jesus will say next to present a different view of God’s reality and God’s concern for the world: to look through the window of grace and hope.

We will be reading the passage which follows next week but let us have a sneak preview now.  It has an edge of judgement to it but centred within that judgement is where God’s true concerns lie:
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Jesus audience including the poor would have heard the contrast as a sign of why Jesus was there with them and what God’s invitation was about: restoration of community, relief to those who suffer; compassion and care.  Good news for the poor, blessing and hope.  A window not a mirror of how we already live and what we already believe.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

It's not about the oil!

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

This wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley captures the central message of Christian hope – Jesus comes with all his grace.  It is God who acts and it is God alone who draws into deeper that relationship of divine eternity.  I often remind myself that the answer is Jesus, the answer is always Jesus.

But then Jesus tells his disciples a story, a parable, which leaves me bamboozled: the story told to us from Matthew’s gospel is one of those stories.  How do we hear this story as a story that is filled with God’s grace?

Let’s listen to the story a little more closely and consider what might be going here.

Now Jesus was teaching the disciples, he was critiquing the Pharisees and he was speaking about the return of the Son of Man.  The ideas seem to overlay one another as they coalesce in this parable of the 10 bridesmaids.

The story tell us about 10 bridesmaids who are waiting to meet the bridegroom.  It is my understanding that part of the Jewish tradition of the time that bridegroom would come to the house of the bride’s family where the party would continue and the marriage would be consummated.

The task of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived.

So all 10 turn up, they have lamps which we can safely assuming are filled with oil and burning and they begin
their vigil waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Now Middle Eastern schedules of the ancient world were not unlike the schedules of some cultures that we can still encounter.  Unga and I sometimes speak about Tongan or Pacific time.  Basically it means you turn up when you turn up, which, of course, for some of us who are punctuality perfectionists can be more than a little aggravating.

So the bridesmaids wait... and they wait... and they wait... and they collectively doze off.  All 10 of to sleep!

Suddenly there is a fuss and a flutter as the figure of the bridegroom approaches.  Now is their moment, now is their time!

But the oil has run low and an issue arises and becomes somewhat ironically enflamed.

Five of the bridesmaids had brought extra oil whilst five had not – they were out and they needed more.  So the five who had run out turn to their sisters, their friends, their family and they say please share, give us oil for our lamps, keep them burning.

But the wise ones say no, there is not enough to go around.  No, we have ours and we are going to the party.

Now I have to say at this point on so many occasions I have heard this parable spoken about I have been told that I should be like one of these wise ones and have extra oil for my lamps, extra faith maybe, extra preparedness – whatever it means.

But I have to admit on reading the parable again I do not want to be associated with the wise ones in any way shape or form.

In Matthew 5:40-41 Jesus teaches, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

At the heart of Jesus messages lies a generous God who invites us to generosity even at great cost to ourselves.   I can’t but help think of Paul’s second letter to the Philippians in which we find the great kenosis hymn.  Kenosis is about self-emptying; Jesus empties himself of all to share in our existence.

The example and behaviour of the so-called wise ones to me is abhorrent.  There is almost an air of smug self-satisfaction as they go off to the party.  We got in because we are wise.  Do they not care about those left behind? Those outside? Those who are excluded? Their sisters? Their friends?

How often has your heart broken with the notion that someone that you love might be excluded from the loving kingdom of God because they did not have enough faith, knowledge, commitment?  Is this the God we encounter in the scriptures? In Jesus?

At this moment the wise ones appear to me more like the Pharisees that Jesus is often criticising.

What happens to those women left waiting outside?  They act.  They did not sit idly by and give up, they race off to the market in the middle night and somehow find someone to provide them with more oil.  In the middle of the night! Their lamps were already out so they find their way through dark streets to get what they need and they return.  What an effort!

They return to the house of the bride and they knock on the door equipped and ready to help the party arriving in their own time but the way is shut.  The interaction sounds so final, so condemning.

The other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

How does this fit in any way, shape or form with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7?

‘Ask, and it will be given to you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives,
and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

The way remains shut! 

Inside are a group who refused to do what Jesus taught – share generously, even if it means your own suffering.  Outside is a group who are experiencing rejection despite their last ditched efforts to knock on the door, which Jesus said would be opened.  How do we make sense of this situation?

Jesus sums up the parable with these perplexing words:

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Were you listening carefully?  This hit me like brick this week.  Jesus does not mention oil nor the wisdom or folly of those who bring extra or those who fail to.

Jesus critique is for those who fall asleep. Remember verse 5, As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  I can just hear Paul saying to the Romans in his letter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God!”

Jesus dire warning to the disciples is to stay awake – to be ready for what is hand, to be engaged with his presence, as the presence of the kingdom of heaven.

I wonder does anyone remember what happens in Matthew 26.  In the next Chapter of Matthew, Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He takes Peter and James and John and asks them to wait for him and stay awake with him as he prays.  The disciples, who had not long before heard the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and the injunction to stay awake, go to sleep.

They go to sleep as their master struggle with his fate and prepares for the ending of his life.  Three times Jesus has to awaken the disciples, they were not ready, and the third time it is tell them that his betrayer is at hand.

What a perplexing scene we are left with.  Bridesmaids inside that seem selfish, bridesmaids outside excluded, disciples who fall asleep.

Where is hope?

In Matthew 27 we are told about another door that is shut, a stone rolled by Joseph of Arimathea across the tomb of Jesus.  A door closed; a barrier between life and death, between the incarnate God and the creation. This door is the most impenetrable of doors.  How can we rise above these perplexing questions?

Matthew reports that three days later Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb and as they approach there was an earthquake and an angel descending from heaven who opens the tomb.  Inviting the women inside he tells them, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.’

We have been wise and we have been foolish, we have been asked to stay awake and we have slept yet the promise of God’s love remains:

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

It is not the extra oil, it is not running off into the night to get the oil, it is not knocking on the door and it is not even staying awake that makes the difference.  It Jesus himself who burst forth into new life, risen from the dead, the opens the doors and reawakens us – God is with us, God desires the best for us, God invites us to celebrate with the bridegroom as he shares his life with us.

Stay awake and be alert for the presence of the risen Lord is with us. Thanks be to God.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Jesus saw the crowds

“When Jesus saw the crowds”

Did you feel the significance of that simple statement?

“Jesus saw the crowds.”

The eternal Word of God, present at the time of creation, at that moment enfleshed in Jesus saw the crowds.

The crowd is such an anonymous entity, an enormous entity – a place in which people can get lost and be ignored.  Yet Jesus saw the crowds.

People like you and I: the crowd searching for healing and hope and news of a better reality.  What did Jesus see in crowd?   Later in Matthew 9 we are told that Jesus saw within the crowd people who were like sheep without a shepherd.

Who did he see? People bearing the burdens of their lives.  People with ailments and problems.  People looking for hope.  People like you and I.

Jesus saw the crowds and Jesus responded.  Jesus ascended to the mountaintop and as was the custom of the rabbis he sat down and he began to teach.   Jesus began to teach his disciples.

Now I have little doubt that just as the disciples approached him many of the crowd leaned in as well.  Leaning in over the shoulders of the disciples the crowd was listening.

What would Jesus say?  What is Jesus response to seeing the crowd human beings going about their business with all their troubles, woes and joys?

The words that Jesus shares are well know to us, they are called the beatitudes but we who are hearing them again for the umpteenth time should remember those gathered on the side of the hill were hearing them for the first time.

If we were travel back to the time and hear them afresh I suspect 2 things would stand out.  Firstly, Jesus teaching appears to be encouraging something of a reversal or revolution of understanding what it means to be blessed.  And secondly, in the context of the reversal Jesus declares a hope which transcends the current experience.

Each of the first statements of Jesus Sermon on the Mount comes as a couplet, recognition of a blessing and an alternate reality to which that blessing is connected.

It is a reversal that we too need to hear:

Blessed are the poor? Those who mourn? The meek? Those who hunger and thirst? Really?

There is an old country song Count Your Blessings – I don’t think this is what they were thinking about when they wrote the song.

So why does Jesus say it?  In his book The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer suggests that Jesus was first and foremost speaking to his disciples who had left their homes, their families, their livelihoods to follow Jesus.  They were poor, they mourned the loss of their nationhood, they were meek and no doubt they experienced days of hunger and thirst.

Jesus reversal reminds them, not just the disciples but crowd listening on and so us as well, that blessedness is not necessarily represented in an easy life with no hardship.  Blessedness, the knowledge of God’s care and concern for any is not necessarily equated to the momentary experience in which we find ourselves.

Jesus teaches his disciples that the parallel to the blessedness of life, whether it feels like a blessing or not, is that there is a coming kingdom of heaven, that there is comfort in store, and that mercy and that seeing God are in store.

Two sides of a story: we live life as a blessing, even in the tough times, and we live with hope that from the blessing of life we will encounter the fullness of God’s life and kingdom.

Of course as people hearing this story from where we sit we are hearing this story from the fringe of the crowd, not only looking over the shoulders of the crowds and disciples but hearing beyond on the moments of its speaking on the other side of Jesus death and resurrection.

In hearing this story post resurrection and having a fuller sense of Jesus identity there is more to it for us than for the disciples and the crowd which Jesus saw.

When God looks upon the world and sees humanity and the creation and the difficult experiences of our blessed lives God shares in the fullness of our humanity by joining us in it and experiencing the depth of blessedness himself.

Jesus is the poor in spirit, Jesus is one who mourns, Jesus is the meek, Jesus hungers and thirsts, Jesus is pure in heart, Jesus is a peacemaker and yes Jesus is persecuted.

Jesus blessedness in sharing our existence culminates in his sharing in our death as he dies on the cross and so he blesses us.

We know that by the power of the resurrection the kingdom of heaven has come; we know that he is comforted; that he inherits the earth; that he has been filled; that he has received mercy; that he is a child of God and that he rejoices.

Jesus teaching comes to us not telling us that we need to seek poverty of spirit and mourning and meekness and hunger and thirst out but that in and through him when we experience those things he is drawing us into the other side of that promise.

It will be on earth as it is in heaven, even if the blessed life we lead now seems to miss the mark.

Blessedness here is not about an easy life and having everything we want but rather is about knowing that God does not desert us even the darkest of places, that our predicament is not a measure of our blessedness and yes there is a kingdom coming.

Each week each of face the struggles and trials of life: sometimes you and I have to admit that we have got it wrong; sometimes you and I encounter confusion and mourning; sometimes we hunger and thirst ; sometimes you and are called on to be peacemakers; and sometimes we find ourselves being persecuted for our faith.

Yet, as people listening to Jesus teaching on the other side of the resurrection we are able to hang on to that tangible hope which we have seen in the resurrection: renewal and recreation is coming, suffering and death have been defeated.

Yes we do not experience these things in their fullness yet, we are on a journey to a future which has not yet arrived – but, as Paul declares, we hope in things not seen.

Why, because Jesus saw the crowds, because God sees us, because Jesus teaching becomes embodied in his own life and because Jesus promise is that through whatever blessings life brings we can hope in that future.

I wonder can you see Jesus on the hill teaching his disciples, teaching the crowd, teaching us, promising us because whether or not you can see him he has seen us! 

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Psalm 90 and the 'Ascent into Insignificance'!

I wonder if you have ever had the chance to look through a decent telescope into the night sky:   looking up into the universe it seems to unfold forever.  Or maybe you have seen the amazing images of galaxies and solar systems and black holes and so on shared by NASA on its website.

There is a beauty and a mystery that can weigh in on us making us feel so small and insignificant as we stare into the unknown reaches of space. So where do we fit into such a big universe?  What place do you and I have? What purpose?  We who long for our fifteen minutes of fame?

These questions were explored on last week’s episode ofQ&A.  Early on in the program the physicist Brian Cox was asked by an audience member John McCallum, ‘So, how important do you think the human species is in the grand scheme of the universe?’

In his answer Cox spoke about our “ascent into insignificance” - an intellectual ascent into insignificance - which has occurred since what is commonly referred to as the Copernican Revolution.  Copernicus is credited with moving us to a heliocentric understanding of the cosmos.  The earth is not the centre of the solar system, as we now know the sun is – yet our sun is not the centre of the universe either. 

However, our ability as human beings to stare into the vast distances and wonders of the universe and the shift of the earth from centre of all things should not shake our faith and in many ways is nothing new.  These scientific discoveries are not to be feared by people of faith.  In many ways they affirm what we as people of faith already knew and have already questioned for millenum.

Psalm 90 brings to mind this strange paradox of human existence as it contrasts the enormity and mystery of God with our ever so small lives.

The Psalmists is in awe that God is so big, beyond comprehension: for God 1000 years are like a day. Our growing awareness of the universe and its infinite enormity and mystery can be paralleled with the awareness of God that people have always struggled with.

Not that God is the universe as the rapper 360 suggested on Q&A.  This ancient view of the universe as God is known as pantheism but God is not the universe, even though I would argue that God is present in the whole universe, even its far reaches.

So it is, our understanding of the universe reminds us of our insignificance in the same way that our glimpse of the divine humbles us: knowledge and revelation are truly an ascent into insignificance.

But here there is the paradox.  Despite the seeming insignificance of this small rock and our lives compared to the mystery of God and the immensity of the universe we still seem to matter.

Whenever we enter the text of the scriptures I believe that one of the things we are doing is setting out on a journey of discovery to explore this strange paradox of human existence: in the face of the mystery of life in this universe before its creator human beings matter.

In both Psalm 8 and Psalm 144 we find the same question asked, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”  Psalm 90 no less explore this theme contrasting the immensity and mystery of God with the assumption that this immense and mysterious God will respond to the prayers of the Psalmist to “prosper the work of our hands.” 

The significance of our human being is given to us in our self awareness and our ability to know and to relate to our creator.  The scene for this reality was set in the book of Genesis at the time of creation.  This awareness and relationship with God and each other are a reflection of our being made in the image of God, the maker of all things.

Somewhat ironically Brian Cox in his own way echoes the revelation of the scriptures.  On Q&A he spoke how rare civilization is and he said our value as human beings is found in the idea that a species has risen on this planet that has been able to measure its place in the universe.  It is our self awareness that makes us significant in the immensity of the universe: we seem to have a place.

Towards the end of the Q&A episode a question was asked about the purpose of human life.  Is there a point of life? Does human life have a purpose? 

This question moved the conversation from science and into the realms of philosophy and theology.  To ask about the end meaning of things is to enter into the classical discussion of what is known as teleology.

The initial reaction to this question by Brian Cox was no, there is no point to human existence.  To which followed a comment, ‘if life has no purpose we can do anything we want’.

For Cox and other panel member this was an illogical leap and Cox went on to strongly disagree suggesting that being human was about being good. Being good, he said, is something in itself: good has its own purpose.  After this a few of the other panel members had begun to speak about making people’s lives better or making the world a better place.

Unfortunately the episode finished at this point truncating this marvellous discussion but it would have been at this point that Jesus teaching in Matthew’s gospel that we read today may have had something to say.

A lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Purpose and place in life: love God in all of God’s mystery and transcendence and love others!  This is what it means to live with the paradox of our smallness before God: to love!

The experience of the Psalmist in Psalm 90 identified the failure of humanity to live this way and the consequences of this – suffering in the life of the community and I would say the world at large.  Yet the Psalmist continues to have hope and appeal to God in the face of human behaviour that fails to live loving God and others.

“Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.”   

“Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands!”

There is a deep longing for a better tomorrow! 

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

Loving God and so loving all that God has made, especially one another, is the expression of our hopes and longing.

We human beings live on this small seemingly insignificant rock in an obscure corner of the universe.  7 billion human beings seems rather a small number compared to the scale of the universe not that many people but often for us it appears to be too many: too many to get on with loving one another and loving God and loving all that God has made.

Is there purpose in life? Does your life have meaning?  Whilst you may still feel small and insignificant in contrast to scale of all things and of God the answer is yes.  Our perceived anonymity and smallness does not preclude our significance. 

We who are aware of the immensity of the creation and the mystery of God are blessed and so we join in the prayer of the Psalmist and continue our paradoxical journey with a God so unknowable it is inconceivable but who in grace has shared in our very life by becoming one of us. So we too pray in faith and hope:

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”