Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The ministry of donkey fetching

It is easy to get ourselves caught up in talking about Jesus entry into Jerusalem and skipping over the preparation for the event.

As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem we are told that he calls over two of the disciples to send them to get a donkey.  Of course the mundane task of donkey fetching is made special by Jesus prediction about where the two would find the donkey and what would happen when they got there.  Yet there is still a level at which it remains a mundane task. It was just something that had to be done – someone had to fetch the donkey.

Imagine years later these two disciples trying to explain the significance of their donkey fetching ministry.  Maybe the omission of their names from the story reflects how they might have felt about it.  So the question we could ask is why even bother including this part of the story, it has to be more than just fill.  I am sure the gospel writers were not working to a word count.

One of the things that strike me about the inclusion of this aspect of the disciples work is that even in mundane and ordinary tasks God can be encountered.  Jesus sends the disciples to fetch the donkey, and by predicting the encounter that the disciples would have, Jesus turns the event into a moment of revelation.

The appearance of the person questioning the disciples as Jesus had predicted is an affirmation for them of God’s work going on around them, even in the midst of this mundane task.

When asked, “Why are you doing this?’ their response is to describe what Jesus had said to them.  They relay Jesus prediction of the event.  Through this the disciples are once again reminded of Jesus authority and place within their lives.

Now, what if anything does this have to do with us?  By turning this mundane and ordinary task into something special, an encounter with the divine, I believe we are reminded that even the most mundane and everyday tasks in our lives can be places in which God speaks to us as well.

As we put our hands to work in the everyday humdrum of life making a meal, mowing a lawn, balancing our books, writing  and researching our PhD we can encounter God’s presence and be taught by God’s love just as the disciples were.

The great American preacher and activist Martin Luther King once declared “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Maybe in these moments of our everyday existence we will hear someone asking ‘why are you doing this?’  Why are you mowing the church lawn, why do you choose to write your PhD on this topic, why is it that you are nursing or teaching?  I wonder do we have sense that God has called us to these everyday tasks of life as an expression of ministry in the world.  Tasks that may seem everyday - even dull and boring – may be places we remember and encounter God and maybe when asked we might even have the temerity to explain that we had a sense that Jesus had asked us to do it.

Just as with the disciples and their task of donkey fetching so too we are called to do mundane and less than glamorous tasks in our lives – but God separate from these things.   

So the disciples return with the donkey and then we can safely assume follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem.

Now, one of the dangers of this story is that, because we have handed out palm branches to little children for so many years, and smiled at their embarrassed cuteness as they wander the aisles of the church waving Palms, we forget that there may be something more than simply remembering a long dead story going on and being sentimental about childhood.

Jesus entry into Jerusalem is filled with tension and excitement – Jesus is fulfilling Zachariah’s prophecy.  His procession declares his identity. Jesus makes claim to be the Messiah and the people respond.  Jesus had already set his face towards the cross and now he goes to meet it.  It is a scene filled with ambiguity. 

Maybe you have heard it said before that the same crowd that shouts “Hosanna” at the beginning of the week will scream “crucify him” at the end of the week.  People are fickle and Jesus presence evokes a range of responses.

We who know the story of what occurs should also understand our place within it.  We are part of that crowd.  We are the donkey fetchers.  We wave our branches.  We gather in hope.  Yet as we do so we know that despite our enthusiastic response we too will lose our way with Jesus.  We will desert, we will betray, we will hide.

This is how we live our lives with a strange mixture of belief and scepticism; with a paradoxical ability to do both things which are good and bad, usually not even fully aware of what which is which.  We live as people celebrating God’s love yet denying his place in our lives.

Yet, the good news is that Jesus knowing this, rides on.  He travels towards the cross, towards his death and towards his resurrection to break through our fickleness and so declare God’s love for us and inclusion of us in God’s very life.

For me the gathering on Palm Sunday shows the other side of the coin of our spiritual life to the low key and mundane task of donkey fetching.  The times we encounter God as a gathered community – just like running to the roadside to see Jesus we come and gather here and in worship and in singing our Hosanna’s Jesus is present with us here in the midst of our fickleness, accepting our praise.

The hope that we find in the story of the donkey fetchers and of Jesus entry into Jerusalem is that Jesus is with us and alongside us.  He is there us as we go about our everyday tasks and he is here as we gather together to celebrate, not because we are worthy in any way of his presence but because he chooses to be so out of love.

(with thanks to Thomas Long for some inspiration)

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Some Greeks came to see Jesus

I wondered what the Greeks were expecting when they went to see Jesus.  I cannot fathom what they were hoping for so I wrote this poem based on the idea of my wanting to seeing Jesus, with all the expectations and presuppositions that I carry.

Who do you want to see?

God and man
Mystery and grace
The eternal Word made flesh
The incarnate Son of God
Present from before creation
Perichoretically indwelling the Godhead
Father, Son and Spirit

Born of Mary
Inhabiting the universe
A teacher to follow
Living life vicariously
Bound in history
Free from time
Present in the hungry
The thirsty and the poor
Died yet risen
Coming from the future
Present with us now
Spurned and rejected
Loved and exalted
Lifted up for the sake of the world
Risen from among the dead
Full of new life

I want to see Jesus
Not simplified
Not domesticated
Not pasteurised and homogenised
Full of mystery and grace
An unknowable paradox
Yet willing to be known
Yes, I want to see Jesus
But more
I want to be seen by Jesus
Knowing that he will
Love me as I am
And as I am becoming
Trusting that he is making me
One with him, one with God
And one with others

I want see see Jesus
Am I ready for such a joyous, mysterious revelation
Only God knows

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Lift high the cross!

Lift high the cross 
the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adore 
his sacred name.

Many of you may recognise the words of this hymn by Michael Newbolt.  And no doubt many of you would want to sing along gustily agreeing with the sentiment.

Yet the question that I have is what kind of cross do we envisage being lifted. 

The hymn goes on “Come Christians follow where our captain trod our King victorious Christ the Son of God.  Led on their way by this triumphant sign the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.”

For me the image that immediately comes to mind with these words is that of an army marching off on a crusade.  It is militaristic and imperialistic depiction of the faith and of what lifting high the cross might mean.

I find this imagery deeply disturbing because for me it creates an image of the cross which is the antithesis of what we actually find in the scriptures.

In his book, “Crucified God”, Jurgen Moltmann asserts, “In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.”

Yet the cross which Moltmann describes in his book is one far removed from such imperialism and militarism.

To understand then what it means to lift high the cross I think the reading from John 3 sets us off in a very different direction to understand what it means to contemplate the cross.

Of course the segment that we read today from John 3 is a part of a longer dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus and it is valuable to read the whole story.  Rather than do that own I would leave that for your own time.

But the vital point is the connection Jesus makes “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 

It is commonly accepted that what Jesus is referring to here is him being lifted up on the cross and what he is saying to Nicodemus is that to understand the meaning of the cross involves understanding what Moses did in lifting up the serpent.

So let us take a moment to look at that story.

It is helpful to fill in a little bit of background to the people’s whinging about the bread and wanting to return to Egypt.  The bread they are complaining about was a miraculous gift, manna from heaven, when the people were hungry.  Not only had God provided bread but God had also led Moses to split the rock at Meribah where the Israelites had quarrelled with God to provide water for them.  And just prior to the incident that we read today God had given the Israelites a victory over the Canaanites, so great was this victory that the place was named Hormah which means destruction.

The Israelites had been cared for and provided for and protected by God and their response is ungratefulness – “sorry God the bread’s a bit bland, Egypt was better.”

Now God’s response may seem a little extreme as God sends fiery serpents among the people, biting them and even killing some of the people. 
When the people go to Moses and plead that the snakes be taken away Moses approaches God.  God’s response is not to take the snakes away but to provide a means of grace. It is a brass snake mounted on a pole, a symbol to be looked upon and a person would be healed.

What is interesting for us today is that it is the source of the problem, the serpent, which becomes the symbol of their healing.

Let’s bring this into comparison with the Son of Man being lifted up.

If looking at the serpent was looking at the source of the problems then looking at Jesus on the cross is at some level doing the same thing.

Jesus is the symbol, like the snake, of the source of our problems.

Now this may sound a little uncomfortable and it should be because this is the confrontation with our own humanity.

In Deuteronomy we read that the one who is hung on the tree is cursed by God.  So in looking at the Son of man lifted up we see that the things which are not of God in this world, the world’s turning away from God, our turning away from God, are tied up with the our human existence.

We are the snake biting ourselves!

The temptation for us who are Christians is to forget just how confronting this image of the cross is and that it continues to apply to us.

When we lift high the cross we are confronted by the way in which as human beings destroy our very humanity and so therefore God’s will and way.

Let me explore on three levels.

As a person I know that there are times that I fail to honour others as I should and this most obvious in the intimate relationships that I have. 

In an angry word or dismissive gesture I can cause hurt to my wife or children.  I can disregard me parents or in-laws and by my apathy I can fail to show the love I should to my siblings.  In each moment that I do these things I destroy something of their humanity and mine – I fail to live as God intended.  We all do it and like it or not it is what sin is all about – being less than God created us to be, destroying the life given to us or others as a gift.  It is an intensely personal and at the same time an entirely universal thing.

Personally I would argue sin is not on a sliding scale, sin is simply what it is sin, whether it is these simple personal interactions or something more dire: sin is sin!  It is our turning away from God and so also, and maybe inevitably, each other.

What we do in our intimate relationships carries through into our communities; whether in the church or in the locality.  Our Australian urban culture is typified by the building a bigger fences between or neighbours.  We often don’t even know their names.  As people we are becoming more isolated and independent from one another. 

And yes even as the church we fail.  The existence of the many denominations is a sign of our inability as followers of Jesus Christ to be faithful.  It is not simply that we like different things and express ourselves differently, which we do, but that we do not know how to love one another. 
Even internally, no congregation I have ever been with or had association with has been free of tensions and disagreements. 

This is what the cross reveals about humanity that we are the source of our own problems – we are the serpent that bites itself and the consequences and implications are far reaching.

In a world full of inequality the lifestyle we live is propped up by countries in which people are working in what any of us would say are intolerable conditions.  Much of our coffee and chocolate is picked by children, sometimes dealt with as slaves.  Many of the clothes we wear come from the sweat shops in other countries.  We out source our manufacturing of technology to the places we can find the cheapest labour.  We pick up our next bargain and it does not cross our minds as to where it has come from. Ironically, we do all this whilst vocalising our concerns for the poor of the world.

We are a paradoxical people.

Lift high the cross – what we see is that we human beings are very much the source of our own misery.

So where is hope?  Where is God in all this?  The answer is to look to the cross.  Returning to Jurgen Moltmann’s book the title gives it away “The Crucified God”.  God in Christ takes this ‘god forsakeness’ into his death and transforms it.

The triumph of the cross is as Paul says foolishness – God identifies with us in our turning away and all of its consequences and says I am with you and I will lead you home.

As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Despite our ignorance, despite our deliberate waywardness, and despite our plain stupidity the cross says to us that God is with us and that God has not forsaken: even we who would nail God to the cross.  This is grace.

As people we are drawn into this grace as we lift high the cross and as we are lifted into living again with hope.  Living with hope that sees past our human predicament and the paradox of our rejection of God and seeks to live again led and empowered by the good news that has been revealed to us.

Renewed constantly in our relationships with one other we learn to forgive each other as we indeed have been forgiven and we live as forgiven sinners, not perfect, yet witnesses to a hope in God’s love.

As Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

This is the good news the Son of Man has been lifted up just as the serpent was lifted on the pole in the desert and in the source of our affliction we also find our healing. 

The relationship came first then the rules

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

This simple statement by God at the beginning of the passage, commonly known as the 10 Commandments, raises for us a fundamental question.  It is in some ways the age old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”

Or, “Which came first the rules or the relationship?”

I have a definite view that the relationship precedes the rules but I am aware that for many people both within the group who claim to follow Jesus and beyond that group it is the other way around.  Rather than the relationship giving rise to the rules there are many people who consider that to be a Christian it is about the rules which then opens out the relationship.

Let me indulge you with a brief story about my own process to beginning my Doctorate to demonstrate my understanding of relationships and rules.

When I first began to contemplate engaging in further study I did not look up the website at UQ to find out the requirements of entry or the rules of how I would do the study.  No! Rather I contacted my now supervisor and went and met with him. Together we began to explore my options in terms of a topic. 

We developed a relationship based not primarily in academic rules but in our concern for the development of thought and understanding in the church.  It is a concern that we would have shared whether I decided to enter into the formality of study or not.

This relationship has lead to the need for me to explore the rules of studying at UQ and the rules basically provide map for me to get to where I felt I wanted to go using the vehicle called UQ.

The relationship came first.

When God speaks the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” God is reiterating an already existing relationship It is a promised relationship, a relationship which is grounded on the willingness of God to intervene for the good of God’s people.

The act of bringing the people of God out of Egypt was the way God's intervened to save this group of people to be God's chosen people.  They were to be a sign of God’s love before the other nations of the world.

The relationship came first.  A relationship that God was willing to save.

We can hear within the story God's commitment to be in the relationship. It is only when this relationship is established and that the story of God's relationship is told that we hear the so called commandments of God.  These commandments are meant to help people be in the relationship.  They are a gift to help people to enter into the community of humanity as God's people, to live within the relationship which was already a given.

I do not want to delve too deeply into the nature of the 10 commandments but rather give a brief commentary as we might view these words as an encouragement or resource in the relationships we have with God and each other.  Broadly speaking the commandments fall into two these two categories and to start with our relationships with each other it is helpful to reverse how we think about these commandments.

In the New Testament Jesus says to the disciples that they should “do to others what you would have them do to you”.

If we view the commandments dealing with how we behave toward one another through this lens then we should think about them this way:

I would want my children to honour me so I should honour my parents.
I would not to be murdered so I should not wish murder on anyone else.
I would not want to be betrayed in my relationship with my wife so I should not betray her.
I would not want my things stolen from me so why would I steal what belongs to another.
I would not want lies told about me so I should not lie.
I do not want people to be jealous of my possessions so I should not be jealous of them.

When God gives these instructions to us God is not imposing something on us that is unfair or unwieldy but inviting us to think about how we wish to be treated in our lives.

In the same way we can reverse the commandments about God:

God has chosen to be in the relationship with us so we are invited to place God first in our lives.
God has entered into the relationship with us personally so we do not need to construct images to be in the relationship.
God honours us by speaking to us by name and with honour and so we can respond in the way we talk about God.
God has given us the freedom to live day by day in this wondrous world, so we remember God as creator by honouring the Sabbath.

This is not about earning God’s love.  This is not about fulfilling rules so we can get to go to heaven.  This about living within the world God has made in such a way as to honour others and God, just int eh same way we would desire for ourselves.

The relationship comes first – the rules simple help us to live in this relationship.  They are a resource for us, they are a helping hand and we should view them this way.

The reality of course is that all of us can easily forget that the relationship came first and we can turn faith into a set of laws to be obeyed.  We can begin to use the laws to define God rather than God’s willingness to save us.

This is why we see Jesus in the temple driving out the money changers and the animals being sold.  The money changers and animal sellers were there specifically to assist people live out the requirements of their faith by making the appropriate sacrifices.  They were there to help people live out the laws.

Whilst there may have also been corruption in the system Jesus concern was that the religious practices and practitioners actually barred the way into the relationship with God.

The relationship came first.

In all of the communities that we are part of - families, schools, universities, residential colleges, work places and even this congregation the same principle applies.  relationships are established - the rules are there to help us live well within those relationships in such a way that all members of the community might reach their potential.  Sometimes the rules can take over or seem to be a burden and some of the rules we make as humans are imperfect - but generally most are about helping build the possibilities of life for the members of the community.

God desire to be in a relationship with each of you.  God desires this so much that God shared our life in Jesus.  The rules are only there to help us live in the relationship, Jesus presence in the world confirms again God's commitment to us.

In this congregation this year we have determined to followers and fishers.  This means that we do understand that God has called us into the relationship and that God’s commitment has been to stay beside us and all humanity in Christ.  This is how we celebrate God’s goodness, this is part of how we are living the relationship – following Jesus and telling others of God’s love.

How do you enter into the relationship with God?  And how do you approach the rules you encounter in life?

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Psalm 22 Remembering God

In Psalm 22 we read these words of hope:

“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord.”

The loss of our personal memories can be a devastating experience and can have wide ranging consequences for many of our relationships.  No less so our collective amnesia as human beings can have terrible consequences.

Last Monday on Q&A the panel discussion focussed in on domestic and family violence in Australia.  During the discussion it was said that 1 in 3 Australian women will experience violence against them simply because they are women.  And, even more disturbingly, 1 in 5 will suffer some form of sexual abuse or violence. As a man I found these statistics staggering and wonder at the culture we have created which so demeans women – What will this mean for my daughter and her friends? What does it mean for people in my congregation?  What does it mean for the young women I meet as a Chaplain at the University?

Whatever else it means I believe it is a symptom and sign of our collective amnesia as human beings? 

We have forgotten God and we have placed ourselves as human beings at the centre.

We have forgotten that each of us is a precious creation loved by our maker.

We have forgotten that God’s promises are for all people.

We have forgotten that God’s desire is that all people encounter and experience an abundant life.

We have forgotten that in Christ there is no male or female, rich or poor, slave or free.

The symptoms are not simply in the treatment of women but seen in our predilection for violence based on any difference race, class, religion or gender. Our inhumanity towards one another is rife.

Far too often people of religious persuasion interpret their relationship with God as an invitation to violence and there can be no doubt there are images of God that portray a picture of an angry and violent God, but remembering God’s promise of love and mercy in Christ transform these difficult images.  Jesus commitment was to life in all it wholeness for people, even those who had been pushed to very margins of society.

Remembering God is important and remembering God’s concern for the poor, the orphan and the widow is vital.  God’s vision expressed in Psalm 22 is that the poor shall eat and be satisfied.  God desires all people to live life in freedom and abundantly, not just some!

When people gather for worship one of core aims is the act of remembering – the technical term used is anamnesis.

The word has the opposite meaning to one which sounds more familiar, amnesia.  Anamnesis is about recovering our memory – our memory of God.

In coming together we are reminded of our common bond to God and to all created life.  We are reminded that despite what we may think God has not forgotten us.  We remember that God’s response to the violence of the world was not retribution but submission to the cross in Christ.

The violence of the cross is not the act of an angry God, rather it is the invitation to new life as God accepts the violence we commit against Jesus and transforms it through the resurrection.

Psalm 22 which is quoted by Jesus on the cross reminds us that God did not abandon Jesus but quite the opposite: “he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

As we remember God and turn again towards God’s love in worship we are transformed by our remembering – God’s compassion, God’s mercy, God’s desire for abundance in our lives infiltrates our hearts, our minds and our souls as we invited to follow Jesus and love one another.

The psalmist cries ‘As for me I will live for the Lord” – remembering changes us into God’s people, called to bring wholeness to the lives of others.

God remembers us in grace what does it mean for you to remember God?