St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 29 June 2012

July 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Refugee Sunday

Texts: Lamentations 3:22-33; 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Note: If you wish to focus on the Refugee Issues today, CWS has provided some useful resources.  See and  Unfortunately, their material relates to the readings set for 17 June (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34), but in the wonderful way that Scripture so often does, today's readings fit this theme just as well, if not better.

Theme.  I'm going with "When Hope is All there is"; although I'm tempted to omit the word "When".  Ultimately a religious attitude to life may be captured better by the realisation that all life is founded on hope.  I shall be exploring that idea more as these notes go on.  (At least, I hope so!).

Introduction.  Sticking closely with the theme, we can see that all three readings are about everything turning to custard.  What then are we left with?  What do we do when our city or country is devastated by war, tempest or earthquake?  Where do we turn when our own daughter is dying and seemingly beyond help?  What is left for us when we have exhausted our means on every doctor we can find and still our health deteriorates?  And what should be our response when any such terrible disaster strikes others?  These are the real issues of today, as they were for Judah in the 6th century B.C., and for others in the time of Christ on earth.  And as always the Scriptures eschew easy answers.  Instead they question us.  In whom do we truly believe/have faith/trust?  Or to put that in today's word – who is the ground of our hope?

Background.  The full horror of the refugees' plight has been on our TV screens almost nightly over the last two or three weeks as over-crowded and unseaworthy boats have set off from Indonesia and attempted to reach the promised land called Australia.  Over 100 have died in that period, and another 200 or so have been fortunate enough to have made it one way or another to Christmas Island (a somewhat ironic name in these dreadful circumstances).  Once again politicians shout themselves hoarse, and have no breath left to lead a civilised, much less humanitarian, debate in that country.  Would ours be any better?  Would we let them?

Some figures.  According to the CWS material, there are about 10.4 million refugees under the care of the UNHCR, and a further 5 million Palestinians, who come under a different agency.  In addition, there are estimated to be 26 million displaced persons (refugees inside their own country), of whom at least 1 million are seeking asylum elsewhere.  New Zealand has an annual quota of 750 refugees, but has not filled that quota in recent three years.  We want to work through official channels: refugees should get in line and learn to queue politely and patiently.  "Boat people" notoriously jump the queue, and should not be "rewarded" for doing so.  Which all sounds correct and proper, doesn't it?  And while you're still nodding in agreement, try to imagine Jesus telling the synagogue ruler or the pushy woman with the blood discharge problem to wait in line, and have their papers in order when he gets to them.

There is a sense in which these ideas are at the very heart of our faith history.  Adam and Eve are kicked out of their homeland.  Abraham is called to leave the land of his fathers.  The people escape from (take refuge from) slavery and abuse in Egypt.  And, of course, the whole drama of the Exile and the Return are major themes in the ongoing story.  Against that sort of background, perhaps, we can see the extraordinary grace of God.  Imagine how today's refugees would feel if someone (some nation) actively sought them out, took them in, and offered them new life, instead of making it ever harder for them to find sanctuary anywhere.  Imagine if Australia were to become the new "Statue of Liberty" – and imagine if we were to join with them in a brand new manifestation of the Anzac Spirit.

Isn't that what God has done for us in Jesus Christ?  Hasn't he come into the world of refugees – the outcasts of Eden and their descendants – with an offer of truly safe passage into a new life  - FOR FREE!!!  And if we accept the truth of that, should we not be prepared to offer sanctuary to others on the same terms?  Freely we have received, freely we should give.  Isn't that the gist of St Paul's argument in today's begging letter on behalf of the afflicted in Jerusalem?

Finally, remember some sayings we have featuring this little word "hope".  "Where there's life, there's hope."  "We can but hope."  "Let's hope for the best."  "We live in hope."  And learn from Dante: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter in."  Hell is the state where all hope is abandoned.

Lamentations.  This is a truly astonishing book!  If you have never sat down and read it straight through (it's quite short) try it.  But be warned:  it leaves most horror stories far behind.  Remember that it is set in the wake of the Babylonian invasion which ended with the sacking of Jerusalem (including the Temple), and the carting off into exile of Israel's brightest and best.  But this outcome only occurred after a devastating siege of the city in which the citizens were starved into surrender.  We are spared no detail, including cannibalism.  What makes it all the more terrible is that the prophet (traditionally taken to be Jeremiah) is quite clear that God was not simply absent, apparently unable or even unwilling to save his people from such a terrible catastrophe, but that God himself was responsible for it.  This was the outworking of God's wrath at the peoples' sins.  From the very beginning of this book, right through to the end of 3:20 the catalogue of suffering goes on, until suddenly, in 3:21, the whole tone changes: Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.  What is "this" that he remembers and that gives him hope?  It is the nature or character of God.  Despite everything that is wrong in the world, in their nation, and in their city, despite all that God seems to have brought on their heads, the prophet knows that God is loving, compassionate, merciful and forgiving, and so, in the end, all will be well.  That is the hope that he bears as a man of faith.

Taking It Personally.

·        Read through this book slowly.  Or if you are short of time, have a quick look at verses 2:20, 4:10, and 4.49.  Think about the sheer bloody horror of what had happened during the siege.  Now pray for refugees.

·        Recall a time in your life when everything had turned to custard.  Where did you find hope?  While thinking about that situation, reflect on today's passage.  Do these words sound trite or do they ring true?

·        How would you encourage someone who feels hopeless about something today?

·        Focus on verse 3:8.  Have you ever felt that God was shutting out your prayer?  How did you respond?

Corinthians.  The existence of hope does not preclude Christian action!  St Paul is at his pragmatic (not to say political) best today.  He is quite shamelessly trying to commend to the Corinthians an appeal for the believers in Jerusalem who are having a hard time.  There is very little appeal to lofty theological ideals, and much more to human pride.  Others are being generous; don't let them show you up – good psychology, as always from St Paul, who understood human nature (and particularly Corinthian human nature) better than most.  And as always we cannot read St Paul without feeling his beady little eyes boring into us.   Are we as openly generous as he urges the Corinthians to be?  In our society we are under constant pressure these days to lift our level of savings to enable us to meet our future needs.  But what about the present needs of others?  His pragmatism is to the fore also in his flagrant use of the "you scratch their back so that they will scratch yours" approach in verse 14.

Taking It Personally.

·        What do you think of St Paul's "pragmatic approach?  Is it too worldly for your taste?  How would you react if an appeal was pitched to you along these lines?

·        Is the Church too concerned about personal piety (and personal sin), and not concerned enough about such practical matters as giving to the poor?  Should it be one or the other, or does the gospel call us to both personal piety and generosity to others?

·        When we give to the Church, are we genuinely seeking to benefit others in need, or are we more like flatmates contributing towards our shared living expenses?

Mark.  Here is yet another reference to "crossing over the Lake", a common feature of this gospel.  It's worth reminding ourselves that one side of the Lake was Jewish territory and the other was predominantly Gentile.  Mark was, perhaps, trying to show with these many simple references how Jesus was breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile, weaving the two communities together, using a boat like a darning needle or weaver's shuttle.  Today we are back in Jewish territory, and we meet two very different people from that community.  Driven by desperate need, need which cannot be met within their usual community of interest, each comes to Jesus at considerable risk to themselves.  In that respect they may represent the plight of refugees.  Think how often Jesus fell foul of the religious establishment in the synagogues of his day.  Yet here comes Jairus, the ruler of his local synagogue no less, begging Jesus on his knees to come with him to heal his daughter.  If word of that got back to his synagogue he would be in great trouble, but he does not allow that to stop him from making the hazardous journey out of his place of comfort to come to Jesus.  Even more at risk is this nameless woman, 'unclean' in the ritual sense and therefore liable to be stoned if the crowd realised her status.  She too risks all to journey to Jesus.

Notice how cleverly Mark deals with the result of the woman's "religious experience" of Jesus.  First, the outcome accords with her own belief system.  She believes it will be enough to touch his cloak, and so it proves.  Secondly, there is an objective change in the situation ("her bleeding stopped").  And thirdly, there is a subjective element: "she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering".  The raising of the little girl is Mark's equivalent to John's story of Lazarus.  There is a lot of unexplained detail.  Mark tells us what happened, but offers no explanation for it.  Why does Jesus make a public scene about the woman, yet excludes most people from the even more astonishing "healing" of the dead girl?  Why the reference to taking her by the hand: why the recording of the exact words in Aramaic?  Why the stern words not to tell anyone what happened (when no such admonition was given after the healing of the woman?  And did you notice what we are not told?  Why no mass conversions following these great miracles?  Could it be that our modern obsession for "head-hunting" (or perhaps that should be "'bottom-hunting" given our propensity for reducing evangelism to the counting of bums-on-seats) was not one that Jesus shared?

Taking It Personally.

·        Another wonderful passage for the prayer of imagination.  Journey with Jesus slowly through this story.  Watch what he does; listen to what he says.  Feel the anxiety of Jairus and the woman with the medical problem.  Share their relief and joy when the healings take place.  Join in their joy, giving your own thanks to Jesus.

·        Ponder Jesus' first reaction: what do you make of the reference to power going out of him?  Does it conjure up an image of a "battery-powered" Jesus?  Have you ever felt empowered by God to do something you would not otherwise have been able to achieve?  Might this give a clue as to what was going on here?

·        Ponder the faith of these two people.  Do you agree that what they had was a complete trust in Jesus' power and willingness to help them, even when their situations seemed hopeless?  How does that compare with your own faith in Jesus?


Friday, 22 June 2012



Texts:  Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:26-34

Theme:  Spoilt for choice again this week.  "Reality" has to be in there somewhere.  All three readings tell us that God is REAL – and not some sentimental, wish-fulfilling creation of our own!  Perhaps "Reality Check" would do it.

Introduction.  The sheer gutsiness (earthiness) of the readings needs to be stressed this week; or perhaps I mean, they need to be allowed to speak for themselves.  The temptation might be to try to tone them down a bit, but that temptation (like all others!) should be vigorously resisted.  If there is a rival for Isaiah as the most valuable book in the Old Testament it must surely be Job!  The last vestiges of Sunday School theology must surely be blown away for anyone who seriously reads this great book.  The whole book could be called A Guide to Spirituality for Adults.  Do we really love and trust God (the essence of faith) or do we not?  That is the question, and for Job (and the rest of us) there is no hiding or fudging possible.  And just in case we think we have survived that onslaught similar questions are fired at us by the other two readings.  Would our professed love for God hold firm if we suffered even half the things that befell St Paul?  Or when we found ourselves in the middle of a storm in a boat showing every sign of imminent sinking?

Background.  Not long after the tragic Boxing Day tsunami I found myself facing this passage from Job as I prepared a sermon.  Before you read on, refresh your memory of verses 8-11.  Do you see the problem?  Part of my solution was to let off steam by writing the following poem:

Job Answers Back

Then out of the tsunami

            Job railed at God:


'Have you not heard, have you not seen,

            do you not know what the sea has done?

It has rebelled against you and against us.

It has charged your feeble bars, and

            kicked down your puny doors;

            it has gone where it would,

            its waves prouder than before;

            it has thrown off your flimsy garments

            and streaked across the land

            brazen and unashamed.



So may the terrible cry of the drowned

            come unto you:

the pitiful wailing of those who mourn

            assault your ears;

the wounded silence of those who have lost everything

            break your heart.

Speak for yourself if you can,

            for I am tired of making your defence.'


And Job stormed off, his usual calmness

            washed away by the torrent

            of heaven's words,

picking his way through slabs of broken faith

            lying upturned and scattered

            in heaven's violent wake.


Darkness came.  And with it a stench.


Stirring stuff, and not bad psychology, but awful theology!  In the poem I am making the very mistake that Job finally makes.  He attempts to hold God to account – speaks to God as an equal  He's got it back to front as God makes clear at the start of today's passage: I will question you, and you shall answer to me.  [v. 3]   But in my own defence(!), what the poem does do is capture some of the force of the impact when we grab this passage of Scripture by the scruff of the neck and bring it into contact with real stuff, in this case a natural disaster of monumental proportions.  How quickly the passage ceases to be a wonderful example of dramatic poetry and becomes a screaming question: "What do you really feel about God now?"


To get a handle on Job as a textbook on spirituality we only have to look at two verses, one almost at the beginning of the book, and the other almost at the end.  In 1:1(b) we learn: This man [Job] was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.  Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?  It reminds me of all the times someone has told me that X was such a good person, there's no doubt she/he has gone to heaven.  But now turn to 42:5.  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Through all the terrible things that have befallen him Job has discovered that he knew God only be reputation – by what he had been told.  Now he knows God: before he knew only about God.  And his reaction is to recognise his own unworthiness and repent.  In coming to know God we come to know ourselves as we really are.  When we achieve that we are ready for a real relationship with the real God, which is what real spirituality is.


The book also starts with that great question posed by Satan: Does Job fear God for nothing?  It is debateable whether we ever get an answer to that question.  But what we do get is a very clear statement about human pride:  even those who are blameless and shun evil cannot stand before God on their own merits, much less call God to account.  Only when we know God as God really is do we realise the truth of that.  In the meantime we remain committed to the gospel of good works and self-improvement, even though we would never say so.


I mentioned briefly last week the curious placement of the story of the Calming of the Sea, which comes immediately after a long passage of teaching by and about parables.  The oddity is accentuated by the chapter divisions, which were not, of course, part of the original text as Mark wrote it.  But the order of the material was his.  What was he up to?


Judging by Jesus' questions to his disciples, the issue is about "intellectual belief" and real belief; that is, having heard Jesus' teaching and giving mental assent to it, has it permeated into their inner being, so that they would hold firm in the storms of life?  The answer, of course, was no.  Faith is not about what we believe, but in whom we believe.  The disciples were part way there: presumably they woke him up in the hope that he would be able to do something, but when he did they were completely unprepared for it and became even more terrified (of him rather than the storm!)  But that was real progress; they had moved from physical fear to holy fear.


Job.  Notice the wonderful opening phrase: God answered Job "out of the storm".  But what storm would that be?  If we just start here we will assume that there has been some preceding reference to a storm.  But there is none.  The storm, I suspect, is inside Job.  The other, more obvious, point to note here is that "answered" might be better understood as "responded to".  In purely human terms God doesn't answer Job' questions, he responds with a volley of his own.


Taking It Personally.


·        Reflect on my poem: where do your sympathies lie?  Are you with "Job" or is he way out of line?

·        Are you inclined to demand answers from God when things turn to custard?  Have you ever received any answers?

·        As you ponder this passage, how do you feel towards Job, and towards God?  Is God "answering" Job or being evasive?


Corinthians.  This passage always calls to my mind a helpful little story I was given when I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life.  A priest in England in the early years of the twentieth century went to see his bishop to tell him that he had no alternative but to tender his resignation.  His unmarried daughter had become pregnant, and this would soon become known in the parish and be a cause of great scandal.   The Bishop would not accept the resignation.  "Your parishioners have seen all this before and can cope with it.  What they are waiting to see is how you cope with it.  Now go and continue to be an example to them in this hard time as you always have been in easier times."  At first glance, today's passage could come across as one long belly-ache, St Paul wallowing in self-pity.  But it's clearly not.  He is dealing with the honest facts.  Christianity is not a soft option, an easy and trouble-free lifestyle, especially in times of persecution.  What commends the faith to others is not that we seem to have a charmed life avoiding all troubles, but that we seem to have an extra power to cope when trouble strikes.


Taking It Personally.


·        Read slowly through this passage, noting the different kinds of adversity Paul has faced, including physical and emotional suffering.  Call to mind some of your hardest times.  How did you cope?  Were you aware at the time of "an extra power" helping you?  In retrospect, are you aware of it now?

·        Review your present circumstances.  Is there any particular difficulty you are facing today?  Take it into prayer.  How might today's readings help you?


Mark.  This story works well at both the literal and the metaphorical level.  The Sea of Galilee was and is infamous for sudden squalls and storms, so that the situation described in this story sounds real.  The reaction of the disciples rings true, and is part of their ongoing struggle to grasp Jesus' true identity.  As noted above, it gives us a wonderfully clear illustration of the difference between physical fear and holy fear: remember Peter's reaction when he saw the size of the catch in another story set on the Lake: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."  At the metaphorical level, the story would have had great value to the early persecuted Church.  The church is the little boat, in grave danger of being destroyed; but Jesus is with them so all will be well.  All they have to do is hold on to their faith.  That's why the words Jesus spoke to his disciples are so stinging.


Taking It Personally.


·        This is a classic passage for the prayer of imagination.  Place yourself in the boat with the disciples.  Hear the wind, see the waves, taste the salt in the air.  Feel their fear.  Now look at Jesus calmly sleeping: how do you feel towards him?

·        Do you sometimes feel in your hard times that Jesus/God is sleeping on the job?  Do you call out to wake him up?  What happens then?

·        How do you feel about Jesus' rebuke of his disciples?  Are those words addressed to you?


Friday, 15 June 2012

June 17 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 11

Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

Theme: Not at all obvious this week.  I'm going for "Nature Mysticism" for reasons that may or may not become clear as these notes proceed.

Introduction.  Both Ezekiel and Jesus take their cue from the natural world today.  Their teaching proceeds analogically from observation of natural processes.  St Paul (at a stretch!) takes a similar line with his reference to the new creation (in contrast, of course, to the old creation, the natural world).  He is particularly interesting today as he sees the main contrast between the old and new creations as being the difference between selfishness and altruism – living for ourselves or living for others (for Christ).

Background.  There are a number of ways into these texts today.  One is the time of the year.  We are approaching midwinter.  Naked, apparently lifeless, trees are all around us.  The dazzling colours of summer and autumn have gone from our sight and faded from our memory.  It's harder to see God in such a pared-down environment.  The natural world is passing through its Good Friday and Holy Saturday experiences: resurrection is still some weeks away.  Our faith alone stands witness to the sure and certain hope of a new spring.

Another useful context may be the ghastly unfolding drama of the Feilding Murder Trial.  Human nature in all its frailty and failings is being laid bare for all to see, to stop and ponder, to look at ourselves, our relationships, and how we treat other people.  Whatever the outcome of the trial (whether Ewen killed Scott or not), is outside our knowledge at this time.  But the animosity that had already built up between them is not: we have known about it since the first time we heard or read the story of Cain and Abel.  In the night before Jesus was betrayed by one of his own inner circle, and thrice denied by another, the whole jolly lot had been jockeying for position.  Power, property, position, privilege, all  such selfish desires are what St Paul had in mind when he urged the Corinthians to start again – to recognise that in Christ we have become a new creation.  Mystics down through the ages have talked of the need to crucify our old self with its emphasis on having, and enter the Self where life is all about being, not.

Which gets me to my favourite mystic at the moment.  Thanks to the wonders of Kindle I am reading my way through the works of Evelyn Underhill, all of which are available at a ridiculously low price (some are even free and others are 99 cents American.  The major works, each over 500 pages long, are less than $US 6.  End of Advertisement.)  One of her great strengths is that she herself was a mystic, so her works are all infused with practical experience as well as enormous learning.  And yet she is able to write clearly and simply for beginners like me.  The first step is to learn to be fully present in whatever we are doing.  Have you ever had the experience of reading a book, turning over a page, and then realising that your mind has been somewhere else and you have no clear recollection of what you have just read?  Something similar may even have occurred to you in a church service!  Or you may have been driving into the city and suddenly realised that you have already passed Pigeon Flat but have no clear recollection of doing so.

Buddhists refer to this mental propensity as "Monkey mind" apparently.  I think for me the better analogy is the roving dog.  Tie him up as best you can, fence-proof your yard, or whatever, and sooner or later he will break free and go off on an adventure of his own.  Underhill stresses the need to learn to control the mind through daily sessions of meditation.  The classical name for this process is recollection, to keep the mind focused on one thing, and bring it back every time it wanders off by itself.  The next stage is to learn to really look at things without analysing, classifying, naming and judging.  To observe the world around us as it is, to relate to it in its reality, to understand it in relation to ourselves.  From this grows a love for the created world, the first and basic stage of nature mysticism, which is the start (first stage) of the contemplative life.

Dame Julian of Norwich famously held a small round object, about the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of her hand and wondered how something so small could go on existing.  It then came to her that this object is "all there is" (a representative sample of all creation), and that it existed because God created it, God loves it, and God sustains it (keeps it in existence).  All very simple but profound.  Bear that in mind as you ponder today's short passage from the prophet Ezekiel.

Ezekiel.  In that characteristic phrase of prophetic writing, the word of the Lord frequently came to Ezekiel.  In the most famous passage in this book, it did a lot more than that, of course: he was transported to a valley full of dry bones.  Today nothing so spectacular occurs, but he is given a "word picture".  God describes a somewhat unusual method of propagating cedar trees, using a cutting from the highest growing tips of a mature tree.  Not being an expert in the field, I have no idea whether such a method was ever used in practice, but that's not the point.  The point is, what is happening for Ezekiel at this moment?  My guess is that he is up in the mountains somewhere, marvelling at the height of some full-grown cedars, and reminding himself that each of them came from a small seed in a cone.  Perhaps he also saw a wee 'self-sown' sapling nearby.  As he contemplated all this a voice inside him started to speak, drawing an analogy between a great cedar tree and Israel.  We are used to the image of Israel as a vine planted by the Lord; this one is similar.  Just as God causes trees to grow, so he is the source of all life for the people of Israel.

Whatever the deficiencies may or not be from the point of view of plantation forestry, the imagery helps to convey an important message about Israel.  Firstly, it is dependent for its life, health and growth on God.  Secondly, life comes from life, the living pass on life to others.  Thirdly, the tree/nation does not exist for itself: it reaches (branches) out to provide care, shelter and nourishment to others.  It must be hospitable, welcoming birds/people of every kind.  Fourthly, it will bear fruit, and we remember what John's gospel tells us along these lines.  Fifthly,It will be an example to other trees/nations, to the glory of God.  Finally, this is not head knowledge, something that Ezekiel has learned through study or intellectual activity, logic and inference.  This is knowledge that has "come to him" through the word of God.  It's what the mystics refer to as intuition or infused knowledge.  It's at the heart of nature mysticism.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you a good looker?  No, I'm not asking about your appearance, but your ability to really look at something.  Follow Dame Julian's example.  Pick up a small object – a nut would be ideal – and really look at it for 5 minutes.  What does that process teach you?

·        If you are a gardener, take a cutting from a shrub or something.  As you go through this process rehearse this passage in your mind.  What does this process tell you that hadn't become clear to you from simply reading the passage?

·        Focus your attention on a bare deciduous tree.  How does it differ in appearance from a dead tree?  What gives you confidence that the tree will produce new leaves in due course?  Is that just Nature doing her thing, or is it by God's will?  Are they just two ways of saying the same thing?

·        Draw a tree to represent yourself.  What sort of tree is it?  Tall and strong, gnarled and windswept, open and multi-branched, clipped and narrow, "good for food and pleasing to the eye", or ready for the wood-pile?  Take your findings into prayer.

Corinthians.  St Paul knew nothing about tidy paragraphs, much less self-contained sound-bites.  Consequently it is often difficult to make extracts from his writings with a clear beginning and ending.  Today is a good example.  We open with a characteristic "Therefore", a word much loved by St Paul, which inevitably refers to something that he has already written.  In this case he has written an extremely important sentence immediately before this "Therefore": Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.  Our passage also finishes too early, omitting to remind us that we are given the same ministry of reconciliation that was given by the Father to the Son.  For me the important verses in this passage are verses 14-17, as St Paul begins to spell out his understanding of the new creation in Christ.  His teaching is interpreted in the mystical tradition as dying to the self (the demanding ego) and being born into the Self

Taking It Personally.

·        Paul hangs loose to his own mortality because of his confidence in his own immortality.  Do you?

·        Ponder his reference to the "judgment seat of Christ".  How do you feel about that?  Are you accountable for your life in this way?  Are you more comfortable with the idea of "consequences", "reaping what we sow", "bringing it on our own heads"?  How does that differ from "karma"?

·        How much does fear (for example, of doing the wrong thing) govern your life?

·        Use verses 15-17 as a basis for self-examination today.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you seek to apply these verses to yourself.

Mark.  Read the whole of chapter 4 before concentrating on today's passage.  Look at its structure, and notice the surprising ending.  It's primarily concerned with Jesus' preferred teaching method of parables.  It opens with one of his major parables, the Parable of the Sower, including a somewhat laboured explanation.  Then the flow seems to be interrupted (verses 21-25) by some notes on the teaching method and the demands that places on the students (disciples): the teacher requires the students to do some work for themselves.  Then follow two more "seed" parables, before the chapter ends with a seemingly unrelated episode of the Stilling of the Storm (more about that next week).

Taking It Personally.

·        Still on the gardening theme, sow some seeds as you ponder today's little parables.  What do you "see" in this teaching from acting this out that wasn't obvious to you as you read the text?

·        Refer back to verses 21-25.  What do they tell you about your approach to grasping the inner meaning of Jesus' parables?  Have you 'ears to hear'?

·        Notice the similarity in wording between verse 32 and the passage from Ezekiel.  Are you an open and welcoming presence to others?

·        Ponder verse 34.  Why is Jesus using a different approach to teaching the insiders and outsiders?  Does that say something about the teaching ministry of the Church?


Friday, 8 June 2012

June 10 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 10th*

June 10                                   NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Ordinary 10th*

*Caution for those intending to use these notes in sermon preparation.  This Sunday has been designated by General Synod as Te Pouhere Sunday "to celebrate our life as a Three-Tikanga Church".  If your faith community intends to do that, a different set of readings will be used.  At St Barnabas, Warrington this Sunday we will be celebrating our Patronal Festival, again with a different set of readings.  The readings on which these notes are based are those set down for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Texts: Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Theme:  An unusually tricky question this week.  I have in mind something like "Puberty, Individuation and Human Development"; but perhaps "Growing in Spiritual Awareness" would do.

Introduction.  As we start the second half of our liturgical year in which we consider the human response to God's startling self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we are invited to consider our own ability of self-reflection, long-believed to be the faculty that separates us from all other creatures.  We start with one of our foundational stories from Genesis, the story of the Fall.  In these few verses we see the birth of self-awareness as Adam and Eve recognise one another as different, as Other.  This is reflected in their new attitude towards God, from whom they now try to hide.  So this story has something about puberty (sexual development) and spiritual alienation in it.  St Paul addresses the Church at Corinth, reminding them that we live in two realms, the worldly and the heavenly.   And St Mark shows Jesus "individuating", finally breaking the shackles of family and building a new community of interest for himself, those who understand and share his values and beliefs.

Background.  The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis form a sort of Prologue to our faith history, which only really gets underway with the calling of Abraham.  But it would be a great mistake to dismiss these chapters as myths or legends of no importance to us.  On the contrary they give us penetrating insights into the human condition.  [As our news media continue to cover the Feilding murder trial, keep in mind the story of Cain and Abel.]

At the heart of today's passage is this apparently simple question that God calls out to Adam and Eve: "Where are you?"  Where are they, that is, in relation to God?  That is the question with which we should start this long reflection of our response to all that has been revealed to us from Advent through to Pentecost.  Knowing what we now know of God through Jesus Christ and further enlightened by the coming of the Holy Spirit, where are we today?  As we were reminded in Holy Week, and again on Pentecost, the human response to God has always been mixed.  Some heard and believed, some mocked and disbelieved, many shook their heads and did not know what to believe.  Where are we – among the convinced, the mockers or the don't-knows?  Are we seeking to walk with God or hide from him?

There is a fascinating little throw-away line at the end of chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis, which should shed considerable light on these early chapters.  After giving some (rather far-fetched) genealogical details, we get this (in verse 26 (b)): At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.  It seems to be an acknowledgement by the author that there has been a staged spiritual growth in human history.  There was a time when no one called upon the name of the Lord (we might say today, when no-one was aware of the Transcendent Reality we call God); but at some stage in our development we developed a new faculty to enable us to recognise the spiritual realm.  Today's story from the Garden of Eden may be illustrating that same point, in which case the understanding is that as we developed self-awareness (necessarily implying some separation from other selves), so, too, came some awareness of the Ultimate Other Self (a.k.a. God).  The downside of that is a sense of separation (alienation) from those others and that Other: the upside is that it made possible the existence of love. 

St Mark's extraordinary story can be understood also in terms of personal development.  His honesty (bluntness) was too much for the other gospel writers, so we should treasure all the more his opening verses today.  Jesus and his ministry team are inundated with requests for help, so much so that they do not have time to eat.  Enter worried mother, backed by burly sons, to take charge of Jesus because they (that is, Mother!) thinks her son is out of his mind, is not looking after himself properly, and needs maternal protection from himself!  Doesn't that have a wonderful ring of truth about it?   {I seem to remember a TV ad of a few years ago featuring netball star Bernice Mene receiving an anxious phone call from Dad asking if his little girl was looking after herself.  Apparently she was, eating whatever food it was that she was advertising!]

Jesus' reply seems harsh, disrespectful, even rude, except to those of us who can still remember the struggles we had to assert our right to live our own lives and to break free from the well-meaning but over-protective clutches of our own mothers.  So Jesus here makes it clear that his life, his maturity, has reached a new stage: he must follow his own calling, even if that means breaking his mother's heart.

A further stage of development for humanity as a whole has now come about through the death and resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  There is a sense in which the whole of Paul's teaching can be understood as centred round that one vital truth.  Now more than ever we see that humanity lives in two realms, the material and the spiritual.  The process of development continues, and on that understanding we dare to hope that the best is still to come.

Genesis.  Whole books have been written on this one story, such is the richness of the text as we have it.  It is essentially about limits, and our human propensity to resent any being imposed on us.  Some of that is positive: we strive to do things once thought impossible. Some is negative: we refuse to accept any restrictions on our own freedoms, thereby infringing the rights of others.  In this story God imposes one restriction, one limit, on the freedom of humanity, and rebellion follows.  The story becomes one of opposing views: who knows best what is in our own interests - God or we ourselves?

The identity of the tree from which it is forbidden to eat the fruit is particularly fascinating.  To the modern ear a knowledge of good and evil sounds like a good thing; but the biblical sense of "know" is different from our own.  We might think of knowledge in the intellectual sense, but the Bible sees knowledge as experiential, knowledge from the inside, as it were.  In other words, the only way we can "know" evil is to commit it.  So defying God's command in itself introduces us to an experiential knowledge of evil.

For the first time Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness, and are embarrassed/ashamed of it.  Firstly, this is about recognising that they are different and being alarmed by it.  Then the story gives us a classic illustration of our human desire to avoid personal responsibility: Adam blames Eve (and even God for putting Eve there in the first place!); Eve blames the snake (probably meaning that she was misled/let down by her animal instincts).   They start to cover themselves; self-awareness leads us to want to hide our true selves from others, we do not want to be exposed, naked, seen as we really are.  This is the beginning of the human split personality, our public and private personae.

Remember that all this involves a spiritual experience for Adam and Eve.  They hear God, the sound of him moving in the Garden and the sound of his voice.  So they are caught up in the human struggle between our physical and spiritual natures.  And more, much more:  this story repays all the pondering we are prepared to give it.

Taking It Personally.

·        Ponder the story long and hard!

·        Notice that there seems nothing inherently wrong in eating the fruit - okay, it's the first recorded case of scrumping, but it hardly ranks up there with murder!  Or does it?

·        Focus on Eve's description of the fruit – "good for eating", "pleasing to the eye", and "desirable for gaining wisdom": all apparently attractive features.  What does it tell you about the nature of temptation?  Can you think of something apparently attractive and good that drew you into a situation that turned sour?

·        Now turn to God's question: "Where are you (at this moment)?"  What is your answer to God?


Corinthians.  St Paul is no Pollyanna!  He knows only too well the trials, tribulations and horrors of the world, particularly for minorities, religious and otherwise.  It is particularly in the face of such difficulties that we need to hold firm in our faith, and in our understanding that there is another realm of reality behind the one we call the real world.   He urges us to remain focused, fixed, on that truth.  It is not that we should switch off, lapse into passivity and suffer in silence, assured that all will be well when we die.  But we draw strength from our faith, which enables us to stand firm in the face of that suffering which comes from the world.  We are called to pray that God's kingdom may come on earth as in heaven.  Perhaps that means that in our lives we are to reconcile the material and the spiritual - to overcome in Christ the divide that entered our lives and our world through Adam.


Taking It Personally.


·       Take a moment to review your present circumstances, focussing especially on any particular difficulties you are facing.  Then read through this passage again slowly.  Does it help to give you a clearer perspective?

·       Focus on verse 16.  Do you have a sense that "inwardly you are being renewed day by day?"  If not, pray that you may receive that assurance.

·       This is a passage full of hope.  How would you explain to someone the hope that you have from your faith in Christ.


Mark.  The first recorded case of professional burnout, perhaps!  We find many examples of Jesus drawing aside for prayer; but here is a case where he appears to be working too hard.  His family fear he is having a breakdown, and his opponents charge him with being demon-possessed.  The issue is one of discernment: is he following the Spirit of God or of the devil?  And how we answer that question is of vital importance.  To ascribe to the devil the work of the Holy Spirit is the one unforgiveable sin.  My translation of that is something like this: if we do not open ourselves to the Holy Spirit than we close ourselves off to God, and in that way deny ourselves eternal life (a share in God's life).  Or is this simply a case of poor judgment and lack of commonsense, as his family appear to think?  Once more we may be asked, "Where are you?"  Which camp do you find yourself in?  Jesus makes his position very clear: the world (in this case represented by his family) has no hold on him.  He is creating a new family (as God created a new people), and the common bond of unity is faith, not blood.


Taking It Personally.


·       Have you experienced tension between the practise of your faith and the dictates of your family?  How did you deal with it?

·       Think about St Mark's bluntness in this passage: does this give you confidence in the accuracy of his account?

·       What insights might we receive from this passage in understanding the "generation gap?"


Thursday, 7 June 2012

June 3 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Trinity Sunday

June 3                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Trinity Sunday

Texts:  Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Theme:  It's Trinity Sunday, so "The Holy Trinity" would seem the most appropriate.  I'm tempted to suggest "Pause, Touch, Engage!" as an alternative (think about it before you snort in derision); but for those who do not follow rugby that may not be helpful.

Introduction.  Trinity Sunday completes the first half of the liturgical year, when the emphasis has been on the great revelatory events of the life cycle of Christ.  Now we draw breath, and attempt to make some sense of it all, to fit the pieces together into some sort of coherent whole.  "What does it all mean?" (as the crowds asked Peter on the Day of Pentecost, last week); or, "How can this be?" as Nicodemus asks this week as he struggles to understand.  Today we have three specific pieces of the puzzle before us.  First, the classic spiritual experience of Isaiah's encounter with God in the Temple.  Then Nicodemus' encounter with the Incarnate God under cover of darkness.  [Interestingly we would not usually classify that encounter as a religious/spiritual experience in the classic sense, and yet it clearly is.]  And we have a short extract from Paul's theological masterpiece, known to us as the Letter to the Romans, as he emphasises the union between human beings and God through the bond of Christ/Spirit.

Background.  Critics in and outside the Church love to get their togas in a twist over this whole doctrine of the Trinity.  It is, of course, at the very heart of our Creeds, and those same critics believe that we should scrap all those creeds, seemingly on the somewhat specious ground that they are very old.  [At the same time we should be deeply respectful of the revival of interest in pagan ritual, Wicca, etc, on precisely that ground.]  But let's immediately be clear on what our Creeds are, and why we have them.  They are our best attempts at summarising what we believe the events of Christ's life, taken together, reveal about God.  We do not have a concept of the Holy Trinity because a few highly intelligent scholarly bishops got together one day and played word games.  We have our main Creed because, over 400 years of struggling to comprehend God's self-revelation, this is what the Church leaders of the time came up with.  And, for me and countless other believers over the intervening centuries, it still provides a summary of what we believe to be the case: that God is Triune, Three Persons in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  You got a problem with that?!

One of the reasons why I find the history of science so fascinating is that we can see the same pattern repeating itself every time there is a major new breakthrough ("for breakthrough" read "revelation") in any particular branch of science as we have in our own faith history.  The Dawkins of the world love to remind us of the occasions on which the Church made an idiot of itself in opposing the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, to pick three obvious ones.  What such critics never tell us is that most of the criticism on those and other occasions came from with the contemporaneous scientific establishment.  Think about Fred Hoyle, one of the great British astronomers of the twentieth century, who went to his grave insisting that there was no Big Bang, whatever Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, or anybody else might say.

Staying with the same area, there was widespread bewilderment in that particular branch of science when data was collected that showed the universe was still expanding, and, even more shocking, the speed of its expansion was increasing.  It had been assumed that, if everything began with a Big Bang, hurling 'stuff' outwards (so to speak), then sooner or later the outward force would lose momentum, pause, and then go into reverse.  But with the new revelation, a complete re-think was necessary.  The 'believing community' (astrophysicists and their kind) had to pause, touch, and engage with the new data.  Out of that process gradually emerged a new consensus, and if they were to write down a summary of that it would be their version of a creed.  "We believe that all things, seen and unseen, came into being with a Big Bang..."  So with Darwin, and so with all major scientific discoveries.

And so with our faith.  For centuries the tribes of Israel believed in the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and accepted that other people had their own gods.  Then around 800-600B.C. they discovered (it was revealed to them through the prophets) that there was only one God, who was therefore God of all peoples and nations on earth.  Where did that leave their relationship with God – was Israel just one people of no greater concern to God than any other?  No, for Israel had been specially chosen and called by God for a particular mission – to be a light to the Gentiles – and that became the new understanding.

Then came Jesus.  We have only to watch and listen to the crowds to see what was happening.  Listen to their questions and comments, those of the in-crowd (the disciples) and the general public.  Who is this man, that even the wind and sea obey him?  We have never seen anything like this before!  They were amazed and bewildered frequently; and that was before his death and resurrection!  And last week we saw this pattern all over again.  What on earth had come over these people that they are able to preach to us in our own languages?  What does this mean?  And so Peter addressed that very question, in the form that could easily be described as a proto-creed.

What would be the alternative way of dealing with such a question?  To say that we have no idea what it means?  "It's all mystery"?  Should we just ignore all such questions- just get on with social outreach and being 'good people'?  That it doesn't matter what we believe so long as we're kind to our neighbours?  We are human beings: we seek to make sense of things.  We construct patterns of understanding from given data.  Yes, many of us are content to admire the sunset, but it's also very human to try to understand what it means to say that the sun 'sets'.

To sum up, then, on this Trinity Sunday, which I have often described as "Summing Up Sunday No. 1 (the other one is the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday before Advent).  The Church pondered all this new data, especially around the issue of the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  How was he able to do the things only God could do?  How was it that he was raised from the dead?  What did the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on believers actually mean?  And so followed literally centuries of struggling to understand, struggling with these and related questions, struggling to construct a new "picture" of God.   Yes, all sorts of political power games took place, as emperors, popes, and other all-too-human beings fought it out.  But through it all, the Holy Spirit (we believe) somehow managed to fulfil Jesus' promise to lead us into all truth.  And at the heart of all truth we find the Trinity of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  That's why we have a Creed, to summarise the Truth that has been revealed to us by the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit.  You got a problem with that?!

Isaiah.  Here is one of my very favourite accounts of a religious experience: Isaiah encounters God in all his majestic glory.  He sees and hears: it is a classic example of a vision with soundtrack.  The effect on Isaiah is to make him experience his own sinfulness (unworthiness to stand, or even exist, in the presence of the Holy God).  But he is purged of this state, and freed to offer himself to God.  He even utters the Divine Name "I am".  The classic three-stage spiritual journey is all here, albeit in a slightly unusual order: illuminative, purgative and unitive.

Taking It Personally.

· Have you ever had a vision of God?

· Notice that this vision takes place in the Temple.  Do you feel closer to God in your local church?

· Next time you hear a priest pronounce absolution, call to mind the cleansing of Isaiah's lips by the seraph.  How might you keep your lips clean  in the following weeks?

· In your prayers stand with Isaiah and offer yourself to God with his words: "Here I am; send me."

Romans.  At the centre of the new thing that God is doing is the sending of the Spirit on all believers, instead of individuals of great spiritual standing such as the Patriarchs and the Prophets.  And the other difference is that the Spirit comes and STAYS: remember those words from Jesus' baptism, "the Spirit descended in the form of a dove and rested (remained) on him.  So Paul is telling us that we have a dual nature: we are both flesh and spirit.  And through our spirit the Holy Spirit brings us into an ever closer relationship with God.  On this Trinity Sunday it is timely to reflect that many spiritual writers say that we are drawn into the life of the Trinity; Peter says we are partakers in the Divine nature.  Wow!


Taking It Personally.

· Definitely a day for the bathroom mirror.  Look deeply into your eyes.  Read this passage slowly to yourself.  Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you into this part of the Truth.

· In your prayers address God as Abba.  How do you feel at this point?

· "See" Jesus, your co-heir, praying with you.

John.  Here we have a classic example of the sort of thing I was talking about above.  Nicodemus embodies the present consensus.  Assuming he is being sincere, then he recognises Jesus as a Rabbi (Teacher) from God (perhaps even a prophet).  But before he can go to his "So, we were wondering" type of question Jesus tries to take him to a whole new level of understanding.  This is typical of a number of encounters recorded in this particular gospel: think Samaritan woman at the well as another example.  The new revelation is hard to accept because it contradicts everything Nicodemus thought he knew up to that point.  He worships God but he has not received the Holy Spirit and so cannot enter into that close and loving relationship that is available through the Spirit.  That is pure gift: we cannot command it – that is, we cannot comprehend spiritual truths until we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead us into that truth.

Taking It Personally.

· This whole passage is worth pondering verse by verse over the next week.  Try to enter into Nicodemus' bewilderment – see him as a genuine seeker after truth.  What can you learn from him?

· Focus especially on verses 16 and 17.  Jesus has come to save, not condemn.  Is that the message you hear from the Church, or do we sometimes sound condemnatory of those who do not believe?

· Pray for someone whom you know to be a genuine seeker.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide that person into all Truth.  And while you're at it, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you further along that path as well.