St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Notes for reflection

August 3                                 NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Theme:   I was going to suggest "A Free Lunch" this week, even though the purists among us might immediately suffer an acute attack of pedantry and insist that the mass meal (interesting expression, now I come to think about it) took place in the evening.  Well, "A Free Evening Meal" doesn't really work as well, does it?  Staying with the lunch motive, I wonder about "A Lunch Break".  For the last few weeks there has been a real sense of teaching and learning through the kingdom parables: as disciples we are being taught by the Master.  This week feels different: this time we are being taught about the Master and through him about God.  Anyway, our theme this week is about the Grace of God, however we want to express that in a pithy theme.

Introduction.  Once again we start with Isaiah at his musical best: it is near-impossible to read the first few verses of this passage without bursting into song: and why not?  The great prophet is calling us to praise the graciousness of God, whose bounty knows no limits.  We then turn to St Paul, who is now making a somewhat slow start to his next argument as he turns to the "problem" of Israel, the chosen people, who are proving to be far more resistant to Christ than are the Gentiles.  Given the daily tragedy of Gaza, St Paul's words seem to take on a stronger meaning this week.  Then we finish with the well-known story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew Edition).

Background.  This week Trish and I had a very pleasant evening with some friends who had invited us to their home for dinner.  Another couple (mutual friends of ours and our hosts') were also there, which added to the pleasure of the whole evening.  Conversation flowed as we settled in, sipping and nibbling the first offerings, until our hostess announced that all was now ready and invited us to come to the table.  We took the food, looked up to heaven and asked God to bless it and us.  Then we tucked in and delighted ourselves in the rich food on offer.

Of course, the time passed quickly, and all too soon it was time to go.  The familiar ritual of finding and sorting out our coats and finding our car keys was well underway, when our host asked if we would like to settle up with one bill or separate ones.  As we had all had pretty much the same meal (albeit, perhaps in varying quantities) we elected one account, which we would split between us.  But when we saw the bill we were quite shocked at the amount.  Granted GST had contributed to it, the total still seemed excessive so we asked the hosts to itemise it.  The amount for materials (food and drink) seemed reasonable, but the labour charge was excessive, and the surcharge for power (including heating and lighting) bordered on the outrageous.  And as for the charge for off-street parking!

I have, of course, made up everything in the last paragraph.  What I have been trying to do is to find out how Jesus' parables work so powerfully in us; and it seems to me that one of the elements in this technique is to take an ordinary situation and open our eyes to its real meaning.  The real meaning of the wonderful hospitality given to us by our hosts is that it brings us into the very presence – into an actual experience – of the grace of God.  And perhaps it is only when we imagine what we would think and feel on such an occasion if our hosts suddenly produced a bill and asked for payment that we can be jolted awake enough to see God in the generosity of our gracious hosts.

Let's try the same exercise on the all-too familiar story in the gospel passage.  Let's add to the end of verse 19 the words, "charging each of them one denarius".  Then we might reconsider verse 20.  Who, exactly, took up the twelve full baskets of leftovers and what happened to those leftovers?  Perhaps some of the crowd felt that, as they had been charged for their meal, they should have a discount, or a say in the disposal of the leftovers.  A doggie-bag each for the children at home?

Perhaps we miss something here if we take this event purely as a sign of Jesus' divine power, though it is certainly that.  But is it also another opportunity to repent, to change our mindset, to see another way of living?  Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves and others to accept that the old saying "there is no free lunch" is essentially a political slogan – when was the last time you heard it said by a hungry, disadvantaged person?  Every time we contribute to a food bank – or volunteer at a soup kitchen – or support "Food Share" programmes like the one run in Dunedin – we are offering an alternative way of thinking and acting, one that is much more in line with the readings we have before us this week.

And perhaps that issue of who is doing the talking is enough of an excuse to get something else off my chest this week.  When I was praying about the ghastly events in Gaza it suddenly came to me that this isn't a war between Israelis and Palestinians, this is a war between adults and children – (or, at the risk of sounding like David Cunliffe, a war between men and women-and-children).  Adults are doing the talking, and justifying, and explaining, and firing the life-defying weapons; children are doing the suffering and dying.  Israel's adults insists that it is seeking only to protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza; the Palestinian adults insist that they have no other way of defending themselves from the crippling blockade they have suffered for so many years.  There may or may not be some merit in those adult claims.  But (Palestinian and Israeli) children are suffering and dying because of them.


Parables have the power to change the way we think.  So do news stories.  So do questions – such as who is doing the talking and who is doing the suffering and dying.

Isaiah.   I love the heading to this chapter in the NRSV edition I am using: "An invitation to Abundant Life".  (It almost makes up for the ridiculous choice of "Ho" with which to open verse 1: to my ear it makes God sound like a cross between a rapper and a very shy Santa.)  The first thing I like about the heading is that word "Invitation" – what follows is not a command or summons – but a gracious invitation.  Come, my people, come to receive my heavenly food!  That's really what God is saying here as he stands behind the Holy Table.  And what he is offering is not the minimum he can get away with – it is "Abundant Life"!  And notice how easily the passage moves between eating and listening – both forms of receiving and taking into ourselves, of receiving nourishment, of being built up and made strong.  To what end?  So that we can become truly God's people, an attractive example to others, the people that witness to other peoples, passing on God's invitation to them, by what we say and do and become.  (It is against this backdrop that St Paul's comments in our second lesson should be read.)

Taking It Personally.

·        This Sunday pay particular attention to the "The Invitation" to receive Communion.  If you are administering the bread, perhaps use the words "Receive abundant life, and be thankful", or something similar. 

·        As you prepare for worship this Sunday (or, in fact, any Sunday), repeat to yourself the words from verse 2b: "Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good".

·        Reflect on your past week.  What has given you the most satisfaction "without money and without price"?

·        Have you spent money or time on something that brought you no satisfaction?  Why?

·        Are you spending enough time listening to God (verse3a)?


Romans.  How moving these words of St Paul are at this present time!  It is all too easy for people to assume that anyone who criticises Israel is anti-Semitic, if not a fully fledged Nazi-sympathiser.  No one could accuse St Paul of that.  It is precisely because, in the flesh, he is himself a Jew that he is heartbroken by Israel's failure to recognise the Messiah.  It is precisely because he accepts the "exceptionalism" of Israel's position in salvation history (how many nations falsely claim that for themselves today!) that he has "great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart" at the failure of his own people to see the new thing God is doing among them in Jesus Christ.  The point is, not that Israel is worse than any other people, but that it is failing to be better.  Today Israel is acting like any other state, perhaps, using its power to defend its interests, and seeing no reason to apologise for doing what every other state would do in the same circumstances if it had the power to do so.  But Israel has not been called by God to be like any other state: it has been called to be a light to the Gentiles.  And what is true of Israel is equally true of the New Israel, of which you and I are citizens, aren't we?


Taking It Personally.


·        Have I been unfair to Israel?  What do feel at this moment?  Is St Paul being unfair to his people?

·        How do you feel about the idea that the "New Israel" (that is, Christians) are called to be an example to others, and not behave just like others?  If "Moslem extremists" blow up our churches, is it okay to blow up their mosques?

·        Is bombing, etc a form of "child abuse"?  What about imposing a blockade, restricting the supply of food, water, and medical aid to children?  Would changing the language in this sort of way help or hinder the search for peace and justice?

·        As a citizen of the New Israel, how might you change your own language when talking about the situation in Gaza with your friends or family?


Matthew.  This is one of those very difficult stories to get congregations to listen to (including us!) because of the tendency to switch off as soon as it starts, not because it is alarming, but because it is so familiar that we think we have heard it all before.  The best approach may be to start with the issue of Jesus' mental and emotional condition at the start of the episode.  Even in a world of ever-increasing horrors there is still something particularly shocking about beheadings, surely!  Jesus has just been told about the beheading of his cousin John.  He immediately withdraws, seeking "a deserted place by himself".  But his cover is blown and soon vast crowds have walked miles to find him from surrounding towns.  How easy it would have been to hide, or to lose his rag and tell them in the Aramaic equivalent of Anglo-Saxon to "depart from this place".  But, of course, he did not do this.  He set aside his own need for time and space to grieve – and, perhaps, to consider his own safety – and he gave himself in ministering to their needs.  Then the disciples turned up – where had they been?  Had they been enjoying time off?  Anyway, they bring the practical mind into play.  Okay, Lord, it's nearly closing time.  These guys must be famished – send them off to the nearest takeaway or hot-bread shop, so they can BUY REAL FOOD.  (Cue to preachers, a chance for comic irony here!)  But Jesus turns it back on them – you feed them!


Taking It Personally.


·        So this is about learning how to be a disciple after all!  Another reason to review your past week.  In what way(s) have you helped to feed others this week?

·        In what way(s) have others helped to feed you this week?

·        What sort of "food" are you thinking about?

·        Reflect on the words of The Invitation at your local church this week.  Are all truly welcome to participate?  How might you encourage others to come?  Is Communion more important or less important than the cuppa afterwards?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Notes for Reflection

July 27                                     NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Theme: We have a sort of "residual estate" gospel reading this morning: after the great gifts of individual parables, we get the remainder collected together as one lot.  But for me one shines out from this collection (no pun intended) – it is the Pearl of Great Value.  It fits nicely with our first lesson – the gift above all gifts chosen by Solomon.  So a theme that reflects the idea of the "all-surpassingness" of God/Christ/Spirit would seem to be called for.  Perhaps "Before All Else" or "Above All Else" would do.  Or, for those with one eye on Glasgow for the next few days, we might choose "In First Place".

Introduction.  We begin this week with the inspired choice Solomon makes when offered a divine gift of his choosing.  He chose the gift of wisdom, the ability to discern good and evil, so that he may govern God's people.  Our second lesson is the conclusion of the great chapter 8 of St Paul's Letter to the Romans, which also fits well with our theme of the all-surpassing greatness of Christ.  There is also a sense of this in the gospel reading this week: I get the feeling that, after chapter 13, Jesus "goes up a gear", both in his teaching and action.  There is far less of the class-room flavour of his later teaching, much more a feeling of "field work", integrating his teaching and his practical ministry in one seamless life of instruction.  And the common theme that threads through chapters 14-25 is about seeking and discerning the will of God in all circumstances.

Background.  I wrote last week about the complexity of life in the "real" world, and how we are called to seek the Spirit's guidance in all circumstances, including those where we are pretty sure we know what to do.  For me this issue – which is essentially about a real, robust spirituality that makes sense in the world as it is – was taken to a whole new level by two snatches of music that featured within one five-minute news bulletin on National Radio this morning (Thursday).  First, there was a wee bit of stirring Scottish pipes to introduce an item about the City of Glasgow and how excited everybody was as the Games were at last about to begin.  Then came another item from Europe, this one introduced by a lone bugler playing the Last Post, as the first of the caskets carrying victims of the downed plane were brought back to Holland.

What are we to make of that?  Is it enough to wear black armbands, and to have a minute's silence, before we turn our attention to watching sportsmen and sportswomen strutting their stuff?  However dramatic the image, are two wreaths on otherwise empty seats in a soccer stadium enough to allow the rest of us to enjoy watching a game of football?

I had not got very far with that issue when the newsreader went onto others.  Pita Sharples was insisting that it is not enough to preserve Te Reo as a language – it's important to ensure that local dialects are preserved as well.  And, while he was on the air, could he also say how absolutely disgusting it was for people in Auckland to burn an Israeli flag at a protest about the situation in Gaza?  Important to preserve differences?  Disgusting to burn a flag in protest against killing people?

And the servants said, "Master, do you want us to go and...?"  And what?  Stop the Games?  Learn a new Maori dialect?  Ban protests – at least, by people who burn flags?  Or none of the above?

Perhaps we could start with prayer, and what better way than to pray with Solomon, "Give your servant an understanding to discern between good and evil."  And to acknowledge with Solomon our own incapacities: "I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in."  And perhaps the Spirit will start interceding for us (translation: on our behalf) because we do not know how to pray as we ought.

There was one voice of reason on the programme just after that news bulletin.  He was talking about the situation in Gaza, and he said all violence must stop: the only way to achieve peace is for all sides to come together and talk to one another.  He was a member of the Jewish Christian Council, soon to be expanded to include Moslems and become the Abrahamic Faiths Council.  But he started his argument by saying, "As a Jewish person myself..." and he lost me at that point, as he would have done if he had said "As a Palestinian myself..."  Only a person who says, "As a human being myself..." will hold my attention now.  Only a person who understands what it means to believe that in the New Creation, in the world as God intends it to be, there is no such thing as Jew or Palestininan, as Ukranian or Russian.  Whatever our native tongue or regional dialect, there is only one language God has blessed and it is called the language of love.

What can we do in this sort of world?  We can examine ourselves.  On any ongoing issue do we instinctively take sides?  Do we "understand" Israel's position, and accept that Hamas must be doing the Enemy's work?  Do we side with Kiev against those "pro-Russian rebels"; do we condemn Russia for supplying sophisticated weapons to rebels in the Ukraine without wondering which European countries manufacture and export the most sophisticated weapons to virtually anyone who has the money?  Or do we remember the lesson from last week's readings – that the work of the Enemy is to seduce (deceive) well-meaning servants of the Master to achieve the Enemy's purposes?  Hamas and Israel, Ukraine and Russia, all believe that they are fighting for justice – for their own people.  It is when they have the wisdom of Solomon they will realise that to create enmity, to increase the numbers of those who have reason to hate them and to want revenge against them, cannot bring them peace.  It is when they realise that there is only one people, to whom all human beings belong, that they and all of us will says with St Paul, "Now in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

May the Games in Glasgow show us that whatever our sport and whatever our national origins, we are capable of transcending our differences and celebrating our shared humanity.  We owe nothing less to the 298 fellow human beings who died on MH 17, and to the countless others who have died and are dying in the Gaza Strip, Israel, and all the other parts of the world where men and women still claim separate identities for themselves and others.

Kings.  How's this for political spin!  No wonder the creators of the Lectionary thought they should protect our tender ears and minds from the first few verses of this chapter!  But even so!  A king can perhaps be forgiven an arranged marriage – "a marriage alliance" – to promote good relations between his nation and a powerful neighbour; and we do understand that to praise one's deceased father might be helpful to soothe feelings in a somewhat mixed (reconstituted) family; and, with Christchurch still fresh in our minds, we can readily accept that in the absence of a temple Solomon (and the people) would have had to use less desirable places of worship.  But to claim that King David "walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart" is surely going a tad outside the bounds of truthfulness and accuracy.   But that's the point, surely.  There is no super-class of human beings, a kingly caste, who are immune from all the sins and weaknesses found in the rest of us.  Kings are as human as we are, no better, no worse, essentially no different.  All the more remarkable, then, that this human being, known to us as King Solomon, when offered whatever he wanted, chose wisdom.

Taking It Personally.

  • What would you have chosen?
  • Spend some time reflecting on your present circumstances.  What one gift do you most seek from God at this time?  Ask God for it.
  • Are you "instinctively biased" towards one "side" or the other in situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict or the Ukrainian-Russian one?  Do you apportion blame to one or the other?  On what basis?


Romans.  St Paul rounds off his great argument to show that, in Christ, EVERYTHING is changed.  The old understanding, the old identities, the old hostilities, the old values, and the old ways of life are all renewed, not because we have decided to do things better, but because the Spirit of God has chosen to reside in us and transform us from the inside out.  Of course, all this is baffling and difficult for us to comprehend, but we don't have to.  What we do have to do is yield control of our lives to the indwelling Christ.  Let the Spirit do our praying for us, as we learn to live as one great family.  God is on our side because there is only one side – who then can be against us?  And who or what can ever come between us and God?  Everything else is relative, everything else is of lesser value than our relationship with God in Christ.  His is the victory over the Enemy in which we participate – in that sense, and only ever in that sense, can we claim to be victors, whatever may happen on the battlefields of the world.



Taking It Personally.


  • Start with verse 26.  Bring to mind some situation that is concerning you, such as the conflict in Gaza.  Do you know what to pray for?  If so, pray for it.  If not, acknowledge that before God and remain silent.  Let the Holy Spirit do your praying for you.
  • Read through the rest of the passage slowly and prayerfully.  What particular words strike you?
  • Stay with verse 36 for some time.  Is it defeatist?  Or should we read it as the prelude to verses 37-39?  How do those verses strike you?  Empty rhetoric?  Rampant triumphalism?  Or reassuring and comforting, a sure ground for hope?


Matthew.  Perhaps this somewhat motley collection of small sayings is the perfect conclusion to this week.  The image that comes to my mind is that of the crash scene strewed over such a wide area of productive farmland, rich in beautiful sunflowers.  Somewhere in that twisted, burnt metal – such a graphic icon of the work of the Enemy – there are human bodies hidden there, whose value is beyond price because they were and are precious to God.  Their presence makes the whole area sacred, and in doing so overcomes the worst that that the Enemy has done.  A scene created by sin and death is now glowing with the glory of God.  The people looking for them may be compared to a merchant looking for the finest of jewels and discovering that each one is as fine as every other.  The  kingdom of heaven is like this Ukrainian field, full of such hidden treasure.  The dead will be collected and honoured and commended to the mercy and love of God.  The wreckage will be taken away and disposed of appropriately.


And Jesus asks all of us as we look at that scene:  "Have you understood all this?"


Taking It Personally.


  • Have you?
  • Which of these parables speaks most directly to you?  What is the lesson in it for you?
  • Hold a seed in your hand.  Gaze at it.  What will it become if it completes its life cycle?  Now re-read verses 31-32.  Give thanks for the mystery of life and growth.
  • Pray for the growth of new life Gaza, In Israel, and  in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Pray for new life in your heart, in your faith community, in our Diocese and in our country.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Notes for Reflection

July 20                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Theme: The subject is surely clearer this week, even if finding a pithy theme to encapsulate it is no easier.   Good and evil co-exist, both in our human nature and in the whole of creation.  That's the fact we asked to confront this week, isn't it?  So perhaps a safe choice might be "The Need for Discernment" or "The Gift of Discernment".  For fans of Thomas Green, S.J. we could simply plagiarise the title of his book "Weeds Among the Wheat" – a little alliteration often helps to give a short motto a bit of bite.  (On a similar topic he also wrote "Darkness in the Marketplace", but that may be more confusing than helpful on this occasion.)  The need is to focus on seeing this as a practical problem – not an interesting theological issue.  So perhaps "Practical Discernment 101" might appeal.

Introduction.  We begin again this week with Isaiah; and the theme of the moment for him is the need to turn away from falsity to truth – from idols to the One True God.  That surely is the solid foundation on which to base all true discernment.  And the fundamental test here is to look at the divine track record: what God says will happen, does happen: what idols and false gods promise is not fulfilled.  Go, figure!  St Paul is coming to the same point through his long argument of which our second lesson is a part.  We know we have the Spirit within us by what we say and do.  On the basis of the inner transformation which we have experienced and are continuing to experience we can have hope for a better future, not only for our species, but for the whole of creation.  In our gospel passage we are shown the world as it is now – and how we are to live in it.  Wisdom, not direct action, is called for.

Background.  Three things to chew on this week, in ascending order of seriousness and importance.  First, a quote from Dr Don Brash.  A few weeks ago he was interviewed by Kim Hill on National Radio.  When she got on to the issue of his marital infidelity she expressed, with her usual delicacy, not any ethical denunciation of his actions, but her sheer astonishment that HE, famous for his unworldly intellectualism, should have engaged in something so carnal.  How could that be?  His response was immediate and simple:  "Well, Kim, there is such a thing as evolution, you know"  If you are one of those who is still trying to get your head around chapters 7and 8 of St Paul's Letter to the Romans I commend the good doctor's comment to you.  What St Paul calls life in the flesh is the product of evolution: it is our animal life that has evolved over millennia to meet our basic needs, including primarily our need to survive as a species.  What our faith tells us is that Christ has inaugurated a new stage of evolution – he calls it the new creation – a stage of spiritual evolution, in which our physical instincts and appetites (the evolutionary imperative) can be brought under our control, if we choose to do so. 

The second issue that is occupying my mind this week concerns the proposal to establish a memorial to conscientious objectors in Dunedin.  The spokesperson for the R.S.A. is treading carefully in her opposition, keeping her argument to the issue of the appropriate site.  She does not want it on Anzac Avenue, which has special significance to the troops of the First World War, and alongside which trees have been planted in their memory.  The latest reports suggest that the trustees for the proposed memorial have been offered an alternative site and are considering it.  All sorts of issues arise from this argument.  Were our troops not fighting for our freedoms, including our freedom of conscience?  Is it not agreed that our treatment of Archibald Baxter and others like him was so outrageous as to be a serious blot on our war record as a nation?  Do our returned servicemen men and women have a strong view on this issue, or is this the view of the professional employees who presume to know better?

But what particularly interests me at this moment is the light this parable can shed on the issue.  Master, did you not designate this avenue to be a memorial to the good seed of New Zealand youth who went to the Front in World War I?  How is it then that there is also a memorial to weeds like Archibald Baxter? ... Do you want us to go and knock it down?  No, because in doing that you might injure the very people whose memory you are trying to honour.

Thirdly, and most importantly, is the tragedy of Gaza.  Who is right and who is wrong in that terrible situation?  And the only possible answer from a Christian viewpoint must surely be that all those whose actions are causing, directly or indirectly, suffering to others are wrong.  But let's focus on the application of this week's Parable to the situation, and, in particular, to Israel's attempts to go and uproot the Hamas rocket-launchers.  If it were possible to do only that without causing any "collateral damage" (the language of war is truly ghastly) it would be hard to deny the justice of Israel's cause.  But, of course, it is not, and despite all possible counter-accusations and official spin, the Israeli Government knows it is not.  So the punch-line in this parable is exactly in point again.  No, do not try to destroy the rocket-launchers because in doing so you will destroy the innocent as well as the guilty.

One of my favourite commentators on the parables of Jesus is the American Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, whose trilogy comprises The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment.  He is particularly good on this Parable of the Weeds.  He points out that that what the enemy has done (sown weeds among the wheat) is not what damages the wheat: the master's response only makes sense if the wheat can nevertheless grow to maturity.  Any damage to the wheat will be done by the well-meaning servants.  Thus, the "enemy" (evil) is not effective or powerful in itself: it can only achieve its aim by deceiving (tempting) people into doing its work.

The outcome of Don Brash giving into temptation was the destruction of his marriage, which he deeply regrets.  The outcome of the stoush over the site of a memorial to conscientious objectors is likely to be a far more prominent position for the memorial and a lessening of respect for the RSA for its ungracious attitude.  The outcome of the Israeli bombing of Gaza is likely to be an increase in support for Hamas and international opprobrium for Israel, perhaps the real reason why Hamas keeps firing rockets that do comparatively little harm to Israel's citizens.  Those with evil intent achieve their aims by tempting their targets to harm themselves.

Isaiah.  This part of Isaiah seems to date from the time that monotheism is becoming mainstream in Jewish religious understanding, but, of course, not without some resistance.  In chapters 40 and 41 Isaiah exposes the folly of idolatry by contrasting it with the glory of God.  In chapters 43 and 44 he reverses the order, but the point is the same.  It is absurd to believe in idols we have made ourselves – how can they have power that we do not have?  But the most important point Isaiah is now making is that it is not an issue of theological debate: it is a matter of practical observation or, we might say, of historical record.  What does our experience tell us?  God has spoken the truth: what he has foretold from the beginning has come to pass.  Who or what can match that?    Who or what can compare with him?

Taking It Personally.

  • Are you sure you are a monotheist?  Are you convinced of the reality of God as the sole source of life, goodness and everything else?
  • Is God your primary source of identity?  Do you place your identity as a Christian ahead of all other identities, such as gender, race, or class?  What does that mean for you?
  • Looking back, how would you summarise God's "track-record" in your life?
  • Is God the rock on which you are building your house?  Does your faith in God enable you to make right decisions in the "real" world of your everyday life?
  • Focus on verse 8.  Are you one of his witnesses?


Romans.  There is so much in this passage that it is impossible to do it justice in one lesson.  (Whole books have been written just on chapter 8!)  And, of course, each passage is carefully linked by St Paul, with what precedes it and what follows is; he is after all developing an argument.  For me the best place to pick up the argument this week is back at verse 9; verses 9 to 11 comprise one of his key points, which he then elaborates in verses 12 to 17, before broadening it out in verses 18-25 to apply to the whole of creation.   As mentioned above, our modern understanding of evolution fits well with what St Paul is talking about here.  Something new and extraordinary has "intervened" in the evolution of our species, and through our species the rest of creation.  The Spirit of Christ has been released into the universe and seeks to be incarnated in the material of created matter, our own first and the rest following.  It is not an instant, immediate and universal transformation, but one that is slow, gradual, and ultimately all-embracing.  We are caught up in that process.  How do we know?  By our own experience.  Do we experience God as "Abba" – do we experience the reality of being children of God – not in some esoteric moment of supposed spiritual rapture – but in the tough, gritty world as it really is at this moment?

Taking It Personally.


  • Well do you?  Does this passage accurately describe your relationship with God as you experience it?
  • Do you fear God?
  • Do you address God in your prayers as "Abba"?
  • Does the understanding that God is creating all things through evolution appeal to you at all?  Does it help or hinder your understanding of the state of the world today?
  • Do you live in hope for the future?


Matthew.  At first glance, this is an odd parable.  It does not seem to be drawn from actual practice, in the way that the Parable of the Sower could well have been.  After all, it is unlikely that a neighbour really did hop over the fence and broadcast weed seeds willy-nilly in a paddock of freshly sown wheat.  Nevertheless, it is a wonderfully clear story with a very important point to make.  Which raises the obvious question, why did it require such a laboured (we might say "corny") explanation?  One clue might be found in verses 34 and 35, which precede the explanation, and seem quite superfluous given that they cover the same point that has already be dealt with at much greater length in verses 10-17.  Perhaps in the early church there was a real issue with this form of teaching, particularly among Gentile converts.  They weren't used to it and didn't get it.  Today our mistake may be in assuming that this parable is really one of judgment, designed to assure us that the bad guys will get what's coming to them eventually.  Remembering that this teaching is for those who wish to be or become disciples of Christ, it is surely about how we deal with evil when we encounter  it.  And then we remember that the one who is instructing us is the one who accepted death on the cross rather than a sword fight to the death.  God's wisdom is different from ours; hence the daily need for discernment guided by the Spirit.


Taking It Personally.


  • Read slowly through the parable several times.  Don't be in a hurry to go past the opening words "The kingdom of heaven may be compared..."
  • Think about the expression "cutting off your nose to spite your face": is that a useful summary of this parable?
  • Can you recall an occasion when, with the best of intentions, you took action only to discover that you made things worse?
  • How might you respond to a similar situation in the future, guided by this parable?
  • Is Jesus advocating an acceptance of evil in this story?

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Notes for Reflection

July 13                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                        

Texts:  Isaiah 55:10-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Theme:  Another hard week!  For some reason I keep coming up with phrases that look more like a clue for a cryptic crossword than a theme for a service!  But something around sowing (or being sown?), receiving, growing, or harvesting, perhaps.  As usual, it's a bit of a stretch to find something that would bring in the second lesson, but perhaps "Sown with the Spirit of God" might do it.

Introduction.  We start with Isaiah at his musical best – it is almost impossible to read chapter 55 without bursting into song.  [The NRSV edition I am using has a heading for this chapter reading "An Invitation to Abundant Life".  Amen to that!  I wondered whether to suggest that as this week's theme, but then a thought struck me: isn't that the theme of the whole Bible?]  Today's verses may not have quite the same effect on us in mid-winter as they would have had to desert-dwellers of Isaiah's time, but they still must rank among the most uplifting and inspiring in our Scriptures.  St Paul, too, has switched into a more positive mood this week as he continues to build up his argument that we have been rescued from our powerlessness (we might even say, rescued from ourselves) and are now free to live the life intended for us by our Creator, guided by the Spirit rather than by our natural appetites and instincts.  And we close this week with one of Jesus' most important parables as we continue to reflect on what it means to follow Christ, to be a disciple, or, more simply, to be a Christian.

Background.  Three things are buzzing around in my head as I come to my encounter with this week's readings.  First, an image from Brazil, but not from the field of play.  The day before their semi-final there was a brief news item about how the whole country was going mad over football and, of course, over their national team; and one example of this was a local priest or shaman, or whatever he was, offering supplications to the gods, spirits or whatever it is in his belief system that can be relied upon to influence the outcome of football matches.  He had a little altar on which were some effigies, some wearing Brazilian colours, and some wearing German colours.  Of course, he prayed different prayers over those effigies.  The tone of the news reporter was that of a curious and rather superior tourist inviting us viewers to laugh with him at this poor deluded primitive man.  Instead, I found myself wondering about the content and purpose of my own prayers sometimes.  And about what would happen if a local commentator drew attention to the number of times we see rugby players, football players, and even tennis players praying, pointing to heaven or signing themselves with the cross before or during a match.

More importantly, I'm thinking about David Cunliffe's so-called "apology for being a man", and the reaction to it.  Personally, I think it might have been better phrased: I take it that what Mr Cunliffe meant to say, in the context of domestic violence, was that sometimes he felt ashamed to be a man.  Whatever his political opponents might make of that (and early responses have been all too predictable) St Paul would be leading the cheering.  For whether Mr Cunliffe realised it or not (and as the son of a Presbyterian minister it is just possible that he did) his remark is classic Pauline theology.  It illustrates the idea of solidarity: all men do not commit sexual assault but all men are capable of doing anything that any man does.  And, of course, we can (and must) extend that to all human beings.  To hold otherwise would be to assert that only some men (or some human beings) needed to be set free by Christ; the rest of them are inherently good and can and do always make the right choice in all circumstances.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why I have been enjoying the drama series Boadchurch on T.V. One over recent weeks is that it showed that many of the people in the little town were guilty of all sorts of things, quite unrelated to the murder that was at the heart of the serial; but that, of course, did not stop them turning on someone they suspected of paedophilia and driving him to suicide.  Who in that little town did not need Christ's liberating grace?

Which gets me to the third thing that is buzzing around in my head this week.  Recently I found a reference to a novel by John Updike called A Month of Sundays, and the reference said enough to motivate me to go to the local library to track it down.  (It was published in 1975, and so had been consigned to the dreaded "Stack Room"; but three days later it was in my hands.)  It is told in the first person, that person being an Episcopalian priest who has been given a choice by his bishop: he can either go to a place for erring priests and get sorted out or he can be unfrocked and dismissed from the ministry.  So he is at this strange "rehabilitation centre" for fallen priests, where all talk of God is banned, no Bibles are allowed on the premises, and the "guests" (he prefers the term "inmates") are not even supposed to know what day of the week it is (in particular, when it is Sunday.)

The idea seems to be that the erring priest is to confront his own failings, and not hide from himself in theology, Scripture, or any other religious safe haven.  (Think about that for a moment.)   I am only half way through the book, but it has certainly shaken me up!  As the hero begins to tell his story it becomes clear that he has committed adultery with the organist, and may be other women, too.  So far, so trite and obvious.  But Updike is far too good a writer to deal with this theme superficially – Peyton Place this ain't (though it is much more explicit than I was expecting)!   And one of the gifts of this book is how theologically educated Updike obviously was.  He uses his learning to show how easily the hero can live in his head one minute and his flesh (back to St Paul) the next.  And when the hero works out that Sunday has dawned, he preaches to himself two of the most brilliant, enthralling sermons I have ever heard or read, and certainly more compelling than any I have ever preached.  Suffice it to say, on the first such occasion he takes as his text "Neither do I condemn thee", spoken by Jesus to the woman caught in adultery.

But here's the thing.  Despite his rhetorical brilliance, and his insight into the (male) human condition, the sermon has one major flaw.  It is completely contrary to the teaching of Christ.  It is self-justifying heresy – wonderfully funny in places, but outrageously untrue.  And why I think it matters is precisely here: I am tired of hearing people knocking the idea of "orthodox belief", whether in the form of the historic creeds, the Scriptures, or our prayer books.  Yes, we can go too far in turning Christianity into a set of abstract beliefs or propositions to be memorised and trotted out when occasion demands.  And yes, we should always recall St James satirical attack on those who talk the talk but fail to walk the walk.  But walking the talk without knowing the way (and the truth and the life) is not discipleship or Christianity either, however many good deeds we might do.

I've gone on too long, I know, but what I'm trying to say this week is this.  Discipleship for me has three strands.  First, it involves learning what Christ has taught and is today (through the Spirit) still teaching.  Secondly, it involves putting the teaching into practice.  And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all, it involves accepting that none of that can happen without opening ourselves up to the transforming power of God so that we become disciples in ourselves, capable of learning and doing just what that means in our lives.

Isaiah.  And here is our first reminder that it all begins with God.  Any other approach is simply a self-improvement programme devised by humans for humans, and doomed to ultimate failure.  This lesson is an apt choice to accompany the Parable of the Sower, of course, but equally it could go with John's account of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus: John 3:3, and so on.  As mentioned already, this is not the best time of the year for us to get the full impact of these verses, but we can imagine a time of drought, or a time spent in desert country – a time of frustration for a farmer or gardener desperately waiting for rain to save her crops and help them grow.  And the great relief, the great joy, when the rain finally starts to fall.  Translate that into your prayer life and what  doyou get?  Those arid times, those times when God seems to have gone into hiding, when your prayers seem as fruitless as the Brazilian gentleman's proved to be; pray for the rain of grace to start falling and know the joy when it finally does.

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on the Brazilian man offering his prayers.  What do you think about that?  What does it tell you about your own prayers?  Have you ever prayed for a successful outcome to a competition, for the All Blacks, perhaps, or Team New Zealand?  What about the outcome of a General Election?

·        Is there a difference between those sorts of prayers and praying for the successful outcome of an operation?  What is the difference?

·        What about praying for rain?  Or for a fine day?

·        Do you agree or disagree that knowing what we believe as Christians is important?

·        Do you agree or disagree with the concept of solidarity as outlined above?  Are you sometimes ashamed of being a human being, or a man or a woman?

·        Reflect on this passage from Isaiah.  Imagine a day of steady gentle rain.  Is that a helpful image of God's grace watering your life?

Romans.  St Paul has reached a turning-point in his long argument.  Having wrestled with the paradox of being unable to do our own will, and stating emphatically his belief that Christ has broken the power of sin over us, he now turns to the question of how we might live out our new-found (or new-given) freedom in accordance with God's will.  It is not by using our freedom to comply with the specific provisions of the Law (the Maker's Handbook form of Christianity) but by becoming attuned to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all the circumstances of our lives.  This is what he calls "life in the Spirit" in contrast to "life in the flesh" (whatever feels good is good).  Perhaps the biggest difficulty with this reading is the impression it might give that our conversion from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit is instantaneous and complete.  Experience suggests that such conversion is a life-long process for most of us, with many missteps along the way.


Taking It Personally.


·        Try to recall a choice or decision you made in the last month of some consequence.  What motivated you in the choice or decision you made?  Custom or habit?  The expectations of others?  A desire for the approval of others?  Your perception of your own best interest, needs or wants?

·        Did you seek, or were you aware of, the leading of the Spirit?  Is it your practice to seek spiritual guidance from others when facing an important decisions?  Has anyone else asked you for such guidance recently?

·        Meditate on verses 9-11.  Write your own summary of them in your own words.  How do you feel about this teaching?  Does it ring true to your own experience?

·        Are you convinced that Christ is in you?  What does that mean for you?


Matthew.  Here surely we have the foundation of a life of discipleship.  Unless we receive the Seed of Life no growth is possible; and healthy growth is only possible if we are receptive to that seed, and consciously nurture and nourish its growth.  That perhaps is where the analogy begins to fall down.  Even good soil requires someone to tend it.  We must do our part, first in preparing our own "tilth" so that the Seed of Life can enter into us; and then we must tend the plant that grows from that seed.  Apart from anything else, we must ensure that it does not become choked by weeds.


Taking It Personally.


·        An excellent passage for a thorough spiritual stock-take.  What is the present state of your soil?  Are there any weeds that need to be removed?  Are you watering it regularly with prayer?  Are you feeding it regularly with the Bread of Heaven?

·        Are there any changes you need to make in your present practices?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Notes for eflection

July 6                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Theme:  A bit of a challenge this week – an even race with no obvious favourites, we might say.  But as I've been pondering these readings, looking for a common theme, the idea of "looking" or "seeing" keeps coming to me.  On our spiritual journey what are we looking for?  Why can't we see it?  These are perhaps the sort of questions these readings throw at us this week.  So perhaps a theme such as "Open our Eyes, Lord" might do it.  Or given the presence of children in our gospel reading, perhaps "Hide and Seek" might be better.  I'm leaning towards something more obscure, such as "Hidden In Plain Sight".

Introduction.  We start with a bold and joyous proclamation from the prophet Zechariah: in a reading more often associated with Palm Sunday, he announces that the king is coming to his people, bringing peace and freedom for them all.  It all sounds clear and transparent – beyond debate; but one little strange detail should alert us that it's not going to be quite as simple as that.  How many conquering heroes arrive on a donkey?  We follow that with this famous, psychologically astute passage from St Paul on the human phenomenon of seeming to be unable to do our own will, let alone God's.  And we close with one of those "hamper packs", where the gospel writer (in this case, Matthew) seems to collect together a few tasty morsels and package them together without any obvious connecting thread.

Background.  It's been a tough week or two on the world scene, perhaps dominated in our neck of the woods with the guilty verdicts against Rolf Harris.  Even now, it seems, many who worked with Harris for decades in the entertainment industry are refusing to believe it, convinced that the jury got it wrong, even as more and more complaints against him are now arising.  We are, of course, used to the idea that wrong-doers, particularly abusers of women and children, usually go to great lengths to hide their offending behind closed doors, so that when the truth comes out those who know them are astonished because they had never seen or heard anything that might raise suspicion.  But one particularly shocking aspect of Harris' conduct (and even more so, of Saville's) is how much of it occurred in public, even on television.  And yet nobody saw anything – or, if they did, they could not or would not believe what they saw.

We see what we expect to see, or want to see; we do not see what we don't expect or want to see.  Perhaps that explains how millions of people, particularly in Italy, saw Uruguayan Luis Suarez bite an Italian opponent in the World Cup football match, but neither the President of Uruguay nor most of his compatriots saw anybody bite anybody else!

The great priest and prophet, Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, often wondered how it was that so few people could see what he saw; in fact, his aim in writing his spiritual masterpiece, The Divine Milieu, was to help people to SEE.  One who could see was his fellow Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Teilhard often quoted the famous first line from Hopkins' wonderful poem, God's Grandeur – "The world is charged with the grandeur of God".  Teilhard could see that grandeur shining through wherever he looked, but most of us see it, if at all, in brief glimpses of exceptional beauty and/or power.  The burning question is why?  Are people like Teilhard and Hopkins deluded, seeing things that aren't really there?  Are they gifted with abilities denied to the rest of us?  Or is it the case that all human beings have the latent capacity to see the grandeur of God, if only we weren't blinded by other things, things interior and exterior?

Told to look out for a king coming to them "triumphant and victorious", would the people of Zechariah's time recognise such a king if he chose to appear among them "humble and riding on a donkey"?  Told to look out for the Saviour of the World, who would recognise him hanging on a cross between two criminals?  Assured that he is with us always even to the end of the age, how do we recognise him today?

I suspect that these sorts of musings might help us to find a common theme in this apparently motley collection of bits and pieces in Matthew's 11th chapter.  The chapter opens with a summary of what Jesus has been doing (teaching his disciples) and what he now starts to do (teaching and proclaiming his message to the public); and then we go straight to the story about the imprisoned John the Baptist sending messengers to inquire of Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  But notice what Matthew has done in verse 2.  Having told us in verse 1 what Jesus had been doing and was about to do, Matthew says John sent his messengers after hearing what "the Messiah was doing".  In other words Matthew makes it clear to us that Jesus is the Messiah even as he introduces John's question that can only be understood as doubting that very thing.  Even the great prophet and forerunner is having difficulty seeing that Jesus is "charged with the grandeur of God".

The theme of seeing the true identity of someone continues in the following verses.  Who did the crowds go out to see in the wilderness (and who did they see)?  Why did people reject  John for eating and drinking very little, and Jesus for eating and drinking too much?  In other words, they didn't recognise John as a prophet because he didn't fit their preconceived notion of what a prophet should look like, and they didn't recognise Jesus as the Messiah for much the same reason.  And whole cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum among them, failed to see who Jesus really was despite witnessing his miraculous deeds.

I find myself once again pondering the purpose of the traditional spiritual practices.  Sometimes teachers of the past have suggested that they are ways of "pleasing" God, in return for which God will graciously grant us one or more "spiritual experiences" – God will, as it were, "put in an appearance", albeit tantalisingly brief.  But these passages suggest that God's "default position" is not that of "Hidden – Find me if you can", but of "Here I am – click here to open your eyes."  The spiritual exercises, like their physical counterparts, are designed to develop our abilities – in this case, to see the grandeur of God.

So what stops us?  The short answer, based on the Beatitudes, would be a lack of purity of heart.  I think what St Paul is wrestling with in this classic passage from Romans is another way of expressing the same truth.  It's a lack of will.  We don't truly want to see God because to see God is to die: to see God is to die, that is, to self.  It is to lose all excuses – to lose all our hiding places.  Isn't that really something close to truth?  While we can believe that God hides from us, we can convince ourselves that we are hidden from God, which we prefer to be at all times other than dire emergencies.

Zechariah.  This week an organisation we had barely heard of had the audacity to proclaim a new caliphate over large areas of what Western nations once proclaimed were separate countries called Syria and Iraq, and to call upon all Moslems worldwide to recognise a man whose name we cannot pronounce as the Caliph to whom they all owe allegiance.  That news story provides an interesting back-drop to this short passage from one of the so-called minor prophets.  How might this passage sound to people with whom Israel was at war?  Who is this king of Israel who has the audacity to "command peace to the nations", and to claim "dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth"?

Taking It Personally.

·        Who do you say he is?

·        How can we proclaim Christ's universal reign in a world of other faiths without sounding like "Western imperialists"?

·        What evidence do you have in support of your belief that Christ is with you at this time?

·        Moses famously asked God to let him see God.  Have you ever made such a request?  Would you like to see God?  Why or why not?


Romans.  Anyone who has ever tried to commit to a new diet, or a new exercise regime, will know at some level what St Paul is on about in this passage!  Everyone who has ever resolved to give up a bad habit, or turn over a new leaf, or be more patient, or less judgmental, or [fill in the blank for yourself], will likewise be nodding at this point.  It is very much part of the mystery of being human, isn't it?  Whether we like it or not, sometimes we do not seem able to execute our own will, not because of any outside restraints, but because our will suddenly countermands our own intentions.  We may not feel comfortable with St Paul's choice of language here – we might not accept that we are slaves to sin – or like the Augustinian doctrine of original sin – but there sure is something pretty weird about our own failure to carry out our own fixed intentions.  The point is, of course, that no amount of intellectual study or struggle, or psychological analysis or counselling, can free us from this condition.  It is a spiritual problem, and only Christ can set us free from it.



Taking It Personally.


·        Recall a few examples from you own experience of this phenomenon.  Be specific.  Can you see any common thread that links these instances?

·        How do you feel about them?  Frustrated?  Annoyed or disappointed with yourself?  Laid-back, understanding and forgiving?

·        When you think about your own examples, do you feel more compassionate towards other people who have failed to follow through on commitments made to you?

·        If Christ has set us free from this condition, why do you still suffer from it?

·        Next time you form an intention to do something, pray for the grace to carry through with it no matter what and, when you have done it, give thanks for that grace.

·        End with a period of chanting, "Lord, strengthen my will to do your will."


Matthew.  The first little passage this week, featuring the children's game emphasises, the blindness of the people.  Neither in times of joy (music, wedding dance, etc) nor in loss (wailing, funeral, dirge, mourning) are they aware of God's presence with them.  As already noted, they do not recognise John as a prophet because of his extreme asceticism, and they do not recognise Jesus as the Messiah because of his openness to parties and celebrations.  The second passage is interesting first of all because verses 25-27 seem out of place in this gospel.  If someone had read them to me and asked me which gospel they were in I would have unhesitatingly chosen St John's gospel.  (Wouldn't you?)  That aside, they continue with an exploration of how the true identity of Jesus is to be recognised.  Again, the answer is that there is no intellectual answer to that question: Jesus is only finally known through revelation – through our capacity to receive spiritual truth.  We finish with a very interesting image from the agricultural world of Jesus' time.  Apparently, when a new ox was "in training" it would be yoked to the most experienced ox of the team, and would learn it's duties from that senior.  Yokes have a bad image for us, yet Jesus invites us to be yoked to him.


Taking It Personally.


·        Should spiritual leaders follow some sort of ascetical discipline?  How would you react if a bishop or priest had the reputation of being a bit of a part animal?

·        Reflect on that image Jesus used about a yoke.  Would you like to be yoked to Jesus?  Are you yoked to him?  Have you asked him to let you be yoked to him?

·        Spend time slowly re-reading verses 29-30.  When you are ready pray to Jesus about these verses.  Tell him what you feel about the idea.  Be completely honest with him.  Why might you be hesitant to accept his yoke?