Thursday, 21 August 2014

Notes for Reflection

August 24                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Theme:  Obviously something about identity this week.  Not, perhaps, so much about Jesus' identity – WE KNOW who he is, don't we?  But in the light of his identity, who are we?  That is, who do we claim to be?  So perhaps a catchy theme might be "Who Do We Say We Are?"  (And to whom do we say it?)  A variation on this theme, with particular reference to our second lesson, might be "Whose Thoughts Are Our Thoughts?"  A slightly different approach might come from our first lesson: as I reflected on it I found a sort of mantra forming in my mind – "Yes, But God".  Yes, a lot of terrible things are going on around us, and even within us, and yes they are important, but underneath it all, and above it all, and within it all is God.  And somehow that simple fact means that, contrary to all appearances, there is love in this world and there is hope for it.  So perhaps our theme should be "Yet Shall We Love and Hope".

Introduction.  Isaiah speaks to a frightened people, in danger of losing their faith as well as their hope.  (We can't lose the former without also losing the latter.)  Know your origins, know from what you are made and by whom you are made, and listen to the promises of your Creator for a better future.  Salvation is assured and eternal.  St Paul has finished his three-chapter interlude on the special position of Israel and now returns to his main theme of the universal love of God as manifested in Jesus Christ.  Once again the key word "therefore" reminds us that, because of what has already happened (because of God's love for us), our response is now under consideration.  What follows is NOT a prerequisite for salvation, but an appropriate way of expressing our thanks for salvation.  The gospel passage returns us to the basic underlying truth on which all else rests: only if Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, or as we would say today God Incarnate, does anything else we affirm in faith makes sense.  [Translation: a non-divine Jesus is incompatible with the Christian faith.]

Background.  It's been another horrendous week, at home and abroad, perhaps best encapsulated by that chilling phrase "remember, the rule is give back double".  That quote, of course, comes from THE BOOK, but our Minister of Justice is certainly not the only one who believes that the principle of an eye for any eye should replaced by a rule requiring two eyes for an eye.  Only total blindness is sufficient punishment for those who dare to see things differently from the way we want them seen.  Rightly do we speak of blind fury: blinded by the wrongs we believe have been done to us we seek to blind others, whether or not they are responsible for those wrongs.

A few weeks ago in these notes I wrote about the way evil works, drawing people into doing its work and fulfilling its purposes.  THE BOOK gives a fascinating (and appalling) example of that.  The whole thing started with someone questioning the right of the Minister of Finance, Bill English, to claim a housing allowance even though his permanent family home was then in Wellington.  It was arguable either way, and a perfectly legitimate question to raise.  To his great credit, Mr English reflected on the issue himself and decided that, whatever the technical rights and wrongs of the issue might be, it was not the right thing to do and gave up the allowance.  (His comments this week show, once again, he is a man of personal integrity shaped by the Christian faith he professes.)  There the story should have ended.

We now know it didn't.  Apparently incensed by someone daring to criticise a National Minister a blogger, using information supplied to him by the Minister of Justice, launched an attack on a public servant whom he believed (wrongly, it now seems) to have leaked information to the Opposition about the housing allowance, even giving the personal contact details of the public servant.  That person then received a flood of abusive emails and letters, including even threats of death or injury.  So what began as a question about the eligibility or otherwise of one person to a housing allowance had somehow metamorphosed into a lynch-mob hounding a public servant.  Such is the power of evil to spread, step by step, person by person, gaining in strength as more and more people are so blinded by their fury that they lose their ability to see what they themselves are doing and becoming.

I suppose that this particular instance has so rattled me because of my previous life as a public servant working in Parliament and specialising in the Justice portfolio.  I found myself thinking back to some of the Ministers of Justice of the past, men like Ralph Hanan, Martyn Finlay, David Thompson and Geoffrey Palmer, incidentally two from the National Party and two from the Labour Party; all of them men of personal integrity, who did not simply administer the Justice portfolio but believed in and upheld in their own lives the fundamental principles of justice.  None would have dreamed of having anything to do with the sort of scurrilous activities laid bare in THE BOOK.

And then there is the issue of faith.  Two of those men were self-professed non-believers; I do not know whether the other two were Christians or not.  But the present Minister of Justice has publicly described herself as an Anglican.  She did so when criticising the Bishop of Wellington for holding a seven-day prayer vigil in a small container on the steps of his cathedral.  She said she was "speaking as an Anglican myself", and said that the Bishop's behaviour was a perfect example of the sort of thing that is causing people to leave the church in droves.

And so for all these reasons I have been really stirred up this week.  I have found myself mentally conducting interviews (or cross-examinations) of the present Minister of Justice, or hoping others would, challenging her to explain how her attitudes and conduct are consistent with her faith; how she had the gall to criticise Bishop Justin at the very time that she was behaving in such a manner.  I found myself hoping that someone in the media would at least ask her the direct question, is there anything in the disclosures of which she is personally ashamed, or which she considers unethical?  I found myself hoping that the Prime Minister would sack her, or that she would finally do the decent thing and resign.  I found myself...

And there we have it, don't we?  There is the power of evil blinding me to what I am doing and becoming.  I am wanting to "give back double": I am forgetting the principles of justice for which I worked for 20 years and still believe in to this day.  Worse, I am betraying the one I call Lord and Saviour.  I found that I had lost myself.

St Paul has the perfect penance for me.  I am to learn BY HEART Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Isaiah.  This passage is addressed to the people of faith – "those who pursue righteousness and seek the Lord".  We are to "listen" (verses 1 and 4) and to "look" (verses 2 and 6): that is, we are to give our total attention to the word now being addressed to us.  We are to remember our past, our origin, in both the material and spiritual sense.  We are made from the earth, hewn and quarried from the physical creation.  We are descendants of Abraham and Sarah.  We are part of them and they of us.  Secure in the truth of who we are, we can now hear the promises made to us for the future.  God's salvation will come forth in teaching and justice.  Nothing is more certain than that.  It will outlast even the created universe from which we have come.

Taking It Personally.

·        A good passage for lectio divina.  Read it slowly, word by word, phrase by phrase, waiting for the Spirit to prompt you to pause and reflect.  What is the Spirit saying to you through this passage?

·        How would you identify the feelings this passage arouses in you?  Does it calm or even heal you in some way?  Does it reassure you and strengthen your hope?  Does it annoy you, perhaps, describing a situation so different from your own reality at this time?

·        What do you make of verse 6?  Is it hopeful or depressing? 

 

Romans.  The expression "body and soul" comes to mind as I read this passage.  St Paul exhorts us to offer our "bodies as a living sacrifice" to God, and then describes such an offering as our "spiritual worship".  Then he turns to our minds.  I had this verse 2 in mind (sorry, unintentional!) when I suggested as a possible theme "Whose Thoughts Are Our Thoughts?"  We are all influenced for good or ill by the thoughts of others, not just the thoughts of other individuals, but the thoughts of our society as a whole.  The defence of, "So what?  That's the way we do politics" is just one more example of this, but there are countless others.  "That's just human nature", or "I'm only human"; Shane Jones said he watched blue movies because he was a red-blooded male; and so it goes on.  We must grow more, earn more, have more, and consume more because that's the way the economy works.  "There is no alternative" was Treasury's mantra during the major economic policy changes of the 1980's.  And, of course, if anyone challenged such group-think – they were dismissed as idiots, communists or whatever.  St Paul would not have fared well in New Zealand at that time, or even today.  Yet we believe that there is a different way, and a different truth, and a different life and his name is Jesus the Christ.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • By whom or what are you most influenced in the views you hold and the opinions you express on issues that concern you?
  • What effect, if any, do opinion polls have on your views and opinions?
  • Do you consider yourself a natural conformist?  Or would you be offended if someone said you were?
  • Consider verse 3.  Do you tend to consider yourself more highly, or less highly, than you should?
  • How well do verses 4 and 5 describe the reality of your local faith community?
  • In the light of verses 6 to 8 what are your particular gifts; are you offering them fully and generously to your faith community?
  • Did you include in your answer to the first question in this section the name of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Matthew.  This passage needs little explication, surely?  Standing in a town reeking of political power Jesus asks first about the talk on the street: who do people think he is?  Then comes the all-question to the disciples: Who do you day I am?  Peter speaks up, given the answer by divine inspiration.  Perhaps the real importance of this episode is the context in which it is set in the gospel narrative.  It is immediately preceded by yet another instance of misunderstanding and confusion among the disciples over what Jesus has said to them about the "yeast of the Pharisees".  It is followed by a whole new direction in Jesus' teaching, as for the first time Jesus starts to speak about his forthcoming passion.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Who do you say Jesus is?  And to whom do you say it?
  • Do you agree that public figures should be challenged to reflect on their actions from an ethical perspective?
  • Do you agree that, in the case of such figures who have publicly professed a religious belief, it would be appropriate to challenge their conduct in terms of that belief?
  • What do you make of verse 19?  In the last week or so, what might you have "loosed" on earth?

 

 

 

 



Thursday, 14 August 2014

Notes for Reflection

August 17                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Theme:  I'm tempted to be thoroughly outrageous this week and suggest "Open Your Eyes, Lord", but fear that people will just assume it is a misprint and take no notice.  Perhaps I can convey the same thought in a less provocative way by suggesting "Our Kind of People".  Other thoughts include "An Unholy Mountain", or "Buddy, Can You Spare a Crumb?"  As my temper is showing no signs of improving, I'll offer one more suggestion, and then do some deep breathing.  What about, "Who Gets our Droppings?"

Introduction.  We begin once more with Isaiah, whom I always think of (probably wrongly) as the great prophet of monotheism, and of the natural concomitant of that, universalism.  Today it is hard for us to understand how outrageous today's passage would have sounded to his contemporaries.  Several centuries later, St Paul was still trying get his people to grasp it; and (it is my contention) today's gospel passage shows us that even Jesus, so often the great expositor of Isaiah's teaching, had failed to understand this part of it until challenged by a woman – and she a Gentile!

Background.  My guess is that I am not the only one in this country who, until a few days ago, had never heard of the Yazidi people, or of the Sinjar Mountain on which thousands of them are trapped in the most desperate circumstances imaginable.  What is to be done and who is to do it?  Already the tired arguments have started.  It's all President Obama's fault.  He should never have pulled his troops out of Iraq, or he should have armed and assisted the rebels trying to oust President Assad in Syria.  Or perhaps it's Saudi Arabia's fault because that country is arming and financing the Islamist State terrorists.  Or perhaps it's the international community's fault (if only there was such a community!) and their ineffectual bunch of talking heads who believe that summoning an emergency meeting of the Security Council and talking to each other for hours (even late into the night) is a proper response to any humanitarian crisis.

And the questions remain, what is to be done and by whom?  Dropping food and other aid? Tick.  Creating a (relatively) safe escape route?  Tick?  Backing those initiatives with the military necessary for those forms of assistance to be rendered?  Er, um?  It's questions like this that really get to me because, in principle, I don't believe bombing our enemies is consistent with Christ's call to love them.  But then, doesn't this leave me in the same position as all the other talkers and hand-wringers who prefer debate, analysis and coronial examinations to actually doing something, anything, to respond to the cries of even one desperate mother,  whose child is being tortured by the demons who seem to have control over vast swathes of land, our own included?

And as I ponder this challenge to my faith, my ethics, and my so-called principles I realise that this one desperate mother – representative of so many desperate mothers all over the world – is crying out in a language spoken by the people of Syro-Phoenicia in Jesus' time.  And she is crying out to him, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."  So, seeking to grow in our own discipleship, we turn to look at Jesus to see how we are to respond to the cries of a desperate mother.  And we get a horrible shock, don't we?  We find ourselves looking at a Jesus we've never seen before.  A Jesus who has a darker side to his character, it appears.  He who has, until now, made himself available to all who were in need – a Jesus who has just fed a multitude of people without any security checks, or requiring proof of Jewish identity, is now shunning this woman, claiming he has no mandate to assist her.  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel", he says, and even that legalistic justification for his apparent indifference to her suffering is addressed to the disciples instead of her.

At this point, of course, the defence counsel and the spin doctor in us are working overtime to be heard.  Jesus is teasing – Jesus is bluffing – Jesus is simply testing her faith to see if it is real, and not just a ploy to win his support.  You have probably heard these "explanations – and others of the same ilk – many times.  But have you ever thought what image they give of Jesus?  Personally, I would find it easier to love a Jesus if his Team Jesus people explained that Jesus was very tired, he had low blood-sugar, or was carrying quite a heavy cold, or just needed a break.  Anything along those lines I could accept as a reasonable explanation of his below-par response to this particular woman on this particular occasion.

But a Jesus who is confronted by a desperate mother, out of her mind with worry over the state of her daughter, and who then decides to play a game with her, who pretends, or teases, or even tests her faith?  Maybe it would be better if we reminded ourselves that Jesus is not answerable to us for his acts and omissions, and leave it at that.

But let's be clear about one thing.  To exclude this woman because she is not of the house of Israel - because she is not one of us – is no different in principle from excluding Yazidi because they are not Sunni.  And we can see where that gets us in Iraq, Gaza and goodness knows where else today.  Wherever there are people who are described by anyone else as "not one of us" there are people in danger.

It is fashionable these days to remember that Jesus was a Jew.  This gospel passage shows exactly that.  As a Jew he believed in the Holy One of Israel.  So did Isaiah.  So did St Paul.  But all three of them came to an understanding that God was even more than that.  He was and is the Holy One of all peoples, including Syro-Phoenician women.  Perhaps the real importance of this gospel story today is to warn us, as disciples, that we are all prone to the demonic allure of sectarianism, and to be constantly alert, for that particular devil prowls the world like a hungry lion seeking to devour us.

One final thought.  I have lost count of the number of times some good soul in pain has said to me, "Well, there's always somebody worse off than me."  But this story prompts me to wonder if we more often believe that there is always somebody better off than us.  Those people who have so much food on their table that dogs feast on the crumbs that fall to the floor.  Where are we in this story – feasting at the table or grateful for falling crumbs?

Isaiah.  What a wonderful passage this is – and how important it is today, in Israel and elsewhere!  Why is it that we so easily overlook wrongs committed by Israel, and notice only the wrongs committed against Israel?  Could the message be any clearer – that the test is not ethnicity or nationality – but faith in God?  Faithful "foreigners" will be gathered, along with Israel's outcasts, and made welcome on the holy mountain and joyful in God's temple.  All completely counter-cultural, of course, then and now.

Taking It Personally.

  • Suppose a person is suddenly taken ill in Dunedin and requires expensive medical treatment.  This, however, is refused on the ground that the person is a Moslem.  How would you feel?
  • Would you feel any different if that person was denied medical treatment because he or she was not a New Zealand citizen or a resident of this country?  Why?
  • Would you vote for a party in the coming General Election who promised to impose "a justice and development tax", in addition to ordinary income tax, to enable New Zealand to increase its humanitarian aid to other countries?

 

Romans.  St Paul continues his examination of the special position of Israel in salvation history.  If I've understood his argument, it goes something like this.  The starting-point is the Abrahamic covenant between God and Israel.  Because God is always true to his word, it is, as far as God is concerned, irrevocable.  So can Israel rely on it, regardless of its own gross and ongoing breach of it?  Well, yes and no.  God will not rescind it – he will, in the strict legal sense, forgive their breach of it, but in doing so he is changing the nature of the relationship enshrined in it.  Instead of granting Israel the benefits of the covenant as a matter of contract, God will grant Israel those benefits as a gracious act of mercy.  And that is the mercy that God has chosen to extend to the Gentiles as well.  St Paul sums this argument up in verse 32: For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        How might we apply this teaching to the situation in Iraq or in Gaza?  Are all parties "imprisoned in disobedience" and equally in need of God's mercy?

·        Does it then make sense any longer to talk of "parties"?  Are we not all one party?

·        Spend some time reciting/chanting/praying the Agnus Dei.

 

Matthew.  Whatever else we might think of this episode, one other thing should be noted.  Its inclusion strongly argues for its authenticity.  It may be that neither Matthew nor Mark saw it as raising the sort of objections it raises for us, but it must surely have struck a discordant note among Gentile converts in the early church.  Is there a clue here, perhaps – that it was intended as a caution to those converts not to get above themselves, or, to be more precise, not to get above Jewish Christians?  Perhaps the "New Israel" was beginning to make the same mistake the original Israel made, and was taking salvation for granted.  The emphasis in the story, of course, is not on the miraculous healing of the daughter, which is treated almost as a footnote to the main text.  The story is about the inclusion of this Gentile woman within Christ's healing love because of her great faith.  The setting – Tyre and Sidon – is interesting bearing in mind Christ's earlier comments in Matthew 11:21.  But perhaps it is when we put this story alongside the story of Jesus walking on the water that its full impact is felt.  Peter calls out, "Lord, save me!"  This woman's second plea is "Lord, help me."  The Lord responds instantly to Peter, but then berates him for his "little faith".  The Lord remains reluctant to help the woman but then lauds her "great faith".  There are obvious echoes too of the attempts to shoo the little children away and silence the cries of blind Bartimaeus; and of the parables of the friend at midnight and the unjust judge.   Some commentators make much of the fact that the crumbs fall from the rich man's table; the rich man does not deliberately take some of his food and share it with his dogs, the inference being that nothing is taken away from Israel and given to the Gentiles.  To me that's a bit of a stretch.  However, there might be something of an echo here of the twelve baskets of food left over after the feeding of the multitude.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        This is an excellent story to use for Ignatian prayer.  Put yourself in the action.  How does this woman strike you?  Is she well-dressed or scruffy?  Is she determined, pushy, humble, or desperate?  How do the disciples react when they see her?  What do you feel as Jesus ignores her, and then is rude to her?

·        Are you tempted to act as Jesus' defence counsel or spin doctor?  Go ahead, then.  Are you able to convince yourself?

·        Do you agree or disagree with my view that this encounter widened Jesus' understanding of his divine mission?

·        How do you react to beggars?  Does that term mean something other than "people who ask for help"?    Would you call the woman in the story "a beggar"?

·        In a desperate situation, are you most likely to ask for help from a family member, a close friend, a member of your local church, a neighbour, or some sort of agency?

·        Would you consider your request for help begging?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Notes for Reflection

August 10                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Theme:  For all sorts of reasons it has to be something about "Peace and Quiet" or the converse "War and Noise".  There is something very attractive to me about the phrase "The Sound of Silence".  If the worry with that is that it leans too much on our first lesson rather than the gospel reading, we could go to the other extreme with "Get Up and Walk".

Introduction.  No grounds for complaint this week, with two of the most evocative, powerful and dramatic stories in the whole of Scripture.  We begin with Elijah, prophet, mass murderer, rebel, political refugee, and quite possibly manic-depressive, on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, God, and himself and suffering an acute attack of self-pity.  Called out of a cave he hears the sound of sheer silence and is restored.  That complete restoration is what the New Testament writers call "salvation", and St Paul assures us that what Elijah received that day is offered to all humanity, Jew and Gentile; we have only to ask and we shall receive.  We finish this week with one of a biblical classic that has entered the language, and is used by many who have no idea of its origins: "he thinks he can walk on water".  That, of course, is only the surface issue (sorry, I should have resisted that); at a much deeper level, it is a perfect illustration of what St Paul is writing about.  Peter calls upon the Lord who reaches out his hand and saves him.

Background.  It's not often that I am struck in a positive way by anything said by the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu, but he surprised me this week.  He assured the world that Israel would cease its military operations in Gaza when it had achieved its aim of "restoring quiet to Gaza".  Yes, all sorts of emotional reactions could be made to that particular person making any such claim in the particular circumstances, but once I had got over all that I kept coming back to that word "quiet".  Whether or not Mr Netanyahu meant it or realised what he was saying, he was linking "quiet" with the absence of war, conflict, argument, destruction – in short, "quiet" describes the absence of everything that is harmful to human life.  It brought back to mind one of my mother's sayings when I and one or more of my sisters were having a full and frank exchange of opinions – "Hey, let's have some peace and quiet, please!"  Peace and quiet – war and noise; there is something there to ponder, I think.

On a similar theme, Tuesday's edition of the Otago Daily Times had a front page item under the heading "Ceremony for fallen promotes peace", and began with a very striking paragraph: They were there to honour the fallen, but there were no brass bands, no 100-gun salutes, no nationalism and no xenophobia at the Cenotaph in Dunedin's Queen's Gardens last night.  Presumably, the reporter was not intending to be offensive, though some might find the use of that word "but" heading in that direction.  He was describing a "peace rally" which left First Church on a candlelit walk to Queens Gardens "to honour the dead of World War 1 by making efforts to ensure there are no more wars.  It was led by Professor Kevin Clements, head of the University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.  The report included two brief quotes from the Professor's speech to the gathering: we must find "totally different ways" to stop war occurring; and "We haven't learned our lesson – slaughter generates slaughter".

But it seems that what really struck the reporter was not so much what was said, but those periods of time when nothing was said. The fourth paragraph of the report read thus: [At Queen's Gardens] Prof Clements called for a full 10 minutes' silence, before speeches, followed by another three minutes of silent contemplation.  Here, surely, is a much more challenging contrast with our usual practices.  Before international rugby games, for example, we have occasionally been asked to stand in silence for a minute as a mark of respect to those who have died in recent tragedies, or on the anniversary of some terrible event.  More in point, we usually do the same at Anzac Day Services.  For all our promises to "remember them", one minute of silence seems enough.  Professor Clements' call at the peace rally suggests that it is not.  If we truly want peace and quiet to be restored to the world perhaps we need to embrace, and be embraced by, longer periods of silence.  [This Sunday, when we pray for peace, could we do it without using words?]

When we recall the story of Elijah hiding in his cave, and then emerging to hear "a sound of sheer silence" [kudos to the NRSV for this wonderful expression!] we probably contrast that with the immediately preceding natural phenomena of wind, earthquake and fire.  But for the full impact I think we need to go back to the story of the "battle of the bonfires" in chapter 18.  The bellowing bulls as they are slaughtered; the partisan crowds roaring on "their side"; the increasingly desperate prayers of the prophets of Baal; the shrill mockery of Elijah; followed by the cries of the four hundred "losers" as they are slaughtered.  Noise, more noise, and still more noise.  And through it all, Elijah, the adrenaline-junkie, revelling in it, convinced that he is doing the Lord God's will.  How could he – how could anyone – hope to hear "a sound of sheer silence" in those sorts of circumstances?  Peace and quiet, war and noise.

There is a similar contrast at work in this week's gospel passage.  In place of the triumph of the battle of the bonfires we have the miracle of the feeding of the multitude.  We can imagine the noise of that crowd, particularly when it dawns on them what has happened among them.  We can imagine the high of the disciples as they once again bask in the reflected glory of "their champion."  Perhaps that was why Jesus ordered them out on the lake when the experienced fishermen among them knew it was risky to go.  And here they soon are in the midst of a very different set of noises, the noise of the wind and the waters, the noise of their own arguments over what should be done, and the noise of their increasingly desperate prayers.  The noise of their shrill cries when they think they are seeing a ghost; and of the shouted conversation between Jesus and Peter, reaching a crescendo when Peter cries out to be saved.  Then, when Jesus (and Peter) is in the boat, the wind "ceased".  And with it, we can assume, the noise.

 

Kings.  This whole chapter 19 is a spiritual masterpiece, even though it begins on a somewhat bizarre note.  Why would Queen Jezebel go to the trouble of sending a messenger to Elijah with a note advising him of her intention to end his life within 24 hours, when she could have simply sent an assassin to do the job without giving prior written notice?  Anyway, the point is that Elijah now fears for his life – so what does he do?  Calls on the name of the Lord?  No, he scarpers, and only stops running when he's exhausted.  But his exhaustion and depression gives rise to an interesting prayer.  He asks to die, recognising that "I am no better than my ancestors".  Whatever he has in mind when he utters those words they constitute a humble admission before the Lord of his own human failings.  From that flows his restoration, physical and spiritual, and in that order!  Then follows his own journey of forty days and forty nights until he comes to a cave where he spends the night.  The dark night of the soul?  Then the word of the Lord comes to him with an interesting question: "what are you doing here, Elijah?"  It is the classic "3.am question".  What's it all about?  What am I on earth for?  Is there a purpose to my life?  His immediate reply shows that he is wallowing in self-pity – we can almost hear the violins playing in the background.  The Lord God is not impressed: he orders Elijah to get up and leave his hiding-place – to stand before the Lord God who is about to pass by.  But first Elijah has to do some unlearning: he has to learn to stop looking for God in terms of absolute and irresistible force, like wind, earthquake and fire, - subtext, in the humiliation and slaughter of our enemies.  Instead, he has to learn to listen for and to God.  God is found in silence not in noise.

Taking It Personally.

·        Do you relish quiet?  Do you seek the sound of sheer silence?  If this is not your usual practice, try for a week to follow Professor Clements' example: open your prayer time with "a full 10 minutes' silence", and, after your spoken prayers, close with "three minutes of silent contemplation".

·        Are you better than your ancestors?  What might that question mean for you?  What can you learn from them?  What do you know of them?  As we begin to commemorate World War 1 what are your thoughts about that?  Is it more important to remember those who died in war than those who died as a result of influenza epidemic, for example  Why?

·        Is your local church good at using silence in its services?  Have a look through one of our liturgies; notice how many times the rubrics suggest a time of silence.  How often does your community of faith follow those suggestions?  How would you feel if the Minister announced that you were going to observe a ten-minute silence in remembrance of all those who have died on our roads in the last 100 years?

·        Imagine that Elijah has asked you for a character reference for him.  What would you write?

 

 

Romans. St Paul is now well into his reflection on the difficult issue of the special election of Israel in the light of the universal offer of salvation in Christ.  Basically he seems to see the latter as a "divine blossoming" from the one rootstock, rather than the cutting down of the original tree and its replacement with another.  Israel is still beloved of God, but so is everyone else.  This has been revealed through Israel, and in that sense Israel will always retain its primary place in salvation history, but not through any merit of its own (observance of the Law), but through the grace of God alone.  Thus we do not have to strive to bring God near to us, or win his attention in some way, but to recognise that he is already with us.  That recognition is the opening of our hearts and minds in faith, and when we accept its truth in our innermost being (in our hearts) and express it in our lives (our lips) we are saved, whether Jew or Gentile.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Focus on verse 13.  Have you ever called on the name of the Lord?

·        Now move to verse 14.  To whom have you passed on this message?  Have you got beautiful feet?

 

Matthew.  The mass feeding is over, the ablutions have been completed, and Jesus, the presiding priest, moves to the Dismissal.  First, he sends out his liturgical assistants, then the congregation.  The liturgical assistants, it seems, are reluctant to go.  They feel safe in the assembly, with their Priest still with them; but out there, crossing over to the other side, lie danger and uncertainty.  Out there in the storms of life their own resources are soon exhausted.  Do they call upon the name of the Lord, or do they start fighting among themselves?  The Lord appears to them walking on the water and they are terrified: apparently a ghost is more frightening to them than anything the wind and sea can conjure up between them.  Jesus' words are short, clear, and intended to be reassuring:  "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."  As always it is Peter who speaks before he thinks: uncertain as to whether or not to accept that it is Jesus, he comes up with a test that will surely end badly if it is not!  That it is Jesus means that for Peter it ends in mixed results: a good soaking, utter humiliation, a strong reprimand, but at least he lives to tell the tale.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Do you behave differently "in the boat" (your local church) from out of it?

·        Recall a time of serious danger to yourself.  At what stage (if any) did you call upon the Lord?  What was the outcome?

·        Do you admire Peter's nerve?  Do you think the Lord was too tough in questioning his faith? 

·        Finish in quiet meditation of verse 32.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Notes for reflection

August 3                                 NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Theme:   I was going to suggest "A Free Lunch" this week, even though the purists among us might immediately suffer an acute attack of pedantry and insist that the mass meal (interesting expression, now I come to think about it) took place in the evening.  Well, "A Free Evening Meal" doesn't really work as well, does it?  Staying with the lunch motive, I wonder about "A Lunch Break".  For the last few weeks there has been a real sense of teaching and learning through the kingdom parables: as disciples we are being taught by the Master.  This week feels different: this time we are being taught about the Master and through him about God.  Anyway, our theme this week is about the Grace of God, however we want to express that in a pithy theme.

Introduction.  Once again we start with Isaiah at his musical best: it is near-impossible to read the first few verses of this passage without bursting into song: and why not?  The great prophet is calling us to praise the graciousness of God, whose bounty knows no limits.  We then turn to St Paul, who is now making a somewhat slow start to his next argument as he turns to the "problem" of Israel, the chosen people, who are proving to be far more resistant to Christ than are the Gentiles.  Given the daily tragedy of Gaza, St Paul's words seem to take on a stronger meaning this week.  Then we finish with the well-known story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew Edition).

Background.  This week Trish and I had a very pleasant evening with some friends who had invited us to their home for dinner.  Another couple (mutual friends of ours and our hosts') were also there, which added to the pleasure of the whole evening.  Conversation flowed as we settled in, sipping and nibbling the first offerings, until our hostess announced that all was now ready and invited us to come to the table.  We took the food, looked up to heaven and asked God to bless it and us.  Then we tucked in and delighted ourselves in the rich food on offer.

Of course, the time passed quickly, and all too soon it was time to go.  The familiar ritual of finding and sorting out our coats and finding our car keys was well underway, when our host asked if we would like to settle up with one bill or separate ones.  As we had all had pretty much the same meal (albeit, perhaps in varying quantities) we elected one account, which we would split between us.  But when we saw the bill we were quite shocked at the amount.  Granted GST had contributed to it, the total still seemed excessive so we asked the hosts to itemise it.  The amount for materials (food and drink) seemed reasonable, but the labour charge was excessive, and the surcharge for power (including heating and lighting) bordered on the outrageous.  And as for the charge for off-street parking!

I have, of course, made up everything in the last paragraph.  What I have been trying to do is to find out how Jesus' parables work so powerfully in us; and it seems to me that one of the elements in this technique is to take an ordinary situation and open our eyes to its real meaning.  The real meaning of the wonderful hospitality given to us by our hosts is that it brings us into the very presence – into an actual experience – of the grace of God.  And perhaps it is only when we imagine what we would think and feel on such an occasion if our hosts suddenly produced a bill and asked for payment that we can be jolted awake enough to see God in the generosity of our gracious hosts.

Let's try the same exercise on the all-too familiar story in the gospel passage.  Let's add to the end of verse 19 the words, "charging each of them one denarius".  Then we might reconsider verse 20.  Who, exactly, took up the twelve full baskets of leftovers and what happened to those leftovers?  Perhaps some of the crowd felt that, as they had been charged for their meal, they should have a discount, or a say in the disposal of the leftovers.  A doggie-bag each for the children at home?

Perhaps we miss something here if we take this event purely as a sign of Jesus' divine power, though it is certainly that.  But is it also another opportunity to repent, to change our mindset, to see another way of living?  Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves and others to accept that the old saying "there is no free lunch" is essentially a political slogan – when was the last time you heard it said by a hungry, disadvantaged person?  Every time we contribute to a food bank – or volunteer at a soup kitchen – or support "Food Share" programmes like the one run in Dunedin – we are offering an alternative way of thinking and acting, one that is much more in line with the readings we have before us this week.

And perhaps that issue of who is doing the talking is enough of an excuse to get something else off my chest this week.  When I was praying about the ghastly events in Gaza it suddenly came to me that this isn't a war between Israelis and Palestinians, this is a war between adults and children – (or, at the risk of sounding like David Cunliffe, a war between men and women-and-children).  Adults are doing the talking, and justifying, and explaining, and firing the life-defying weapons; children are doing the suffering and dying.  Israel's adults insists that it is seeking only to protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza; the Palestinian adults insist that they have no other way of defending themselves from the crippling blockade they have suffered for so many years.  There may or may not be some merit in those adult claims.  But (Palestinian and Israeli) children are suffering and dying because of them.

So let's change the storyline for a moment and think about an alternative set of news headlines.  ADULTS DECLARE WAR ON CHILDREN!  KINDERGARTENS AND SCHOOLS REDUCED TO RUBBLE!  BEACHES AND PLAYGROUNDS NO LONGER OFF-LIMITS!  KIDNAPPING AND MURDER THREAT!  NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND!

Parables have the power to change the way we think.  So do news stories.  So do questions – such as who is doing the talking and who is doing the suffering and dying.

Isaiah.   I love the heading to this chapter in the NRSV edition I am using: "An invitation to Abundant Life".  (It almost makes up for the ridiculous choice of "Ho" with which to open verse 1: to my ear it makes God sound like a cross between a rapper and a very shy Santa.)  The first thing I like about the heading is that word "Invitation" – what follows is not a command or summons – but a gracious invitation.  Come, my people, come to receive my heavenly food!  That's really what God is saying here as he stands behind the Holy Table.  And what he is offering is not the minimum he can get away with – it is "Abundant Life"!  And notice how easily the passage moves between eating and listening – both forms of receiving and taking into ourselves, of receiving nourishment, of being built up and made strong.  To what end?  So that we can become truly God's people, an attractive example to others, the people that witness to other peoples, passing on God's invitation to them, by what we say and do and become.  (It is against this backdrop that St Paul's comments in our second lesson should be read.)

Taking It Personally.

·        This Sunday pay particular attention to the "The Invitation" to receive Communion.  If you are administering the bread, perhaps use the words "Receive abundant life, and be thankful", or something similar. 

·        As you prepare for worship this Sunday (or, in fact, any Sunday), repeat to yourself the words from verse 2b: "Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good".

·        Reflect on your past week.  What has given you the most satisfaction "without money and without price"?

·        Have you spent money or time on something that brought you no satisfaction?  Why?

·        Are you spending enough time listening to God (verse3a)?

 

Romans.  How moving these words of St Paul are at this present time!  It is all too easy for people to assume that anyone who criticises Israel is anti-Semitic, if not a fully fledged Nazi-sympathiser.  No one could accuse St Paul of that.  It is precisely because, in the flesh, he is himself a Jew that he is heartbroken by Israel's failure to recognise the Messiah.  It is precisely because he accepts the "exceptionalism" of Israel's position in salvation history (how many nations falsely claim that for themselves today!) that he has "great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart" at the failure of his own people to see the new thing God is doing among them in Jesus Christ.  The point is, not that Israel is worse than any other people, but that it is failing to be better.  Today Israel is acting like any other state, perhaps, using its power to defend its interests, and seeing no reason to apologise for doing what every other state would do in the same circumstances if it had the power to do so.  But Israel has not been called by God to be like any other state: it has been called to be a light to the Gentiles.  And what is true of Israel is equally true of the New Israel, of which you and I are citizens, aren't we?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Have I been unfair to Israel?  What do feel at this moment?  Is St Paul being unfair to his people?

·        How do you feel about the idea that the "New Israel" (that is, Christians) are called to be an example to others, and not behave just like others?  If "Moslem extremists" blow up our churches, is it okay to blow up their mosques?

·        Is bombing, etc a form of "child abuse"?  What about imposing a blockade, restricting the supply of food, water, and medical aid to children?  Would changing the language in this sort of way help or hinder the search for peace and justice?

·        As a citizen of the New Israel, how might you change your own language when talking about the situation in Gaza with your friends or family?

 

Matthew.  This is one of those very difficult stories to get congregations to listen to (including us!) because of the tendency to switch off as soon as it starts, not because it is alarming, but because it is so familiar that we think we have heard it all before.  The best approach may be to start with the issue of Jesus' mental and emotional condition at the start of the episode.  Even in a world of ever-increasing horrors there is still something particularly shocking about beheadings, surely!  Jesus has just been told about the beheading of his cousin John.  He immediately withdraws, seeking "a deserted place by himself".  But his cover is blown and soon vast crowds have walked miles to find him from surrounding towns.  How easy it would have been to hide, or to lose his rag and tell them in the Aramaic equivalent of Anglo-Saxon to "depart from this place".  But, of course, he did not do this.  He set aside his own need for time and space to grieve – and, perhaps, to consider his own safety – and he gave himself in ministering to their needs.  Then the disciples turned up – where had they been?  Had they been enjoying time off?  Anyway, they bring the practical mind into play.  Okay, Lord, it's nearly closing time.  These guys must be famished – send them off to the nearest takeaway or hot-bread shop, so they can BUY REAL FOOD.  (Cue to preachers, a chance for comic irony here!)  But Jesus turns it back on them – you feed them!

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        So this is about learning how to be a disciple after all!  Another reason to review your past week.  In what way(s) have you helped to feed others this week?

·        In what way(s) have others helped to feed you this week?

·        What sort of "food" are you thinking about?

·        Reflect on the words of The Invitation at your local church this week.  Are all truly welcome to participate?  How might you encourage others to come?  Is Communion more important or less important than the cuppa afterwards?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Notes for Reflection

July 27                                     NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Theme: We have a sort of "residual estate" gospel reading this morning: after the great gifts of individual parables, we get the remainder collected together as one lot.  But for me one shines out from this collection (no pun intended) – it is the Pearl of Great Value.  It fits nicely with our first lesson – the gift above all gifts chosen by Solomon.  So a theme that reflects the idea of the "all-surpassingness" of God/Christ/Spirit would seem to be called for.  Perhaps "Before All Else" or "Above All Else" would do.  Or, for those with one eye on Glasgow for the next few days, we might choose "In First Place".

Introduction.  We begin this week with the inspired choice Solomon makes when offered a divine gift of his choosing.  He chose the gift of wisdom, the ability to discern good and evil, so that he may govern God's people.  Our second lesson is the conclusion of the great chapter 8 of St Paul's Letter to the Romans, which also fits well with our theme of the all-surpassing greatness of Christ.  There is also a sense of this in the gospel reading this week: I get the feeling that, after chapter 13, Jesus "goes up a gear", both in his teaching and action.  There is far less of the class-room flavour of his later teaching, much more a feeling of "field work", integrating his teaching and his practical ministry in one seamless life of instruction.  And the common theme that threads through chapters 14-25 is about seeking and discerning the will of God in all circumstances.

Background.  I wrote last week about the complexity of life in the "real" world, and how we are called to seek the Spirit's guidance in all circumstances, including those where we are pretty sure we know what to do.  For me this issue – which is essentially about a real, robust spirituality that makes sense in the world as it is – was taken to a whole new level by two snatches of music that featured within one five-minute news bulletin on National Radio this morning (Thursday).  First, there was a wee bit of stirring Scottish pipes to introduce an item about the City of Glasgow and how excited everybody was as the Games were at last about to begin.  Then came another item from Europe, this one introduced by a lone bugler playing the Last Post, as the first of the caskets carrying victims of the downed plane were brought back to Holland.

What are we to make of that?  Is it enough to wear black armbands, and to have a minute's silence, before we turn our attention to watching sportsmen and sportswomen strutting their stuff?  However dramatic the image, are two wreaths on otherwise empty seats in a soccer stadium enough to allow the rest of us to enjoy watching a game of football?

I had not got very far with that issue when the newsreader went onto others.  Pita Sharples was insisting that it is not enough to preserve Te Reo as a language – it's important to ensure that local dialects are preserved as well.  And, while he was on the air, could he also say how absolutely disgusting it was for people in Auckland to burn an Israeli flag at a protest about the situation in Gaza?  Important to preserve differences?  Disgusting to burn a flag in protest against killing people?

And the servants said, "Master, do you want us to go and...?"  And what?  Stop the Games?  Learn a new Maori dialect?  Ban protests – at least, by people who burn flags?  Or none of the above?

Perhaps we could start with prayer, and what better way than to pray with Solomon, "Give your servant an understanding mind...able to discern between good and evil."  And to acknowledge with Solomon our own incapacities: "I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in."  And perhaps the Spirit will start interceding for us (translation: on our behalf) because we do not know how to pray as we ought.

There was one voice of reason on the programme just after that news bulletin.  He was talking about the situation in Gaza, and he said all violence must stop: the only way to achieve peace is for all sides to come together and talk to one another.  He was a member of the Jewish Christian Council, soon to be expanded to include Moslems and become the Abrahamic Faiths Council.  But he started his argument by saying, "As a Jewish person myself..." and he lost me at that point, as he would have done if he had said "As a Palestinian myself..."  Only a person who says, "As a human being myself..." will hold my attention now.  Only a person who understands what it means to believe that in the New Creation, in the world as God intends it to be, there is no such thing as Jew or Palestininan, as Ukranian or Russian.  Whatever our native tongue or regional dialect, there is only one language God has blessed and it is called the language of love.

What can we do in this sort of world?  We can examine ourselves.  On any ongoing issue do we instinctively take sides?  Do we "understand" Israel's position, and accept that Hamas must be doing the Enemy's work?  Do we side with Kiev against those "pro-Russian rebels"; do we condemn Russia for supplying sophisticated weapons to rebels in the Ukraine without wondering which European countries manufacture and export the most sophisticated weapons to virtually anyone who has the money?  Or do we remember the lesson from last week's readings – that the work of the Enemy is to seduce (deceive) well-meaning servants of the Master to achieve the Enemy's purposes?  Hamas and Israel, Ukraine and Russia, all believe that they are fighting for justice – for their own people.  It is when they have the wisdom of Solomon they will realise that to create enmity, to increase the numbers of those who have reason to hate them and to want revenge against them, cannot bring them peace.  It is when they realise that there is only one people, to whom all human beings belong, that they and all of us will says with St Paul, "Now in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

May the Games in Glasgow show us that whatever our sport and whatever our national origins, we are capable of transcending our differences and celebrating our shared humanity.  We owe nothing less to the 298 fellow human beings who died on MH 17, and to the countless others who have died and are dying in the Gaza Strip, Israel, and all the other parts of the world where men and women still claim separate identities for themselves and others.

Kings.  How's this for political spin!  No wonder the creators of the Lectionary thought they should protect our tender ears and minds from the first few verses of this chapter!  But even so!  A king can perhaps be forgiven an arranged marriage – "a marriage alliance" – to promote good relations between his nation and a powerful neighbour; and we do understand that to praise one's deceased father might be helpful to soothe feelings in a somewhat mixed (reconstituted) family; and, with Christchurch still fresh in our minds, we can readily accept that in the absence of a temple Solomon (and the people) would have had to use less desirable places of worship.  But to claim that King David "walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart" is surely going a tad outside the bounds of truthfulness and accuracy.   But that's the point, surely.  There is no super-class of human beings, a kingly caste, who are immune from all the sins and weaknesses found in the rest of us.  Kings are as human as we are, no better, no worse, essentially no different.  All the more remarkable, then, that this human being, known to us as King Solomon, when offered whatever he wanted, chose wisdom.

Taking It Personally.

  • What would you have chosen?
  • Spend some time reflecting on your present circumstances.  What one gift do you most seek from God at this time?  Ask God for it.
  • Are you "instinctively biased" towards one "side" or the other in situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict or the Ukrainian-Russian one?  Do you apportion blame to one or the other?  On what basis?

 

Romans.  St Paul rounds off his great argument to show that, in Christ, EVERYTHING is changed.  The old understanding, the old identities, the old hostilities, the old values, and the old ways of life are all renewed, not because we have decided to do things better, but because the Spirit of God has chosen to reside in us and transform us from the inside out.  Of course, all this is baffling and difficult for us to comprehend, but we don't have to.  What we do have to do is yield control of our lives to the indwelling Christ.  Let the Spirit do our praying for us, as we learn to live as one great family.  God is on our side because there is only one side – who then can be against us?  And who or what can ever come between us and God?  Everything else is relative, everything else is of lesser value than our relationship with God in Christ.  His is the victory over the Enemy in which we participate – in that sense, and only ever in that sense, can we claim to be victors, whatever may happen on the battlefields of the world.

 

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Start with verse 26.  Bring to mind some situation that is concerning you, such as the conflict in Gaza.  Do you know what to pray for?  If so, pray for it.  If not, acknowledge that before God and remain silent.  Let the Holy Spirit do your praying for you.
  • Read through the rest of the passage slowly and prayerfully.  What particular words strike you?
  • Stay with verse 36 for some time.  Is it defeatist?  Or should we read it as the prelude to verses 37-39?  How do those verses strike you?  Empty rhetoric?  Rampant triumphalism?  Or reassuring and comforting, a sure ground for hope?

 

Matthew.  Perhaps this somewhat motley collection of small sayings is the perfect conclusion to this week.  The image that comes to my mind is that of the crash scene strewed over such a wide area of productive farmland, rich in beautiful sunflowers.  Somewhere in that twisted, burnt metal – such a graphic icon of the work of the Enemy – there are human bodies hidden there, whose value is beyond price because they were and are precious to God.  Their presence makes the whole area sacred, and in doing so overcomes the worst that that the Enemy has done.  A scene created by sin and death is now glowing with the glory of God.  The people looking for them may be compared to a merchant looking for the finest of jewels and discovering that each one is as fine as every other.  The  kingdom of heaven is like this Ukrainian field, full of such hidden treasure.  The dead will be collected and honoured and commended to the mercy and love of God.  The wreckage will be taken away and disposed of appropriately.

 

And Jesus asks all of us as we look at that scene:  "Have you understood all this?"

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Have you?
  • Which of these parables speaks most directly to you?  What is the lesson in it for you?
  • Hold a seed in your hand.  Gaze at it.  What will it become if it completes its life cycle?  Now re-read verses 31-32.  Give thanks for the mystery of life and growth.
  • Pray for the growth of new life Gaza, In Israel, and  in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Pray for new life in your heart, in your faith community, in our Diocese and in our country.