St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Notes for Reflection

September 1                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 13:1, 7-14

Theme:  "Humility", or some variation on that, is the obvious choice this week.

Introduction.  Solomon, or indeed any king, would seem to be an unlikely source of teaching on humility; but as Jesus bases the first part of his teaching on Solomon's pithy sayings in our gospel passage this morning we should perhaps resist any temptation to scepticism of that kind.  Hebrews comes to a conclusion this week by reiterating that a key element of our worship is our attitude towards others, and our whole lifestyle.  One-off efforts may make us feel good but they don't make us good.  Like Jesus himself, our life of faith must be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Background.  In the week in which Messrs Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones launched their bids to become the next leader of the N.Z. Labour Party, while across the Tasman Messrs Rudd & Abbott held their last campaign debate before next week's election, we are invited to reflect on the great spiritual virtue of humility.  [On that subject, perhaps, Shane Jones scored an early point with his public assurance that he is a "flawed human being", though he may have rather spoilt it by suggesting that everyone he knew shared that condition.  Personal humility and the dismissive judgment of others don't really belongl in the same sentence.]

Last Saturday I listened to a very interesting interview by Kim Hill of Scottish novelist Janice Galloway.  She has written two volume of autobiography with the intriguing titles  -This Is Not About Me and All Made Up.  I was particularly taken with that first title, although I assumed immediately that she was simply being clever, funny or cute.  She wasn't.  Her early years were dominated by her Mother and her elder sister, Nora (she called her Cora in the book).  The message Janice got from both of them was brutal: you are nobody.  You have no worth.  Who do you think you are?  This was so extreme that much of it must be attributed to some nasty streaks in the character of the mother and the sister.  But there was also a recognition that some of this reflected the culture of the time – at least, in Britain.

My mother's greatest fear was that I should become "bigheaded".  If someone praised me for something in her presence she would (to put it nicely) set it in context – "Well, there was a large element of luck involved, wasn't there, Roger?"  This would be accompanied by the maternal look that ruled out any response on my part that in any way could be construed as lessening the element of luck and increasing my personal contribution.  This was not due to any meanness on the part of my mother – far from it.  She was doing what most good parents believed was right at the time – teaching her young that in our culture we do not put ourselves forward, we do not draw attention to ourselves, and we never, ever boast about our own talents or achievements.  In those days there was no scope for the tall-poppy syndrome: from a very early age we poppies were taught not to bloom in public.

At the same time, as Janice Galloway described it in the interview, enormous stress was placed on keeping up appearances.  In the privacy of the home, her family was in a state of continual civil war: but nobody outside must ever get even a hint of this.  The code of silence was not invented by the Mafia, or by sexual abusers of family members.  It covered everything about the family.  Again, her comments rang loud bells for me.  Whenever I committed some misdemeanour or others (like Shane Jones I was a flawed human being in those days) my mother's immediate concern came out in the form of a question: "what will people think?"  Not "why did you do such a dumb thing?" or "what are you going to do to make amends?" but "what will people think?"

As I listened to this interview, and reflected on my own childhood experiences, I realised for the first time what a conflicted message my generation was given.  On the one hand we were not to get above ourselves; not to think highly of ourselves, and generally to accept that we were of no significance at all.  On the other hand, we must constantly guard against any loss of reputation in the eyes of others.  Of course, a large part of the reputational thing was more about their reputation than our own.  If I "forgot my manners" (another favourite parental expression of the times) it might reflect badly on my parents; but in reality when called to account for my mistake it was never a good idea to plead my poor upbringing in mitigation.

Has any of this got anything to do with humility?  In one sense, no.  Humility cannot be imposed upon us.  We can be taught to refrain from any behaviour that could possibly be interpreted as boastful; we can be taught, in other words, to "act humble". But humility comes from within and is the fruit of self-awareness – an ability to know ourselves as creatures of God, flawed, yes, but not fatally so, works in progress on our way to perfection.  In a moment I want to consider the issue of whether our readings are about true humility, or only about how to "act humble".  But first there is, I believe, an issue about the relationship between humility and truth.

To start with a simple example.  If I say "Valerie Adams is the greatest woman shot-putter in the world at the moment" I am stating a fact – I am speaking the truth.  But if Valerie Adams says "I am the greatest woman shot-putter in the world at the moment" how do we characterise that statement?  It is a statement of fact – she is telling the truth – but now it has a different feel to it, doesn't it?  It's boastful – it's not for her to say, it's for others.  Should she then say, "Oh, not really – I have just had an amazing run of luck?"  And then there are the three Labour men we started with.  If one of them says that he believes he's got the gifts and talents that make him the best candidate, is he boasting or not?  And would we really prefer a candidate who says that one of his rivals is better qualified?  (Now there's a point of difference for a candidate seeking to raise his public profile!)

As always, we need to dig a little deeper, and when we do at some depth or other we will find God.  Is Valerie Adams the world's best woman shot-putter?  Yes, she is.  How has that come about? In part, through instruction by her coaches, and by the support of Athletics New Zealand, her sponsors, and many other family members, friends and supporters.  Let's call that Level One.  But none of that would have got her where she is without her personal contribution; her willingness to do all the training, practising and travel; and, of course, her dedication and focus on the day of competition.  Let's call that Level Two.  But none of that would have got her to where she is without the physical and mental qualities she has, some acquired, perhaps, but most innate.  She was given them as part of the gift of life; and the source of that life is the one we call God.  At the deepest level we can say that Valerie Adams would not have become the greatest woman shot-putter in the world today without God's gifts to her.  Perhaps at the heart of the spiritual virtue of humility is the profound belief that everything we are and everything we do depends ultimately on the gifts of God.

Proverbs.  The fact that The Lectionary could come up with just two consecutive verses as a related reading for the gospel passage reminds us that The Book of Proverbs is an eclectic collection of pithy saying ranging from the profound to the bizarre.  Today's verses are taken from chapter 25, which opens by informing the reader that what follows are "other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied" (an interesting cross between good provenance and political spin, perhaps).  If your antennae are not already on high alert, read verses 2 and 3; scepticism about Solomon's credentials for giving advice on humility may be justified after all.  Verse 6 could be read as no more than a summary of the royal protocol: do not approach the king unless expressly invited to do so.  Verse 7 is a little terse.  For whom is it "better"?  And why is it better?  Presumably to avoid the humiliation of demotion.  But isn't that more to do with my mother's question, "what will people think?"  Surely, a truly humble person would not need this teaching anyway.

Taking It Personally.

  • Are you on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks?  If so, why?
  • Do you have a C.V.?  In an interview would you be able to "sell" yourself, or would you be more likely to "hide your light under a bushel"?
  • How do you react to praise?
  • If you attended a funeral service for a family friend where some seats were "Reserved for Friends of the Family" would you take one?


Hebrews.  This week we come to the end of this Book, with its central core of the divinity of Christ and the importance of true worship.  Today the author reminds us again that true worship comes out of who we are as people of faith; we cannot offer true worship to the Holy One if we do not live holy lives.  He starts very simply: "Let mutual love continue."  In other words, he starts with the community of faith.  Two good things here.  First, it seems that mutual love is already the norm; this is an exhortation to keep it going, not to start doing it.  Secondly, the word "mutual" reminds us that we are not only called to love others but to let others love us – not always evident in our faith communities, from my experience.  Then he opens the door, as it were, to the rest of the world.  A life of faith requires hospitality to strangers.  It also requires marital fidelity.  Then comes the crunch: do not develop a desire for wealth – accept what you have – and place your trust in God.  We are down to Level Three again.  Ultimately everything depends on God.


Taking It Personally.


  • A day for self-examination.  Read slowly through verses 1-7.  Which challenge you most strongly?  Make your confession to God.
  • Now ponder your own attitude towards worship in the light of verses 15 and 16.  Are you a Sunday morning worshipper or is your whole life an offering to God?


Luke.  I wonder if the authors of The Lectionary had a less obvious reason for linking verse 1 with verses 8-14 than simply providing some scene-setting.  Try this.  In verse 1 "they were watching him closely": they had Jesus under surveillance, to coin a phrase.  Cut to verse 7 and Jesus "noticed" what some of them were doing.  Intentionally or not, the juxtaposition of these verses shows that "they" were presuming to sit in judgment on Jesus to whom they are themselves to answer one day.  The little episode in verses 8-10 does no more than illustrate the same teaching in the reading from Proverbs, and carries with it the same problem of interpretation or application.  Is it practical advice to avoid public humiliation or is it about something deeper?  The answer comes in verse 11.  Then we have verses 12-14, surely as counter-cultural (or even counter-intuitive) as they come.  I mean, who actually DOES this?  Maybe on Christmas Day, or the occasional street party, or at times of community distress following natural disasters.  But in normal, regular circumstances?  Again, there is a clue to suggest that we are approaching this teaching on the wrong level; and that clue comes in verse 14.  To be hospitable and welcoming in this way is not about self-denial, self-sacrifice and self-flagellation.  This attitude and ministry of this kind bring blessing.  How often do we hear our "good sorts" say that they get far more out of helping others than they give?  Maybe that's not false-humility – maybe they are telling the truth.


Taking It Personally.


  • When you attend a dinner party, or a wedding feast, does it concern you where you are asked to sit?  If you are the host, how much thought do you give to the seating arrangements?
  • Do you invite "spares" to join you for Christmas lunch? 
  • Have you ever taken part in a community Christmas lunch?  As a helper or as a diner?
  • Are there any circumstances in which you might follow Jesus' teaching in verses 11 and 12?

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Notes for Reflection

August 25                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Theme:  Nothing immediately obvious today.  The NRSV gives as a heading to chapter 58 of Isaiah "False and True Worship", and that seems to me to be pointing us in the right direction.  But life is rarely that simple.  I'm going with "Loving God by Worship and Service", for reasons that I hope will become clear below.

Introduction.  Isaiah at full roar is always magnificent, and the whole of chapter 58 is his supreme tour de force.  His target is not ritual worship per se: it is pro forma ritual worship offered from motives other than the love of God.  Nor is he advocating a programme of social justice and social service as an alternative to temple worship.  Rather he is reminding the people of his day and ours that true worship of God manifests itself firstly in offerings of praise and thanksgiving to God AND in loving service to others.  The gospel passage from Luke makes a similar point.  Jesus is not decrying synagogue worship on the Sabbath; he is objecting to any suggestion that this becomes an excuse for not meeting the needs of a sick woman.  Today we are more likely to get the balance wrong in the opposite direction: more voices are raised demanding that we give greater priority to social service and social justice than to the proclamation of the gospel and the holding of services of worship.  The Letter to the Hebrews, and particularly today's passage, should sear the ears of all such advocates.

Background.  It is so easy for us to tut-tut whenever we are confronted with a story like the one Luke gives us today.  It's usually the Pharisees that earn our scorn in these instances: today it is the leader of a synagogue; but our complaint is the same.  Bloody legalist!  What's the matter with him?  Why isn't he joining in with the crowd in celebrating this marvellous healing?  What does it matter when or where it happened: the important thing is that it happened.  Alleluia!  Who among us is not entirely "with Jesus" on this one?  Well, as a recovering lawyer and a semi-retired priest let me offer another perspective.

Let's look at it for a moment from the point of view of the synagogue leader.  He was responsible for organising the synagogue services.  He has found readers and someone (Jesus) to do the teaching.  The usual congregation has assembled in the usual place at the usual time for the weekly service.  In comes a crippled woman, just while Jesus is teaching; he notices her, breaks off his teaching and heals her.  What happens next?  Pandemonium.  And what happens next week?  My bet is that a vast crowd of sick, injured, and crippled people are standing outside the synagogue waiting for the doors to open.  Some have camped out overnight to get a good place in the queue.  The place looks like a cross between Lourdes, Boxing Day sales, and a film premiere for One Direction.  When, then, is a service of worship to be held?  And if you think I'm being too generous to the synagogue ruler have another look at verse 14.  Come and be cured on one of the other 6 days of the week, he says.  Leave the Sabbath for worship.  Is that quite as outrageous as we like to think (or as we suppose when we don't bother to think)?  It was all very well for Jesus: after periods of intense ministry, he went off into lonely places to pray and re-charge his batteries: there was no such escape from the synagogue or the adjoining vicarage/manse!

Here's a little true story to play with.  A Roman Catholic friend of mine was rushing out of her house one Sunday morning to go to mass when her phone rang.  (This was in the olden times when phones were attached to the wall.)  Despite being late for mass she grabbed it, and discovered a close friend of hers in tears over some family crisis and asking my friend if she could possible go around to her house.  My friend said she was just on her way to mass, but would go around to her caller's house as soon as mass was over.  [Pause.  Think.  Is this a case of legalism?]   As my friend got into her car she suddenly realised that she had made the wrong choice.  Instead of driving to the church, she went straight to her caller's house, as requested.  Are you now sitting there, nodding vigorously, and saying "I should jolly well think so?"  What if she was the organist or (less likely) the preacher that day?

Here's another story, this time from my own dark past.  I was on the Vestry of a small church at the time when legislation was before Parliament clearing the way for Sunday shopping.  Some on our Vestry were outraged at this and demanded that we send a letter of protest to our local MP.  I suggested another approach.  What if we agree as a Vestry that we will not conduct any business on a Sunday – we will not buy anything from any shop or other retail outlet.  If we then wished to write to our MP she would at least know that we were practising what we were preaching.  My suggestion was defeated: it was too impracticable – how else could we get our Sunday newspaper, petrol for the car, and an ice-cream for the kids?  Besides, it was legalism and we weren't into that.

And then there is the wonderful world of ethical investment.  I happened to be Chairperson of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship when the Anglican Church in this country started to consider this whole issue; and one specific item caught my attention.  In fact it was brought to my attention by the Bishop who was promoting it.  He wanted the Church to decide that no Church funds should be invested in any company that manufactured, imported or distributed weaponry.  How could any Anglican disagree with that?  I certainly didn't.  But I had a question for the Bishop: did that mean that he wanted the Church to renounce the use of armed force – that is, adopt the pacifist position?  If it is unethical to manufacture or import weaponry, does that not mean that our armed forces must be disarmed?  I did not receive a reply.  Some questions are unanswerable.  It's a moot point which one of us was the legalist this time.

So where is all this getting us?  Was Jesus saying that whenever a person interrupts our Sunday morning service (even the sermon!) by seeking our help in some way we should stop what we are doing and attend to the problem?  Is he saying human need always trumps divine worship?  If so, surely that is simply replacing one legal requirement with another. Or is he really saying that it is not possible to divide up service to God and service to others in this way?  That both arise from our love for God – both are aspects of our response to God's love for us?  Is he saying that so-called dilemmas of this kind cannot be solved by consulting rule books, even biblical ones?  That in all circumstances, in all places and at all times the question we must ask ourselves is this: how can I best express my love for God?  How can I best promote the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will, on earth as in heaven?  The answer to that question will not always be clear.  In verse 11 Isaiah assures us "The Lord will guide you": Paul writes of "living by the Spirit".  Somewhere in there is the spiritual cure for legalism – somewhere in there is the point of balance between our two lessons today.  By all means write Isaiah's verse 10 on your forehead, but be sure to leave room for Hebrews' verses 28 and 29!

Isaiah.  It's probably as important to notice what Isaiah is not saying about the Sabbath as what he is saying.  The real problem is a disconnect between their spiritual practices and the rest of their lives.  In modern terms he is not advocating abandoning weekly worship in favour of doing good works on a Sunday!  He is advocating (again, in modern terms) a holistic spirituality.  Notice that this is not just for the practical purpose of improving the lot of the disadvantaged and needy; it also brings blessing to us.  One of the major themes of this chapter from verse 8 onwards is that service to others brings our own healing (verse 8a).  And the other main point to note is that removing the legalistic approach to Sabbath/Sunday observance does not mean that we may do whatever we like on "our day off": see verse 13 in particular.  Each and every day is a gift of God to be used for the purposes of God, rather than for pursuing our own interests.

Taking It Personally.

  • Read slowly and prayerfully through this whole chapter 58.  Try to be particularly aware of your own feelings along the way.  Remind yourself that this passage is now addressed to you.  Notice which verses make you uncomfortable, and which "pass you by".
  • In general, do you have a sense of Sunday being different from every other day of the week?  In what way?  Apart from attending a service of worship, how do you mark this difference?
  • Do you consider Sunday in some way as "my day" – when I'm free to do whatever I like?  Are you ever aware of any tension about how you might spend the day?
  • Return to the story of my Roman Catholic friend.  Would your reaction to that story be any different if, instead of heading off for mass, she had been heading off to work, or a dental appointment?
  • Reflect on verse 12.  How might this apply to your local faith community, the diocese, the Anglican Church as a whole, or the Church as a whole?  Is this whole passage calling all Christians to a spiritual renewal?  What is the Spirit saying to the Church through this passage?


Hebrews.  I said last week that the readings for last Sunday, taken collectively, were a good antidote for the disease of sentimentalism that afflicts us all from time to time.  Gentle Jesus meek in mild looking forward to a worldwide outbreak of fire was a bit of an attention grabber.  This reading tends to follow along the same path.  It seems to me a warning against our all-too human approach of swinging from one extreme to the other.  To start off, we are reminded of the terror the people felt when God came down on Mount Sinai.  Understandably, they were all for staying off the mountain and sending Moses up to see what God wanted.  Now we believe all that has gone: Jesus has made peace for us with God.  Now we do not need to hide, to avoid the holy mountain.  Now we don't need a Moses to stand between us and God.  Now we have direct access to God – now we may ascend the mountain for ourselves.  All that is true, but the danger in all that is that the God who terrified the people of Moses' time has been replaced in our minds with, if not a pussy-cat god, then one who is "a good mate of ours".  It seems to me that this is the sort of danger that is worrying the author of this Letter.  We need to be reminded that we are still called to offer "acceptable worship with reverence and awe".  Far from being a pussycat, "our God is a consuming fire".


Taking It Personally.


  • Ponder those last two verses.  How do you feel about them?
  • Does your local faith community worship God "with reverence and awe", or is there a tendency towards mateyness and flippancy?
  • Reflect on the image of God as a consuming fire.  Is that a helpful image for you?  If not, what might be a better image to describe God for you?


Luke.  I've said most of what I wanted to say about this story in the notes above.  But perhaps it's worth saying a bit more about verse 17.  Here we find that the leader of the synagogue was not without supporters, albeit that they were "put to shame" by Jesus' vigorous defence of his actions.  So when Luke tells us that the entire crowd was on Jesus' side, it's a little confusing.  Probably there was an eruption of factionalism, resolved by Jesus' opponents being either won over, or at least shouted down.  But the important point is that Jesus' ministry to this woman results in "rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing"; which is a pretty good description of worship, isn't it?


Taking It Personally.


  • A good passage for praying with your imagination.  Replay this scene in your own local church.  How would you respond as this crippled woman came in late (in the sermon slot!)?  How would you respond when the Vicar criticised her?  How would you respond when the visiting preacher ministered to her, and healed her?  Would you join in the rejoicing?  Would you go back next Sunday – expecting what?
  • What wonderful things will you be rejoicing about this Sunday?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Notes for Reflection

August 18                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Theme: This Sunday is designated "Religious Vocation Sunday"; in view of that, and the rather dire content of the readings set for the day, an obvious theme may be "You Have Been Warned!"; or, perhaps, "Think Again!".  Whatever you choose it must surely have an exclamation mark.  These readings are shouting at us.  They have the tone of final warnings.  I'm going with "Signs of the Times" (which doesn't seem to need an exclamation mark!).

Introduction.  After weeks of rather "nice" readings we have a collection today guaranteed to chill the blood; or at least provide a strong antidote to any attack of Sunday School sentimentality which can afflict us from time to time (usually in the Christmas season, so it's good to start building up our immunity now).  Jeremiah is known variously as the "Prophet of Doom" or the "Weeping Prophet", both of which have a basis in fact but are equally unfair to him.  He lived and ministered in a period of almost constant military and political turmoil, where panic was the default setting.  Sound, godly leadership was mostly non-existent, and false prophets were in abundance.  Things had not greatly improved by Jesus' time.  The truth of God, proclaimed by Jeremiah and incarnated in Christ, fell upon deaf ears.  In each case the people seemed blind to the gathering crisis.  In such circumstances true faith in God is the only remedy, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews completes his long remembrance of such faith as a source of encouragement for us.

Background.  Over recent weeks I have been reading much and pondering much on the relationship between our doctrines of creation on the one hand and redemption on the other.  This was prompted by reading some of the published works by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI who, it seems, has a higher opinion of Teilhard de Chardin's theology than some of his predecessors.  One area of theology in which the Cardinal believes Teilhard's work to be particularly helpful is the doctrine of creation.  Both of them argue for a re-think of our understanding of that doctrine, and of its relation to our doctrine(s) of redemption, in the light of modern scientific knowledge, particularly in cosmology and evolution.  This is far too big a subject to get into here, but I want to focus on one aspect of it that might help us to survive this particularly difficult gospel passage today. 

In broad terms we can say that biblical cosmology painted a somewhat static picture of the universe.  From a human point of view, we could picture the world (the earth) as a stage on which we are placed to live out our lives.  In essence, creation was finished, complete, done and dusted – and, of course, perfect.  Had we not stuffed things up by departing from the script that happy state would have lasted for ever.  We did stuff it up, and we have continued to stuff it up, individually and collectively, ever since.  The essence of that "stuffing up" is disobedience of the (largely) transcendent God, who, being just, must punish us.  Throughout our faith history until the coming of Christ God found all sorts of ways to effect that "punishment", including natural disasters, plagues, pestilence, and invading armies.  What our pre-scientific faith ancestors lacked was any real understanding of cause-and-effect: what we now see as consequences they saw as specific acts of God.  Their primary image of God was that of lawgiver and judge; and the consequence of that is that we see the primary function of Christ as redeemer, saving us from the just punishment of God.

But what happens if we substitute a different primary image of God – the image of the loving Creator of all things?  And what happens if we use the insights of science to understand that creation was not a one-off event, completed long ago, but is a process that has been going on for about 13.7 billion years and is still going on?  What if we understand that God has chosen to create in this way and that science is one source of revelation through which God is revealing his creative will and purpose for us and the whole of creation?  What if, instead of merely singing "God is working his purposes out", we actually believe it?  What if we remind ourselves that in the world as God has chosen to create it our actions have predictable consequences – that what our pre-scientific faith ancestors saw as acts of divine retribution we should see as the consequences of our own actions?  That our loving Creator gave us free will, but also, through the Law and the prophets – and today I would add, the discoveries of science – gave us the wisdom to foresee the consequences of our choices and act accordingly.

Here's a very simple example that I used many years ago in a sermon on the Ten Commandments.  At the top of a very high and dangerous cliff, with a crumbling edge, two notices were erected.  One said: "It is forbidden to proceed beyond this notice.  Penalty: Death."  The other said: "Extreme Danger.  Crumbling edge: sheer drop.  Stay away."  Were those notices saying essentially the same thing and serving essentially the same purpose?  Surely they were, although one expressed the warning in terms of punishment, the other (implicitly) in terms of consequence.

Today we could draw a number of analogies.  Just before I started typing these notes, I received a notice of a lecture to be given by Jeanette Fitzsimmons arguing for a radical re-think about our economy in what she is calling a "post-growth" world.  Is she a prophet or a false prophet?  Take your pick, but her approach is a modern equivalent of Jeremiah's.  So, of course, are the voices warning of global warming, and those raising alarm about the degrading of our waterways .  Professor Jim Mann might be surprised to know that I think of him as standing firmly in the prophetic tradition as he warns about the consequences of our dietary behaviour, and of our reluctance to exercise as much as we need to.  I'm sure that he could write a very modern set of dietary "laws" to match anything we have in the Book of Leviticus, for example.  "You shall not eat any foods containing...(sugar/salt/fats)..or you shall surely die (prematurely)."

Some of Jeremiah's most difficult issues related to "matters of state", as we would call them today: to relations with foreign powers, to defence of the realm and national security.  He and the modern prophets I have just referred to remind us (sometimes unknowingly) that in the world as it is being lovingly created all issues are issues of faith: do we proceed in the way that God is seeking to lead us (do we seek to co-operate with God in his creative work), or do we prefer to set our own course in opposition to God's?

Jeremiah.  A quick overview of chapter 23 illustrates the sort of issue I have been raising above.  It starts with a condemnation of the present leaders, who have not been faithful to their charge as shepherds of God's flock.  Then comes a messianic prophecy, revealing a future stage in God's creative plan.  But in the meantime the country seems overrun by false prophets, continuing to lead the people into error.  So God is working out his creative plan, revealing it through his chosen prophet, Jeremiah, and calling for faithful commitment by the people.  The test is, who is speaking the word of God – who is telling the truth?  And notice the three qualities of God's word: it is grain, not straw (it feeds and nourishes); it is like fire (it purifies); and it is like a hammer (it is powerful, irresistible).

Taking It Personally.

  • Start with verses 23-24: are you ever tempted to hide from God?  When?  Why?
  • Reflect on the image of God as the loving Creator of the evolving universe, in which everything that advances that process is good (in accordance with his will) and everything that hinders that process is sinful (contrary to his will).  Is that how you see things?
  • Reflect on the major issues in our news media over recent days.  Are any outside the proper realms of faith (or should I say of prophecy)?
  • From the Lord's Prayer reflect on the petition, "Your kingdom come, your will be done".  Could this be translated, "your creation be made perfect, your purpose be carried out"?


Hebrews.  The author presents a pretty grim picture of what faith can lead us into (a good choice for Religious Vocations Sunday?).  Some enjoyed "successful" outcomes at the time: others did not.  What mattered in all cases is that they stood on their trust in God, whatever their personal circumstances at the time.  They refused to compromise, literally on pain of death.  It reminds me of the story of the adult catechumen in a Wellington parish who suddenly pulled out of the process shortly before he was due to be baptised.  When asked why he said he had been advised that a Christian has to be prepared to die for his or her faith, and he wasn't.  The congregation reacted to this news in disbelief: "What nonsense?  Who on earth told you that?"  [It was, of course, the Vicar.]


Taking It Personally.


  • Re-read the whole of chapter 11.  How do you feel about it?  Does it inspire you or discourage you?
  • Reflect on the Wellington story.  Has anyone ever told you that you must be prepared to die for your faith?  Does such an idea have any real meaning for you?
  • Can you recall an occasion when your faith was costly to you?
  • How do you distinguish between a hero of the faith and a religious fanatic?  Is chapter 11 really a distasteful list of religious fanatics?  Be brave – no one else will know what you think!


Luke.  There is no avoiding the fact that this is a difficult passage, made no easier by the fact that it appears to be an assortment of separate ideas brought together.  A good question to ask whenever we are trying to understand a passage of Christ's teaching is, to whom was he addressing his remarks?  Verses 49-53 seem to complete a long passage of in-house teaching addressed to his disciples, which began at verse 22.  Verse 54 onwards is addressed to the crowd.  Verses 51-53 have a parallel in Matthew 10:34-36; but verses 49 and 50 are unique to Luke.  The usual reading of these two verses is to take them as references to judgment, but I'm not sure that's right.  Again, the whole issue of the purpose of the incarnation and of Jesus' mission hovers in the background here.  Is he having a Boanerges moment here – is he the agent of God's destructive wrath?  Surely not.  He was not sent into the world to condemn the world, but to save it: John 3:17.  So I am wondering if the reference here to "fire" is to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, manifested, be it recalled, as tongues of fire.  This would seem to form a better link with the next verse:  the reference to Christ's baptism here clearly meaning his death on the cross.  Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, longs for it all to be over and the Spirit released into the world.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of people have noticed nothing: they have failed to read the signs of the times.  Even though the divine plan has been revealed to them through the Torah and through the prophets – even though they have been told over and over again of the coming of the Messiah and what that would mean and entail – they have not recognised that the Messiah has come among them.  Some have, of course, but others have not.  Division is inevitable, even within families.


Taking It Personally.


  • Try to visual Jesus' face and hair.  Does your image come from your Sunday School days?  Has he a gentle face, smiling, the very embodiment of the meek and the mild?
  • Now read slowly through this passage today.  Try to visualise his facial expression as he is saying these words.
  • What is he feeling?  Is he angry, threatening, ready to give up on them?  Is he fearful of what lies ahead of him?
  • What signs of the times are concerning you at this time?  How do you read them?  Make them the focus of your prayers this week.



Friday, 9 August 2013

Notes for Reflection

August 11                   NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Theme:  Even more than usual, this week's readings follow on the theme of last week – we have Part II of a two-part series.  Last week raised the question, what's it all about?  This week we have the answer.  So one possibility might be to make the link with last week explicit and go for "What It Is All About".  Alternatively, any theme that picks up this basic idea would be appropriate: "Faith/Hope/Trust in God"; "Seek First the Kingdom (or Presence) of God"; or, for those who want something a little edgier, "Coming, Ready or Not" might capture at least part of what the gospel passage is trying to say.  I don't have a clear favourite this week, but I'm leaning towards "The Journey of Faith".

Introduction.  Somewhat unusually, there is a much more obvious link this week between the two lessons than between the first lesson and the gospel.  Yet again Abram has a mystical encounter with God, this time one in which he is promised a son and heir of his own, and indeed descendants as countless as heaven's stars.  The writer to the Hebrews, in his great chapter on faith, uses Abram's willingness to believe such an unlikely promise as a classic example of the essence of faith, which is believing in the promises of God, not because they sound plausible, but because it is God who is making the promise and God is trustworthy.  Today's gospel passage starts with the conclusion of the Lord's teaching on the vexed issue of material and spiritual blessings; and then moves on to the need to be alert and prepared for the coming of the Lord at "an unexpected hour".

Background.  I want to start at the end today, with Luke 12:40.  Clearly, this is a reference to Christ's Return (his so-called Second Coming), but I think we make a serious mistake if we focus too much today on this verse.  Yes, we look forward to his Return at the end of the age, but is he not with us in the meantime?  It may be better to recognise that Christ's Return (or, rather, his apparent delay in returning) was a much hotter issue in the Christian Church of the first century than it is for (most of) us today.  I think our readings make more sense as a whole if we take verses 39 and 40 as a separate issue, and let verses 35 to 38 stand alone.  This gives us the way into suggesting that what we can take from this passage is to be constantly alert, open to the leading of the Spirit, and to any manifestation of the presence of God (or Christ).

Which gets us to Abraham (formerly, Abram).  He has already had at least three mystical encounters with God.  First, as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, when the Lord said to him, "Go".  Notice the complete lack of preliminaries.  What had preceded this – what relationship had Abraham had with God before that?  We are told nothing.  And what we are told we have long since forgotten!  Abraham was not called from Ur of the Chaldeans – but from Haran.  And perhaps it is significant that his father, Terah, it seems, made his own decision to take his family away from Ur with the intention of settling in Canaan; but when he reached Haran he settled there.  Up to this point in the family narrative there is no mention of God being involved in this migration: it is simply Terah's idea as head of the clan.  Now God takes over, calling Abraham to go to an undisclosed destination to which God will guide him, and promising to make of him a great nation and a blessing to others.  "So Abram went as the Lord had told him": his first act of unquestioning faith.

Further mystical encounters occur when Abraham reaches Shechem (12:7), and after Abraham and Lot have reached an amicable arrangement to go their separate way (13:14-18.  In each case there are sweeping divine promises, which Abraham seems to accept at face value.  And notice, too, that in each case he journeys on, building altars to the Lord as he goes.  Each place of encounter becomes a sacred place.

So today's passage is Abraham's fourth recorded mystical encounter with the Lord; and this time there is a new element.  This time the opening words to him are "Do not be afraid".  These are the classic words we find so often in divine-human encounters in the Scriptures.  But for some reason Abraham did not receive any such assurance until now.  Something was changing; his relationship with God was deepening.  And for the first time Abraham speaks to God, and a dialogue develops.  He tells God of his deepest desire, and pours out his pain at the lack of a son and heir.  He does not hold back; if a child is a gift from God, then God must be responsible for the lack of such a child.  Again, the promises are made and we finish with the famous sentence: "and he believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness."

Which is precisely the point taken up by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews.  But before turning to that, I want to pause and think about this passage in the light of the gospel reading.  Abraham had to be alert, ready for God to appear to him or speak to him whenever it pleased God to do so.  The initiative was (and is) always with God.  If Abraham had been "distracted by many things", too busy making a living, caring for his family, or whatever, how differently things might have turned out!  Or, of course, if he had been a sceptic, putting down such experiences to old age, the heat of the day, or an overactive imagination.

So lesson one for us today is to be always open to God, listening for God as well as to God.  And the second lesson for us today is to believe what we are told by God, and to act accordingly.  And there's the essence of the faith journey in a nutshell, really: hear, believe, and act.  And now let's crack the nut and open it up a little with the help of the Letter to the Hebrews.

We have seen that the faith journey starts with God's call to us; and now we are reminded that we have no idea where it is going to lead us.  For me, Hebrews 11:8 is a very special verse, for more than any other single factor it changed me from a lawyer to a priest.  I won't weary you with the details of my story, but notice the sting in the tail of that verse: "and he set out, not knowing where he was going".  [His father, Terah, had a destination in mind, even though he abandoned that along the way.]  All Abraham knew was that he was to set out, and God would lead him on the way.  The real issue always is: is this really God calling me?   Is this really God speaking to me?  That may not always be an easy question to answer, but if we conclude that it is God calling then there is only one response we can make -and that does not include a request for more details, such as travel plans, salary packages, or even a likely destination.  (Believe me, I tried all that!)  When the call is to go, the only response is to start moving.

Genesis.  Whenever I come back to the Abraham saga I feel the same sense of surprise.  The term "the Promised Land" has entered our own language.  We know instantly what that is a reference to.  And, of course, the "Holy Land", the Land of Israel, the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants, is at the heart of the intractable problems of the Middle East today.  And yet here is today's passage to remind us that to Abraham himself the promise of a vast tract of land does not seem to be such a big deal.  Perhaps because he is already wealthy in the worldly sense, the promise of yet more wealth doesn't have the same appeal as it might to someone of lesser means.  Or, perhaps, (and here's another link with last week's issues), he cannot see the point without an heir from his own body to leave it to.  His deepest desire, as expressed to God today, is for such an heir - nothing else comes close on his prayer list.  I thought of this passage as I watched the news on TV this week.  Of all the items covered, war, radioactive leakage, espionage, crime, unemployment, the threat to New Zealand's exports, only one thing mattered to parents – that the food they were feeding to their babies was safe.

Taking It Personally

·        When did you start your faith journey?  Can you remember what first started you off?  When did you first hear of, or from, God?  When did you last hear from God?

·         What surprises have you had along the way?  Are you any clearer about where the journey is leading you?

·        What do you most seek from God today?  Use Abraham as a guide to the direct, no-bluffing approach to prayer.  Is there something you feel that God has withheld from you?


Hebrews.  For the author faith is very much future-oriented.  He gives us the wonderful definition of faith in verse 1, and ties it in with the creative power of God.  If God can create all things visible out of nothing, then he can do anything he promises to do, as Abraham and Sarah found out in a very personal way.  Of course, most of the promises to Abraham could never be fulfilled in his lifetime, and there is another lesson for us.  As I read somewhere this week, do not look to the next quarterly balance sheet, look to the next generation.  But it's the second part of this passage that has caught my attention this week.  Again, it is surprising, in the sense that it lifts our eyes from the Promised Land to the heavenly kingdom.  Yes, this is an example of Christian re-writing of Hebrew history, perhaps; but it reminds us of last week's clash between material and spiritual riches.  We seek not a land of our own but a home in the presence of God.  That is the ultimate destination of the journey of faith: that is where Abraham was heading, and that is where his descendants in faith are heading, too.  After all, do we not pray every day for the kingdom to come?


Taking It Personally.

·        Start with verse 12.  Notice that Abraham wanted a son and heir.  God responded with a son and heir, AND innumerable descendants.  Reflect on the extravagant grace of God and be thankful.

·        Find a Property Press or a page of real estate sales notices.  Reflect on the language used.  How might the values expressed clash with the teaching of this and last's week's readings?  If you have bought a property, to what extent were you guided by your faith in that transaction?

·        If you are (like me) an immigrant to this country, what do you make of verses 15 and 16?

·        How often in your prayers are you concerned with matters as they might be years (even centuries) after your own death?  What are your hopes for New Zealand in the 22nd century?  Pray about them today.


Luke.  There seem to be three distinct topics here.  Verses 32-34 conclude the previous teaching.  The promise of land to Abraham has become the promise of the kingdom to us.  Notice the "little flock", redolent of pastoral care.  Verses 35-38 refer to the possibility of many events – on a day-to-day basis.  If we are open and welcoming to God/Christ, we will be blessed.  Notice that there is no comment on a failure to be open and welcoming.  It is an assurance of blessing, not a warning backed by a threat. Which leaves verses 39 and 40.  I can see the point, but, frankly, they don't really make it, do they?  Surely, the householder tries to keep the intruder out, not be ready to receive him at all hours?  Or am I missing something?  Perhaps it's something about discrimination?  Be resolute in resisting evil, while ready to admit Christ?


Taking It Personally.


·        The kingdom or your wealth, that is the question.  What is your answer?

·        How ready are you to meet Christ face to face?

·        As you lock up tonight pray for the grace to exclude from your life anything that might be displeasing to God, or slowing you on your faith journey.

·        When you get up in the morning, open your door and pray a prayer of welcome to Christ.  Assure him that he is welcome in your home and your heart.


August 4                     NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Theme:   So many ways of describing the same thing today!  "The Big Question", "What's It All about (Alfie)?", or "There Must be More to Life than This", or even "You Can't Take It With You When You Go" are obvious contenders.  (Notice how they suggest theme songs – if not exactly classic hymns.)  Perhaps we should restrain ourselves and go for "Vanity of Vanities".

Introduction.  Today we have an interesting variation on the theme of two ways of life (and death).  The more usual contrast we find in the Scriptures (particularly in the prophets and the epistles) is drawn between the faithful and the unfaithful, the godly and the ungodly, the moral and the immoral, the spiritual and the worldly – or, to use, more Pauline language, the spirit and the flesh.  Today's epistle reading has a fair dollop of this with Paul's references to the old way of life and the new.  But the other two readings offer a different choice, between life that is ultimately meaningless and futile and one that has purpose and eternal significance.  Tough choice, eh?

Background.  Ever since the so-called Enlightenment we have been led to believe that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Science and the Christian faith; mercifully that particular misconception is largely behind us now.  But for some reason the much more real and fundamental breach between Christianity and Economics (at least as it is practised in countries such as ours) seems to have largely escaped our notice.  But think about it for a moment.  Economics preaches competition; Christianity preaches cooperation.  Economics preaches the pursuit of self-interest; Christianity preaches concern for others.  Economics places a high value on scarcity and abhors surpluses; Christianity seeks enough for everyone and worships a God of abundance.  Economics sees a shortage of housing as an opportunity to make a profit; Christianity sees it as a failure of love for the homeless.  Economics sees foodstuffs as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder; Christianity sees them as gifts of God to feed the multitudes.  Economics sees employees as costs to be minimised; Christianity sees them as fellow bearers of the image and likeness of God.  Economics preaches that the purpose of life is to create wealth; Christianity preaches that the purpose of life is the union of all things with God.

No, Science is not the enemy of Christianity; Economics is.  That's why we find virtually no arguments in the Gospels that could in any way be described as issues of scientific interest, and countless examples of Christ shocking one and all with his views on wealth, materialism, and other issues of consuming interest (pun intended) to Economists and their political vassals.

Right, now I've got that off my chest, let's turn immediately to existentialism, so beloved of my generation growing up in the fifties and sixties and all trying to look suitably scruffy and angst-ridden.  We had discovered something called "anomie" or "alienation", someone called Jean-Paul Sartre, and somewhere called the Left Bank.  At least, a small percentage of us had – those who wanted to be misunderstood as intellectuals and artists.  The vast majority of my generation had discovered booze, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and having fun (or so they said).  They just enjoyed being misunderstood by everyone over thirty, especially their parents.  They had no idea what "angst" was, and certainly showed no signs of being ridden by it.  Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Ionesco passed them by.  I'm not a vindictive person, but I like to think that when their midlife crisis struck it was more severe than those suffered by we misunderstood intellectuals and artists who suffered all that angst in our late teens and early twenties.  There must be some consolation for not noticing the Sixties were swinging until they were well and truly swung out.

The author of the wonderful Book of Ecclesiastes must have been the Jean-Paul Sartre of his day.  He was certainly an existentialist.  The modern form lent itself very well to the Theatre of the Absurd.  It painted a picture of human life as basically "plot-less".  It was as if we suddenly wake up to find ourselves on a blank stage with no idea of the script, the plot, or whether or not there is anyone "out there" -  a producer, director, prompt, or even an audience; and very little idea of who the other actors on the stage really are.  Above all, there seemed to be no way out – no way forward, much less upward.  This is it – this is your lot until you die.

That's the angst that the Teacher (as the author of Ecclesiastes likes to call himself) is struggling with in this book.  It reminds me in some way of the equally wonderful Book of Job.  For Job the issue was, how can terrible things happen to good people as well as bad?  Here the underlying issue is similar: how come the industrious and the feckless heir end up in the same way?  What is the point of working hard, being smart, investing wisely and generally being the very embodiment of prudence if you're just one blood vessel lining away from death by aneurysm?  It's a real question, as much today as it has ever been.  And some forms of Christian preaching have not been very helpful in addressing this issue.  Have we not been taught that there is a breach – a fundamental breach – between love of God and love of the world, even though we are told in perhaps our best known verse of Scripture that God "so loved the world" that he sent his Son to save it?  Have we not been taught to downplay human achievement, especially our own, lest it lead us into the sin of pride?  Do not our manuals on the spiritual life exhort us to detachment from, and indifference to, material things?

In other words, the Church has never quite cleansed itself from the evil of dualism, compounded by an ill-conceived eschatology.  Our understanding of the End Times DOES matter: it should not be left to those we often think of as the lunatic fringe.  Nor should it be left to gloomy cosmologists.  The material world is not something that we will discard when we die and float off into the ether to be with God: nor is it something that will eventually die a natural death as the sun runs out of fuel.  It is something that is being redeemed by and in Christ, moment by moment, until ALL is in Christ and Christ is in all.  That's what Christianity teaches – at least, it does if it remembers to read St Paul as a mystic and not as a male chauvinist pig.  And it teaches us that this moment by moment process of redemption takes place by Christ acting in and through us.  That's why we are urged to work out our redemption in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12); that's why we are urged to do everything we do (even giving a glass of water to a thirsty person) to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31); and that's why we are even urged to speed the coming of the Parousia (2 Peter 3:12).  The good we do is of eternal significance because it is a contribution to the redemption of creation and it's reunification in God.  Once we get that into our heads existentialist angst need trouble us no more!

Ecclesiastes.  The author, perhaps, was clinically depressed when he wrote this stuff; yet the question he is asking himself is one that occurs to most of us at some stage or another.  What's the point of it all?  Why work hard, do the right thing, provide for the family, and then discover that your heir is a hopeless party animal and is looking forward to drinking himself to death on "your" money?  You work all day, he says, and you worry all night.  Where's the sense in all that?

Taking It Personally.

·        What would your answer be to a friend who asked this sort of question when all he or she had worked for over many years suddenly went up in smoke, was stolen or lost in some other "futile way?

·        What is the point of your life?

·        Reflect on the things you have done over the last week?  In what way have they been "redemptive"?

·        Pray slowly, reflectively, and repeatedly, "Your kingdom come on earth".  Ask God to show you how you can help that process this week.

·        It seems that the Teacher didn't enjoy his work.  Do you?  If so, does that change its spiritual value?


Colossians.  As stated above there is a good deal of dualism in St Paul's writing here, BUT he overcomes it!  Or, rather, he sees in Christ the means of overcoming it.  All the stuff he urges us to "put to death" – the old "life" – no longer applies.  It is the way of the self-centred – it is the mindset that Economics recognises in us and encourages us to maintain.  We must "get rid of all such things".  As we do so – process, not event – we will be "renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator".  We will become more Christ-like or God-like.  Ethnic and national differences will be overcome; economic class divisions will be abolished.  Christ will be in all and all will be in Christ.  That is the End to which God is working his purposes out – through us.



Taking It Personally.


·        Spend some time reflecting on your baptism.  Remind yourself of its significance.  Give thanks.  Ask for a greater awareness of its meaning in your life.

·        Ponder verses 2-4, reflecting on them phrase by phrase.  What do they mean for you?  What reality do they have for you in your everyday life?

·        Use verses 5-9 for a period of self-examination, and any necessary confession.

·        When you are undressing to go to bed, call to mind the undressing and re-clothing imagery in verses 9 and 10.  Make a little ritual out of the process. Or perhaps you might feel the imagery works better in the morning, shedding your night clothes and re-clothing yourself for the day.


Luke.  We might be tempted to overlook the opening clash (verses 13-15) in our haste to get to the main act here, but we should resist.  To my ears this little teaching is much clearer than the main block.  Someone in the crowd is having problems with a sibling.  The implication of his complaint is that his brother is refusing to share – he is being unjust and unfair – selfish and mean.  Jesus' somewhat brusque reply suggests that there is not much to choose between the attitudes of the two brothers: both our motivated by the same desire.  One has it, and wants to keep it.  The other hasn't got it and wants it.  Neither is showing love for his brother; both attach more importance to the loot than to their relationship.  But turning to the main story, what exactly is the rich fool guilty of?  He has received a bumper harvest from his land, more than he has storage space for it.  What can he do?  He decides to build more storage space.  (He probably held a B.A. (Econ) from a redbrick university somewhere.)  His plan is to put his good fortune in his version of a Kiwi-Saver account and provide for his future.  That way he will have "ample goods laid up for many years".  He can finally enjoy life.  BUT God tells him that he is a fool to think like this because...that blood vessel is finally going to break that very night, and his wonderful retirement funds will pass to who-knows-who.  Only in the very last verse do we get the punch-line: what he has done is to think only of himself.  He has not been "rich toward God".


Taking It Personally.


·        How should he have been "rich toward God" in those circumstances?  If he gave away his surplus, would he not depress the market?

·        Do you agree or disagree that this passage offers a critique of modern Economics?

·        What changes (if any) do you feel you should make in respect of your personal finances in the light of this story?

·        Is Jesus anti-rich, or anti-success, or just out of touch with the real world in which we have to make a living?