Friday, 17 October 2014

Notes for Reflection


October 19                            

Texts:  Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Theme:  My pick is "The Sovereignty of God", or some variation on that theme.  (Perhaps "Supremacy" rather than "Sovereignty" might be even clearer.)  That would certainly encapsulate the first lesson and the gospel passage, although it would be a bit of a stretch to include the second lesson.  If the focus is to be on the gospel passage only, something like   "The Image We Bear" might be a useful starting-point, and safer than "Taxing Theology"!

Introduction.  We begin with one of the more startling biblical passages, which illustrates the fundamental belief that God is revealed in and through history - individual, national and international.  To see God's "hand" in our national history is more likely in times of "success" and "victory"; and there are many examples of that in Israel's history as reflected in the Scriptures.  But to recognise God as the one who has decided to work through a foreign, all-conquering military commander?  St Paul's approach in this very early letter is much more conventional: all that the believers are able to achieve, and all that they are able to withstand in the face of persecution and suffering, is evidence of God working in them and through them.  God is working through people of faith.  The gospel passage has yet another take on this aspect: there are those who exercise power and authority on earth, and they are entitled to an appropriate level of respect and obedience, but their authority is never absolute.  God and only God rules supreme.  In other words, we are back to the same sort of issues we struggled with last week.

Background.  Well, let's get the problem of history over with first!  The cynics among us will want to point out that Cyrus was "revealed" as doing God's work only after he conquered the Babylonians, and, for his own reasons of State, decreed that their "captive minorities" were free to return to their native lands.   More specifically from our point of view, the Babylonian exile of the Jews, which had lasted about 70 years, was brought to a sudden end in a most unexpected way.  The exiles had been forced to re-examine their history: what had happened to the God of Israel who was supposed to have defended them and their territory from the Babylonian invaders, but had failed to do so?  As the psalmist put it, how could they sing their songs by the waters of Babylon?   But with time on their hands they began to reflect on their history, their story as a people, and the story of God's past dealings with them.  Had they previously been in captivity?   Yes, yes, long ago, they had been in slavery in Egypt.  How did they get out of that?  They cried out to the Lord their God, who heard their cry and rescued them.  Well, then, what God did for them in the past, will he not do it for them again?  And so hope and faith were re-ignited, and they waited for God to send them another Moses to lead them out of captivity in Babylon and back to the land God had promised would be theirs for ever.  Cyrus was the new Moses!  The fact that he had no idea that he was called and used by God in this way – or, indeed, that he did not know who God was – was beside the point.  This was God's doing and it was marvellous in their sight!

Or should we say, it was marvellous in their hindsight?  Does that make any difference?  If we accept the cynics' view that all those passages in the prophets that appear to predict the coming of Cyrus before he came were written after the event, what difference does that really make?  We know what happened, and we know the outcome.  A modern parallel would be the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall.  Back in the 1950's and 1960's when I was growing up, none of us expected to see the fall of the wall in our lifetime.  Yet fall it did.  Was that God's doing?  Was Gorbachev the new Cyrus, merely the latest in a long line of God-chosen rescuers stretching back to Moses?  Or was it all the outcome of world politics and economics and nothing to do with God?

What then of prayer?  Exodus 2:23-25 is very clear.  It was in the impassioned prayers of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt that we find the true beginnings of the whole Exodus story.  When the Berlin Wall fell was it not acclaimed as a real answer to prayer?  And today, when we pray for an end to the atrocities in Iraq and Syria, and many other parts of the world, what exactly are we doing, saying, or hoping for if not articulating a belief that such prayer can make a difference?  Of course, the same question can be asked of any form of intercessory prayer, from the global to the individual.  When I pray for my friend who is about to undergo surgery do I not do so in the hope, if not the expectation, that the outcome of the surgery may be better than if I had not prayed?

All this is taking us very close to trying to understand the mystery of our faith that is beyond all human understanding; but I do think our readings can give us some guidance.  One of the other key elements of the Exodus story that has always struck me as important is the stress placed on the need to obtain Pharaoh's "permission" for the Hebrews to leave.  Moses is not sent to Pharaoh to deliver an ultimatum, much less to kill him.  He is told to ask Pharaoh to "let my people go".  Of course, over a series of "negotiations" some "divine muscle" is applied in the form of increasingly unpleasant plagues, but the purpose throughout seems to be to persuade Pharaoh to consent.  Even at this fairly early stage in the development of Hebrew theology there is a strand of "incarnational" divine action:  God does not simply "nuke" Pharaoh off the face of the earth – or magically transport the people from Egypt to the Promised Land in a science-fiction extravaganza.  God works through Moses and Pharaoh to achieve the desired outcome.  The God of Israel is almost literally arm-wrestling with the demigod of Egypt.

Fast-forward a few hundred years to the time of Isaiah and the different theology is, perhaps, the first thing that strikes us.  There is now no suggestion that God has to resort to using every plague imaginable to subdue and finally overcome an almost equal adversary.  Cyrus is every bit as powerful as any Pharaoh ever was, yet God uses him without him even realising that he is being used.  The God of Israel is becoming the God of all peoples: no longer limited to one small people, God can use anyone of any nation for any purpose.  But that's not the only difference between this "intervention" and the Exodus: this time there is no need for "direct action" of a miraculous nature.  God co-opts the military might of Cyrus to rescue the Jewish exiles from Babylon.

Fast-forward again to the time of Jesus and we find the third and final stage of this long process of divine self-revelation, or of human understanding, which is the other side of the coin.  Look at this week's epistle reading and we see a new phenomenon.  The evidence of God within and among these new believers is clear for all to see.  It is manifested in their love for one another, in their courage and steadfastness in the face of persecution, and in their growing reputation among others.  This is the kingdom of God growing among them, the kingdom that Jesus has been teaching about in the parables we have heard and pondered in recent works.  The kingdom that has been growing for 2,000 years.  The kingdom that we pray for each and every time we pray the prayer our Lord taught us.  The kingdom that is entirely consensual.  The God who coerced Pharaoh, the God who simply used Cyrus, is finally revealed as the God who stands at the door and knocks.

And awaits our "yes".  The Sovereignty of Love is all God's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.

Isaiah 45:1-7.  Notice how well balanced this passage is.  It opens with the shocking news that God has chosen a Persian (today we would call him an Iranian) to rescue God's people (today we would call them Jews) from exile in Babylon (today we would call it Iraq).  But in verse 3 God calls himself "the God of Israel"; and in verse 4 there is a reminder that this extraordinary choice of Cyrus is "for the sake of Israel".  In verses 5 to 7 the developing theology of monotheism is to the fore: the reference to light and darkness may be a refutation of the Persian belief in the divine power of the sun, moon and stars.

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on this historical view of our understanding of God's self-revelation.  What do you make of it?

·        If God is not involved in the unfolding of history, what is God involved in?

·        As we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the gospel in this country, in what way was that God's doing, or was it all Samuel Marsden's idea?

·        With the benefit of hindsight, are you aware of God's action or guidance in any aspects of your own life history?

 

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.  This letter has about it a very early feel, and it is thought by many scholars to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of St Paul's letters that we have in the New Testament.  The first glow of conversion seems to be radiating from this small group of believers, who have enthusiastically and joyfully accepted the gospel and abandoned their previous idolatry.  Their reputation is spreading, even though they are already experiencing persecution.  But clearly the belief in the imminent return of Christ is still very strong, and later in the letter St Paul will respond to their concerns for those of their number who have already died.  Notice, too, the hint of Christ coming to pluck us out of danger: later, as St Paul's theology deepens and matures, he will present a very different understanding of "salvation" in which all things are brought to unity in Christ and taken back to the Father.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        St Paul characteristically starts this letter with words of praise for this fellowship of faith, and assurance of regular prayer for them.  Do you usually start your prayers with a time of thanksgiving and praise, or do you get straight into your list of requests?

·        Read slowly through this passage as if it were a letter addressed to your faith community.  To what extent is it "spot on", and which bits make it seem that the writer doesn't know your community very well?

·        Have you turned away from all idols?  Are you aware of serving a living and true God?  Are you awaiting Christ's return?

 

Matthew 22:15-22.  This passage in the NSRV edition that I use has an intriguing heading: The Question about Paying Taxes.  (Read it aloud putting the emphasis on the first word.)  Of course, Jesus wasn't really teaching about paying tax, and his interrogators weren't really asking him about that.  In fact, as St Matthew makes clear, it was yet another attempted trap.  Jesus turned it into a short teaching on power and authority, or sovereignty.  A while ago we had the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the denarius was said to be the usual daily wage.  Now we learn that it was also the coin required to pay the hated poll tax applied by the Roman occupiers.  It not only bore the image of Caesar, but also the inscription "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and high priest".  The challenge could not be clearer, and in fairness to the Pharisees it did create a real dilemma for them.  But Jesus' answer invited them to reflect at a deeper or higher level.  The coin bore the emperor's image; human beings bear the image of God.  So if the coin belongs to Caesar, to whom do we belong?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        What, if anything, does this passage say about the duty of a Christian to obey the political authority of the State?  Are there any circumstances in which it might be right for a Christian to refuse to pay his or her tax in full?

·        Given that taxes are used for the benefit of other members of our country, should Christians give to the Taxman cheerfully and generously?

·        Conversely, are all lawful ways of avoiding tax open to Christians as they are to a everyone else?

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Notes for Reflection

October 12                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Theme:  Something of a re-run of last week, only perhaps in capital letters or bold type.  For some reason the words "Get Real" keep buzzing around in my mind.  I suspect that it has something to do with spirituality; it certainly has something to do with God.  I flirted with the idea of "The Two Faces of God", but decided that might be too much.  But there is something in our first lesson, and in our gospel reading, that is quite chilling, particularly for those of us who have trouble with anything other than a sort of devoted dog image of God, always eager to please us, no matter how we treat it.  So, I can't think of any obvious theme this week, but I'm going with "The Good and the Bad", and see where that takes me.  [A late thought for any Francophiles out there, what about "R.S.V.P."?]

Introduction.  The framers of our Lectionary have been surprisingly open-minded this week.  They have a tendency to shield us from some scenes that may offend us, and just give us the gentle bits.  We might have expected, for example, only verses 6-9 of our first lesson from Isaiah chapter 25, but instead we start at verse 1.  Salvation arises from the conquest of evil: the city – the palace of aliens - has been destroyed (verse 2): only then can the victory feast begin.  But what has become of the whole idea of aliens?  They are now among the guests at the feast which is "for all peoples" (verse 6).  St Paul, from his prison cell, rounds off his  message to the Philippians with a call to "Rejoice!"  Is he losing the plot, stricken by Pollyanna Syndrome, or reminding us that there is no other way to peace but to stand firm in the Lord in all circumstances?  With Matthew we are back to the party scene, but with some strange elements thrown in.  

Background.  This week has been something of a slow-news one, with nothing new and startling grabbing the headlines, unless, of course, you found the announcement of a new Cabinet exciting.  The ODT almost did: it covered on page 3 (page 1 was given over to a model wearing a Trelise Cooper-designed bra at a fashion show in St Hilda's Collegiate School Chapel – an interesting topic for reflection in itself)) an encounter between the new Minister of conservation, Maggie Barry, and Sirocco the Kakapo.  Other highlights were a blood-red moon, a new fault-line discovered in Wellington harbour, and a squalid little house in Auckland selling for over a million dollars.  Perhaps St Paul will cut us some slack if none of these events set off in us an overwhelming desire to rejoice.

With none of this holding my attention I have been doing some heavy reading this week; in particular, I have been reading The Snowden Files by Luke Harding, covering the extraordinary decision of one man, Edward Snowden, to risk everything, up to and quite possibly his life, to steal and release vast quantities of information from the American and British secret services.  It is certainly one of the most compelling stories I have ever read.  It was published this year so it is pretty well up-to-date.  (I borrowed it from the Public Library.)  One of the most fascinating things about the whole story is how difficult it is to grasp the motive of Snowden.  Here was a young man, largely self-taught with no formal qualifications, nevertheless launched on a brilliant career because of his obsessive fascination with computers, and suddenly throwing it all away – and, in the eyes of many – becoming a traitor.  What on earth could have made him do that?

Usually, people betray their country for three main reasons.  Ideological conviction that "the other side" is right – think some of the British and other defectors to the Soviet Union.  Or for large amounts of money – they have access to information that somebody is prepared to pay a lot of money for.  Or because they are being blackmailed.  Or because they have some sort of score to settle – real or imagined.  So which of these fits Snowden?

In short, none of them, although the first one comes closest.  The simple fact is, he did what he did because he believed it was the right thing to do.  He saw abuse and he decided to expose it: he saw evil and he placed himself in the way to arrest its progress.  He saw lying and he spoke the truth against it.  The first surprise to me was to discover that Snowden placed himself politically in the right wing of the Republican Party in the United States.  Not with the Tea Party, of course, but with the fiercely libertarian sect – Goldwater, Rand Paul, and Senator John McCain.  He was a strong advocate for the right of citizens to bear arms.  And yet, when Presidential Candidate Barack Obama spoke out against the growing power of the secret services under President Bush this young Republican right-winger gave him the benefit of the doubt and waited for change.  When it didn't come he decided he had to act himself.  And when he saw his own boss, the head of the National Security Agency, deliberately lie on oath before a Congressional Committee, he decided his hour had come.

Of course, this book is written from Snowden's side of the argument.  The Guardian showed extraordinary nerve in co-operating with Snowden and publishing the material, even in the face of severe threats from the U.K. Government.  The author of the book is a Guardian writer, and the Foreword is by Alan Rusbridger, the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, and the man who had the ultimate responsibility for the decision to publish and keep publishing the Snowden files.  So it is not entirely objective and well-balanced; but it still leads any reader (and certainly this one) to the point of total admiration for the sheer courage of Snowden (and his collaborators).

Yet every now and then troubling questions arise.  Perhaps one clear example can suffice.  When it emerged that the US had been spying on its closest allies as well as its "enemies", some of those allies took strong exception, none more so than Germany.  Angela Merkel had grown up in East Germany and knew only too well the horrors of living under constant State surveillance.  But after an initial outburst, she calmed down very quickly.  The cynics assumed that was because Germany's security services were also into "dirty tricks", making her taking of the moral high ground a little problematic.  However, it seems that her change of mood was at least partly due to the fact that, through their unfriendly and quite possibly illegal spying, the US had uncovered a terrorist plot that was about to unfold in Germany: almost certainly, German lives had been saved on that occasion by US spying.  Does that make a difference?  Does that make legally and morally wrong actions right?  And if we are inclined to accept that it does, how can the decision-maker at the time of making the decision know that he or she is making the right decision?

Perhaps the answer is that we cannot know that what we are doing is right: the best we can do is to do what we honestly believe to be right, and in that exercise seek at all times to be guided by our faith.  To be absolutely merciless with ourselves in examining our motives.  Why am I doing this?  Have I got some selfish end in mind or am I truly putting the interests of others before me?  One of the truly curious things that struck me about Snowden is that at no point in the book is there any suggestion that he was guided by his faith in the actions he took.  And yet his unshakeable belief that we must be free, and that only the truth can ensure that we are, led him to sacrifice his career in a manner that echoes St Paul, and his willingness to sacrifice himself to set others free is makes him, in my eyes, a follower of Christ's example and teaching.

Will he make it to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb?  What do you think?

Isaiah.  As noted above, this passage moves from the frightening to the reassuring; and somewhere along the line manages to be subtly shocking as well.  In a sense this is a sort of token of the amazing shift in Jewish theological understanding that was going on in Isaiah's time and for  which he was probably the greatest prophetic spokesman.  The God of Israel was expected to protect his people and fight against Israel's enemies.  (Think Jonah here: don't forgive my enemies, wipe their alien city of Nineveh off the face of the earth, was Jonah's prayer, was it not?)  But notice in this passage there is no identification of the city – it is a palace of aliens.  Could that not be said of our own cities today?  Are not our cities inhabited (and ruled) largely by those who have chosen to alienate themselves from God?  Only when such alienation has been destroyed (as it was on the cross) can all peoples come together for a joyful celebration.

Taking It Personally.

  • Pray your way though this passage step by step, seeking to learn how God will bring the horrors of war to an end.
  • With verse 2, pray for those cities that have been bombed to rubble.
  • With verse 3, pray that the strong peoples and ruthless nations causing such harm to others may come to a point where they bring glory to God.
  • With verse 4, pray for the refugees driven from their homes; and pray for those who are offering refuge, and those who are presently refusing to offer it.
  • With verse 6 give thanks for the bounty and blessing of our land, and pray for all those who lack food, water and wine.
  • With verses 7-9, wait upon the Lord in silence for some time.  Finish with the Lord's Prayer.

 

Philippians.  St Paul is nearing the end of this wonderful letter.  His personal situation is dire, and that of the Philippians not much better; yet what a joyful and encouraging message he sends them!  He doesn't ignore the reality of their struggle; and he knows Euodia and Syntyche have a little work do on their sisterly relationship.  Nevertheless, they are not to worry, for the Lord is near.  Rejoice, pray, and think of all that is good: that is the way to experience the peace of God that really is beyond all human understanding.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Reflect on verses 2-3 in the context of your local faith community.  Are you a Euodia to someone else's Syntyche?  What can you do about it?
  • Review your past week.  What has made you happier?  Have you been joyful this week?
  • What have you been thinking about or focussing on?  How might you apply the teaching in verses 8 and 9 in this coming week?

 

Matthew.  As with last week's parable, this one is more an allegory than a real parable.  It is delivered, remember, to the religious elite, the Scribes and the Pharisees, and is a sort of potted history of the relationship between God and his chosen people.  Again, as a story it quickly falls apart, but as an allegory it makes clear what Jesus is all about.  The original invitees are the Jewish people.  They respond to the first invitation with a flat refusal.  When the king tries again, the invitees "make light of it" – the son's wedding is of no importance to them.  They have business to attend to.  The king blows his stack and calls in the army, ridiculous in terms of story but historically accurate if it refers to the destruction of the Temple, as many scholars believe.  So then the party is thrown open to everyone whom the servants find (think evangelism here), and soon the hall is filled with guests.  Then comes the incident that seems so troubling.  One of these guests is not wearing the right gear, and is thrown out.  My guess is that this is about baptism – he is not wearing the white robe donned by those who have just been baptised.  It doesn't matter whether the guests are good or bad – so long as they are wearing the robe of Christ.  This is, after all, a judgment parable taught by Jesus in the Temple during Holy Week.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • How do you feel about this parable/allegory?  Does it offend you?
  • Try turning it into a "Should have gone to Spec Savers" ad.  A big sign just inside the building shows entrants where to pick up a wedding robe, but this poor guy doesn't see the sign.  Does that help?
  • Which part of the story offends you the most?  Why?

 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Notes for Reflection


October 5                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Theme: A range of possibilities seem open to us this week.  The safest option might be "All is Gift", particularly if you want to give some emphasis to our first lesson.  A more creative option might be "The Ownership of God" – there's nothing like ambiguity to get the reflective juices flowing.  And then there's St Paul with his extraordinary gift for timing.  Last week he urged Labour Party leaders (and others, of course!) to do "nothing from selfish ambition or conceit": this week he is urging the Diocese (and others, of course!) to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead".  Either lesson might offer an easier path than the gospel passage.  But if you are feeling courageous (or you are about to retire from stipended ministry and have nothing to lose) you might want to pose the question "Is He Talking to Us?"

Introduction.  We begin with Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, which recognises God as the creator and owner of all things, and in particular of the people of Israel.  But its real message is that God is not just the name on the title deeds, as it were: God is an owner motivated by love, who has done everything possible for the good of the land and its occupiers.  What more could God have done?  That is the challenge thrown down by this passage.  But gratitude for all that God has done does not mean there is nothing else to hope for or strive towards in the spiritual life.  On the contrary, St Paul's theme song for this week is that old classic "Keep right on to the end of the road."  We finish with yet another hard-hitting and frighteningly clear judgment parable.  We are, after all, in Matthew's narrative squarely in Holy Week.  The judgment of the Cross awaits: it is time to take sides.

Background.  There has been so much to ponder this week.  In New York the focus has been on the UN Climate Summit, preceded by the extraordinary announcement by the Rockefeller Foundation that it was divesting itself of all investments in fossil fuel industries and putting its money into renewable energy resources.  In Hong Kong hundreds and thousands of people were demonstrating in support of their demands for greater political freedom.  And in Dunedin one student graced the front page of the ODT to complain that the University was denying residents in its halls of residence internet access to pornography sites.  The contrast between those who seek the good of all and those who are focused solely on themselves could hardly have been illustrated more graphically.

Two men in particular have informed my reflections this week, one famous, the other not so much.  The lesser known man is Stewart Bell, an Australian mine safety expert who was a member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Mine disaster.  At the heart of the problem, he said, was a lack of values.  One aspect of this was "a production before safety culture", which was "insufficiently challenged" by those who should have challenged it.  Given the sensitivity of the issues Mr Bell was very restrained and careful in what he said, and did not spell it out in detail.  So I'll do it for him.  When we have a community that believes that all mining companies are good and all environmentalist organisations are interfering outsiders; when we have a Government that believes all regulatory supervision in an unnecessary cost burden imposed on industry by a Nanny State; when we have a workforce who, for whatever reason, believe in jobs for the sake of jobs, however dangerous to them and whatever the product of their labour may be, a culture of profits before safety is always going to arise.

The second and more famous person I have been paying attention to this week is Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose contribution to the ongoing debate on climate change was published in the ODT World Focus on Monday, and was full of his deep wisdom.  Truly this man is a prophet for our age.  His opening sentence could not have been clearer: Never before in history have all human beings been called on to act collectively in defence of the earth.  Wonderful stuff – and I particularly warmed to his word "collectively".  He's not afraid of that word: for him it's not a word that should be associated with Communism; it's a word that should be at the heart of our faith.  He addresses his fellow human beings as "responsible citizens of the earth – sisters and brothers of one family, the human family, God's family"; and goes on to tell us that "we have a duty to persuade our leaders to lead us in a new direction".  And that responsibility, he says in conclusion, "began in the genesis of humanity, when God commanded the earliest human inhabitants of the Garden of Eden 'to till it and keep it'. To 'Keep it'; not to abuse it, not make as much money as possible from it, not to destroy it."  Amen, Archbishop Desmond, amen.

And let's be clear about one thing.  The Bible uses the language of sin and judgment: it warns of God's wrath and determination to punish.  Climate scientists use a different language of cause and effect: they talk of the inevitable consequences of our present (and past) actions.  The Bible calls for repentance; scientists call for a radical change of policy.  The language is different, but the message is the same.  Archbishop Desmond writes: As a matter of urgency we must begin a global transition to a new safe energy economy.  This requires fundamentally rethinking our economic systems, to put them on a sustainable and more equitable footing.  That's collective repentance in any language.

The imagery used in this week's passage from Isaiah should strike a particular chord in rural New Zealand.  The back-breaking work of settlement, clearing the land, developing it, fencing it, planting shelter belts, perhaps the need for drainage works and so on; all that is hard enough, but bearable if the end result is productive farmland.  But such happy endings are never guaranteed.  Adverse weather, rabbit or other pest infestation, falling prices and rising costs – sometimes there comes a time when there is no alternative but to walk off the land, and let it all revert to the wild.  That's what God is threatening to do in this passage.  But here this is not the outcome of sheer bad luck, of a heroic struggle against overwhelming odds.  As the rest of this chapter makes clear, those whose job it was to work the land have failed miserably.  They have brought the pending disaster upon themselves and the land.  They have made poor choices, driven by greed and selfishness.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, taken literally, doesn't make a lot of sense.  Just how the tenants thought that if they could knock off the owner's son they would inherit the land is not explained.  But as a parable of the way in which, in our desire for short-term gains, we prefer to ignore all warning signs and those who try to warn us – how we prefer to shoot the messenger rather than heed the message – and how we are all too ready to assume that the day of reckoning is sufficiently far in the future as to be safely ignored in the meantime – the parable is surely spot on.  If we are given 24-hours warning of a 1-in-100 years storm, we will heed the warning and do whatever we can to mitigate the threat.  But a warning that such storms will become annual events within the lifetime of our grandchildren unless we start taking action now?   Hey, lighten up – tomorrow's another day!

Or, in the other language, judgment tomorrow means repentance right now; judgment sometime in the (possibly distant) future -  maybe I'll take my chances for a little longer.

Isaiah.  Any farmer or gardener can relate to this passage.  A late frost, a rogue wind, roving possums or rabbits, and we're back to square one.  Or perhaps the crops start to wilt, and soil tests show high levels of some toxic element or infection.  All your hard work has been to no avail.  What's the point?  Might as well let it go, and find a hobby that doesn't cause you so much upset.  But if you really love the place, that's a hard thing to do.

Taking It Personally.

  • Notice that this passage is more an ode to the dedicated work of the vineyard owner than to the beauty of the vineyard itself.  Take some time to reflect on God's creative work, rather than on the beauty of creation.  Offer prayers of praise and thanksgiving.
  • What sort of grapes are you producing in your spiritual life?
  • How careful are you in your treatment of the environment?  Archbishop Desmond wants faith communities to "speak out on the issue from their pulpits".  Does yours?  Do you agree that this issue is rightly considered a spiritual issue, or should it be left to politicians to sort out?

 

Philippians.  St Paul has all the approved religious badges, by birth and by personal endeavour.  We might say we have been brought up in the church, baptised, confirmed and married in the church – can't remember a Sunday when we didn't go to church – on Vestry for years – read the bible daily – perhaps even got a theology degree.  All well and good, says St Paul, but none of that is worth a tin of fish unless we have a personal relationship with Christ.  And like any relationship, that's an ongoing process, not a one-off event.  Based on the past, enjoyed in the present, and developed into the future.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • How would you summarise your "faith credentials"?
  • Spend some time reflecting on verse 10.  Unpack it.  What does it mean for you?
  • What are some of the things in the past that you might need to "forget" (verse 13)?  In what way are you "straining forward", and to what?

 

Matthew.  This is a rather laboured parable, leading some scholars to believe that it was "worked up" from an earlier version to serve a later purpose – namely, for the Church to claim that it is now the successor to the people of Israel.  Certainly, the apparent emphasis on the expulsion of the first tenants and their replacement with a second batch seems a little obvious.  There is surely more to this parable than that.  It deals with themes like forgetting the goodness of God, being unwilling to give to others, selfishness and greed.  Perhaps even the relationship between hoarding and violence: no one is going to take anything of mine, and I will protect it with all means at my disposal.  Quite possibly, it is yet another variation on the theme of the closeness or distance of God.  When we're in need we might wonder where God is; but when we want to do our own thing we might begin by convincing ourselves that God is at a safe distance.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • What sort of image of God do you get from verse 3?  God as developer and absentee landlord?  How does that appeal?
  • Presumably we are to assume a "share-cropping" arrangement.  The tenants have tended the vines and harvested the crops.  But they refuse to give the owner his share.  Are you always ready to give God his share?
  • Reflect on the offertory verse: "All that is in the heavens and the earth is yours and of your own we give you."  Does that give you a deeper understanding of this parable?
  • When you give to the church, are you giving some of your money to God, or are you giving some of God's money back to God?
  • Read verse 45.  When you hear these and similar parables, do you realise that he is talking about you?
  • Is there any particular parable that has directly influenced you in any specific way?

Monday, 29 September 2014

Notes for Reflection

September 28                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Theme:  Not as clear as it might be this week.  Try as I might, I can't quite see in what way the passage from Ezekiel is "related" to the gospel passage.  Come to that I struggle a bit with the relationship between the first part and the second part of the passage from Ezekiel.  So a couple of ideas from Philippians: "The Mind of Christ" might appeal, or the more traditional "The Humility of Christ".  From this lesson, I would go for "The Interests of Others".  From the gospel, one obvious choice would be "Doing What We Say", or (a little more subtle) "Saying Yes In Deed": another might be "The Question of Authority".

Introduction.  We start with Ezekiel, and we seem to have come into an ongoing argument half-way through.  The issue seems to be about accountability to God.  "God is being unfair – we have done nothing wrong yet he is punishing us for the sins of our ancestors."    Their complaint is refuted through Ezekiel.  St Paul is on peak form this week, with a perfect response to the election campaign!  (Yes it is, read verses 3 and 4, and then argue with me!)   And the gospel passage asks some very searching questions of us.  By what authority do we speak and act?   Are we obedient with our lips only?  There is no let up as we continue to journey ever closer to Jerusalem and the Cross.

Background.  If you subscribe to the Diocesan news email you will know that Archdeacon Stu Crosson has suggested that we in the Church may seek to learn from the electoral fate of the Labour Party.  I must confess that my immediate response was a little sceptical, to say the least; but once I decided to give it a go I have found it quite a helpful exercise.  Listening to some of the Pretenders to the Labour Throne it seems that there is a fundamental conflict between those who what a broad centre party, much like the National Party but wearing red shirts instead of blue, and those who want an unashamedly left-of-centre party more in keeping with its origins and traditions.  What relevance has that debate to the Church?

Quite a lot, as it has already turned out.  There is no doubt that the membership of the Church, and certainly of the Anglican Church, has been in serious decline for some decades now.  I think I'm right in saying that Bishop Kelvin informed Synod that attendance at Anglican churches in this diocese declined by about 8% in the last year.  So there are certainly some similarities with the Labour Party there!  And the parallels become even more obvious when we start considering what we should do about it.  Should we accept that our message is no longer relevant to the people of today and change our message?  Or should we accept that to do that is to deny the very reason for our existence?

Where to start?  Well, one of the Pretenders quoted something attributed to Julia Gillard:  "Labour needs to pay more attention to those who work hard, and less to those who complain the loudest."  I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on that, and have found it surprisingly fruitful.  It is just the sort of statement that on its face sounds eminently sensible, doesn't it?  But try this quick exercise for yourself.  Consider the phrase "those who work the hardest" and see what sort of people come to mind.  Entrepreneurs, business people, farmers, doctors, and other professionals?  Or did you immediately think of solo Mums doing two or three cleaning jobs while the rest of us sleep?  And try the same exercise with that other phrase "those who complain the most".  What sort of people came immediately to mind for you?  Did you immediately think of the Pike River families discovering this week that Solid Energy has been misleading them for at least the last year?  Or the Christchurch people still in an insurance-created limbo four years after their homes were damaged or destroyed?  Are they too loud and persistent in their complaints?

The implication of Julia Gillard's reputed remark is that all those who are working hard are good guys, and all those who are complaining the loudest are whingers and moaners who won't get off their backsides to help themselves.  That might be a popular view – that might appeal to the voting centre – but should it appeal to those of us who seek to follow Christ?

In the middle of all this the ODT included a comment from an Auckland priest who "confessed" to being a National Party supporter, and quoted from St Paul's Second Lesson to the Thessalonians (probably the only person to do so in the entire election campaign and aftermath!)  "Anyone not willing to work should not eat."  Again, it all sounds so reasonable and sensible – and coming from St Paul it must be right.  Never mind that it was quoted completely out of context; and never mind, too, that the same St Paul wrote this to the Ephesians: "Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy."  It's that last phrase, surely, that distinguishes the Christian ethic from the "work" ethic.  Think bigger barns here.  Are we working hard in order to build up our own asset base, or are we working hard in order to "have something to share with the needy"?

And this week we have another unambiguous teaching from St Paul to digest: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."  How's that for a winning campaign slogan?

And here's the rub for the Church.  We are not in charge of the message: we cannot change it to increase our popularity.  We have been called and sent into the world to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to conform to the world as it is.  To a culture obsessed with selfies we must proclaim a message of self-denial.  That ain't easy, and it never has been.  The only person ever to succeed in building a broad church was Emperor Constantine.  Without his imperial authority and military might, conversion is a long, slow and difficult process.

But perhaps Stu Crosson is on to something.  The Labour Party also started from scratch, with a sense of mission and a message of fairness and justice.  It was unashamedly on the side of the powerless and the dispossessed: it challenged the ruling elite of its time, and it won power, not through toning down its message to become popular, but by converting more and more people to its cause.  Could the Church learn something from that?

Ezekiel.  The passage starts off with those important words we find in many prophetic utterances: "The word of the Lord came to me".  This is the answer to the question, "By what authority are you doing these things?"  Then we learn of this strange proverb.  In the first parish in which I served the idea of "inter-generational sin" suddenly had its moment in the sun, and for some reason it was linked with Lodge membership.  One of the parishioners had assured a woman that the reason for her present illness was that her Great- Grandfather had been a mason.  I suspect that this was the last desperate throw of the dice: unable to find anything in the woman's own "record", and quite sure that all illness is sent by God as a punishment, the parishioner "explained" that the sufferer was bearing the guilt of her Masonic forbear.  Perhaps the people of Ezekiel's time were running a similar wacky theological line in his day.  But the second part of the passage raises a more interesting point.  Was God being too forgiving of those who had offended but had turned over a new life?  Conversely, was God too harsh on first offenders who had previously led blameless lives?

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on that opening phrase, "The word of the Lord came to me."  How seriously do you take it?  Is it just a formula used to add a little extra grunt to Ezekiel's own idea, or does it mean what it says?  Have you experienced occasions when the word of the Lord has come to you?

·        Think about the way in which our Judges take into account an offender's previous record.  Should an offender convicted of offence number 15 be given a greater penalty because of the preceding 14?  Conversely, should a first offender be given a lighter sentence because he has not offended before?

·        Should genuine remorse (repentance) be taken into account?

 

Philippians.  This really is a passage that needs no comment or explanation.  It is pure gold all the way through.  First, a plea for unity – we are to be of one mind.  Selfies are absolutely prohibited – group photos only are allowed in the Church!  Oh, and by the way, the one mind we are to be of is none other than the mind of Christ, and in case we're not sure of what that entails, we are given this glorious hymn of praise to Christ's humility.  Yes, all this is a big ask, but doable when we remember "it is God that is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure".  St Paul will now take your questions.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        A passage for slow reflection and self-examination.  Start with your own spiritual stock-take.

·        Now reflect on your local community of faith.  Are the members of one mind? 

·        What about the wider church?  How well does that stand up to your scrutiny in the light of this passage?

·        Are you aware of God working in you and enabling you to will and do what he wills?

·        What do you think it means to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling"?

 

Matthew.  We should take a moment to understand that we there is something of a disconnect between where the gospel narrative is now and where we are in the Church year.  This passage is set in Holy Week.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, had a bit of a go at a fruitless fig tree, and now come back to the Temple.  Things must be rather tense, to say the least.  The chief priests and the elders demand an explanation from him, but Jesus is evasive.  He turns their challenge back on themselves by asking them about the source of John the Baptist's authority.  It's interesting that John the Baptist is still such an important figure that the chief priests and the elders cannot risk upsetting the crowd by denying his prophetic calling.  Jesus follows up this win with a rather contrived parable about two sons.  One presumably represents Israel, and the other those who are turning to him.  For those who think we should never say anything challenging or hurtful and always be unfailingly nice, Jesus shows us his approach.  Prostitutes and tax-collectors get it – why can't you?

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        This really is the nub of the issue for the Church.  By what authority does the Church speak?  Does that authority come from heaven or is it of human origin?

·        Which of the sons are you most alike?  The one who instantly says the right things, but doesn't carry through; or the one who says the wrong thing, cools down, thinks about it, and does the right thing?

·        Should priests and lay preachers be free to believe and teach whatever they wish, or would that exceed the authority given to them?  Should they be held to account if they contradict the orthodox beliefs of the Church?

·        Should those seeking ordination be "tested" for orthodoxy before they are accepted for ordination?

·        Is the Church best served by a unified message or by a diversity of views?

 


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?