An Invitation to Dadirri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Lord Jesus, Amen.

The Gospel according to Wadjemup…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeds, not words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’d been told, over and over!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we give up and go back to fishing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon – yep, remember who you once were.

Son of John – remember where you came from.

Do you love me?

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

And then Jesus says, follow me.

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

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

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

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

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

Hear him ask. What will your response be?

Amen.

I have seen the Lord!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed, Alleluia.  Amen.

Easter Sunday 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Holy Saturday Christ was BUSY!

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

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

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

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

Amen

The Great Unknowing

A sermon for Good Friday*

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

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

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

And I realised I no longer knew the answer. 

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

And so, my quest continued…

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

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

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

What?!

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

So I pressed on with my big question.

And I pressed on.

And I still press on. 

And I will press on, always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.