Jesus says hard things…

Last week we had our AGM after church. In it we looked back on where we had been, considered where we are at, and began to think about how we might step into God’s future, together. So many of you stayed for that important work and a lot of it was positive and fun, even some of the hard bits were super useful and, as I have said several times this week, I am really grateful to each of you.

At the end of the meeting, we did an activity. One of the questions was ‘what one thing do we want to be known for in our local community’. You came up with some amazing things and, as I typed them up, so I was nodding and amening along, but one phrase has come back to me over and over as I read today’s gospel passage. One of you wrote that they want us to be known for our Faith: they wrote ‘real, modern, change-your-life, sell-all-you-own faith…’ and I think that is what Jesus is calling those early disciples to in those verses we heard today.

This passage is quite well-known, isn’t it: three different followers make bold promises to follow Jesus and he basically responds by sounding pretty mean. And, if you don’t mind me saying, His recruitment drive could do with a bit of work because he comes out with some less than appealing answers.

As always, when preparing for Sundays, I turned to a variety of commentary writers to read their thoughts, and they each said things like, ‘I don’t think Jesus literally meant you’ll have nowhere to lay your head’. And ‘He doesn’t really mean let the dead bury their own dead’, or ‘someone who looks back isn’t fit for the kingdom of God’. One said, ‘he is speaking in metaphor’ and another said, ‘he must be referring to a turn of phrase that the early disciples would have understood…but we don’t’.

But wow. I don’t think I agree with those guys. I think Jesus is being pretty clear. He makes his point three times. I think he really does mean it, even though it is hard stuff. I mean, Jesus does ask hard things of us, so why wouldn’t he mean this?

So, if it isn’t metaphor, or some first century joke, what is he saying?

Well, I think he asks three things of those would-be followers. And I think he is asking the same things of us too, so let’s take them in turn…

The first ‘someone’ said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’ and Jesus said to him, ‘foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.

Following the Son of Man, following Jesus, means being prepared to give up our sense of security. It means being prepared to go when Jesus asks, and go where Jesus asks, even if it feels risky. Even if we aren’t entirely sure where this road leads to.

Then, the next one:

To another he said, ‘follow me’, but he said ‘Lord first let me go and bury my father’, but Jesus said to him, ‘let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God’. Now that really causes the commentary writers to scratch their collective heads, and I don’t know for sure what the dead burying their own dead looks like, but I think we can know for sure that following Jesus means putting him first, above all others – yes, even before our own families. Following where and when Jesus asks, even if it means going alone. Even if it means leaving others behind. It’s no wonder we might prefer to think this is a metaphor.

And then, third, ‘another said, ‘I will follow you Lord but first let me say farewell to those at my home’ and Jesus said to him, ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’. And I wonder if this is hardest of all? Let me just say goodbye Lord? And Jesus says, ‘don’t look back’.

(I remember singing that in Sunday School – it sounded so much more palatable then: ‘no turning back, no turning back’).

But following Jesus, single-mindedly, determinedly, without looking back, well it feels costly, doesn’t it, painful even?

And is it just me or does God, in Jesus, sound really demanding – leave everything, leave your home, leave your family, don’t look back, follow me. I kind of felt like it was a bit needy somehow. But that doesn’t sound like God, at all.

God doesn’t need us, in some celestial crisis of self-confidence. God longs for us because God loves us and because us being together is the very best thing for us, as God’s children. So yes, it is demanding – as the hymn writer says, following Jesus really does demand my soul, my life, my all. But it’s not demanding because God selfishly wants all of us to keep to Gods-self. God asks for all of us – our past, present and future – out of a divine act of great love and as a gift to us. For our good. And because it is best for us.

You know, I once heard this story of a priest who thought she might’ve heard God invite her to leave her home and her family. She thought she heard Jesus ask her to follow Him all the way to the other side of the world, and not look back. And, it felt big and costly and terrifying and like she was giving up everything but, would you look at that, she landed up living in paradise, in a life that was better than she could have imagined!

So perhaps we should hope these invitations of Jesus aren’t metaphors. Perhaps we should dare to believe they are offers of life in abundance. And then maybe we might have the courage and grace to respond with a resounding yes and live a life of true faith: real, modern, change-your-life, sell-all-you-own faith…and be known for it. Amen.

Corpus Christi 2022

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi (literally the Body of Christ), a day set aside in the church year to thank God for the gift of the Eucharist. And on this day, when we are once again permitted to receive in both kinds – both bread and wine – if we choose to – it seems more appropriate than ever before.

The feast of Corpus Christi began in the 13th Century when a Roman Catholic nun received a vision of a bright full moon, with one dark blot on it.  God told her the moon represented the brightness of the celebrations in the church year, and the blot remained because there was no celebration for the beginnings of the Eucharist.  She shared this with her friend, who conveniently went on to become Pope, and this celebration was added to the church year in 1264. 

This morning’s gospel reading tells us, repeatedly, that Jesus’ flesh and blood is real food and drink; it nourishes, builds us up, satisfies us, and that is the foundation of our holy meal.

In each mass we are invited to come to this altar hungry. In it we are physically and spiritually fed – given food for the journey.  But here’s the thing, as we consume the Christ, so we discover we become more hungry, not less. We become hungrier, because our encounter with Christ causes us to see there are people in this world who can’t fill their cupboards or family’s bellies today, even in this neighbourhood.  And as we are fed, we become hungrier to help others; because the world is hungry – physically starving, and emotionally, mentally and spiritually hungry too.  So, in this sacrament we are satisfied, AND we are made hungry, hungry for justice, because this food and drink is for us, AND it is also food for our neighbour.  We are fed here so we might go and feed others.

What begins here as fruit of the vine and work of human hands becomes for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

We don’t know what God chooses to do here on this altar.  But it is enough to know something awesome happens and we get to witness it, hold it, eat it, drink it, and be part of it; together, in communion.  And as this heavenly food, this piece of Jesus, enters our body, so we must choose what we will do with the energy it provides. What will we do when we leave here, with the Christ living inside us? How might it change us? How might we change the world?

In our NT reading, we heard ‘as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death…’.  

We share in Christ’s death; we share His human brokenness and recognise our own brokenness; We acknowledge some things Christ died for still exist, here and now, and that’s not ok; we proclaim death.  But we also proclaim the end of death; we celebrate life.  Life in abundance, for eternity.  This is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people.  ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up’, Jesus says. 

Proclaiming death, gaining eternal life; all in this sacrament, in one morsel of food, one sip of the cup.

And we approach this altar, entirely inadequate; Lord I am not worthy to receive you, we pray.  Of course we aren’t, none of us are.  But in this divine mystery, in this sacrament we are transformed.  We don’t simply become ‘me on a good day’ when we leave the rail.  It’s much better than that!  As we eat real food and drink from heaven, get this; we are changed into Corpus Christi.  We each become the actual body of Christ. We take the Christ into our bodies and then we leave here to go into the world, changed.  And that is the most profound truth of this feast.

So, I know it sounds like I’m saying the mass is the solution to world hunger and poverty; that it brings eternal life in the face of death and suffering; that it will transform our lives, as well as those around us.  I know it sounds like I’m saying it’ll change us into saints, despite our unworthiness; that it’s the best thing this side of heaven and we can’t live without it.  I know it sounds like I’m saying that. I am.

Our meal here is our superpower, our power to change the world. And whether we have the tiniest crumb, a mere morsal, or the full banquet, we each have more than we need. More than enough. Enough and some to share.

A few years ago, I read an exceptional book called ‘Take this Bread’.  The author, Sara Miles, writes about her first encounter of the mass.  Sara was a staunch atheist, photographer and journalist.  A new church opened in her neighbourhood and won awards for its architecture, so she went along to take photos.  Before she’d finished, a service began, and she wanted more photos so decided to stay.  In this service, everyone was invited to receive mass and Sara didn’t want to be rude so she held her hands out.  She put the body of Christ into her mouth and had a lifechanging experience.   She says ‘in that moment I knew I was eating Jesus, called the Christ. He was indisputably in my body as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh’.

She goes on to say, “I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine…  [and] it changed everything… Eating Jesus, as I did that day, to my great astonishment, led me to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagine.  The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food – indeed the bread of life.”

That, my friends, is what we have here. It is often our best kept secret.  But it is everything. It is life. And so, today, as we return to the common cup – as we are invited, once again, to both eat AND drink, I invite you, in the name of the Church to come to this altar as if for the first time and become, together Corpus Christi – the Body of Christ, in this place. Amen.

Pentecost! 🔥

Another week, another round of lessons in Australian life. This week it was the birds. They’re so LOUD! Huge magpies, Stunning pink galahs, and the kookaburras. Well, I don’t know that I’ll ever get accustomed to the sound of them – they’re incredible. But, on our dog walk yesterday, along with the bird song, I saw a large bird cage sat on the verge, waiting for its next owner to claim it and it reminded me of a wonderful thing that started – with birds – just before I left the UK.

I had a friend, Ronnie, who was a prison chaplain, and he was setting up a project for prisoners. He was offering those in treatment for addiction the opportunity to own a budgie, and he was on the lookout for donations of bird cages. And yesterday, with that cage on the roadside, it came back to me again. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought this sounded a bit like Pentecost…

Birds are the freest of all animals. You can’t pin them down. You can’t catch them. They leap off buildings and migrate to other countries and swoop and dive…and even their very design – those wings and feathers – speak of freedom and flight. So, it’s no wonder that a bird is often used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Birds don’t live in cages, not ordinarily.  But for these budgies to fulfil their purpose in this project, they need a cage. They need a cage so that they can go to these prisoners, who are in cages of their own. The cages of addiction as well as the physical cage of their prison cell. And I wonder if that is a useful image for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, and since the dawn of time, and every day since.

Pentecost was a kind of hijacked Jewish festival that then became a significant way-marker on an unstoppable process beginning at the dawn of Creation when God spoke Light into being.  The outpouring of something incredible and unmovable.  The continuation of one long, eternal, act of grace; a gift literally OF God, part of God’s self, given to us, for always.  The freest, flightiest, most free-flowing part of God came down to earth to live within the cages of humanity – to dwell fully in the cage of our hearts, to fulfil God’s ministry of love.

She inspires us to acts of holy mischief; invites us and accompanies us on it. She is subversive and cunning, in all the best ways. She should be taken seriously because She is dangerous as fire, and essential as air. But the Holy Spirit is not simply to be described or pinned down or explained.  She is one to be encountered, experienced, from the inside out, and to know and be known by. 

It is by the Holy Spirit that our gifts of bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ at every mass.

It is the Holy Spirit of Pentecost who descends on you at every blessing and absolution and dismissal. 

She baptises and confirms and ordains and consecrates.

It is by the Holy Spirit that new people wander into our church and stay.

It is the draw of the Holy Spirit that brought you to church this morning, even if you think it’s just what you do on a Sunday morning.

God chose a day and date and time in history to do something significant – the event we heard in our Acts reading. But it wasn’t the first time – She was brooding over the waters even before God said ‘let there be light’ – Pentecost wasn’t her first outing and it is certainly not her last. Pentecost is breaking out here, there, and all over the place and is utterly unstoppable.  You can’t resist Her, and you can’t avoid Her.  You can only choose to spot what she is up to, and decide whether you want to join in. 

And just as my friend Ronnie was asking for more birdcages to house his budgies in prisons, so our Lord is asking for more hearts to house God’s Spirit, to take love and light, holy mischief, and freedom, to the darkest places of this world.

BUT, the significant difference between the prison story and the Pentecost story, is that Ronnie hoped his birds would stay in their cages whereas God hopes our caged hearts might just burst open and let the Spirit out!

Every day, but perhaps more notably on a day like today, God asks for places where God’s spirit might live, and for people through whom God’s work might be done. And today God is asking us.

I am excited by whatever it is God might have in store for our church and community in this next chapter. I believe it when the gospel reading says we will do even greater things than our Lord. And I also know we can’t do it alone, but only through the fire and breath of the Spirit.

So, right now, in a tangible and active way, you are invited to commit, once again, to join with the Spirit in whatever it is she wants to do here next. To say yes to this next holy invitation, and be refilled by that same spirit of creation, incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost. And John and I will symbolise that by anointing you with the oil of God’s spirit, on your foreheads and your hands – if you want to. And we don’t need to know what we are saying yes to, just that we are saying yes. And we are here for it. So john will come and join me and if you would like to be prayed for and anointed, please come and join us at this altar rail too.

Let us pray:

Pour out your spirit upon us Great God, as we say yes, again, to your holy invitation. Amen.

An Invitation to Dadirri

Before I begin I acknowledge with grateful thanks, the research and words of Elder Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, whose voice echoes significantly in this sermon.

As a relatively new stranger in these lands I feel like every day’s very much a school day. Fortunately, I loved school and was that annoying kid who put their hand up to say ‘sir, you forgot to set us our homework’ or ‘miss so-and-so is talking during the test’. Yes, that child. But that love of learning and keenness to know new things is standing me in good stead now. My senses are on high alert! Those storms stop me in my tracks; I lapped up every bit of knowledge I could find about Wadjemup; and this week has been another education in Antipodean life and culture.

On Thursday the church celebrated the Ascension of our Lord – that glorious moment where the Risen Christ’s physical body rose to heaven and the Holy Spirit was charged with taking it from here. And we also marked Sorry Day. So, I got to work learning about this too.

National Sorry Day remembers and acknowledges the mistreatment of First Nations people who were forcibly removed from their families and communities and became ‘The Stolen Generations’. Sorry Day honours the strength of those Survivors and gives us chance to reflect on how we can play a part in the healing process for this country, and all her children. It allows us to repent – stop, turn around, and act differently – and ask those big questions like why aboriginal children are still nearly 11 times more likely to be removed from their families than their non-aboriginal friends.

It give us space to look back, so that we might look forward to what could be. And for us people of faith it focusses our prayers on asking God to continue God’s remarkable work of reconciliation, and see how we might join in with that. And it brings to the fore those things humanity prefers not to look at – trauma, injustice, oppression, evil – and asks us to respond.

So, on Thursday, many of us gathered in the chapel amid all of that – the glory and hope of the Ascension and the weight and despair (and indeed the hope) of Sorry Day. And together, we began exploring the Aboriginal concept of quiet stillness, and deep listening, called Dadirri.

Dadirri is a recognition of the deep spring within each of us, which is the very Spirit of God.

Dadirri is a conscious listening to the sound within us; the sound of Deep calling to Deep.  

Dadirri is waiting; reminding us that hurrying achieves nothing, and our best is found in moving in the flow of the spirit. Waiting allows things to be done with care.  

In the morning we sat, together, and walked alone.

In the evening, we sat by candelight and gathered around the sacrament.

And we tried to listen to that deep spirit. We tried to hear deep calling to deep. And we waited. And I’m sure something happened, but I don’t know what. But God’s spirit was definitely with us, of course, because that is the promise of Ascension.

And then Friday marked the start of Reconciliation Week – another lesson for me – and, in this week, all Australians are encouraged to, quote, ‘tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation [or even begin it] so we can make change for the benefit of all’.  And that is an amazing opportunity and a big work, and a significant responsibility and we need to be here for it.

And, as followers of Jesus, we have something specific, something unique to contribute to this work; something the world is waiting for.

As Jesus-people, we have gifts that our community, our country is looking for.

We, like those first disciples in the Acts reading, can call upon that holy name and see people set free, we can see slavery end, statistics changed and chains broken, we can shake the very ground we walk on and speak words of life and salvation.

Those words in Revelation promised us we will see the hungry fed and the thirsty receive water. And our gospel gave us that glorious reassurance that we can do this because 2000 years ago, in that garden, Christ prayed for us – for all that was to come, for all that we would be, for the jobs and roles we would have here today: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these – those disciples who were with Jesus – but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word’ – that is us! We have been prayed for by the Christ, so we don’t act alone and we don’t need to drop our heads in the face of big work.

Friends, we are fierce. If only we knew that and believed that!

We have been promised all we need. It is ours. It always was.

We just need to get into that slipstream of the Spirit, that we might be guided by that flow and taken to where we are most needed, to do God’s work of reconciliation. And that is why we are calling this week our week of Dadirri, our week of contemplation and listening – because we don’t know upon which banks this river will wash us up, but we are choosing to get in and go with God.

So, this week you are invited to immerse yourself in the spirit of Dadirri – you are invited to wait and deeply listen, every day, and be still and silent, every day, because our task in this generation is huge and it can only be done with and through the work of God’s spirit. I urge and encourage you to take that time, each day, knowing your brothers and sisters are doing the same and expecting that God will guide us to the next thing and that it will be good.

Come Lord Jesus, Amen.

The Gospel according to Wadjemup…

This past week I had the total privilege of being the Anglican chaplain for the island of Wadjemup – or Rottnest. I went quite reluctantly, in a way – superficially, the weather forecast was bad and, more significantly, I’d not long ago watched a documentary about the history of the island. That film left me so conflicted about whether the white people should be making a playground of this giant unmarked grave that I didn’t know if I even had any right to step foot off the boat, but, our diocese has a commitment to always having a clergyperson resident there, and the opportunity came to me, so I went.

All my fears were real, and right, and mostly unmet and my heart really did find a new home there. It was a wonderful and blessed time and I know I’ll return often.

In my mental wranglings about whether I should or shouldn’t go I spoke to some of our aboriginal elders and some other people, who are wiser than I am. Uncle Ben said to me, ‘please go; go and stand at the water’s edge and throw sand into the sea and call up the spirits of those who went and never returned to their spiritual country’ and a wonderful companion encouraged me to stand at the edge of the most brutally sacred places and ask permission to enter and then listen for an answer. What wealth of advice!

I took a book with me called An Island Solution: Rottnest reveals our colonial secrets and each morning I read a few chapters, recounting the hideous, oppressive, violent and barbaric history of that beautiful place, and then I walked the island and saw the places I’d read about.

I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was really aware that it was white British men who led this fight for colonialism, and they are my grandfathers, so I said ‘sorry’ at the edge of the cemetery and at the vast burial site where 1 in 10 of the prisoners had ended up – through execution, murder or malnourishment. I kissed the walls of the reformatory and the chapel and the lighthouse – all built by our aboriginal ancestors for the benefit of the white man and his children. I had no idea what I was doing and I must have looked crazy, but over the 6 days I covered every section of the island, intentionally, and every step I took was meant as one of prayer and peace, of reconciliation and of love.

And last Sunday, I said mass in that tiny Anglican chapel – just me and one other – and the gospel reading was that famous one; love one another, as I have loved you, love one another – and I asked, and genuinely wondered, ‘what does loving one another look like here? What does it look like to love those who were brought here and never got to go home? And what does it look like to love those who did that to them?’ and I wasn’t sure.

And then today we hear those equally famous words; peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. And I have the same sort of wonderings.

What does peace look like to an island, to a country, built on colonialism, domination and oppression? How do we find peace there, or here? What does peace look like the day after a general election where some people will be worse off for the result and others are rejoicing? What is that peace? Where can we find it?

And, the thing is, I had totally immersed myself in the stories of Wadjemup – of how it became Rottnest, then a prison, then a grave. I truly heard the cries of history and felt the deep wounds of its past and it was loud… and yet, beyond all that, above all that, was this unescapable, very tangible, sense of peace. Those walking trails, those incredible beaches, that chapel, that grave site, all of it is just steeped in peace, dripping with peace. And that, I think, is the very essence of what Jesus promises us here.

You see, peace is not simply the absence of war. It is not just silence or quiet. Peace is profound. It is counter cultural. It is the port in the storm, the centre of the tornado, the sense of calm when everything is falling down around us. It is the strength in the face of a diagnosis and the courage to get up in the morning when our dearest loved one has died. It is the sunrise and the sunset and the lapping waves on the island shores of Wadjemup. And I am certain that this is what Jesus was promising when he said ‘I do not give to you as the world gives’ because this sort of peace cannot be found in the world or by the world. It can only be received as gift, as grace, as entirely other.

We can try to chase peace or hunt it out. We can try to manufacture it or create it. And yet, we can’t manage it; not truly, not deeply. Oh, I think we can contribute to it or distract from it, but the deep seat of this peace is ours, in Christ, and is always coming to us, is always on its way.

It is left to us and is given to us and will lift us and carry us.

It is not the peace of the world – that peace will disappoint us, because it won’t last.

And it is ours to receive, if we want it. So, hold out your hands and lift up your heads. And do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. Amen.

Deeds, not words…

Things are really hotting up here election-wise aren’t they? A day rarely passes without a leaflet in the mailbox, a billboard scooting past on a trucks, or a knock at the door. There was a national prayer vigil on Wednesday, and have you received your very useful fridge magnet from a certain counsellor?

Growing up in a household with a trade unionist grandad and a militant mum, I was taught the importance of voting in every election from a very young age and I heard about the works of the Suffragette movement way before I could pronounce it.

In the UK, women peacefully campaigned for an equal right to vote for more than 5 decades, with no success, but in 1903 a group of feisty activists adopted a slogan that became their motto – deeds not words. They tried every which way of communicating through words – to no avail – so they began direct action. Some of the reports of what they did sound bad – arson, window smashing, criminal damage – and others sound hilarious – the arrest warrant for a woman found in the house of commons ‘in male attire, with a riding whip in her coat pocket’ was among my favourites. What they learned was that deeds were what changed things, not words. And it worked and, after many heroic deeds and some bloodshed, even death, women got the vote

This was super controversial at the turn of the last century but I’m not sure why because Jesus was already onto it 2000 years earlier…

‘How long will you keep us in suspense?’ the Jews asked Jesus…  ‘If you are the messiah, tell us plainly’.  They want to know the truth, and they want Jesus to tell them.  They want a simple yes or no answer. Are you the messiah Jesus; yes, or no?  and Jesus replies by saying, ‘I’ve told you and you don’t believe’.  He says the works he does is all the proof they need – the works I do in my father’s name testify to me. 

It’s like he’s saying, I can tell you if you want, but its way better to see. This isn’t about being told the answers and accepting it blindly. This is about way more than that. It’s about deeds not words … it’s like he’s saying, ‘I’ve told you and I can tell you again if you want, but it makes no difference if you don’t see my actions, believe and follow me. I can tell you, but you must connect the dots and let it impact you. Let it change you’.

Jesus’ deeds show beyond all reasonable doubt who he is. These people had seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, give sight to the blind, cast out demons, feed the hungry…they’ve seen all these things, and still, they’re not quite sure.  Are you the one we are waiting for, or should we wait longer?  Should we expect another? Tell us!

They’d been told, over and over!

But the gap between the brain and the heart is the biggest of all.

At some point we need that eureka moment where we go ‘ohhhh’. At some point we have to almost give in and say, ‘I’ve seen enough to think it might be proof’ and, as much as my brain is able to grasp it, I choose to believe.

And I think, as it was with those first disciples and those Jewish leaders, so it ever will be. The world is always waiting, always questioning, always wondering. What is true? What is real? And I wonder what the world, what our community, sees and hears from us, about us, in this place that offers any kind of answer to that question.

This week our Just Manna committee met together, and we heard about a woman who had lost custody of her child because they had become homeless. Within 36 hours we had managed to find her somewhere to stay and she was reunited with her baby and her immediate response was a text that said, ‘thanks so much for your help and prayers…I can’t explain how complete I feel’. We could have just prayed for her, but it was our deeds, that made the difference.

At the same meeting we agreed practical help for our dear friends released from detention and we asked ourselves ‘how can we support these guys more?’  and we thought maybe it’s housing or financial support or a bike to get around. Like, yeah, we can say we are here for you, and we love you, but what does that look like in deeds not words?

And I feel like this is what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s gospel passage; deeds, not words. The importance of doing transformational things that lead to relationship and belonging. We can say ‘I love you’ and that’s really nice but it means nothing unless we show that love in deeds not words.

For the mummy and her baby, this week, she saw the provision of a home and knew she was no longer alone, but this group of strangers have reached out and helped her, made her feel complete (to use her phrase), not only because that is the right thing to do when someone is in need but because we follow the one who is Love and told us to love likewise.

The Jewish leaders said ‘tell us plainly’ but Jesus’ response was – and still is – don’t just hear what I say but see what I do – deeds not words. And I feel like the world, even now, is asking that same question and is watching and waiting; watching to see if our deeds match our words.

I feel like our community is also asking ‘tell us plainly, is this real?’ Is God real? You speak a good game but show me what it means, show me what difference it makes.

So, we need to ask ourselves, what have we seen and known of Christ?

And what will we do so that others might know Him too? Amen.

When we give up and go back to fishing…

You might remember, a few weeks ago, I spoke about the installations at Cottesloe Beach and the hanging metal one that, from one direction displayed the word YES as the wind moved the dangling pieces in the sun, and then, as you walked past and looked back it somehow showed the word NO. Incidentally it won the top award for the sculptures by the sea this year, but the point was that sometimes we see things differently, as if for the first time. And it keeps on happening. Last week, even as I was reading the gospel reading in the service, I noticed something for the first time. And this week it’s happening again with this morning’s passage.

So, a short time has passed since the first Easter and the disciples are in a real spin.  They’ve walked the last 3 years with Jesus.  They’d heard and responded to His call to ‘follow Me’.  They were there.  They saw him heal and preach.  They’d been given the Eucharist and had their feet washed.  They’d walked in Gethsemane, and they had fled.  And then Jesus died, and they had to face their grief, recognise their failings, recognise that He had not abandoned them but that they had, in fact, abandoned Him.  And, even as they were wrestling with all that, He defeated death and appeared to them, despite the tomb being sealed and the doors being locked.  And He kept on doing it. 

And then Peter says, ‘I’m going fishing’ and some of the other disciples say, we’re coming.  

And the point of this passage is often the redemption of Peter – you know, Jesus asks him 3 times ‘do you love me’ and 3 times tells him… ‘feed my sheep’ and this covers over for the 3 denials of Peter and that is great. It’s true and redemptive

But here’s the thing that has struck me. Listen to this… ‘I’m going fishing’.

Peter and his friends have had the most incredible, life changing, utterly transformational 3 years. They will surely never be the same again, surely. And yet, in their grief it seems that all is lost and what’s the point and those three words of Peter sum up his absolute despair; screw this, I’m going fishing. Really, what is the point? All is lost. I am lost. Total defeat. Can you hear that?

So off they go, and they land up, 80 miles away on the sea of Tiberias, in a boat, catching nothing.  And then – would you believe it, even though they’ve gone all that way – Jesus pops up again. They don’t recognise it’s Him, but He tells them to cast their nets on the other side and they bring in this huge catch of fish.  They haul the net ashore and share in a breakfast BBQ of bread and fish, with the risen Lord. Jesus even brings his own fish for them because its already there waiting when they reach the shore. Amazing!

And, unlike ever before, I’m feeling the potential awkwardness of that breakfast… oh, don’t get me wrong, they’ve already encountered Jesus twice before and it’s been fine – peace be with you, receive the holy spirit, as I was sent so I am sending you – but now, they’ve gone back to fishing. Peter has given up on who he was – Jesus is even calling him Simon – the person he once was, back before everything had got so great – back before he became the rock upon which the whole church would be built. It just feels like one of those awful, awkward meals where there is tension all around. Can you feel that?

And when they finished breakfast Jesus said to Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’  Ouch.

Simon – yep, remember who you once were.

Son of John – remember where you came from.

Do you love me?

And then there is this beautiful and bittersweet exchange where Jesus asks and asks and asks again and Simon responds and asserts and affirms and the gospel writer says, ‘Peter felt hurt’.  Jesus addresses Simon, and Peter felt hurt. Wow. I want to sit with the complexity and depth of that too. It’s just all so poignant and deep and reassuring and unsettling. Can you sense that?

And then Jesus says, follow me.

Follow me. Jesus had said that, right at the beginning, right at the water’s edge when they had been there fishing, three years before. And hadn’t they gotten up, left their nets ‘straight away’ and followed him – not knowing what it would mean or what it would entail but doing it anyways – and now he’s asking again. Follow me…except, this time they all know exactly what this invitation includes – heck, Peter even knows what kind of death he’s going to face.

And it seems like this is something so significant. It’s like, the first time they heard the call they blindly followed – all gung ho and all in – yeah this sounds fun, let’s go! But now, now they are asked again – it’s like a second conversion.

And, as always, as it was for them, so it is for us, friends.

At our baptism, we, or our parents, heard that first call – follow me – and we did it, blindly. And then, somewhere along the way, we hear the call again. And again. And each time we have the choice. And how often do we also revert back to who we used to be and what we used to do? How often do we go back to whatever our equivalent of ‘going fishing’ is? How often do we need Jesus to come and find us and meet us at the place we’ve run to? Do you recognise that?

I think this story is so tender – almost painfully so – because it is our story and it is brutally familiar. And today, as every day, we have this invitation again. Follow me, Jesus says. Even unto death.

Hear him ask. What will your response be?

Amen.

I have seen the Lord!

I have several favourite preachers that I turn to, often, to see what they say on a bible passage. One of my all-time favourites is Nadia Bolz-Weber – a Lutheran priest with an outrageous number of tattoos and a potty mouth, with a passionate love of Jesus and a healthy disrespect for the confines of Church. I don’t know why it’s a match really 😉

What she has to say on this week’s gospel passage is so beautiful that I’ve taken chunks of it and my voice is intertwined with hers to such an extent that I need to give that acknowledgement to her, from the off.

So, this morning we meet the disciples, huddled in the upper room, for fear of the Jews, and unlike last time, Thomas is now with them too.  And I suspect that having denied, betrayed, and abandoned Jesus the disciples were really wallowing in their shortcomings.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to think they were passing around blame and justifications for the death of Jesus, trying to make the others faults greater than their own; ‘if Judas hadn’t betrayed him it would’ve been ok’ and ‘there was no space to stay at the foot of the cross anyways, with all those women around’ and ‘Peter, if you hadn’t denied him first, I was going to say I knew him’ …I mean, they’ve all screwed up. 

And then, even while they’re locked away, it is here, amidst doubt and fear, amid blame and justifications that Jesus came and stood among them.  Jesus; clearly no respecter of locked doors, or self-pity, or hiding, comes and stands among them. It is here  he chooses to appear to his beloved Christ deniers – those he loves who abandoned him and he says ‘Peace be with you’.  Peace?  They’ve denied and betrayed and deserted and made fatal mistakes in their discipleship…and Jesus’ first words to them are, Peace be with you. 

His final words, if they had been there to hear them, was ‘it is finished’. That was it, the end. The end of the old world order. And now is the dawning of the new world; all that was is gone and the new beginning is one of peace. Absolute, all consuming, fear swamping, peace. The old is forgiven. The new is freedom.

And notice the text doesn’t say “when they had repented of what complete asses they had been; and when they had perfected their faith and the purity of their doctrine; and when they had achieved the right condition of personal morality THEN they were worthy of receiving Jesus.” No. There they sat. Fear, doubt, betrayal and more than a little shame.  

But it takes more than shame and locked doors to keep Jesus out.  In fact; it’s just like God to barge in uninvited through our fear and locked doors to remind us, like it or not, that we are the recipients of peace, grace, forgiveness, and God’s spirit. Jesus just has this way of coming along and saying an insistent ‘yes’ to our polite “no thank yous”. And that’s exactly what he does for Thomas.

Thomas wasn’t there for Jesus’ first visit.  He didn’t hear those first soothing words of peace.  He only gets to hear about it second hand.  And he doesn’t believe the disciples.  And I don’t blame him!  Their track record hasn’t been great so far, has it?  Peter told Jesus he would die for him, just a few days ago, and that turned out to not be true, so he has said his own polite “no thank you” to the news that Jesus has risen from the dead. He doubts. And it’s not surprising is it, because even though Jesus has cryptically said he will be back, and the disciples have said they have seen him, it’s just not something that dead people do, is it? So, yes, he has doubts.

But doubting isn’t the opposite of having faith…it’s a component of having faith.  Doubting can mean we haven’t forgotten the story.  Doubting means that we don’t have it figured out all on our own. But the best thing about doubting is it’s honest.  

And now, when Jesus appears again, Thomas meets him, honestly, with his doubts in his hands and mouth, and then he trades it all in as he comes face-to-face with Life and makes the boldest statement of faith that we hear in the whole bible: “My Lord and My God” he says.  Jesus’ presence is the perfect antidote to doubt. We might still feel it, but it can have no power – it isn’t true – because Jesus conquered doubt at the same time He defeated death. When Jesus kicked death into touch, He also told guilt and shame and fear and blame exactly where to go.  None of those things can function under Jesus’ peace.

So what about us, huddled here today in our 21st century equivalent of that same room. How are we feeling? What are we believing?

Here we are, along with those first disciples, tentatively trying to get things right, more often getting things wrong – doubting, denying, wandering off, forgetting. But, I have seen the Lord, friends. I have. I have seen him here in the mass and in the faces of each of you. I have seen him over coffee and broken bread. I have seen him in the gardens and the chapel. I have seen him in the ocean and the sunsets. I have seen the lord. And we will each reach out and touch his resurrected body at this altar in a few minutes. We have seen the lord. Do you believe? Will you, like Thomas, reach out your hands and touch our Risen Lord? Will you receive his peace and God’s spirit and be changed? Will you kneel in wonder and worship and echo that great and abiding statement of faith; my lord and my God, and will you pass it on to others that they too may have life in Christ’s name?

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed, Alleluia.  Amen.

Easter Sunday 2022

What a holy week we have had, haven’t we?

If ever I needed cast iron proof that I’ve truly found my tribe with you lot, this holy week has confirmed it. A few of us have yawned through Morning Prayer or whispered our way through Compline. Beauty and creativity have sprung up in the labyrinth and the graffiti wall and most abundantly in those stations of the cross. We have held silence and sacred spaces and banquets and night watches. We lamented and waited at the foot of the cross. We have tried to, faithfully and tentatively, walk the Way of the Cross and we have done it together and we made it to resurrection. And didn’t we just!

And then, we hear the most stunning account of the resurrection narrative, as recorded in St John’s Gospel. We see faithful Mary Magdalene – last to leave Golgotha, first to arrive at the grave. We witness her fear at the moved – removed – stone, and we watch as these anxious, grief-ridden, competitive disciples – barely even able to cling to that title – race to the tomb, summoned by Mary’s fear rather than their own devotion.

They look in, they don’t go in, they go in, they see the linen wrappings, they believe, they don’t understand and then they go home. The account of them is frantic, chaotic, and kind of exhausting. But. Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

They are too-ing and fro-ing, running and racing, and Mary just stood weeping. Sometimes it is good to just stop, pause, and have a good weep. Be like Mary!

And then, the tempo changes into this beautiful tender kind-of distanced embrace.

She sees two angels – just sitting there in the tomb – and they ask her ‘why are you weeping’ and she says, ‘they have taken away my lord and I do not know where they have laid him’, heart-wrenching, and then she turns, in her grief, and she sees Jesus. He’s right there and she sees him, but she thinks he is the gardener.

Through history, art has given us gorgeous glowing images of the resurrected Christ. He is always wearing billowing white robes because he must always be standing in front of some kind of holy wind machine. And he is glorious and radiant and…really clean. But Mary mistakes him for the gardener, and if you’ve been around these grounds on a Wednesday morning, you will know what gardener’s look like. They don’t wear their best clothes and they have mud under their nails and leaves in their hair. And I think maybe that says something more important about resurrection – something that is stolen from us if we cling to these images of a golden angel, minus the wings.

Jesus was dead. He was beaten and broken and dead. Murdered, brutally.

On Friday I told you that I still deeply wonder why Jesus had to die, or if he even did have. And I said I will always continue in that wondering, and I will. But the bottom line is, he died. We know that to be true. God died and was placed in that tomb. And in my questioning and my wondering I have spent some time thinking about what happened next.

In our creeds, and in the pages of scripture, we hear about how Christ descended to the dead. On Good Friday God died, but by Holy Saturday, God was up to God’s amazing, transformative, redemptive work of salvation, for all people and all situations, for all time and all eternity. First stop; the gates of hell, and with the keys of life Christ smashed them open – I swear, from the inside, and then declared, ‘everyone out – you first Judas’.

On Holy Saturday Christ was BUSY!

There was work to be done. He didn’t just rest there in that tomb, healing. He got straight to work in the divine plan of all salvation. There was more to do. Death needed to be shown it didn’t win.  Pain and suffering didn’t win.  Destruction and human failings didn’t win.  Abuse didn’t win.  Hatred, oppression, injustice, poverty, racism, war; all these things didn’t win.  Love won. Love wins.  Love goes down to the dead and restores life.  Love smashes the gates of hell and sets captives free.  And Love beats darkness; it takes it and redeems it, into something good and pure and holy and beautiful. It’s no wonder Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. That’s exactly what he was – the pruner, the re-creator, the One to plant the new heaven and the new earth.

You see, the resurrection isn’t about making everything shiny and clean. It is about total transformation – destruction of the old and creation of the new. The work of the holy gardener, sowing and seeding and cultivating new life. Sowing seeds of light and hope in the places of all darkness so that it might overcome.

I love the thought that the risen Christ looks more like a slightly scruffy gardener with dirt under his nails because it means he’s at work and it also means I can more likely imagine becoming more like him. I’ll never be a wingless angel, but I might get messy in the work of telling darkness and death to pack its bags and leave. I will gladly get messy in the work of telling oppression and injustice that its days are numbered, and it has to go. That’s the work of the gardener and that’s the work of us because we are the gardening team.

So, this easter, this year, listen out for the voice of that holy gardener as he calls your name – like he did with Mary – and then look up, see this gardener handing you a spade, because there is work to be done and our Risen Christ needs a hand.

Amen

The Great Unknowing

A sermon for Good Friday*

*I first preached a variation of this sermon in 2017, on my first Good Friday as a priest. My training priest was so furious with me – that I had told people that I don’t know why Jesus had to die – that I didn’t preach on Good Friday again, until 2022. Now I think that sharing our doubts and questioning, even as priests, especially as priests, is essential. So here it is again; revised, revisited and still unsure whether Jesus really HAD to die, or if it was a sure consequence of real living…

I remember the exact moment when all I knew and believed about what happened on the cross came tumbling down around me.

It was 2011, and a Tuesday, around 7:30am.  I was sat on my sofa, drinking coffee, reading the bible passages for that day.  I had all my theology and knowledge, safely and neatly stacked in metaphorical boxes around me, lids firmly fixed down.  I remember so clearly that as I sat and read one of the accounts of the crucifixion, I felt this creeping sense of unease wash over me, and something inside my mind or heart dared to ask this question that I’ve asked countless times since: Did Jesus have to die? ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ 

And I realised I no longer knew the answer. 

I knew it was safely stored somewhere in one of these proverbial theology boxes that I’d carefully been packing since Sunday School, but I couldn’t locate it.  And I knew it was important – I mean, I had to know why Jesus had to die if I wanted to be one of His followers, right?  So I put down my coffee, and quickly got dressed.  I didn’t have to be in work until 9am, there was still time to figure this out and get things straight before then.  I drove to my church and burst through the door and straight into my priest and blurted out ‘I no longer know why Jesus had to die?’ and she looked a bit stunned by this early morning theological conundrum, and she ermed and ahhed a bit, and then she looked at me and said what, in hindsight became the most beautiful answer. She said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that’…

And so, my quest continued…

At that time, I worked at the cathedral and was surrounded by priests all day, so I went to ask them.  I dashed to work, armed with my burning question; desperate to have it sorted, as quickly as possible.

I got to my desk and was facing precious Martin; a wonderful, kind priest, who was very posh.  And I said to Martin ‘why did Jesus have to die?’ and, without missing a heartbeat, he said ‘Gemma; Jesus died for the propitiation of our sins’ and then he paused and said ‘…yep, I’m happy with that’, but I wasn’t.  I tried on this theory for myself and I couldn’t make it fit.  And I didn’t know what propitiation meant. 

And then in bounded Keith – big, brash, loud, Baptist minister Keith. And I asked Keith, ‘why did Jesus have to die?’  and he said ‘so God could look at you.’ 

What?!

‘Yes’, he said ‘before Jesus died, God couldn’t bear to look at you because you were so full of sin and God can’t look upon sin’.  And I remembered this explanation from before; this was one I’d clung onto for years, and I tried it on again, and the weight of it did something bad to my heart and soul and I knew I couldn’t carry this explanation around any longer.  I knew God loved me, loved all humanity, every last one of us, through all time and eternity, and I couldn’t reconcile that love with God not being able to look at God’s people, unless Jesus died. 

So I pressed on with my big question.

And I pressed on.

And I still press on. 

And I will press on, always.

And, if that even is a question then, still, I don’t know why Jesus had to die.  In fact, I don’t believe he had to; not to fulfil a great celestial plan, anyway.  But Jesus showed – still shows – such a radical way of living, such a purity of life, heart and mind that death was… inevitable.

I know Jesus turned everything upside down with His outrageous, indiscriminating, love; and when humankind comes face to face with that love, it does something to our very core and sears into our soul and it’s so rare, so ‘raw’ that it’s terrifying, and our fear causes us to kill it.  To kill love.  I know that.

And I also know that even though Jesus told his closest friends, over and over, what was going to happen to him, still they didn’t understand either.  They didn’t know why Jesus had to die.   Not only did they not understand, they ran away and betrayed Him, and denied they’d even known him.  They didn’t understand what was happening. 

On that first Good Friday night, they weren’t sat around in the upper room waiting for what had been promised to them, full of hope, nodding knowingly.  They were hiding; huddled there, this night, terrified, distraught, guilt-stricken, with images of their best friend; bloodied and beaten and broken.  They could still hear the cries of the crowd – crucify him.  And they could hear their own voices – I don’t even know the man.  Life was gone.  Hope was gone.  Jesus was dead.  That’s what they knew.  So if that’s all we know too, that is enough…

Today we do well to kneel at this cross, where our friend Jesus is beaten and broken.  And we kneel undone, as we see our sin and hear our own failings ringing in our ears.  All we have known is in tatters around us because we haven’t always followed the examples of our Jesus.  But we also know, in ways we can never comprehend, that His crucifixion is part of something bigger than our understanding. 

We do not fully know what happened on the cross, or in the darkness of that tomb, none of us do – and the truth is we cannot, because this is the work of God Almighty, an unfathomable act of grace and mystery, where death equals life. And that is enough. That is even good.

So, we kneel here today, clinging to our faith and to our humanity, and onto to any shred of knowledge we may ever had – albeit tentatively – and, as we do, we hold fast to all we know of the extravagant, unending, indestructible love of God. We kneel with those disciples who knew nothing, but still dared to be together, even if it was in hiding.

And we watch, and we weep, and we wait…  And it is good. Amen.