Thursday, 20 November 2014

Notes for Reflection

November 23                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-36

Theme: This Sunday is "The Feast of Christ the King", so there's one very suitable theme.  Alternatively, we might choose to celebrate it as "The Feast of Christ in All Creation", which, to my Teilhardian ears, is the same thing in different words.  (It's also, apparently, Aotearoa Sunday, for those who can't cope with grand visions.)  A little more creative (ha, ha) would be to take any one of many amazing phrases from St Paul on this theme, particularly from Ephesians or Colossians (or Romans 8, come to that).  What about "Christ is All in All"?  To emphasise that this is the Feast Day for summing up the story so far and also for looking ahead, I'm going for "What is the World Coming To?"  (Clue, the answer is a three-letter word beginning with "G" and ending with "D".)

Introduction.  We start this week with Ezekiel; and we might notice immediately the gentler tone after some of the more bloodcurdling stuff we've had recently from Amos and Zephaniah.  Yet the message is the same.  Whether directly or indirectly, God will judge between his sheep – there will be a drafting gate through which some will pass to finer pastures and others will be on the trucks to the works.  Somewhat counter-intuitively for sheep, the test will be how they have behave towards other members of the flock.  Our second lesson is from the wonderful first chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians.  It's impossible to do it justice in a brief summary.  My only suggestion at this point is that if you opt for the "Christ in All Creation" theme it might be an idea to substitute some earlier verses from this chapter, particularly verses 9 and 10.  We finish with what is often referred to as the "Parable of the Sheep and the Goats", although there is nothing in the text to suggest it was taught as a parable.  Rather it seems to be a prophetic passage, warning again of the coming judgment, and somewhat putting St Paul's nerves on edge with its James-like dalliance with a gospel of works.  More about this anon.

Background.  Two seemingly unrelated events have dominated my reflections this week, the first sublime, the second ridiculous.  The first concerns the astonishing achievement of landing a mini-laboratory called Philae on a comet with the rather less catchy name of 67/P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (if you're into pub quizzes, watch out for that one) after a journey of 10 years on the mother-ship Rosetta (now there's a name with a bit of history!), the meeting between comet and laboratory taking place at some vast distance from earth, while the said comet was cruising at thousands of mph!  If I've got this right, it is believed that comets date from the beginnings of our solar system about 4 billion years ago (don't take my word for it, figures are not my strong point, but it was a long time ago!).  But as I read the press reports on this into my mind came something about the sacramental bread being the supreme symbol of the unity of God and humanity, the Creator of the wheat and the creator of the bread.  Here, at some vast distance from earth, yet only a tiny way into the heavens, the Creator's comet is united with humanity's little lander in a sacrament of awe-inspiring praise and worship.  Christ in all creation indeed!

And now from the supreme to the ridiculous (and there are a lot ruder words that I could use to describe it).  In Fort Lauderdale, Florida a ninety-year-old World War II veteran, named Arnold Abbott, and his two "accomplices", both church pastors, were arrested for giving food to homeless people in a public place.  According to the story in a journal called Mother Jones (don't ask, I have no idea, but Google will find it for you), the arresting officer actually called out to Mr Abbott, "Drop that plate immediately!"  Apparently, Fort Lauderdale is one of over 70 cities and towns in the USA who have made it an offence to feed homeless people in a public place.  (Before we get too excited, we might recall that a similar provision was enacted in New Zealand during the Waterfront Strike in 1951, when it was illegal to give food to striking workers or their families.)  Although the "justification" for such legislation varies from place to place, the general theme is that free food attracts the wrong sort of people to the area and is bad for business: it is usually the local chambers of commerce or equivalents who promote such bans.

Putting these two events together can give rise to all sorts of lines of thought, particularly with today's readings in mind, and again the language of St Paul ringing in our inner ears.  Something about the height and depth?  Somewhere up there is our token offering to the God who created our solar system of which the comet itself is but a small token.  The words of the psalmist seem to me to have a whole new ring to them as I ponder all this: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.  [Psalm 8:3-6]  Teilhard de Chardin, in the absence of an altar in the conventional sense, famously consecrated the whole world as an altar on which to place his priestly offering of bread and wine: how he would have loved the idea of placing an offering on the altar of a comet!

Of course, there will be many who will bemoan the cost of the whole project, and perhaps link these two events by suggesting that if the money "wasted" on sending Philae to the comet were instead spent on providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, and health-care for the sick the good burghers of Fort Lauderdale (and elsewhere) would not have had to enact such heartless legislation in the first place.  True, perhaps, but as I read through this week's gospel I had little doubt how chilling it would sound to any of those burghers who really listened to it.  Even Jesus' most determined critics never tried to stop him feeding people in a public place, so long as he didn't do it on the Sabbath, of course.  Come to think of it, it's not too hard to see how our lesson from Ezekiel might cause a few red-faces among those burghers, particularly those of a somewhat portly build!

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.  The whole of this chapter 34 needs to be read together.  It opens with an indictment of the leaders (shepherds) of Israel.  In brief, they have been looking to their own interests instead of caring for the people.  Verse 4 does not pull any punches as the failures of the leaders are laid bare.  Accordingly, God will remove the people from the care of these shepherds and assume direct responsibility for the people.  The first part of today's readings is largely taken up with God's promise to take good care of the flock, but it ends with a stern warning to "the fat and the strong" – God "will feed them with justice" (a wonderful phrase!).  The details of their crimes are summarised in verses 17-19, the excluded middle of our set reading.  The second part of the reading ends with the "ideal shepherd-king" installed as head shepherd under God.

Taking It Personally.

  • Read slowly through verses 11-16a.  Make a list of the specific types of care that God is promising.  Notice how "site-specific" some of them are: mountains, water-courses, and inhabited parts of the land (that is, excluding the deserts and wilderness areas).  How might this all-encompassing package of pastoral care be translated into the specific geography, history, and needs of this country?
  • Now ponder verses 20 and 21.  Who are the fat sheep in our country, and who are the lean sheep?  What sort of sheep are you?  With what kind of sheep is your local faith community most identified with?
  • If this chapter were applied to this country at this time, what changes would be required to avoid the 'truck journey to the works'?

 

Ephesians 1:15-23.  Notice the slightly unusual 'order of service' in the opening chapter of this letter.  We might have expected St Paul's compliments to the recipients, and his assurance of his prayers for them, to come earlier than verses 15-16; but he has been so overcome with his high thoughts of Christ that his usual brief doxology has flowered into the extraordinary paean of praise we find in verses 3-14.  Read those verses before starting on this week's set text.  Notice now the content of St Paul's prayer for the Ephesians.  The emphasis is on continued spiritual growth.  Yes, they are facing persecution, and, yes, they are suffering hardship, illness, and all the same challenges that other faith communities were facing at that time; but St Paul does not directly address those needs in his prayers.  He asks for them "a spirit of wisdom and revelation", that more and more they may come to know Christ as he has been revealed to St Paul.  And St Paul then summarises just what has been so revealed.  Once again, we can only marvel at the depth of his mystical insight that the man who died in such agony and ignominy on the cross is the one to whom "all rule and authority and power and authority" has been given by God.  And all the rest!

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Using verses 17-19 as a guide, pray such a prayer for yourself, asking God for "a spirit of wisdom and revelation".  Pray similarly for your faith community.

·        Using verses 20-22 as a guide, offering your own prayer of praise and adoration to Christ.  Use "Christ is all in all" as a mantra this week.

Matthew 25:31-46.  I love the heading to this passage in the NRSV edition that I use: it reads "The judgment of the Nations".  First it reminds me that what follows is not "The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats"; and secondly, it reminds me that it is not about me and my sins, but about my country and our sins.  It is the nations that are gathered before the Son of Man on his return in glory.  Faith is a community affair, and it is as a community that we will be judged.  The basis of the judgement, therefore, becomes, not what I did or didn't do, or what you as an individual did or didn't do, but what sort of a community you and I and all our fellow citizens have built together.  Have we built a community where the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given safe drinking water, the strangers are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick are given good health-care, and even the imprisoned are remembered and visited?  Or have we built a community that is the very opposite – one in which we each look after number one and the devil take the hindmost (to coin a phrase)?  The structure of the passage makes it clear that wrongdoing is primarily a failure to do right.  Failing to feed the hungry, etc is itself sinful, even if we do not actually prohibit anyone from doing so.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        How do you react to the "national collective" interpretation suggested above?  Reflect on your feelings about it.

·        Re-read the story of Arnold Abbott above.  What was your initial reaction to it?

·        Suppose a "free food stall" was set up opposite your house, workplace or church, or in your favourite park, which drew a large crowd of homeless people?  What would your own reaction be?  Would you be more likely to object, ignore them, or volunteer to help?

·        How well or otherwise would this country fare if judged in accordance with this passage?

·        How well or otherwise would your local faith community fare if judged in accordance with this passage?

·        How do you feel about the condemnatory language used in verses 41 and 46? Does it strike you as over the top or "un-Jesus like"?  Or even "un-God like"?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Notes for Refdlection

November 16                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Theme:  The phrase "Use it or lose it" came immediately to mind, but whether or not that would be a suitable theme may depend on the sensitivities of your local faith community.  "Accountability" (with or without its constant companion, "Transparency") may be a more dignified choice.  "The Day of Reckoning" may also cut the mustard (which is a very strange phrase, now I come to think of it!)  I do hope we can all agree to reject "Wealth Creation 101" or any variant thereof, although "God's Guide to Real Investment" might offer something worth developing.  What about "The Divine Art of Risk-taking"?  On balance (pun only partly intended) that's my choice for the week.

Introduction.  We begin this week with more prophetic blood, threat and tears, this time from Zephaniah.  Perhaps the connection with the gospel passage, which is not immediately obvious, is to be found in the mental image of the Master (God) displayed by the servant entrusted with only one talent (verses  24-25 of the gospel passage).    This might also form a link with our second lesson, especially verse 9, where St Paul writes that "God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ".  And St Matthew rounds things off for us this week with one of the more complex of Jesus' judgment parables.

Background.  As with many of the parables the Parable of the Talents seems to invite an almost limitless number of interpretations.  I shall limit myself to three. First, some of you may recall that our three Archbishops sent out a pastoral letter offering their thoughts on some of the more important issues we might wish to have in mind when we voted at the General Election.  This prompted a critique, complete with some alternative suggestions, from Dr Bonnie Miller Perry, a former senior executive of the World Bank in Washington and now living in Central Otago, which was published in the ODT on 8th September.  Dr Miller Perry described the Archbishops' effort as "a fairly predictable list of good thoughts", before offering "an alternative set, hopefully a little more practical and focused, arising from biblical descriptions of Jesus' teaching and actions".

Item 2 on her list read as follows:

Jesus expressed strong views concerning efficiency in business and return on capital.  (Parable of the Talents)  We need to recognise that more efficient businesses, with greater productivity and lower burden of taxation, will benefit all in society.

At the other extreme, this from Robert Farrar Capon (The Parables of Judgment, p.167):

"[The parable] emphatically does not say that God is a bookkeeper looking for productive results.  The only bookkeeper in the parable is the servant who decided he had to fear a non-existent audit and who therefore hid his one talent in the ground."

Tempting though it is, I do not intend to enter into that particular debate today, because I have found a much more interesting approach to this parable following the high drama that has played out – indeed, saturated – our news media this week.  I am referring, of course, to the "escape" of Philip Smith (Traynor), the convicted murderer and paedophile, and, more particularly, to the rabid desire of the media to sit in judgment (or rather, to punish, without the need for prior judgment) all those responsible for granting this man leave in the first place.  So much have they enjoyed this public bloodletting on their part that I suspect they may even regret that Mr Smith has been re-captured so quickly, thereby taking the heat out of the story.

What's all this to do with the Parable of the Talents?  Well, this is a summary of how the Smith saga and the parable meshed as I reflected on this week's readings.  The servants are the staff of the Corrections Department.  The talents are the inmates.  The inmates are entrusted to the servants, who are instructed by the Master (The Law, made on our behalf by our House of Representatives, and applied in practice by our duly appointed judges) to do two things: to detain them, and to prepare them for release from detention when (in the case of an indeterminate sentence – a life sentence or preventive detention) the Parole Board decides that they are safe to release.  With me so far?

Okay, the servants invest their time and talents in trying to get these inmates (who, by the very nature of their sentences, are going to be among the most serious of all offenders) ready for ultimate release.  We know from the present case that there is a gradual process, begun only after many years of confinement (the punitive part of the sentence) has been served, involving very short periods of release.  In Mr Smith's case, on at least 6 occasions he was granted leave for a matter of a few hours.  Each time he complied.  Then on at least 3 occasions he was granted overnight leave, and again on each occasion he complied.  Then he was granted 72 hours' leave and he absconded.

So this particular "investment" turned sour.  Unfortunately, the parable does not tell us what the Master's attitude would have been had one of the servants lost money on one of his investments; but do we really believe that he would have responded with the same fury that he showed towards the hapless servant who was so terrified of getting it wrong that he kept his "talent" under lock and key and refused to take any risks? 

Of course, we can do what the media is so good at and hide from the principle by burying ourselves in the details.  Why didn't he have to wear an electronic bracelet?  Were the sponsors adequately checked out?  Shouldn't checks have been made earlier?  Shouldn't the alarm have been raised earlier?  Shouldn't the victims have been notified earlier?  All good questions deserving of answers.  But the principle remains the same.  The Master could have said to the servants, keep these inmates locked up for the rest of their lives: do not let them out at any time for any reason.  That would have been the safest course of action.  That would have ensured that Mr Smith would not have got to Auckland Airport, let alone Chile and Brazil.  But the Master did not tell that: he told them to do what they did – and now they are being roasted for their obedience.  "You wicked and incompetent servants!  You knew, did you..."

And the question now is, how will our servants in the Corrections Department carry out their duties in future?  Will they continue to invest their time and talents in trying to prepare those who have been entrusted to their safe-keeping for their ultimate release back into our community (which is what their Master on our behalf says they should do), or will they now realise that their Master is a hard man, blaming them when things go wrong, and claiming all the credit for himself when things go right, and follow the example of the third servant in the parable?

And by the way, it's just 6 weeks to Christmas, when we celebrate the Incarnation – a.k.a. The Greatest Risk Ever Taken.

Zephaniah 1:7, 14-18.  Yes, well, it's hard to do anything other than accept the admonition in verse 7, "Be silent before the Lord God!"  Perhaps we need reminding from time to time why "salvation" is needed – what we are being saved from.  Call it the wrath of God, as Zephaniah and the other prophets did, or the inevitable consequences of human greed and exploitation, as we might be more inclined to call it today, the end result is the same.  Either we change our ways or we doom ourselves and the rest of creation with us.  Salvation is the process by which, in and through Christ, we are given the opportunity to change our ways by being changed in ourselves.

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend some time in silence before the Lord.  Try not to engage with any thoughts that come to you.  Be at peace.

·        When you are ready, read slowly through this passage.  Monitor your feelings.

·        What comes to mind?  Images from the First World War, perhaps, or from the TV News from any number of war zones around the world?

·        Are they images of God's wrath in action, or of the inhumanity of humanity writ large?

·        Are we powerless to do anything about the state of the world as it is today?  If not, what can we do?

 

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.  St Paul is reaching the end of this letter to the faithful in Thessalonica.  As we noted last week they were very much focussed on the End Times, and the Return of Christ.  St Paul reminds them now that no one knows exactly when it will happen; the important thing is to be ready when it does, not simply as individuals, but as a community of faithful people.  They are to live as children of light, and to encourage and build up one another.

 

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Start with verse 9: memorise it. 

·        Begin each day for a week by reciting, "today may be the day of the Lord's return".  At the end of the week, reflect on any difference this practice may have made to your attitude or behaviour during the week.

·        Have you encouraged and built up anyone this week?  Has anyone encouraged and built you up this week?

 

Matthew 25:14-30.  Although this is a "self-contained" parable, it reads as a continuation of a long passage of teaching that began back in chapter 14:4.  It is another "absent-Master" case study, and seems to be a variation of the same story that appears in Luke's gospel (19:11-27) as the Parable of the Coins (or "Pounds" as it now called in the NSRV).  The details in Matthew's version are interesting.  The key word in the opening verses seems to be "entrusted" – the man "entrusted" his property to his slaves/servants.  The terms of the trust are not spelled out; although he allots different amounts to each of them "according to his ability".  So perhaps the implication is there that they are to do something with the money.  The first two "traded" with the money entrusted to them and made the same rate of return, 100% in each case.  The third guy was terrified of the master's wrath if he should make a loss and so played safe, conserving the capital but not increasing it.  The Master was fulsome in his praise of the entrepreneurial twosome, and in his condemnation of the nervous nerd.  At the very least the guy should have put it on short term deposit with a reputable bank.  The fact that the master received back the single talent from the nerd and immediately gave it away shows that he was not interested in the money itself, but only in what it showed about their attitude towards him.  The first two sought to do their best for the master, prepared to take a risk and rely on his understanding and fairness if the market went against them.  The other guy valued self-preservation over service to his master.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Which of the servants is most like you?  Are you a natural risk-taker, or is safety-first your guiding principle?  (Think about the Good Samaritan here, perhaps.)  Can you recall a recent occasion when the fear of "getting it wrong" held you back from doing or saying something you now wish you had done or said?

·        Remind yourself that this story is set in the Temple in Holy Week.  What difference does that make to your understanding of the parable?

·        Notice the reference in verse 19 to "a long time"?  What do you make of that?

Friday, 7 November 2014

Notes for Reflection

November 9                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Theme:  This Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, so perhaps my first two choices are too cheerful (or do I mean childish?)  This week's gospel passage always reminds me of the game beloved of children, Hide and Seek, with the cry, "Coming, Ready or Not".  So there's one possible theme, particularly if your congregation likes to think of itself as children-friendly.  Something a little more grown-up and attention-grabbing might be "Stay Awake Until Kingdom Come".  For all sorts of reasons, compelling and otherwise, I'm going for "When Good Theology Goes Bad."

Introduction.  We begin this week with one of the more shocking passages from Amos.  To a people steeped in liturgical worship, with sung psalms and music to the fore, this passage would have to be the worst review ever written!  One of my favourite prayers as I prepare to lead a service of worship is "May our worship be pleasing to you and uplifting to your people".  Fat chance, seems to be the message through Amos today!  True worship must be offered by people living a life pleasing to God and uplifting to his people, otherwise it won't achieve either of those goals.  St Paul also writes of the need to live a life worthy of our calling; and then turns his attention to an urgent theological issue.  If we are awaiting Christ's return what happens if we die before he gets here?  More about this below.  Finally, we have a rather strange 'judgment parable' that seems to laud self-sufficiency ahead of sharing generously with those who are in need.  Is there room for the notion of moral hazard in a gospel of grace?

Background.  It has never been easy to be a Christian pacifist, and it is especially difficult at the present time.  I am writing these notes the day after "Guy Fawkes Night", the day when we celebrate (and that's the word we use, isn't it, rather than commemorate?) a terrorist attack on the British Houses of Parliament.  A few days ago we saw a dramatic terrorist attacked on the Canadian Houses of Parliament – are we to expect that in a few centuries time Canadians will be celebrating that event, with or without fireworks?  More likely, if the event is remembered at all it will be as the occasion on which the Sergeant-at-Arms brought the attack to an end by shooting dead the attacker, thereby becoming a most embarrassed hero, and giving ammunition to all those who believe it is a fundamental right to bear arms, and to do whatever it takes in self-defence or in the defence of others.  And let's not forget the soldier who was shot dead while standing guard at the War Memorial by the same attacker.  The soldier was not armed.   You join the dots.

And in this country our Government is now agonising over what response, if any, New Zealand should make to the terrorist atrocities committed by Islamist State.  We are all revolted by public beheadings of journalists, aid workers and other "innocent" people – particularly as the victims are usually Westerners; and we understand why President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron feel the need to go on TV and promise that the perpetrators of these barbaric actions will be hunted down and brought to justice, even though we know that it is most unlikely to happen.  And if it did, what would that achieve?  Peace, justice – an end to hostilities?  Or more kidnappings, murders, etc claimed to be in retaliation for whatever is done in the name of that "justice"?  Jesus' death on the cross was designed to break the cycle of violence, not to perpetuate it. 

Should we intervene militarily?  Yes, if we believe that we have a fundamental right to use force in defence of ourselves and other people.  In principle, there seems to be no difference between what the Canadian Sergeant-at-Arms did in Ottawa and going into Iraq or Syria intending to use force to protect women, children, ethnic minorities, members of other sects or religions, aid workers, journalists and anybody else ISIL terrorists intend to harm.  If it is right to use lethal force to protect ourselves, surely it must also be right to use lethal force to protect others wherever and whoever they may be?  What sort of principle would we be upholding if we decided not to get involved because it might increase the risk of an attack on or in New Zealand?  At the very least, any objection to New Zealand military involvement in opposing ISIL must be reduced to practical considerations for those who do not accept that the underlying principle should be pacifism or non-violence.

One of the more challenging aspects of all this was highlighted in a recent discussion on the radio.  The question was raised about the apparent ease with which ISIL has been able to recruit ever more young men to its cause.  How could this be – and where are the "real teachers of Islam" in all this?  At that point I found myself mentally switching off that discussion and applying the same questions to our involvement in World War I.  How was it that hundreds and thousands of young New Zealand men rushed to enlist, and where were the "real teachers of Christianity" in all that?  Those are the sorts of questions that are unlikely to be reflected on or preached about on Remembrance Sunday this year, or to feature very prominently in the next four years of commemorations.

The Church (or more accurately, the churches) has much to reflect on when remembering its role in the whole tragedy of that war.  When it began they were clear: salvation is to be found only in Christ – we either die in the faith of Christ or we do not.  Within 12 months, with the death toll rising, a whole new theology was created.  Now to die in war – or as it was and still is put – to lay down one's life for one's country – became an alternative route to eternal bliss.  No doubt, there were strong pastoral needs in play here, and it would certainly have been right to commend those killed in battle to God's mercy and judgement: pastoral care always requires tact and sensitivity.  What is does not require is quack theology.  Yet, with a few notable, brave and faithful exceptions, the clergy of our church, and I think the same is true of the other churches, too, took to their pulpits with gusto, denounced conscientious objectors as cowards and traitors, and assured their congregation that the will of God was to sign up right away.  Neither the teaching of Christ, nor the exhortations of St Paul, must be allowed to get in the way of the War Effort.  Perhaps the stunning silence of the Church at the present moment is a step forward.

And now if I may be outrageous for a moment, I have to say that another example of quack theology seems to be served up this week by St Paul, of all people.  The parallel is striking.  A real pastoral concern had arisen.  Taught to believe that Christ would be returning very soon, the early Christian converts were eagerly awaiting his return when he would reward them for their faith in him.  However, time passed, Christ did not return and loved ones died.  Had they missed out for ever?  St Paul needed to offer assurance, but what he offered them came very close to a "Grand-old-Duke-of-York" theology [when they were only half-way up they met Jesus half-way down); and, of course, it has spawned those awful "rapture" novels that sell so well in certain American churches.

Amos 5:18-24.  This really is an astonishing passage!  Talk about discomforting the comfortable!  Imagine sitting in your local church, mildly curious about the guest preacher who is to address you on the topic "The Day of the Lord".  You are expecting another cosy message of reassurance, and what you get is today's harangue.  Why are you looking forward to meeting face to face with God?  You think it's going to be sweetness and light?  Well, it's not, and here's why.  Because every Sunday for as long as God can remember you have been infuriating him with your festivals, services, offerings, and, above all, your singing and music.  What God really want from you is a whole new lifestyle – one based on justice and fairness.  Amen.  Are there any notices?

Taking It Personally.

  • How would you respond to a charge like that if it were brought against your faith community?
  • Reflect on the Collect for Purity (page 405 of the Prayer Book) in the light of this passage.  Should we take the Collect more seriously than we do in our services?
  • What image of God are you left with after reading this passage?  How does it compare with your own image of God?
  • Spend some time with verse 24.  What is your understanding of "justice" and "righteousness"?  What specifically might this verse be asking of you at this time?  What might it be asking of your local faith community?

 

1 Thessalonians 4:9-18.  This is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of St Paul's letters that we have in the New Testament, probably written before 50AD.  So the recipients are very new converts, with all the pluses and minuses that go with that.  They are learning to become a Christian community: St Paul applauds them for the progress they have made and encourages them to do even better in the future.  Then he turns to the specific issue that has been bothering them.  As noted above, it is a real pastoral concern, and St Paul does his best to address it.  This may be one of the many instances where brevity might have been the best approach.  "Trust in God, and leave the details to him" might have been a better response, then and now.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Do you have any burning issue that you would like to raise on matters of faith?  With whom might you be able to raise it?
  • How would you respond to a friend who asked you about such matters as life after death, the return of Christ, the end of the age, and so on?  What do you believe about these matters at this time?  Are they of great concern to you, or do you prefer to leave them alone and just get on with things?

 

Matthew 25:1-13.  Although this is another "illustration" of the Kingdom of Heaven, it has a different flavour from the earlier ones.  Notice the introductory word "Then".  This is not a general approach – "the kingdom of God may be compared to..."  Here Jesus is talking about the end of the age.  It follows on from the previous story about the good and bad servants in the absence of the master, and what will happen when he returns.  In this passage, he has returned, and so this parable is about what happens next.  It will be good news for those who are prepared for his return, and bad news for those who are not.  Again, we must resist the temptation to push the story too far, as we find when we get to verse 9.  Suppose that the disciples had responded with these words when told by Jesus to feed the hungry multitudes!  The point surely is that we can only draw on our own spiritual deposits.  To spend a lifetime ignoring Christ (or, perhaps, taking him for granted) runs the risk that we will not be ready spiritually to face the day of his return.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Would you recognise Jesus if you saw him?  How?
  • Are you prepared to meet him face to face?  Would you like to?  Do you hope to?  Would you rather not?
  • How do you feel about verse 9?  Think about the expression "you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves".  Who might be the "dealers" today who are offering quick spiritual top-ups?
  •  Reflect on verse 12.  Take in the full horror of those words.  Let them inform your prayers this week as you pray for others.

 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Noptes for Reflection

November 2               NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         All Saints/All Souls

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Theme:  Although Sunday is technically All Souls' Day, all but the most pedantic among us will be celebrating All Saints; and the obvious theme is that title, or some variation on it.  I'm going for "Saints, Souls, and Other Good Sorts".

Introduction.  There is a deceptive air about our readings this week: they seem nice, gentle, (perhaps the word I'm looking for is "saintly") after some of the challenges thrown at us by the readings over the last few weeks.  They seem descriptive rather than prescriptive, showing us something rather than exhorting us to do something.  But, of course, the subtext is always the same: we are called to be participants, not admiring spectators.  We begin with this wonderful vision of the final outcome, all the more extraordinary when we remember that it was written down by a man in exile (if not actually in a forced labour camp) on the island of Patmos in a time of severe persecution, when the number of Christians would have been a few thousand scattered around a few countries.  The aged St John brings that vision down to earth, but what he says is just as astonishing.  Talking to a faith community that has already experienced splits and walk-outs, he insists that we are already children of God, destined to grow up to become like God.  And we finish with the "Executive Summary" of the Sermon on the Mount, better known to us as the Beatitudes.  So comforting, aren't they?

Background.  November is the month of remembrance, and I have been doing a lot of that recently.  For the last few weeks I have had the privilege of taking the Sunday services at St Peter's, Caversham.  There in a little dark corner of the sacristy is an old photograph of St Peter's, Caversham (near Reading) in Berkshire, U.K.  It was in that church that my maternal grandfather was serving as rector when he died in 1941.  So although I never met him, I have been remembering him in a very powerful way, as I have reflected on the extraordinary "coincidence" by which, 73 years after his death and 12,000 miles from "his" church, his only grandson stands in another St Peter's, Caversham exercising the same ministry.

And I have been remembering his only child, my mother, who was born on 27th October 1914, and so last Monday was the centenary of her birth.  It was also the 48th anniversary of the day I left England on board the "Northern Star", never to return.  (No, I did NOT choose that date – that really was a coincidence!) So I have been remembering that part of my story, including a few very special people who had a big influence on me as I grew up.

In a somewhat different way I have been remembering another part of my life story.  I have been reading some modern New Zealand political history, and in particular a collection of essays by different contributors published as The Bolger Years 1990-1997.  Most of the contributors had been colleagues or staff of Mr Bolger during those years in which he was our Prime Minister, which did not mean they all saw things in quite the way he did.  I was particularly interested in the contribution from Ruth Richardson, who, before she rose to public prominence, was a colleague and friend of mine when we worked on the Law Reform Division of the Department of Justice.  It was there that she met the man she would marry, Andrew Wright, who was also a friend and colleague of mine.  (My only claim to fame is that Ruth and Andy gave me the honour of proposing the toast to the happy couple at their wedding in 1975 – and it must have "worked" because they will be celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary next year!)

So I have been remembering Ruth, and reflecting again on her "vision" which drove and shaped her whole professional life.  Here is a brief extract from her essay commenting on the drastic changes to social welfare benefits made in her so-called "mother-of-all-budgets": For my part, I believed that the measures were needed to restore the integrity of our welfare arrangements, to confer personal opportunity and to promote personal responsibility.  As a matter of values I felt that we were no longer promoting the idea that it was good for people to invest in their own abilities and to do well as a result of their efforts.  I felt that welfare as it had become suffered from moral bankruptcy.  This is so Ruth as I remember her from those early days!  Her public image might be of a closed-minded economic ideologue obsessed with balancing the books and unconcerned with the effect her policies was having on countless victims.  Yet who among our other Ministers of Finance would express their whole approach in terms of moral values?  That's why I always found it so difficult to argue with her, even though I disagreed with her on just about everything!

But I'm now a little closer to unravelling this mystery.  Notice that expression "to do well", and compare it with a slightly different (and more biblical) expression, "to do good".  I may have used this story before in these Notes, about a man who asked a church group if, as parents, we had ever urged our children to work hard at school so that they could get a good job, have a good career, earn a good income, etc.  All of us agreed that we had.  Then he asked how many of us had urged our children to work hard at school so that they might be of greater service to others?  Politicians and parents might agree that we want our children to grow up to be "the best they can be", but how long would that agreement last if they were asked to define what exactly they meant by "best"?  How many would instantly respond that by "best" they meant the kindest, the most compassionate, the most loving etc.?

My grandfather was gifted intellectually: he graduated from Oxford University with an M.A.  Yet it appears that he never wrote any books, articles or essays, nor lectured or taught at any institution.  When I asked my mother what she remembered of his preaching she had no recollection of it at all.  What she did remember was her father going out every day, whatever the weather, on his bicycle to visit his parishioners, by which he meant everyone  who lived within the parish boundaries , regardless of whether or not they ever set foot in St Peter's.  By all accounts, he did a lot of good; but had he done well, bearing in mind how much he had invested in his own abilities?

I shall remember my grandfather and my mother on All Souls' Day.  But what about on All Saints Day?  Oh, yes, because I have no doubt that they are among the "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands".  Not because, in my grandfather's case, he was a faithful priest; and not because, in my mother's case, she had the unique privilege of bringing me into the world; but in each case because he and she were baptised and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the language of the New Testament, that's what makes them (and us) saints.  To quote my old friend Ruth way out of context, TINA – there is no alternative.

Revelation 7:9-17.  One of my early mentors when I entered the ordained ministry warned me that there were two groups of people in the church to be very wary of, a fairly large group and a much smaller one.  The fairly large group was made up of people who had no intention of being healed, but wanted you to keep trying anyway.  The smaller group comprised those whose favourite book of the Bible was Revelation!  No comment!  But at least we have a wonderful reminder in this week's extract from this most mysterious and bewildering book that there is much to look forward to.  It reminds us that God IS working his purposes out, and that there WILL come a time when all those purposes are worked out, to the praise and glory of his holy name.

Taking It Personally.

·        Who will you be remembering on All Souls' Day?  Make a list of those who come to mind readily.  What makes them so special for you?  When did you last gift thanks for them?

·        Now recall that All Souls' Day is officially the "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed".  Are there any on your list who don't "qualify"?  Does that bother you?

·        In the Prayers of the People on page 414 of the Prayer Book "we remember with thanksgiving those who have died in the faith of Christ, and those whose faith is known to you alone".  Does that help?

·        What is your definition of a "saint"?

·        Whether or not New Zealand needs a new flag, the fact is we do not have a patron saint.  Should we?  Which saint should it be?

·        The practice used to be to give a child the name of a saint, either at birth or at baptism, in the hope of inspiring the child to follow that saint's example.  Do you bear a saint's name?  If so, have you drawn any particular inspiration from that saint?

·        Does your local church have a patron saint?  If so, in what way does it bear the stamp of that particular saint?

1 John 3:1-3.  This passage is like one of those "but wait – there's more!" advertisements.  John starts by telling us that God has graciously conferred a title upon us: we have the right to call ourselves children of God.  But then he goes further; it is more than a title, it is a reality – we ARE children of God.  The reason why we are not recognised as such by the world is that the world does not recognise God.  The implication is that we "look like God", but no one recognises that because they do not know what God looks like.  But there is still more to come, the exact details of which are presently unclear, but one thing is certain: when God is fully revealed we shall be like him.  We may recall last week's passage from Leviticus: "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy"; or as Jesus put it (Matthew 5:48) "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect."

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        A passage for slow, personal reflection.  Do you believe what this passage is telling you?

·        Try the bathroom mirror exercise.  Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself, "I am a child of God."

·        Looking over the last "term", what sort of report card might you be carrying back to your Father?

 

Matthew 5:1-12.  This is the heart of Jesus' teaching about attitude rather than belief or action.  Notice that it is directed to his disciples – he and they have ascended the mountain leaving the crowds below.  [Echoes of Moses going up the mountain to meet with God while the people waited below.]  Last week Jesus gave us the Summary of the Law; later in this "Sermon" (7:12) he gives us his version of the Golden Rule.  They are both in the active voice – do this.  The Beatitudes are different – be like this.  The rest of the "Sermon" – comprising chapter 5:13-chapter 7:27 – expounds on them.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Time for a thorough spiritual stock-take.  Be as objective as you can.  Do not beat yourself up, nor try to justify any failings.  The purpose is to come closer to seeing and understanding yourself as you are so far.

·        Remember that through the grace of God you are improving!  Yes, you are!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

NOTES FOR REFLECTION

October 26                            

Texts:  Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Theme: We're back on the ground floor of our faith this week.  What our readings lack in excitement and drama they make up for with basic, fundamental principles.  So something like "Back to Basics" might suffice.  Brave souls might want to reclaim the word "fundamentalists" for those who are committed to the fundamental principles of our faith – good luck with that one.  I'm leaning towards "Being and Doing", the former having something to do with holiness and the latter with loving.

Introduction.  Let's be honest, if we were free to choose any three readings to reflect on, preach about, read or listen to, none of this week's readings would make the cut, would they?  We begin with Leviticus, not the tastiest entree on the menu on the best of days; but this week it does have a fundamental challenge for us.  The challenge is to be "holy".  St Paul is also taking us back to basics: the gospel message is not something he made up, but something given by God.  And things get no easier with the gospel passage, which is really two passages joined together with no obvious connecting thread.  But here the basic principles are expressed in love, of God and of neighbour, which Jesus says encapsulates the whole of the law.

Background.  In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago in St Barnabas, Warrington I asked the congregation how comfortable they would feel if someone asked them if they were a Christian.  Would they feel any more or any less comfortable if they were asked if they were  Anglicans?  And finally, would they feel any more or any less comfortable if they were asked if they were disciples of Christ.  Over the years I have often noticed a certain hesitancy on the part of some people to simply say, "Yes, I am a Christian."   Among answers to that question I recall hearing are: "Well, I like to think so"; "I try to be"; "Not a very good one, I'm afraid"; and (my all-time favourite) "That's not for me to say".  The diffidence that these replies display reflects the fact, I think, that even among Christians there is a belief that "Christian" is an ethical status: to claim to be a Christian is to claim to be a good person, and therefore boastful.

Generally, we feel no such diffidence in acknowledging that we are Anglicans: to be an Anglican seems to be simply a statement of fact, meaning no more than the church we attend (or used to attend, or would attend if we were going to attend any church, or in which we were baptised as an infant) is or was Anglican.  To be an Anglican does not seem to connote any particular ethical standard.

As for the third option, we just hope that no one ever asks if we are a disciple of Jesus Christ, and thankfully they don't.

But this week we have an even tougher question to consider.  Are we holy?  According to Moses, God told him to say to "all the congregation of the people of Israel, 'You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.'"  How comfortable would you be if someone were to ask you if you are holy?  Would you not be quick to eschew any claim to personal holiness?

Part of the difficulty here may be that this is simply not a term we use much in ordinary conversation.  When we do, it is usually in a derogatory way: we speak of a "holier-than-thou" attitude, which is probably much the same as being "self-righteous".  So what does "holy" mean in the context of this verse from Leviticus?  Perhaps a good starting-point is to notice that it is not in itself a command to do something, but to be something.  It is not a command to go about doing holy things or even thinking holy thoughts.  To love the Lord our God and our neighbour is, says Jesus, a summary of the whole law of God; but the command to be holy seems to "precede" the law in some sense.  The God who gives the law is "already" holy: the law proceeds out of his holiness.

Things become holy by association with God.  It is a term we use for things to denote that association.  Thus, the Bible is the "Holy Bible"; Communion is "Holy Communion", and the table is the "Holy Table".  Pre-eminently, of course, the Spirit of God is the "Holy Spirit".  Perhaps when we hear or think about the word "holy" the first Scripture that comes to mind is the story of Moses at the burning bush: "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."  What makes it holy?  The presence of the Lord God makes it holy.  We might say that any place or thing closely associated with God becomes holy by contagion – it catches holiness from God.

What we are talking about here is, at least in part, consecration.  Places and things are "consecrated" to God, set aside for a particular purpose closely associated with the presence of God.  That's why our churches and other holy sites are so important to us: it is not that God's presence is confined to these places or things and can be experienced nowhere else – God is everywhere and in that sense everywhere is holy – but there are special places where over time people have particularly experienced the presence of God and become especially holy for us.  That is why we must always be careful to "protect" those special places – those "holy" places - from inappropriate use.  [That is why I and no doubt many others took such strong offence at the recent use of St Hilda's Collegiate School Chapel for a fashion show.]

And so to people.  What does it mean for people to be holy?  It means to be consecrated to God, to be set aside for God: it means to dedicate one's life to God.  We still use the term "consecration" in respect of new bishops.  We still speak of ordination to the "Holy Order of Deacons" and to the "Holy Order of Priests", and, far more importantly, we still speak of Holy Baptism."  In each case we invoke the Holy Spirit, not just to empower us to do something, but to enable us to become something – to become a holy person.  As the presiding priest says in our first Eucharistic liturgy (at page 421), "In him you have made us a holy people by sending upon us your holy and lifegiving Spirit.

So are you a holy person?  YES, YOU ARE!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18.  Perhaps the first point to stress is the insistence by Moses that he is simply passing on what God told him to say to the people.  This is not the great and powerful leader announcing his "speech from the throne"; this is Moses the prophet speaking God's word to God's people.  And the second point is the one already made in these notes: the call is to be holy.  Everything else – not only the snippets in verses 15-18, but the whole of the law - follows from that.  The law defines and describes the appropriate behaviour for holy people.

Taking It Personally.

  • It's time for the bathroom mirror exercise.  Go into the bathroom, close the door, look yourself straight in the eye, and say "I am a holy person.  All that I am and have is consecrated to God."  Repeat regularly throughout the week.
  • Work slowly though verses 15-18 as a spiritual checklist.  Which item challenges you the most?  Which have you breached in the last week?
  • Focus on verse 15.  What do you make of the commandment not to be partial to the poor?

 

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8.  St Paul makes it abundantly clear just how tough it was to be an apostle (evangelist) in his time.  Roughed up in Philippi, he made it to Thessalonica but faced tough opposition there.  But he wasn't motivated by personal desires or agendas; he was there to proclaim the gospel entrusted to him by God, and in doing so his central aim was to please God.  He reminds them that he didn't try to butter them up with flattery and pretence (cf. the Pharisees and Herodians in last week's gospel passage!), nor did he seek personal gain or praise from them or others.  On the contrary, he cared for them deeply and sought to share with them, not only the gospel, but his own life.  We might say he consecrated himself to them during the time he was with them.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Do you find St Paul's personal testimony helpful or off-putting?  Does he talk too much about himself?
  • On the contrary, does the degree of hardship he faced in travelling and proclaiming the gospel message add to the authenticity of that message?
  • What do you know of some of the apostles and evangelists who brought the gospel to New Zealand in the early years of the 19th century, from Samuel Marsden onwards?  What dangers and difficulties beset them?
  • What do you know about the beginnings of your faith community?  Who were the pioneers of that community?
  • End with prayers of thanksgiving for our faith pioneers in this land.

 

 

Matthew 22:34-46.  There is something of the nature of a "F.A.Q. Sheet" in this chapter 22, at least from verse 15 onwards.   First the Pharisees and the Herodians asked about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the emperor (last week's gospel passage).  Then the Sadduccees blew their opportunity with a ludicrous question about a woman who successively married seven brothers, apparently to challenge his belief in resurrection after death.  (She's widowed six times and no one sees the need for a post-mortem?)  Next in line are the Pharisees who, it seems, have ditched the Herodians and are having another go by themselves.  They want to know (at least, they pretend they want to know) which commandment is the greatest.  Presumably this "test" is designed to lay him open to a charge of making light of any other commandment than the one he opts for.  But Jesus draws two together from the Mosaic Law, on which he says all other commandments, and the teaching of the prophets, are based.  So far, so good.

 

But then Jesus is reported to have asked the Pharisees a question that simply does not sound like Jesus, or, indeed, like a question about a live issue at that time.  It is much more likely this "debate" arose around the time when the Jews and Christians were going their separate ways.  Perhaps one of the issues was about Jesus' "status" vis-a-vis the great King David.  After all, Jesus showed no objection when he was addressed as "Son of David" by, for example, Bartimaeus, so why is he supposedly taking umbrage now?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • The mission of the church is usually said these days to be five-fold: proclamation, nurture, social service, social transformation, and care of the environment.  Which is most important to you?
  • Where does worship fit in?
  • Of the two great commandments, which is more important to you?
  • Notice that in Matthew's account, the first is said to be the greatest, but this "ranking" is absent from Mark's version (in 12:29-31).  What do you make of that?
  • Imagine you are next in line to ask one question of Jesus.  What would your question be?