Thursday, 18 December 2014

Fourth Sunday in Advent



December 21              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fourth Sunday of Advent

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

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

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

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

We are being tested.

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

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

We are being tested.

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

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

This morning, for the first time in a while, the 7.am radio news opened on a good note.  President Obama had just announced that he was ending the madness of his country's Cuban policy, which dated back to 1961.  It is time, he said, for a new beginning.  Another candle has been lit.  Alleluia!    

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

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

Taking It Personally.

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

 

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

 

 

Taking It Personally.

 

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

 

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

 

Taking It Personally.

 

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

 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Third Sunday of Advent

December 14              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Theme:  The drama queen in me wants to suggest "Light, Sound, and Action" as a reasonable summary of the gospel passage and the related reading from Isaiah.  Certainly "light" is a key element in John's gospel, and a very appropriate theme for the Season of Advent as a whole.  Perhaps "The Light of the Lord" would follow rather nicely after the last few weeks considering "the Day of the Lord."  Another thought is to link back to the first creation – "And There Was Light" or "The Light that Shines in our Darkness" (particularly if you are using the 476 liturgy this week).  Alternatively, the passage from Isaiah is so important you might wish to base the theme on this – something like "The Lord is Coming to Do Great Things". And if you are one of those who can only cope with St Paul in small doses, this could be your chance: try "Rejoicing Always."

Introduction.  What can I say?  Isaiah is once again on peak form – read it, listen to it, soak in it, and emerge refreshed, renewed and full of hope and joy!  No one does it better than Isaiah, though St Paul comes close on occasions.  This week's passage may not be one of those occasions – in this very early correspondence (his juvenilia, we might be tempted to say if we wanted to show off) he has not yet found his "voice" – yet it has the very great virtue of being both clear and brief.  Although it sets the bar rather high, it does capture the mood of this Season very well.  We finish with this rather refined passage about St John the Baptist that does not capture his earthy humanity as well as it might.  (I'm left wondering what John himself might have made of it.  Did he really introduce himself by quoting from Isaiah?   And was that before or after he called people "You brood of vipers!")  We need to remember that the author of this gospel was trying to explain the role of John the Baptist rather than to record him accurately.

Background.  It has been an extraordinary week for those who believe that the way to defeat evil is to bring it into the light.  The prime example, of course, is the US Senate Report on the treatment of prisoners by National Security personnel in what the US likes to call its war on terrorism.  As always, euphemism is the first clue that all is not as it should be.  As soon as those in and around the corridors of power started talking of "enhanced interrogation techniques" it was pretty clear that torture had been approved at the highest political level and was being carried out routinely.  Perhaps the only shock in the Senate's report was that the methods used were even worse than had been previously suspected, and carried out in far more countries than were previously identified.

These disclosures follow those of Edward Snowden in 2013, and our own Nicky Hagar this year, but with one important exception.  They had no political power or protection.  The Senators who produced this latest report do: the worst they can be accursed of is political partisanship.  Perhaps a better parallel from our own country would be the recent report from the Inspector-General of Security Intelligence.  Those whose actions have been brought into the light can hardly subject the US Senators, or Cheryl Gwynne, to the personal abuse that was hurled at Snowden and Hagar.  (The worst that Mr Key has managed so far is that some of the findings in Ms Gwynne's report are "contested" or even "strongly contested".)  

The debate in the US will be fascinating to watch.  Stripped of all the political mud-slinging – and legitimate issues about the effect the release of the report may have in inciting further hatred of, and action against, the US and its citizens – the issue comes down to this.  Is it ever, in any circumstances whatsoever, justifiable to torture someone else?  We may not wish to go as far as the former US Vice-President of the US, Dick Cheney, who has said those security personnel who carried out the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (a.k.a. torture) should be "decorated, not criticised", but if (and this is contested) lives were saved through such methods, what then?  Would that justify torture, at least in those specific cases where it could be shown to have produced information that enabled lives to be saved?  Or is torture always wrong – whatever the outcome?

And can our answer to that ever depend on who is carrying out the torture, on whom, and whose lives are saved in the process?  The response of Senator John McCain, the only US senator (as far as I know) who has actually experienced torture while held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, will be particularly interesting.  But of far more interest to me will be whether or not there is any discernible difference in the response of those who identify themselves as Christians, and those who do not.  Early signs are not encouraging: then President Bush, who certainly did identify himself as a Christian, has already explained that he took legal advice and the lawyers said it was okay.  For him, it seems, torture is a legal issue, not an ethical or a religious one.

And this gets me to the related issue of accountability.  Already, some are demanding that the major players should be charged with war crimes or whatever – they must be called to account, and it is assumed that the only way people can be called to account is through prosecution and punishment.  Despite my legal background, I find myself less and less attracted to that approach.  The threat of prosecution often obstructs the search for truth – whether in "ordinary" cases of criminal offending, or in cases of major wrongdoing by States and their leaders.  Evil is much more likely to be defeated by exposure to light, than by threat of punishment.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission model offers us far more hope for the future than the International Court of Justice.  The Fourth Evangelist knew that:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.  {3:19-21).

This was the light to which John was sent to witness.  It is the light borne ever since, knowingly or unknowingly, by all those who have spoken the truth about deeds done in darkness.  For the One who called himself the Light of the World tells us that it is the truth that sets us free.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.  The language and style is similar to the Servant Songs, but now the Servant who was to suffer for Israel has morphed into the Anointed one who is to heal and restore Israel.  The opening two verses were adopted by Jesus as his manifesto when he proclaimed his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth: Luke 4:16-19, except that he omitted the reference to "the day of vengeance of our God".  That omission helps to underline that the principal thrust of this passage is to rescue Israel, not to punish her.  The Anointed One is sent to bring good news to the oppressed, comfort to the distressed, and liberty to the captives.  Verse 4, in particular, shows the depth of the healing and restoration intended here: it reaches way back into the past to restore even "the devastations of many generations".  And the healing will affect the generations to come, as verse 9 makes clear.  In verse 10 the joyful response of the Anointed One himself is a model for us, and ties in well with St Paul's exhortation to "rejoice always".  Verse 11 is redolent of the original creation, so beautifully captured in our 476 liturgy – "For you the earth has brought forth life in all its forms".

Taking It Personally.

  • Take time simply to enjoy this passage.  Read it slowly – hold the individual phrases in your mouth and taste their full flavour.  If you are alone and in private, you may even wish to respond by skipping or jumping up and down with delight – a sort of free-flow Morris dance might be in order!
  • Reflect on your present feelings and circumstances.  Is there any respect in which you feel oppressed?  Are you broken-hearted about something or someone?
  • Are you in any sense held captive or feel imprisoned?  Perhaps by the expectations of others, or by the sheer busyness of your life?
  • Bring your personal needs to God in prayer and ask for healing or release accordingly.
  • Are you aware of any deep-seated wound from the past?  Pray that any part of you that feels ruined may be raised up and restored to God's glory.

 

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.  The whole of this chapter 5 would go well with the theme of darkness and light: see particularly verses 4-8.  And verse 9 again emphasises that what God is about in Jesus Christ is not punishment but healing and restoration.  Verses 14 and 15 should be tattooed on the hands of all of us in such a way as to be particularly visible to us when we clench our fists.  I seem to recall years ago a favourite question in a Bible quiz concerned the shortest verse in the Bible.  The expected answer was John 11:35, which in some translations read "Jesus wept." This week St Paul equals the record with verse 16 – "Rejoice always".

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • A good passage for a spiritual stock-take, either in the short form (set reading) or long form (the whole chapter).  Which phrases or verses do you find the most challenging?
  • Focus on verse 14.  Notice the responsibility of believers towards others in the community of faith.  How well do you fulfil these responsibilities?  Are other members fulfilling these responsibilities towards you?
  • Make verse 23 your prayer for yourself this week.

 

John 1:6-8, 19-28.  The first mini-passage is the fourth Evangelist's description of John's mission.  John saw himself simply as a prophet, in the tradition of Elijah and the others.  He had a message to proclaim and the words he spoke were from God.  I personally find it unlikely that he adopted the words of Isaiah to explain himself, but the tradition says he did.  There is much evidence in the gospels that the exact relationship between Jesus and John – and even which of them was the greater – caused considerable difficulty and dispute in the infant Church.  With the benefit of hindsight, and 2,000 years of history, we now know that St John the Evangelist saw the deepest truth and expressed it in this wonderful Prologue.    Guided by the author of the marvellous creation hymn with which the Book of Genesis opens, we are shown the beginning of the new creation in terms of light and life.  Verse 9 is especially interesting with its insistence that the true light "enlightens everyone".  Does that mean that everyone who is enlightened owes that happy state to Jesus, or does it mean that everyone is offered enlightenment but some choose to reject it?  John the Baptist is clear about his mission: he, like us, is called to draw attention to Christ.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Suppose a friend rings you up and asks for your opinion about X.  You warmly commend X to your friend.  You subsequently discover that the call was recorded, and replayed to X.  How upset would you be?  Would you be more upset if you had been critical of X in that call?  Why?
  • Reflect on John 3:19-21.  How do you feel about that?  Review your last week: can you think of anything you did that you would not have done if you knew that you were being watched?
  • Do you agree or disagree that it is more important to expose wrong-doing than to punish it?

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Second Sunday of Advent

December 7                NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8:15a; Mark 1:1-8

Theme:  It's hard to go past "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness", or some variation thereof.  Perhaps "All Change" has a nostalgic appeal for those who lament the passing of the age of railways.  I rather like "Saying Yes to Freedom", or "Freedom is Only One Click Away."  Then there's St Mark's opening line, "The Beginning of the Good News", which would be quite a good theme for this Sunday.

Introduction.  We begin with these haunting words of Isaiah, "Comfort, comfort my people", which so wonderfully set the tone for this Season of Advent.  God is not coming to punish his people, but to comfort them, to bring them balm, to heal and restore them.  That's good news, made all the more reassuring after some of the dark forebodings we have had over the last few weeks as we have reflected on the Day of the Lord.  There is still a hint of all that in our second lesson this week, with the vision of all things being "dissolved with fire" (an interesting example of a mixed metaphor, now I come to think of it).  And we finish with a characteristically terse passage from St Mark who has never believed in wasting (or mincing) words.  He's got a great story to tell, and he can't wait to start telling it.

Background.  I'm reading a new book by the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance.  He argues that to understand the importance of the Fourth Commandment, we need to place it in the context of the life of slavery in Egypt, and he draws some striking parallels with the economic structures of today.  He reminds us how the Egyptian overlords tightened the screws every time the slaves protested: instead of being provided with the straw and other materials required for the making of bricks, the slaves are told that in future they are responsible for gathering those materials themselves but without any reduction in the quota of bricks they are to produce.  Today we would call that a requirement to increase productivity, or "to do more with less", and justify it on the ground that it is necessary to "remain  competitive".

Sabbath rest is not just an antidote to forced labour; it is a repudiation of the whole attitude that says human beings only have value as labour units or consumers.  And, he argues, it is an affirmation of the principle of neighbourliness – Sabbath rest is to be enjoyed together:  on one day a week there are no bosses and servants, no citizens and migrant workers: even the distinction between the farmer and his team of oxen is set aside:  Sabbath rest is for all.

How easily the people of Israel, the direct beneficiaries of the Exodus and all that God's great act of deliverance should have meant for them, turned this great Sabbath gift into a tiresome burden: see, for example, Amos 8:5.  And we only have to think of the annual fiasco over the Easter trading hours to know that we are once again caught up in a slavery of our own creation.   How have we got from celebrating the institution of the forty-hour week to insisting on the right to "cash in" our statutory holidays and even annual leave?  Why have we created for ourselves a 24/7 world in the name of freedom?

There have been a number of items in the news media recently that highlight our human propensity to take something that is good and stretch it to the point that it becomes part of a new evil.  In my youth I was often sent by my mother to a small shop to pick up some necessary "supplies".  We knew the shopkeepers and they knew us.  We even knew most of our fellow customers.  We did not have much money and the shops did not have a large range of goods; but we and they always had enough to meet our needs, and shop hours would not usually exceed 8 hours a day.  Few were open on Saturdays, and none on Sundays.  Somehow we have got from that state to the scenes we saw on the TV news this week of "Black Friday Sales" in the USA and Britain, where customers were literally wrestling one another to the floor in a bid to grab some bargain or other, to the extent that in many instances the police had to be called to try to restore some form of order.  Needless to say, these were not people fighting to get the necessaries of life: these "feeding frenzies" had nothing to do with survival, or providing for their young.

Sport provides a whole range of examples, culminating this week in the tragic death of Phil Hughes, struck by a "perfectly legitimate" bowl that was aimed at him rather than at the wicket.  And, oh, the humbug that has followed!  No one in cricket ever wants to see an opponent hurt, we are assured.  So what is the purpose of a bouncer?  What is the purpose of sledging?  Oh, all that stuff – it shouldn't be taken too seriously – it's a natural part of being competitive.  It's designed to "unsettle" or (slightly nearer the truth) to "intimidate" the batsman.  And, of course, we can't do anything about it because it is part of the game.  As one commentator from Australia put it, "There's nothing more exciting in test cricket than the sight of a big fast-bowler pounding up to the wicket with the crowd baying for blood with every stride he takes!"  Pardon?

Even charities have been infected with this attitude.  So long as they are raising money for a good cause, nothing is off-limits.  Perhaps the most obscene example is "The Fight for Life" circus: but when our own diocesan school thinks it's okay to have a lingerie parade in the school chapel because some of the proceeds are to go towards breast cancer research...

Back to Brueggemann.  It is, he says, time for resistance.  To observe Sabbath is to resist the idea that everything is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.  It is to be reminded that in the kingdom of God there are different principles in play: that every human being has a value that has nothing to do with productivity.  That there IS such a thing as a free lunch wherever there is a will to provide it and a hungry person in need of it.   The kingdom of God stands as the opposite of the kingdom of Egypt.  It stands for freedom, not slavery.  It says there is a better way.  That way has nothing to do with competition: there are no rivals in the kingdom of heaven.  Only neighbours to help and to be helped by.

And John the Baptist has come to announce that this better way is now open to all of us.  All we have to do is to click on the freedom button and follow the instructions.

Isaiah 40:1-11.  What better passage could there be to herald a fresh start!  It draws a line under all that has been wrong in our past – the penalty has been paid.  It is time once again to start listening to a prophet's voice – which, of course, means to listen to God.  How often that is where restoration and wholeness begin – in listening to the voice of God.  And here the message is clear – God is drawing close – a way must be prepared for him.  As I read verses 4 and 5 the phrase "a level playing field" came to me, reinforced by those words in verse 5 "and all people shall see it (the glory of the Lord) together".   Think about that for a moment: there are no privileged viewing platforms; no one has a better view of God than anyone else.   We shall all see God together.  But first – there is a message to heed – and notice here that the voice crying in the wilderness is disembodied; it is a voice not a man we hear.  And the message is clear: "Here is your God!"

Taking It Personally.

  • Review your past week.  Have you been living a life of freedom or one of constraints?
  •  Are you able to completely relax from time to time, or is there always something that needs attending to? 
  • Do you consider yourself "time poor"?  Is that largely because of the choices you make, or just the way things are these days?
  • Is shopping a necessity or a pleasure for you?  In general do you have more stuff, less stuff, or about the same amount of stuff than you did 5 years ago?  How would you feel if shops were closed on one day a week?
  • Reflect on the inquest into the death of the young man in prison.  How have you felt about that case?   Was he entitled to the same respect and care that he might have had if he were not a convicted criminal, a gang member, and a "drug mule", or did he bring it on himself and deserve what he got?
  • In what respects (if any) do you consciously resist social or commercial pressures to "keep up with the Jones"?  Are you careful to meet the expectations of others or do you generally march to the beat of your own drum?
  • When was the last time your local community of faith reflected together on these sorts of issues?

 

2 Peter 3:8-15a.  The writer starts with the issue of time.  God works to a different timescale from ours.  This presumably addresses some of the concerns we have recently found in St Paul's correspondence with the Thessalonians.  We humans are not very good with large numbers, whether in relation to space or to time.  Surely of all the startling discoveries our species has made in the last 150-200 years none has so stretched our minds than those relating to the age and vastness of creation.  [How right that this passage should come between the promise in Isaiah and its fulfilment 700 years or so later in the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist.]  And the story of God goes on, of course, for yet more time as we wait for the end of the age.  But we must do more than passively wait: we must do what we can to hasten its coming, which we can do by spreading the Good News and inviting people to click on the freedom button, too.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Reflect on the growing understanding we have of the age of the universe (about 13.7 billion years), the age of the earth (about 4.5 billion years) and the age of our species (about 50,000 years).  What do you make of numbers like that?  Do they make you marvel all the more at the creative genius of God, or do they tend to turn you off?
  • Spend some time meditating on verse 13.  What would such a new earth be like "where righteousness is at home"?  What would have to change for that to happen?  What changes could you make as your contribution?

 

Mark 1:1-8.  In one brief sentence St Mark affirms that Jesus is the Christ and is the Son of God; and that the story begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.  But that beginning has to be understood in its historical and religious context:  John the Baptist is the embodiment of the voice of which Isaiah spoke about 700 years ago.  John's message was as simple as it was profoundly challenging:  "Change direction.  You are on the wrong track.  You are heading for disaster.  You are facing the wrong way.  Turn around and see what is about to happen – the Anointed One of God is coming among you."  We are told what John was wearing: he was dressed like Elijah.  There was no mistaking that sign.  And the response of the crowd was astonishing.  They came from city and countryside in droves.  This strange man's strange message awakened a hunger within them.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Imagine that you are interviewing John for radio or television.  Does his appearance put you off?  (Or his smell?)  What does his voice sound like?  What is your immediate reaction to him?  Do you warm to him?
  • What would you like to ask him?  Are you more interested in his life story or his message?
  • Suppose he tells you that you must repent of your sins; how would you respond to him?
  • Now imagine taking him to your local church.  What sort of reception do you think he would receive?

 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Notes for Reflection

November 30             NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday of Advent

Texts:  Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Theme:  There are some old chestnuts to mark the start of another liturgical year.  "Tell Me the Old, Old Story", is one that comes to mind; another is "Here We Go Again"; but both seem to me to have rather negative overtones.  Something more positive might be "A New Beginning" or "A Fresh Start".  [In some ways it's a pity that we can't have a bit of a 'closed season' between The Feast of Christ the King and Advent Sunday, to emphasise that we really are starting a new season.]  If we want something a little more specific to this particular Sunday, something like "Watching and Being Watched" might start us off in the right direction.  Or, for fellow Isaiah devotees, what about "Are You Still There"?

Introduction.  A rather disconnected collection of readings this week.  We start this new liturgical year with one of the most poignant lines of Scripture as Isaiah cries out to the Lord, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down".  He wants God to break his silence, to come out of hiding and to reveal himself.  St Paul seconds the motion, albeit less loudly, with words of encouragement to the new believers at Corinth as they await "the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ", to be understood in the context as referring to the Return (a.k.a. the Second Coming) of Christ at the end of the Age.  St Mark rounds things off with an extract from "The Mini-Apocalypse" in chapter 13, dampening down expectations of Christ's imminent return, while acknowledging that no one (not even Jesus himself) knows when that will be.

Background.  How might we sum up the last year?  What has stuck in your mind out of all the headlines and big issues in our media over the last twelve months?  For me, the answer has got to be Governments and their lackeys behaving badly and getting exposed by whistleblowers and hackers.  And all that has taught me one thing: while everyone likes to be heard, no one wants to be overheard.   And that simple statement now has to be interpreted to include all forms of communication.  Many desire to communicate the most intimate and trivial details of their own lives and the lives of their cats, dogs and other significant others, but are outraged if those communications are "accessed" by unauthorised persons, particularly if they show them up in a bad light.  Perhaps the award for the gall of the year should go to Cameron Slater who lodged a complaint against someone who "stole" material from his computer and used it to reveal exactly what Cameron Slater had been doing to damage anyone to whom he took exception, including accessing their electronic communications.

At the lower end of the scale there was a report of schools being warned that teachers had no right to look at the content on a student's phone, even when that student had been using the phone in the classroom, and was suspected of being involved in cyber-bullying.  In the case in point, the students had been expressly told that they were not to have their phones in use during the class time.  The teacher became aware that two students were posting text messages to each other, and challenged them.  Both insisted that no such nefarious activity had taken place.  The teacher did not believe them, and insisted on seeing for herself.  Now think about that for a moment.  Suppose these students were Neanderthals like me and did what I and my fellow students were doing when we were their age – we passed scribbled notes to each other, didn't we?  And if we were caught and the teacher demanded to see the notes, what then?  Was it ever suggested that such a demand was an outrageous breach of our right to privacy?  Would it be today?

Somehow the focus has shifted from the wrongdoing, to criticism of the exposure of the wrongdoing.  [Think Private Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and, of course, Nicky Hagar.]  Our right to privacy seems to have morphed into a right to do anything we wish to do so long as we do it in private.  And woe betide any sneak who invades our privacy and exposes our wrongdoing.

One of the more interesting courses I took as part of my law studies was one on criminology.  The lecturer began the course with a statement along these lines.  "In this course we will be looking at the reasons why people commit crimes, the incidence of criminal offending, and the penal response to criminal offending.  When we have done all that to comply with the prescribed course, we will address the far more interesting question: why do most of us go through life without ever committing any serious offence, even when it might clearly be in our own best interests to do so?"  He was proved to be quite right: the discussions we had on that question were far more interesting than anything covered in the prescribed course.

Broadly we found ourselves in two camps.  Camp one, the idealists, believed that most of us led broadly crime-free lives because we chose to do so, we were moral people, guided by our well-formed and well-informed consciences.  [Yes, even in the Swinging Sixties there were law students who believed in the essential goodness, if not of human beings in general, at least of themselves.]  Camp Two, the realists, knew that the real answer was that we avoided criminal offending out of a healthy fear of being caught; and I for one felt vindicated when, during a power black-out one ordinary shopping day, a large store was just about emptied by its erstwhile customers before the lights came back on 40 minutes later!

All of which ramblings and muses get me to Isaiah, who continues to surprise.  I like to think that I know my way around Isaiah pretty well – Jeremiah not so much, and Ezekiel hardly at all.  I took it for granted that the case for the prophets could be summed up like this:  God was gracious and kind to his people; they had nevertheless rebelled  against him; God was understandably miffed and turned away from them; and the prophet's role was to call the people back to God and ask God to give them another chance.  But this week's passage (at least as it appears in my NSRV edition) doesn't quite say this.  Both verses 5 and 7 seem to change the sequence of events in a quite significant way.  But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed...  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

It seems to be an example of the "teacher-out-of-the classroom" syndrome.  What is the point of doing right if God has left us to it?  And conversely, if God has chosen not to pay us any attention, why shouldn't we do what we like?  So I'm wondering if this is what is going on in our increasingly secular society.  Having "got rid of God" (the all-seeing Judge), people are outraged to find that they are now under the scrutiny of the "all-seeing" hacker, whose "judgment" may be more terrible than anything they had previously feared from God.  Could that be why the greatest offence these days is to be "judgmental"?

Already, according to a report in the ODT recently, there is a swing back to the good old, relatively secure, typewriter.  So much easier than living a life that could withstand public scrutiny.  Or acknowledging our faults and accepting the forgiveness of God freely offered through Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 64:1-9.  Isaiah sounds to me like a man of about my age.  His patience is running out, and he's given to bouts of nostalgia.  He remembers the good old days when God did awesome unexpected deeds that left no room for doubt and needed no interpretation.  In those days when God appeared everyone knew where they were, and more importantly, who God was.  But that was all a long time ago; and we all know what the people got up to when Moses left them to it for a few days.  God has been absent, or at least invisible and silent, for a far longer time, with the inevitable result, both among the people of Israel and among her enemies.  It is time for God to re-appear and establish his authority once again.

Taking It Personally.

·        Advent is a good time to review your own spiritual journey.  Can you recall a time when God was more obviously present to you than he is now, perhaps when you first became a Christian?

·        Does Isaiah's opening cry strike a chord with you?  Would you like God to make himself more apparent to you?

·        Do you have any sense that you are being watched or listened to by God?  Is that comforting or alarming for you?  How does the image of God as the Divine Hacker who has access to all your thoughts, words and actions strike you?

·        Looking ahead to another year of hearing and reflecting on the Scriptures, how do you feel at that prospect?  Is it exciting, boring, or somewhere in-between?  Is there some particular part of the story that you would like to go into more deeply this year?

·        What would you like learn, experience, hear, see, realise or understand more clearly this liturgical year?

·        Spend some time in prayer as you bring your thoughts before God and ask for his continued grace, blessing and guidance through this coming year.

1 Corinthians 1:4-9.  This passage is a sort of overture of courtesy before St Paul gets to the first movement, dominated by the percussion section!  (Read verses 10-17 to see what I mean.)  Perhaps the idea is to remind the Corinthians of all the gifts they have received (the grace of God in effect among them and within them), so that they will understand how unworthy their behaviour is.  They have not, of course, gone beyond the tipping-point: God will strengthen them so that they may become blameless.  God is faithful (subtext, in contrast to yourselves).  And St Paul reminds them that they have been called into a spiritual fellowship (subtext, in contrast to a club).

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Reflect on God's goodness to you.  In what way have you been enriched in Jesus Christ? 

·        Is your local faith community manifesting all the spiritual gifts?

·        Are you (and are they) waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ"?

·        Is your local faith community manifestly a spiritual fellowship, or more of a cosy group of pleasant people?

 

Mark 13:24-37.  A strange and difficult passage to end this first week with.  It sounds like one dramatic event, and yet verse 29 suggests a process of some length.  Perhaps the better approach is to take it that it will become more and more apparent as time goes on, and that the sooner we become aware of it and respond to it the better.  There is no escaping the difficulty posed by verse 31 if it is supposed to be understood at all literally.  If Jesus (or perhaps the author of this gospel) really did predict the Return of Christ within the lifetime of those living at that time, then they got it wrong by (so far) close to 2,000 years.  On the other hand, verse 32 seems to rule out anyone knowing when it was going to happen.  For me, it has been happening ever since the resurrection, so that already the signs are all around us, and we should be continually on the lookout to see Christ returning among us more and more until the end of the age.  Keep awake, do not sleep your life away.  I think that's the message we should take from all this.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        When do you expect to see Christ: (a) at any moment; (b) when you die; (c) at the end of time; (d) none of the above?

·        Do you truly believe that "he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end"?

·        Is the idea of some sort of Judgment Day important to you?  How else might the manifest injustices of life on earth be set right?

 

 

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"?