Thursday, 18 September 2014

Notes for Reflection

September 21                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-18

Theme: If I knew how to spell it I might be tempted to suggest "Schadenfreude" as a theme for this week, but I don't want to sound like one of those terrible foreign people trying to manipulate the outcome of Saturday's Big Night In.  So I'm going with the phrase that struck me and has continued to buzz around in my head from our gospel reading this week.  That phrase is "Whatever is Right".

Introduction.  Let's have no complaints about the readings this week!  We begin with one of the most entertaining, psychologically astute, and spiritually profound stories in the Scriptures.  Who among us can claim that we have absolutely no Jonah in our own character?  This part of Jonah's story is the perfect entree to the main meal of perhaps the most important of all Jesus' parables, certainly of the so-called kingdom parables.  Who among us can claim that we would never ever think of complaining if someone else was paid the same as us for far fewer hours of labour?  And in-between we have this week's passage from St Paul reminding us that "all this is God's doing".  Grace, not contract law, is the operative principle in the Kingdom of God.

Background.  I suppose most if not all election campaigns have elements of the bizarre in them; but surely this one has gone far beyond all the others?  It seems to have been dominated by politicians of all stripes and media of all kinds constantly complaining that trivial matters such as character assassination, privacy and mass surveillance are the only things that politicians of all stripes and media of all kinds are talking and writing about to the exclusion of the real issues, variously said to be the economy, industrial relations, minimum wage, living wage, poverty, jobs, benefits, inequality, and so on.  In short, what the politicians of all stripes and the media of all kinds would really like to talk and write about, if only they would let themselves, is what is known to us as The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  So let's do that now.

The first thing to do in any rational discussion is to define our terms, and the essential term to define here is "Usual Daily Wage".  In monetary terms that was 1 denarius, and it was set at that level because it was the basic amount needed by the worker and his/her dependents to live for one day.  In our terms it was a "living wage", and because it was unthinkable to pay a worker less than a living wage it was also the minimum wage.  And notice that this was the "usual" daily wage.  It wasn't decreed by law; and it didn't depend on the availability or otherwise of labour; and it didn't vary from employer to employer.  It was the custom to pay workers the daily (living) wage because that's what they needed to live.  Okay, that's the issue of definition dealt with; we're now ready to follow the story.

"Early in the morning" – let's say 6.00am – the landowner went out to hire workers for his vineyard.  We're not given much detail here, but it may well be that those who wanted work that day collected – perhaps in the "marketplace" (verse 3) - and hoped for the best.  They were all hoping for work but not all made the first cut.  Those who did agreed to work for the day for the usual daily wage.  There was a collective agreement under which they were all to receive the same wage regardless of any personal differences in previous experience, skill levels, training or education.  We call such a payment a stipend.

Three hours later the landowner is back, although we are not told why.  It may well be that he needs more workers, but that is only an assumption.  He finds "others standing idle in the marketplace".  Pause.  Any "dog-whistling" going on here, do you think?  How do we react to the phrase "standing idle"?  Is it simply a statement of fact, or is it meant pejoratively?  Are they reluctantly idle, still hoping against hope that somebody will hire them, or are they work-shy layabouts preferring to hang out with their deadbeat mates?  Perhaps a mixture of the two, but the landowner sees no need to inquire or discriminate.  He hires the lot, promising to pay them "whatever is right".  "So they went."  No negotiation, no demand for more transparency, no reluctance – they just went.  These unemployed wanted work.

But wait, there's more.  The whole drama is repeated at noon, and again at 3.00pm.  And then, with just one hour left in the working day, the landowner turns up again, and this time words are spoken.  He asks them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?"  They give a straight answer: "Because no one has hired us."  So he hires them, and they go even though there seems to be no mention of the pay they might expect.

The action shifts to the end of the day – probably the first and only time in the last few weeks when that phrase actually means what it says.  At the end of the day all the workers receive the usual daily wage, regardless of the number of hours they have worked.  And the predictable hell breaks loose.  That's not fair!  Now let's pause here – not to think about this for a moment – but to feel it.  Which side has our sympathy?  And only when we are in touch with our genuine gut-feeling are we ready to start thinking about it.  What should the landowner have done?  Paid the all-day guys more (than they had agreed to), or paid the one-hour guys less (than they needed to survive for another day)?

That these are the two options is underlined by the landowner's response (which, incidentally, is a marvellous amalgam of left- and right –wing thinking!).  First he pleads contractual arrangement – the workers have no right to demand more than their collective agreement calls for.  Secondly, he pleads property rights – it's his money and he can do whatever he likes with it.  Thirdly, what he likes is social justice, fairness, reducing poverty, and closing the income gap.  What he likes is meeting need.  What he abhors is the resentment of those who have earned a living wage towards those whom no one hired (we call them the unemployed) being given enough to live on.

What a pity a proper debate about this parable has been crowded out of our election campaign by those other minor issues.  Or perhaps it's just as well.  We wouldn't want it said of Jesus that he is just another foreigner trying to interfere in our democratic processes, would we?  Perish the thought.

Jonah.  And now for a few more thoughts that might need perishing!  Recall the story so far.  God has called Jonah to a very particular prophetic ministry: Jonah is to go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to turn from their great wickedness.  But Jonah has no wish to obey because, as we learn a little later in the story, he is afraid that they will heed his message, repent and be saved.  So he takes a fast boat to Tarshish (modern-day Spain), understood in those days to be the edge of the world and the farthest point away from God.  It turns out to be a bad career move; disaster strikes, the boat is sinking, Jonah owns up and volunteers to be thrown overboard.  There things really turn weird for a while, but the upshot (pun alert!) is that Jonah is rescued by God and given a second chance.  Through gritted teeth, Jonah delivers God's message to the Ninevites, and – wouldn't you know it  - they repent.  Meanwhile Jonah is still hoping against hope for the spectacular destruction of the city and has taken up a ringside seat to watch the action.  When God accepts their repentance and spares the city from destruction Joshua is distraught, to put it mildly.  In fact he is so hacked off he wants to die.

Taking It Personally.

·        This Saturday night are you hoping for the political destruction of any particular candidate or party?  How will you feel if that person or party is defeated?  How will you feel if that person or party is not defeated?  On a score of 1-10, how much of a Jonah do you discover yourself to be?

·        Can you recall an occasion on which you were glad when someone received their come-uppance?  With the benefit of hindsight, what do you think of that situation now?

·        Pray for the great city of Dunedin – or the nearest city to your place of residence.  How many people live in the city?  How many of them "do not know their right hand from their left"?    What do you think that expression means in verse 11?

·        Has there been a time when you got yourself into a mess through your own pig-headedness?   Were you conscious of God's help in resolving the situation?  Did that make you more understanding of the problems facing others?

 

Philippians.  In the midst of great personal danger, and widespread persecution of his fellow believers St Paul shows us the true spiritual virtue of indifference.  It is far removed from fatalism or a couldn't-care-less attitude: a better guide might be the traditional wedding vow – "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health".  Such is his commitment to Christ, and it must be the same for us.  [Compare the "faith-swings" of Jonah.]  Whatever our personal circumstances, we are to strive to lead a life worthy of the gospel.  And the key to meeting that challenge is to remember: "this is all God's doing."

Taking It Personally.

 

·        This really is the week for a thorough self-examination!  How much of a Jonah are you?  How much sympathy do you have for the all-day guys?  And, more generally, are you living your life "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ"?

·        In times of illness or other adversity, are you more inclined to pray for healing or relief, or for the strength to endure?

·        Are you progressing in your faith?  Does it give you joy?  Are you encouraging others to grow in the faith?

 

Matthew.  One other thought about this passage.  The unspoken assumption is that no one WANTS to work – that we do the least we have to in order to "pay the bills".  Is that true of you or of the people you know?  Would you really rather "stand idle in the marketplace" all day if you could be assured of receiving sufficient money to live on?  Of course, the answer to that might depend on the work involved, but as general principle aren't there other rewards to be had from working besides the purely material ones?  Be that as it may, perhaps we need to finish by focusing on that all-important opening phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like".  One of the most telling incidents in my ministry involved a real "salt of the earth" lifetime member of the church who was in a home-group studying repentance and forgiveness, etc.  We were talking about a particularly horrific murder that had occurred in the area recently, and what the "offender" deserved.  The general consensus seemed to be that he deserved to rot in hell.  However, our faith told us that if he truly repented and turned to Christ in faith, he would not rot in hell, but be saved.  Suddenly it dawned on this good woman that this vile offender would, in her words, get "the same deal as the rest of us" and she protested most vigorously – "that's not fair!"  Think about it for a moment.  She had been a member of the church all her life – what was the point if someone signs up at the last moment and gets the same deal?  What does that say about the joy of church membership?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        A great passage for the prayer of imagination.  Put yourself in the story and follow the drama through.  Monitor your feelings.

·        Which group did you put yourself in?  The first, the last, or one of the intermediate ones?  Why?

·        Or did you put yourself in the position of the landowner doing the hiring?  Why not?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Notes for Reflection

September 14                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Theme: It really does pick itself this week, however we might want to express it.  Forgiveness  - favoured by all and practised by hardly any – is at the heart of the challenge of discipleship.  Perhaps "Unforgiving Servants" might be catchy enough, but for the really bold among us "Forgive or Be Tortured – Your Choice" might appeal.  (It might also give some indication of how forgiving your faith community really is.)  If subtlety is more your thing, what about "It's All for the Best"?

Introduction.  We start with the Shakespearean conclusion to the Joseph saga, which is a wonderful case study of forgiveness in action, complete with mixed motives, high theology, and the fundamental commitment to the importance of relationship.  At first sight St Paul's contribution this week seems at odds with the other two.  Perhaps it should be understood as providing background or context to the principal teaching on forgiveness: we should be slow to argue with our fellows who hold different views from us, particularly on issues of less than vital importance; and rather than presume to pass judgment on others we should leave that to God.  There is no doubt about the meaning of the parable in our gospel passage this week, is there? 

Background.  The edition of the NRSV that I use has Matthew 18:21 reading thus: Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?"  It does admit by way of a footnote that the expression "another member of the church" appears in the Greek text as "if my brother"; so perhaps we have here a translator taking a bit of a liberty under the guise of a desire for gender inclusive language.  And yet, in this context isn't the translator merely making clear to us what we might otherwise easily overlook – that this teaching on forgiveness is essentially in-house?  Forgiveness is how the Body of Christ heals itself: going back a step, a willingness to forgive is part of the immune system of the Body of Christ – it is how the Body fights off what could otherwise become a serious infection if it was allowed to fester.  That, it seems to me somewhat belatedly, is the thrust of last week's passage about dealing within the fellowship with an offending member.  Keeping quiet, ignoring it, pretending all is sweetness and light is not the way to promote healing in such cases.

And that reminds me to stress again that to understand any particular passage of Scripture – and particularly any passage in the gospels – we need to be aware of its narrative context.  What precedes it and what follows it?  Chapter 18 as a whole can be seen as a teaching on forgiveness, and one that comes to an almost frightening conclusion in this week's parable.  In fact, a quick glance ahead should be sufficient to emphasise that things are not going to get any easier for the would-be disciple: chapter 19 begins with the teaching on divorce and ends with the story of the rich young man; and chapter 20 opens with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  Nor should we be surprised: we are on the way to the Cross, where the toughest lesson on forgiveness will be given.

Chapter 18 opens with a short sharp lesson on humility.  If we are all-too aware of our own weakness and failings, we are much more likely to be ready to forgive others.  Then follows the need to avoid leading others into sin, and to be strict with ourselves in avoiding temptation.  There is no room here for any suggestion that it is okay to sin against my brother or sister because he or she is "obliged" to forgive me: Romans 6:1 shows that St Paul has heard that one before!

The Parable of the Lost Sheep, like all the major parables, requires constant reflection.  I learned much about this parable from a farmer in the first parish in which I served.  His first response was to suggest that it would be uneconomic to go looking for just one sheep: his second, much more troubling, was to ask what the shepherd should do if the "damn thing" went missing again – and again?  Passing quickly on, last week's passage brought the whole subject down to earth – Practical Theology 101: What to do when a member of the church offends against you.  And here we start getting into real difficulty, because whatever else that passage tells us it states that there are limits to forgiveness, but what those are may not be quite as clear as they could be.  The passage implies that, as a matter of fact, X has offended against Y; but what does it mean when it speaks of X "refusing to listen"?  It may mean X takes the line of "So what?"  "Don't be such a sensitive sausage!"  In other words, X does not deny the charge, but refuses to take it seriously.  But could it not also mean that X simply disputes the truth of the allegation?  In which case, if we follow the process through, the church has to make a judgment on the matter.  And the removal of the offender from the fellowship, rather than forgiveness, is the outcome.

Which gets us to today's passage, where further difficulties abound.  First, Peter asks the question that occurred to my farmer friend: what if the "damn thing" does it again?  The short answer is not intended to be mathematically precise: it can only mean there is no limit on the number of times we are to forgive the offending member.  Does the parable contradict that?  Well, yes and no.  It deals with a rather different situation: the fault here is that the servant, having been forgiven a huge debt – immediately refuses to forgive a fellow servant a lesser debt; whereupon his lord loses his rag and sentences him to imprisonment and torture; which, says Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is what "my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart".

Which seems to mean that we are absolved of our own sins, but will be held to account for failing to forgive someone who offends against us.  Can forgiveness by coercion ever be said to be forgiveness from the heart?

Perhaps the real lesson in all this is that forgiveness is only possible in and through love.  We forgive with our hearts not our heads.  We go on forgiving as long as, but only as long as, we go on loving.  That's surely what Jesus' answer to Peter meant.  And it is certainly the only way we can understand the lesson on forgiveness given on the cross.  When we come to the point that we can love even those who are killing us, forgiveness won't seem nearly as hard.

Genesis.  I love the stories around the Jacob-Joseph saga, and this week's one is a fitting conclusion to the whole drama!  Boy, do we get to see human nature as it really is!  One of the questions I have been asked many times in my years in ministry is this: are we supposed to forgive even when the offender has not apologised and asked for forgiveness?  Isn't forgiveness to be restricted to those who are genuinely remorseful?  Well, read this passage and decide for yourself.  Are the brothers genuinely remorseful; or are they as cunning and conniving as they always have been?  Is lying about the last words of your dead father a sign of anything other than deceit born of fear and desperation?  Shouldn't Joseph have responded with a bit more back-bone: "You lying, snivelling dogs!  How dare you use our beloved father like that!  Get out of my sight!"  But Joseph's approach was quite the opposite: at least with the benefit of hindsight, he could see that God had brought to good what the brothers had intended for evil.  Again, the key point is that this is an issue between brothers – they are in a relationship that is desperately in need of healing, and Joseph's response is the only way in which it can be healed.

 Taking It Personally.

  • Recall the story of Joseph and his brothers – his somewhat arrogant attitude towards them, at least in the early days.  Is there a thought occurring to you that the little brat brought it on his own head?  Should he apologise to them for his own shortcomings?  Could this be part of the reason for his gracious response towards them now?
  • As you read though this passage slowly and prayerfully, notice your own feelings.  How are you feeling towards the brothers?  How are you feeling towards Joseph?  Notice particularly if something from your own family dynamic suddenly comes to mind.  What triggered that?  Is there something you need to do about that?
  • In particular, watch for any negative feelings towards Joseph.  Is he letting them off too easily?  What would you like him to do or say to the brothers?  What from your past is this stirring up?
  • Focus on verse 20.  With the benefit of hindsight, can you now see the hand of God in the actions of someone who offended you in the past?

 

Romans.  A salutary lesson for all those who are gathered this weekend in Oamaru for our Diocesan Synod!  St Paul gives two examples of the sorts of issues that so often cause dissension in a community of faith – little things of no great importance.  We shouldn't attempt to persuade others to our point of view, when the likely outcome is division and upset within the community of faith.  Gluttony may be a sin, but that does not mean that my spreading midriff calls for corrective comment from my fellow disciples, however slim and self-disciplined they might be!  And this Sunday in some of our churches Holy Cross Day will be observed, but not in others.  That should not lead to critical comment one way or the other.  Those who observe that Day do so in honour of the Lord, not to appear superior to those who do not.  Which leads us to St Paul's closing exhortation: do not pass judgment on one another, for all of us will be called to account by the Lord.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • An opportunity for a personal stock-take.  How inclined are you to get het up about relatively minor things?  How inclined is your local community of faith?  What about Lenten observances and practices?  Would it trouble you to see flowers in the sanctuary during Lent, or if the Gloria was used during a service in Lent? Or the priest's stole was the "wrong" liturgical colour?
  • During the last month, have you criticised any other member of your local faith community, or thought critically about another member (including the priest and the organist!)  If so, re-visit verse 4.

 

Matthew.  Yes, the "facts" in this parable are a tad ludicrous.  In what possible circumstances would a king allow a slave to run up such an enormous debt before calling him to account?  According to another helpful footnote in my NRSV a "talent" was equivalent to 15 years worth of the daily labourer's rate of pay, so in terms of denarii (the daily rate of pay was 1 denarius) this guy owed 10,000 x 15 x 365 of them (you do the numbers, I can't).  And the absurdity doesn't end there.  How could he possibly repay that amount?  By contrast he was owed by his fellow slave 100 denarii – a seemingly trifling amount until we remember that's over 3 months' wages.  How might that be repaid?  But, of course, playing these mathematical games is only for those who do not want to face up to the point of the parable:  God's forgiveness is NOT unconditional – only as we forgive others are we ourselves forgiven.  That's what we pray every week – but do we believe it?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Okay, so what are your counter-arguments?
  • Remember that one of the major issues facing the infant church concerned those who had "sold out" during a time of persecution, and then wanted back in when peace returned.  Understandably, those who had stood firm and suffered accordingly were not always in a mood to forgive.  Does this change your view of this passage?
  • Of what have you been forgiven by God?  (Limit your answer to 5 foolscap pages.)

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Notes for Reflection

September 7                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Theme:  It seems to me that the stand-out favourite this week is "The Works of Darkness", or some variation on that theme.  The other side of the coin might suggest something like "Confronting Sin in Ourselves and Our Faith Communities", but that might sound too, well, confrontational for a Sunday morning.

Introduction.  Whether we like it or not (and few of us do) the readings make it clear that we as a community of faith have a responsibility before God, not only for our own sins as individuals, but also for the sins of other members of the community.  We begin this uncomfortable subject with the prophet Ezekiel, given the role of "watchman" for the people.  His task is to call erring members of the people of God to "turn from their wicked ways".  If he does that, he is not responsible for the sins of those who fail to heed the call: if he does not, he is responsible.  St Paul exhorts the faith community at Rome to "lay aside the works of darkness": and the gospel passage lays down, in some detail, a disciplinary procedure to be followed by a community of faith where it is alleged that a member of that community is at fault.

Background.  I must confess immediately that I bought and read The Book this week (clue, it's by Nicky Hager.)  I thought I knew enough about its contents to brace myself before starting to read it, but my bracing proved hopelessly inadequate.  The stories it laid out in agonising detail painted a far worse picture of corruption and depravity than I had expected.  There was not even a pretence at a worthy cause, no claim to be on the side of truth and justice, no attempt to wear the mask of a whistle-blower defending the public's right to know and risking all for that noble cause.  In fact, the overall impression is one of deceit and concealment : apart from Cameron Slater himself who makes the fabled Narcissus look more like a Violet with a genetic tendency to shrink, all the other principal members of this blogging coven go to extraordinary lengths to hide their identities behind multiple aliases and pseudonyms.  I found particularly galling Mr Slater's use of quotations from the Book of Proverbs to send threatening messages to some of his targets.

One thing that I did find striking is how often their worst abuses were planned and executed at night.  Some of the emails were sent back and forth at three or four o'clock in the morning.  This week's passage from Romans could hardly be more apt.  LOL, as we tech-savvy people say these days.  In my elderly ignorance I had thought that LOL stood for "lots of love", which did seem a little out of place in such messages: I now know that it stands for "laugh out loud", which is equally inappropriate, as there is never anything the least bit funny in the content.  Perhaps "COL" (for "crying out loud") would make more sense.  Anyway, if we want a case study to illustrate what St Paul's term "the works of darkness" means in the modern world we need look no further than Nicky Hager's book.

But of course works of darkness are not unknown inside the Church, as has become all too painfully clear over the last two decades or so.  And perhaps what has caused the greatest concern and outrage has been, not just the particular offences of individual priests and religious, but the perceived failure of the Church to deal with the offenders; and here we see the relevance of our first lesson and our gospel passage this week.

The first point to stress is that both readings are directed in-house: they must not be taken as a blue-print for a secular criminal justice system.  What are we to do if a member of our faith community offends against us?  And immediately that question itself should alert us to the need to DO SOMETHING.  But what about turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven and so on?  Two points there, I think.  First, suffering in silence, grinning and bearing it, or keeping quiet and hoping for the best are not forms of forgiveness.  To forgive is to do something positive – it is active, not passive.  Secondly, an offence by one member of the Body of Christ affects the whole Body: to have a poisoned toe is to have a poisoned body.

So we are to do something, and the next obvious question is what are we to do?  The gospel passage sets out what seems on its face to be a simple and straightforward procedure.  But as anyone knows who has attempted to carry it out in practice it is far more complicated than that, particularly where the alleged "offence" would constitute criminal offending.  Here we have a classic clash of "cultures", and one which is almost certain to lead to misunderstanding and claims of cover-up.  The Church is not an agency of State, and it is certainly not an adjunct of the Police Force.  The Church in concerned with sin, not crime.  Bear that in mind as you reflect on the following scenario.

Ms Y, in a private conversation with the vicar of the parish of which she is a member, asks the vicar to ensure that Mr X, the co-ordinator and most active member of the parish's team of pastoral visitors, never visits her at home again.  She is reluctant to say more, but says enough to make the vicar suspect that Mr X has said or done something of a sexual nature that has offended Ms Y.  What course of action should the vicar take?  One answer is that he should draw her attention to Matthew 18:15, and leave it to her to go and see Mr X and attempt to sort it out with him.  Hands up if that was your preferred answer.  How would you feel if the priest or bishop subsequently accused of a cover-up said it was up to MS Y to pursue the matter, and as she did not do so she was the one at fault?

That aside, what should the vicar do?  Call in the alleged offender for a chat?  And if he refuses to come and chat?  Or if he comes and chats and vehemently protests his innocence?  What if he takes the opposite approach – he freely confesses that on reflection what he did or said was indeed inappropriate, and that he would go immediately to Ms Y and apologise and ask her forgiveness?  And what if Ms Y refused to meet with him or to accept his apology?  Is she then at fault and Mr X in the clear?   And all this before any question of criminality arises – or any claim for compensation – or any claim against the diocese's profession indemnity policy – or a formal disciplinary process for a breach of the Code of Pastoral Practice.

Only one thing is clear to me.  The Church has a different agenda in these cases to those of the State and the general public.  Our agenda is reconciliation, not retribution: it is driven by a belief that it is truth that sets us free, not cover-up and denial, but that truth is much more likely to emerge within a community of love, acceptance, understanding and forgiveness than one in which turning a blind eye is considered the best option, or one in which lawyers are just a phone-call away.  I suspect that the difficulty we so often get into with dealing with in-house issues is that we have not yet become a true community of faith, and if that is the case no amount of correct procedure and process, however biblical, will be of much use to us.

Ezekiel.  The danger of a passage such as this is that it appears to be addressed to "him" rather than us – in this case to Ezekiel alone, or, at most, to anyone called to be a prophet.  The rest of us can heave a sigh of relief and keep our heads down and our mouths shut.  However, there is no point in God calling Ezekiel to issue a prophetic warning of this kind if there is no concomitant obligation on the rest of the people to listen to the warning and heed it.  So how open are we, both as individuals and as a community of faith, to messages of this kind?  Are we inclined to thank the prophets among us for warning us in time, or are we more inclined to ask them who the hell do they think they are?

Taking It Personally.

  • Have you ever challenged any other member of your local faith community over anything done or said by that person, even though you were not the "target" of that behaviour?
  • Have you ever been challenged by any other member of your faith community over anything you have said or done, even though that person was not the "target" of your behaviour?
  • Have you been aware from time to time of particular conflicts within your faith community?  How well have they been handled?  If you thought they were not being handled well, what would you do about it?
  • Do you agree or disagree that personal conflicts between two or more members of your faith community are properly matters of concern to the whole community and should be dealt with for the sake of the whole community?

 

Romans.  I know I should get thoroughly outraged at hackers and other invaders of privacy – as a recovering lawyer, at the very least – but somehow I don't share the modern obsession with personal privacy.  Part of that may be due to my suspicion that I lack anything in my life that could be of interest to anyone else, so I'm rather sad that no one wants to invade my privacy.  For example, I have never taken a photo of myself stark naked, nor do I understand why other people – even those with far more beautiful bodies than mine – should want to take such photos and store them in "The Cloud", whatever that is.  [Didn't it used to be a large inflated rugby-ball-like structure in the Auckland Viaduct or somewhere?)  But reading The Book brought immediately to mind a rather obscure saying of Jesus in the gospels.  Luke's version goes like this: Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Therefore whatever you have heard in the dark will be heard in the light and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.  [Just one reason why Mr Slater and his cohorts should spend more time reading the gospels instead of the Book of Proverbs.]  St Paul is surely saying much the same thing in this passage.  

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Call to mind the collect for purity (page 405 of the Prayer Book).  How would you feel if we had a more modern version: Almighty God, to whom all emails, texts, and tweets are open, all telephone calls are known, and from whom no secrets are hidden?
  • Review the last week.  Is there anything you have said, done or thought that you would rather no one else knew about?  Why would you rather they didn't know about it?

 

Matthew.  Surely the key to understanding this passage is the parable that immediately precedes it.  That parable, known as the Parable of the Lost Sheep, is one of the most beloved, isn't it?  It is so warm and reassuring.  But how often do we think through its application to our parish life?  If someone wanders away from the flock do we tell ourselves it's a free world or do we attempt to find that person and seek to bring that person back to the fellowship of the Church?  If someone leaves in a huff, do we mutter under our breath, "good riddance", and breathe a sigh of relief, or do we attempt to win them back?  And if someone offends us do we follow the approach recommended in this passage, or seek to give back double, or just walk away?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • So what do you do?  Why?
  • Is truth or peace and quiet more important to you?  Which is more important to your local faith community?
  • Within your own family do you seek to address conflict or ignore it and hope it goes away?
  • Do you agree or disagree that you have a responsibility to the offender to challenge his or her behaviour so that he or she might grow in godliness?  Are you your brother's/sister's "watchman"?

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Notes for Reflection


August 31                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28

Theme:  It's hard to go past the gospel passage for a theme this week.  Here we are, almost 5 months past Good Friday 2014 and 7 months away from Good Friday 2015, on the verge of spring and all that goes with that, and suddenly before us is The Cross!  So perhaps something like "The Cross, Already".  Or for those who remember the great songs of the past, what about "Lay Down Your Arms and Surrender to Mine"?  No, perhaps not.  "Standing at the Cross Roads" has some appeal to me; but my choice this week is "The Appeal of Jesus".

Introduction.  We know the mood is darkening when Jeremiah replaces Isaiah at the top of the batting order.  If we are not already depressed we soon will be as he shares his depression with us.  Fortunately for him (and for us) the Divine Therapist has a plan for his recovery (and ours).  And we need to be strong and healthy before we turn to St Paul's lesson this week.  Rightly does the NSRV give it the heading "Marks of the True Christian": why did it immediately make me think of stigmata?  Perhaps to prepare me for the gospel passage where we are jolted out of any idea that being a disciple of Jesus is a nice idea with no contra-indications.  Even the shadow of the Cross, cast for the first time today in the gospel narrative, should be enough to remind us of that.

Background.  The great thirteenth century Sufi mystic known in the West as Hafiz had a wonderful ability to say very simple things that slip easily into my mind and set up camp there.  A recent example is this: to give thanks to God is basically saying "I'm glad things are no longer as they were."  There is so much power in that statement, I think, because of what it leaves out.  There is no theological correctness.  There is no intellectual analysis.  It is a simple statement about how we are feeling about something that is, in our eyes, better than it was.  And that means we stop and give thanks.

I thought about that this week when, for a moment at least, things were better than they were in Gaza and in Eastern Ukraine.  No sooner had a truce in Gaza been announced, and a meeting between the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine taken place, than the commentators and pundits started their analysis of the chances of anything good lasting in either of those places.  Of course, they might well prove to be right; but right at that moment I experienced a sense of gladness that things were better than they were.  A day without any casualties is always better than a day with one or more.  It was good to be thankful for a moment.  It was a welcome respite.  In a world of darkness we look for glimpses of light, or we surrender to the darkness.

It's always a struggle.  This morning (Thursday) came news from the USA that a nine-year-old girl had shot and killed her GUN INSTRUCTOR.  Her parents had brought her along to learn how to fire a sub-machine gun; but the recoil was too strong for her, she lost control of it and a bullet struck the instructor in the head, killing him.  What possible response can there be to that story but to cry out to the Lord, "Lord save us – we are sinking!"

Last Sunday I heard part of an interview on the radio with an Australian historian called Henry Reynolds (I think).  He is the author of a book called The Forgotten War, which has made him very unpopular in some quarters of the Australian population.  Coming in half-way through the interview I guessed that it was about the Boer War (do you remember New Zealand's commemorations of that war?  Do you know when it started and when it finished?  Do you know how many New Zealanders were killed or injured in that war?  No, nor do I.)  But as the interview went on I discovered that his book was about the war White Australian settlers (Dr Reynolds called them "invaders") had waged against the Aborigines.  And while I was still digesting that, he moved on to the present commemorations, on both sides of the Tasman, of the First World War, and he asked an explosive question.  Do we know how many Turkish youth were killed by the invading forces from Australia and New Zealand?

How do we feel about that question?  How do we respond to it?  Are we outraged?  Then how do we respond to this week's readings – particularly to the second lesson and the gospel?  Which is really to ask, how do we respond to the cross?  Because on the cross violence and non-violence met, and non-violence was declared the winner by God.

As an antidote to the election campaign I have been wondering what Team Jesus' election manifesto might look like.  It would probably have some good stuff in the area of social policy, but there would be some fairly large gaps compared to those of our present political parties.  I'm not sure there would be an economic policy at all.  Nothing about becoming more competitive, nothing about accumulating more wealth, nothing about building bigger barns, or "banks" as we call them today.  Could "giving it all away" really be called an economic policy?  How can an economic system based on scarcity possibly work if Jesus insists on multiplying food recklessly and feeding people for free because they are hungry? Then there is the difficulty of justice policy: would 77 strikes and you're still forgiven be a goer, do you think?  Isn't forgiveness the death-knell of any good law-and-order policy?  If they wrong us shall we not be avenged?  [Shut up, St Paul!]

As for a defence policy, the central plank of which is to love our enemies...!!  Who's going to vote for that?

And yet, and yet, polls come and go, and the appeal of Jesus remains, and has remained for 2,000 years.   Daily we pray for his kingdom to come – for his manifesto to be adopted.  And there's no point in doing that unless we agree with it, is there?

Jeremiah.  The NSRV heading to this part of chapter 15 is "Jeremiah Complains Again and is Reassured".  Don't you think that's a bit harsh?  Okay, he wears his emotions on his sleeve a bit much for our taste, and he is inclined to wallow in self-pity, but he does have some legitimate grounds for complaint, doesn't he?  Following God's commands has come to Jeremiah with a pretty hefty price tag, and with the best will in the world it can be hard to take sometimes.  And in this psychologically astute passage we see his inner turmoil: he wants to serve God through his prophetic ministry – on good days he delights in it – but he is being worn down by the opposition he faces from those who don't want to hear what God wants him to say.  And as is so often the case, such bitterness towards others has as a subtext an anger with God.  In effect, Jeremiah feels that God is not doing his bit, not fulfilling "his side of the bargain".  Jeremiah has withdrawn from the frivolity of others and kept himself apart for God, but the resulting suffering and insults he has borne show no signs of abating.  He begs God to "bring down retribution for me on my persecutors", and then he lets slip what he really feels about God at this time: he feels God has deceived him: for him, God is "like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail".  Wow!  How's that for theological incorrectness! (Or should that be, honest prayerfulness?)

But God sees things differently.  Jeremiah needs to "turn back", to repent.  He needs to wash his mouth out, to use one of my Mother's favourite expressions: he needs to "utter what is precious, and not what is worthless".  As St Paul put it in last week' reading, he should not think more highly of himself than he ought to think.

Taking It Personally.

  • Do you feel sorry for Jeremiah, or does he irritate you?
  • What sort of impression do you get of him from verse 17?
  • What about verse 18?  Have you ever felt wounded by God?  Have you ever felt deceived or let down by God?  Have you ever told God so honestly what you felt about God at that time?
  • Imagine that Jeremiah has come to you for counselling and advice, and has outlined his "issues" along the lines of this passage.  What would you say to him?

 

Romans.  Last week St Paul wrote about the "New Life in Christ": this week he tells us what a truly Christian community of disciples would be like – not to look at but to participate in.  Perhaps the first three verses aren't too bad because they are cast in more general terms.  It's when he becomes more detailed that they begin to bite.  Contributing to the needs of the saints, and giving hospitality to strangers, are a little more challenging, and it gets worse from then on.  For some reason, St Paul is rarely dismissed as a hopeless idealist in the way that Jesus is; yet there is nothing in this passage that isn't entirely consistent with Jesus' own teaching.  In fact, this passage could be seen as an explication of what Jesus means in this week's gospel passage when he calls upon his would-be followers to pick up their cross.  That can only mean dying to self, and embracing a life that mirrors his, in a community of like-minded others.  The sort of community of faith that St Paul is describing for us.

 

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • A good passage for a spiritual stock-take.  Make a list of the "marks" identified by St Paul, then work slowly and prayerfully though the list.  Which challenge you the most?  Which challenge you the least?
  • How well does your local community of faith show these "marks"?
  • Spend some time with verse 13.  Which of the two "commandments" challenges you the most?  How much of its budget does your community of faith spend on the needs of the saints, and how much on its own needs?  Does it welcome strangers?
  • What do you really feel about the teaching in verses 14-21?
  • Is there anything in this passage that is simply too high a price to pay for being a disciple of Christ?

 

Matthew.  St Matthew clearly has in mind his account of the temptation of Jesus: Matthew 4:1-11.  At the end of that account, "the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him."  Notice that the angels were not there earlier when they might have offered resistance to the devil.  Fast forward to Matthew 26:53 and we find the reason for that.  And fast forward to the end of the age when "the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father": then and only then will justice be done.  Peter's behaviour this week is yet another example of the way in which evil attempts to pursue its ends by using good people to act for it unwittingly: good people who set their minds on human things instead of divine ones – good people who prefer to do whatever it takes to save their own lives rather than accept God's free gift of salvation.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Remind yourself what has preceded this new teaching.  Think how excited the disciples must have been when Jesus confirmed that he was indeed the Messiah.  With that in mind, enter into the shock of hearing Jesus' prediction of what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem.
  • Listen as Peter protests at the very thought.  What motivates him at that point? Love? Horror?  Do you share it?
  • Jesus says Peter is being used by the devil.  How do you feel about that?
  • If you have a cross or crucifix handy, pick it up, hold it, think about what it really symbolises.  Take your time.  What is Jesus asking you to do through this passage?  How do you respond?
  • At the end of your prayer time, are you aware of anything that is better than it was?  Give thanks.

 


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?