16 May 2010

Although we looked at the first part of this passage last week in the context of its comparison with the story of Lydia We are looking again this week.
Not so much in terms of possible responses, but in terms of our various settings.

It’s a story of imprisonment and freedom – an incredibly well crafted story at that.
it’s a story of contrasts and a story of surprises.
Let’s listen to the story and listen for all the areas where freedom is at stake.

Reading Acts 16: 16-34

Some of the references to freedom or bondage are pretty clear –
it’s a story about a slave girl and a jailer, and prisoners.
But there are plenty more!    I think there are at least 10 areas of bondage and freedom.

And we need to remember that the book of Acts is written to follow on from Luke’s gospel.
The themes of Luke ARE the themes of Acts
And the themes of Luke are the themes spoken of by Jesus in Luke 4.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to:
Preach good news to the poor; proclaim release to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of jubilee.
3 of the area of Jesus’ self identification are expressly about freedom.

So, let’s look at the passage and see what areas of being trapped and freedom it includes

1    Slave girl (“owned”)
2    Spirit of divination (“possessed”)
3    Slaves of the Most High God
4    Paul – annoyed .   Healing for compassion, or because she’s in the way?
         (trapped by own expectations of ministry?)
5    Hope of making money (trapped by need for financial security/ standard of living)
6    “They are Jews”  trapped by racism.   Who is trapped? Paul?  Accusers?  Both?
7    “Customs that are not lawful for us” –
trapped by the way that we are required to do things.  Trapped by culture
8    “In the cell and the stocks”
9    “About to kill himself” – trapped by requirements of occupation and empire
10    “What must I do to be saved” – delightfully unclear about what this means!!

The reality is that everyone in this story needs to be freed.
The slave girl, the men who owned her, the crowd and the magistrate, the jailer, and even Paul and Silas

William Willimon makes the comment in relation to this passage Having the key to someone else’s cell does not make you free When we as a society – and we as individuals play a part – in locking people away      that does not mean that we are free

Walter Cronkite, the US Journalist from last century famously said once –
There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free

When we are working through so many different understandings of freedom
and so many ways where the limitations and ‘traps’ of life exist
we are invited to think of our own freedom
and the ways in which our own lives may be free, or captive
and the ways in which our lives are freedom, or making captive, others

The passage ends on the delightfully vague idea of “what do I do to be saved”
In the context of the story, maybe the question is asking us
What must I do to be saved from that which is destroying me?
What must I do to be saved from MY bondage, MY oppressive addition,
MY emptiness, MY boredom, MY abuse of others

Ronald Cole Turner suggests that “believing on the Lord Jesus”
is about being decisively aware that our own small lives
are swept up into the drama of God’s story line, made real in Jesus, the Christ.

God is reaching out to us in the places that we are trapped
and invites us to take the long walk to freedom.

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Following Jesus across the line

Acts 11:1-18
Just before I start speaking with you about the Acts passage I did want to let you know that we received news this week that the Banner “Regeneration” is being removed and will be being taken to its new home within the next few weeks.

Apparently quite a while back there was a Norwegian visitor who came here and really liked it, and noticed that while it was just here on the wall it wasn’t being actively used by anyone. Under Norwegian Property claims ordinance 1854/52 he was entitled to stake a claim for its ownership – which he did.

We weren’t aware of the claim, as the register was kept in Oslo. Under the claim, the property rights over the banner passed to the claimee in 2001 and they were classed as indistinguishable in 2006 .The Norwegian gentleman died last year, leaving the banner to his son who sold it earlier this year, to recover losses he had sustained in the GFC.

The new owner has a place for it in his collection in Oslo. My understanding is that it is likely to be gone by the end of May. We understand that there may be some strong feelings regarding this, so it might be good to pause just for a moment, to take a breath.

My guess is that most of you picked up the unreality of the situation relatively quickly I mean – imagine someone from another country being able to make a claim over property – especially over property which is very dear to some people here –  Imagine that the claim could be made that didn’t pay any attention to the existing understanding of law where we are. Imagine that it would all be determined by the laws of a county far away with no cultural or legal connection to our own? Pretty crazy isn’t it.

But imagine how we would try to react if it wasn’t crazy
I wonder what we would do.
Would we write letters of protest?
Would we contact the media about the injustice?
Would we make the effort of locking the doors really securely and ensuring that the Norwegians couldn’t come in to take it?
Would we try to make a human barrier around it to stop them getting to it?
I wonder how we would feel if a Norwegian visitor came in to worship next Sunday

Welcome to the context of the new Preamble to the Uniting Church constitution which Jill referred to last week as part of the reporting back from Synod.

The New Preamble is one of the ways of trying to say that we want to do the God thinking and the Jesus  following from the other side of the line.

Acts 11 takes us to see one place where the line that had been drawn got crossed and how to see God from the other side of the line.

Probably, we know the background to the story :
that there was a whole long list of foods that couldn’t be eaten by Jews; it is that pile of foods that was in Peter’s vision
And it is then that Peter’s understanding of God’s way of operating widens to include the non-Jewish, or Gentiles           
Like History, however, Theology is too often told from the view of the “winners”
And even with the telling of this story,  it is from the perspective of a Gentile, male church leader: Luke.  And now me. Both “power” people, by education, class, position and status.

I’ve never been in the group of people suspended in the sheet of Peter’s vision. But I hope I am sensitive to the importance – and the confronting nature –  of the call that comes to hear from the other side of the line.

For those of us who haven’t been told we are unacceptable
For those of us who haven’t been told to wait outside because we aren’t OK
For those of us who haven’t been told we cannot be part of the church or involved in a decision
For those of us who haven’t been told that our property is no longer ours
For those of us who haven’t been told that we cannot see our children
For those of us who haven’t been told that our spirituality isn’t good enough
For those of us who haven’t been on the wrong side of the boundary line

then I wonder if we can hear the power of this sort of passage and I wonder if we can pick up the importance of things like the Preamble change as being more than “playing with words” or “mucking around with our history”

Chis Budden has written a book that is trying to help us come to grips with the reality of this setting:
Following Jesus in Invaded Space
It would be a good beginning of conversation for small groups.  So too would the theological and biblical reflections on the new preamble that are available at the back

It is a reminder that as followers of Jesus, we have an obligation cross over the line and listen and learn rather than to impose.

It may be confronting at times, but it is the way of Christ.

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Feed my sheep

John 21:1-19

Lin Hatfield Dodds

How difficult it must have been for the disciples to hope and believe after Jesus died. They were either present or heard about soon after it first-hand. So they knew, absolutely knew, that he had gone.

He had said he would rise, but, you know, he said a lot of things, many in story form – who knew what at was metaphor or allegory and what was statement of fact?

How hard to hang onto faith in the absence of presence, in the absence of relationship.
But then Jesus started revealing his risen self to them. Not in spectacular ways at special moments, but in the most ordinary of moments and the most ordinary of ways – while walking along a road, while sharing a hurried meal, and in today’s passage, at work.

Gathered here in an inland city it’s tempting to forget that these guys didn’t ever fish recreationally. When they fished, they fished for survival, to catch enough to keep a roof over their heads and food in their family’s bellies.

So there they are, the band of friends and brothers. They’ve been through a lot together and you have to wonder if part of why they were out on the water again was to bring some normality back into their lives. But after most of a day and all of a night – nada. Zip, zilch, squat. No fish. Early morning they were pretty close to the land and so were able to hear some random guy up and out early ask them if they’d eaten anything.

When they confirmed they had been fishing for some time with no luck, the guy suggested they cast the net in a particular direction. Who knows why they did? Perhaps they were on their way in anyway and who really cared what direction the last cast would be in?

The passage from John records that Jesus stood unrecognised on the beach for a while. Just think about that for a moment. How many times a week do you cast an eye around your workplace or home just in case Christ is standing there about to enquire about your eating habits? Who expects the Divine to illumine the ordinary? Or from another perspective – this was the person who had undoubtedly caused the greatest upheaval that their lives had ever known. How could they not have recognised him? Was it because, in spite of Jesus’ assurances that he would be with them to the end of the age, they simply couldn’t allow themselves to hope?

Anyway, the disciples did what Beach Guy suggested, and chucked their nets over the right side of the boat. It wasn’t till they were straining their backs pulling the nets in, fish sliding out the top and the whole bulging alarmingly, that it clicked and they realised that random Beach Guy was Jesus.

Simon Peter immediately and characteristically flung himself into the water to get to Jesus while the others came in by boat. And Jesus shared breakfast with them. Fish and bread. Can you picture the scene? A small fire on the beach, probably crackling away in a shallow hole in the sand. Fish skewered on sticks, hard slightly stale bread from the boat. Some pieces probably damp. Nothing makes food taste better than hunger though, and between that and knowing that they were with Jesus again, I bet it was one of the best meals that they had ever eaten.

And it was while they were eating, lulled a bit by the fire, warm bellies and an incredible catch of fish; off-balance a bit due to Jesus turning up during an ordinary day and making it extraordinary, that Jesus gets to the point of the day’s learning.
Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him.

“Do you love me more than these” ie more than the means to provide for your family?
“Yes” says Peter.
Jesus says “Feed my lambs”.
Again, “Do you love me?”
“Yes, you know I do”
“Tend my sheep”
And again, “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter’ is grieved by the number of times the question is asked –
“You know everything, you know I do”
“Feed my sheep”.

There are two threads in this story that I want to highlight today. The first I simply want to note, and that is that when God chose to enter our world in human form, God chose to immerse Godself in all of our lives. To live if you like, in solidarity with us. I find that a challenging concept, to sit with the notion that the incarnation may have had more of a solidarity than a charity imperative.
This perspective speaks to me of God’s intimate knowledge of us, God’s compassion, and God’s limitless imagination.

To stand in solidarity with means to journey with. Not to remain above, or separate, but to choose to experience, to feel, to connect with the other. Which takes me at least to a place of feeling amazed at the depth of love required to come alongside all of us. Each of us.
To stand with us in the everyday. While we are walking, or eating, or going about our daily business. To feel empathy and compassion for us, to understand our pains and joys.

I find the solidarity perspective works for me. It enables me to imagine why God doesn’t step in and fix hard stuff for us. Why in spite of not fixing the hard stuff, God remains right there. Solidarity is never about assuming someone else’s burden, but about sharing the load.

Psychologists, theologians, and writers through history have proposed that one of the key markers of being a mature adult is a true apprehension, or gut understanding, of your own mortality. Not just a cognitive understanding – yeah, yeah, we all die sometime – but a very present visceral knowing that I, too, will die. Richard Fowler, one of my favourite theologians (could it be because he is also a psychologist?) records his experience in his book Stages of Faith. He describes waking one night in his late 30s knowing that he would die one day. He and others have described this experience as looking into the void; as feeling absolutely alone in an infinitely large and dark universe. For many of us, it seems that truly seeing our mortality equates with knowing our fundamental aloneness. Richard, being a person of faith, at his darkest alone moment, instinctively reached out for God. Who was there.

I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly been my experience of God. Through the miscarriages I experienced many years ago, to Dad’s illness and death, God was there. Not fixing my life up, not operating as a puppeteer, but being there. Scripture tells us that this love is characterised by a deep respect for our unique humanity and dignity, as well as by the kind of abandoned heart love that we most often feel for vulnerable children in our care.

Present love. There in the everyday, experienced often when least expected. Practical love. Ensuring that the guys in the boat went home with some fish. Feeding them a hot breakfast. Feeding their souls.

Feeding their souls? The Q&A set that Jesus and Peter engaged in – feed my sheep – was not just for the benefit of the sheep. We all need to belong and feel valued, and that comes as we feel able to contribute to our community. I always remember a mate of mine saying here at Kippax that he had settled here because there was space for him to contribute. He’d moved here from interstate to study and had been at a whole lot of churches where he was welcomed and looked after. Which he appreciated, but what he needed over the long term was to find a place in a community, and he could only do that by contributing to the community.

Which provides a lovely segue to the second thread that I want to highlight from John today.
Feed my sheep.

Look around you, and feed my sheep.

In a moment, Steve’s going to share about one of the ways we feed God’s sheep here at Kippax through the Newpin program that assists families experiencing significant difficulty or distress. It’s an approach that exemplifies the solidarity perspective. No judgement, no charity, but tons of compassion, support and shared learnings.

One of the ways in which we feed God’s sheep together at Kippax is through the supports and services we offer through UnitingCare Kippax. Other ways are through the care we demonstrate for each other through prayer, our small groups, the meals roster and simply journeying together.
As well as each of us being part of our community at work feeding sheep, we are called in this passage, in the example of Jesus speaking directly to Peter, to reflect and act in our lives beyond our faith community.

How can we each feed God’s sheep in the ordinary everyday rest of our lives? Who are the sheep? What would a solidarity approach look like for those sheep? How can we journey with any integrity with people randomly in our lives through study, or work, or our kids, or any of the interest groups we are a part of?

I can’t answer those questions for you. But the beauty of a faith community is that we can ask these questions of each other and map out a way forward together. We can have a go, we can fail a lot, we can succeed some of the time and we can learn throughout the whole.
Jesus could have organised a huge rally to pass on the “feed my sheep” message to thousands of people at a time, but he didn’t. He sat on a beach near a small town with a group of tired and wet men and spoke to one. “Feed my sheep”.

People matter. Love requires us to open up and journey with each other. As we do so, God journeys with us. And we are no longer alone.

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Easter Sunday 2010 – Why would you look for the living among the dead?


Luke 24: 1-12

They knew where to go didn’t they?   The women that is
Despite the fact that the gospels tend to suggest that they were unreliable
They knew where to go and look

It tells us at the end of the crucifixion story that we heard on Friday:
“The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph
and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.
Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes”

So they knew where to go.   Then this morning’s reading kicks in
Then, on the first day of the week, very early in the morning,
the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.

Maybe it is a bit to tell us that the women didn’t make a mistake
and go to the wrong tomb.    
But I have a feeling there’s more to it than that.
There is always more to Easter and resurrection that we immediately think.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Why – The answer is obvious.  Because they know where to look.
They know what has gone on and they know where it is that they will find him.
But he is not there.   He’s gone.
And if you had paid attention, you would have heard it.   Remember?

I wonder who those two gleaming white characters were.
They were rather rude.
Why would you look for the living among the dead?

I watched a movie with our family the other night – “The Invention of Lying”
A quirky little romance with a satirical twist about Christianity at the same time.
And I wondered while it was on, why I was finding it a bit annoying?
In the plot, the movie created this image of God as the “man in the sky”
who created all good things and all evil things as well
and if you live well enough and don’t do too many really bad things
you would end up having a great mansion to live in forever after you die.

It occurred to me yesterday why I found the movie annoying.
“Why would you look for the living among the dead?”

We think we know where to look, because we saw him get placed there
We might think that we know that we can find God in a man in the sky like that
who hands out eternal ice creams as long as you aren’t too bad
because we saw him get put there every year around Christmas time
and we hear him get put there too often at funerals

But he is not there.
And if we look there, we will be wandering around in a graveyard
Why look for the living among the dead.

All too often we are used to walking around in graveyards
and looking deeply into places of death.
We become well practised at it.

We will keep living in places of pain because they have developed some hold on us
We will keep living in places of grief because it is too scary to face the places beyond
We keep practising habits which are slowly killing our body, mind or spirit
     because … in fact we don’t really know why if we are honest

And we find it frustrating, annoying, and even shattering
when we feel that God is somehow missing as we live in our pain, our grief and our habits
Why would you look for the living among the dead?

But the frustrating thing about Luke’s resurrection story –
At least the bit that we heard this morning –
is that these two gleaming men don’t actually get around to telling the women where he IS
It’s just that it wont be in the place of the dead.

In one sense I hope you are not here to discover the risen Christ
Because there is the risk that as we gather today
we could be bringing our spices and our flowers to decorate the body
because we know where we are supposed to be looking.

If we come with that intention,
I have a feeling that two men in gleaming white might have something to say to us today.
I hope instead we are coming to celebrate and give thanks
     for the fact that we have indeed come across the living among the living.

On Friday, at the end of the service, with the enormous mountain of bread that was here
we put it in shopping trolleys and out for anyone to take.
And while we set up for Easter Sunday, several families came by
and took it.   Lots.   With great excitement.
You could see it was going to make a difference for them,
and they didn’t have to ask, and they didn’t have to beg and they didn’t have to pay.
And resurrection happened a couple of days early.

Don’t take your devotion to the tomb of where you last saw him
and where you just KNOW he has to be
or else you might just find the words of two smart arse men in gleaming white
ringing in your ears:
Why would you look for the living among the dead?

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The Art of Celebration

Luke 19: 28-40

Why waste your breath, moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue was still the noise would still continue
The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.

Whether you hear it in these words from JX Superstar
or in the words of Luke’s gospel, it sounds like he is bragging, doesn’t it.

Leaving aside the horrendous pun of rock bands,
do you recall examples of rocks getting involved in a time of praise?

It’s probably lucky that the triumphal entry didn’t head past Uluru
or take a swing past Katajuta
because if they got shouting and singing
we’d probably still be hearing the echoes 2000 years later

Maybe it’s the echo that becomes important here.
I’ve mentioned before that one image I love
is that God has sung creation into existence
and what bounces back, in tune with God, is the echo of praise.

 When done at its best, an object may not just echo the sound
but may develop resonance –
when the object itself vibrates in tune with the original sound

 And the Palm Sunday event (with or without palms!)
certainly seems to have raised enough energy to get an echo going.
But we also know that the cries, the shouts, changed over the next days.

It’s nothing new to recognise that “Hosanna” became “Crucify”, is it?
And while we don’t see or hear any literal echo on Palm Sunday
(maybe it is because the disciples didn’t keep quiet)
I think we do get an echo from the rocks later in the week.

Early on the Friday morning, the shouts became shouts of “crucify him”
and only a few hours later as the world went silent
the rocks and stones joined in those shouts with a stunning echo
As the earth shook, and darkness descended.

The way we live and our emotions and reactions become infectious
whether they are in tune with Hosannas or in tune with cries of Crucify.

Celebration is transformative –
as long as we let it infect us and not just grab us for a moment.
It is healing and refreshing to cultivate a wide appreciation for life.

When we overwork we become weary.
When we neglect exercise we become lethargic.
When we constantly strain for God, we become spiritually exhausted
When we ignore the spirit, we become inwardly dull.

 But if we manage to live with the perspective of celebrating life
we can relax and enjoy;   we can keep life in perspective

And we can be reminded that we are no better (or worse) than others –
for in the words of the great prophet Ben Lee “we are all in this together”

A writer called Harvey Cox has recently written
Our celebrative and imaginative faculties have atrophied.
Once, visionaries were canonized and mystics were admired
Now they are  studied, smiled at – or possibly just committed.

On that first  Palm Sunday,
the crowds were visionary and mystical in their celebrations
They celebrated “peace in heaven and glory to God.”

I wonder what might have happened
if they had kept singing long enough and loud enough
for that echo to keep going
or for the rocks and stones, and all of creation,
to vibrate in resonance with “peace and glory”

I wonder what our households may sound like
if the art of celebration was practised well enough
that they resonated as truly “Healthy Households”.

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