1 August 2010

Somewhere between the idealism of the Beatles “Cant buy me love” and the cynicism of Pink Floyd’s “Money” lies the conversation that describes much of where we sit and breathe and live

We want to hold on to the values of the Beatles song: I don’t care too much for money, coz money cant buy me love” but we live in a world that encourages us to slide more towards the Pink Floyd song: Money – it’s a gas.  Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

It’s the conversation that we’ve begun to hear in earnest over the past couple of weeks and the more discerning ear will hear the same tension over the next 20 days:

We want to hold on to the values of future thinking, common good things that demonstrate that people matter

But we will be pitched to and maybe even swayed, by promises that are about what is good for us now, and what will put something in our pockets. 

It’s a conversation – a tension – that shows the pull that exists  between what we’d like to think and how at times we tend to act.

When I was a solicitor back in the late 1980’s, the firm I worked with did some work for a businessman who had started up a very successful company and then sold it to someone else for just under $100m Around 18 months later, there was just about none of the money from the business sale left. It was all spent.   Gone.

 And when we hear that sort of story, at least if you are like me, we will silently at the waste of such a large amount of money in such a short amount of time. Surely what he should  have done with it is set some aside.   Invested it.   Been responsible.

It’s sort of like building barns to store your great harvest of grain isn’t it?

So the Luke passage is telling us we should be more like this businessman who went through nearly $100m (about $180m in today’s money) in under 18 months and not like someone who has set it aside to be able to live off?

Or what about this story – a church in Sydney CBD – has sold the development rights to the space above and below its church. There are apartments in the space surrounding the church building and with the development costs, the church is unlikely ever again to ever need to worry about offering plates again. Does the Luke passage applaud or condemn that sort of financial planning?

Is it a passage about finances?   Or wealth?  Or possessions?

In a way it is.   But I’m not all that sure it is really about it.

You see the background context to this passage is about the general understanding of the day that possessions in this life was some form of measure of your worth and therefore also a measure of your guarantee of your life beyond this world.

So it is about possessions.   It is about something that we would want to name as greed. But it is about our value as a human. 

This is a passage that invites us to look again at the values that we hold on to both the ones we say we hold on to, and the ones that guide our lives, whether we notice or not.

This is a passage that invites us to think about whether we expend ourselves so much in our occupations and careers that we miss out on the enjoyment in life along the way.

(It’s a passage that invites questions over 30 year mortgages and their demands upon us)  This is a passage that invites us to see what is the relationship between “life” and “happiness”

Is the aim of life to be “happy” – either through products, or security Or do we want to claim that true happiness comes only in service to others If we do, does that then invite us to a life of service because it will make us happy?

This is a passage that sits with us in ways that aren’t completely comfortable. It is a passage that invites us to look at values – whether or not they are about money.

You may know of the ad by Dove that invites us to think, at least partially, on what it is about humans that is of lasting value, lasting beauty,  and what is only passing. That is an ad that is about much more than what makes a person look good.

And the passage is more about worth than happiness. And it points to value, or worth, being found in a life that is “rich towards God.”

The only down side is that it doesn’t then tell us what is a life that is “rich towards God.”

It isn’t a passage that says to be a person of faith you need to vote Liberal, or Labor or contemplate the Greens. It isn’t a passage that says to be a person of faith,

here is what you should do with money as you raise your children. It isn’t a passage that says how much you should be putting in the offering or how much you should be spending on your next holiday.

 It is a passage that pushes us back to an honesty with ourselves and an honesty in our relationship with God.

What else do the gospels tell us about the way that Jesus lived? What do they say about what it might mean to be rich towards God?

Trite and simplistic suggestions about what it means and simplistic formulas about what to do with money Just like simplistic formulas or comments about what are Christian values that political parties should adhere to don’t give this passage or the teachings of Jesus the respect they deserve.

They are things to wrestle with –  And if we end up thinking about it and not changing at all, then I would venture to suggest we probably haven’t thought hard enough.

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18 July 2010

Luke 10: 38-42

A story on the internet at the moment,  tells of a young successful executive named Josh travelling down a neighbourhood street.  He was in a new, Bugatti Super Sport and he was enjoying its power.  Next thing he new there was a movement at the side of his car and he hear – and felt – and great THUMP near the front of the car.

He slammed on the brakes, jumped out to see what it was and saw that someone had thrown a brick at the car. With anger pushing common sense aside, he ran back to where the brick had been thrown

A 10 year old boy was there – so he raced straight over and grabbed the boy. “Where do you live?   We are heading back to see your parents NOW!” said Josh That is going to cost you a whole stack of money”

The boys started to shake.  “I’m sorry – but I didn’t know what else to do.   I threw the brick because no one else would stop”

The boy pointed over to the gutter a bit further back, where there was a wheelchair lying and next to it an older boy – probably around 16.

“He’s my brother, but he’s too heavy for me to lift.   He might be hurt, I think” Josh’s sense of anger dropped a bit. He went over to the older boy and wiped down the cuts and scrapes.    The older boy was a bit sore, but would be OK.

He helped the boy back into the wheelchair,  and the younger boy came over smiled a bit and started to push the wheelchair “We live this way” he sad to Josh “if you want to come and speak to my parents about the brick”

Josh smiled back.   “No, it’s OK.   Don’t worry about the brick” As the boy pushed his brother down the street, Josh headed back to his car Josh decided that he wouldn’t fix the dent on the front of the car.  He kept it to remind him not to go through life so quickly that someone has to throw a brick at him to get his attention.

That’s not a bad motto for today’s Luke passage either.

Ultimately, I don’t really think this passage is about housework or learning nor is it primarily about the idea of male roles and female roles (though there is some of that) This is not a passage that says housework is bad. I think when push comes to shove, this is a passage about letting a purpose get lost in activity.

In Luke’s time, the local church met in someone’s home – truly house churches. And we can see the gospel response, which Luke traces as back to the life of Jesus himself. Hospitality is fundamental to the life of the faith-community,  but when it stops the purpose of the hospitality then it needs to be put on hold. The place of the relationships and the experience of the presence of God must be higher than the place of the preparations and the background work.

Imagine preparing for a visit so fastidiously  that you were too busy or too pre-occupied to enjoy the visit itself That suggests there is a problem

Imagine refusing to offer the practice of hospitality,  because you were too concerned about what the people would think of you or your house That suggests there is a problem

Imagine never talking with people about your faith and why you choose to live your way of living because you were always trying to make sure you had just the right words and could never quite find them That suggests there is a problem

Imagine that you were so concerned that things were done just right,  and followed the right principles, right directions, right doctrine, right theology, right practices that you lost the way of taking risks and discovering the wonders of an ongoing creator That suggests there is a problem.

This is a passage that invites us to move away from the idea of “If I don’t do it, no one else will”  or “If I don’t do it, it just wont get done properly” or  “I have to do it, because it is too important to leave to anyone else” Sometimes things may not get done.   Sometimes they wont get done as we would like them to.

Luke says, and Jesus says, that our own health including our spiritual health depends on letting things go. It’s a passage that shakes perfectionists,  because it reminds us that perfection is discovered in the life of Jesus and not in ours

The passage doesn’t invite us to become pole-sitting monks or to live a life of silence and reflection It invites us to keep a sense of perspective and to ensure we are taking time out for attention to the depth of our lives.

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27 June 2010

Philippians 2:1-11 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,       though he was in the form of God,       did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,      but emptied himself,      taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,    he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 Despite all rumours to the contrary and appearances, being Chairperson of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the UCA  isn’t an enormous career move, or a launch to public recognition or fame. There aren’t all that many public gigs that you get in this sort of role,  despite the fact that I am now on the list of “heads of churches of the region”.

So it is not only really quite a positive (and unusual) thing for me to be speaking here today but it has also been quite an unusual week. In fact, this is the third public ‘gig’ that I have got in the past 4 days and each of them, in quite different ways, might help us with this passage  and our Stepping Stones service.

On Thursday I was representing the UCA at Parliament House,  during the launch of the Charter for Compassion. The launch was occurring from 12.45- 1.45.    You may be aware that there were a couple of other things happening around 1pm Thursday and no matter what view you may take about the events of the day, I think it is fair to say that it wont be recorded in Australia’s history  as one of the more compassionate days we have had.

Then on Friday night I was rung by one of the media outlets in the Territory, as the journalist was putting together a story about the reactions of the local churches to the events of the previous day, and whether there were any concerns  that our new Prime Minister did not affirm a practising Christian faith while our previous Prime Minister clearly did.  Was that a problem for the churches? I was asked

Clearly, my response was neither stunningly inspirational nor controversial as the story never quite made it through to publication.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us of our identity and our character and in doing so, points us beyond our own to the identity and character of God.

We are here today to affirm, celebrate and encourage the ministry and service that is here not because a community of people have chosen to identify themselves as followers of Christ and point to themselves in this identity but because a community of people have chosen to live in a way that bears that identity for the sake of others.

We are not here today to affirm that Stepping Stones for Life (http://stmargs.unitingchurch.org.au/index_files/Stepping.htm) is better than other support networks for people who are ageing, or living with disabilities but to celebrate that this network exists.

We are not here today to declare that the members of the network and its steering committee possess the answers to some extremely difficult questions regarding life and to give these answers, or to hand over their gracious wisdom and time to the poor, the destitute and the needy. We are here today to celebrate a journey together between people of various abilities and, because we believe in the words of Henri Nouwen “People with disabilities often possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity and directness and that they are a living reminder to the wider world of the essential values of the heart”

Services such as Stepping Stones for Life –  services which are an expression of the Church at mission –  need not aim, claim or pretend to be better than other services. To do so would, I am sure, would cause some tension with any good reading of Philippians 2

In fact, services which are an expression of the Church at mission  may or may not be fundamentally different from other services in similar areas in the community. In one very real sense, that is not our concern.

What must always remain our concern, however,  is that imbued throughout the character of the service and the people who form it is the character outlined in Philippians 2, which Harry Herbert read this morning.

Henri Nouwen, whom I quoted earlier, was a lecturer and writer in theology who devoted the last 15 years of his life as a pastor in Toronto’s L’Arche Daybreak community. In one of his writings he reflected on the life of a severely disabled member of the community – Adam – and on the theological concept of the “Incarnation”. “For many years” says Nouwen, “I had reserved the word Incarnation for the historic event of God’s coming to us in Jesus.  Being so close with Adam I realised that the Christ event  is much more than something that took place long ago.   It occurs every time spirit greets spirit in the body.   It is a sacred event happening in the present because it is God’s event among people.”

It is that sense of incarnation which we experience and celebrate in Stepping Stones for Life. In every event, and in every encounter,  whether it is in music, or art, or craft or in exercise, or meals, or in conversations each member of the community here has the opportunity to encounter the very being of God whom we affirm today as being made fully known in the humility and service of Jesus. Some times we may notice that encounter for what it is. Unfortunately, most times we will not, but still it is there.

As I end, I offer one last quote from Henri Nouwen and his experiences with Adam. Adam never spoke a word in his life.     For his 34 years he was almost entirely dependent on others. Yet, Nouwen talks of Adam as his teacher, guide and spiritual director. By no means was the relationship ever seen or experienced as one-way.

Reflecting on Adam’s life, Nouwen comments “Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him.   His great teaching to us was I can live only if you surround me with love and if you love one another.   Otherwise my life is useless, and I am a burden”

This teaching is for us today. Each of us, can only live fully if we are surrounded by a loving community. and as we form a loving community, we enable others to live to their fullest. It is good for us to celebrate that today, and to leave with its call constantly upon us.

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13 June 2012

Reading: 1 Kings 21:1-21

What a horrible story! You can imagine how thrilled I was when Gordon told me the reading I had to work with today! Connecting with our community – and the reading is Naboth’s vineyard!

It is hard to find any redeeming features in this story.

We have a king who is greedy, spoilt, subject to tantrums, totally without empathy for anyone else, happy to be pandered to by his corrupt wife and officers, and then, seemingly without a qualm, happy to go and claim the land they handed to him. Perhaps his only redeeming feature is that he took Naboth’s answer and didn’t kill him on the spot.

We have Jezebel who is brazen, who uses other people, has no morality as we would define morality, worships pagan gods, and is altogether evil. Her name has become a byword for all that is evil, especially concerning promiscuity, sexual depravity and using others for their own end. Think about what picture comes to your mind when you hear the name Jezebel. It’s not a name you would like to hear given to your granddaughter is it?

Naboth is the innocent person in this story. He happens to own land right next to some of the Palace grounds where Ahab fancies a new vegetable garden. As a King of Israel, and one who worshipped Yahweh, Ahab knew the law that said that no-one is allowed to sell their land, it has to be passed down a family line in perpetuity. It was not Naboth’s to sell. Perhaps that is why he left Naboth after his refusal to sell.

How easily is community broken down when laws and customs are not adhered to. We have laws that are written and also many unwritten laws in our lives. We wouldn’t dare go out on the roads unless we could be pretty sure that everyone knew the road rules and obeyed them.

There are customs that we honour in family life, or in our civilian lives. You may be able to think of some quirky thing that happens in your family – because that is the way we do things here! In our family, when the children were growing up we had a rule that said that you didn’t have to help with the washing up on your birthday! Woe betide anyone who suggested you did. Or there was the rule that you didn’t open Christmas presents until everyone was there – after morning tea on Christmas Day. In fact I think nearly every family has its rules about family celebrations. Not sticking to these rules creates resentment and separation. It does not help a family to feel close and only provokes bitterness and arguments.

Put that on a much bigger scale and we have the picture of white people going into aboriginal country and just taking away their land. No negotiations, or expectations that these people may have excellent reasons for not giving up their land or in fact should be consulted about it. We just took it, and many times people were killed in the process. So these things not only happened in old testament times, but far more recently in our own history, and of course are still going on today in many parts of the world.

Perhaps another redeeming feature of this story is that when Elijah came to confront Ahab, he recognised his sin and was repentant. A bit late, but he was repentant. Ahab comes over as weak rather than wicked.

So, what I want us to get out of this story, are the lessons it gives about how NOT to run your life. If we make up the complete opposite scenario, what would we see.

Ahab wants the vineyard. He goes to talk to Naboth, who says that it is not his to sell. Ahab then recognises the justification of this stand and backs off. He goes elsewhere to see where he can legally buy land for his vege plot. In this way, relationships are respected and community life is stable – people know where they are. Jezebel doesn’t find a sulky husband, so she too has a life that is not one of intrigue and creating mayhem. At least not for that reason!

OK, I am dreaming – but in fact this is the sort of behaviour that we are promoting all the time as Christians. Jesus showed us that we have to love God, love our neighbour and love ourselves. The sort of behaviour attributed to Ahab and Jezebel just does not stand up in our time. Of course it is not only Christians who behave more appropriately today either – our whole society is built on the tradition of respect for each and every person in the country and ultimately every person in the world. – ref Abby Sunderland being rescued from the ocean.

Our church here at Kippax is one where we have worked so hard over the years about being part of our community that we are now pretty well embedded in the community. As we know, hundreds of people pass through our doors every day for various reasons. Some for pleasure, some because they are in need. Also people from this church go out into the community and take part in many activities to help other people all around Canberra.

So what are the features of a well functioning community? To illustrate this, I want to use an example from my own life that has been going on recently.

About 6 weeks ago John and I joined the Thursday morning bike-riding group. This is a group of anything between 8 to 15 people who meet on Thursdays and go for a ride of about 20 kms and then finish with a good cup of coffee. The things that make this group a community are very much in evidence. When everyone meets, we ensure that everyone is ready before heading off in the same direction together – completely trusting the leader to know where they are going – although I am told this is sometimes misguided trust. John and I have visited many parts of Canberra we didn’t know existed before and if we were to be left behind any time, we wouldn’t have a clue where we were. But this doesn’t happen. The community stops and regathers every few kms and makes sure everyone is OK. We have drinks of water and we blow our noses! If anyone has a problem with their bike, two or three others come and help to make sure that that person can carry on riding. One week, I felt really crook about half way round the ride. I had to stop and wanted to have a drink and a bit of a rest, but the others decided that wasn’t enough, so sent one of the others back to our cars and came back to pick me up, together with the person who had stayed with me to keep me company – and of course our bikes. What a caring community! This is not a group of individual bike riders who just go off on their own for the sake of exercise. They look after each other, make sure we have stops for water and rest, and then keep going together. Then at the end of the ride, there is a celebration with a well-earned cup of coffee as the community remains intact.

This is an example of the sort of community we want to be, in our families, in our church, in our city and nation. Caring for each other is what it is all about or else the community will break down and not be a community any more. We are motivated by our love of Jesus Christ, and take the nourishment of the Spirit we need along the way to ensure we can keep going.

 

Given that there is so much need in our families, our community, our country and our world, how do we keep going and not give up? For us, I think the answer lies in keeping a close relationship to God, which is the primary source of our inspiration to be involved in our community in the first place.

When Jesus visited Samaria he found himself talking to a woman at a well. I am sure you know the story but just in case you have forgotten it let me give you a very brief summary.

Jesus was travelling through Samaria, which in itself was unusual as Jews usually went another way to avoid this part of the country for political reasons. At the time Jesus was ahead of his disciples and he became thirsty. He asked a woman he saw at the well if she would give him a drink of water. This was the second unusual thing – first Jesus spoke to a woman – and then asked her for a drink. Neither of those things was customary for a Jewish man at that time. They then fell into conversation, with Jesus challenging her about her lifestyle and offering her an alternative idea.

He said, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

The conversation went on with them playing word games with each other but deep truth was there too. This woman accepted the offer Jesus made to her and was empowered to go and spread the news to others.

We too need to remind ourselves that our strength to keep going with our work in our church and community comes from our relationship with God. It comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us. We need to keep filling ourselves with God’s strength. And just like when going bike-riding we need to have a drink whether we feel thirsty or not, as we use and use and use our spiritual energy and may not realise when we are running dry.

Today, I have put lots of cups and water on the table. The invitation is for you to come and take a drink of water, in recognition of your need to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to strengthen you for the journey you are on.

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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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