Advent 2: Peace like a shoot…

Isaiah 11: 1-10, Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-21, Romans 15: 4-13, Matthew 3: 1-12

Back in 2005 I was fortunate enough to take a group of young people to Hiroshima, for a conference marking the 60th anniversary of the dreadful destruction caused by the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare. In that moment, 140,000 people died in a split second as they were vaporised in a flash of heat reaching 4000 degrees Celsius. 

I remember as we walked through the city there was a small, insignificant plaque standing in front of an enormous tree.  The plaque said the first green shoot appeared right there, just 3 days after the bomb wiped out the entire city. Three days – from death to the first signs of resurrection: the symbolism is impossible to ignore.

That green shoot grew into this tree; a tree of hope, a symbol of well-fought-for peace.  A sign that nature would indeed be right back, and She would not be silenced forever. An indication that peace and hope will always eventually win.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; Isaiah prophesied; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.

A shoot will appear; a symbol of hope…and the prophecy goes on to say, its appearing will result in all good things – wisdom, knowledge and delight.  Righteousness will flourish, there will be peace in abundance, and justice for the poor.  Mountains laden with peace. Oppression crushed. Predators and their prey will live together.  Children will play safely.  And there will be rest.

And then John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is the one the prophet speaks of.  And, through him, we will come to the day that is promised, when all these wonderful things will be restored, when the kingdom of heaven is fully and entirely established. 

But we are not there yet, are we?  We really aren’t.

And while there are signs of hope springing up like those wildflowers I spoke about last week…while there are glimpses of peace…and sometimes humanity does amaze us by doing some incredible acts of kindness…on the whole, this world still feels pretty broken, and we have to recognise that this is not what God intended God’s divine gift of creation to be. And the way humanity manages this gift is not what we were created for either.

And yet the prophecy remains.  The promise was made.  And God does not break them.  So, it means it is still on its way, even when it is hard to imagine, impossible to see and difficult to believe.  And, as people who are trying to follow Jesus – the root of Jesse, the hope of the nations – we have a role to play in spotting and nurturing those shoots as they appear.

It is God’s promise, not ours, and God will do all God needs to do to make it come to pass.  It is not entirely down to us, but we are called and commissioned and entrusted to do all we can to partner with God – to be God’s hands and feet, here, where we are ‘planted’.  To make Beaconsfield, Perth, WA, and beyond, a better place, in this generation.

So, the question is, what will we do to help to bring this about; to see hope, joy, and peace spring up around us?  What can we do to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight?  Maybe we can’t change the whole world, but we can do our bit to change that which we are dissatisfied with in our own streets, in our town.  We can do something in order to see those tiny shoots spring up in places of destruction, like that tree in Hiroshima.  And it is essential, imperative, that the Church is the one leading the way in that, because we follow the one who promises it’s not just possible; it’s on its way.

But our theme for this second Sunday in advent is peace. Yet these words from Matthew’s gospel don’t say a great deal about peace; repent, John says! There is wrath to come! The axe is at the root of the tree…every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…there will be baptisms of fire…and unquenchable fire at that.

And yet, I keep returning to that shoot in the park in Japan. After so much destruction, such extreme temperatures, so much fire… a shoot appeared. And I wonder if sometimes the path to peace takes us through hard and testing times before we can see it. Sometimes the road to peace is hard-fought. Sometimes the way to peace involves uproar, hard work, self-examination, change.

Oftentimes, the concept of peace gets a bad rap – like its meek, passive, an absence of something – like a lack of conflict, a gap, rather than something fierce. But that little shoot said so much. It said ‘war thought it had won. Destruction seemed to be the end. But I’m here to say something different’.

And the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse – Jesus – says the same thing. Darkness threatened to win but I’m here to say something different – me and my kingdom, says the Lord, shall be glorious and peace will be abundant. And we will get there; the path to it might be strewn with rocks and stumbling blocks, but it’s not just possible – it’s on its way.

Today is the Sunday of peace. The day we commit again to being agents of peace – to taking up the weapons that lead to peace. But our weapons are different. They are the belts of righteousness and faithfulness. Our judgements are equitable and right. We rescue the child and the needy and crush the oppressor. Our language is love and right-speaking. Our actions bring blessing and hope and great rejoicing. And all that we do makes the paths straight for those who come after us who want to follow our Lord.

This advent every parish is being encouraged by our Archbishop to plant a tree, as a symbol of hope and peace and as a tangible commitment to caring for our planet. In the coming days we will be planting a eucalyptus tree in our gardens – a tree of peace. As we see it planted, may it be a reminder to us of our call to be agents of peace. May it remind us that sometimes the pathway to peace takes hard work and struggle but is always worth it. And as we see it shoot and grow, may we be reminded that peace will blossom until the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Amen.

Advent 1 – Hope is untameable!

Isaiah 2:1-5          Psalm 122               Romans 13: 9-14             Matt 24: 33-44

When I first arrived in WA people kept telling me, ‘You must see the wildflowers’. And because everything in WA felt, feels, so huge to me, expected the wildflowers to be huge too. I was expecting flowers the size of my head and leaves bigger than my palms and instead, what I kept finding, were these tiny delicate beautiful little flowers, popping out in the most unexpected places.

This week, Craig and I set out on our first attempt at walking a section of the Bibbulmun Track. It was hot and hilly and dry and dusty…and it was hard work…but all over the place there were these breath-taking wildflowers. Every shade of colour. Every shape, just so tiny and delicate and seeming to be springing up against the odds, almost. Beautiful flowers in barren places.

And they spoke to me, over and over, about hope.

Hope blossoming in places I didn’t expect to see it.

Today is Advent Sunday – the first day of our new church year – the beginning of a new season that leads to Christmas – the beginning of a period of waiting, in the church. And what is it that we are waiting for?

Well, we’re NOT waiting for Christmas, or the birth of a baby.  During advent the church watches and waits for the return of the Christ, for God to come back.  During advent we are watching and waiting for the fulfilment of the promises Jesus made to return.

But, here’s the thing. I don’t like waiting. It feels too passive, too boring. And how do we know what we are waiting for? How do we know if it’s anywhere close? How can we see if it’s on its way? Because we’re not waiting for the arrival of God – God is already here – always has been, always will be – what we are waiting for is the full arrival of God’s entire kingdom.

And if we’re waiting for the arrival of a whole new kingdom, might it be possible that we could begin building that kingdom while we wait? 

Or, might it be possible that it isn’t entirely dependent upon us and is already being built around us already, but sometimes we get the privilege of actually joining in? Could that be true?!

If we get to join in, that completely transforms our time of waiting. It is no longer a passive observance – it is no longer just watching…sitting around…waiting – it becomes our life’s work, our entire purpose even. Something we watch out for, and take part in, each and every day.

You see, the kingdom of God is springing up all over the place. And it is a kingdom characterised by hope. It is that hope that the day of salvation is here…and coming…that it’s something that is not just possible but is on its way.

It’s on its way! And we can see it because it is a kingdom that looks like those tiny delicate wildflowers, budding and blossoming in barren dry sand where it seems to make no sense.

It looks like swords being repurposed as ploughshares and spears being used as pruning hooks instead.

The springing up of the Kingdom of God looks like light in dark places, work for the unemployed, food for the hungry, release for those who are indefinitely detained, housing for the homeless, clothing for the naked, healing for the sick – hope for those who are just in the depths of despair.

The unravelling and revealing of the Kingdom of God among us is pure hope for today and the future. It is hope-filled and hope-giving.

And right now, right here, it looks like a family who found our church and chose it to be the place where they would bring their tiny baby to pass through the waters of baptism to join our family of faith.

Today, the Kingdom of God is seen in the visible sign that there is hope of another generation – characterised by baby Honey – there is another generation that is choosing to follow Jesus. Another generation that is saying yes to this invitation to join in with bringing hope to the world, while we wait for the true fulfilment of the promises of God.

Friends, hope is all around us and it is unstoppable. Let us spot it, let us spread it, let us be it! Amen.

BAPTISM

Christ the King!

I wonder if there is a church in the 56 countries of the commonwealth where reference isn’t made to the new King Charles III today, on this day when we remember the Reign of our true King, Christ.  It’s surely the case that there won’t be a single person preaching today who has preached on this Sunday in the church year while there is a king on the throne. It’s almost possible that there won’t even be anyone in church, across every country under the reign of the new monarch, who recalls a service celebrating Christ the King, while there is a living human king too. Isn’t that remarkable? So it feels impossible to observe this Sunday without drawing some kind of comparison between the two – even if the similarities begin and end with their title; King.

The coronation of the next King will be a grand affair; a religious service, conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. There will be a huge guest list of the great and the good, and crowds cheering, from all over the world. He will have his queen consort at his side and a weighty solid gold crown on this head and he will be seated on a royal throne. He will be anointed with holy oil, scented with orange, rose, cinnamon and musk, and in his hand will be the orb and sceptre. He will reign as King over 56 countries and 2.5 billion people, and the world will watch it all.

And when we hear all that, in light of this morning’s gospel reading, could the two kingships be more different?

Our King, Christ, was consecrated on a cross at the place called the Skull in a barbaric ceremony carried out by soldiers and guards. At his side were criminals – on his left and his right – and on his head was a crown made of thorns. His throne was a cross. His anointing was with a whip and sour wine. His robes were torn and gambled over and the crowds jeered and spat at him. His hands held no jewels because they were nailed to the cross and he was abandoned by those who promised to be there for him.

This man, this God-man, is beaten and whipped and tortured.  He is spat at and stripped naked.  He is wrongfully convicted, in a botched trial, deserted by his friends and taken out and killed.  With criminals.  And he is our King?  This is the image of the invisible God?  Really?

What are we supposed to do with a King whose throne is a cross and who’s jewels are a crown of thorns?  How do we follow and worship a King who looks like he’s losing?  And how do we know how to be citizens of this kingdom?

Clearly, Christ’s Kingship, is not like any other.  And so, it follows that Christ’s kingdom is not like any other either.

King Charles inherits a kingdom that favours the rich at the cost of the poor. His kingdom puts first those who own much, and excludes those who have little. King Charles’ kingdom is based on merit and wealth – on who has and who has not. It speaks of rights…rights for those who shout the loudest…not righteousness. And as much as he might like to govern with justice, his kingdom seems rather to favour injustice, particularly for those who are most often marginalised and forgotten.

But, in Christ’s kingdom, all are welcome; none are outsiders – there are no borders or passports or walls or fences.

It is a Kingdom of love and mercy, re-creation and peace.  It executes righteousness and justice and operates on a currency of redemption and forgiveness.

It is a kingdom that serves the needy and the poor and gives them places of honour.  A kingdom that doesn’t dominate, or threaten, or rule by fear. 

It is a kingdom where children are educated, and adults have work; where the sick are healed, and the prisoner is visited and set free.

It is a kingdom of life and light and love and freedom; a kingdom of good news, where the hungry are fed and the homeless are housed, where the naked are clothed and the lonely have friends; where prisons and hospitals are empty and the environment is clean and green. 

It is a Kingdom whose ruler reigns with kindness and love and is utterly trustworthy. 

And following this king is not like being subjects of any other ruler…

Life in the Kingdom of Christ is a powerful rejection of all that is dark and hate-filled. 

As people who choose to live in this kingdom and under the rule of Christ the King, we commit to follow the example of our leader; being prepared to stand up for what is true, exercising righteousness and justice, redemption and forgiveness; serving, loving, honouring… And, it is hard, but it’s right.  It’s the way of holiness.  It is the way of our King and his Kingdom. 

And it doesn’t look like royal thrones and glistening robes, crowds of supporters, public holidays, and faces on coins and notes; sometimes it looks like mockery, nakedness, being lifted up on a cross, with a thorn crown and a torrent of abuse, and it leads to death…and we are all invited.  But what an invitation?!

It sounds like Charles has the right idea – his kingship sounds glamorous and victorious and way easier. It sounds like he got it right and our Lord got it wrong…except…the longest, the absolute longest that Charles can reign is until the day he dies. That is all. But Christ is king for ever and ever and his kingdom will never end. Charles’ kingdom leads to a definitive ending, but Jesus’ kingdom leads the way to unending paradise.

Christ’s kingdom is here…and it is coming…and you are invited to be citizens of it today and forever. And in this kingdom, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. 

So, having counted the cost, having seen it will demand of you all you have and all you are, having recognised that this road takes you through mockery, pain, and even death, will you take this invitation, because it leads to life; life everlasting for all people, now and forever. Amen.

Beauty in Brokenness

The most delicious mango juice I ever tasted was in a brothel in a slum in Mumbai. It was bought for me by 3 girls who paid for it with the money they had been paid for sex. This white woman had walked into their home and workplace with no other agenda than to say hi and to be there for a while and those visits were their lifeline. Men came and went as we sat together. One or other of them were chosen and taken away and brought back a few minutes later. And we laughed at my dreadful Hindi and their nervous attempts at English and we drank mango juice. And they taught me one of life’s essential lessons in an unforgettable way; there is always beauty to be found in brokenness…sometimes we just need to look for it, really hard.

I remembered that mango juice on Friday when I had the privilege of sharing a meal with two new friends who were released from Yongah Hill detention centre, after spending 10 years locked up for arriving in Australia, by boat (not Ned, yet). On Thursday afternoon, arbitrarily their names were selected and 30 minutes later they were free. Stunned, shell-shocked, excited and with nothing, they welcomed me into their temporary home and invited me to sit and eat with them. We had a satsuma and a strawberry as they talked about their very real joy and tried to hide their fears. And their bruised bodies and bashed teeth said many things that their words didn’t. And there too, there was pure beauty, right in the midst of real brokenness.

This Friday was remembrance day where many parts of the world paused and lamented over the atrocities that humanity can inflict on one another; where many people remember those who have died and commit to being part of the living who will pursue peace – to being those who will pursue beauty in the places of brokenness.

And then this morning we heard that awful gospel reading, predicting the destruction of the temple, and the desolation that humankind would inflict on itself and others for millennia to come and it stinks of brokenness, doesn’t it?

Not one stone will be left upon another – all will be thrown down – wars and insurrections – terror – nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom – earthquakes, famines and plagues – you will be arrested and persecuted – you will be betrayed and hated – you will even be put to death.  Wow.

And yet, I can’t get away from these 4 words in that first verse; ‘adorned with beautiful stones’. The temple was adorned with beautiful stones and even when it was destroyed, and lay in ruins, I wonder if those stones were still visible. I wonder if they still glinted, you know? In the middle of all that destruction, I wonder if their beauty was still evident.

And while that passage is about a historical moment in time, about an actual event that was going to happen, it was also deeply prophetic and sadly speaks about every generation since…and ever more, because was there ever a time where war and conflict and natural disasters and feuds and fear were not a thing?

One look at the ABC news homepage speaks of ‘friction’ in Taiwan, Ukraine, North Korea and Myanmar. It tells how global greenhouse gases are at an all-time high; how the Taliban have slapped new bans on women in their latest oppressive move; it reports on floods and drug trafficking and corrupt elections and nation rising against nation.

But, friends, we worship a creator and a redeemer and humanity is made in God’s image and we have the capacity – the God-given gift – to be those who create beauty and be beauty where there is brokenness, people who bring hope to despair and speak truth against falsehood. We have the ability – the calling – to be beautiful stones, even when the temple is being destroyed.

And just as Jesus had instructions for those first followers, so he has instructions for us too. He says, ‘I will give you words and wisdom that nobody will be able to withstand or contradict…and not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls’.

Those promises are amazing. And it’s hard to believe that not a hair on our heads will perish because war and persecution and destruction are abhorrent…and the anguish humans inflict on others is beyond comprehension – so I don’t know about that – but I think the message remains that we need to endure; when all is falling apart and raging around us, we need to press on, and endure…and yes, look out for that beauty that is sure to be found.

The thing is humanity can be really horrific to one another. We really can create the most horrendous situations and vast amounts of hurt BUT we can also be incredibly beautiful. We can show outrageous kindness, absolute grace, unconditional love and acceptance, care and concern, advocacy for those who can’t speak for themselves, shelter for those who are homeless. We can provide food for the hungry and lobby politicians to make choices that show humanity in its very best light. We can give time and money and resources and attention to those who are in need. We can be beautiful stones adorning a temple that is being destroyed. We can be sweet mango juice in brothels and tangerines in temporary housing.

Shining brightly in places of darkness, bringing love in place of hate, speaking peace in times of war, standing up for truth when all around us is falsehood and lies – this is counter cultural! This is radical living, radical discipleship and it is the call of the Jesus-follower. And if we keep on doing that, over and over again, when we feel strong and when we feel weak – when we have energy and when we have none – if we show that level of endurance we will gain (h)our souls…but not only that, perhaps we might even strengthen and enliven the lives and souls of others too.

So I urge and encourage you to look for the beauty wherever you find brokenness and if you can’t find it…be it.

Amen.

Muskrats and Men who are Short…

Have you ever had a eureka moment? A moment where something foggy suddenly becomes clear and you can see it, as if for the first time? I had a moment like that at bible study this week, while we were discussing this morning’s gospel reading so, apologies to you who were there, but you have to hear it again.

In my first week at theological college we had a lecture with the college principal; a wise old owl of a man – Fr Peter; a man who spoke in a gentle, slow and measured way and could wither you with a look. This aging saint had spent more than 50 years in the monastery where I trained and he dripped pearls of wisdom wherever he went. And he was a fabulous story-teller.

In that first week, he recounted a tale found in the 1975 Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (I’ve since read the book and, if I may dare to say, Fr Peter’s retelling was even better than the original). This book tells the true story of a woman who encounters a floating muskrat, basking in the moonlight at her local creek. So entranced was she by this muskrat; so enamoured by the detail of his eyelashes and the way the light shone off his silky wet belly that she returned day after day, week after week, season after season, hoping beyond all hope that she might again see mister muskrat. And she never did[1].

The point was, the fact she glimpsed this beauty once was enough to make her return, over and over. And, Fr Peter said, that was what brought us to this place, to that college, to respond to the call of God in saying yes to ordination. He said that at one point we’d glimpsed the beauty of God and kept on returning, over and over and that one glimpse might have to be enough, because we might never see God again but we must keep showing up, just in case.

Something inside me broke and, forgetting myself, I threw my hand in the air and said ‘but that suggests God isn’t also seeking us out. That suggests God isn’t relentlessly pursuing us because God wants to see us too!’ And Fr Peter turned to me and said ‘is that what you think? That’s nice…’

And I thought I must have got it wrong because he was wiser and more devoted and more dedicated to God than I was, than I am. He had given up everything and committed every second of every day for many decades to prayer and bible study and silence and listening. Maybe God wasn’t relentlessly pursuing me after all. I must have it wrong. Right?

But then, this week, we meet Zacchaeus – ‘he was a chief tax collector and was rich’. And he was trying to see who Jesus was but he couldn’t, because he was ‘short in stature’. So this little man ran ahead and climbed a tree, knowing Jesus was going to pass that way.  And then Jesus comes along and he doesn’t pass by at all. He doesn’t pass Zacchaeus by. He absolutely relentlessly pursues him! And when he finds him, he stops.

Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus and – would you look at that – Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus too! ‘When Jesus came to that place he looked up and said Zacchaeus! Hurry down because I must stay at your house today’.

And people didn’t like it, of course – ‘all who saw it began to grumble because Jesus was the guest of a sinner’ – but Zacchaeus didn’t care – he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

Zacchaeus knew what his reputation was. He knew what everyone thought of him. But he also knew he wanted to see Jesus. I wonder if he also knew Jesus wanted to see him too? I wonder if he even dared to believe that was possible?  Hurry and come down, Jesus said; I’m coming to your house today. And Zacchaeus was happy to welcome him.

And what about us? We come here, week after week, because something inside us is looking for Jesus, something within us wants to see something of the Divine – whether we know it or not, something inside us is seeking for something bigger – for God. And every single week, God passes this way. And every single week – every single minute of every single day actually – God is seeking us out. Even if we’re hiding. Especially if we’re hiding.

Zacchaeus was up a tree, but it didn’t stop him from being seen and found, because Jesus seeks out everyone, wherever they are; Jesus seeks out and saves the lost. So it doesn’t matter where we are hiding or where we have been. It doesn’t even matter where we are going – Jesus will pass that way too.

On our best days we are looking for the Divine. On our best days we notice him in creation. We hear her in the ocean. We see them in the sunset. On our best days we really still ourselves and maybe even utter some words to heaven. On our best days we do a lot of seeking, but even on our worst days God is still seeking after us.

So Fr Peter was wrong! We don’t have to keep returning to that proverbial riverbank in the vain hope of spotting the moonlit muskrat…and constantly risk being disappointed. God is seeking us out and will never stop.

God will delve into our guilt and shame and find us hiding there. She will find us on the mountaintop of happiness and the pit of despair and everywhere in between, and will always greet us with the same divine welcome; hurry up! I choose you! I’m coming to your house today and when we, like Zacchaeus, hurry happily from where we are and fall into step beside Jesus then salvation comes to our house too.

God is seeking you out. Will you let yourself be found? Amen.


[1] She did, actually, but Fr Peter’s retelling was that she didn’t…and that was essential to the point he was making…so he didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story…

Pray!

By a series of divine accidents we find ourselves at this morning’s gospel passage, and it might sound familiar. It IS familiar – it is part of the same passage we heard last week! Perhaps the holy spirit has something she wants to convey in these verses, so let’s have a look.

The pharisee is standing by himself and praying aloud – God I thank you I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or this tax collector…I fast, I tithe… basically, I’m pretty great. The tax collector – who calls himself a sinner – stands far off and can’t even dare to look towards heaven and Jesus says he is the one who went home justified – all who exalt themselves will be humbled, he says, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

A quick read of the text might lead us to think this parable is only about being humble. Be humble and you will be exalted. Be like the sinful tax collector. He is the goody and the pharisee is the baddy. But it’s not as simple as that.

In this story we have two of 1st century society’s baddies; the pharisee knows his scriptures inside out – and he knows how to use his scriptures to oppress and corrupt and extort money…and all in the name of religion.

And the tax collector isn’t much better. He doesn’t earn enough to live on so he has learned to extort his customers. At the lower end of the elite he isn’t high enough to be high but he’s damn sure he won’t be counted among the low so he tricks and bullies and takes from those he looks down on.

So Jesus can’t be saying don’t be like the pharisee…be like the tax collector. He isn’t setting one man against the other because, if we wander too far down that line, we fall into the trap where we become the equal but opposite of the pharisee and we also find ourselves praying, Thank you God that I’m not like other people – those pompous, puffed up ones who pray aloud outside of temples about how great they are. Thank you God that I’m so humble! But that’s not humility, of course.

So, what might this parable mean?

You see, what the pharisee says is partly true – he probably does fast twice a week and give a tenth of his income. But the problem is his prayer is all about him. He’s addressing the most high God and telling God all about himself. He tells the almighty that he is so grateful – thank you God, that I am so great; He is the source of his own gratitude. How wrong his attention has become – he chose a path of righteousness out of devotion to God and his focus has slipped from heaven to himself. He believes his own goodness is enough and that is never true. Not then, not now. Not for him and not for us.

And equally, what the tax collector says is true too; God be merciful to me because I am a sinner. He’s right, he is. They both are! But here is the contrast; the first man makes his claim to righteousness based on what he has achieved and the second man relies entirely on the goodness, grace and mercy of God.

Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee is grateful for his own greatness. He has become self-admiring to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is smack bang in the middle of the righteous.

The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is overwhelmed by his own sin in the face of such holiness that he can’t even look up. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. So he stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done but entirely on the mercy of God.*

At the end of this story, the tax collector went down to his home justified. How has this happened? The tax collector hasn’t made any of the temple sacrifices. He hasn’t even promised to change his ways! So how is he made righteous? Purely on the basis of God’s love and grace and mercy!

So the parable isn’t saying be more righteous. It’s not saying be like the tax collector. It’s telling us to recognise who and what we are and to pray.

Pray – but focus on the divine, not on yourself.

Pray – but don’t distinguish between us and them – whenever we concentrate on our own greatness over someone else’s lack of perceived greatness – or consider one group to be in and another group to be out – we fail to recognise the outrageous grace of God.

Pray – and never think that there is anything you’ve done, or anything you are that means God won’t be utterly delighted to hear from you.

Pray – and don’t worry if the only words you have are ‘have mercy on me’ – because that is enough.

Pray – and never worry about whether you’re far off or right here at the front.

Pray without fear that you are better or worse than anyone else. There is no such thing.

It’s not that the tax collector was more loved by God or that the Pharisee’s prayer was left unheard, or despised. Every prayer is heard. Every prayer is received. And every pray-er is loved. It’s just that the tax collector left changed and the pharisee’s heart got a little harder that day.

Prayer, in a really large part, is for the benefit of the one who prays. God doesn’t need us to pray in order for Him to feel bigger and better and more loved and more adored. God is not arrogant or needy. God invites us to speak with Her because of our own need – praying does something to us – it melts and breaks and changes our heart and helps us to see the world and others differently.

The pharisee left the temple that day just as he arrived; feeling righteous and full of contempt. The tax collector left, justified and exalted.

So throw yourself on the grace and mercy of God. Recognise that you are a sinner and God is pleased to hear from you. And, at all times, pray. Amen.

* at this point I abandoned my script and went off piste, talking about prayers in prisons and the floodgates of heaven being flung open. To hear the full version, you can click here… https://fb.watch/glNi-BHY_G/

For the feast of St Francis

What a month we’ve had, haven’t we? We’ve suspended our usual liturgy to focus instead on the God of all creation. We considered the enormity of the oceans, the beauty of flora and fauna, the surging storms and calming waves and the unimaginable wonder of the Cosmos. We have affirmed our responsibility to partner with the Creator in recreating and caring for all that is good. And we opened our grounds to welcome pets, symbols of pets, cuddly toy pets and their humans. And today we round it off with a celebration of the life and witness of St Francis of Assisi; the patron saint of animals, ecology and the environment. (I seriously thought about St Francis yesterday as we hosted cats and dogs and a toy tiger. I think he would’ve approved of our haphazard live nativity scene, 799 years after he organised the first one!).

St Francis, or Giovanni as he was born, was a man who knew God. He knew the words of his creator and he knew what they were asking of him. He was single-minded in his attempts to do what his Lord asked, and he put these commands before all things, even when it cost him all he had and all he owned and all he was owed.

Giovanni was born into great wealth; his father was an incredibly rich cloth-maker. He owned stores of expensive fabric, and this wealth was promised to Giovanni. But Giovanni was a lover of Christ and a wandering spirit. On his travels he came across a tumbledown chapel in San Damiano, just outside Assisi. While praying there he had a vision of God and clearly heard the words ‘repair my church which is falling into ruins’. Sat in a building falling into disrepair, Giovanni took this command to mean a physical rebuilding and set about his work.

With his intentions good, but his actions not-so-good, he went to his father’s fabric store, took material and sold it to raise the necessary funds. Perhaps understandably his dad was not delighted, and Giovanni hid in a cave for a month, waiting for the dust to settle. Which it didn’t. His dad found him, beat him, bound him, dragged him home and locked him in a cell. He escaped and returned to San Damiano, determined to complete the work God asked of him.  His dad, anger still raging, went to the Bishop of Assisi to remove his inheritance. During the proceedings Francis renounced his father and took off all his clothes to demonstrate it. The bishop hastily covered him with a sackcloth, which eventually became the habit and symbol of the religious community that accidentally formed around him.

I say accidentally…Francis never had any intention of beginning a monastic community but, as he worked to rebuild that church, so he also began to preach the gospel he was so enamoured by. The gospel like that which we heard today. The one that calls us to sell all we own, give our money to the poor, and then follow Christ.

And we have heard these words before. They’re familiar to us and we find them hard. And maybe we think, or hope, they are intended for someone else. Jesus can’t be saying that to us, surely? Well, for Francis, what Jesus said was absolutely what he meant. It wasn’t hypothetical. He didn’t look for a get-out clause or try to find a way around it. He heard these words, as he knelt before Christ with the rich man in this passage, and he understood what they meant; go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, then come, follow me. And that is what Francis did.

He didn’t preach and build so people would want to follow him. He did it because he heard the call of God, and he knew God meant him. He was the rich man, and Jesus’ command was for him. He heard it, he knew it, and it moved him to action. And when people saw that authenticity, that single-minded-ness for the gospel of Christ, they were compelled to be with him. And as these new followers began to join in with Francis’ work he realised he needed a plan. They were looking to him for wisdom and guidance. They wanted to be led. So Francis turned again to the source of what he knew to be true and looked to the bible and read God’s call to a radical life.

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.

You that have no money, come, buy, and eat.

Buy wine and milk without money and without price.

And…

Whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

I have lost all things and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may know Christ.

And…

Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.

From passages like this, and after the example of Christ and his first century followers, the rule of St Francis was born, and it was very simple – threefold – give to the poor, spread the gospel, carry the cross of Christ.

But what about us, as we sit here in the second richest country in the world, per capita. There is no logical way we can escape the truth that we are the rich man, today. And whether we can say we have kept God’s commandments since our youth is not the important thing.  Jesus was not focussed on that. He asks of us what he asked of St Francis and our friend here in Mark Chapter 10. He looks at us, loves us, and says, ‘I adore you. I adore the way you have tried to keep my commandments and I love you in all the ways you failed to do so AND you too lack this one thing…’

Go, sell what you own and give your money to the poor and then come, follow me.

And while there are people who can’t eat or heat their homes while we have plenty, so that call will keep coming.

Our discipleship of Christ demands much of us, and promises much to us, but the biggest demand is that we come with open hands, open hearts, and empty pockets – open and empty so that we might take hold of life, in all its fulness and so that we might take hold of the hands of the poor and receive treasures that don’t wear out.

St Francis took Jesus at his word – he heard and responded and at times it must have felt impossible, just as it does for us. But, to echo St Paul’s words, everything we have is rubbish compared to knowing Christ. And he says everything is possible.

So, I guess the question is, will we take Him at His word? Will we trust Him to catch us if we choose to step off from wealth to poverty? Will we empty our hands and pockets, care for the poor and, in doing so, inherit life everlasting? Amen.

All are welcome!

There has been a lot of activity around tables recently!

Last night more than 30 of us took part in the progressive supper and went from house to house, eating together.  For the last 5 weeks my sister has been here, and we are such foodies, so there has been a lot of eating there. And in this morning’s gospel reading Jesus is, once again, eating with friends and pharisees, and we have two conversations about table etiquette.

When you are invited to a wedding banquet, do not sit in the place of honour…but go and sit at the lowest place.

And, when you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or family but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

So, all week I have been thinking about food and tables; about who we invite and where we sit, and what Jesus was getting at in his two instructions there, because I found them almost contradictable, or confusing.

And then, on Thursday, just before my sister flew home, we did what all family members do on their trips and we went and got tattoos. (You all do that, right?!). And I had 3 words indelibly inked on my wrist and they say this: Judas Ate Too.

And that brought some clarity, somehow. Because how can we talk about food and tables without once again returning to the true food and the holiest of tables, found here in our holy meal?

You see, Jesus gives these instructions about wedding banquets and luncheons and dinners – don’t take the place of honour, don’t invite this person or that, make sure these people come – and yet, in the perfect meal he left for us to share together, in remembrance of him, there is no place of honour or dishonour; there is no one who is distinguished and there is no disgrace. There is no high place and low place. There is nobody who is left off the invite list and there is no payment, or repayment. There is only grace.

If Jesus, in that first eucharist, on the night before he died, knew what was about to happen; if he knew by whom he was about to be betrayed and yet Judas Ate Too, then the table, the doors, the welcome, is well and truly open to all.

And while there might be table etiquette elsewhere, while there might be right ways and wrong ways to do things at wedding banquets and luncheons, the meal and table we are concerned with is this one, here… [indicate altar]

And here, there is no place of honour and dishonour – except that everyone is honoured.

There is no invite list, with some names on and some excluded – except that everyone is invited.

There is nobody who is worthy or unworthy of gathering around this table – except that we all unworthy and yet made utterly worthy.

There is nobody who is poor and crippled and lame and blind – except that we all arrive that way but leave rich and healed and whole.

There is nobody who is left out, because, in our Lord’s example, Judas ate too.

Many of you know that before I came to Australia, I led a church that ran a very busy feeding programme for street sleepers and addicts and those who couldn’t afford food or wanted some company. Each week we had 200 or more people come in, from every walk of life. Definitely the poor and crippled were counted among them. Some people would get incensed about the work we did – why are you giving food to them or that person? They will take it and sell it for drugs! Or, they have a big house and enough money to feed themselves! But in our soup kitchen we operated an open table policy – like we do in our masses – all are welcome, all you need to do is show up. All you must do is come hungry, and we will feed you…because that shows something about the radical hospitality of Jesus and that is what we are trying to emulate. Outrageous grace.

At the end of our sessions each week we, for a long while, ended with a mass. All manner of people came. Some had no idea how to ‘behave’, or what was going on. One guy walked right up to the altar, head bowed, hands out, desperate to receive, before I even finished consecrating. Another woman took her mass and danced out of church, swirling, arms waving, singing about butterflies and beauty. If there was ever a rule book of eucharistic etiquette, they had not read it and I longed to be as desperate as that guy for the body of Christ. And I long to be as enamoured with our Lord that it makes me dance and swirl and see butterflies. It’s not the ‘done thing’ but who cares. Jesus is clear – make sure those who are usually excluded get to come. And make sure they know it FIRST.

Jesus doesn’t care where we come from or how we get here, only that we come.

He doesn’t care if we are super important or think nothing of ourselves, only that we come.

He doesn’t mind what we have done or who we have been. Whatever state we turn up in is good enough. Just come.

And around this table there is no place of importance and honour; there is no high place or low place. We approach this meal as equals, together, in communion, all of us; those who are almost as holy as Jesus and those who despise themselves as much as Judas. All of us are welcome. Because, in that welcome, in this meal, dishonour is banished, disgrace is gone, the poor are made rich, the crippled stand upright, the lame walk and the blind can see again, and we, we get to glimpse the Kingdom of Heaven, right here. Amen

The Beautiful (but crippled) Bride of Christ

A few weeks ago, Sylvia led us to pray for the forthcoming Lambeth Conference and she prayed beautifully for unity and against division. After the service a few of you commented on this prayer, and the conference.  One of you asked if there was a risk of a split in the Anglican communion. I think I replied slightly more confidently than I felt, when I reassured you ‘I’m sure it will be fine’. On Friday, during parish office hours, Bethan greeted a woman who came to ask if there really is a schism in the Australian Anglican Church and she replied as optimistically as possible. But, the truth is, this has been a sad week for the Anglican Church. It is a sad week for the Christian Church and I can’t not speak about it.

We prayed for unity – we often pray for unity – but it is sadly true that, this week, the news is of disunity.  You may not have heard about the church in the news this week, so let me first read excerpts from the statement from the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia – The most Reverend Geoffrey Smith.

He writes, ‘I note the formal launch this week of a company named the Diocese of the Southern Cross. This company, while established by some members of the Anglican Church of Australia…has no formal or informal relationship or connection with the Anglican Church of Australia. As such it will operate independently…as, effectively, a new denomination…’

In short, and for want of a better word, there has been something of a split.

This ‘split’ is largely concerned with the hot topics that we embrace and celebrate here, and recognise God’s love for – the ordination of women, those who are divorced, our friends and selves who are LGBTQIA+ – the people and situations and relationships that add colour and life and light and texture. The people and situations and relationships that some people seek to find scripture to condemn.

So, can I first say, without any doubt, this church is safe and welcoming and loving and kind AND FAITHFULLY SEEKS TO FOLLOW JESUS. And no exclusion has – nor will have – any place here. Ever.

It is not holy and it is not right and it leads to the damage of others and that is not part of our call as baptised people who are trying to follow Jesus.

The second thing is, there will always be people with whom we don’t agree.

Primate Geoffrey Smith goes on to say, ‘It is always easier to gather with those we agree with. But in a tragically divided world God’s call, and therefore the church’s role, includes showing how to live together with difference. Not merely showing tolerance but receiving the other as a gift from God.’

That is an enormous challenge. Especially when it hurts people we love. Especially when it hurts us. I would like to call out the divide as disgusting, but I will not, because the people on “the other side” – if there ever is one – are also my brothers and my sisters, my colleagues – and they demand and deserve the same level of grace that we helplessly rely upon every single day. God’s church is bruised and battered, but She is not broken.

And that brings me to this morning’s gospel reading.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and there appeared a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

And all I can think is ‘isn’t that woman a great image of the Bride of Christ’?

Isn’t that crippled, broken, bent over, woman just exactly like the Bride of Christ right now? Is she the Church?!

And when Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘woman you are set free’ and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

The thing is, throughout history, the Church has tried to ‘do what is right’. She has tried to be ‘faithful to scripture’. And time and time again she has hurt and damaged and alienated others. Time and again she has chosen doctrine over love, and law over grace. And here we are again, bent double, unable to look up, unable to see God’s glory, broken and hurting a little bit more. Breaking and hurting others, over and over again.

And there are leaders now, just exactly like those synagogue leaders in this passage, who are condemning and criticising; ‘there are six days on which work should be done’ – because that is what the scriptures had said. They were being faithful to scripture too. And to them Jesus said, ‘you hypocrites’…and his opponents were put to shame.

The difficulty is, friends, I believe what I believe because I think it’s right.

I really dare to believe that God did call this divorced woman to be a priest in God’s church. I genuinely do believe that every child is made in God’s own image – regardless of anything; gender, race, upbringing, religion, sexual identity, and orientation. I do. I strongly believe that we do, here at St Pauls. AND I think it is faithful to scripture.

But it is hard to argue ‘across the divide’ because our ‘opponents’ – to quote this gospel passage – believe they are right too. And, as our own Archbishop Kay, and Archbishop Justin wrote this week, ‘everyone reads, studies and receives the same bible with utmost seriousness [and] to suggest otherwise of others is simply untrue’ (which means that a simple ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ debate is not going to bring the solutions we seek).

As ever, all we can do is turn to Christ. What does he do in the face of brokenness and pain? What does he do whenever he finds exclusion and isolation? What does he do when he meets the crippled woman? He brings freedom, healing and wholeness.

So, as the crippled woman was set free from her afflictions, simply by meeting the Christ, we must do all we can to be the Christ in this debate, in this time and this day so that the bent over but beautiful woman that is the Bride of Christ might also be set free and then may we all rejoice at the wonderful things God is doing and may God’s name be glorified. Amen.

The Gospel according to Wadjemup: Chapter Two

Back in May I went to Wadjemup as Chaplain for the first time. As you surely know, it was a profound experience; deeply moving, challenging, and super creative. And when I got back, the gospel reading that Sunday was the familiar and comforting words, ‘peace I leave with you…peace I give to you…do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’. And I preached what I have now named in my head, The Gospel According to Wadjemup – Chapter One.

I asked the question, what does peace look like to an island, a country, built on colonialism, domination and oppression? How do we find peace there, or here?

I’d immersed myself in the stories of that holy island. I heard the cries of history and felt the deep wounds of its past and it was loud… and yet, I was able to spot this tangible sense of peace. Despite itself, or maybe even because of its history, that place is dripping with peace. And I think, that is the essence of Jesus’ promise.

Peace is not the absence of war. It is not just silence or quiet. Peace is profound and counter cultural. It is the port in the storm, the centre of the tornado, the sense of calm when everything falls down around us. It is the sunrise and sunset and lapping waves on the shores of Wadjemup, against the backdrop of its brutal history. That is peace.

This past week I have been back on Wadjemup again, this time with a dozen pilgrims, and the gospel reading is, once again, about peace. Kind of. So, now hear the gospel according to Wadjemup, Chapter Two.

‘Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?’ Jesus asks.

Well, yes Lord, I do.

Isn’t that what the angels proclaimed at your birth – Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth?

Aren’t those the first words you breathed on your disciples after your death – peace be with you?

Wasn’t it with the command of peace that you calmed the storm and sent the demoniac away healed? – peace, be still.

Is it not the gift you left with your disciples – my peace I leave with you?

‘Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?’ Jesus asks. ‘No, I tell you, but rather division’.

No? Come on Lord, you can’t renege on that promise. Can you?

What do we do when Jesus seems to change his mind about something we have been relying on, depending on? Because that’s what seems to happen here, am I right?

Do you know, in the gospels, Jesus speaks of peace twenty-four times. And only twice does he say he hasn’t come to bring peace at all; he’s come to bring division or a sword. But that doesn’t help us when we are faced with that time…

The gospel according to Wadjemup, chapter one, was dependent on God’s provision of peace. It was the only thing that made sense of the ugliness of its history and the beauty of its present. And now, Wadjemup chapter two messes things up. Peace is gone, division reigns, households are against one another, families are falling out and we are called hypocrites.

How can both things be true – how can Jesus come in peace and come to cause division – and that reminded me of moments from our pilgrimage.

Uncle Neville – an aboriginal elder from our parish – came with us to the island. We began with a smoking ceremony and sand ceremony at the water’s edge. He told us the noongar people have complex feelings about how we can best move forwards. Decisions are trying to be made about what to do with the Quod and burial ground. He was confident he could do whatever he chooses in that place because it is his…but others might not agree with him.

In the afternoon we took ribbons and tied them to the padlocks at the site where countless people were incarcerated and hanged. We tied ribbons to the bars of the earliest prison cell. We tied ribbons to the branches of trees at the unmarked graves. Those ribbons were inoffensive really; a symbol of prayers said, and blessings given and hope for the future. But I spotted the anxiety of the tour guide who sat at the prison cell – she didn’t seem that happy about these pilgrims and their ribbons. We came in peace but there was also this kind of underlying division.

You see, chapter one taught us that peace is the port in the storm, and the centre of the tornado, but sometimes we are called to step out of that port, right into the storm. Sometimes we can’t stay in the centre of the tornado – we must brave the wild bits. And I think that absolutely brings division.

Remember the iconic man, named Tank Man, who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square at the end of the siege in 1989? I was thinking about what his family thought of his act of defiance when it was broadcast across the world. Did his act, intended for peace, bring division – father against son, mother against daughter? And what about the families of Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero and countless others? When they stood up for what they knew to be right, and paid with their lives, did their families hate it?

And what ripples are you prepared to make? What is more important to you than keeping the peace in your family? Following all of Jesus’ teaching is hard friends. It’s not all plain sailing and not everyone will like us or it. It got Jesus killed, and many of his followers since. And here he is asking the same of us.**

‘Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?’ Jesus says.

Judging what is right, and choosing to do it, is our call as followers of the Christ – even when it brings division, even when it splits family, even when it costs us our whole lives. Seeking peace that way feels a lot like ‘not peace’ and yet it is asked of us here.

The gospel of Wadjemup, chapter two asks us the important question: will we choose to do what is right over what is peaceful, even if it costs us everything?

May God give us grace to do so. Amen.

** at this point I went off script and began ad libbing about how we are not called to be merely ‘peace keepers’, but rather to commit to the radical hard work of peace building. Peace keeping is collusive but peace building is what we are really called to do – regardless of whether people will like it, or not, or whether it will lead to some kind of division…