In this time of social and health upheaval, when so much of what we have taken for granted has been changed, how does the faith community respond?
Very well I suspect, as in our DNA there is found a call to help others, to be community and to share what we have. Regardless as to which faith tradition we belong to.
But what about prayer? In the past week, I have been asked to pray for someone who is a refugee in Sydney and without money or support, except from an incredible Catholic nun and her order and from us and others (just to let you know that prayer without action is somewhat empty, more on that in a minute!). I have seen one of my colleagues prepare a prayer space in his home, where his whole family can go and reflect, find some silence and gratitude, and commune with the divine. And I have had someone who I teach with suggest that anyone who prays is deluded, and didn’t we notice that the enlightenment occurred, and science is everything. In fairness to him I suspect he is attacking those who pray for a car space, or magically, the end of the COVID -19 pandemic.
So how do I see prayer, when I don’t believe in a external deity who decides willy nilly to intervene in human affairs, particularly if we pray hard enough. But neither do I believe that science has all the answers to what it is to be human.
Well, firstly let me lay on the table what I do believe, or place my trust in. I trust that the divine presence is found in all people everywhere, and has since the beginning of time, a mysterious presence, a creative force so central to life and all its goodness it cannot be distinguished from us. For me all people are carriers of this light for it is found within all people, at all times, and in all places, from the beginning of the universe until now and into the future. It drives us to be better than we are, both as individuals and as a society and a world, even if we don’t acknowledge or worship it.
So if this is how I see and experience God, then prayer for me is an awareness of this presence. Or as John O’Donohue says, “prayer is the art of being present to God.”
Most people think there are different forms of prayer, but actually I think they are all tied up with this same aim, to be aware of this spiritual presence. And somehow respond to it by how we live in the world. So prayer is actually tied up with the here and now.
And it can be anything. Our awareness can be heightened, if we look, in our ordinary lives or at times like this, our extraordinary lives. We can become aware through our relationships with one another, in working and advocating for peace and justice, in wonder and awe of creation, in gratitude for life, in church, in music, in gardening, in making things, in meditation and in silence. All this is prayer. We can pray in this way our entire lives. In any of these ways, it’s about becoming aware of the ultimate reality that binds us all together.
As one of my favourite theologian and authors , Frederick Buechner writes,
“Everybody prays whether they think of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something even more familiar than yourself and even more strange than the world”.
But what about the type of prayer we all may have problems with – prayers for others, or intercessory prayer. This is the time, when things are going crazy, that people often turn to this type of prayer, and use words that sound as though they are calling upon a magician. Yet this type of prayer is like placing clothes on something that is already at work.
For God is not somewhere else working as a bellhop, coming when we call. God is right here already. And if we are Christian, we are being called us to respond to that inner presence seen most clearly in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
So what do we do when we pray for others or pray with others.
I think we raise an awareness of God’s spirit in and around them and us.
John O’Donohue suggests that, “prayer for others is an ancient longing”. Maybe it’s not so ancient. We pray for others because we long for others to have life and love and support and justice, health and happiness. To have fullness of life . It’s a prayer of longing that with God all things are possible. Not that we have to pray for the spirit to be working, but we pray to join that spirit, to be part of the working out, so that we become aware of others. And we are changed. We are transformed. And this is the clutch of it, it’s about transformation not rescue.
As Mother Teresa has said –
“I used to pray that God
Would feed the hungry,
Or do this or that,
But now I pray that he will guide me
To do whatever I’m supposed to do,
What I can do.
I used to pray for answers, but now
I’m praying for strength.
I used to believe that prayer changes things,
but now I know that prayer
changes us and we change things”
I have used for many years a quote about prayer, and unfortunately I don’t seem to know where I got it from, but I think, for me, it nicely summarises prayer in all its forms (I have added to it over time) –
“Prayer for me has always been a yearning, a cry from the heart, a silence in which we might hear the sound of the wind or the feel of love and sense of knowing. A blessing for the things we see that are beautiful and breathing and astounding, or a lament of things too sad, too unspeakable to accept or contemplate. Prayer is something about awareness, deep awareness, of our gifts and our limitations, of our thanks and our wishes and hopes that things would be different. Prayer is about connecting to the spirit within all things, bringing life and love, and realising we are also connected to all things. Prayer is about being human and what we can do with that reality for others. It can be individual, but some of the most powerful prayers are communal. In very deep ways prayer is found in our living, as well as our words.”
Anyway these are just a few musings on the subject, which I think has more mystery than many think.
In the meantime I will light a candle and say a prayer for my refugee friend, Nazar, and continue to send him money. And hope that after this crisis has ended, we will be a more caring, compassionate society, looking after those who are not as lucky as we. I trust fully that the spirit will keep on working through those who will listen! Even if they can’t name it!
Let me put in a couple of Mary Oliver poems to finish.
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak
“I Happened to be Standing”
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.
So its Monday morning, and I am back on my couch ready to reflect on this second week mainly at home.
I had lots of ideas that have come and gone about what to write, but then before sitting down I read the morning paper.
Again full of COVID-19 stuff, very very scary numbers from Italy, from Spain, from the US, and of course the crisis with the cruise ships here in WA. But I also read the Opinion page by Jenna Clarke and the Anxiety Aunt column. And it hit mean, well it had already hit me but it was re-enforced by what these women wrote.
I have been trying to write hopeful things, in my blog and in my sermons, reflecting on the kindness being shown and encouraging people to see the light (and God) amongst the darkness of these crazy times. Yet I want to pause for a moment.
Because I am one of the lucky ones, I am not going to be jobless, I still have all 3 of my jobs, because they are in teaching, church work or at a hospital! Yet so, so many people, mainly young people do not have theirs.
I have a son who has embarked on his first professional job, and has started that process of becoming truly independent, moving into a unit with a friend, and living his own life, albeit with a weekly trip home for dinner. At the moment he has his job, and is still “free”.
But what of all those who have lost jobs, maybe their first one, or the one that enables them to study, or the ones who are embarking on families for the first time, like my niece, with a baby due in early May. Her support and joy will be tinged with the sadness that she can’t share this amazing time with her extended family and friends.
And what about those who have had to move back with parents, if they can, without going insane. As Anxiety Aunty says, in response to the letter she received about this, “the world is insane, the situation we have found ourselves in is absolutely bonkers. If anything retaining your sanity would be the maddest thing you could do right now”. Probably good advice!
She goes on to say, that while appreciating the kindness and compassion of people is good, “Your Aunt is not going to tell you the coming year is going to be fine. It probably will not. But your Aunt would like you to do something. Wake up in the morning, wash your face, brush your teeth, look in the mirror and say, this too shall pass. You have given up your adult independence, this too shall pass. You have lost your job, this too shall pass. The trajectory of your life has been interrupted, but this too shall pass. Remember life is long and can throw you many curve balls. Hopefully the next interruption to your life will be a wonderful one”. In the meantime you might need to learn how to cook! (I added that!)
I loved Anxiety Aunt’s response because it acknowledges that the time we are living in at the moment not easy, there is grief and sorrow at things lost, and huge challenges are facing all of us. But it is part of living, and sometimes living gives us curve balls, massive curve balls. Some are huge, like the death of a loved one, a whole family or a child, or a terrible health diagnosis, and some are more global. Just think of our grandparents and parents who were suddenly told, by the way there is a war on so off you go and fight it for us. With no say in the decision at all. And some are like this, a pandemic, could we ever have imagined that this is how we would be living in March 2020. Being told that we can’t even go and meet with more than 2 people, when one is us!
So let’s take a moment to weep. For the things lost.
Let us weep that our seniors who are being asked to self- isolate from the things that give them joy, children, grandchildren, friends, and for many church.
Let us weep for our young people, whose jobs are lost, whose lives are on hold, who might need to move back in with mum and dad, if they can, to survive.
Let us weep for those who don’t have a support network, who are on the streets, without protection, and who find the new unstable world a very dangerous place.
Let us weep for the children whose homes are not safe, where school provides protection and direction. Who are frightened by the change that is coming.
Let us weep for those with mental illness who will find the social isolation very difficult. And for those who provide services to all those marginalised in our society and are overrun with requests for help.
Let us weep for those who are ill, in aged care, or who were to have elective surgery to restore them to health but who have to wait, and wait and wait again.
Let us weep for the hospital and health workers, who are working non stop but are fearful that here in WA it will get out of control just as it has done in other places.
Let us weep and acknowledge that life has been stalled and it is time to reassess and re-orientate ourselves.
Let us weep and then acknowledge we have the power to change how we live in this crazy time.
So what can we do!
Share things that will brighten peoples day. Let’s put the teddy bear in the window, even if it’s at our parents place. Connect as best we can with our neighbours and our community and show as much love and concern as we can. Wake up and choose one thing to do that will make a difference to someone else. And yes, even post things on our social media platforms that may bring a smile.
I honestly believe when we do these things something happens to us. We lighten up, we realise by sharing and connecting we touch something at the very heart of being human. We touch the interconnectedness found at the heart of life. I find I also connect to the divine presence that gives life to everything, but that’s just me.
Either way, as Anxiety Aunt suggests, this too shall pass. It’s what we do while its passing that will make all the difference.
Just a thought.
With that thought I would share a poem, one of my favourites from Mary Oliver. Poetry, like reading, feeds the soul.
In the storm
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
snowflakes on their backs,
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also
covered with snow—
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water,
which was still raging.
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
stoop there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—
as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
As I sit here, at the dawning of a new day, it’s slightly weird, but in some ways refreshing.
I have been out for a walk, well a jog and walk, got to keep healthy, been up to woollies for some toilet paper, not for me but for my neighbourhood in case people have to go into lock down. I also got flour, as I thought, rather crazily, that I might bake a few things to give to people to cheer them up. I think as a reminder that they are not forgotten behind their doors! In this I take the example of Alex Sloan, who used to make pumpkin scones and delivered them far and wide.
I now am trying to learn how to use zoom, as I have to run tutorials tomorrow with my UWA students from home, and thinking up ways to keep the church congregation engaged, connected and positive. I have even thought of streaming or at least videoing our church services which have gone into recess, to put on our new webpage, soon to go live!
Suddenly, like many, I have to become more adept at IT, and the online world.
As I sit here the door is open and the breeze is flowing in, gentle and comforting. The sky is blue and the lake and trees where I walked this morning were glistening in the sunlight.
I hear the love shared from across the road as my beautiful neighbours say goodbye to their daughter and her son.
Yet I know, reinforced because I was a RPH last week, that there are many people working on our behalf. Doctors and nurses who have to don protective gear, which is incredibly daunting to wear, in order to properly nurse patients and care for those who are ill. I had to practise putting it on and off in case I am called as part of my role as an oncall chaplain. My anxiety levels went high just doing that!
So let’s do what we can to minimise the infection rates, and send our love and thoughts to all those working to keep the rest of us healthy and well. Not only the medical profession, but those in research, those teaching others, both in schools and universities, those looking after the marginalised, the homeless, and the less well off. Those who are delivering as fast as they can, food , and yes toilet paper, and those working still in shops and supermarkets and pharmacies.
I am lucky, as I sit here, for I know in my heart that life will go on, It may be slower, and less complicated ( although I think IT is pretty complicated) but it will go on, for life has a habit of doing that. Just when you think all hope has gone, suddenly a green shoot pops it’s head out.
Easter this year is going to be a lot different than normal. But the message is the same. There is death, but there is also resurrection. In our lives and in the life of the world.
Out of the darkness will come the light.
There is a poem from Wendell Berry, in which he urges people to practise resurrection. I love it. Here is an extract from it –
Excerpts from Wendel Berry’s Poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer liberation Front”
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mould.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Perhaps we to are to practice resurrection, as Wendel Berry says in his poem, today. We are to live as though resurrection is always possible, within ourselves but also within others, and within our world. And work towards it with God’s help, transforming life out of death, hope out of suffering, compassion out of apathy and community out of profound alienation. To create a new society, a new creation based on love.
In this extraordinary time, maybe that’s a good aim to have. Just a thought!!
John 4: 5-42
I was at Uni yesterday teaching evolution, it’s only for 1st years so the level is quite low. To open the lab I asked the kids to do a brain storm on the board, dividing the board in half. On one side they were to write all the reasons they could think of as to why one shouldn’t learn about evolution, and on the other side all the reasons one should.
On the negative, most said it was boring or there were too many facts, but they all had long positive lists, which included finding out more about who we are, where we have come from, and how we are to go forward. Some also included the idea that evolution gives us a window of how related we are to one another and to all of creation.
However, all my groups said that one reason not to learn evolution was because it clashed with faith. Or as one smarty pants put it, God says no!
Although I was expecting this, it still comes as a shock. They all think you can’t believe in evolution and God, as though the two are mutually exclusive.
I always like to address this idea subtly, and explain that while there are some people of faith, all faiths, who believe the bible literally and therefore might find evolution tricky, the vast majority of people see their scriptures as story, myth, poetry, prose and some history woven together into a message about what it is to be human and where and how we find the divine.. And they wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that we come from a line of monkeys or are even related to broccoli.
We didn’t discuss it further but it’s crazy how that idea persists.
In some ways it’s about knowing. They, as 17 yr olds, generally think the only way of knowing is through science. Give me the facts and I will understand the world. But there is another way of knowing, what Rob Bell called mythos, about what lies beneath the facts, that lies in our experiences and our awareness at a very deep level. It cannot be measured other than our outward reality, of how we live and interact with people.
I think this is what the reading today from John is all about. And because we see in Jesus the God of our experience, we understand it through his eyes, his life, his teachings. He leads us on the path of knowing.
Today we have the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jacobs well. This, while following the same theme as the Nicodemus story we heard last week, operates from a completely different perspective. Rather than a pious well off Jew, who could not get this head around the spirit of God being present in all, and giving life to all, regardless of whether you believed in his miracles or followed the Torah law, the facts of his day, we have a Samaritan women, despised by the Jews. A woman who had very little power or position in society, and was probably also a sinner and outcast, considering her marital status. So Jesus speaks to a Samaritan, a woman and a Jew. Already very countercultural and probably quite dangerous.
What is the message? Jesus quickly moves from his request for well water to his offer of living water. As with the born again statement from last week, the phrase has both earthly and heavenly connotations. Jesus is offering the spirit of life, the living water of God, that is more true than the well water, or a spring to quench the woman’s thirst. Rather this is a spring that leads to love and compassion, justice and peace. It is as essential as water, leading us to a life that can be rich and full of meaning, or as Nev would say, to fullness of life. A truth hidden behind his words.
But there is more to the story, that also speaks to us about how we should live with one another. Another hidden layer.
The Samaritan woman, thinks firstly that Jesus is a prophet, and then maybe the Messiah. Either way she bears witness to what he has said, which is itself shocking. Why would the town people take the word of this outcast woman about a Jewish man they had never met? The power of the woman’s faith alone, contrasting with Nicodemus’s official authority is amazing.
So the story today is also a story of inclusion. From Nicodemus to the Samaritan woman, God’s love is not simply for the Jews from whom the story begins but for the entire world. Gods spirit is in all and for all people, not just the rich and well off, not just the educated and elite, but all people. Black white, rich or poor, male or female.
And not just for those who are righteous, or think they are righteous. We are human and make mistakes, but the divine presence does not leave on a whim and return when we get things right. God is on the journey with us. Life is messy and the God of the universe is right there with us.
As Jack Spong says, “Jesus is a barrier breaker. Before him falls the human division first between Jew and Samaritan then between women and men and thirdly between sinner and saint. A vision of the realm of God begins to come into view”.
So whether you believe the story really happened or not, or whether the well is really “the well” found in Israel, doesn’t matter. For this is the essence of who Jesus was to the writer of John. Radical, inclusive, loving and compassionate. Jesus represented, reflects, embodies God in these characteristics, these qualities.
As Paul Tillich puts it, “the particularity of Jesus life and message points to the universality of God’s love and presence”. Every person is a God carrier, a tabernacle of the holy spirit.
So Jesus points us to a grander vision of life, for us and everyone and for all of creation, one that everyone can experience.
This is the truth of this story. A truth of his story. A truth as powerful as anything science can dish up.
This is one of the shortest posts I have written. In a time of uncertainty, when kindness and patience and love are needed, there is still also time for joy. Let me share a wonderful poem from the wonderful Mary Oliver. It’s called “Don’t Hesitate”, and it’s for everyone.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
I was trying to get myself organised the other day, a constant battle, and so was attempting to get rid of the thousands of emails that have piled up in my inbox, 20,000 to be exact!
I know, I know, it’s outrageous that I have that many, but somehow I can’t seem to delete them. And I was wondering why?
But pondering this question has led to me to some home truths about myself. Maybe I find I can’t let them go, not because I might need them one day (which I sometime use as an excuse), but because of my inability to embrace the something new in my life, which is largely unknown. So I tend to stay in the past, surrounded by reminders of it, hence the emails. The emails detail what has gone before, and show me the life I and my family and community and the world have had, rather than facing and embracing what is going on now and in the future for us all. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have memories or photos, but if we get stuck in the past, reliving times that have gone, it affects how we live in the present and is counter-productive to planning a future. While we can learn from the past, sometimes we have to let it go!
But there is something else going on with me, which I only just realised lately. It’s a bit like any artist or writer, you are only as good as your last song, or last book, or last blog. I keep all the things I have written over the years, and sometimes revisit them to remind myself, that yes, I could write back then, and yes, I did have some interesting thoughts that may have helped a few people. When you come to a new page, you are again in that space where doubt can enter through the side door. Can I still write, do I still have some good ideas, will people still read them? I sometimes have this feeling when I sit down to do a service or write a sermon ( as I work part time as a minister in a local progressive church). Even though I am supposedly channelling the spirit, it is often lonely when the page is empty of words and meaning. And the spirit seems quiet. It is easier to go back and look at what I have written in the past then to be brave and write something new.
But then I read a lovely column by the writer Anne Lamont, “The 12 truths she has learnt about life and writing”. Although they all spoke to me, there was one that I loved, number 6..
“Writing. Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair. That’s the secret of life. That’s probably the main difference between you and them. They just do it. They do it by prearrangement with themselves. They do it as a debt of honour. They tell stories that come through them one day at a time, little by little. When my older brother was in fourth grade, he had a term paper on birds due the next day, and he hadn’t started. So my dad sat down with him with an Audubon book, paper, pencils and brads — for those of you who have gotten a little less young and remember brads — and he said to my brother, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice. And then find out about chickadees, and tell us about them in your own voice. And then geese.”
So the two most important things about writing are: bird by bird and really god-awful first drafts. If you don’t know where to start, remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs — your truth, your version of things — in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
I am not sure I was born to write, but I do get that urge to put pen to paper, regardless of the fear that people might not care.
Maybe that doesn’t matter, and we become who we are by doing what we are called to do, regardless of whatever other people think.
For me, I write how I see the world, how I see God (whatever that term means) and my faith journey, how I see how my community and how I see myself. And I try to do it honestly and with thought and with love. But I don’t confess to have any more answers than you, whether it is a sermon or a blog or even some notes on a page.
But I am going to do it more often, and stop looking back but look forward, for as Anne said, I am going to “keep my butt in the chair”, and edit that awful first draft until it’s a 10thor 100thdraft! For in the end its my voice and I want to share “the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of my heart”, with you all!
PS. By the way I am slowly getting rid of the emails!!!
Readings: Matt 5:1-20
Today, as I said previously, we are making a 2020 commitment. A commitment that leaves no one in any doubt about who we belong to and how we might live.
I feel it’s a bit like a wedding ceremony, that I often perform between people who have been living together for some time. Seems like that is always the way with my prospective couples, sometimes they may even have children. So what makes them suddenly decide to get married. It’s commitment, they want to make a commitment to love and cherish each other that’s public and binding. I often use a quote from the novel, The Brothers Karamazov in the ceremony. It goes like this …
“Love in your dreams is such a marvellous and glorious thing. Yet love in reality is active, labour and fortitude.”
The couple in question are making a decision to commit to one another in love, in good and not so good times. And it’s a beautiful decision.
So what is the commitment we are making today. It’s a commitment to the way of Jesus, to his life and teachings, which will be at odds not only with a lot of our secular world right now, but actually with many of our fellow Christians. So a commitment that is also made in good and not so good times.
The novel, “The Brothers Karamazov is a classic, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. For those who are reading Jim Wallis’s new book, “Christ in Crisis”, this will sound familiar. Apart from the quote I used before, Dostoyevsky’s story within a story recounts the tale of the grand inquisitor. How Jesus comes back to earth during the days of the inquisition, when religious leaders were controlling, imprisoning and killing their fellow Christians and Jews, all in the name of Christ. The unwelcome return of Jesus results in his arrest, and the grand inquisitor himself comes down to Jesus cell to confront him. The inquisitor explains that the church of that time had been able to keep people in line and therefore create an organised and complacent society. Everything is working perfectly, the inquisitor argues, without allowing the people free with all its messiness. If Jesus is released, all he will do is mess things up. Throughout the encounter Jesus says nothing but simply responds with the kiss of peace.
As Bishop Michael Curry, the writer of the introduction to Wallis’s book remarks, “the contrast is a powerful one. There stands Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and teachings are a threat not only to the surrounding society but, sadly to the church that professes his name but tries everything possible to keep him and his message hidden away from view”
Maybe the truth in this story is the truth of today.
Today we have many people who are worshipping Jesus rather than living his way. People who confess to be Christian but act as though they hadn’t read the gospels. Somewhere along the way a disconnect between his teachings about the poor, about justice and compassion, and how people are to treat one another has occurred. Somehow this seems to have gotten worse in our global world. Right wing politics, fear and exclusion, out and out lying and misinformation seem to be the order of the day, and seem to be coming from people who are supposedly followers of Jesus.
Rev Prof. Bill Loader, at his talk the other night, showed how embracing the message of Christianity can lead to either inclusion or exclusion. It depends on how people see the good news, to be shared with everyone for everyone, or hoarded for a privileged few.
So sometimes we need to stop and review where we are, where we are heading. And remind ourselves what the good news actually is. As Jim Wallis says, we shouldn’t go right or left, but deeper.
In many Christian circles, both progressive and evangelical, and throughout the history of Wembley Downs Uniting the life and teachings of Jesus have been and are central to faith. Whatever you believe about Jesus death and resurrection Jesus was a man who lived a life for others. We hear this message mostly in the form of story, parables, which turned things upside down. Think of the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, a persistent widow, the mustard seed and the sheep and the goats to name a few.
Yet it wasn’t just parables or shorter sayings that he used. It was also found in his actions, eating with people seen as sinners, including women, and in his speeches, most notably the sermon on the mount, which was last week’s reading but we read again today. While probably not given all at once as recorded, the sermon reflects a manifesto for life, a way of transforming and the making the world better. This list, the beatitudes, are the essence of the gospels for many of us.
Today we also heard what comes after the sermon on the mount. Jesus commands his listeners to go out and be salt of the earth, a light to the world.
This is where the disconnect occurs for me most strongly.
Jesus doesn’t say, go and worship me, exclude those who don’t believe what we believe, and by the way, heaven is waiting so don’t be too worried about what is happening here on earth. No, he says, go out and be salt to the earth, and a light to the nations. And follow my way of living. Protect and support the poor, the marginalised, the widows, eat with sinners, form communities, be peacemakers, speak truth to power, and unfortunately, possibly even suffer because of it.
I try hard not to judge those who understand the Christian faith differently to me, but somehow we have to reclaim his message and his way. Jesus did not come to save a few, but everyone, and he did it by showing us how to live with one another within Gods spirit of life and love. We are called to follow him in enhancing life while also shining a light where darkness has taken hold and where people suffer because of it.
Which leads me back to Jim Wallis’s book, “Christ in Crisis”. He along with many others also recognise that Christianity has lost its way. Jesus has become an idol which people worship, but not a leader who we are to follow.
He, together with a number of other church ministers have put together a public statement, in an attempt to reclaim Jesus for the world. It has everything to do about Jesus teachings, and the God of life and love he reflects and nothing about Jesus as a personal saviour. It was written for lent in 2018 and up to now over 5 million people have supported it.
It is called “Reclaiming Jesus: A declaration of faith in a time of crisis” and reflects how they saw we are to be salt and light to the world.
While It is firmly aimed at America and the current President of the United States,
I still want to show you what it says….
It’s not an easy thing, to live to these ideals, really live them .
What my young and not so young couples in my wedding ceremony are signing up for is not the love of a romance novel or a dream, but the mystery of love in real life. Love that requires commitment, fortitude and sometimes labour. Because the love that is affirmed at a wedding is not just a condition of the heart, that comes and goes, but an act of the will. And the promise that this love makes is to will the others good, even sometimes at the expense of our own.
When Jim Wallis calls us to reclaim Jesus what does it mean. It means joining all those who love what Jesus loved, whether they are people of faith, different faiths or no faith to become the best we can be, as individuals and as a community and a world. To be more inclusive, more compassionate, more loving. To will the others good, sometimes at the expense of our own.
A huge promise, but a beautiful, exciting promise. For it speaks to us of what human life at its most human and its most alive and most holy must be. Even through the ups and downs of our messy, chaotic, joyful and sometimes sorrow filled lives, we can all become bearers of Jesus’ vision that can change the world.
This is our commitment today and always.