Thursday, 29 January 2015

February 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION - Candlemas: "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple"

Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2: 22-40
Theme:  The title of the Feast, “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”, is an obvious frontrunner this week, although it is rather wordy.  Continuing the theme of epiphany, we could go for “Revelation in the Temple” as a reasonable alternative.  I’m going for “The Law, the Prophets and the Holy Spirit”, for reasons that will become clear (I hope) shortly.
Introduction.  The trouble with St Luke’s one-off story is that there are no obvious link-in stories for use in the accompanying lessons.  Hence it’s a bit of a stretch to refer to the lesson from Malachi this week as “related” to the gospel.  Yes, I get the reference to the Lord coming to the Temple, but that could more easily connect with the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple.  Much of the rest of the lesson would seem to be more in keeping with Lent than with the Epiphany.  The second lesson, too, seems even less connected to the gospel than usual, with its emphasis on the Incarnation (Christmas) and Christ’s redeeming death (Passion).  Perhaps we are simply being reminded yet again that the Christian story is a whole package – we cannot break it down into self-contained pieces and expect them to make sense out of the context of the complete narrative.  St Luke’s masterful account of the Presentation in the Temple, drawing together the witness of the Law, the Prophets and the Holy Spirit, underlines this basic truth.
Background.  Trish and I spent last weekend in Wellington, our great capital city, where important buildings cluster together, housing important people who make big decisions of immediate and historical importance.  We walked past the Beehive and the rest of the Parliamentary Complex; we walked past the Supreme Court Building, still mysteriously shrouded in what appears to be an architectural cross between twisted scaffolding and dental braces; we walked past the Old Government Buildings, still, to my eye at least, the aesthetic gem in the whole area, with its own fascinating history, and now housing the University Law School; and, although we didn’t walk past it, we could see Parliament’s next-door neighbour, St Paul’s Cathedral, still frowning across the bottom of Hill Street, outshone, and largely ignored, by its more glamorous and powerful neighbours.
But we hadn’t gone to Wellington to mix with the powerful and the elite: we had gone to celebrate with people of real significance to us – family members.  On Saturday, with children (and their partners) and grandchildren we celebrated Trish’s birthday (a little late!); not in some expensive restaurant on the waterfront where people go to see and be seen, but in the cafe at Wellington Zoo!  A tour of the zoo in its modern form is a very humbling experience for those of us who like to believe that the human species is something special.  Most of the animals we were supposedly visiting were nowhere to be seen; like Elisha when Naaman dropped by, they couldn’t be bothered to come out to greet us.  Those that were visible either affected complete indifference to our presence (the baboons were particularly good at this, giving priority to nit-picking over any attempt at a simian powhiri), or tried to work out if we could be conned into giving them a choice morsel.  However, in body if not in spirit, from agouti to giraffes God’s creatures  were there (somewhere) as we celebrated Trish’s birthday.
The next day, Sunday, we didn’t make it to the cathedral or any other church; but we did attend a very important celebration – the third birthday of a grandchild.  Extended family and friends of the parents joined us, as was their custom.
We returned home on Monday, the 26th, the day between the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; we returned home from the capital city of New Zealand to Otago and our own little township of Waikouaiti, where (as far as I know), nobody of any great power and importance lives, although two of our residents won prizes in this year’s Robbie Burns Competition, and our neighbour had remembered to collect our mail and newspapers while we were away.  We returned to a garden even more parched than when we left, to fruit trees attacked by blackbirds and possums, and to a bathroom with water pressure so low having a shower is not for the faint-hearted or slow-footed.  But we were home, back to normality, and we were thankful – for safe travel, for family and friends, for neighbours, and for a place of our own in which to rest and reflect.  
And here was this story from St Luke waiting for me, to show me things that had never occurred to me before, not just about this story but about others we find in these early chapters.  Like the story of the census necessitating the uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem for the very pregnant Mary.  She wasn’t singled out, was she?  Joseph wasn’t singled out.  To the world at large they were just two people required to follow the same order as everyone else.  Their small lives took place within the big picture.  It was just one incidence of living in an occupied country.  It’s what happened to ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives.  And, of course, it is one small illustration of the deep truth of the Incarnation.  There were no special rules or exemptions for the Mother of God.  Pregnant or not, it was the donkey or Shank’s pony for Mary.
This week’s story is along the same lines, but this time it is religious practice rather than lawful requirement that is at play, as St Luke, with great care for detail, makes clear.  The Holy Family travels to the capital city and enters the Temple, the seat of power for the Jewish people, where the powerful elite were to be found, priests, Levites, and their many functionaries and servants, and what Rome today would call the Curia.  Yet none of these are mentioned in the story – this small insignificant family gathering is of no concern to officialdom.  Only two elderly people are there to greet them with their strange, seemingly half-crazed utterances.  Only St Luke thought they were worth remembering, so much so that he gave us a short biography of each.  These, he is saying, were real people – they had personal histories, hopes and dreams.  Probably unknown to the chief priests, the elders, the scribes and all the other important people of the day, they were known to God, and God had taken them into his confidence, revealed to them great truths that amazed the child’s parents who thought they were simply following the religious requirements of the day.
“And when they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”  Back to normality.
Malachi 3:1-5.  In large part this is a “standard” Messianic prophesy, with the usual confusion surrounding the identity of the “messenger” (or, sometimes, “servant”).  The emphasis is on the “mixed blessing” of the Lord coming to the Temple/Israel/his people.  What seems like great news turns out to be heavy with danger, for the advent of the Lord is a time of refining, purifying, and ultimately judgment.  This passage is carefully structured to show the process, rather than the event, of the Lord’s coming, and to illustrate the good news/bad news nature of it.  He will be preceded by a messenger to prepare the way, and then the Lord “whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”.  Who is this messenger? He is “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight”.  So two ticks for the good news column.  But verses 2-4 bring the reality check: the people have to be purified before they can receive him.  Only then will he draw near to the people, and even then his coming will be a time of judgement.  [Notice how “Lenten” in tone this is.]  Perhaps the most striking verse of the passage is verse 5, with its list of potential offenders.  We might not be surprised to find sorcerers, adulterers and those who bear false witness on the list, but keep going.  Suddenly we find those who exploit workers, widows and orphans – AND “those who thrust aside the alien”.  Who saw that one coming?
Taking It Personally.
·        While we might think 40 days is quite long enough for Lent, this passage seems to be inviting us to start preparing for Lent now.  How might that work out for you?  What might you do by way of planning to make a deeper commitment to Lenten observance this year?
·        Is there something you would like your local faith community to offer during Lent?  This might be the time to raise the issue with your priest or Vestry.
·        Go slowly through verse 5.  Use it first as a personal spiritual stock-take.  Then widen your reflections to consider how the Church measures up.  How does the country measure up?
·        Is there anything you might do to promote the protection of workers, widows, orphans or “aliens” (migrants and refugees)?

Hebrews 2:14-18.  I haven’t checked but I suspect that this is one of those readings that turns up a few times in our annual lectionary.  It is a great summary of the significance of the Incarnation, and therefore it makes sense to have it fairly soon after Christmas.  It strikes me as providing the all-important link between Christmas and Good Friday.  Only if the man on the cross is God Incarnate does any of the Christian Story make sense: only in that case can Christ’s death and resurrection be seen as overcoming death.  And only if Christ is “fully human” (as the Creed proclaims) can he make the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.  The author’s task, it seems to me, is to bring Christ down to earth (he came for us not for the angels) so that we can understand how it is that Christ can raise us up to God.

Taking It Personally.

·        The verse that always gets me in this passage is verse 15 – “and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”.  What do you make of it?
·        The only true response to this passage is surely praise and thanksgiving.  Pray accordingly.

Luke 2:22-40.  In these Notes a week or two ago I queried whether or not some of the biblical stories could be described, in the very modern vernacular, as “editorialised” or “overcooked”.  This one, I think, falls on the right side of that line.  It rings true; and that goes a long way to explaining its power.  St Luke has achieved in its telling a brilliant piece of theology in strictly narrative form.  At the heart of the story is the encounter between Mary and Joseph with Simeon.  How did this encounter come about?  Well, the Law guided the Holy Family to the Temple; the Holy Spirit ensured Simeon was there to meet them.  Moreover, each had a history – a God-infused history – which shows that this meeting was not pure happenstance.  We know of Mary’s preparation to become the bearer of the Christ-Child: St Luke tells us enough about Simeon’s past and character to see how he had been made ready for this day.  The Holy Spirit “rested on him”; he was righteous and devout; he believed in the promise of God for the future; and he had been personally assured by God that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died.  Now he is given eyes to see in this infant the fulfilment of that promise, and the words to speak prophetically of all that was to come about through this child.  Telling this story this way is St Luke’s version of the theological truth that the Holy Spirit, the Law and the Prophets all testify to the true identity of Christ.  The only response to such a truth is to break out in praise and thanksgiving, as Simeon does, seconded by Anna.

Taking It Personally.

·        Mary and Joseph are guided by the Law; Simeon by the Holy Spirit.  What do you make of that?
·        What connections (or echoes) can you find between this story, the Christmas story, and the Passion of Christ?

·        Meditate on verses 34 and 35.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into understanding how these verses apply to you.  End in praise and thanksgiving.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20*
[*Note: we have to make a choice this Sunday, as it falls on the day of The Conversion of St Paul, for which the set readings are Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Acts 9:1-22; Acts 9:1-22 or Galatians 1:11-16a; and Matthew 19:27-30.  By the narrowest of margins I’m opting for the other set of readings, but on the understanding that the Conversion of St Paul is itself a “call story” and a fruitful “combined approach” may well be helpful, comparing and contrasting his experience with that of the four fishermen.]
Theme:  Continuing with some of the same reflections on freedom from last week, I’m leaning towards something like “Full and Informed Consent?”; or even “Volunteers or Conscripts?”  For those who prefer a calmer start to proceedings perhaps something more neutral like “The Gift of Freedom” might suffice.
Introduction: A brief glance at this week’s readings should be enough to suggest that the whole idea of freedom, at least for those of us whose primary interest is our faith rather than our political views, is far more complex than much of the commentary on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy would have us believe.  We begin with an extract from one of the greatest of all the biblical stories, the tragi-comedic tale of Jonah, the archetypical anti-hero.  Was he free to say “No” to God: we he a volunteer or a conscript?  We follow with a mercifully short reading from St Paul: I hope I don’t need to protest my status as a devotee of St Paul, but really!  Where does this reading getting anyone?  Perhaps this is the point on which we segue to the Conversion of St Paul briefly, before turning to the gospel.  As usual, St Mark is refreshingly clear and uncluttered in his account of the calling of the fishermen of Lake Galilee.
Background.  Very early on in my ministry a parishioner queried some platitudinous remark I had made about God’s gift to us of free will.  In those days I usually faithfully adhered to the party line on all things.  In this case I had probably said something like, God never imposes his will on us – God always respects our freedom to say yes or no.  Any other approach would be inconsistent with love, because love must always grant freedom to the beloved.  I knew the drill, and I assumed that the parishioners did, too.  But this woman, a young widow, who had already suffered more than most of us had – she had, as she put it, “seen the dark side of God” on more than one occasion – was in no mood for such carefully rehearsed (a polite word for regurgitated) claptrap.  Her question was along these lines: “How can you say that we are free to say yes or no to God when the Bible makes it clear that if we say yes we go to heaven and if we say no we’re off to a burning lake of sulphur?”
The imagery reflected the fact that my predecessor in the parish had been a somewhat extreme charismatic evangelical; but the question was still a good one.  I can’t remember what answer I gave but I very much doubt that it convinced her or me: it was probably the sort of incoherent flow of words that comes to lawyers when all else fails.  Twenty or so years later, I’m not much further on in coming up with a coherent or convincing argument.  Of course, there is a strictly logical answer that goes something like this.  We are free to choose our response to God, but like every other choice we make this one has consequences.  Because God wants us to be fully informed before we make our choice the consequences are revealed to us ahead of time.  Possibly that meets some sort of minimal coherency test, but is it convincing?  Yes, perhaps, if we assume that the relationship between God and humanity is strictly governed by rules of jurisprudence, principles of contributory negligence, and so on.  But in an age when we obsessively avoid saying or doing anything that could be construed as blaming the victim, will this wash?  [When was the last time someone said publicly that overweight people deserve to die prematurely and we should quit spending money on them because THEY HAVE BEEN WARNED OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF OVER-EATING?]
So what can we say about free will in terms of our faith?  What is freedom in the context of Christ’s teaching?  The more I have pondered this question over the last little while the more I have come to suspect that freedom is not just an essential element of love – it is a virtual synonym of it.  We love because God first loves us can also be expressed as we give freedom to others because God first gives freedom to us.  It’s all there in the wonderful words of the Absolution on page 408:  “Through the cross of Christ, God have mercy on you, pardon you and set you free.  Know that you are forgiven and be at peace.  God strengthen you in all goodness and keep you in life eternal.”  At the root of freedom is divine forgiveness – which means that the source of all human freedom is the cross.  Of all the great paradoxes of our faith none is more staggering than the sight of a man nailed to a cross granting freedom (forgiveness) to those who are killing him.  Freedom, like love, and like all other gifts of God, is to be given away to others.
(One of the most perfect illustrations of this is surely the sacrificial death of Fr Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz when he freely chose to swap places with a condemned man.  Put that alongside the cries from Paris last week insisting that Freedom must include the “right” to ridicule one another and we might wonder why anyone would want to claim “Je suis Charlie!”)
So what of our friend Jonah?  Was he not the victim of divine coercion?  In the end, did he have any real option?  Was he truly free to say no to God?  I’m still struggling with this one; but I have moved along way from my original answer which was a blunt “Hell, no!”  Perhaps I could never give a definitive answer without knowing what happened next: what answer did Jonah give to God’s closing question?  We could ask a similar question about St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus: being knocked off his feet and temporarily blinded is not how a lover would usually go about wooing his beloved.  But in both cases we know the outcome for “the others” who received their freedom through the messages proclaimed by Jonah and St Paul.  Perhaps that’s what these stories are really about – freedom, like love, is only real when it is given away.  Or, to put is another way (with apologies to St Paul), in Christ slavery is the new freedom!
Jonah 3:1-5, 10.  This is a great morality tale about what the Germans call Schadenfreude, to which we are all rather prone from time to time.  Jonah does have some justification, perhaps, when we remember that Nineveh was a city in Babylonia, a longstanding enemy of Israel.  (How many wars in our history have ended in repentance and forgiveness?)  Of all the people who have attempted to hide or run away from God, Jonah has one of the most interesting reasons for doing so: he does not want to warn the residents of Nineveh to repent because he is afraid they will, and then God will turn soft on them and forgive them.  (This is a more exciting and colourful version of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant – and just as challenging.)
Taking It Personally.
·       Take some time to “get inside” Jonah.  Do you warm to him and recognise part of him in you, or is he a hopeless jerk who deserves a divine kick in the bottom?
·       Notice that God gives Jonah a second chance, without remonstrating with him about his failure to comply the first time.  What does that tell you about the nature of God?
·       How does that compare to your own attitude to someone who lets you down?  Are you quick to give a second chance, or are you more inclined to criticise that person or give up on him or her?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31.  Well, okay, there must be something here for us to ponder, even if it is not immediately apparent to me.  I guess it is about priorities, and in that sense it ties in with the gospel passage.  In ordinary times, focussing exclusively on the demands of our faith and ignoring our other familial, social, and contractual responsibilities would not be appropriate; but these are no ordinary times.  “The appointed time has grown short”, so everything necessary to prepare for the end is now urgent.  Two thousand years later we might have some difficulty in sharing St Paul’s sense of urgency.  On the other hand, we can only meet God in the present moment, in the Now as Richard Rohr and others like to put it.  To put off “religious stuff” until a more opportune stage of our life is abandon all thought of a spiritual life.  Perhaps that is at least part of St Paul’s meaning for the present time.

Taking It Personally.

·       Are you aware of clashes between your commitment to your spiritual life, and your commitments to your family, friends, employers or others?  Where do your priorities usually lie?
·       Are you aware of an increasing urgency in your desire to develop your relationship with God as you grow older?
Mark 1:14-20.  Mark agrees with Matthew that Jesus’ public ministry began after the arrest of John the Baptist, although that is less clear in Luke.  It could mean, also, that John’s arrest prompted Jesus to move to Galilee  The two call scenes are very similar, but the second one seems to be a more developed version of the first.  Neither makes it entirely clear that the call is open-ended, although Jesus’ rather laboured analogy between fishing for fish and fishing for people does seem to imply a permanent change in vocation rather than a short- term assignment.  There is no mention of the effect such a dramatic move might have on others associated with Peter or Andrew.  The calling of James and John, on the other hand does bring others in to the picture.  Surely something is being said here about the different relationship the two brothers have with Zebedee (he is their father) and that of the other crewmen with Zebedee (they are his hired men).   Echoes of John 6:11-13 seem to sound out here, but notice that here it is the hired men who stay at their posts and the sons who take off.  It’s also tempting to assume that there is some significance intended in recording the different tasks that the men were engaged in at the time of their call.  Andrew and Peter were casting their nets, whereas James and John were mending theirs.  But just what that significance is, I’m not sure: perhaps in the latter case, something about the care they are taking to mend their nets contrasting with their willingness to abandon their familial networks to follow Jesus?  There is an unavoidable inconsistency between this account of the call of Peter and the account given in the Fourth Gospel: John 1:35-42.

Taking It Personally.

·       How do you react to these stories?  How would you describe your predominant feelings about them?  How would you describe the reaction of the fishermen?  Wonderfully faithful?  Totally irresponsible?  Incredible?  Scary?
·       Were they volunteers or conscripts in your view?  What attracted them to drop everything and go for it?  Conviction?  A desire for adventure?  A trust in Jesus?  A desire to be part of something greater than themselves?
·       Are their echoes here of young men rushing to sign up at the start of the First World War – or going overseas to join the Spanish Civil War – or to fight for or against the Islamic State?
·       How would you react if someone you loved announced they were abandoning their career, family and everything else to join a religious order within the Christian tradition?  What about a religious sect?  Or a Buddhist ashram?  Or a Moslem community?  Or to go overseas to fight?

·       What if they said they had no choice – they were simply obeying God’s call?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Notes for Reflection

January 18                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Theme:  An obvious choice would be "Called by Name", or some variation of that: a cheekier version might be "Who's Calling, Please?"  Given the events in Paris, and the saturation coverage in the media, I'm tempted to go for something like "Christ the Fundamentalist", or even "Nous Sommes Christ".

Introduction.  Once again St Paul wins the prize for topicality this week: he says it all in verse 12, doesn't he?   Sadly, this lesson seems to have very little in common with the theme of the other two readings.  We open with the dramatic, if rather worrying, story of the calling of the boy Samuel in the middle of the night; and we close with the daytime calling of Philip and Nathaniel.

Background.  No doubt it is still far too soon for rational debate to follow the emotional outrage at the at the slaughter of members of the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo this week, but when the time is right for calm reflection there are surely many points to ponder.

One concerns language.  This debate may be about the importance of freedom of expression, but it doesn't seem to have lead to any greater degree of clarity of expression.  The rather predictable  ODT editorial of 9th January on the subject is a classic case in point.  Having condemned religious fundamentalism, it then engaged in classic secular fundamentalism, insisting: "Freedom of speech is not just a Western concept.  It is the right of every human being – a basic human right".   In the same edition, there was an article by Joanna Norris, Editor of The Press, in which she said the "cherished principles of freedom of expression, which in mature societies, including our own, include the right to offend."

However we express this right to self-expression, where does it come from?  Is it any more than an assertion of opinion, as in "In my opinion every human being should be able to express his or her opinion without fear of consequence"?  Some would say it is a right conferred by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but that document did not create rights, it declared them to exist – it recognised them.  The claim is, therefore, that every human being has certain innate rights by virtue of his or her humanity.  We might (and often do) call them fundamental rights; and we might (and often do) assert that such rights are of fundamental importance in a democracy such as ours.  So those of us who subscribe to such an argument are secular fundamentalists: but, of course, we would never use that term, and would be insulted if anyone tried to stick such a label on us.

The next thing is this.  To imply that this right to free speech (self-expression) is and must be "unlimited" in this country has never been true, nor would most of us want it to be the case.  We have laws against hate speech, against speech intended to induce a riot, or to cause rebellion against the State.  On a more personal level, we are constantly trying to find ways to oppose cyber-bullying or verbal abuse in the home or workplace.  And don't get me started on the laws against defamation!  (Simply ask yourself, why can I take action against someone who injures my commercial reputation, but not against someone who ridicules my religious beliefs?)

Now try this test.  Part 1.  Nod your head if you agree with the following statement: in a democracy such as ours it is of fundament importance that everyone should have the right to criticise the Government of the day without fear of consequences.  Part 2.  Nod your head if you agree with the following statement: in a democracy such as ours it is of fundamental importance that everyone should have the right to ridicule anyone else without fear of consequences.  Give yourself 3 points if you nodded on part 1 and a further 3 points if you nodded on part 2.   According to the Barker Nodding Scale of Fundamentalism, if you scored 3 points you are a fundamentalist; if you scored 6 points you are an extreme fundamentalist (usually shortened in the press to "extremist").

Understandably, this whole tragedy has lead to many cartoon responses.  Of those I have seen, my clear favourite shows a cartoonist lying dead on the ground with a heavily armed terrorist standing over him, and shouting over his shoulder "He drew first!"  Not only does it strike me as clever and funny, but I also think it has a great depth (whether or not the cartoonist intended it to.)  As I stayed with it an expression beloved of the US military floated into my mind – "asymmetrical warfare" – and I thought of other occasions on which that expression might be used (but usually isn't), such as drone attacks in the Middle East or nuclear attacks on Japanese cities.  And I remembered the French attack on Greenpeace here in our own country.  (How many marched in protest then?)  And I remembered the extraordinary rush to abolish the so-called "defence of provocation" in the wake of the terrible Weatherston murder trial.  Nothing, but nothing, must be allowed to provoke us into killing another human being – except, of course, "terrorism".

And there the reflections on this cartoon took a worrying turn.  Suppose the cartoons ridiculed Jesus.  Would we be outraged?  Would we be hurt?  Would we be distressed?  Or wouldn't we be too fussed about it?  Suppose the ODT published cartoons ridiculing Jesus?  Would we do ANYTHING about it?  Would I?  Well, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't march to the Allied Press building and commit mass murder: more concerning, I'm not at all sure that I would bother to write a letter of protest to the editor, much less stop reading the paper or cancel our subscription.  Why not?

If, as Christians, we refrain from any such retaliatory action because we believe Christ's teaching demands that we turn the other cheek, so be it (and welcome to the pacifist cause!)  But is part of our difficulty in comprehending Moslem outrage at the offending cartoons simply because we are not used to people taking their religion that seriously?  The ODT refers to the Islamists' view that their religious belief "matters enough to kill those who offend it".  [It also records that the magazine has been convicted under anti-racism laws in the past: why does that not constitute an attack on freedom of expression?]

And that's the point I want to finish on.  Je suis Christian!  For me my faith is not primarily about what I believe, it is about who or what I am.  Compared to that my ethnic identity and nationality are of minor importance, about as important to me as the fact that I am left-handed.  Yet the law (and the Church!) is far more likely to rush to my aid if someone were to call me "a typical Cornish moron" than if they called me "a typical Christian moron".  For if we really believe the Incarnation – and the teaching of St Paul (Galatians 2:20, etc.) – we will understand that it is Christ who is being insulted in that instance.   Isn't it?

1 Samuel 3:1-10.  This is one of those passages where a little background reading pays dividends.  Read the first two chapters of this book, and you will see what I mean.  There's real human drama here, echoing many of the themes from the great patriarchal narratives.  As soon as we know that Elkanah has two wives, we know what to expect: one has children, the other is thought to be barren.  The one with children constantly winds the other one up, and to add to the mix the "barren" woman is the husband's favourite.  On the other side of the drama are Eli, a somewhat elderly priest, and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, also priests.  The latter are "scoundrels" (2:12), routinely helping themselves to meat offered in sacrifice, and generally showing contempt for the Lord.  It doesn't appear that Eli is in on the racket, but his feeble efforts to bring his sons to heel have not pleased God.  This is the environment into which poor little Samuel has been placed by his mother!  And now God calls the little boy to give him a blunt message for Eli!  We are told at the beginning of the passage that "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread."  It's hardly surprising that little Samuel does not yet know the Lord.  The drama plays out like a Shakespearean farce.  A translator or go-between is required: who else but old, discredited Eli?

Taking It Personally.

·        There is so much in this story it's difficult to know where to start!  Read it through slowly, treating it simply as a story.  Then start again, looking for the underlying messages.

·        Think about Jesus' remark, "Unless you become like little children..."  Does this story help to "unpack" this remark for you?

·        For all his faults, it is Eli who perceives that God is calling Samuel.  Is there someone who has helped or is helping you to hear the word of the Lord to you?  Do you now recognise the Lord's voice when he speaks to you?

·        Spend some time in silence.  "Lie down in the Temple."  When you are ready say to the Lord, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."  And listen.


1 Corinthians 6:12-20.  Once again we are "hearing" one side only of a debate, but it is fairly clear from what St Paul is saying that some in Corinth are arguing that what we do physically no longer matters.  We are no longer under the law, so anything goes: physical matter will go the way of all flesh (ha, ha!), and all that matters is our spiritual life in Christ.  So everything from fornication through to eating food sacrificed to idols (doing a Hophni, as it were) and much else besides is allowable for Christians.  Notice how St Paul responds: he doesn't create a new law code and insist it is binding on all "real Christians": he accepts the principle of their argument "all things are lawful for me", but adds a very important rider "not all things are beneficial".  That is surely the point that ought to be at the very heart of our reflections on the Paris tragedy.  Whether or not we have a lawful right to ridicule anyone, is it ever right (beneficial) to do so?  To answer "no" might be entirely out of keeping with the spirit of the age, but it is surely entirely in keeping with the Spirit of God.  (And if that comment makes me an extreme fundamentalist, so be it.)


Taking It Personally.


·        Read slowly through this reading, understanding that St Paul is laying out a reasoned argument.  Are you convinced?

·        Focus on verse 17.  Does it catch you by surprise?  (In the context we might expect him to talk about the union between husband and wife.)  Are you united to the Lord – one spirit with him?

·        Reflect at some depth on verses 19 and 20.  Give thanks to God for your body.


John 1:43-51. Another wonderful story (or collection of stories)!  Andrew and Peter have just been called; but who would have expected Philip and Nathaniel to be next in line?  Notice that these two stories are very similar; one person is called by Jesus directly, and that one then goes and brings someone else to Jesus.  (Yes, there is a moral here!)  Nathaniel might be "truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit", but he has his prejudices (for Nazareth read Auckland).  The encounter takes on the tone of a street magic show (Dynamo the magician or perhaps Lisa Williams the medium).  Nathaniel is convinced: "you are the Son of God.  You are the King of Israel".  At any other time than this week we might think that in his response Jesus is mocking him a little – let's call it affectionate teasing.  Verse 51 takes us back to the proper level.  Heaven opened and angels ascending and descending are descriptions loaded with significance.


Taking It Personally.


·        Notice that word "found" in verses 43 and 45.  Jesus found Philip and Philip found Nathaniel.  What are we to make of that?

·        Notice how Philip responds to Nathaniel's disparaging remark about Nazareth: "come and see for yourself".  What are we to make of that?

·        Are you "following" Christ?

·        Whom have you invited to "come and see" recently?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Baptism of the Lord

January 11                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Baptism of the Lord

Texts:  Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Theme:  The title of this feast is the obvious choice.  Or something like "A New Beginning" might appeal, as it can embrace the idea of a new year, and, of course, link in with the first lesson.

Introduction.  We begin at the beginning, with the creation of the world; and once again the focus is on light.  We might more naturally associate this lesson with the Prologue to St John's Gospel, rather than the opening salvo from St Mark.  For Mark "The beginning of the good news" started with Jesus' baptism, rather than his birth.  Our second lesson reminds us that Jesus' baptism was not a one off event for his benefit alone: it has meaning only so far as we enter into it ourselves.  Both the gospel account and this passage from Acts instruct us that the essence of baptism is union with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Background.  Over the holiday period I have been reflecting on the story of Rachel Jacobs.  She is the Australian woman who created the movement to walk alongside or ride with Moslems in the wake of the Sydney cafe siege.  She started the whole thing by posting on Face Book that she was (or had been) on a commuter train during the siege; that like everyone else on the train, she was following the drama on her phone; and that a young woman sitting next to her quietly took off her head scarf which would have identified her as a Moslem.  Rachel had gently urged her to put it back on, promising to "walk with you" to allay this young woman's fears of reprisal.  Apparently, Rachel had meant this as a private posting for a particular friend; but the friend was so touched by this story that he re-posted it; and, as we technophiles say, "it went viral".

What doesn't seem to have gone quite so viral is Rachel's subsequent retraction, or, to use her own term, "confession".  She had not been exactly accurate in her first account of her encounter with the young, frightened, Moslem woman.  She had, she explained "editorialised" – equivalent, perhaps to Cameron Slater's revision of the comment he made appearing to implicate Judith Collins in a campaign against Adam Feeley ("I overcooked it").  Rachel was on the train, and there was a young woman on it, but seated well in front of her.  She did remove her head covering, and Rachel did feel concerned about that.  She did want to go over and say something to the young woman, but then logic, fear, or perhaps social protocols kicked in.  Was Rachel not leaping to conclusions?  Was the woman really a Moslem, removing her headscarf for fear of being abused, or was she simply a young woman removing a piece of clothing because she was too hot?  And if she did approach the woman, would she be rebuffed – would she just make the whole thing worse?

As it happened, the young one got off the train at the same stop as Rachel, and for a moment they had eye contact.  Did they exchange words?  Did Rachel say anything to her?  Even in her second, revised version that is not entirely clear one way or the other.

And so my question is this: does it matter?  Does the power of this story depend on it being factually accurate, or does it lie in a deeper truth?  It moved thousands of people, not just to click on the like button, but to actually start following what they thought was Rachel's example.  They were moved to offer love and support to other Moslems, and support from all round the world flowed in.  One previously disillusioned Aussie wrote from the USA saying that for the first time in many years she was proud to be an Australian!  From this story came enormous good – it poured love into this dark and tragic siege – it illustrated the power (and, I would claim, the victory) of goodness over evil, of light refusing to yield to darkness.

What was going on here?  I think Rachel was projecting the self she would like to be.  She "reported" doing what she really wanted to do, but didn't.  Her fears of "getting it wrong" overcame her desire to do what she knew to be right.  We can all relate to that: St Paul describes it perfectly in Romans 7:14ff.  In Christian terms we might say that Rachel's true Self –the Christ incarnate in her – was guiding her to take the course of compassion and love – but her natural self would not or could not surrender. 

And that's about where my ponderings have got me so far.  The story that was false at the superficial level has struck me as being utterly true at the deepest level.  And that is why it burst forth from such a small seed, grew mightily and bore much splendid fruit.  You just know that this is a story about the Kingdom of God, don't you?

This is a time in the Church Calendar rich with stories – those surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus, his Presentation in the Temple, the star and the Magi, and so on.  Are they factually correct?  If they have one thing in common, it is, for me, that at the superficial level, they all seem to have been "editorialised" or "overcooked".    Yet all of them, through the passing centuries, have gone and remain "viral" – their power to capture our imagination, to impregnate our minds with the truth and divine purpose of the Incarnation, and to motivate us to lead the life to which we have been called and empowered through our baptism, remains undiminished.

And this week we have the crowning glory of this mini-series of stories, as we hear again St Mark's, somewhat brusque account of Jesus' baptism.  Yes, it lacks the theological issues that St Matthew struggled with; and it lacks the dramatic prelude that St Luke gives us depicting John the Baptist as the most unlikely warm-up act in history; and it certainly lacks the mystical nuances we find in St John's account-that-isn't.  But that to me is the whole point for St Mark.  This is what happened! Face it.  [I'm thinking Andrew Little's already famous remark here.]

But I do think there is one question that I would like an answer to.  How come vast crowds submitted to baptism, a rite previously reserved for Gentiles wishing to "convert" to Judaism, with so little hesitation?  What need did they experience that made them so responsive to the voice calling in their wilderness?   How come John's message went viral?

Genesis 1:1-5.  One of the many reasons why I find debates about evolution (including cosmology) and creation so tiresome is that both sides tend to miss the extraordinary truth that these wonderful verses convey.  Before the earth formed it WAS formless, a swirling mass of gases.  Stand back a little and ponder this creation hymn of praise in its entirety, and marvel at the insight it manifests: the heavens and the earth HAD a beginning.  What is more, creation was not one instantaneous event, but occurred in stages (the Bible calls them days).  And the first essential element for life to begin was light.  Far from contradicting the scientific facts as they are presently understood, this passage is remarkably consistent with them.  But those matters are just on the surface, at best balm for the troubled intellect.  As I pondered this much-loved passage again, I suddenly saw the globe as the Eucharistic Host, held high in the hands of the Great High Priest, and I heard in a new way the words of the prayer of the epiclesis, "Send your Holy Spirit...", as a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  And I knew more clearly than ever before that the whole earth is consecrated to the Lord our God.

Taking It Personally.

·        Take time to read and really savour this short passage: let it soak into your very being. Come back to it time and again during the next week.  Recall it whenever you feel or hear the wind; if you have the opportunity, go to a beach and watch as the wind and the sea interact.

·        At least once this week try to be awake as the first light of dawn starts overcoming the darkness of the night.  Use this as a stimulus to pray for the world, particularly for the dark places that so often feature in our news.

·        If you have access to the New Zealand Prayer Book, read this passage, then the prayer of epiclesis on page 423, and then the prayer over the font in the baptismal liturgy on page 386.  Reflect on their inter-connections.

·        Give thanks.


Acts 19:1-7.  There is a wonderful freshness about these new believers in Ephesus: when asked a direct question (St Paul, like Jesus, had a gift for asking direct questions!) they didn't fluff around or tell him not to be impertinent.  They answered simply and honestly.  Not only had they not received the Holy Spirit; they hadn't even heard of the Holy Spirit.  Notice that they thought they had been baptised "into John's baptism".  Seemingly that was sufficient for the forgiveness of sins – but that is only part of what baptism is about, and a very small (we might say, preliminary) part at that.  It clears the decks, as it were – prepares the way for the Lord.  The next bit raises a few difficulties that we in the Anglican Church seem incapable of resolving.  These guys are baptised "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ", which seems to be the same thing as being baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Yet, it seems, even that was not sufficient: only when Paul laid hands on them did they receive the Holy Spirit.  No wonder we struggle to accept that the rite of baptism is the complete and only thing necessary for admission into the Church and that Confirmation is not essential!


Taking It Personally.


·        Place yourself in the group of Ephesian believers.  Hear Paul's question as directed to you.  What answer do you give him?


Mark 1:4-11.  As already noted, St Mark gives us the essence of this story, stripped of any "unnecessary" side issues or theological spin.  This is basically what he believed happened.  Perhaps for that reason it strikes me far more powerfully than the other accounts.  Notice how he starts with a description of the scene as anyone could have seen it: the unexpectedly large crowds, the strange figure of John and his enigmatic words about the one who was to come after him.  There is no doubt that up to that point of the story it purports to be a straightforward eye-witness account.   Verse 9 could also qualify as such an account.  But in verses 10 and 11 an important change takes place.  We are told what Jesus saw and heard: there is no claim here that John (or anyone else) saw the Spirit descending like a dove, or heard a voice from heaven.  Only Jesus himself could be the source of this part of the story.  As with our own baptism, John and the crowds could witness only the outward and visible signs: the inward and spiritual grace is for the baptised person only to  witness (and testify to).


Taking It Personally.


·        Spend time this week reflecting on your own baptism in the light of all three of this week's readings, but particularly in the light of this story.

·        What do you know about your baptism?  When was it?  Where was it?  Who conducted it?  Whose idea was it to have you baptised?  How were your godparents?  Why were they chosen?  What influence (if any) have they had on your spiritual growth?  Do you celebrate it annually?  Why not?

·        In the privacy of your bathroom, look yourself in the eye and tell the yourself the true (as opposed to factually correct) story of your baptism.  Tell yourself that at your baptism the Holy Spirit came upon you, and a voice from heaven said to you "you are my son/daughter, my beloved; with you I am well pleased."  Repeat until you are convinced.

·        Then live the rest of your life accordingly.



Thursday, 18 December 2014

Fourth Sunday in Advent

December 21              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:  2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Theme:  Something about the Annunciation would be a good option.  "The Lord's Servant", or "Assenting to God".  The rather strange choice of the first lesson might invite a contrast between David's plan for God and God's plan for Mary – "Pride and Humility", or something along those lines.  I can't think of anything that would capture our second lesson, except, perhaps, "The Sentence That Got Away" (from St Paul, that is).  But with this week's ghastly events in mind I suggest that we borrow a phrase from the Premier of New South Wales – "We Are Being Tested"; or, from a similar source, the more contestable phrase "When Everything Changed for Ever".

Introduction.  We start with King David at his complex best.  Secure and comfortable in his family home, he decides to turn his attention to what he perceives to be the serious lack of good housing facing God; and  the usually sharp-witted prophet Nathan seems convinced that the king is onto a winner here.  Even by St Paul's record for overly-complex sentences this week's reading is a stunner!  (The perils of dictation, and the absence of a good editor, have never been more obvious.)  However, St Luke restores linguistic clarity to its rightful place, with his beautifully constructed story of the coming together of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter, as he gives us his rather more earthly take on the incarnation than the one St John gave us last week.

Background.  As this Season of Advent ticks rather rapidly away the contrast between what has been happening in our churches and what has been happening outside them could hardly be more stark.  One by one the Candles of Advent have been lit, and we have reflected on, and prayed for, hope, peace, joy and now love.  And day by day we have witnessed through our news media horror and brutality of a kind that seems to be getting nearer home, more deadly, and more common throughout the world.  From a coffee bar in Sydney to an army-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, evil takes centre stage, but with a backdrop stretching from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, through to Gaza and the rest of Palestine.  Meanwhile the struggle in parts of Africa with Ebola continues unabated; the suffering of the people caught up in the power play between Russia and the Ukraine shows no sign of ending well or soon; and all our political leaders around the world resort to ever more desperate rhetoric to hide their powerlessness from one another, their nations, and perhaps even themselves.

We are being tested.

What do our Candles of Advent mean in a world that seems to be getting darker by the day?  How can we speak the words of hope, peace, joy and love without choking on them?  How, as we prepare to echo the message that Samuel Marsden first brought to this land 200 years ago, can we continue to believe that, because a young Palestinian girl called Mary said yes to God, we do have Good News to proclaim to this world – that there are grounds for hope, that peace is possible, that all people can rejoice, and that love is more powerful than any bomb?  We start by reminding ourselves that, however many times we have to re-light our Advent Candles, the Christ Light is already lit and will never be extinguished.  And we take strength from the fact that in every place of darkness there is a flicker of light born by someone who, like Mary, says yes to God.  In the blackness of the death camps women comforted children even as they entered the gas chambers, and men like Fr Max Kolbe followed their Master's supreme example.

When we contemplate the utter horror of the massacre of the Pakistani schoolchildren, we may draw strength from Malala Yousafzai, who shows us so clearly that the way to defeat the Taliban does not involve the sort of massive military response the Pakistan government is already promising (or should that be threatening?).   When we stare into the wreckage of the Lindt Cafe in Sydney let us see the light of heroism shining back at us from a man who tried to disarm the gunman, and the woman who died sheltering a pregnant friend.  And let us draw strength from the words and actions of one woman on a train who said to a frightened stranger, "Do not be afraid: I will ride with you."

We are being tested.

In this Advent Season we are being tested on our understanding of the coming of God in Christ.  Do we yet understand that the Divine Advent is not some historical event that we celebrate annually (if at all); nor is it some far-off Future Event in which we profess to believe but privately do not, or at least neither expect it to happen, nor want it to happen, in our lifetime or that of our children or grandchildren?  Rather the Divine Advent began about 2,000 years ago, and has been continuing ever since.  Isaiah (who else!) gives us the words that describe it best: "I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"  Through the incarnation God is doing a new thing, and our challenge is to perceive it.  The Light is coming into the world, can we not see it?

As I prepare these notes I have on my desk the latest edition of Time Magazine.  On the cover is a striking photograph of the head of an African man: only his eyes are visible as he looks straight at the camera through a large, purple-framed visor.  His mouth and nose are covered by a white mask, and his head is covered by the hood of white protective overalls.   His name is Dr Jerry Brown: he is a 46-yerar-old Liberian surgeon, and he is just one of those whom the magazine has collectively called "The Ebola Fighters" and has honoured with its award of "Person of the Year.  The stories of Dr Brown, and many of the others involved in the fight against Ebola, are told in the magazine.  They are all volunteers, and they all know the great risks they are running.  Many have already lost friends and colleagues to this terrible disease.  Some have been ostracised by those who are overcome by fear.  But the candles of their humanity continue to shine, beacons of hope, peace, joy and love n the midst of a darkness that will not overcome them.

This morning, for the first time in a while, the radio news opened on a good note.  President Obama had just announced that he was ending the madness of his country's Cuban policy, which dated back to 1961.  It is time, he said, for a new beginning.  Another candle has been lit.  Alleluia!    

And so to that other potent phrase that came across the Tasman this week – "Everything has changed for ever."  Hyperbole, of course, however understandable, in the limited context of the cafe assault.  But applied to the Divine Advent – applied to the Incarnation?  Only the tense needs changing.  Our message to a dark and frightened world (and to ourselves) is this: "Fear Not: God is coming into the world and changing it for ever."

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16.  I have considerable sympathy for King David in this episode of his somewhat chequered early career.  In the space of a fairly short time he has been anointed as king, established Jerusalem as his capital city, moved into a new, rather swanky house built for him from the finest of materials, taken to himself quite a few trophy wives and trophy concubines, fought off the marauding Philistines, and recovered and brought back to Jerusalem the sacred ark of the covenant.  It would be hard to remain humble with a list of achievements like that.  Stillness, silence and Sudoku were not his thing, so once he had caught up with his washing and so on he needed another project to get his teeth into.  His thoughts turned to building a suitable house for God to live in.  He ran his idea past the prophet Nathan, who encouraged him to go for it.  Neither, it seems, recognised that the King was getting ideas above his station – they probably didn't recognise there was anywhere or anything (including ideas) above the king's station.  God disabused the king of his presumption.

Taking It Personally.

  • How do you feel about King David's plan?  Are you surprised by God's response?
  • Can you recall a time when you wanted to "do something for God" – perhaps in response to something God had done for you?  How did that work out?
  • When was the last time you did something for someone else, otherwise than in response to that person asking for help?  What was your motivation?  Have you ever had your help rebuffed in that sort of situation?
  • How do you respond to unsolicited offers of help from others?  Why?


Romans 16:25-27.  No doubt these verses vary from one translation to another; but in the NSRV they do not make sense!  St Paul twice diverts himself from what he is trying to say, without ever quite saying it.  Yes he does!  Try re-writing it in short, clear statements.  Then try this question: in verse 27 to whom is the glory for ever, God or Jesus Christ?  And if your answer is Jesus Christ, then what has St Paul been trying to give to God from the beginning of verse 25?



Taking It Personally.


  • Help Paul out here.  Remember this is doxology – it does not have to be strictly logical.  Offer your own doxology to God.  Praise God for changing the world for ever!


Luke 1: 26-38.  I have often wondered why the gospel writers worried about Jesus' birth – at least, why Matthew and Luke worried about Jesus' birth.  It never bothered Mark or John, so what was at stake for those other two?  Why not follow Mark's example and take up Jesus' story from his baptism at the age of 30?  The more I ponder Luke's birth narratives the more I suspect that Luke is responding to the need in the infant church to establish Jesus' credentials over against those of John the Baptist.  Suppose that the story recounted by Luke concerning the birth of John (including its foretelling by an angel to Zechariah) was already well-established.  Even today, much of that story does not seem too far-fetched.  Elizabeth is said to be "getting on in years" and was thought to be barren.  But such cases of sudden childbirth are not unknown, and there is no suggestion that Elizabeth conceived otherwise than through intercourse with Zechariah.  A shock to the system, no doubt, but not beyond the bounds of possibility.  Was it then necessary to find an even more impressive conception and birth story for Jesus?  It certainly seems possible that this is what Luke was trying to do with his parallel accounts in the first chapter and a half of his gospel.  The distinction between Zechariah's response and Mary's, for example, is the sort that gets lawyers and Jesuits a bad name, yet look at the theology that has grown out of it!  Today, perhaps, the main focus of the passage set for this week may be said to have shifted from Jesus' biological origins to God's choice of Mary to be his mother, and her response to that choice.


Taking It Personally.


  • What would be lost, in your view, if we had no birth narratives relating to Jesus?  Is Mark's gospel diminished by commencing with the Lord's baptism?
  • Have you ever experienced an angelic visitation?   Do you know of anyone who has done so?  If you had such an experience, would you tell anyone about it?  Would you like to have such an experience?
  • Pray with your imagination over this scene.  What does Mary look like?  What does she sound like?  Does she strike you as a typical teenager, or does she seem measured and mature for her age?  How would you describe her reaction to Gabriel?
  • What do you make of Gabriel?  How tall is he, relative to Mary?  How would you describe his stature, manner, and bearing?  Are you afraid of him?  Is there anything you would like to ask him?