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!
Readings for this sermon were Galatians 5: 1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
I have recently finished a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, a leading progressive Christian writer, called “Leaving Church”. Now before you get to excited I am not aiming to leave the church just at the moment. But the book is a great challenge for all of us, as people of faith. Taylor was an Episcopalian minister in charge of a large church for a number of years, until she realized she didn’t actually want to be the voice of God anymore, as she put it. Partly because of minister burnout and partly because much of what she was required to do and say she didn’t believe. It is a slightly disarming story for those of us still here.
The experience of Taylor reminded me of a friend who I have known from my school days, who I see all the time when I am in the UK. Many have heard me speak of Diane before. She, like Barbara Brown Taylor left the church, really, for much the same reason? Let me explain.
While over the years Diane and I have often shared our faith journeys we now seem to be on different paths. While I have embraced my faith and even work for the church, which my friend is slightly horrified by since when we shared a house many years ago I was anti Christianity and she was a very, very good Baptist, she has left. She is now contemptuous of anything religious and particularly anything related to the church, finding it without worth or meaning. Denise has travelled the world and discovered that what her strict fundamentalist upbringing told her about the world was not true; she found her God missing in the slums of India and Africa and the people she worked with and loved and her faith was diminished. Hers was a faith bound by rules and regulations, and left little room for the moving of the spirit. It could not explain what she had seen and experienced so she left it behind.
Sometimes that’s how I feel. Because I have noticed that more and more I say much the same things, but in a different way, when I am in the pulpit. More and more it is about the universal spirit. More and more it is about love of others as much as love of ourselves and those closest to us. Not as prescriptive, but pretty life giving. How do explain to others our beliefs and idea that the spirit is within all and everything and that Jesus shows us the way to live a better, more loving, more compassionate way. Especially when some Christians vocally expouse a more exclusive, hell based theology in the media. I feel like shouting from the rooftops, I don’t believe that either!!!. I can totally understand why people leave, ministers and laity alike.
Yet while I agreed with Denise and Barbara Brown Taylor on many things, particularly with the need to reassess our beliefs and understandings in the light of new findings and new experiences, and to grow in our faith I was not prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water. So I am still here, after all this time. Some things about our tradition will be discarded in the process, but that`s okay, somethings maybe we have never embraced, also okay. It`s the things we keep that end up being the most important.
So what are they?
Joan Chittister says the best beliefs are those that have been tried and found to be consistent with the instincts of the rest of the universe and down the long corridors of time have come back again and again to reveal the truths of life. They are not linked to time and place and laws but are universal. They help to explain who we are, who God is, and how we are to live together as people and communities.
Over the past few years there have been a number of books released that have talked about what makes a good well lived life. They are not Christian books but secular books asking questions about life’s meaning and purpose. What they all have in common is that they have discovered that a well lived life is a life lived for others. It is a life where peace, love, compassion, generosity and justice are central. Where possessions, money and power, both individual and systematic, do not rule and where the urge to do things because it helps the community rather than just the individual influence sour actions.
If we look at our tradition so much of it speaks to us in this way. We just have to find and understand it.
We hear it today in Paul`s letter to the Galatians, written almost 2000 years ago, long before social commentators and modern philosophers were writing. It fits well with Joan Chittister`s view about what is best in our faith tradition. Even if it was a bit tiresome to read.
Paul`s letter describes the life found in the way of the spirit. It culminates in the golden rule, `love your neighbour as yourself`. Paul wanted to release people from the strict adherence to biblical law and circumcision being preached in Galatia, which he felt did more harm than good. In Paul`s eyes there is no freedom and no transformed life when faith becomes a set of rules. Rather his faith was a faith of the heart, where those who walked in the spirit would be drawn to its fruit.
As Bill Loader suggests, Paul was not wanting people to keep rules of goodness, replacing like for like, rather he wanted people to change in themselves through their new relationship with God. As he says, goodness generates goodness, love generates love. This relationship with God and the freedom to live with love would lead to what we would term `a good life`. A life rich in mutually enriching human companionship, peace, happiness and joy, a life lived for others. This is an insight our modern writers are starting to discover.
But Paul was not naïve or unrealistic and neither are we. Many things get in the way of this `good well lived life`. Many things get in the way of God`s spirit working in the world. Paul realises that Christians are still subjected to the desires of the individual which say my needs are more important than yours. He lists some of the temptations that may lead people away from the life in the spirit. Clearly sexual immorality was high on his agenda. But he adds more, many that we could relate to today, things like jealousy, anger and self centredness. How many times have we yelled at each other or the shop assistant at the supermarket. I know I have had to ring someone back at the RAC and apologise for my rudeness when I got frustrated, which itself was a surprise to them as no one ever does that!
But the problem, we know, is much bigger than the individual. It involves the cultural messages a society gives as the norm for living well. I have had numerous conversations with my son Nathan, who is 26, a newly qualified lawyer, on how he should look forward, how to live this good life. And it does not come down to earning lots of money in an area of law that takes advantage of others.
This is what our young people are up against, a cultural message that is still very individualistic, competitive and consumer driven, which sets people apart, regardless of the amount of material written that says this is counter-productive to our wellbeing. Or if not that, where the family is the sole focus, and everyone outside of that has to fend for themselves, lest they take what is ours and diminish our entitlements. We see that so much in the refugee debate but even in the debate over public education, public housing, public health and welfare support. There is still much to do to promote the idea of the common good, a good that is wider than our nuclear family or even our church family.
As Albert Sweitzer has said, “It’s not enough merely to exist. It’s not enough to say, “I’m earning enough to support my family. I do my work well. I’m a good father, husband, churchgoer”. That’s all very well. But you must do something more. Seek always to do some good, somewhere”.
But it can be difficult. Very difficult to go against society norms without a guide to follow. Paul urged his followers to keep focused on their relationship with God, so that the spirit flowing within them gives them the strength to follow a different path within their own society. But how. Maybe that’s where Jesus comes in.
While Paul`s words resonate with us, we see the tangible product of them in Jesus. Maybe that’s why I stay a Christian, rather than something else! Somehow, in some mysterious way Jesus speaks to me about how to live in the spirit. How to live a good and faitful, inclusive and compassionate life. Not for a trip to heaven, but for a better life for all of us down here on this tiny blue dot in the universe called earth.
We get a snippet of that message today in Luke`s account.
Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, to a certain death. Not because it was preordained but because he challenged the power of the Roman Empire and the conventional wisdom of the day which excluded people. In the story he calls his disciples to leave behind the security of a home, family obligations and even a regular meal to follow him, to a greater more universal freedom with him. He calls them to leave all that they have known, and follow him. The disciples are being pulled and challenged to a new way of living and seeing the world, and as we listen to the story so are we. Our loyalties are also being challenged. But they are being challenged by a human Jesus who faced what we all must face, a culture that we are inevitably going to be at odds with.
Jesus re-imagined a different world, a different way to a good life, which entailed embracing everyone, not just those in our family, our race, our country or our football team. He represents the universality of God`s presence in the world, and in all people. We have to raise our sights beyond those closest to us to actively include others to be his followers. And this can be costly.
Again as Albert Sweitzer writes, “The demands of Jesus are difficult because they require us to do something extraordinary. At the same time he asks us to regard these acts of goodness as something usual, ordinary”.
Yet “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”
I think we would all agree that the cost is worth it. Because it leads to a life of engagement with one another, with love, to a life lived for others that everyone can share in. It leads to a life in the spirit.
This is what we heard from Paul today, this is what we heard from Jesus in the gospels, this is what we are even hearing from the secular world, but often it is missing from the church. Rules and dogmas have plagued the church for hundreds of years such that the idea of a transformed life is lost. But what I believe we are finding now in 2019 is a reawakening of the Spirit, regardless of what Israel Folau would like us to believe. This is what I seem to talk about endlessly and read about!
I believe the secular is joining the sacred to cry out for a new understanding of a good life. Not one based on rules and dogmas and doctrines but one based on the heart, and on love. When we live like this, we find ourselves engaging in the mystery of life where we find God. A mysterious reality that permeates the universe and holds everything together in connectedness and relationship. Whether you are religious or non religious, Christian or Buddhist or my friend Diane. This is what Barbara Brown Taylor found when she left the church. She left the church but kept her faith.
As she wrote at the end of her book…
“Add this, then, to the things on the kitchen table that I have decided I will keep: I will keep my faith – in God, in God’s faith in me, and in all the companions who God has given me to help see the world as God sees it – so that together we may find a way to realise the divine vision. If some of us do not yet know who we are going to be tomorrow, then it is enough for us to give thanks for today while we treat each other as well as we know how. “Be kind,” wrote Philo of Alexandria, “for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”. We may be in for a long wait before the Holy Spirit shows us a new way to be the church together, but in the meantime there is nothing to prevent us from enjoying the breeze of this bright wings.”
Maybe we shouldn`t worry so much about who is in and who is out of the church or the rules which do the separating. Maybe instead we should see the fruits of the spirit in all those who work for others, who see a better life for others, and who in the process touch something very deep and profound about life. And be part of it.
For whether you are protesting for the environment, or for a greater say in how your society operates, whether you are writing letters to amnesty or building a community garden, which we are still hoping to do, running a Rainbow Project, supporting those with mental illness, working with the Mowanjum aboriginal community or just saying no to the consumerism that is rife in our society, everything makes a difference and reveals a little of the spirit.
When I think back to my friend in London I realise this understanding of faith, this way of seeing God in the world, may connect with her, as it may connect with many others. Even if she never enters a church door again. We certainly have lots of discussions about it
But before I finish, there is an elephant in the room, isn’t there?
If the spirit moves where it will, in all people, why stay in church? A very good question! While it’s for each one of us to decide, why do I stay? Well, because, for me, it’s easy to lose focus, to lose our connection to the Spirit, in our western society. Yet I feel and sense that connection when I see and interact with the people I travel with at Wembley Downs, in both churches. Not that we are perfect, but instead because we aren’t. Rather we are just a bunch of people doing the best we can, but in this community I can identify the love and compassion and generosity shown to each other and in the wider world. These are the fruits of the spirit Paul talked about. It helps me to keep coming, helps me keep practicing what it is to be a follower of Jesus, week after week, when sometimes I just want to stay in bed on a Sunday.
For as Darwin suggested, “As soon as a virtue is honoured and practiced by some few of us it spreads through instruction and example to the young and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion”
Amen to that!
Today I have a sermon from a friend of mine, Richard Smith, an incredible scientist, activist, and person of faith, who works diligently for those marginalised in our society. So you could call him my guest blogger.
In this sermon he reveals some home truths, about justice, or the lack of it, and about science and how evidence is manipulated or hidden from us. It is food for thought!
Scripture Readings Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Exactly 6 years ago I preached here at WDUC on these same two Lectionary readings. Does anyone remember that sermon?
Much has happened in the last 6 years, therefore I decided I should explore these readings in the context of Paul’s Gospel for creating a better world. A process summarized at the Reformation from his letter to the Galatians and Romans as Justification through Grace by Faith. A collective understanding rather than the later emphasis on individual salvation.
In ordinary language:
Justification – Is the process of creating a Just World, a world that works for all people. Through Grace– is accepting that the world and life we inherit is a free and generous gift. And by Faith, that is trusting in the essential goodness of humankind and the truth revealed in the Bible and Science.
One of Paul’s most profound statements of faith from our Galatians reading today was:“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”(Gal 3:28). This vision threatened the ethnic and Torah based religious identity of the Jews. It also challenged the economic foundations of the Roman Empire, with laws largely constructed so the elite 5% could extract wealth from the rest of the population. Some 40% of the population were slaves and women were second class citizens.
Does that not sound like much of the world today?
Currently we suffer from a major misunderstanding about Justice. We have a State Dept of Justice in a magnificent 31 story building in the City, concerned with managing retribution against those who fail to follow the law. Not with the primary biblical meaning of Justice as distributive, that is whatever is to be shared is to be shared equitably – or in the vernacular “A Fair Go for All”.
The biblical warrant for this meaning of Justice is that all humankind are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Retributive Justice is a subsidiary part of Distributive Justice, in that punishment should be fairly distributed.
The term Social Justice has an ambiguity which can mean either distributive or retributive Justice depending on the context. This is the ambiguity of our State Government Department of Justice’s concern with courts and prisons and not the distributive injustices filling our prisons to overflowing. For example, while only 3% of West Australia’s population are indigenous they form 30% our prison population because of distributive injustice issues.
In our Gospel reading today we read a parable told by Luke about Jesus and an impoverished man possessed by demons named“Legion”. Legion was the name of the 2600 strong cohort of the Roman Military that enforced the imperial domination system through retributive violence, torture and crucifixion which had had the demonic effect on the man’s mind and behaviour. We see the impact of the modern equivalents of such institutionalised violence and torture on soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, inter-generation impact on Aboriginal children in remote communities and on asylum seekers who are detained indefinitely.
On being healed, the demons left the man, going into a large herd of swine, which rushed into the lake and drowned. Although the man was healed his fellow Gerasenes did not understand how Jesus’ Gospel of non-violence and compassion could have such a dramatic healing effect. In fear they asked Jesus to leave and he returned across the sea of Galilee .
The man who was set free of his demons did not rest: “he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him”using his new found freedom to create a better world among his people.
Today, many like the Gerasene’s are fearful of confronting the domination systems of our world, becoming complicit in the destruction of indigenous cultures, the earth and its climate, before our very eyes.
How do we recognise today’s demons in our domination system?
- Our Aboriginal people were first demonised and put in chains (Slide 1), now we use the chains of financial and physical poverty to drive them from their communitarian life style and belief that the land owns them and not we the land. We seek to drive them into our individualistic and materialistic lifestyle.
- Another example are the demons of fake news and anti-science that get implanted in minds; keeping people in the chains of ignorance about indigenous people, climate change and their contribution to solving it.
- These subtle anti-science demons are best illustrated by our nightly ABC weather reports.
- An important context for our weather is the climate – but we are only presented with the weather without the context of Michael Mann’s Hockey Stick (Slide 2)or Keeling’s Curve of rising CO2which is causing long term changes in weather (Slide 3).Such Text without context becomes the pretext for climate denial and inaction.
- In contrast as we move to the Financial News, we are given the historical context through extensive graphs over many years of exchange rates, share market indexes and levels of debt, unemployment rates etc. (Slide 4).
- We are numbed to the fact that the continued increase in Jobs and Growth is a suicide economy that in a finite world is destroying the very basis of human life itself.
Do not lose hope for Pope Francis in his “Care for our Common Home” encyclical said:
“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. No systems can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
I sincerely believe that God – to me the force of Goodness and Truth that permeates our world will help us bring about new sustainable ways of life for future generations. Surely this is the mission for which the Church was born. Amen
I have included the slides he refers to here. They can be downloaded.
Someone I deeply respect suggested I put my sermon from today, for Pentecost on my blog unedited. So I have. If you are interested these are the readings we used.
Readings – Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-4, John 14:8-17, 25-27
Here we are at Pentecost 2019. I must admit, while happy to not participate in the joint service at the Anglican church, I then realised I would be doing the whole thing.
And the problem is, I have a really big problem with Pentecost. Not with the spirit, just with the festival.
Let me see if I can explain.
I have been reading a book lately, called “How I found God in everyone and everything”. I foolishly picked it for a bookclub book, and while I have found it fascinating, it is by no means an easy read.
It follows the spiritual journey of some major players in modern theology and philosophy, including Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, Keith Ward, Rupert Sheldrake and Phillip Clayton. How many of them have gone from a belief in a God out there somewhere, removed from creation and intervening now and then, called theism, to perhaps a belief in nothing at all, atheism, back to a belief in a divine presence but in a different form altogether, called panentheism. Panentheism means God in all and all in God. A divine presence within all things but greater than all things. This version of God leaves behind the external deity who occasionally zaps things for a God in which we all live and move and have our being, including the universe. It’s actually like returning home as we know the great mystics in all religious traditions have expounded this reality. It just seems we lost it for a long time.
Now I don’t want to get into all these theisms, but I do want to explore what it means to come back to God after having gone away because the traditional understanding is too hard to accept.
It involves looking at the world we live in, and the changes that are taking place in it.
I as you all know have been a scientist, not a very good one all my life, and yet I have never felt I was a materialist. A materialist is someone for whom science will explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry and biology. That science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless.
This is not what many believe, even scientists. Modern physics, focussing on quantum mechanics and cosmology, philosophy and evolutionary biology is taking us to a different more expanded place. More and more the subjective world, the world of consciousness explodes this idea that we are just a bunch of cells, that respond to externally driven cues. There is the presence of a subjective world, that is more than just the mechanics. We experience colour, rather than just seeing it, we experience our surroundings, rather than just responding to it as a machine, and we are conscious of ourselves as human being and of others who travel with us.
Equally many try to suggest consciousness or the mind is just a product of our brain cells, but more and more philosophers and scientists are again saying something different. That maybe all levels of creation are conscious, down to the smallest particles, or that there is a cosmic consciousness that we are all part of, that we are enveloped by. Hard to imagine, but on the other hand, when you look at each of us, and all the created order, how can it be any less. We are a marvel of creation and there are mysteries going on that are deeper than we can understand.
This sort of work, and I have had many a mind blowing conversation with Nathan who is doing an honours degree in philosophy of the mind, makes things so much more open ended, and exciting. As science moves beyond materialism Rupert Sheldrake would suggest we are recovering a sense of the life inherent in nature as a whole and in self organising systems at all levels of complexity. And producing new ways of connecting to our Christian roots.
Maybe the sense of awe we feel at the created order, or the beautiful music we listen to and are moved by, the sense of peace we experience at times when we are silent, the sense of connectedness to all things that rises up and greets us when we are working alongside others, loving others, the knowing we get at odd times, that there is something extra within and between us, doesn’t seem so radical anymore.
I have become increasingly convinced that the spirit of God is the presence within and around and through all that exists, from the smallest particular to the largest planet, a living breathing reality that we can know. And which gives life. And I am now open to the promise that we will never become separated from it. Because how can I become separated from my body. Or the ocean in which I swim.
So instead of seeing the death of God, we are seeing the death of a form of God, and the resurrection of a different, more universal God. And we have a responsibility to help that along.
So part of me doesn’t want to celebrate Pentecost in the 21stcentury. The story doesn’t seem to quite cut it today, with our expanded ideas about life and the universe. That the spirit comes down from somewhere while Jesus goes somewhere else, like they exchange places on a vertical ladder upwards. It doesn’t work when we know that if the spirit of God is in all things, and has been in all things since the beginning of time.
But perhaps I am being too negative.
As Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, “when we look at scripture, we shouldn’t see it as the unchanging revelation of the one true god, but instead an extraordinary sacred archive of the evolution of human consciousness”. I love that, because it fits with our own lives in which we move and grow. In Jesus we see him throw off some of the past constraints, past rules and ways of seeing, to encompass the idea of a collective humanity.
If we look at the readings today in that sense we see an evolution of thought…
While Luke in Acts tells the story dramatically, like a movie director, the spirit coming as a rushing wind and descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame 50 days after Easter, that told by John is more personal. The risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on his followers on the night of Easter and his spirit is a brooding presence in their hearts and minds. Both represent a watershed moment in the life of the early church. Both represent something about Jesus and his life and his call that his followers realised. Something dramatic. And they wanted to record it. It doesn’t mean that God’s spirit was missing somehow prior to this event.
To understand the story then we need to explore its past. Pentecost’s roots are in Judaism, for it was very much a Jewish festival before it was a Christian festival. Occurring 50 days after Passover it links Israel’s much older agricultural cycle to her religious history. It celebrates both the completion of the harvest as well as the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai. As Marcus Borg says it was about the creation of a new kind of community, the way of living together radically different from life in Egypt.
The readings from both Luke and John reflect this history, building on what has gone before, while announcing something altogether new. It was about the creation of a new community in Christ. A community anointed by God’s spirit and in continuity with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A community that calls forth peace and justice and reconciliation in the world, here and now…
This reconciliation is seen in Acts. At the Tower of Babel in Genesis, in the reading we also heard today, God scattered the pretentious human race across the earth confusing them by having them speak many languages rather than one. At Pentecost God reunites the scattered people into a new beloved community, one that is able to bridge differences and value diversity, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.
The followers of Jesus thus became a community of reconciliation and renewal through the presence of the spirit. A spirit they saw fully realized in the life of Jesus. They began to share everything they had, former enemies became friends and people laid down their swords and picked up a cross. As the book of Acts goes on to say, there was no needy persons among them. The movement had started. A movement which would become the church.
So it has been recorded as a pivotal moment.
Out of the constraints of power, and tribes and issues about who’s in and who’s out, comes a story about what the spirit brings out of chaos. Unity. Life. What Jesus brings.
Maybe this is the story of Pentecost for today!
You may wonder why we are not joining in at St Pauls this morning? While I understand worshipping with our fellow Christians is a good idea, the unity that Jesus speaks of is much wider than that. It’s time to greet the Jesus who himself was a great mystic, who calls us to a change in consciousness, a metanoia so that we see God is in all, and through all and empowers life at every level. Not just in Christianity.
We now live in the 21stcentury, in some ways the age of the spirit. The time has come, when we open ourselves to new ways of understanding what it is to be human, to be community, to be part of a creation that we can see, not only here in the tiniest of ways, but in the planets and stars of the universe. When evolution show us how connected we all really are.We in the West sometimes forget, with our focus on God as father and Jesus as son, that the spirit, God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit if you like, is the oldest expression of the creator at work in creation. It is the spirit which enlivens and empowers life at every level
So, as Diarmuid O’Murchu suggests, let’s start with the spirit. Let’s elevate the spirit, rejoice in the spirit’s presence in and among us, leading us towards fullness of life for all of creation, including humans.
God, the spirit of God, the breath of God, the divine presence, the energy that unities all things, whatever way you want to say it, whatever you want to call it.
And a God who is everywhere is every bodies. A truly democratic God. As Walt Whitman has said. For Whitman religion is democratic, its democracy extends to each listener, whatever ones race, ethnicity, rank, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or gender. A truly democratic spirit. Available to the least as well as the greatest. Available to those who know about Jesus and those that don’t.
As many in my book suggest, the Spirit which is in all of us, makes all of us mystics. We all are capable of reading and sensing the divine within the world. And equally seeing what we are capable of doing.
Maybe today we celebrate more than just an event in the past but a starting point to a future for us all..
I want to finish with a statement from Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, also a contributor to the book I started the sermon with.
“I have known mystical experiences in my life both as a child and in my adult years. They have entailed an intense experience of the presence and encompassing love of God, a love not of my own making; it is sheer gift, sheer presence. And it has seemed to me that this intensity of love fills all things, albeit usually incognito. It does not particularly matter whether or not it is recognised. It is love and presence that is simply always there, never absent, just at the other side of consciousness experience; sometimes, occasionally, graciously invading conscious experience. We are called not necessarily to seek awareness of that presence but just to assume god’s presence, and get on with our lives in ways that are more or less congruent with that presence. ‘Congruence” requires commitment to al all-inclusive common good, to a society that ‘seeks justice, loves kindness” and walks humbly with its various notions of God.”
We are people who have in us the spirit of the universe, we are a marvel of life.
We are to live with a belief and with a sense we are spirit people, sons and daughters of God each one of us. We are to embrace this spirit, this rushing wind, or whisper, this constant nudging from within and bear fruit in our own world, our own country. Here and now.
Note: “How I found God in everyone and everywhere”. Editors Andrew M. Davis and Phillip Clayton, 2018.
As our website is being redeveloped I am going to put some of my sermons here, and this one which I gave on Mothers Day, is particularly close to me. I focus on the Gospel of Mary, something I have wanted to talk about for a long time….
I have been pondering this sermon for a little while. I want us to journey away from Easter, even though we are still technically in the Easter season.
Journey into our own lives and time and place. But carrying the message of Jesus with us.
How do we do this. Well, I want to focus on one of the major players in the Easter story. Jesus story and our story. A player who has been forgotten or demonised or pushed aside. Who was there, and who tells us much if we are to listen.
I want to talk about Mary Magdalene. All 4 of the gospels say Mary witnessed the resurrection. Three of them name her as also present at the crucifixion, and in both Matt and Mark she is named first among the women who stayed and watched.
To understand more fully her role, I downloaded the movie Mary Magdalene that was released last year and watched it. It is powerful and controversial in some eyes, because it not only depicts a beautiful woman who was one of the disciples, but a Jesus, who is raw, and earthy and believable. And other male disciples who just don’t get it. Poor Jesus. Jesus was of God, but not god. He was pointing to a new way, but not a way of violence but peace. A way of love and forgiveness rather than exclusion. Everyone was to be included in this new order, this new kingdom. And still the disciples wanted some sort of powerful response. Maybe like us.
Let me show you a clip in case you didn’t see it, this is actually the promo for the movie …
Today I want to read a section from the Gospel of Mary, written around 80 to 180 CE whose main figure is a woman, most likely Mary Magdalene. The movie clearly takes its inspiration from this gospel. It is part of the extracanonical writings, writings that existed at the time of the gospels found in the bible, but not included in the final cannon, because they were branded as heresies or died out before the cannon was put together. It is believed that over 85% of the Christian literature from the first 2 centuries has been lost. But some have re-emerged in recent times, in Egypt, the markets of Cairo and the libraries of ancient monasteries. They give us an insight about the diversity that existed at the time of the early Jesus movement and expand our thinking.
The Gospel of Mary disappeared for over 1500 years until a single fragmentary copy in a Coptic translation came to light in the late 19thcentury. Two additional fragments have been found in the 20thcentury. It is one of the writings that was found in material from the Nag Hammadi village in Egypt, but it was also in a 5C papyrus codex sold in Berlin in 1896. Although it was originally composed in Greek, most of it survives only in the Coptic translation. While written by someone else, it records the relationship between Jesus and Mary and the disciples.
A modern translation by Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor some 10 years ago has revived this ancient manuscript.
While only fewer than 8 pages survive, with the first 3 pages of chapter 1 missing and 3 pages of chapter 8, it gives an amazing glimpse into a kind of Christianity that existed at the time, and Mary Magdalene’s role.
As Rosemary Radford Reuther explains, “for the first 5 centuries no writer misinterpreted Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Rather she was seen as a leading disciple and image of the church. It is only at the end of the 6thcentury when Pope Gregory the 1st in a sermon confuses the sinful woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 and identifies her as a repentant prostitute whose former sinfulness is contrasted with that of the virgin Mary, that things change”.
In fact, the anointing given by a women to Jesus while he was alive were not actually assigned in the gospels to Mary Magdalene at all. In Luke the woman who was a sinner has no name while In the other 3 gospels, the anointing takes place in Bethany directly before Jesus passion. In John, the participants are named, Mary of Bethany is the one who brings the ointment and Judas is the critic who accuses her of wasting money.
So many Marys. Perhaps Marys strong witness and presence became a threat to leadership in the earlier church. Like many female voices hers was removed. The Vatican corrected this view at the time of Vatican II, but the damage was done. Women have been marginalized for centuries both inside and outside the church, and it continues to this day.
Yet the Gospel of Mary offers a female recounting of a scene in which the resurrected Jesus comes to say goodbye and tells the disciples to preach, just as he does in the first 3 gospels, Matt , Mark and Luke, then leaves them.
With this ancient document, we have another voice, a woman’s voice, coming through.
Let me read two sections , which sets the scene.
Reading chapter 2, 3 (part), 4
“… Will matter then be destroyed or not?”
The Savior said, “All natures, all forms, all creatures exists in and with on another and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is released into the roots of its nature. Those who have ears to hear let them hear.”
Peter said to him, “Since you have explained everything to us, tell us one other thing. What is the sin of the world?”
The Savior said, “There is no sin; but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called “sin”. That is why the Good came into your midst, coming to the good which belongs to every nature, in order to restore it to its root”……..
When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all, saying “Peace be with you! Bear my peace within yourselves! Beware that no one leads you astray saying, ‘Look over here!’ or ‘Look over there!’ For the Child of Humanity is within you. Follow it! Those who seek it will find it. Go then, and proclaim the good news of the realm. Do not lay down any rules beyond what I determined for you, nor give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be confined by it.”
When he had said this, he departed.
In this gospel Jesus teaches them that all things are interwoven with each other, whether material or spiritual. He teaches them how to welcome true humanity into themselves. That salvation is recognising their true humanity and warns them from following some heroic hero or a set of rules and laws. Rather they are to seek to find their inner peace, their wholeness in this world, understanding that Jesus, the child of humanity is within them. Sin is the product of choosing a path away from all that he has taught, rather than some inherited state. We sin when we lose sight of the path he offers.
After Jesus departs the disciples are emotional and tearful, until Mary Magdalene takes charge and bucks them up. Do not weep and be distressed she tells them and sure enough they pull themselves together.
Again, let me read chapter 5
But they were pained. They wept greatly, saying, “How shall we go to the nations and proclaim the good news of the Child of Humanity? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”
Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, and said to her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be pained, nor doubt, for his grace will be with you all and shelter you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us Humans.”
When Mary said this, she turned their heart to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior.
Mary Magdalene recounts that Jesus’ primary purpose is to make us human beings, fully human. Emphasising the goodness of humanity! She turns their heart to the good.
This is actually quite similar to the other gospels, and reveals that much of our doctrine and dogmas about sin, and condemned humanity comes from later theologians. The gospels of Matt, Mark, and Luke talk about the realm or kingdom of God which is at hand or among you. And they talk about living in God, living in Christ, and having a new radically new quality of life in Christ.
In Chapter 6 Mary begins to relate some private teachings from Jesus that only she knows, to the disciples.
Let me read the beginning of Chapter 6
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember, which you know and we do not, nor have we heard them.”
Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will tell you.” And she began to say to them these word…..
Unfortunately, we then have 3 missing pages, but it appears that the teaching is on similar lines, both celebrating the goodness of humanity while seeing the things that drag us from this path.
But the last bits of the dialogue we hear in Chapter 9 reveals something about God. For Mary related God with the good. She defines God as the good. We hear it earlier when the text said, “she turned their heart to the good”. That the rise of the soul is about the journey towards goodness in ones’ inner consciousness, one’s behaviour and one’s relationships. This gospel charts a personal process of struggles for goodness. And things get in the way. But as Jesus says at the beginning of the gospel, “the good which belongs to every nature, comes to restore it to its root”. When we become a true human being.
Of course, the disciples aren’t thrilled with being lectured by a woman, and Peter scolds her in the last chapter, chapter 10. Levi interceded, “Peter, he says, you have always been a wrathful person, assuredly the saviour’s knowledge of her is completely reliable, that is why he loved her more than us”.
He loved her more than us. It is an image of a human Jesus and a beautiful faithful disciple.
I have totally fallen in love with this writing.
The Child of Humanity is within you. Jesus is within you. God is within you. The good is within you. We are Jesus and God’s beloved, we are loved for who we are, human beings, a marvel of life. And we are called not to some other place, not really even to this church, but to the world.
So, what do we do with this ancient message from a woman who stood beside the human Jesus through it all. Those who seek it will find it, go and follow it.
We think bigger and wider and more expansive. We have the resources within ourselves to change things, to give life rather than death and destruction. It’s what we choose that is important.
Resources that we sometimes forget are there. We can be kind, we can be creative, we can be loving, and we can be inclusive.
But sometimes our own hurts and sorrows and grief and distractions can hide our resources, can hide the spirit from us. So that we think we are alone. Yet we know, we are never alone!
Mary reminds us and the disciples that the Child of Humanity is within us and as such can make a difference. God is for and in all things, making things new.
If we choose.
Today I think of the grief of the whale (a children’s talk focussing on mothers in other parts of creation and the story of a Orca whale who pushed her dead calf around in Canada for 17 days in grief, supported by her pod), as an example of what is happening to our beautiful earth and the many people and creatures on and in it. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how we got to this place in time. Violence, shootings at synagogues, in churches and at mosques. An earth that is groaning. We and many are grieving. We are human, and we grieve.
How does the future look?
Jean Vanier, who as Dennis mentioned last week started the L’Arche community says, “We are very fragile in front of the future”.
So, as a writer for Sojourners, Kaitlin Curtice, asks, “what are we going to be as we head into the rest of 2019 and 2002. Who will we going to be politically, religiously, as humans who walk this sacred earth? Will we fight for our churches to be places that welcome the outcast, the woman, the gay and transgender person, and fight against injustice. Will we be a nation that faces its past in the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples and continual violence against people who are seeking out protection?”
We know in our hearts the truth of our faith. The spirit, the energy, the presence of God never leaves us. We search for that truth every Sunday, with the courage of Mary Magdalene, and in all the days in between.
Today, as Curtice suggests, “we must take each other’s hands, take a hard look in the mirror and ask what our humanity requires of us…
How should the earth be loved?
How should our children be loved?
How should people with disabilities be loved
How should women of any colour be loved
How should our LGBTQI friends be loved
How should our Muslim, Sikh and Jewish kin be loved
How should anyone be loved.
That is the only way forward.”
Maybe these are things we should hold on to when things get rough and we have doubts.
Perhaps we can hear Teresa of Avila words, a mystic from the 1500s who wrote a great summary in her book ‘The way to perfection”. Another great woman of faith.
Listening to words from the cross she believes Jesus is saying..
All must be friends
All must be loved
All must be held dear
All must be helped
Let us say Amen to that.
Here we are at Easter Sunday 2019. A time and place which seems out of kilter with the rest of the secular world. Yet is it really! Maybe there is a deeper truth that would resonate even with the most ardent atheist.
Recently I have been listening to a number of podcasts by Rob Bell, one of my favourite progressive preachers and writers. He has done a series of 11 podcasts on Jesus H Christ, the man, the myth, the middle initial. I love that title and I have loved the series. He has taken his listener on a journey through the life and teachings of Jesus and what they meant to those listening and participating in the 1stcentury, and what they mean to those listening and following today. Placing them in context, socially, politically and historically, but bringing them alive for the 21stcentury.
It is not until we get to the final episode that we find out what the H stands for, but by then most listeners would have worked it out. It stands for human. Jesus above all else was a human being, a man, who in his time and place revealed the God of the universe that resides in all of us. And how God’s spirit plays out in the world and in each one of us, now and always.
This was the message of the 11 episodes.
This is the message today.
Resurrection is not just a one-off event, a miraculous resuscitated body heading to the heavens. Resurrection is deeply human, and revelatory of how the universe and how the God of this universe works. Resurrection happens everyday if we look around us. It happened in the disciples, after Jesus had died and they were left to carry on, It happens within communities and countries, it can happen even within ourselves.
So let’s go on a little journey of our own this Easter.
I have returned to teaching after the summer break, back in the lab with students and cadavers, and realise again what a privilege it is to be able to see the human body in all its complexity laid out in front of us. Thanks to the generosity of those who have donated their bodies to science, and those family who have let them go.
I was thinking of giving up the teaching, it is hard to combine that with church work as a pastor, and family life etc. etc. But as I went through a general overview of what it is that makes us tick, blood vessels, muscles, nerves, organs with some first year students, I realised that the teaching brings me back to the essence of my faith.
Over the years, we have seen Christianity in many forms, much of it focussed on some other life, some other existence, without realising the existence here on earth is amazing, breathtaking, a gift to be cherished, with all its flaws and challenges. I have never ceased to be astounded, even after all these years of teaching!
It is within this gift I find God.
God, a difficult word to analyse, express, or even relate to. Sometime I don’t even want to use the term.
Yet for all my doubts, and over the years I have had many, I have always had the sense of a something more that drives life itself. Not a presence that disappears then reappears because of a sacrificial death, but a presence that is found throughout the life of the universe, and the life of all of creation and the life of every human being. Which is closer to us than our own breath but urges us to connect with one another with love and care and compassion.
Some time ago I asked a number of people to define what they mean by God, people who have been faithful ministers, and people who have just been faithful followers of Jesus and his way. If you were here on Good Friday who would have heard Marion’s.
All of them steer away from a set definition, because it is pointless. In some ways God is to be felt and experienced, rather than defined. But they have had a go.
I have, over the years, also had a go, particularly when I am grilled by atheist friends who think that I am crazy, to variously describe what I mean by God, I came across one attempt I would like to share, by Barbara Brown Taylor.…
Firstly, a picture….
“Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is. At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that makes it all go. “
Rather a beautiful description!
Of course I always get a bit reflective like this at Easter time. And particularly Easter day. A time of joy and commitment but also of questions.
When we talk about this extra bit of life, this creative force, this divine presence, how do we describe it, how does it affect who we are as people? Well many, including me, would say we see this presence most clearly in Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was flesh and blood, who laughed and cried, prayed and suffered, who was human like us, regardless of what the church says. And who died a horrible painful death. A Jesus who confronted the powerful and paid the price. Somehow his story lives on in those that follow. A story that resounds in our own lives and the lives of everything that lives and breathes on this earth. Even in the 21stcentury.
Can I really see God in this person? Is God and Jesus one? The gospel writers think so, they write so long after his death, but with such passion and purpose. While we have varying accounts of the resurrection, some physical, some spiritual, the reality is the disciples were transformed by the events.
Somehow, I believe, as they did, that in Jesus the God presence was and is revealed most fully. Somehow Jesus touches us and activates something mysterious within us. He turns on the light. His words, limited but powerful, and the response of his followers show us how to act in faith, pointing the way. If we can become aware of the divine presence within ourselves, letting go our ego or our 21stcentury manic activity driven lives, our response will reflect Jesus’s concerns. Concern for ourselves that we can be the best people we can be, concern for others that they may be loved and cared for, and concern for the planet and all of creation. Fullness of life for everyone, means in Jesus terms, inclusion and equity and peace and justice for all. God transformed Jesus and God transforms us.
So where does that leave Easter, Good Friday, and particularly Easter Sunday, the pinnacle of the church calendar. It is here I do not want to mince words. Jesus died for the sake of others, for he reveals that the God spark is a spark for life. That is how Jesus interpreted that inner drive in our world, in the human world. Love, compassion, justice, looking after the poor and the widows and including everyone at the table.
His message challenged those with power, who supported inequality, exclusion and hate. His message challenges us daily just as it did 2,000 years ago.
So he was killed.
Do I believe Jesus rose after 3 days and now sits at the right hand of God? Well no I don’t. Not physically anyway.
Why, because God is not sitting anywhere, certainly not in the sky where we see billions of galaxies and where we have just detected gravity waves. Where is God? God is the power within, the urge to connect and commune. To love.
So where is Jesus? A mystery that’s for sure. Maybe his spirit is, like our own, somehow bonded to that which gives all of us life. The universal divine presence. I like to think that, for we are all bound to the God presence now and forever. That’s why Jesus became Jesus Christ. That’s not his surname but a revelation that his teachings and actions, and God driven life lives on. Chrsit means anointed not magical.
Maybe the gift Jesus gives us on this Easter day is his human life, his awareness of what we all can be, what we all can do. Maybe his gift is one of life, not somewhere else, but here, in the fragrant muck and marvel and misery of human existence, as Frederick Buechner puts it. For God is part of the essence of who we are. It is in ordinary everyday lives that God is fully realised. A God that drives us to new beginnings, to change and transform, and makes life worthwhile. Ordinary everyday lives like ours. We find and experience God when we love, and forgive, show compassion and seek justice, share our wealth and lend a helping hand. When as a church we stand with and for refugees, our indigenous brothers and sisters, and all those marginalised and alone. When we care for one another.
For the resurrection story is not about Jesus, and about a divine resuscitation!
it is how God works in the world, within each of us. Giving light where there is darkness, renewal where there is decay, hope where there is despair, and new life where there seems only death. Even if it takes a long time!
To fit Jesus into my God story means seeing Jesus as one of us. A gift of life. A gift of God.
I often ask myself. How do I do Easter, when I don’t believe the whole “sacrificial payment for sin” line. Or the “original sin” line, or the line about the “perfect Jesus who now sits at the right hand of God somewhere else”?
I do Easter because it reflects life in miniature.
And Jesus for me, is the ultimate guide.
To finish I would like to read a quote that has been on my pinup board for some time. It’s been there so long I don’t know where I got it from. But it sums up Easter day beautifully for me and hopefully for you,
“In the end Easter is not something to talk about, it is something to do, it is an attitude towards life and other people, it is a lifestyle. Whether what we say and sing fully represents our rational comprehension of what Easter is about, is relatively unimportant. What is important is that we are Easter people, that is, people of transformation and renewal, people of hope, people of trust, people who not only believe but know deep down within their experience that love comes again and that love makes all the difference.”
This I believe is the good news brought by Jesus to the world, for as Nev says, if the good news is not for everyone, it is not good news.
And I think, a great reason to celebrate Easter.
I want to show you what I mean by playing a video. I attended a disaster chaplaincy course a couple of weeks ago and the video was showed there. It says everything that I have been saying today, in real life, about hope that emerges out of darkness. The video is about the black Saturday fires in Victoria 10 years ago.
I love Headspace. It’s a program and app by Andy Puddicombe, where he introduces you to meditation and mindfulness with a series of 10 min sessions (can be longer), varying from ones on technique to others on how to become a more rounded and more aware person. I love his voice and I love the guided nature of the sessions, which focus on the breath as a form of awareness training and are based on his 12 years as a Buddhist monk.
It always give me a lift and helps me become aware of my activities during the day.
The practise of sitting in silence brings a peace to me, a resting of my inner thoughts and anxiety , a recognition that to be alive and breathing is a joy and a gift. It leads me to contemplate not only my life but the lives of others. In a different way. How I can live with openness and love for one another and ourselves?
But it is not Christian meditation, which I also do once a week on a Tuesday, with a few others.
We base this type of meditation on the writings of John Main and Lawrence Freeman, who formed the World Community of Christian Meditation a number of years ago.
What do I think I am doing in Christian meditation that I am not doing using my Headspace app?
When I sit in silence in Christian meditation, I drop my own ego, my own needs and wants, and busyness, and listen. Not with ears but with heart, to the energy of the universe that enriches and drives us forward, to be better than we can be, more loving, caring and compassionate.
In the silence I believe I am becoming attentive to God, or as Rupert Sheldrake says, the consciousness of God. Not a God who speaks clear words from some faraway place, but the ground of being, the Spirit of life, that speaks to us about what is life giving. In those times we may sense an inner feeling of peace and belonging. And purpose. Or in the words of Paul Tillich, what is our ultimate concern, not only for me but for all people everywhere. When I listen I become more fully alive and connected.
Does it work? I sound like I might do it pretty successfully, but that is far from the truth, often I am distracted or fall asleep!
It takes practise and not everyone is interested in following it. Others may find going for a walk or sitting by the seaside gives them a similar sense of the sacred. But it seems to help me.
But back to the question, Christian meditation or mindfulness. I think Christian meditation is more than mindfulness, or an awareness of life. It is an awareness that there is something more to this life, that can be felt, or sensed or discovered in the silence. Its opening ourselves to the spirit of God that can lead us in a new direction. It is adding an extra dimension to all the benefits gained from mindfulness activities. A deep and divine dimension
Where does that leave the beautiful Andy and the headspace app?
Well, where it was.
I still love my Headspace App and Andy, with his beautiful voice and encouragement to be in the moment and will continue to practise this as well.
I think a bit of meditation and a bit silence is good, whatever its form. I suspect God is not all that fussy!