Category Archives: Sermons

Doubting Thomas – Easter 2 2015

“Doubting Thomas”?

The wonderful thing about this story is that even if John the storyteller is disgusted with Thomas, he can’t stop Jesus simply offering Thomas what he needs for faith. And Thomas’ need is a gift to us. We see his unbelief proved wrong. True scientific method is applied; Thomas expounded a theory of unbelief, then disproved it by a repeatable experiment. The result; unbelief swept aside; bodily resurrection proven by scientific method and Thomas, a sceptic converted by empirical proof.

the others told [Thomas], “We have seen the Lord.” But he replied, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The others use the words Mary Magdalene used to them when she came from the tomb. “I have seen the Lord.” Like Magdalene, it took a tangible experience of their risen Lord before they could proclaim this. All Thomas asked for was the same experience,

And Jesus gave him what he needed. … “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not be in disbelief, but believe.” Thomas’ faith was more important to Jesus than any noble reasons we might want him to have for faith. He doesn’t run him down; he just gives Thomas a sign, and enables him to believe. Jesus had done the same for Magdalene that morning at the tomb. He said her name and broke through her blankness, and she seized hold of him. When he offered Thomas what he needed, it evoked the most powerful and complete confession of Jesus anyone had given in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus speaks to Thomas, but this story is very much addressed to you and me; “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That’s us, isn’t it! We are blessed. Jesus reaches out those hands through the Gospel to you and me so that [we] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.

These are stories of the transforming moments in the lives of Jesus’ earliest followers. When we read a story and someone touches another, our hand goes out and touches them too, doesn’t it. The gospel today is about a transformation that starts with a physical need being met.

So I actually believe Thomas is an image of hope, not of doubt.

The other two times we meet Thomas in John’s Gospel, we find a loyal realist. We meet him first when Jesus finally turns to that dangerous place, Bethany, where Lazarus is entombed, Thomas… said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Jn 11:16 He knows how foolish it is to go back to Judea, but he won’t be left behind.

The next time we meet him is at the last supper. Jesus is saying good-bye to his friends, and he re-assures them: “… if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jn 16.3-5 Trying to get it straight. But not because of doubt. Thomas needs clarity and he needs to understand. But what he does is done out of loyalty.

Again, to him it all sounds like foolishness, but he won’t be left behind. What drives this determination? I think we find it in the image we started with: Thomas with his finger poised above the nail-wound in Jesus’ hand.

Thomas needs to see to believe—he wants help with his unbelief. In most of life, to see is to believe. In the spiritual life, to believe is to see. C R Wood So when the opportunity of proof is right under his fingertip, suddenly he doesn’t need to go through with it. And all at once, Thomas answers “My Lord and my God!” This isn’t doubt: it comes from hope fulfilled at last.

Magi Abdul-Masih says that hope is different from optimism. Hope is centred on God, while optimism is just focussed on reality. Hope says that no matter how bad things may get, every moment we are closer to the coming Kingdom of God. Optimism, on the other hand, just denies facts until it can’t any more, then collapses. Marguerite Abdul-Masih, 2002. Despair and Hope. Presented at: Canadian Commission for UNESCO Youth Forum, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1 Jan 2002.

Thomas stopped having to rely on empirical evidence; he could recognise the goodness of God in Jesus. Suddenly, his finger above that outstretched hand, he saw his hope poised above the wound. When you know God is so committed to you, you can hope. And that means everything.

When your finger is poised over the depth of God’s commitment and you hope in that, you’re transformed into a champion of that hope. You can tell people with utter integrity that God can be trusted. You can point to the wounded hands that were raised and nailed. You can say that those hands seized betrayal in hope. They and their bearer were raised and honoured by the God to whom they were lifted in hope. And now those hands are our hands: the hands of Christ. Look; your own hands. Amen

St. Thomas the Apostle Malcolm Guite

“We do not know… how can we know the way?”

Courageous master of the awkward question,

You spoke the words the others dared not say

And cut through their evasion and abstraction.

Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,

You put your finger on the nub of things

We cannot love some disembodied wraith,

But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,

Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.

Because He loved your awkward counter-point

The Word has heard and granted you your wish.

Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine

The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

Easter Sunday 2015

Easter 2015 Mark 16.1-8

go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee

We know this story well, don’t we. But there are always things in it that make us do a double-take, and for me, the last verse we just heard one of them. The young man in the empty tomb says the women should go [and] tell [Jesus’] disciples and Peter that [Jesus] is going ahead of [them] to Galilee … and Peter!? —Wasn’t he counted as one of Jesus’ disciples any more? Why wouldn’t he be? Let’s look back for a moment and see.

Last Sunday, in the passion story we read together, you’ll remember Jesus and Peter arguing about whether he’d deny Jesus three times. Jesus provoked that argument when he said, 14.27 “You will all become deserters; … 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

Today, we heard the young man in the tomb tell the three women; 16.7 … go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you’ll see him there, just as he told you.”

So today, we’re being deliberately taken back to that particular moment in the story when Jesus said “You will all become deserters”. Remember how Peter rose to the challenge: “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” … “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”

Well we all know the story; Peter did deny knowing Jesus—three times, as predicted. And the third time, he didn’t just say ‘I don’t know Jesus’; he swore an oath that he didn’t know him—almost as though he was divorcing Jesus. Maybe the others knew Peter had done this. Had they written him off?

Whether or not they had, the words of the young man at the tomb this morning tell us that Jesus certainly hadn’t. Jesus was calling Peter back to start again at that point, as if nothing had happened since; a clean slate.

16.7 … go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Jesus points straight back to that moment where Peter had been so strong and loyal, back to the time before his denials, and offers him a new start.

It is so delicate; so gentle. Can you imagine Jesus being resurrected and rolling away the stone and everything and still thinking to leave such a kind, healing message for Peter with that young man.

7 … go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

There’s one other quirky bit to this story. The three women were told to pass on the message, but the gospel ends by telling us that they fled from the tomb,… and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

If that were the end of the story, Peter wouldn’t have gone on to serve Jesus as he did, and in fact, finally honour those words he blurted out to Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” The three women were obviously given a new beginning too. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here, would we? But the message to us is also one we have to note well. In every generation, Jesus makes new beginnings possible.

This delicate, gentle, matter-of-fact offer of a new beginning to Peter points to the absolutely central, unique mark of the Christian faith; forgiveness. Christianity began with God’s most wonderful act of forgiveness; the Cross and the Empty Tomb. The Cross wiped the slate clean, and the Empty Tomb announced that new beginnings were open for business, effective immediately.

We respond to this in the Easter Vigil. We go back to our beginnings with Jesus and re-affirm our baptismal covenant with him. Because, as Peter discovered, we are a people of new beginnings.

We may have broken our baptismal promises a thousand times. We may have publicly renounced Jesus. Yet we believe in new beginnings—new birth; revival, new life—because resurrection doesn’t just tell us it’s possible; resurrection is who we are.

We are the body of Christ, and Christ is risen, Alleluia!



Kids—I want you to imagine yourselves inside an egg, not yet hatched.

Tell me about the world you know. What’s the furthest thing from you? What’s hot; what’s cold?

Now, everybody on this side, start to break your shell open and HATCH. Quickly, tell me—are you in a new world?

What do you see? Do you believe your eyes? Are you frightened?

Let’s ask someone else. What’s a someone else? It’s someone like you, but different—but of course, you didn’t know that. Let’s ask them.

Do you see what they do? …

Back to the first one; Now you’ve heard someone else, and they’ve seen it all too. Is it easier for you to believe what you see now?

Are you hungry? Can you see any food anywhere? There it is; eat up.

Just a moment; look over there; those are eggs that haven’t hatched. Other ones like you will come out soon. What will they need to know when they come out? Can you help them? Can you look after them?

Good Friday 2015

Meditation on the Cross

A friend of ours created a Stations of the Cross meditation recently which took the traditional scenes from Jesus’ passion and death and put them together with materials from the recent news. The Station that struck me particularly was about the parents of Peter Greste, the Australian journalist recently gaoled in Egypt. Early in his imprisonment, his parents wrote a letter to the Egyptian president offering to be gaoled in his place as a proof of their utter belief in their son. has a copy of their letter.

For me, their offer is a window into what has happened for us because of that first Good Friday. Today, we’ve gathered to remember that on the Cross, Jesus has done for you and me what Peter Greste’s parents offered to do for their child; to take our sentence on himself.


In Jesus, God has come to rescue us from our own predicament by taking our place; taking our sentence on himself. And like Peter Greste’s parents, Jesus’ reason for doing this is utter love for us; complete commitment to us.

Peter Greste got trapped in a cycle of justifying his actions—normal everyday actions in the day-to-day life of a journalist. But there he was, trapped, and justifying himself to some invisible, untouchable power. His arguments seemed alright, but no-one seemed to hear them. And his accusers never presented him with a tangible case to answer.

His experience with that justice system is very like us when we’re trying to satisfy invisible authorities that we’re okay; waiting on the results of an exam or a job interview; the results of a medical test. While we anxiously wait for the outcome, we speculate on what the decision-makers will think of us; we plead our case with any friend willing to put up with our worries.

But like Peter Greste was, we’re powerless to influence the outcome. We’re in a vacuum; disconnected—separated from the impersonal powers-that-be whom we have to satisfy. And we experience that separation as something like an invisible prison. And it cuts us off from everyone else around us because none of them seems to be in the same predicament.

People experience this as a type of gaol; a confining space that we can’t escape by our own strength or ingenuity. It might be the consumerist roundabout; it may be the online life we get caught in; it may be the consequence of a failed relationship; a toxic work situation; it may be the effect of chronic ill-health or our age. Whatever the gaol may be, we’re cut off from everyone else because none of them seems to be in the same predicament.

Strangely enough, this is something like a working definition of sin—being cut off from the source of our well-being, and seemingly cut off from everyone around us. This is what life can be like when we’re not consciously aware that God loves us unconditionally; when no-one’s told us that we don’t have to justify our own existence, because God has justified us already—and out of utter love for us. God justifying us? That’s where the Cross comes in.

The one who justifies another takes their side, and sees that all is well with them. God takes the lost cause of humanity and makes it his own in Jesus Christ. (Barth)

In more simple language, a perfect stranger called Jesus saw the bullet flying towards us, stepped in the way, and took it in the chest. And the question that leaves us with today is, how do we respond to him?

This Holy Week, we’re spending time with this story of God’s deep love for us. The most important thing to realize is that God loves you and me like any loving parent loves their child. And a loving parent will do anything to save their child from harm; a loving parent will go to prison to protect their child; a loving parent will die to save their child.

In Jesus, God died to save you and me. It’s happened.

Abp Desmond Tutu sums it up.

God has this deep, deep solidarity with us.

God became a human being, a baby.

God was hungry. God was tired.

God suffered and died.

God is there

with us.


Palm Sunday

הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א Hosanna!—Save us; grant us victory: Palm Sunday 2015

For the Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11.1-11, Ps 118.1-2

Passion Sunday Readings: Isa 50.4-9a, Ps 31.9-18, Phil 2.5-11, Mark 14.1—15.27

In Papunya there’s a very special donkey. Its body is a big metal drum and it has steel tubing legs that go down to a platform with wheels for it to roll on. I think its neck is a car spring, and it’s got a metal head with ears. This donkey lives all year outside Papunya church, usually lying on its side near the bell tower. But I hope and trust that this morning, the donkey of Papunya church will be having its moment of glory.

I wonder who will be riding it—being Jesus. I wonder which Hosanna song Pastor Graham will get everyone to sing; what sort of branches they’ll be waving—mulga? And I wonder how many people it will take to help that donkey and its rider across the red sand on its journey into the church. It’ll be such a wild, wonderful time for everyone there.

I remember as a small child how very special Palm Sunday was. I can’t think of a bigger day in the church during my childhood. It was gloriously, delightfully, noisily out of control. And when I first saw Papunya Church’s donkey, it flooded back to me—how we used to celebrate this day.

I imagine it was like the first Palm Sunday for the crowd when Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem; all those wildly hopeful people with no idea of Good Friday or Easter. They were living in the hope and joy of the moment, just like I used to, those many Palm Sundays ago. I was too young to make the sad connection with the coming tragedy. And in my church, we didn’t go inside and read the Passion Gospel like we have today. So there was no nasty shock of being suddenly dragged down from the glorious hope of triumph one moment to the utter tragedy of the Cross the next. Palm Sunday stood alone.

But things are different now. In the past half hour, we’ve all experienced the tragic fall from ecstasy to agony that Jesus and his loved ones will endure over the coming week. And the way we’ve just read it, we’ve owned we are all participants in this tragedy. We, the very people who outside just cried Hosanna—save us, we pray; grant us victory!—here inside, we’re still part of the crowd; but now the cry has turned to harsh judgement; Crucify him!

This is bewildering—and it has to be. We are the Palm Sunday crowd that cries out to be saved—cries out to be led to victory over whatever enslaves us—cries out to the best looking hope at the time. But we’re also a crowd which turns against any leader who looks like they’re falling from favour; in fact, a crowd capable of crucifying such a fallen leader.

Would it have been different if we were the custodians of the Jerusalem temple? What would we have done in their place, watching from atop the walls as the slow, jubilant procession came down the Mount of Olives and crossed the Kidron Valley into our sphere of influence; into our power? Probably the same as they did.

But surely we’re not like them—or are we? During Lent, we’ve realized we’re not as pure as we might imagine.

If we let Holy Week do its work in us, we’ll know we can’t carry our burdens alone; we’ll come face to face with our deepest needs. And in the middle of that realisation, we’ll find Jesus responding to us with compassionate love—calling us to keep walking with him, no matter where he leads. Bishop Tim would say, we’ll be challenged personally, but not individually. We’re in this together; and most of all with Jesus. To imagine Holy Week is just about individual soul-searching is to miss the point that it’s about relationship; how we love and are loved by God and how we love our neighbour as our self. That’s personal, but it’s not individual; we are not islands; we belong.

So Holy Week confronts us with failings and challenges we may never have known about. But it also enables us to meet them, reminding us that we’ve been entrusted with priceless gifts. If we receive these gifts, we walk with Jesus. These gifts; what are they? On Maundy Thursday, we’ll receive three of them:

  • the gift of Holy Communion which shows we are bound forever in love to Jesus and to each other,
  • the gift of Servant Leadership … each of us shows the love of Jesus in the humble act of washing our neighbours’ feet and having our neighbours wash our feet,
  • and the gift of the New Commandment—Love one another as I have loved you—the gift which shows how we’re called to belong to everyone by living as Jesus did.

And on Good Friday, we remember we’ve received the most precious gift of all: the life of Jesus Christ, offered in sheer love, to make possible the salvation—the redemption—the rescue—the liberation—the divine embrace—the belonging—of you, of me, and of the whole creation.

Let’s prepare to receive these gifts which God has offered to make us whole together. Amen

Lent 5, 22 March 2015

Lent 5, 22.3.15 Bridgewater

Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

There are very few things that everybody learns by heart any more. We each learn the songs that we like best; sing along with them when we hear them. And the advertising industry does its best to make us memorise little bits and pieces; implanting memories to sway our decision when that moment of choice arrives. But everyone remembers different things.

It’s quite different in more traditional societies. We went to a wedding in Bethlehem, and then afterwards to the reception. Two things struck me about that reception. First, there were lots of children. And second, when the DJ played songs, everybody danced, from toddlers to grannies; and they all sang along with the songs. I was stunned. How could they all have these songs in common. Song united everyone; it was lovely and joyful.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

During the service today, we’ll be reciting words together that people have said or sung for centuries all over the world, and in pretty nearly every language; much we know by heart. We should try not to look at the screen. And at communion, we’ll remember Jesus’s words when he first gave his disciples the bread and the wine, and we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer together. The words we know by heart are things that unite all Christians with each other; it’s strong and lovely and joyful.

These words bind us together, and we hand them on to our children; we help them to write these words on their hearts.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

Why do we hand out on these timeworn words and customs to our children? What difference do we hope it’ll make to them? They can’t understand those words now, and I’d have to say that a lot of us adults—me included—struggle with their meaning even into old age. What’s the point? Are we just indoctrinating them, or are we giving them something more? I believe we are giving them something very precious. And I’ve come across something that says it beautifully.

Jacob Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. A few years ago, he gave a talk about the great unanswerable questions of life; the questions that come from a deep place within us: Who am I? Does God exist? Is there a soul, and is it immortal? What can we know? What ought we do? What is good and evil?

He talked of the great body of ideas and teachings built up over thousands of years to help people as they try to answer these questions.

The great stories and images of the world don’t usually reveal their meaning to us right away. These great stories, these fairy tales, these Biblical images, these myths, these great works of art—sometimes they’re not there to convince the brain, … but they…go down in the direction of the heart. And later on, as the years pass, and suddenly life does something to you, some shock, some disappointment, some triumph, some extraordinary thing, and suddenly, ‘Ah! That’s what the story meant, that’s what the story was telling me!’ So try to let these stories come into you and slowly radiate their meaning.” He tells the story of a conversation between a pupil and a wise old Rebbe.

“… the pupil asks the wise Rebbe about a passage in the Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is part of the Torah, the heart of the Old Testament. There is a sentence there that says to ‘Lay these words upon your heart.’ The words, which sum up the fundamental belief of the Hebraic tradition, are these: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; And you shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ (Deut 6: 4-6)

And the pupil asks the Rebbe, ‘Why does it tell us to lay these words upon our heart? Why doesn’t it tell us to put them in our heart?’ And the Rebbe answers, ‘It’s because as we are, our hearts are closed, and the words can’t get in. So we just put them on top of the heart. And there they stay. There they stay until some day, when the heart breaks, they fall in.’”

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

The great wisdom: study it in all its forms,’ says Needleman, ‘and some day when your heart breaks, either in great sorrow or in uncontainable joy, it will fall in, and you’ll understand another level of [your humanity].”

I think at moments like that, we’ll feel God’s timeless, boundless love. We’ll feel it just when we need it; when we can finally comprehend it; when it can do the work it was send to do in us.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. Amen

Mothering Sunday

Sermon for Mothering Sunday 15-3-2015 Ex 2.1-10 Lk 2.33-38

The relations of the family to the outer world—what might be called its foreign policy—must depend, in the last resort, upon the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders. A woman is primarily fighting for her own children and husband against the rest of the world. Naturally—almost, in a sense, rightly, their claims override for her all other claims. She is the special trustee of their interests. The function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.
from Mere Christianity 1952. C S Lewis

On Mothering Sunday, it’s fun to look at these reflections by C S Lewis. They’re very much a product of his time and culture, ’though some people around now might still agree with him. It’s good to look at his very British reflections today, because the readings for Mothering Sunday take a very different slant on things. The Bible passages we’ve heard today show that the Hebrew people cherished precisely that protectiveness and fierce loyalty that made C S Lewis so uncomfortable. They cherished it about their mothers, think back to Moses’ Mum, Jochebed’s canny protection of her baby. * And in Psalm 34 today, we’ve seen how the Hebrew people cherished that fierce, protective loyalty in God.

When you put polite western Christianity side-by-side with ancient tribalist Judaism, what you highlight is that our understanding of God is very much shaped by our culture and by our personal experience. There’s been a dominant element in later Church culture that’s either romanticised and over-sweetened the feminine aspect to our faith (focusing on the purity of Our Lady, and a good version of womanhood that’s defined only by innocence or motherhood)—or we’ve just plain denied the feminine in our faith altogether.

But the grass-roots people have always fought back. Every time I go into Orthodox or Catholic churches, the votive altars tell the real story. The one in front of the sculpture of Jesus has a few candles politely flickering on it, but the candle-tray in front of the lady in blue is a veritable bushfire. The people—women and men—want that loyal, indulgent protectress to bend the old boy’s ear: a more direct approach would probably not work.

The message of today’s scriptures is perfectly clear. God is like a tigress for us; fiercely protective, unashamedly loving, and, despite dear C S Lewis, in very much the feminine way that made him so uncomfortable.

The picture of God we get from our readings this morning is of a God who entrusts very serious matters to women. Moses’ father isn’t mentioned in the story of his infancy; we just have the three women. The Pharaoh has decreed that all Hebrew baby boys should be drowned in the Nile. For the pure love of a child, Jochebed, his mother, Miriam his sister, and the daughter of the Pharaoh conspire together to save Moses from that fate.

The theological significance of their action—the sign that God is an active participant in this rescue—is flagged in the Hebrew word that we wrongly translate as a basket. The word in Hebrew is tevah תֵּבָה.

The only other place in the Bible where the word tevah appears is in the flood story, and there we translate it as the ark. By using this word, the author is telling us that these three women are doing the same thing that Noah’s family did; they are working directly under God’s orders—they are midwives of God’s plan for the world’s future—and so absolutely pivotal figures in salvation history. I find that spine-tingling.

God entrusts very serious matters to women. It’s not that men and maleness are shut out of this—that’s not the intention of this meditation. It’s just that at least on one day, we should consider the significance of the feminine principle in our God, in our community, and in our Church. Mothering Sunday is an invitation to see God and the Church beyond our usual, limited, culturally-defined horizons.

Today, we share the story of three women who subvert an unjust law; they observe its letter but they deny its spirit in order to care for a child. This is an insight that’s become ingrained in faithful Jewish people. In the Gospel we see the confidence of the old man Simeon. He entrusts Mary with the meaning of all his years of waiting for the Holy One of Israel. He knows she’ll follow through. God gave her this child; she’d stay with him no matter what. And Simeon’s trust is immediately confirmed by the prophet Anna.

Today’s stories present God as being like the woman who cares for a family when the father’s not around; like the caregiver who picks up what other carers have neglected. God is in solidarity with the committed carer.

Anyone who cares for the outcast, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the unlovable—is being like God. In a tangible way for those down-trodden ones, such a carer embodies the presence of the true God. So is it strange to think of God calling the Church to be a mother, and offer nurture rather than wield authority? Mothering Sunday is our opportunity to get to know God’s purpose for us better, and to develop as a community which, in God’s plan, would have us serve the world as an ark. Amen

Mothering Sunday Cake and Posy Blessing
Compassionate God, giver of life, love and joy,
on this Mothering Sunday,
we ask that you bless this cake and these posies,
that they may be to us
symbols of our communion with you and with each other.
As they were once scattered over our land
as blossoms and blooms,
grasses, vines, nut-trees, spice-bushes and sugar cane
and yet are now they are one,
so let us in our diversity
be your one redeemed people and your delight,
knit together by your love,
as you once knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.
All this we pray in Jesus precious name, Amen.

* Num 26:59 The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram: Aaron, Moses, and their sister Miriam.

Jesus Cleanses a Leper

Epiphany + 6 2015 Mk 1.40-45—Jesus Cleanses a Leper

And along comes a leper! Just about every verse begins with kai (and) in this early stage of Mark’s gospel. Events in Jesus’ life seem to cascade in on him at this very early stage in his ministry. Not just little things, though. And along comes a leper!

What do we know about the illnesses the New Testament calls leprosy? The word lepein that it comes from means scale or peel off; it describes a variety of disfiguring diseases, not just leprosy.

The law of Moses said anyone with a disease like this must cry out ‘unclean!’ wherever they went so that no-one would come near them and get contaminated. Jews believed that anyone touching a leper may as well have touched a corpse. To do so would shut you out of social and religious life for at least a week. But someone who actually had this sort of disease was numbered among the living dead; an untouchable.

This man who came to Jesus was an outcast of the most severe order. Rabbinic writings after Jesus’ time show that scholars believed leprosy was as hard to cure as it would be to raise someone from the dead. So leprosy was really a life sentence: this man was perpetually unclean. It meant a life forever apart from everyone else. On top of that, many people saw leprosy as divine punishment for some serious sin the sufferer must have committed. So he couldn’t expect to be treated with compassion either—You’ve only got yourself to blame! He lived out in the wilderness in many ways. That’s where he came from, and he came to Jesus.

He must have been desperate to approach anyone. The loneliness and desolation must have been gnawing at him from the inside like the disease gnawed at his body to make him so reckless.

And he says to Jesus; if you choose, you can make me clean. It’s as if he is talking to God—only God can heal at will. But strangely, he doesn’t ask to be healed. He asks to be made clean—to be restored to society.

Of course, that meant healing, but the most important thing for this man was being clean: the chance to be with people again! It meant so much to him—he wanted it so urgently—that when he was healed, he couldn’t wait until he’d seen the priest before he talked with people. What use is a priest anyway. They can only declare people clean. Jesus could make them clean. Suddenly he was whole! He had to tell everyone this.

But let’s go back to the way Jesus treated him. It says he was moved with pity. If you have modern Bibles, you’ll see a little footnote mark next to the word pity. The footnote will read, Other ancient authorities read anger’.

Several commentators opt for the more difficult reading of anger. One of them said; you can understand a scribe who’s making a copy of the gospel changing anger to pity. But what scribe would change it the other way? Bruce Metzger says it may even have first been mistranslated into Greek from Aramaic (Jesus’ language. In Aramaic’s modern version, Syriac, ethraham means he had pity and ethra`em means he was enraged). What do you think about this story if the word is anger?

There are certainly angry sounding words later on in the story, After sternly warning him, Jesus sent him away at once.v.43

What could have got into Jesus? … There are many things to discuss about this passage if we are to get to the bottom of it, but in the end, we have to ask what is gospel—what is Good News—about it? For me, the good news is how this story says who Jesus is.

The Gospel of Mark has a thing called a messianic secret in it. Read the gospel, and count how many times Jesus heals someone and then tells them to keep quiet about it; not to tell anyone he’s the Messiah. Mark didn’t want us to focus on Jesus as a miracle worker. For Mark, no-one could never appreciate what it means that Jesus is the Messiah without knowing him as the crucified one. And Mark proclaims Jesus as just that in this story.

The leper comes to Jesus out of the wilderness—out of exile, if you like. He’s untouchable; cut off from going where he wants to go, unable to touch anyone, and a danger to anyone who might touch him. Jesus rejects this man’s isolation. He does it by publicly touching the untouchable. And the man is set free, immediately. Suddenly made whole, he bounds off to bathe in his restored contact with people. Verse 45 says that he goes off proclaiming freely and spreading the word.

He does what Jesus wanted to keep doing. But verse 45 goes on to say Jesus can’t do that any more. Now he’s the one who can’t go openly into a town—who has to stay out in the wilderness. This is the Jesus we know from the cross. That leper in the wilderness had been on a cross, but by touching him and restoring him, Jesus changed places with him. This is the meaning of the cross. It’s a source of joy and freedom to the outcast and broken, because Jesus wills our wholeness, and gives of himself to make it happen.

This is the Gospel. Jesus the Messiah becomes one of us and sets us free to be ourselves—whole and connected. And the new freedom—the new life is a taste of the resurrection life he calls us to share with him. We must continue to preach this, and bring people to him from every wilderness.

‘Cut a deal’—mutual trust

Lent 3b 8-3-15
(Ex 20 1-17 Ps 19 1 Cor 1 18-25 Jn 2 13-22)

Cut a deal’—mutual trust

Lord our God, by your Holy Spirit, write your commandments upon our hearts, and grant us the wisdom and power of the cross, so that, cleansed from greed and selfishness, we may become a living temple of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is a beautiful, rich collect prayer; a precious string of pearls which gathers the themes of today’s readings and also threads through other Biblical themes in a remarkable way. It opens with the invocation Lord our God. It’s a simple but amazing statement that our life with God is one of mutual belonging and trust; and this gives meaning to everything else.

By your Holy Spirit, write your commandments upon our hearts. Linking Holy Spirit and our hearts recalls Rom 826-27 where we learn how the Spirit lives within us, praying for us in those agonising longings which never find words, and that God, who knows the heart’s secrets, understands these prayers. (J B Phillips tr.) It’s a beautiful picture of how our mutual belonging with God finds expression—it’s an utter gift of God.

Here we ask the Holy Spirit to inscribe God’s commandments on our hearts; very different from how God’s commandments were first given. As we read, they were first given through Moses to the people of Israel—a written covenant of mutual care. In Ex 3118 we’re told they were written with the finger of God on tablets of stone and given to Moses.

But in our collect prayer this morning, we prayed that God the Holy Spirit might inscribe them not on tablets of stone, but directly onto our hearts. This evokes the new covenant in Jer 31, where the Law of God would be inscribed onto the very hearts of the people of Israel.

Can the finger of God touch our hearts? We’ve just prayed in confidence that this should happen. What will this do for us? Will it grant us the wisdom and power of the cross The collect prayer links the touch of God’s finger on our hearts with blessings of wisdom and power. Here, it echoes the Psalmist’s love-song to God’s Law. Psalm 19 celebrates the way God’s commandments revive our souls, how they give us wisdom and joy, clear our vision, and purify us, leaving us with the sweetest taste in our mouths—so much more than much fine gold can do for us.

Is that an odd move for you? The Psalmist is simply contrasting the gift of the Law with the other standard measure of value, fine gold, which comes off a poor second. Law and gold—relationships and power–represent the two sets of values competing within us. Do we begin to hear the distant, muffled chink of coins falling from the money-changers’ tables here?

Paul also picks up this wisdom and power theme in his comparison of the wisdom of the Cross with the other wisdoms it confronts: the empirical proofs of signs, and the idolising of rhetorical prowess and learning. Here, he speaks directly into our time. Our culture gags anyone who doesn’t use what we might call a scientific methodology, and by doing that, we write off and destroy whole civilizations and races. Paul knows that neither signs nor learning speak with anything like the power of God’s love; a love we encounter uniquely in the Cross of Christ.

I knew a young man who valued philosophical wisdom far more highly than any religious belief. He angrily rejected the notion that people might be in any way answerable to God, or owe anything to Jesus.

He set upon any Christian he encountered with a furious zeal, in his own mind shredding the delusional logic of their faith, and attacking the God who seemed to cruelly demand so much perfection from such frail vessels. One day, he picked the wrong victim. This one, far from joining the argument, began to weep at this misrepresentation of the God who gives everything. That day, the young man began the journey from dead-end wisdom to the true freedom, wisdom and power of the Cross.

Grant us the wisdom and power of the cross, so that, cleansed from greed and selfishness, we may become a living temple of your love. Cleanse. The collect prayer now links us to the Gospel, where Jesus cleanses the Temple of commerce. Here is the same Law and gold tension we heard in the Psalm. Now the distant cascade of falling coins is drowned by the thumps of falling tables, the lowing, bleating and clattering hooves of startled beasts, and the anguished roars of Jesus, the sellers of the birds and animals and the outraged money changers.

Cleansing greed and selfishness is a roaring battle which Jesus fights for and with us. It’s an inner battle. And today, we see a dramatic picture of it in his cleansing of the Temple.

We know this, because when the officials ask him what sign he can show them to justify his outrageous behaviour—yes, they do require empirical proof—he tries to teach them that the cleansing was the sign. It was a sign of the inner cleansing we all need so that our bodies might become living temples of God’s loveworthy temples of the Holy Spirit we have asked to inscribe God’s Law on our hearts. And because we are his body, we ask God to do this for us in his name; in Jesus’ name. Amen

Lent 2b A & C

Lent 2b A & C 1-3-2015 Mk 8.31-38: 34bIf you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me

Deny yourself: what might that mean? Maybe it means deny yourself something you can normally have? In the season of Lent, people often deny themselves luxuries—usually food and drinks, like chocolate, meat, sweet drinks and alcohol—except on Sundays, of course. Other people deny themselves things they enjoy doing. Concerts, films: I’ve known some give up computer and smart-phone games; even Facebook!

Often giving these things up isn’t the hard part. But the way people treat you when you can’t eat the same things they do can be pretty hard to cope with; especially if they’ve invited you to dinner! No, denying yourself isn’t the hard bit. The hard part is dealing with the people around you who think you’re being anti-social or just silly. What would your friends say if you told them you were taking 6½ weeks off Facebook for Lent? Exactly!

But why deny yourself something you can normally have anyway? You might want to give the money you’d have spent on these things to someone who’s not as fortunate as you. If our parish Lenten offering to ABM projects was 400 households worth of money normally spent on chocolate, alcohol and meat over 6½ weeks, it would add up to quite a bit, wouldn’t it. Or if we could give our time. Imagine 6½ weeks’ worth of the time we might all have spent staring at screens—all that time donated to volunteering. That could make a big difference somewhere, couldn’t it.

But we need to ask the question, Was this what Jesus actually meant when he said Deny yourself? Did he mean give up chocolate or screen games? Or did he call us to do something deeper than that.

Did he mean perhaps deny myself—deny who I think I am, so that he can give me a new self? Would he really want to do that? What’s wrong with our old selves? We’re not perfect, of course. But God loves us the way we are, so what’s wrong with keeping our old selves? Why change?

Yes, God loves us as we are. But are we necessarily the way God wants us to be? Isn’t there any room for improvement? Our Lenten studies on Romans already tell us there most certainly is room for improvement—particularly in our attitudes to other people. … The chapter after this morning’s reading from Romans has a very special sentence in it: Rom 5.8 God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That means everyone. We Church-goers aren’t any different from anyone else. And it only takes a glance at the news headlines to confirm that there’s massive room for improvement right across the human race.

If you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. Deny myself. What exactly about myself does Jesus want me to deny? I got one unexpected answer to this question last week; deny myself the benefits of institutionalised racism. Where did that come from?

Betty Argent and I spent Tues and Wed at Tauondi College, Port Adelaide for a Cultural Respect Training Programme run by Anglicare. I imagined we’d be learning about Aboriginal customs and how to avoid accidentally offending people. But it wasn’t like that at all. Pretty early on, we were discussing racism; trying to define it and how to deal with it. Some of us wanted to define it as a product of ignorance: you fear what you’re not familiar with. Easily fixed, we thought. Mix. Once you meet people of another race, your ignorance dissolves, and so do your negative feelings.

Not so; we were challenged about that head on. Negative racial attitudes don’t come from ignorance. They’re learned—and they’re shared. We also learned that people get disadvantaged on account of their race when white people get advantaged or privileged on account of our race. Our privilege —our advantage—takes up space and resources that should be shared equally among all people. We learned about this through stories.

One of the leaders of the programme—an Aboriginal man—told us the story of the first time he flew to Darwin for his work. He got out to the airport taxi rank and joined the queue. When he got to the front of the queue, and the next taxi arrived, it was given to the white man behind him. Then the same thing happened again. And when the third taxi came, the next white man in the queue tried to insist that the Aboriginal man take it. But the response was, No you take it mate; he’s only goin’ to the bottle-o.

Two taxi drivers, two passengers and whoever was controlling the taxi rank all agreed that white people should go first; that the taxis were firstly the right of white people. White privilege is invisible to us, and yet we carry it everywhere we go.
from Peggy McIntosh’s White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. (ie without being harassed by suspicious police)

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” colour that more or less match my skin.
… on and on until no. 50

Jesus said, If you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. It seems to me that the self Jesus wants me to deny is one I never even knew existed until last week; the self that unthinkingly lives with all these privileges which push people outside my whiteness behind me in the taxi queue of life—as if I’m some sort of higher being!?

My job this Lent is to follow Jesus who denied himself his own glory—unimaginable heights—to come down to you and me, and raise all of us—whatever our race—raise all of us up from the dust of which he made us.

Lent I 22.2.2015

Lent I 22.2.2015 Gen 9.8-17, Mk 1.9-15 Jesus’s ministry begins

Two readings to wonder about today.

The first reading talks about the time just after the great flood, when Mister and Mrs Noah and their family and all the animals and birds came out of the Ark. They are all given a very special promise by God, called a covenant, and it was a promise of blessing to all the animals as well as the humans.

Every rainbow we see reminds us of that covenant, and that God cares about all living creatures. We are God’s people, so I wonder what that means for the way we look after animals now.

In the Gospel, Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan River, and straight after that, the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness and he lives out there for forty days. He’s tempted by Satan, he’s living with the wild beasts; and the angels look after him.

There are those wild beasts again.

I wonder if that means anything for us as Christians.

Four things happen right after Jesus passes through the waters of baptism; 1 he sees the heavens torn apart, 2 he sees the Spirit descending onto him; 3 he hears God the Father call him ‘my Son, the Beloved’ and declare he’s ‘well pleased’ with him.—So surely he must be ready for his public ministry now; powerful, blessed and deeply connected with God. But no, there’s something else. Suddenly, immediately, 4 the Spirit throws him out into the wilderness for forty days where he’s tempted by the enemy—the accuser—and he’s with the wild beasts, and the angels minister to him.

Is this baffling? It’s important for us to notice two things here. The ministry of Jesus is to come not out of his divine power, but out of his human weakness. And we humans are not the whole of God’s plan: part of it, yes; but only part. Once he’s baptised, Jesus goes first to be with creatures other than us: wild beasts; angels. We are not the whole story

Jesus comes out of the water and he’s thrown into the wilderness for forty days; being with beasts. This connects him with the flood story. It also connects him with the central story of God’s ancient people; the Exodus. God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt bringing them to safety through the waters of the Red Sea. They got across safely, but also found themselves in the wilderness; in their case for forty years.

And at the end of the Exodus story, Joshua (same name as Jesus) led God’s people across the Jordan river into the Promised Land, and suddenly they had to fight battle after battle if they were to keep hold of the land at all. For God’s people, coming up from the water is a new beginning.

But not always an easy beginning. It lands us in a new adventure that God’s been planning for us. We make our landfall only to feel like we’re starting from scratch. Kindy—school—work—marriage—parenthood … Suddenly, we’re reminded of how helpless we are—utterly reliant; like newborns. Jesus knows this feeling. And that’s good news. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s experience of the wilderness is one of nurture and care; angels minister to him. Temptation is not the centre of Mark’s version; it’s being in a real world and receiving care when you need it. Jesus is one of us; not aloof—not all-powerful; not invulnerable; quite the opposite.

We learn from him that our pilgrimage is a journey into learning to rely on God; learning to discover God’s care for us—and for the beasts and angels—to learn it from experience; not by rote. We learn from today’s gospel that like his baptism, ours was always going to be a signal of testing to come, but that none of us approaches that time of testing alone. Jesus had beasts for companions and angels to meet his needs. Who do we have? Who’s committed to sharing our years of pilgrimage with us; God’s ministering angels in our wilderness times?

Now a word about those wild beasts out in that wilderness. God loves them just as we know God loves us. What we learned from the flood story this morning, and what we can learn from the book of Genesis (1,8 etc), in the Psalms (50, 105, 128), and in the prophet Isaiah (11), is that God has a special care for the wild beasts. According to scripture, the wild beasts Jesus was spending time with were creatures that God had declared to be good, creatures that God also made a covenant with, creatures who, as the Psalms tell us, praise God by their very existence.

I believe that now, as we grow increasingly aware of our impact on the other families of Earth, a part of every Christian’s pilgrimage will need to include an awareness of our responsibility for what happens to God’s other creatures. We must be ministering angels of God to those wild creatures, just as we’ve always been protectors of any human beings who, for whatever reason, can’t speak in their own defence.

We have to make sure that our children and grandchildren grow up knowing how to choose to be ministering angels of God to silenced people and wild creatures. But we have to make sure those people and creatures survive now, so our children might have them to care for.

And we have to make sure that children can grow up in a way that gives them space and time to experience wilderness—not distracted, but simply in a wilderness—where they can have the opportunity to learn how they rely, at the most basic level, on their God; the God who calls them into existence, the God who loves them, the God who calls them on their pilgrimage with all God’s people as ministers to all God’s beloved.

And finally, should the world change and our own children come to number among those who are silenced by poverty, disaster or tyranny, we have to ensure that these Bible stories are told everywhere—that the Gospel reaches all families of the Earth—that God’s words might go forth. For if they do, they will not return empty. God will call other carers to follow the example of Jesus—to minister not out of their strength, but simply from who they are.