We *must* rejoice…

Prayer

If you read your newsletter this week, you will already know today is Laetare Sunday – the Sunday in Lent where we lift our Lentern observances and peep out from under them to spot Easter, right there, on the horizon! For one week only the colour lifts from the deep dark purple to a slightly lighter brighter ‘rose’ and the psalm for the day reminds us to rejoice! It’s also the day in the UK, where we celebrate Mothering Sunday – the day hijacked by hallmark and turned into a commercial affair for the chocolate and flowers industry (unless you’re living in my house this weekend, sorry mum…).

I know that you lot don’t mark Mother’s Day until May but forgive me for sharing a bit of Mothering Sunday history, because it fits so snugly into this morning’s gospel reading that I can’t resist it.

The original Mother’s Day was not about our Mums at all. The first Mothering Sunday was about the church.  Exactly 9 months before Christmas, girls working in domestic service were allowed to return home for a rare weekend off, their last one before Christmas and they were instructed to ‘go a’mothering’ – to go home to their mum – not the one who gave birth to them, but the one who spiritually birthed and nurtured them in the faith of Christ. Mothering Sunday was about going home to the Mother Church. It was about going home.

And this morning we meet our well-known brother – the one we call the Prodigal – on his own journey from and to home. We know the story, don’t we? He asks his dad for his inheritance early and goes off to a distant country to squander all he has in dissolute living. He spends all he has and then gets hungry. And ‘when he came to himself’ he decides the best cure for his hunger is a huge slice of humble pie and he turns around and goes home.

He dares to hope his father will greet him with compassion. He recites his well-prepared speech and doesn’t even get halfway through before he is cloaked in the finest robe, lavished with the finest jewels, the fatted calf meets a sticky end, and they begin to celebrate. The welcome home party rages…and there is that one notable absence – our other brother – the elder one. 

He’s out in the field and he hears music and dancing and then he hears the news that makes his blood run cold; his brother has come home – and all his resentment and anger and bitterness rushes to his cheeks and clenches his fists and seals his feet securely to the floor. His dad comes to him – like he went to prodigal – and tries to envelop him with that same compassion, but elder brother’s resentment says no. He’s at the house, but there’s no way he’s going home.

And the dad says the most compelling and costly line in the whole story; son, we had to celebrate and rejoice. We had to. It’s the only response.

And today we remember our own home – the father’s house – Mother Church. And in these old familiar words, this homecoming, we find ourselves.

And countless preachers have asked their people, ‘where are you in this story’? are you far off and needing to come home? Are you languishing there, hungry among the pigs? Are you taking the first tentative steps homeward? Or are you that elder brother; angry and resentful for all you’ve given, with such seemingly limited return? Are you standing, arms folded, feet glued to that outer field, refusing to come in and welcome home the prodigal?

But I am drawn to the father’s compelling and costly line – we have to celebrate and rejoice. Because it is true, and it is also a lot.

Friends, we are going through a time here where we’re experiencing growth! Each week we have people come and join us for the first time, or the first time in a long time, and our welcome and greeting makes all the difference.

And Jesus knows humanity from of old – he knows there will be prodigals who will come stumbling in, stinking. Suffering from whatever the equivalent is of dissolute living and sitting with pigs. He knows they will come in rehearsing their reasons and excuses for being away so long as they beg for a place at this table.

And he knows there will be those who run to greet them, arms wide, robes hoiked up, compassion flowing, ready to envelop and cloak them, adorn them with jewels – even though we know they might just as quickly be sold to afford the next drug fix. Jesus knows you.

And he also knows there will be those who have served diligently and have cleaned this place and – to be honest – would prefer it not to be messed up. He knows there are those of us whose feet will be glued to the floor and hands firmly stuffed into pockets and, even if we try, it feels too much to even take one step to embrace the new, or re-embrace the old, especially if they have hurt us, or threaten to do so in the future. Jesus knows us too.

And yet, that costly and compelling line is for each of us – us prodigals, us elders, even us fatted calves – we have to celebrate and rejoice. We have to. Because this is the way our church grows. This is the way the kingdom grows. This is the way our mother church births and nourishes us into life and into the future. Generation after generation.

This week I’ve read one blog post over and over – thanks to Gabby for sharing it on the facebook page – and I want to end with some of the words, by Debie Thomas, who says this…

“We have to celebrate and rejoice.”  …Did you know you have to celebrate?  Did you know that joy is a must in your father’s house?  That partying is a duty?

Your father stands in the doorway, waiting for you.  Waiting for you to stop being lost.  Waiting for you to come home.  Did you know your choices are so powerful?  You get to write this ending.  You get to write this ending.

It’s getting cold outside.  The sun is setting, and the party beckons.  What will you do, as the music grows sweeter?  What will we choose, you and I?

What will we choose? Amen.

Looking at parables a different way…

Did you ever see those pictures where, if you look one way it might be an old lady, and if you squint and turn your head it’s a rabbit? Or, the one my mum showed me the other day…apparently it was a mermaid, or a fish. I saw a donkey and my mum saw an otter, but you know. You know the ones I mean? Or, yesterday, we went and visited the Sculptures by the Sea at Cottesloe and there was one where these branch-things held metal hangings. As you approach from one angle the hangings, as they move in the sea breeze, fleetingly say the word ‘yes’ and, in some amazing act of engineering and artistry, as you walk past, and look back, so the same pieces of metal now hang to read NO. Remarkable. So, repeatedly, I’ve been thinking how the way we look at something can change what we see. And all the while I’ve been accompanied by this gardener, and his fruitless fig tree.

The man had a fig tree, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none, so he gets mad and tells the gardener to cut it down. What’s the point? It’s a waste of soil. And the gardener asks for a reprieve. Just give me one more year, some digging and some manure and let’s see what happens.

Oftentimes, I have heard, and have almost certainly preached that God is the landowner; the one who metes out punishment, the one who gets frustrated by the distinct lack of figs on the tree.  Jesus is the gardener, and we are that poor fig tree, desperately trying to squeeze out a fig, to spare our own life and make the landowner happy.  And we can’t do it. Try as we might, we can’t muster up a single fig so we must be doomed.

But how wrong is that?  God is not angry. God isn’t busily inspecting our branches for figs and waiting to cut us dead if God can’t find any.  That’s not the God we have met in the face of Jesus Christ.  Rather, God is the tender, hopeful gardener who is constantly saying ‘let me feed and nurture and love this one, for one more year, and one after that, and one after that’.

And I think that’s a valid retelling of this parable. Beautiful even. I think God is the gardener and is tending us to make us more fruitful.  But if this week’s lessons are anything worth, what if we just try to squint a bit and tilt our heads at the story and see if we can glean another perspective.

What if we aren’t the fig tree at all. What if we are meant to be the gardener?

What if we are the gardener – the one responsible for the care and productivity of this fig tree. And what if the fig tree represents the world?

I think this could be the YES to where we have previously seen the NO hanging there in front of us, like that installation at Cottesloe…

You see, we are created for good things. We are created to make this world a better place as a direct result of us being here on this planet at this time in this moment in the narrative of the creation story. Aren’t we?

Do we not each have a unique and significant role to play in changing and tending and nurturing and caring for this world for the better? Could we be the ones who need to take up the spade and dig, so that fruit will come – maybe next year, maybe for the next generation, who knows. And I think this could be a faithful and valid retelling too.

I am not in the least bit green fingered. I have no idea when to prune and when to leave. I don’t know the difference between weeds and plants, so I’m daunted by this potential call to be a holy gardener in the work of the Divine, but when we see the state of the world right now – how intent she seems to be in destroying herself and all her children – how temperatures rise and ice caps melt – how pregnant women are bombed while they labour to deliver the next generation – well, we have to do something, don’t we? And maybe those ancient words from the prophet give us a starting point.

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.

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

Come buy wine without money and milk without price.

Come and eat bread and be satisfied.

Eat what is good and delight yourselves in good food.

Friends, imagine a world where everyone has equal access to clean, fresh, running water. Imagine a place where everyone can afford their next meal. Imagine the lavishness of a place where wine and milk and water are in constant supply. That sounds like fruitfulness to me. That sounds like a tree well-tended. How might we cultivate that soil, so fruit may burst from that tree, while we are on the watch, while we are responsible for it in this generation?

Again, let’s turn to the prophet for his advice; seek the Lord, Isaiah says, call upon God, return to the Divine and trust in God’s ways. Trust, even when it seems crazy, even when the needs of the world are daunting and feel insurmountable. Trust God’s guidance and follow that path because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s ways are not our ways; they are higher and greater and more wonderful than ours and they are good.

So, let’s return to that Tree of Life, take up our holy spades and pruning hooks – and do all we can to make this world fruitful for all. And may we do it for glory of the One who created it and continues to do so. Amen.

When there are no words, stop speaking…

Last Sunday evening we held our sunset service, as we always do, and, because the seasons are changing, it was darker than it had been. It was dark to the point that I could hardly see the words in front of me and I paused and asked for more light. As the service went on it got lighter somehow and, when we ended with the elm dance I looked up and could clearly see why. The stars. Wow the stars were out and they were glorious. Australia really does do great skies, doesn’t she? They’re huge and vast and remind me of just how small I really am. And as I look up, so I find myself thinking about who else is under that same sky – you know? That same sun, that same moon, it’s the one that my family are under; it’s the one that Abram stood under with God in our first reading; it’s the one that rises and sets over the Ukraine; it’s the one that shines through the metal mesh that tries to block it out at the prison that holds out refugee friends; it’s the one that God called into being at the dawn of time. Isn’t that remarkable? Isn’t that amazing? The same moon, the same sun, the same stars. Huge, vast, and we, so small.

Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, the Lord said to Abram.

I wonder if Abram felt that sense of smallness, insignificance almost, in the best possible way. God is vast, the heavens are vast, and here am I, just a tiny speck. A tiny one, but not a forgotten one.

In the light of that enormity, and our tiny-ness, I wonder if words are useful. What is the best response to the God who made more stars than we could ever count?

So, I would like to do something different here. For a few minutes I would like to invite you to sit, in stillness and silence, and allow your heart to look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.

Consider the enormity of the God we serve.

Look up and know that this space and this time – you, your descendants, all you are carrying, the weight of the world in this current time, all our fears and anxieties – all of it is held by the God of the heavens.

Maybe it is a relief to feel suitably small?

SILENCE

I believe that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living…and the Lord reckoned that to us as righteousness. Amen.

When the world isn’t glorious, but the bible readings are…

A few Sundays ago, I woke up before my alarm and in that half-asleep-half-awake state I had to decide whether to go back to sleep or get up and get in the ocean. By some minor miracle I hauled myself out of bed and went for a swim…and as I did, so a family of dolphins went right past me, so close I could almost touch them, and I was reminded of this morning’s gospel passage…

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory

Since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.

Since I had been awake, I saw the glory of those dolphins.

And I committed that moment to memory, thinking ‘that’ll preach’. And, oh how I intended to use that as a springboard into the importance of keeping alert to see God’s glory. And then the events of this week happened, and it turns out that the glory that we hear about in our readings today isn’t how life is right now.

Life isn’t always shiny bright faces and booming affirmations from the almighty.

Life isn’t always feeling the Divine One so close we can reach out and touch them.

Life isn’t always mountain top experiences and dolphins at dawn. Most often we just trudge on, one foot in front of the other, trying our best to follow Jesus – two steps forward, one step back. 

Today’s readings are all dazzling and full of glory but, for most of us, life is probably rarely like that. For our brothers in detention, and our sisters and brothers in the Ukraine it couldn’t be further from that. And what can we say, today, when our readings say one thing and our news says something hideously different… Sometimes there just aren’t the words for how terrifying, how horrendous, how utterly devastating life gets.

Standing with Jesus, on top of a mountain, is one thing. But what can we do, how do we stand, what do we say to our fellow siblings, when we and they are far from that mountain top. Far from that light. Far from anything resembling beauty.

You know, some of the ancient churches in the Ukraine have opened their crypts – their deep, rock hewn, dark crypts, where long-dead saints have been resting for generations and generations – they have opened these places for the dead with an invite for residents to find their way there, for safety. These ancient graves are being used to preserve life. Maybe that says more about glory, more about hope, more about the role of the church and the goodness of humanity. The image of finding refuge – preserving life – in this place of death is so deep, huge, and I don’t have the words for it, but somehow perhaps it shines with the radiance of God. And maybe words just get in the way, anyway. Sometimes, often, I think we need fewer words.

Which brings me to this…

Today is the Sunday before Lent – Lent begins this coming Wednesday and we recall our own humanity, in sorrowfulness and repentance, as we are marked with the sign of the cross in Ash.

Two years ago, before any of us knew a pandemic was around the corner, I read about an ancient practice that takes place on this day, in churches worldwide, called burying or locking the Alleluia.  It dates way back to before the 10th Century and begins to explain why we stop singing and saying Alleluia, in church, during Lent. 

Burying the alleluia, which we will physically do at the end of the service today, is a kind of gimmick, but with beautiful imagery and deep reason. The word is buried, locked away, until the Easter Vigil, when it is ‘released from captivity’, like Christ in the resurrection. That, in itself, is enough, but there’s another aspect that resonates with me today, at this time, when the world seems even more intent on destroying itself and her children.

By burying the Alleluia, as a physical reminder that we will stop proclaiming this word of deep praise for this while, this is an act of solidarity with those who currently can’t proclaim Alleluia, those who have lost or let go of their Alleluia, because life or death or external or internal factors are preventing them from being able to; those for whom Alleluia is the furthest word from their lips because of invasion and war, or their own captivity, or mental ill health, or addiction, or homelessness or hunger, or bereavement or loneliness.  These are our friends, our brothers and sisters, our family members, ourselves.  And by acknowledging that praise is sometimes impossible, or paralysing is a simple but powerful prayer for those who are suffering.  Sometimes not speaking is at least as powerful as prayer, maybe more so.

And, in our worship, during Lent, we no longer use the word Alleluia. There’s a space, a gap where it once was. This lent, may we really notice it is gone. May our liturgy and worship take on a sombre tone, a more serious meaning.  And each time we notice its absence – in that silence, may that be our prayer for those who are currently unable to murmur that word of praise; may it be our prayer for the trafficked, the asylum seeker, the traumatised family fleeing war, the homeless, the terrified world leaders, the lonely, the addicted, may it be our prayer for the deepest saddest parts of ourselves. And may we reach Easter, together, in full anticipation of being able to unlock, dig up, our Alleluia, and see it resurrected with the Risen Christ; for each of us, and for those who we remember in love and solidarity this Lent.  Amen.

Responsory for Burying the Alleluia:

When Jesus came down from the mount of Transfiguration, he began to tell his disciples that he would be betrayed and crucified.

SOMETIMES WE LOSE OUR ALLELUIA.

Jesus did not enter into glory before he stretched out his arms on the hardwood of the cross.

SOMETIMES WE LOSE OUR ALLELUIA.

Jesus told his disciples, “If you want to become my followers, deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me.”

SOMETIMES WE MUST LET GO OF OUR ALLELUIA.

For the days of Lent, we stop singing and saying, “Alleluia.”

SOMETIMES WE LET GO OF OUR ALLELUIA.’

At Easter we will again celebrate the Resurrection and sing “Alleluia! Christ is risen.”

IN GOD’S TIME, WE WILL FIND OUR ALLELUIA!

Ouch, Jesus!

As I said at the start of the service this morning, I am speaking at an event in our grounds this Thursday, arranged by Fremantle Council, about my work in India to help combat modern slavery. I can’t think of a single thing more important than ending the buying and selling of humans. It is that thing that I will never stop working for – the thing I would go to prison for, if I thought it would help – the thing I might even die for. And I won’t talk much about my adventures in India, or the stories of the precious women and children I met there, because I want you to come on Thursday night, but I can’t help being reminded of those people and their plight, when I hear this morning’s first reading.

Today we only get the ‘happily-ever-after’ bit, but Joseph’s full story is one of favouritism, bad parenting, jealousy, murder attempts, human trafficking, lies, false imprisonment and eventual redemption – God sent me here to preserve life, Joseph tells his slave trading brothers. Or, as one of my favourite bible verses later says, what you intended for harm, God intended for good. And Joseph kissed his brothers and wept with them, and they talked together.

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, faked his death, separated him from his beloved dad, he was tricked, imprisoned, forgotten about and then, when they are reunited, Joseph kissed them, wept with them, and talked with them. It’s almost like he heard Jesus’ teaching from today’s gospel reading, some 6 or 7 centuries before he said them.

Loving his enemies, doing good to those who had hated him, blessing those who had cursed him, freely giving to them, choosing not to judge but to forgive. And Jesus tells us to do likewise. It doesn’t make for easy listening, does it?

At best it sounds like an impossibly hard task, good but almost entirely unattainable. At worst it sounds like allowing others to abuse us, walk all over us, a real wet response. But I don’t think either sound like the Jesus I believe in.

And as I reflected on that, so I remembered the first visit to the brothels, while I was in Mumbai – full of imprisoned and trafficked women, like Joseph, and full of those who were buying and selling them – like Joseph’s brothers.

I kept a journal while I was there and one particular day I wrote this…

I’ll never forget stepping into the first brothel and seeing the women; a diverse mix of young and old, loud and silent, laughing and staring, fully clothed and almost naked. Instantly I loved these women. Instantly I could see they are children of God and that God’s image is clearly stamped on them; they weren’t the dirty, cheap, slur on society they are often painted as…

And then I saw the men. And I despised them.

They made me want to scream: How dare you touch these beautiful women and think you can buy them? How dare you mar the image of the creator in these precious children?

Then the challenge from God began.

“They are my children too” God said.
“They are made in My image too”
“My image is marred in them, but it is not destroyed”
“They are my children and I love them”

Last Thursday I shook hands with the first pimp I have ever knowingly met. I looked at him – he was small and polite. He asked me my name, in English. I told him my name, in Hindi, and asked him his. Kasim.

 …And all I kept thinking was “you buy and sell women and children for sex”.

And God kept saying to me “can you see Jesus in Kasim?”.

And the truth is, to my shame, I couldn’t, but maybe this is what Jesus means when he says love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do not judge. Forgive

Love them because they are also beloved of God

Do good because everyone deserves that, even those we think don’t

Bless, pray, give, forgive.

Not because we are better but because everyone is our equal, everyone is made in the image of God and bears God’s image in their very soul. And because doing these things is good for us and God always wants what is good.

Withholding blessings, prayer, and refusing to forgive is bad for our hearts, souls and bodies and how can we hope others will encounter the gift of love God has for all people if we refuse to love, or if we set conditions on who or how much?

Jesus calls us to such a high standard of living, not as a to-do list for God to love us, but so we might live more freely, just exactly as we are created to.  And that others might too.

We work through the deep and difficult work of forgiveness so we are released from carrying and holding resentments that hold us captive.

We strive to love our enemies because otherwise we are poisoned and drawn into a life of harming others.

We do good to those who hate us, not to encourage behaviours of hate, but because we are committed to counteracting them.

And these responses are God-given because they change us. They reorient us. They place us right back into the truths of who we are: God’s beloved children…just like our enemies.

Ultimately these acts, which may seem defeatist and disempowering, centre us in a powerful place of knowing who we are, and who God is. When we act in these ways, these counterintuitive ways to how the world works, we claim truths about God, ourselves, and how God calls us to respond towards others.

We love because we are loved

We love others because they are also loved

That’s really it

How tough it is, what a life’s work it is, but the alternative doesn’t bear considering.

In the Kingdom of God, the alternative doesn’t even exist. Amen.

Jesus is his Mama’s boy…

Do you ever open your mouth, and your mum pops out?! Unnerving isn’t it!

So often I hear Sue Sampson coming out of my mouth. Her compassion for refugees, her frustration of inefficiency, her hatred of injustice, her defiance of the patriarchy and certain political leaders, her love of trashy TV and always the glass of wine…There’s rarely any doubt that I am my mother’s daughter.

And in this morning’s gospel, we encounter something similar: Jesus, God’s Son is very much Mary’s boy. Did you notice?

When Mary discovered she was carrying the saviour of the world in her body, she burst into her song of liberation and justice – the one we call the Magnificat. With the Christ inside her she was able to see the world as it really could be, as it really should be, where the hungry are filled, the proud are brought low and the humble take their place; the rich are sent away empty, and the poor are provided for. I wonder how often she sang that song as Jesus grew. I wonder if she sang it to him at bedtime or bath time. I wonder if she sang it while he was a baby, a boy, a teenager, and an adult. I wonder if she maybe even sang it as she knelt at the foot of his cross.

Obviously we don’t know but hearing this morning’s gospel passage it is clear to me that it became very much part of Jesus’ DNA because by the time we join him at the ‘level place’ this morning he is preaching it for himself, almost word for word: Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the hungry, Blessed are those who weep, Blessed are the hated. Woe to the rich, woe to those who are full, woe to those who are spoken highly of.

Yep, Jesus really is his mama’s boy.

And just as Mary’s Magnificat makes for uncomfortable listening so too does the same message when it comes out of Jesus’ mouth, particularly for us…because we are way more among the ‘woe’s than the ‘blessed’s. But what can we do about that, because simply by birth we are fortunate enough to be counted with the rich and rejoicing and not the poor or hungry. And yes, we can give away what we have. We can try to share our power and our privilege. Of course we can, and we must, but the thing that struck me about these lists this week is the first point – blessed are the poor, for theirs, yours, is the kingdom of God.

And isn’t the point of following Jesus, isn’t the main point something about building God’s Kingdom here and now, spotting where it is cropping up and joining in. Didn’t we sign up to this Jesus movement to live in and extend God’s Kingdom and invite others to join us there too?

Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.

If that is true – and Jesus says it is – then perhaps we should not only try to give up our wealth, but we should also be hanging out with those who are genuinely poor. If we want to experience the kingdom of God, that is where we will find it.

This week, many of you know, I went back to the prison at Perth Airport to visit our friends Ned, Aref and Javad. That place is like staring into the depths of hell. It is sterile and inhumane. It is devoid of compassion or friendship. It crushes spirits and sends hope away empty. It reflects all that is bad about humankind and shows a terrifying side of what one human can do to another and what one political system can inflict on those who are most vulnerable.

All three of our friends are in a bad way at the moment. Ned is being denied access to mental health treatment that he so desperately needs and is protesting that by refusing food. Aref, usually so full of hopeful expectation had really dropped his head. And eloquent and beautiful Javad broke my heart when he told me, ‘I own nothing, I have nothing, not even these clothes I wear, because at any point [these guards] can take it from me, so nothing I own is mine. It’s theirs’. He went on to say ‘you can live without food for weeks and you can live without water for days but you can’t live without hope, even for a minute so I am not living. I am just breathing’.

Blessed are the poor and hungry for yours is the kingdom of God.

Sitting at the gates of hell with these men reveals the kingdom of God. And I don’t know how that happens or even really what that means but I do believe it to be true. The detention centre does not feature in God’s Kingdom – the exclusion of refugees or boat people – the blind eye we turn to those who are literally starving themselves to death – those things are not aspects of the Kingdom of God but by being alongside these guys, by standing in solidarity with them, we somehow glimpse something of another way. A new world.

The needs of Javad and Ned and Aref make me feel paralysed and powerless. They bring me to the end of myself. And then, in that paradox, there I find God. Reaching the end of ourselves meant that many of you turned up at the centre yesterday and protested their treatment. Reaching the end of who we are meant several others came and lamented here at mass or joined in online or in our homes or are planning to go to the edge of humanity and sit with those guys in their cell and listen to their stories. And as we do, so we enter a new dimension of the Kingdom of God. I don’t know how that works, but it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, describes the Magnificat as ‘the most passionate, the wildest, the most revolutionary song ever sung’. Here on the mount Jesus sings his version of it, with his whole heart. As we seek to follow Him, may we find our own song of revolution, and may we sing it with all we have and all we are and as it changes us so may it also change the world. Amen.

Truth.

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.

And before you were born, I consecrated you.

I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

You shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid.

These words from our Old Testament reading this morning were a promise to Jeremiah, but when we read them alongside our Gospel reading, I think they could just as easily be written for Jesus. And even for us too.

Have you ever wondered about the conversation God might’ve had with the Trinity before God the son was conceived in Mary’s womb?  What did the divine parent say to Jesus – did Jesus receive a mission, was the plan shared, was there a specific plan, and when he was born as a human baby did he remember it, or did it come back to him as he grew. Or did he only know he was the son of God when he heard it proclaimed at his baptism? Was it as much of a surprise to him as it was to the others, gathered on the riverbank that day?  The truth is, we don’t know but, by the time we get to this scene in the synagogue, Jesus certainly does know.

The spirit is upon ME, Jesus says.

And he knows exactly what his purpose is.

The spirit is upon ME, to preach good news to the poor, bring sight to the blind, win release for captives, smash oppression and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Whenever Jesus became aware of his call, whenever he figured out what his life’s purpose was, he knew it by the time he stood up to read those scrolls that day, in his hometown.

And all spoke well of him and were amazed at the words that came from his mouth.

The synagogue was packed; word had got out that this itinerant preacher was coming home; he’d been doing amazing things all over the place and now it’s our turn to see him perform miracles and do great things for us. And he stands up and speaks with such boldness, such prophetic truth and everyone was amazed.

Isn’t this guy Joseph’s son?

Didn’t our children go to lessons together?

Aren’t his family sat right over there?

All were amazed at him.

So, what changed? How come, just 6 verses later, all in the synagogue were filled with rage?  They got up, drove him out of the town and led him to the brow of the cliff so they might hurl him off.  Why was there such a turnaround and such a strong, murderous reaction to what he was saying?  They had known Jesus as a child. But had they really known him? Because here he is telling them he is a prophet, here he is suggesting – pretty boldly – that he’s the messiah. Isn’t that what they want? Isn’t that who they have been waiting for?

Jesus comes to the synagogue with this great message – a message that is good news for the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for those in captivity, liberation for those who are oppressed – and everyone loves it – and then Jesus says, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Basically, there’s nothing I can do for you here. Ouch.

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. But it is for the poor and the blind and the incarcerated and the oppressed. And they don’t like that because they want it to be for them. They want the goodness all for themselves. And isn’t that a condition of the human heart. As it was for them, how often is that true for us too?

Things switched dramatically in the temple that day. From amazement to vicious death threats. A total 180. And it seems that the crime Jesus committed, over and over, the one that sentenced him to death – first here in the synagogue and later at the cross is summed up in one word: TRUTH.

Jesus told the truth and people didn’t like it. Speaking the truth won’t win you friends, and it will threaten to get you killed. And it is the right thing to do. The only thing to do.

Jesus’ message of good news is really good, but it also means raises some uncomfortable truths. Jesus’ message causes us to examine ourselves and acknowledge we aren’t the ones who are poor, blind, incarcerated and oppressed. Jesus’ message invites us to join the ranks of those who willingly give away some of our own privilege in order that others may thrive and grow and live. It means we need to hold onto those Old Testament promises made to Jeremiah and Jesus, and us – that we were known by God before our very conception, that we are consecrated and called for a holy purpose, that we have a job to do, that we must speak out truth and love, just as we are commanded, and without fear because God is with us.

Jesus’ listeners in first century Palestine, in his hometown, only heard the deeply unsettling truth that God favours the poor and the oppressed. And it made them murderous. But the bottom line is that this is the truth. And we are not poor. But God shares God’s work with us. And we have the enormous and profound privilege of being able to become God’s hands and feet and mouthpiece in this generation. We can choose to be amazed by that invitation and take it. Or we can put ourselves first and turn it down. We can take truth and live with it, or we can try to kill it.

Later this morning we are going to pray God’s blessing upon our young people as they return to school, to a new school year, to a new school for some of them. I am going to pray that they know they were called and set apart before they were even conceived, for works of greatness, and that they might fulfil them, even today, even as children, even in their hometown. I’m going to pray that they will speak boldly, caring first for the poor and the oppressed. As you pray for them too, may you also know that you were born for works of greatness and that your greatest work is to care first and foremost for the poor and oppressed, following after the example of Jesus, and may this truth be the truth that sets you free.  Amen.

Christmas in Summertime

Christmas in Summertime!

I arrived on Australian soil on 1st September 2021, spent 29 days in quarantine, got married on the 30th, and was licensed to St Paul’s Beaconsfield on 4th October. My feet didn’t really hit the floor and, before I knew it, we were knee-deep in Advent, and making plans for Christmas.

I had assumed Christmas was Christmas, wherever you found yourself that day. How wrong I was! I also assumed Christmas here would be the same, just considerably warmer. Again, wrong.

The first indication that I was no longer ‘walking in a winter wonderland’ was the sight of 6 huge inflatable kangaroos on a nearby balcony (apologies, “6 white boomers”, according to Rolf Harris). The second indication was slightly more ecclesiological…as we collectively studied long-range weather forecasts to see if the arrival of the sheep from the local urban farm would be cancelled, for fear of heat stroke. The shepherds in our nativity sang ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the Angel Gabriel greeted Blessed Mary with a ‘G’day’, rather than a Hail, Mary!  Mince pies and mulled wine after the nativity service were replaced with ice poles and cold sangria. And I sweltered under my vestments, rather than being grateful to them for keeping me warm.

Christmas day hit 43 degrees. We valiantly still cooked a ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner of turkey and all the trimmings, but we cooled off in the sea, and wore sun hats instead of Santa hats. And not a single person even considered whether it might snow this Christmas.

And then there was the sudden threat of a community-based COVID outbreak, and, with about an hour to spare, we decided to move all services outside – for safety, and because we could.  I can’t imagine that would have been as positively received on the Northeast coast of England, where temperatures barely rose over freezing.

I added new carols, of Australian descent, into my repertoire and missed singing about Bleak Midwinters but, would you look at that: on a clear, starlit Christmas eve, in the dark of night, with candles lit, and a choir singing, our Lord Jesus Christ was born among us.

God incarnate.

Immanuel.

Born to each of us, just as he was that first Christmas.

And then, suddenly, it really didn’t matter where we were, who was there, or who was missing. What really mattered was that God was there, is there, always will be there, here, with us. Regardless of the weather or the location.

Joy to the world – the whole world – the Lord has come. Alleluia.

Water into wine…

John 2: 1 – 11

I wasn’t here too long before I got the reputation for being a lover of prosecco. In fact, my reputation preceded me, and when I was handed my first glass of fizz within moments of being licensed, I knew I was in the right place. But I’m no wine connoisseur. And I say that tentatively because I am aware I now live in wine country. Fortunately for me, I am now married to one!  Craig and I spent our delayed honeymoon in Margaret River, touring several breweries. On our first stop we had no idea what we were doing. We basically liked what we liked…and got smashed.

On our second stop we did the same until this one night, where I went to sleep, next to a non-wine-expert but woke up next to a top-class sommelier! Craig, being unable to sleep, had done some research and now knew vast amounts about wine. And our search for the Cape Mentelle 2018 cab sav began. Because that’s the best wine in WA. Suddenly our wine tasting became about notes on the nose and something about the front of the tongue. Craig’s appreciation grew…and I continued to get smashed…just on better, posher wine. And I’ve been thinking about that as I’ve read this week’s gospel reading. And there is so much that is good in this passage.

My favourite thing is that we are on day 3 of a 5-day wedding festival; everyone has been drinking; Jesus could’ve served vaguely fermented grape juice, who would’ve noticed? But, instead, Jesus’ miracle serves up the best wine in the land.  And that is what God is like – abundant, extravagant, generous, always giving, always outdoing us with grace and mercy and blessings and good things.  We come grovelling for a drop of vinegar, almost, and Jesus pours out bottles of Cape Mentelle upon us.  Isn’t it wonderful to worship a God of abundance, who gives more than we can ever ask or imagine?

And as another act of abundance…

Jesus changed water into wine for EVERYONE, not just the few.  He didn’t just make a couple of bottles for the 1st century equivalent of the top table.  He made 180 gallons of wine – that’s around 900 bottles – so there would be enough for everyone; enough for this party, and the next – enough to give away – enough for everyone to enjoy…and to hear where it came from.

But here’s the clever bit…In this story we have water, and we have wine – water, the symbol of humanity and wine, the symbol of divinity.  In this miracle we see an audacious claim from God – the source of all miracles – we see that as simply as Jesus can change water into wine, so God can change Jesus’ humanity into divinity and that, in turn, we too can be changed from our brokenness and sin into a person of holiness, wholeness and beauty. 

That is the real miracle: not that Jesus changed water into wine, but that Jesus can change us from broken to whole, from fearful to bold, from hurt to healed, from alone to belonging, and that all this happens in and through the relationship we are offered, from Christ, every single day. 

This gospel story is not really about weddings or alcohol.  It is a signpost that points to who Jesus is, what life will be like with him, and what his kingdom stands for.  Jesus is one who offers transformation.  And he begins with the transformation of water into wine.

Water is good, of course.  We need it for life, we are made of it, and we can’t live very long without it.  It is the most basic of necessities, but wine…wine is a symbol of more – in the bible, wine is used to symbolise life and abundance, extravagance, joy and celebration.  So Jesus has come to transform that which is good and important, into something that is even better.  Life, but life in abundance.

The six stone water-jars that Jesus instructed the stewards to fill with water were there for ritual purification and washing.  They were there so the wedding guests could keep Jewish law.  Jesus takes that ritual water and turns it into something beyond the law.  The Law isn’t bad.  It is good, and pure.  But Jesus came to transform it into something that was not just good, but joyful, God-centred, grace-filled, welcoming, loving, accepting.  Because of Jesus, ceremonial washing was no longer needed.  We are already clean.  We are already good enough.  We don’t need those water jars any more.  We can use them for wine – the best wine – because being accepted by the Living God is a real cause for the best sort of celebration. 

This is a message for those whose life is like water–good, nourishing, and life-sustaining.  And the message is ‘it’s good to be good, but it’s even better to be great and joy-filled and to know the unconditional love and acceptance of Christ’.  Come on in; the wine is delicious!

God wants so much more for us than our dutiful commitment.  God wants us to live fully; to laugh and enjoy life.  To look into the ritual water-jars that we think are needed to make us acceptable in God’s sight, and to find that they are full of wine, and it is for us. 

God is full of divine extravagance.  The absolute scandal of following Jesus is the discovery that when we go to the source of living water, and choose to drink, we find that it becomes posh, expensive, delicious wine as it touches our lips.  Our God is not interested in duty or ritual purification; our God offers us abundant life, filled to the brim and overflowing with love.  We have already been washed in the waters of baptism – we are clean, once and for all; the future is wine!

And I wonder how often people look at Christians and don’t see this abundant life, this unconditional welcome, this huge outpouring of love.  I wonder how often people look at us and think that our faith is one that looks more like something that turns wine into water, not the other way around…and that is why we need to repeatedly return here, to this altar, to mass, and ask Jesus for a top-up, a refill, of His divinity, in exchange for our humanity.  In every mass, we have the opportunity to have the water of our lives, transformed into the abundance of wine.

May we be transformed, and may we be agents of transformation in this world, because we have tasted life in abundance, and now have abundant life to offer, unconditionally, to all.  Amen.

The Baptism of Christ

I love a fun fact. Don’t you love a fun fact?

Did you know that elephants are the only mammal that can’t jump, or horned lizards squirt blood out of their eyeballs to ward off predators?! Butterflies taste with their feet and cows moo with regional accents and have best friends. Did you know that?

Did you also know that there is the same amount of water on the earth now as there was when the earth was formed? Some websites tell you this means the water you drink is likely to contain dinosaur wee from some point in time, but I have a way better thought… how about this… some of the water you drink today, some of the water you swim in, or the water you were baptised in, might just be the same water in which Jesus was baptised. How about that?

When I first realised water was recycled over and over since the dawn of time – raining down into rivers, sweeping out to seas, evaporating into clouds and beginning again – and the atoms making up my own glass of water could be part of the water the spirit brooded over back in Genesis One, or that Moses parted or Jesus was baptised in – when I first realised that, I blissed out on that for a good amount of time and here we are, this morning, right back by the river Jordan, with John and our Lord waist deep in that water, and I’m back there again.

Imagine that moment…

People, filled with expectation: is John the messiah we’ve waited for??

John’s cryptic answers and strange clothing. His mentions of fire, water and spirit.

Herod, breathing out murderous threats.

And people queueing to get into those waters, die to sin and come out the other side – dripping on the riverbanks.  And then along comes the Palestinian carpenter, Joseph’s son, wading into the water. John sinks him under and then it happens.

He’s lifted out of the water, the heavens open; the spirit descends, visibly, like an actual dove and there is the voice…

You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.

An epiphany

And Jesus is baptised in water that has been around since the dawn of time.

And so are we.

At each baptism service, I think ‘what one thing do I want this family to know today’. What one thing? And often it’s this: even though you can’t see the heavens open, or the spirit descend like a dove – even though you can’t see it, and probably can’t hear this voice of God saying ‘you are my son, you are my daughter and I love you’ – please know that is exactly what is happening today. That’s what I want every baptism child and family and supporters and godparents to know.

And that’s what I want you to know today too.

Jesus is baptised…and the epiphany that he is God’s son is revealed to all who were there and to all who heard about it, then, and down through the ages, in the pages of scripture.

And we, many of us, were also baptised in water – maybe even some of the very same molecules. The very same H20.  And on that day, and since, have we seen the heavens opened over us and the spirit descend on us? Have we too heard the voice of our creator, the source of life, declare those words over us – you are my child, I adore you. Whether you’ve seen it or heard it, do you know it?

The other thing I try to communicate at baptisms is that we only do this once, don’t miss it, I say. Stand on your chair, turn to the back, don’t miss it, it’s a one-off – we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t we? Well, this week, I think I’ve changed my mind a bit. I mean, I do still believe in one baptism – that once is absolutely sufficient and all that’s needed – regardless of whether my parents brought me just to ‘get me done’ or for the party afterwards. I do trust the power of the sacrament that one baptism is entirely adequate – way more than adequate, actually. But I believe it is enough, because it begins a process – it begins an act of belonging, believing, adopting, and loving that goes on right until we meet God face-to-face.

We only baptise once, because God keeps on baptising and baptising us, over and over.

In baptism we are washed clean, made children of the living God, and told we are utterly beloved, that God is pleased with us. And that is not a one-off event. Every day, every second of every day, we are transformed, sanctified, made holy, and loved. Always loved by God, always well pleased of God. So yes, baptism is a one-off event, it only happens once but that is because it happens continually – over and over – every day.

I don’t think I’ve read that somewhere and I haven’t searched to find a theologian who agrees with me, but it sounds like the kind of grace that the source of all Love would extend, over and over; that God would be constantly baptising us into God’s family as an act of love and unconditional acceptance.

Whether we share the same molecules in our own baptism that Christ was drenched in at his – whether it’s splashes of the same water or not, the truth is that it is the same God tearing the heavens apart, lavishing God’s spirit upon us and pouring out affirmations of love and belonging. The same love, the same promises, the same parenting, the same holy acceptance.

And as a reminder of that, and a reminder of our own baptism, I’m going to give you the opportunity to encounter it again – a soaking and an outpouring of the lavish and abundant love of God…

‘We give you thanks O God that you have called us by name, and we are yours

We thank you for the promise that we are your sons and daughters, your children – that you love us and are pleased with us.

Pour out your spirit, like a dove – bless and sanctify this water so that as we remember our baptism, so we may know your love for us all over again.

May the promises of our baptism be refreshed, and the rewards of our baptism be renewed – over and over.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, after who’s example and at who’s command, we are baptised. Amen’

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

Amen.