Thursday, February 25, 2016

LENT 3 - Focus Makes you Fabulous

“Focus makes you Fabulous”

I have seen these words above the computer of people’s work-stations and I suspect that it’s meant to encourage them not to be distracted by the many things that can distract you at work.

But there are times when I find it hard to tell the difference in someone between this admirable commitment to doing what needs doing and being simply stubborn.

A few chapters earlier in Luke’s Gospel from where we read today, Luke says:
“As the time drew near when Jesus would be taken up to heaven, he made up his mind and set out on his way to Jerusalem.

Your older translations say “Set his face towards Jerusalem”, a phrase that gives a stronger sense of being focussed on that one thing, with a determination not to be distracted.

Now I would not be surprised if some of his disciples thought this was rather fool-hardy – indeed there is a story of gloom Thomas saying in effect “let’s go to Jerusalem and die there with him.”

In our text today, we have a rather extraordinary story of a small group of Pharisees even being so concerned about Jesus fool hardiness in going to Jerusalem.  “Don’t go!” they said.  “Herod wants to kill you.”

One thing is certain – Jesus knew that by going to Jerusalem he would ultimately meet his death; he knew that the religious and political leaders would not let him live.  But we can see from his response to his kind insiders what he had been doing along the way as he headed towards Jerusalem.  He was still teaching the common people, telling creative parables, healing the physically and mentally ill, and making time for dining out with disreputable characters.  He even makes it clear that he knows he is going to die – all the prophets die in Jerusalem.  So he keeps on going.

He would not be deflected from going to confront his critics in the Holy City.

Was that being stubborn?

In hindsight, we know that he was not just being stubborn.  In fact Jesus was being loyal to the cause of his God, understanding that no matter how much the prospect of crucifixion appalled him, it was nevertheless the right thing to risk it.  He realised that by being willing to lose life something far larger can be accomplished.

What Jesus did has been an example to all followers.

Many have put their faith in him and his way.  The single-mindedness of Stephen saw him stoned to death outside Jerusalem.  James was beheaded; Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome, Thomas in faraway India.

But it did not end with the apostles.

There continued to be notable examples throughout the Christian story.  The witness of those who stuck to their belief at the cost of their well-being, their health, their freedom or their life.

Many but not all became official “saints.”  We don’t hear many sermons about the saints these days – perhaps in our season after Pentecost this year I will take s on a journey with a few.  But there are a lot of amazing stories of amazing people.

Like the aged Polycarp in the 2nd C. AD.
A much loved pastor who, when asked to curse Christ and worship Caesar as Lord or face death by burning at the stake, replied: “Eighty and six years I have served Christ, and he has done me no wrong.  How can I then curse my Lord and my Saviour?” 
Was he just being plain stubborn?

Or the young mother Perpetua.
She walked boldly into the arena to be killed for her faith, then loosed her hair and declared: “This is my day of coronation!”

Was she being stubborn or one of Christ’s true servants?

Francis of Assisi and his disciple Claire.
For much of their lives they were misunderstood and hassled by church authorities. Yet they persisted in their way of Christ’s love, welcoming poverty and hardship for the cause of Christ. 

Stubborn or genuine followers of Jesus of Nazareth?

There are many more of them – Australian ones, too.
John Wycliffe- Oxford scholar and English Bible translator, 
Martin Luther the determined German reformer.
Mary MacKillop who persisted in her mission to establish schools for the poor.

Each of these refused the advice of people close to them to stop doing these things because they were causing too much trouble.

Stubborn or people focussed on doing God’s will?

What about you and me?  Are we keen to emulate them in forethought?  Are we ready in mind and spirit to be so single-minded?

As I said at the beginning – sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between admirable commitment to doing what needs doing and being simply stubborn.  It is not always easy to be sure of the right path when we are suddenly faced with a conflict between apparent truth and error, integrity and compromise?  We need to have fortified ourselves in advance by “dwelling in Christ.”  Fore-thought is not anxiety; it is calm preparedness.

My Confession time
I think I need to make a little confession to you before I proceed.  You know that I have been a Christian for a long time and most of that time now I have worked in one way or another for the church.  Over those years there have been a good number of times when I made what I thought was a firm stand in line with what God wanted in that situation – sometimes at great personal cost.

Looking back now with time for quiet reflection and a perspective that only comes much later on I think there may well have been more occasions that I feel comfortable about where my motives were rather mixed or even dubious.

Sometimes I was just plain stubborn.

It is so often a tricky thing to judge your own motives.  Are we being highly principled or just stubborn (intent on our own way)?  That is the tough question.

That’s why it’s probably a good idea, when you are faced with something tricky to:  
  • Pray carefully about it – seeking out what God may require of us.  
  • What would Jesus do? is a trite question but it is meant to make us consider how the things he taught and did might guide us in the situation.
  • Finally, seek out a second opinion.  Ask a wise friend or pastor what they think you should do.  

Lent is a good time to assess how we are going.  

Our calling is to follow in the Way of Jesus – where he goes.

Our calling is to do so without distraction, without deviation, with focussed determination to do it.

I think it would be fair to say that we need this kind of courage in the church today.

The people involved with #LoveMakesAWay try to live with this kind of courage.  Those Doctors in Brisbane who wanted to #LetThemStay were trying to live with this kind of courage.

May we have the same courage when called on.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

LENT 1 - Giving up Indifference for Lent

What are you giving up for Lent?

This is a question that comes easily to our lips, at least in the Western Church as in some ways we have trivialized Lent.  We have reduced it to the idea of going without something – usually an indulgence like chocolate – and we think this will bring us closer to God.

Among the plethora of comments by our church leaders as we embark on our Lenten Journey are these:  
“Indifference to our neighbour and to God represents a real temptation for us Christians.  Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”
With these words, Pope Francis is challenging all Christians, but I think especially those of us in the West, about their indifference to others in need.  “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this was someone else’s responsibility,” he says.

Naomi Klein in her recent book This Changes Everything puts it this way.  We see – and then we look away, and in looking away we try to act is as if we did not see.  But if we were to see and not look away – this is what would change everything.

We have all done this.  You are walking in the city and see a person sitting on the pavement with a cardboard sign begging because they are homeless.  We look away and carry on walking as if that person was not there.  I know I have done that!

We have become used to the idea that most social problems are too big for any little thing we might be able to do to make much of a difference that we have become indifferent.

During Lent, most of us do understand the idea that we use this time for reflection on how we have been travelling as a disciple of Christ – not for the purpose of belting ourselves up for our failings; rather so that we can get back into the ways we know we should be.

So we might spend more time in our morning or evening prayers.  We might participate in the Lenten and Easter Study.  We might embark on some completely new spiritual practice as an expression of our commitment to following in the Way of Jesus.

And I want to encourage you in these things.

But I have a warning.

Jim Wallis in his blog this week was reminded of a quote from the early Church Father, John Chrysostom, who said:

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others.  So no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good for others, then you do nothing great.”

In other words all of our spiritual activities must genuinely lead to the enhancement of other’s lives.  If they don’t, then they are an expression of indifference.

This seems to suggest to me that we need to build in a practical dimension to our Lenten disciplines that will help deal with our indifference.

So, if you were to choose to “go without indifference” this Lent I wonder what it might look like.

I can’t be prescriptive about this, but I can lay down a challenge to see what it would be like for you.  You know what it is that you look away from after you see it.  What would it be that you need to not look away from – so that you see it really? 

·        Extra volunteering.
·        Money for a charity.
·        Discarding useful clutter from your house to an op-shop.

Whatever it is for you – make that your Lenten Discipline.

I am indebted to Jim Wallis' blog dated 11 February for the inspiration of these thoughts.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

TRANSFIGURATION - Jesus Shows us Another Way

Do you often feel like it is very hard to be a disciple of Jesus?

It is pretty normal to live with some ideas of what we should do and how we should live as a follower of Jesus.  And so often when we arrive at a time when we look back a little to see how we have been doing, we can see again and again how we failed.

Now of course this would not have happened to those great twelve apostles Jesus had in his leadership team – would it??

Well, maybe we need to look at the stories again.

You are probably very familiar with this story of the Transfiguration – and we generally focus on the amazing things that happened to Jesus and the two people – Moses and Elijah – who appeared with him in this amazing event.

But let’s have a look at these three Apostles who Jesus took with him.

These three became the premier leaders of the Church, but on this occasion, having been taken by Jesus up to a high place to pray, they fell asleep.  And they didn’t just doze off – they were “sound asleep”.  When I try to read a book after lunch, my head wobbles a bit and my eyes need matches to prop my eye-lids open.   But these guys went sound asleep.

Consequently, when they were awakened they were a little bit incoherent.  Peter sees the guests and suggests to Jesus that maybe a few tents might help mark this occasion.  The text even says as an aside that Peter did not really know what he was saying.

I imagine that later when Peter had some time to remember what he did he might have gone a bit red in the face.

But wait, there’s more.

In the very next story, a man brings his sick son to Jesus to be healed.  His epilepsy was thought to be demonic possession.  Did you notice what the man said to Jesus?

“I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn’t.”

At the beginning of this chapter, Luke tells us that Jesus had given his disciples the “power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases.”

So how come they couldn’t do this?

Well, I don’t know, but it seems to be just another example of these disciples failing to be what Jesus expects them to be.

So, when you are feeling a bit like a failure as a disciple of Jesus I want you to remember these stories.

Now, the question is, does the story of the Transfiguration which we are celebrating today have anything to say to a wayward bunch of disciples who struggle a lot to follow in the way that Jesus is calling us?

Well, let us look at how Luke tells us the story.

Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s pattern so there must be a reason for this structure.

Just before he tells us this story, Mark tells us about Jesus forewarning his disciples about the fact that he is heading towards his death as he travels towards Jerusalem.  And while he is at it, he tells his disciples that they must be prepared to die as well – metaphorically as well as literally.

Then he tells them about the Transfiguration, followed by the story of Jesus healing the boy with the diabetic demons.

Did your eyes follow on to the next bit?  Jesus speaks again about his impending death.  Mark says the disciples didn’t understand him but were too afraid to ask.  Matthew says they were sad.  Luke says they didn’t understand because it had been hidden from them intentionally.

So, here we have the Transfiguration book-ended by Jesus speaking about his impending death and throughout the narrative we have a bunch of rather confused and inept disciples.

When most people look at the Transfiguration story they take meaning from the presence of Moses and Elijah – Moses the giver of the law; Elijah the first and greatest Prophet who did not die physically and whom the people expected to return.

When I look at these little structural things about the narrative, I have a few ideas that might answer that question about what does it all mean for us as wayward disciples.  I hope they help.

Paul had a lot to say about the Law –all too complicated to go into here – but I think we all get it that the LAW was a failure as a means of enabling us to satisfy God and live in relationship with God.

We also can look at much of what the prophets said over the centuries – calling the nation back to living with justice and in peace – and the most frequent response to the prophets was to stone them.  Even Jesus noticed that.  So the voices of the prophets did not bring the people back into that relationship with God.

This leaves us with Jesus.  Here he is in the middle of these two greats in the history of Israel, but whereas these two greats failed to give the people a way back to God, Jesus was successful.  He provides a WAY that works where all others failed.

Since earliest times, Christians have known that the death of Jesus was central to this success.  Something happened in that which was like a key that unlocked the door.  Maybe this KNOWING was born out of the way stories like these were told.

Over the centuries we have developed explanations for this which we call Theories of the Atonement.  There are many of them – some more widely accepted than others, some cast aside as no longer meaningful.  Each theory tries to make sense of one thing or another as we try to understand why Jesus had to die.  Some raise more questions than they resolve.

By way of example, the theory of the Substitutionary Sacrifice (Jesus died in our place) as an explanation of what was happening, is embedded in many of our thanksgiving prayers in the Prayer Books, but it is not the only way to make sense of it.  We might explore some of these over Lent but it is enough, I think to say today, that the execution of Jesus by the political and religious authorities when he was guilty of nor crime or heresy changed to cosmos.  God acted in the face of this injustice by raising Jesus to life and in doing this, God declares his preferential option for us all and offers his grace as a welcome – welcome into his presence even though we are all a bunch of wayward pilgrims who fail him again and again.

This is the secret to the success of the way Jesus calls us to follow.  It was the faith of Christ that saved us by God’s grace – Paul says that somewhere.  And the reason this had to rely on the faith of Jesus – rather than our faith – was that otherwise we would have been stuck in another system of works, of law-keeping, of requirements and rewards, all of which depended on our own effort.

And the reason all this was necessary?  Because we were doomed to be failures from the start.  The Law couldn’t make it for us.  Following the prophets couldn’t make it for us.  Only God’s grace given freely works, and it is given because Jesus had faith in God and us.