Saturday, June 27, 2015

Blessed to be a Blessing

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 8 [13] Year B

When I graduated from Bible College, I think I really thought that they had taught me all I needed to know to be a Christian Minister.  I mean, the College Principal told us at our graduation that we were embarking then on a lifetime of learning, but I’m afraid I didn’t really believe him.

But, what do you know?  Just a couple of years later someone showed me something that I had never noticed before, something that we didn’t learn in our Old Testament studies.

In Genesis 12, we have the story of God calling Abram to leave his home and family to travel to a country God “would show him”.  And right up front God says to Abram:

“I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing,
And through you I will bless all the nations.”

This has stayed with me since then as a motivation about my work – if God has blessed me, I must be looking for ways in which I can be a blessing to others.

In our reading from 2 Corinthians 8 this morning we have Paul saying much the same thing:

“You are so rich in all you have: in faith, speech, and knowledge, in your eagerness to help and in your love for us.

Then he asks them to give to his little appeal …

“… our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty.” 

Paul is on a mission here.  He is giving his best pitch here to persuade them all to help.

In “my opinion,” he says, “it is better for you to finish now what you began last year.  You were the first, not only to act, but also to be willing to act.  On with it, then, and finish the job!”  

So, what is it that we, here at Holy Cross, have begun, and now have to finish?

As you all know I have become involved in recent times with the affairs of the wider Sudanese Communities and I have been surprised at how different things are for those other communities compared to here.  I thought that what we had here was normal for those other places.

But, frankly, I think we are miles ahead of them on that settlement process.

We have a great mix of Anglo-Aussies and Afro-Aussies, worshipping together and support each other.

We have a great ministry partnership with Galal and me – both learning from each other.

And we are blessed with this wonderful property that others had the vision to build over 30 years ago and now it is paid for.

But last year we embarked on a mission to take up responsibility for all this – and the ministry costs – so that we could lead the way for the other Sundanese Communities.

The Archbishop was very kind to us when Galal was ordained as a priest by paying his stipend from the Archbishop’s Curacy Fund.  BUT that will end in December.  After that we will be responsible for his stipend.  No-one else will pay for it.  We have to.

This means that we really need to excel in our generosity to meet this responsibility we have taken on. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nothing is the way it seems to be.

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 6 [11] Year B

This statement makes us think so easily about the way Photoshop means that we can now no longer trust that a photo we are looking at is “real”.  Or maybe we think of the way computer-generated-imagery in movies creates fantastic scenarios.

But I think it is also a hint for us of what Paul is getting at in the selection we have read today from 2 Corinthians 5.

The first little section of what we read is very familiar to me in the context of funerals.  We take some comfort from the idea that those we love who have died are now “at home with the Lord”.  But I think this section is about something far more important.

Paul is really getting us to think about the fact that while we are all bound to the physical reality of life, we know that there is a dimension of being that goes beyond that – our life in God.  A few years ago when the atheists were raging about religion as something that denied scientific and factual realities, I remember engaging with some on social media.  How does science quantify or measure something we call LOVE?  They had answers for it, but they did not satisfy me.  We all know that there is a dimension to being human that goes beyond the scientific realm of chemistry and physics.

“Our life is a matter of faith, not of sight” which is an idea Paul explores in the few verses we left out of our selection and then picks up again at the end.  I think this is what I was referring to last week about people being able to tell that we were Christians, even without us saying anything.  And Paul is pointing us to this idea that it is not the outward, physical stuff that really matters.  When you look on the inside, when you consider the spiritual dimension of things in a person’s life – then you see what truly is.

Now we skip a few verses to get to the next section, and I wonder what sense you made of it when it was read aloud to us.  The imagery can take into several places.  Let me read to you a paragraph in a commentary I used this week.

“That Christ’s death was ‘for all’ means somehow that believers are bound up in that death.  For Paul, Christians do not watch the cross as if it were a scene ‘out there’ or ‘back there’ somewhere, displayed for them now so that they can understand the historical ramifications of this event.  Nor is the cross connected with believers only by virtue of some influence it has with God, so that the cross persuades God to forgive human sin.  The death of Christ on the cross involves believers directly, in that they die in it and now have lives that are not their own, but belong to Christ.”

It is probably fair to say that I am still thinking through the ramifications of that statement.  There are so many layers within it.  But one which I think makes sense to me is the ways in which we are called to “die with Christ”.  We participate in his death symbolically in our baptism.  But we are also called by him to die to self and live for Christ – Paul in his letter to the Galatians.  And of course it is true that we all die – as Christ died.

This dying has some very important implications for the life we now live.  It is through this that we are able to detach ourselves from the importance of our physical life – and what we see of the physical life of others – and be more concerned with our new life in God.

Which leads us nicely to the last two verses in our selection: No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards.  Even if at one time we judged Christ according to human standards, we no longer do so.  Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come.”

Paul is saying that we should take our eyes off all those worldly, human standards by which we judge a person – for good or ill.  And his reason for saying this is his belief that when we are joined to Christ something changes so dramatically that it is as if we have died.  Our Good News Bible says we become a new being.  Your more familiar texts will say “there is a new creation” or “creature”.  To emphasise how comprehensive this change is Pauls adds – “the old is gone, the new has come.”

This changes everything about how we see ourselves, but perhaps more importantly how we see each other.

One of the things I have been musing about during the week is the capacity of the emphasis or not that we give a written word when we speak can completely change the meaning of a sentence. 

Think of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus.  Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?”  When you say those words flatly, it sounds a bit like a lawyer’s interrogation in a court.  A simple question.  Now listen to my voice and watch me.  “Are YOU the King of the Jews?”  Sub-text – “Look at you man.  You’re a powerless, peasant carpenter and you expect me to believe you are a king.”  Now that changes the meaning completely.

So with this last sentence of our selection.  If we read it flatly it could simply be expressing a fact that we become new persons in Christ, but if I add an emphasis on a word you might not expect, I can give it a new dimensions.  “ANYONE who is joined to Christ is a new being.”  Now it makes sense a different way – it becomes an emphatic declaration to us that it’s not just the good people who become new persons.  Absolutely anyone can be transformed.  No-one is beyond hope.  No-one is irremediable.  And knowing this should change the way we relate to each other.  It should lower those barriers of judgementalism that so easily creep into our interactions with each other.

Knowing this we are always full of courage, for we know that in Christ the old has passed away and the new has come.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Preach Always - only use words if necessary

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 4 [10] Year B

Over the summer, Eira and I tried to make a habit of walking along the beach at Mullaloo as many mornings of the week as we could.  We would go about 7am before it was hot and as the days went by we gradually came to recognise the faces of the regular walkers.

Something about one couple caught us and we would often chat about the beach and the weather.  For ages we didn’t even know each other’s names.  Eventually Taffy and Jane came to know us as John and Eira.

One day, we were talking to Jane while Taffy was walking on the soft sand and we mentioned that we would miss the next day because of church.  She asked and I told her that I was a vicar.  She laughed at once and then said that we would never guess, but Taffy had said just a few days earlier “I bet that guy’s a vicar.”  She called him over to share the news and we all laughed about that.

But it got me wondering what it was about me that made him think that.  Eira thought it might have been the hat I was wearing with the logo from New Norcia, but I am not sure about that.  Perhaps it just goes to show you that there are many ways of letting people know who the Lord of your life is.

This, I think, is at least a key theme in our reading from 2 Corinthians this week.  There may be other important ideas, but I would like to work with this one.

The selection begins with Paul quoting a verse from Psalm 116, but if you follow the reference in the footnotes of your Bible to it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, because Paul is quoting a Greek translation of the Hebrew Psalms and not a very good translation at that.

I think this whole selection is focussed on how important it is that we speak about our faith.  In some ways the text seems to be referring to public preaching and I have two very different cultural experiences of public preaching in this congregation.

I have talked with enough of the Nuba people in this congregation to know that street preaching in your villages and even in the streets of Khartoum was widespread, and that you got really excited about it when you were able to preach to Muslim audiences.  

In Australia we seem to need to be far more subtle than that – although just a little while before I came to Holy Cross I was in Kalamunda shopping precinct when a young man, encouraged by an older man, was practicing his street preaching to the rather bemused lunch-time crowd.

In Australia, there is one thing that one in four of our population fear more than dying, and that is public speaking.  Can you imagine that?  Well I think most of you can, because out of another one in four who fear dying most of all, the vast majority would put their fear of public speaking second.  Most of us are afraid to be asked to do it, and most of us feel awkward in the presence of someone spruiking their religion to us in public.

This passage might be about that kind of “preaching” but I think there is more to it than just that.  If you believe something, then surely you will want to find ways of speaking about that to the people live and work around.  Paul says “we speak because we believe” and I suspect that we Westerners need to recover some of that ability to “Gossip the Gospel” as the early Christians did in the book of Acts. 

I find it a challenge to find ways of talking about these things we believe in ways that non-church people can make sense of.  There is probably a lot we could learn together about that – if you wanted to.  Paul simply adds this encouragement – “For this reason we never become discouraged.”

But there is something in this text that suggests to me that our very lives will speak volumes about what we believe.  I think that he is reminding us that this spiritual dimension of our life – which is transforming the physical dimension – is itself part of the proclamation he is speaking of.  So we can all do that – words or not.  I am sure you will have heard the quotation that some people think St Francis said: “preach always – only use words if absolutely necessary.”  I guess That is why I told you that story at the beginning.  When you become a follower of Jesus, things about you change.  You might not even think they are very obvious, but maybe they are.  Maybe just the way we live is itself a proclamation of the Good News – this is what your life could be like!

As a final thought, I wondered if you considered what would happen if we did this?  Paul says “as God’s grace reaches more and more people, they will offer to the glory of God more prayers and thanksgiving.”  As more and more people come into a faith relationship with God, through Jesus, God’s own glory will be greatly extended by the prayers and thanksgiving these people will give.