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.

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.