It has been a very sad time lately, death seems to be stalking my church congregation and everywhere I turn the darkness of loss and grief has appeared. Not only for those within the congregation but also outside amongst my friend’s families.
I realise that in the last few years I have had to think about death quite a bit! Now I know it’s a mystery but when you are a pastor at a church, even part time, perhaps one has to have some thoughts on the matter. And I do. Although my thoughts were a bit muddled until I read a blog I wrote after my mother died a few years ago. Little did I realise that what I wrote then would help me now.
So maybe revisiting it might help you to….
It has been some time since I wrote a blog. In some ways it seems a life time. This year has been full of ups and downs culminating in the death of my mother in October, Shirley, at the age of 87. She lived a full and active life, which in the last year had more downs than ups.
Death seems to have bypassed me these past years. My father died many years ago when I was only 12, and since then, while I have lost relatives who were older, and one beautiful friend who was only 38, it has been quiet.
Yet I feel as though the unrealised burden of loss is getting heavier, as many of my congregation are aging, have significant health concerns and increasingly losing independence. A few have already died. Beautiful, faithful and loving people. And it is not just my congregation but my friends, similar in age to me, who are facing life threatening illnesses and long months of treatment. Ah!!!
But I am realistic as well. It is not that I think that we will all live forever, but that those that journey with you, and who are the closest to you, will be the hardest to say goodbye to. I also understand that we are biological creatures, with a limited shelf life. In fact I am often amazed that we live so long, when at any moment our dividing cells may make a mistake, producing a cancer cell, or that our wonderfully well balanced systems will fall out of balance, leading to illness and infirmity. And which no amount of modern medicine can stop, even with all the advances.
No, it is more than this, it is how I am to understand life, and then to understand death. I went to a funeral the other week, funnily enough in the same chapel where the service of my mother was held. We said goodbye to a lovely man who had had dementia for some time. In some ways the family had already said goodbye to him some years before, but no matter the circumstances it is still a wrench.
In the service the celebrant spoke about the mystery of death, the mystery of God and how the two may met. But the most important thing she said was that the loss and grief felt by those attending was due to the life this man had led, here, in this time and place and with these people. The love and loyalty and forgiveness and compassion they received from him and in turn gave to him were the things they would remember, deep in their hearts. These are the things that live on in this world, in those that remain after a person dies.
We celebrate our connections, deep, deep connections, and maybe mourn the things we said or didn’t say, when we say goodbye to someone we love. For me I grieve that I did not speak to mum more about her life, and take her to the movies more often, which she really enjoyed doing.
But a little bit of my heart will be hers, just as a little bit of my heart belongs to all those who have shaped and influenced me and have travelled with me in this life. As Frederick Buechner would say, “as we move around here knee deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world”.
Yet what happens when I too head off into the sunset, and those that hold the memories of the past have also gone. What happens then. Who will remember the love then?
Well I think there are two things to consider.
The influences we have with people throughout life can be because they constitute our closest relationships, and what we do with and for them matters. But we may also have met people along the way, someone who we have sometimes inadvertently touched with our love or kindness. Either way, down the generations, the person may not be remembered but the act will be. Love and care and compassion goes on and on, because it is life giving, even if a name, our name, is lost along the way.
But I can’t help but think that there is more. I know many people would dismiss this notion of a spiritual heart, a place within my deepest self where I sense and feel a divine presence, a mysterious connection to all that is and all that is to come, but it has always seemed real to me. Call it God if you like, but regardless of what it is called, maybe there is a memory of me and you kept there as well.
This is not about what I have done or not done, about a heaven or a hell, or in fact anything at all tied with the doctrines of the church. It has to do with life, all of life, from the universe and its stars down to the very molecules and atoms that make up who we are. In all of it I find this spiritual or divine presence. So I have this inkling that not all is as it seems, not all can be measured and located in time and space. And it has to do with the whole of creation, not just us.
So, yes, I believe in God, a creative and infinite driving impulse to life and love found within everything, even if we ourselves are finite. Even if we ourselves and our bodies, finally run out of steam! God is the source of all there is, so maybe some hidden part of me or all of us, is never lost but remains within the heart of this source. Maybe some part of my essence will meet this eternal presence outside of what we know. So much of who we are and what life is remains a mystery so I leave room to be surprised.
Actually, it is a comforting thought that carries me along, as I strive to somehow to be a life giving presence in this world!!!
And for the times when I have to say goodbye.
I have been thinking about mentors lately, after seeing a book by Russell Brand, titled “Mentors, How to Help and be Helped”. You may wonder what Russell Brand has to say on the matter, but he is a deep thinker, and has been through much in his own life. In the book he explores the idea of mentoring and shares what he’s learned from the guidance of his own helpers, heroes and mentors.
It made me start to think of my own life and who has influenced and inspired me.
I have been lucky, for I have had incredible mentors that have helped to shape who I am and what I have achieved.
Funnily enough they are mostly all men, and I am not sure that’s because my father died when I was young and was hardly a mentor when he was alive! Or maybe it’s because I have always worked in a male dominated area?
Anyway, when I think back I can name three who were very influential, either in my science journey, my faith journey or for life in general.
Let me reflect on them a little bit.
My first mentor was at UWA, when I was just a young physical education student, wondering whether I would teach or do something else. Brian offered me a teaching role in his anatomy course when I was a budding second year student, led me down the path of a Masters in the Anatomy and Human Biology Department, and a lifelong love of human biology. He was my supervisor for my research, but more than that gave me the confidence and opportunity to thrive in that environment, in his quiet gentle way. I am still teaching at UWA, on a casual basis and still love it.
My second came after I decided that I had been at the Uni far too long and had to get a real job. Ed was the head of a department at RPH that I joined as a research assistant and then as a scientific officer, involving research for scoliosis assessment, the spinal injured and in gait analysis and orthopaedics. He was visionary, supportive and fun, dynamic and enthusiastic, and never doubted that his staff could do the job. My time with him enabled me to flourish and try new things, while always having his support. I stayed on and off for many years, yet ultimately I moved on to other areas and another department, and he moved on to be higher up in admin. Yet I never forgot his guidance in those early days.
Currently I am back in that same department writing up some research, which shows how things can go in a circle sometimes.
The final mentor I would like to mention, is from a completely different area. When I was involved in anatomy teaching and preparing specimens for the classes, I started to explore the issue of God and faith. Easy to do when you are chopping up dead people! This led me to a progressive liberal church in Wembley Downs which had as its spiritual leader, a minister who was involved in the peace movement and in in social justice. He saw faith as something you lived out rather than just believed and was open, inclusive, welcoming and provocative with his ideas about Christianity. My type of minister as I never grasped or accepted much of the traditional Christian doctrine of the church.
Over the years Nev has been extremely generous with his knowledge, resources, time and has supported me as I initially came and went from the church, then came and stayed, started doing a few services and am now employed by the church as a pastor 2 days a week. Along with his beautiful wife Marg, they have been my friends for over 30 years, confidantes and people who I could share my faith journey with.
Along the way Nev generously taught me the art of taking baptisms, weddings, funerals, communion, in fact everything that goes along with being the church in the community. He has encouraged me to stand beside him as we took them together, then has stepped out the way as I take over the bulk of the service. He has guided me in the ways of the faith, without becoming a cog in the church machinery, allowing me to be free to be who I am and with what I believe.
More than anything, Nev has been my mentor in helping me grow a faith I can live in and with, without forgoing my love of science and my joy of research. He preached that a full life is a life lived as a whole person, integrating all aspects of ourselves. They must all go together for us to be healthy and well. A great message.
I reflect particularly on Nev, as I am still in close contact with him, and because this past week, I have had to lead both a funeral and a wedding for his family.
He stood beside me on both occasions and as I reflected on his influence on my life, I felt both love and gratitude for the man who is now 90, and maybe slowing down just a bit! I know it is my turn to take up the reigns, but in a way that honours and respect him.
In our modern, fast paced society, where many contacts are electronic, I believe we all need mentors, especially when we are young. People who support and encourage us and help us to become individuals in our own right. Who help us to develop our gifts and talents so that we can in turn become leaders. It inspires me to continue to teach and work with young people, whether that be at the university or in and out of the church or even in my own extended family and friends. I hope I can be a mentor to others, in some small way, that reflects the mentoring that I have had.
Thanks Brian, Ed, and Nev. Good job!
This morning we had a joint service with our Church of Christ neighbours. When it’s at our church I usually lead the service and the minister from the Church of Christ preaches. Normally thats okay, but today I had a real urge to preach!!! Funny I know. While I didn’t, and the minister did a fine job, the reading was one of those that smacks the listener between the eyes, even in the 21st century. Because it was about money and how we become so entranced by it we don’t see those without it, suffering. So I am going to put a sermon I wrote a few years ago on the blog, because we in the west, with our comfortable lives, will always find it a challenge to really see the other in our midst. I did use the poem referenced in the sermon, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost as an opening to the service.
Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus
A few weeks ago Matt and I went down to Dunsborough for an extended family weekend away. My cousin Robyn had acquired a beautiful house down there and wanted to catch up with the rest of the family. You can imagine how enjoyable it was, walking down to the shops, relaxing in a very comfortable setting, watching the footy on a mega huge television. It was luxury. So much so that when I went out walking with my brother and sister one morning I suggested, half as a joke, that if I was to return to this earth I wanted to come back as a rich person. As soon as I said it, I realised that I knew I didn’t believe it, but it just shows that we can all be blinded by the delights of possessions and money. My very sensible and socialist brother put me in my place, by reminding me that I was rich in so many other ways. But it is hard to resist the subliminal messages we all get every day. Messages that encourage and cajole us into believing that life would be better and more fulfilling if only we had a bigger house, a more expensive car, a bigger television or better more exotic holidays. Better for whom, that is the question.
We have been seduced by the idea that greed is good. Good for us and good for others. That somehow it will trickle down and help all those in society without us having to do anything. As Walter Wink, in an article for Sojournersmagazine, suggests we have been systematically trained in greed from birth. Consumerism is our middle name. Just look what we get put into our letter boxes every day: piles of magazines wanting us to buy more things. He suggests our economic system is greedy on our behalf, a giant machine of production. We have made economic growth the primary social god passing off the problem of poverty as an outstanding debt to be paid off by further economic growth. Even though by now we should have learned the increased productivity does not in fact resolve inequalities of the distribution of wealth. We in fact know that money ends up the hands of a few, who will then do anything to keep it.
We may think money is neutral, a commodity without any meaning other than being used in transactions. How wrong can we be. As individuals and as a society money rules all. Our economic and political system allows money to play favourites. The more money you have the more powerful you are. I discovered this the other day listening to an account of the Koch brothers in America, who are part of the right wing Tea Party by a social researcher called Lee Fang. I had not heard of the Tea Party until a week ago, and now suddenly everywhere I look there are articles on them.
Fang reported that the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda. They have been looming in the background of every major domestic policy dispute this year in the states. Ranked as the ninth richest men in America, the Koch brothers sit at the helm of Koch industries, a massive privately owned conglomerate of manufacturing, oil, gas and timber interests. They are best known for their wealth as well as for their generous contributions to the arts, cancer research and the Smithsonian institute. But David and Charles are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years millions of dollars of Koch money has flowed to various right wing think tanks, front groups and publications. They formed a group called Americans for Prosperity in 1984 which in turn helped form the Tea Party protests, based on the Boston Tea Party and driven by extreme right wing groups. They have bankrolled campaigns against health care reform, pollution controls and for climate change denial to name a few.
Money is not neutral, it provides luxury, security and power and the people who have it have the greatest power to manipulate those in society to keep it. The trickle down effect is a myth; the more we have the less others have and the more we have the more we want. It makes us, our society and our world divided, fearful and less compassionate and as we have seen politicians play on it all.
But all this talk raises a very salient point, one that is central to the expression of our faith in the world. Money has become another god and economics a type of religion. So how we respond to it shows whose side we are on. For if we are really on the side of Jesus then we all have changes to make.
For Jesus wasted no time in the New Testament declaring himself on the side of the poor. There are numerous places where it is very clear, what is at stake. Siding with the poor was the mark of being one of his disciples in a time when the Roman Empire ruled and when the poor suffered at the hands of landowners, bankers, creditors and even priests.
As Walter Wink says, Jesus identified the world’s great idol as mammon, by which he meant money or property in general. He saw it as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs. The chief manifestation of the God mammon is accumulated wealth.
Today we heard one of the many parables he used to make it very plain what he thought about it and what he believed God required of us. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is like all the parables, on the one hand an exaggerated story and on the other quite subtle. Many scholars believe it originated as a folk story which Jesus himself adapted, although most would say verses 27-31 are additions by Luke. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage. When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham at a banquet table, while the rich man cries out in torment from hell. But there is more to the story. As David Buttrick, in his book on Parables points out, the rich man has no name, while Lazarus’s name means ‘God has helped’. Interestingly by the time of Jesus beggars were seen as sinners being punished for their sins. Lazarus lies outside the wall, but just near the gate to the rich man’s estate. He is too weak to beg but lies hoping for table scraps from the rich man. The contrast between the two is carefully drawn. Then the tables are reversed. Lazarus who hoped for scraps now feasts in the afterlife. The rich man dies, is buried, and ends up in Hades. Once he partied every day, now he cries out for a drop of water. Still the rich man is arrogant and refuses to address Lazarus directly. He sees Lazarus as a low class slave and asks Abraham to order Lazarus to moisten his lips.
This parable hits us between the eyes. Poor and rich are extremes and Luke uses it in a not too subtle attack on the rich. But money is not neutral. It has social meaning and to have an abundance while others are starving is, as Buttrick suggests, impossible to condone. So perhaps this is the message we need to hear.
Brandon Scott has used the poem I read earlier from Robert Frost, The Mending Wall when looking at this parable. The rich man could have walked through his gate and served the poor man but he chose not to and even in the afterlife he doesn’t acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being. As a result the wall that separated the two in life becomes a chasm.
We build fences to protect ourselves from hearing the cry of the poor, watching them from the comfort of our lounge rooms or dream that if we spend more then the benefits will trickle down to those less fortunate. But as we have heard walls become permanent chasms unable to be breached. Human carelessness hardens. A great statement comes from David Buttrick about what happens. Yet in the parable all the rich man had to do is to go out and connect to the poor, and seek a common destiny. All he had to do was recognise what lay before him. That he didn’t, condemned him forever. We are the rich man and the poor are at our gates now, and our common destiny and survival is in our hands.
So what do we do to go through the opening? Well, it is not enough for us to continue with a lifestyle of the west, justifying our position by being generous, although that helps. As Wink suggests, we cannot just treat people well, raise our families, live in nice homes and work hard, and give money away when we are part of the institutionalised greed that leads to injustice. For as we accumulate more and more, we build a wall back up between those of us that have and those that are the have nots. A wall once built, as we have heard is hard to tear it down. We have to change our lifestyle, to see that what we desire affects others just as much as what we do. Not easy but essential. In recognising this dilemma Walter Wink acknowledges that, ‘Our personal transformation will not change the system, but it is the indispensable prerequisite to systemic change. We can alter our own patterns of consumption, less fuel, less junk food, less litter, less detergent, less beef; more recycling, more conservation, longer use of clothes and products, rejection of style fads and the mania for newness. Our very values can change: we can slough off the spell of bigness, the love of luxury, the bogus security of owning things.’ The myth that consumerism will solve everything. And in the process help the environment.
But there is more. We can also find ways to hold politicians and global companies responsible to the general public, and defeat those who are working against the public interest. The power of the internet to find out this information and then engage with groups who are questioning the activities of some of these corporations is with us all. I know because it took me about 30 minutes to find out about the Koch brothers and about groups exposing their methods to the public and coordinating opposition to them.
Finally, it is time to overhaul our national theology of wealth which Wink identifies, and the heresy that we are rich because we are righteous and righteous because we are rich. We are rich because the system perpetuates it, the rich get richer and the poor poorer unless we do something about it. The church is called to waken those within it to the wall that is building between the have and the have nots and tear it down.
As Wink concludes no one really knows how to construct a perfect economic system in the West which greedy people will not subvert to their own gain. But we, as people of faith, are free to risk moving toward a way that is more equitable and just, knowing we are grounded in a God whose love is for all people. It is this love we find in Jesus and whose way we follow. So while we can be countercultural with our money and how we use it, it is with our lifestyle we can truly reflect the call of Jesus and the need of our fellow brothers and sister. Changing the system starts with us. Scary but true.
As a footnote, it is interesting the one of the Koch brothers, David, died recently, and so was in the news. No matter how much money we have, we all die in the end! It’s how we live the matters!
We had a Naming ceremony for Thea, a beautiful granddaughter of a couple from our congregation. This is the sermon I preached after the ceremony.
“What’s in a Name?”
As most of you know I spend some of my time teaching first year university students anatomy and human biology. I have 4 classes and 18 students in each class, so there are a lot of names to remember. And I am not very good at remembering names! I try hard, and have a few strategies, but usually it takes the whole semester to get most of them. It’s not that I don’t know the students belong to me and while I usually explain at the beginning of term that age wearies the memory a bit, I know that is not really enough.
Knowing someone’s name and being able to use it when talking to them is actually very important. When I call a student by name I can see it makes a difference. It tells them they are of worth, of value, that they have something to contribute and I respect them as an individual who is neither better nor worse than me. For people who are struggling with the course, the material, and if they are good enough to be there, it helps reassure them that they belong, they are included.
But a name is more than that. It gives us an identity. We are Karen or Jane or Tom or Melissa. We are a person in our own right, with a history, with passions and ideas and with commitments. We had a naming service today for Thea, to mark her as a person who will become an independent adult in the future, loved and cared for. But a person in her own right.
Christianity has had its share of dead ends, even today, but a constant from Jesus and from the original letters of Paul is that it is an inclusive religion. Everyone is of value, everyone is to be included in the great banquet of life, everyone is of worth. Everyone is a vessel holding the divine spark, the divine light and love, even my young, slightly crazy students. When we love others like ourselves we give a nod to that reality. When we fight for others rights and the just sharing of resources we give a nod to that reality. When we share our money and our time with others we give a nod to that reality.
Two of the readings we heard today, reflect this inclusive message. The first, from Psalm 139:7-12 is my favourite, a spoken reality from before Jesus was even thought of. The psalmist is expressing their deep understanding that there is nowhere we can go from God because God is a reality within us, always.
Where can I hide from thee, if I go to the ends of the earth you are there, if I sink into the biggest abyss you are there, closer than by own breath. God is found deep within each of us, a spark of life that is not restricted to those with the most wealth possessions, power or intellect. We are all God’s children and this God never leaves, goes on holiday or somehow decides we really aren’t worthy enough. Early Christians knew this and tried to act in the world in which they lived as though it was true.
But what if we lived at a time when we were a non-person. In Jesus time, there were many non-people, women and slaves in particular, who were seen as chattels to be bought and sold rather than a real people. In our past indigenous people were until the 1960s counted with the flora and fauna, with no voice and often no name. A terrible blight on Australia’s history.
The second reading we had today was from Paul’s letter to Philemon(1:1-20). I also love this short letter, an authentic Pauline letter, because it says so much about how we are to live today. Most of you might remember that Paul is in jail for upsetting the authorities, but sends a letter to his friend Philemon, a Christian convert about Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has escaped and run to Paul for protection. Paul is writing to Philemon asking him to let Onesimus go free, become a free man, and welcome him as a brother, for in the faith in which Paul stands, there is no difference been slave and free, between male and female, between Jew or Gentile because all are one in Christ Jesus. All are one in God’s spirit.
Paul is asking Philemon to do something very radical. In ancient times, it was okay to have slaves, and rarely were they acknowledged as anything but a useful commodity. They had no voice other than their master’s voice. Paul is asking Philemon to go against the norms and culture of the day, and risk a lot for his faith!
This story is a homecoming similar to the prodigal son. As Paul saw it, Philemon had a legal right to slaves but not a moral or spiritual one. Onesimus is not just a slave but a young man, with a name and identity. He is worthy for who he is as a child of God, rather than someone’s workhorse. As a follower of Jesus, the inclusive Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to relinquish his power over someone rather than continue to dominate and exploit them. To free Onesimus from subordination, to free him of the burden of debt, to free him from the burden of shame, to pardon him and welcome him with open arms as an equal, as a beloved brother was a pretty big move in the 1stcentury.
Yet it appears that Philemon in fact did just that. We presume, for the letter was preserved, that Onesimus was freed and welcomed as though he was Paul! And the whole community celebrated a renewed relationship of mutual love. What a homecoming!
It paints a picture, today. of how radical this call is for us. To think of this inclusive love, this inclusive society when we are the dominant culture of the first world and hold all the power is very challenging. How do we give voices and free those who we have enslaved to sustain our lifestyles. How might we free them, both here and elsewhere?
Again I say pretty radical stuff.
But I don’t want to finish here. I want to go back to the source for Paul, which was Jesus. The radical message of Jesus, has led to the radical message of Paul. Jesus came and shook up those who had forgotten that his call, God’s call was an inclusive call, an inclusive reality, particularly those from the Jewish tradition that he was immersed in. They, instead, were imposing rules and laws about who was in and who was out of Gods kingdom. Much like we do today.
Cherry will read a passage from Luke’s gospel (4:14-30) which demonstrates this. Although the whole of the New Testament is littered with Jesus’s radical message.
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[a]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,”he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[b]in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In this reading Jesus is preaching in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, announcing to his community and to his family who he is. He stands up in the synagogue, reads from the scriptures, and suggests he is going to bring in a different way of being by what he says. Jesus was his name and he has come to change the world.
He does it as a young man who had grown up in this town, and the people thought that they knew him. Oh yes, he’s the son of Joseph and Mary, the carpenters son. Little did they realise what was coming! He is announcing something totally unexpected to those who thought they knew him.
Initially the listeners were well pleased as he had taken a reading from Isaiah. But as he continued, by using two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, ones they would have known, he infuriates them. The point of the two extra stories is that both the widow mentioned and Naaman the Syrian were NOT Jews. Not part of the “chosen people” who the prophets, Eliza and Elisha go and help. What!, they are outsiders, the listeners would have cried. Jesus was suggesting, very strongly, that God chooses to touch and bless those on the outside of the Jewish tradition as well as those inside. And the task of those who are called to serve God, is to follow God, and to go to those outside the boundaries, outside the fold.
Jesus is widening Gods spirit, Gods love to include everyone, not just Jews and is calling his community to stop being so exclusive. And they were not happy. He barely got out alive!
Jesus was a baby then a boy, with a tradition and parents who loved him. But there came a time for him to forge his own way, to reveal the passions and commitment and path he would follow. This is a turning point. Jesus was choosing his own way, a spirit driven way that included love and justice for all. An inclusive message picked up and lived by Paul and many who have followed Jesus. And suddenly he wasn’t welcome!
So we can hear in this small story how it takes commitment to see the world in this way. Its challenging, and a bit scary.
But as Thea starts her journey or for all of us whose journey has been going for some time, the message is the same. It’s about choosing life, for everyone. It is about loving and being loved, fully and completely. It’s about the message that all people including ourselves are of worth, God’s divine spark. It is about making a commitment to this way of seeing the world, and not being swayed by those who seek to divide us, to belittle us, who tell us we need more possessions, power or money to be loved, or that others have to suffer in order for us to be happy.
We have heard it today in each of our reading, from different times. Now we face our time.
I pray that each one of us sees in the Jesus message the message of inclusion and love and justice, and we head out to make a difference in the world. Whether we are 6 months or 86!
For this is the way to fullness of life.
This is a small post about something I rather not talk about, but maybe we all should!
The other day I was invited to join a group who meets after church, to discuss Progressive Christianity (this will be tackled in a future blog). The meeting went for about an hour, and there was about 15 people who attended. We were all sitting in a circle, and after initially introducing ourselves, I went on to share my journey from a person who was very critical of anything Christian to someone who combines being a scientist/researcher and a part time Pastor in the Uniting Church.
But this blog is not about any of that. There was someone who was videoing the discussion, and recently I had a look at the recordings. What! I’m not thin and beautiful! But that’s how I thought I looked.
It was a deep shock to examine the footage and see this slightly overweight, middle aged women, with a squeaky voice and hair all over the place in the seat that I should have been in. I have never been one to like photos of myself or even listen to myself after I have presented a paper or sermon, so the video was a reality check!
Clearly I would much rather have my made up vision of myself instead of what I saw on the screen.
Maybe that’s a problem for many of us. I want to be something that I’m not, and will probably never be (perhaps when I was 10 yrs old!). Accepting ourselves, with all our faults and imperfections is part of being human. When we deny who we really are, and pretend to be something else, we can get ourselves tied up in knots. We are swayed by everything the comes along, in the hope we will match up to this perfect person we have in our mind. And then we are disappointed over and over again, when it is not really us. Or worse still, we become self loathing of the wonder and marvel we are, because whatever characteristics we have are not the right ones.
Loving ourselves is as much the faith journey as loving others. For we cannot love others until we embrace the absolute marvel we all are! The universal spirit is just that, universally in all of creation including every one of us. I believe we are all windows to the divine.
There is nothing I can do about my voice (thanks mum) and I probably could lose a few pounds, but that look is my look! I am who I am, and you are who you are, and embracing ourselves is the start of a wholeness that brings healing and joy.
I was asked by a friend to publish this sermon/letter but the best I can do is to put it here. Just to let you know, I don’t have a brother called George or John and the letter is creative fiction, but with some truth to it! I have put the gospel reading in at the end so you know the context. K
To my dear George,
I hope this letter finds you well, and also your family. I am writing because I feel really upset and need to share my worries with you.
I caught up the other day with our beautiful older brother John, and it was not a great meeting. I know we love each other dearly, but that day, we were more like enemies, shouting and screaming at one another.
You may wonder why and over what, and I can tell you it was over important stuff. We were talking about the refugees that have come to live in our neighbourhood, after being in detention for over 6 years. I certainly feel so terrible that they have been locked up for so long, and urged John to join my little group providing welfare and support, and this is both food and money. We just try to be a friendly face as they settle in to such a strange place.
You would have thought that I had asked John to poke needles in his eye the way he responded. He kept going on about how they will take our jobs, how they will suck the economy dry and how they are probably terrorists anyway. Really, mostly they are women and children, families and young men who just want to start a new life.
It was really horrible, because I didn’t want him to think that I agreed with him. Rather I pointed out that they are people just like us, except they have been through terrible things, things that we could never imagine, and deserve to be supported and included. I also pointed out that we are so lucky, being white and middle class in a democratic country, surely we could be generous with our good fortune.
Anyway, John refused to budge, and so did I, and in the end we went our separate ways without really dealing with the issue.
I know we are supposed to be family but sometimes, he drives me crazy!!!
It made me think a little bit about what is peace actually is, and harmony, and what is real peace. I could have kept quiet and not rocked the boat, but, that didn’t seem quite right.
I have been listening to a podcast on the guy called Jesus who lived in the 1stcentury, Judea, or the Middle East if you like. I’ve never heard him described in this way before, but he seems to have some really radical views, which are pretty attractive. Like his ideas on peace. He seemed to think peace is not just where I keep what I have and you keep what you have, and the situation stays the same even if I have more than you. No, he seems to suggest that for real peace to occur we also need to have justice, and compassion and to share our wealth. That everyone belongs to God, and no one is excluded. Sort of what I was trying to point out to John.
It seems many see Jesus as a sort of prophet, but more than a prophet. Since his message still resonates with people today. You, more than anyone, know that I believe there is something hidden in all of us and all of life, a God thing, but it’s something I have trouble naming, or responding to. Well apparently people see in this guy the heart of God and by following his way, somehow feel connected to God. Rather than waiting for heaven, he says things need to happen here and now.
And the funny thing is, the things we are facing today, climate change and the environmental crisis, wars and violence, leaders who use their power by excluding those who are the poorest, and people like us who don’t want to share, are the things that he and his people were also facing back then.
Same shit, don’t mind my language.
I was listening to one part of the podcast which focuses on a passage in the bible. In it Jesus basically tells people to get over themselves and I felt he could have been talking to us. That comfort and pleasure is not the way to go, because it means others are left out, excluded while we sit pretty. He also says that we choose to close our eyes to this disparity, like we notice the cloud rising and the wind blowing, but not the suffering of others. I loved this passage, even if its uncomfortable to hear. The picture he’s painting seems pretty clear. I feel like he’s saying were all idiots if we don’t get it. Maybe we don’t!
I wonder if John would be more open if he didn’t go to that really, really, crazy church, which while talking about peace and justice, condemns people who don’t believe in their way. What is that all about anyway? Somehow that doesn’t seem to be the message that I was getting.
Anyway, the podcast continued, suggesting that we will come into conflict with those we love if we follow the Jesus path to peace. For his peace involves a thing called Shalom, a wholeness, not just for and between some but for all and between all. I think it’s much more than an absence of war or a unity without substance. He seems to have been one of the true prophets, as I mentioned before, who believed you cannot have peace without compassion, kindness and justice. And maybe this requires challenging the status quo.
I suppose, if I think about it, it’s inevitable that this path is going to cause division. Just look at me and John. it’s going to cause division if we stand with the people our society deems unworthy, the marginalised, and this would definitely include the refugees, and the aboriginal family that lives down the road. To stand with the poor and the oppressed and stand against injustice, racism, sexism and classism is definitely challenging the status quo. Or even to suggest that everyone has the God factor in them, is a beacon of God, rather than just some.
The good thing is, and I wish I had all this when I spoke to John, that Jesus didn’t actually just say it, he did it. He apparently ate with the most marginalised, he spoke with women, some of his disciples were women, he chastised those who worried about rules rather than people, who worried about who was in or out, and he responded to violence with love and forgave those who wronged him. Jesus lived the shalom idea, bringing together opposites to make a whole, both within ourselves and in the world. And he showed us how to do it.
He was some sort of guy. Not the airy fairy Jesus I had heard of before, but a real person. And I like that he wasn’t a marshmallow. He was tough, and stuck to his ideals, his God calling, until the end. Maybe if this Jesus gets a bit more air time, things might change. As he said in the reading I told you about, “whoever is near me is near fire, whoever is distant from me is distant from the kingdom.”
In the meantime, I will sign off and go and hunt down John for a coffee. Perhaps we can talk quietly about our differences and work together to create our own shalom. Our own peace. We can at least try.
Thanks for listening.
Your loving sister
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
It is well known my love of Mary Oliver. She has written of life, and faith and what it is to be human in a way that deeply affects all who read her words.
But now I have found another poet who does the same thing. I was introduced to him at the recent Common Dreams Progressive Christian Conference, held in Sydney in July. His name is Joel McKerrow, and we were privileged to her him perform a couple of his poems. They were amazing, so much so that I have used a couple already.
The poems are available in book form, or if you want to hear him then also on DVD, and CD.
Here are 2 of my most recent favourites –
Something That We Might Call God
There is a restlessness,
A disquiet on the inside.
There is a fire. Or at least a flame.
The chase for God or something that we might call God.
There is a hoping. A knowing
and still it holds you.
Rekindle her: I beg of you.
Choose presence. Listen to the silent stories,
the ones hidden between
the lines you let them read.
This is not a problem to solve.
This is not a life that you have to have together.
it may be the best thing you could do right now.
A peace in a sea of confusion and calling.
And don’t they say that grace
makes beauty from the ugly.
So begin with the beauty and the beautiful.
Stare at it like you stare at the flame.
The day will come when you shall find yourself
once more burning.
Look deep into the world
and the world shall look deep into you
and somewhere in the stare between,
this is where she waits, God.
Or something that we might call God.
And so we chase the light,
find the light,
swim the light,
taste the light,
love the light,
become the light,
even in the dark,
When the sun is cast upon a heavy moon.
There are many others, and I will post a few in the next few months. But this is a taster.
Sometimes, words fail, metaphors fail, and we wonder whether we are deluded in believing in something more. A something more that connects us to the universe and to one another. A something more that lies deep within our hearts.
And then a poet comes along!