Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Reflections from The Hill – A Song to Change the World – Luke 1.39-45


Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young bloke from Dagenham (East London), who wasn’t Mike but Danny, was in big trouble: ‘e was lookin’ for someone to be his cheese (wife).


Because ‘e ‘ad two ov ‘em on a string, he needed to some divine intervention and make a decision, so ‘e wen’ up to ve church to find out from the Big Guy ‘oo it was gunna be.


The choice was ‘ard: Maria was a lovely lass with dark hair and big shiny eyes and Lorraine was a pert little blond wif a smile that’d knock ya teef art. The thought of makin’ a choice kept poor Danny awake at night. It was real ‘ard.


By luck ‘e survived an’ farned ‘isself in a church. It must’ve been a Roman Caflick Church ‘e went to because as soon as ‘e walked froo d’ door, ‘e knoo what ve answer was because vere, written in big letters ri’e over ve ortar were ve words Ave Maria. Danny and his Maria lived happily ever after.


For centuries, the words Ave Maria have brought peace to countless thousands of people, even if they aren’t or weren’t religious. They’ve honoured the gentleness of tender-hearted motherhood. They’ve brought tears of joy and inspired singers and musicians with their comfort.


These words (they’re actually the Latin version of a Hebrew greeting) are part of an interchange between Gabriel and the young Mary regarding her life, now and in the future. Her response to the angelic declaration was to sing.


In difficult times, when school shootings, financial crises, increasing violence and crime threaten to take their voice away, humans often turn to singing. It is a powerful thing to do under duress.


In the Gospel Reading today, our church is reminding us of the power of song. And not just any song like “My Favourite Things” but a song of both lament and praise, of promise and defiance, a song into which that first singer entered and now calls on us to join.


That song, Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, is an invitation for us to enter the promises to which she gives voice: the promise that God will lift up the lonely, the down-trodden and oppressed, not simply those of her day but of ours as well.


This week, let’s note that all the verbs Mary uses are in the past tense, indicating a relationship between her and her God, one into which she has already been drawn; a song to One who has been siding with the oppressed and who has been making and keeping promises since about Day 6.


As the words of this mighty song come to life for us in worship, in prayer, or simply in quiet reflection, we’ll find we are being drawn into taking them up on behalf of those whose loved ones won’t be coming home from school or hospital on this or any other day; on behalf of all who mourn, or who are lonely, or who don’t have enough food, or who struggle with mental illness, or so much more.


Mary’s song just doesn’t name these things; it gets us to sing them. It gets us to sing about a reality and an experience that is, at once, as profound as it is simple: that God’s promise is to change the world. In singing this – either aloud or in the deeper recesses of our spirit – we actually get to be part of that work.


Maybe it’s enough just to taste the words that encourage us to do good to the poor and weak. There’s no sin in that. But maybe there’s a bigger picture out there, a picture whose panorama stretches from Adam, Abraham and Moses through Mary and on to us, encompassing a company of saints who are to raise their voices in hope as they wait for the Lord’s comfort and peace to come.


We might think that our voices are husky, or out of tune or so quiet that they’re next to useless, but there’s strength in numbers. We are the body of Christ.


As we join together and sing, we’ll discover that we get stronger and that we begin to enter the oft-spoken but rarely lived reality of faith, courage and love.


No longer is it me against the world but together we’re witnesses of and participants in The Big Fella’s promise to change the world.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Luke 3.7-18 - Waiting


This year, 2012, has become something of a watershed year for me, not because I celebrated a momentous birthday (I didn’t) or because I don’t move across the ground as fast as I once did (I don’t). No, it was none of that.


The watershed is centred on the loss of what, for me, is the connection between God and the rest of society. Maybe T.S. Eliot was onto something when, in 1934, he wrote that ‘…The church does not seem to be wanted/In country or in suburb; and in the town/Only for important weddings’.


I think I’m still reeling from the awareness of an almost complete absence of Christmas paraphernalia like cribs, angels, shepherds and the like in our shops and halls of commerce. In homes, yes; in churches, no doubt, but at the shop? Nah. The time, it seems, has finally come.


To think that I am not wanted, or the group that I’ve become attached to is not wanted in the community ‘except for important weddings’ is enough to send me into a Decline from which I struggle to extricate myself.


It’s not just about Christmas is it? Eliot was taking a broadside at something more general than simply the Christmas season. He was addressing a whole-of-life decline, from X-mas and Jesus-is-The-Reason-for-The-Season to Happy Days and beyond.


Who really cares about Advent or Easter or Whitsunday or Epiphany or Saints Days except some we call Christians and not even all of them?


To deal with this broadside, we do all kinds of spiritual tumble-turns just to appeal to the community from what remains of their Christian collective memory. Some of these appeals deserve a place in the Ship of Fools website (check it out -( Some have done so already, some of them not.


So we come to Advent. I can put up with the 24 Day Advent Calendar (or is it 26?) where each day proffers a new treat, a chocolate or a whiz-bang thingummy. I can enjoy Christingle. I can even handle the 12 Days of Christmas Street Art website, even when they’re only offering 11.


What I find a bit awkward, though, is finding either no understanding of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, as I did recently, or experiencing an exercise in what is called the ‘modern Advent’ of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy, complete with mauve and pink candles and an Advent wreath.


Leaving aside the candles, the four modern themes are important but to use them as an excuse for not raising the topics of the Other Four is a lame one, especially when we’re doing it because we believe these Other Four are too tough a call for modern wo/man to hear about.


What do we do? Retreat into our funk-holes and throw up walls that will keep us safe and everyone else outside? Probably not but it’s a tricky one.


I can put up with the offences that come my way simply because I live in a post-Christian community. I shouldn’t expect any concessions from our secular leaders, whether it’s Christmas stuff in our shops, RE in schools or discounts because I work for the Church.


I haven’t been invited to a Mayor’s Civic Reception for decades, which is not a bad thing. I’m told I’m not missing much. However, if for some reason these things come my way, things like access to schools or invitations to a mayoral knees-up, well and good, but I don’t seek them out as a matter of course.


The question still remains: What should we do? In today’s Gospel, the crowds asked John and John obliges with some specifics: check out your wardrobe and the people who come to your place for dinner; check out your bank account(s) and the people you pass on the street; check out God’s call on your life.


Here’s a clue: even if we don’t do anything about the answers John gives, the question is a good one. Simply by asking it, we are not only letting God inside to where his Good News lives, we are continuing the whole idea of Advent: waiting.


Losing hair or sleep or watching my blood pressure rise because it ain’t what it used to be is never an option. It’s not about being wanted. It’s about waiting.


Getting stroppy because these or those Christians do Advent differently isn’t where it’s at, either. It’s not about being wanted. It’s about waiting.


I often wonder how I made it this far. Maybe I’ll hang about and wait next year, too.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Luke 3.1-6 – Inns & Outsiders

An old theatre, full of badly upholstered seats, dust and the smell of generations of sweaty North Queenslanders is not the sort of place you’d expect to get a fright.

It was only when the house lights were replaced by the dim glow of the EXIT signs and the last of the conversations had ebbed away that I began to be filled with anticipation. Like everyone else, my focus was towards the stage.

Then a single spotlight shone over our heads like a bolt of lightening and a voice from outside, from the darkness at the rear, pierced the fetid air: ‘Pre-e-e-pare ye the way of the Lord’ it sang. Loud. Clear.

We were forced to sit upright. Our eyes and ears were straining backwards. Our heart speed tripled. These physical things were still to catch up with our emotions. Raw. Shock. Fear. We knew we were in for the ride of our life.

In this place, at least, there were none that we could recognise as being special: community leaders, knights of the realm (when we still had a few), medicos, the odd sky-pilot, you know. We’d all paid our money and we were all together. Leaderless.

As it was in the theatre, so it is in today’s Gospel. The word came from outside, bypassed all the powerful ones – the Herods, the Caesars, the Pilates, the Lysanias’, the sites of power and influence – and came right here, bypassing the antiseptic surrounds of a home to arrive in a shed.

It’s the way it is in Luke. Ch 1 of the Gospel is set ‘in the days of King Herod …’ and tells us about the birth of John the Baptist. In Ch 2 the setting is ‘… in the days of the Emperor Augustus …’ and that other guy, Quirinius, and tells us about Jesus’ birth. Now, in Chapter 3, Luke sets the story in more history ‘…in the fifteenth year …’ and gives us John’s message.

Three times Luke has bypassed the toffs and nobs of the world. Three times Luke has chosen to place these events – at one level, about as small and insignificant as one can imagine – right alongside the movers and shakers of the day.

Three times Luke has illustrated that God’s mercy comes from outside the usual places disguised as human weakness; it bypasses everyone we’d normally expect to be there and, along the way, it introduces us to a couple of young blokes who will grow up to change the world.

For Luke, small is beautiful, especially when it can grow bigger. There’s something later on in Luke about mustard seeds, so I’m beginning to think that it’s a bit of a theme in his writing.

Whatever else you can say, though, it’s a change of focus. This God-word came to a no-body called John, in a no-where place called the wilderness and, yet, this small and insignificant thing is more important than all the important people and events of the day.

It is still the same. Not just to the nobodies gathered in a dilapidated theatre in tropical NQ during the flower-power revolution but to the nobodies in our congregations and in the no-where places of our unremarkable suburbs and communities.

There’s more. If something is coming to, chances are it’s also coming against, against the political, religious and economic principalities and powers of the Emperors, Rulers, Governors and High Priests of our day.

Against these powers of empire stands an odd little guy called John and his somewhat more respectable cousin Jesus.

Against these powers of empire stands a word that promises to fill valleys, level mountains, straighten crooked paths and smooth out the rough bits.

Despite that, as Fr Thomas Merton* reminds us in Raids of the Unspeakable, there is still no room for the Good News: we are being drowned out by the noise of our obsessions with technology, with what the Government is doing with our taxes while, all the time, being drugged by entertainment.

Some things don’t change: those who are outside the Inns of power still can’t find any room inside. It’s no mistake that Luke is making the point that the Good News is for the drowned-out, the crowded-out, the missed-out, the worn-out and the left-out.

We can get tired of waiting for the changes to come but even those things that are difficult now will become, like many of the other things, a distant memory, footnotes on a larger story of grace and mercy and life.

*Thomas Merton, Trappist monk who died in 1968

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Reflections from The Hill – More – John 18.33-37


In some parts of the world, the Christmas season begins on the Friday after the fourth Thursday in November, a fairly complex formula, not unlike some Church Notices. Because this day is always a Friday, it’s called “Black Friday”. I’m told it’s the day when the real business of Christmas – shopping – commences.


Now, look, I know you’re thinking that I’ve really lost the plot and that all that time away from my desk has done me no good. Maybe you’re right, but I’m here to tell you that somewhere in our life hides a gremlin, a gremlin called ‘More’.


More is the one who has convinced us that if we don’t spend up on things – usually things that no-one else seems to want – then Christmas isn’t, well, Christmas. (Just as aside, My Beloved and I give Gift Cards these days. It’s our way of being relieved of at least one layer of guilt.)


The overall effect of this gremlin’s work is that Advent has disappeared, except in the minds of a few religious and/or musical aficionados, and Christmas has degenerated into a spending spree where one can’t buy a Mary, Joseph & the Baby, even for ready money. Knickers and jewellery are another story.


We’d like, nay, love to be able to be counter-cultural and not cave in to the Shop-Till-You-Drop Syndrome. Yet More is such a powerful gremlin that we find it almost impossible to walk away.


Many of us are sickened by the commercialisation of Christmas, probably most of this readership. The paradox is that, somehow, we still seem to get caught up in its clutches.


We are so captivated by the notion that things really do make us happy that we either want More or get angry that we can’t. It’s a bit like playing with a Rubik’s Cube: there’s no solution for us mortals. There are some, however, who do have the information but they’re not telling.


Then there’s the surprise waiting for us in the Gospel today. That surprise is that, for the past few weeks, we’ve been walking the road to Jerusalem with Mark and, all of a sudden, we get catapulted into The Man’s Trial before Pilate, stuff that usually belongs to Holy Week.


It’s an interesting shift because what we read about is a pathetic Pilate caught in the vortex of indecision, between expediency and being right; not being able to make up his mind but scurrying backwards and forwards seven times between the Accusers and the Accused. (There’s a sermon right there for those who are into the subject of numbers in John, by the way.)


Faced with the dilemma, Pilate caves in to the pressure, chooses the easy option and denies the truth that’s staring him in the face. And that’s not a whole lot different from us being caught in the Shop-As-You-Drop-Syndrome. We’ll take expediency pretty much every time. It’s called ‘keeping everyone happy’.


There is a difference, however, between Pilate and us and that’s got to do with how we react to The Man’s Promise. Pilate chose not to listen to him when he said “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” At the very least, we now have the possibility of being different.


The words of the song “Come to the Father” come to mind: Nothing you can do could make Him love you more and nothing that you've done could make Him close the door. Because of His great love He gave His only Son, everything was done so you would come.


Simple, profound, compelling words, yet so very difficult to hear. The noise from the voices in our culture that scream at us, telling us that our worth comes from our possessions threatens to drown out the simple message that God has already called us worthy. That’s grace. We can so easily be deaf to its call.


It’s not stockings full of gifts that are the problem. David Lose says that it’s actually the “relentless insecurity that drives us to believe that we don’t have, and are not, enough” that’s where the struggle is.


We don’t want to have less but we should have more: more peace, more joy, more contentment, a more profound sense of belonging and a clearer idea of just how precious we are to God, the giver of all good things.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Reflections from The Hill – A Slice of the Action. Mark 10:35-45

You will never know how I loathed those pick-up footy games we played in the park as children. Waiting to get picked was bad: standing, first on one foot then another, arms folded, head bowed with eyes and heart downcast, knowing that it was useless punching the air to attract attention. Invariably, I was picked last.

Getting the good ones first has been a behaviour for many a century. Think about The Man’s Followers. They’d turned up to play and they thought they were ready but they seemed to have had trouble getting their heads around what the game was. Obviously, suffering and death weren’t on their agenda.

After all, a piece of real estate next to The Man would be pretty special, wouldn’t it? (We people of the twenty-first century know they really didn’t have a clue about what The Man was talking about. As for the ‘cup of suffering’, well, who knows what they were thinking.)

One thing’s for sure. The Man knew which way was up and, yes, they were going to be given what they desired but it wasn’t going to be quite what they had in mind. There was to be no glory or very much honour for them as it happened.

Each of us has been there, one way or another. Each of us has experienced being passed over for something, by a parent, a school teacher, a boss, even a friend. It’s easy to identify with what was going on in the minds of the other disciples as they listened to the little chat between the Three Js (James, John and Jesus).

Were they indignant? The Book says so. Were they miffed and probably jealous? I’d be surprised if they weren’t. Did the emotional temperature rise somewhat? Go figure.

It’s at this point that The Man, as he has done before, shifts the goal-posts. The real nature of leadership in this outfit, he says, hasn’t anything to do with real estate or who their ancestors were.

In fact, the idea of a servant-leader is quite counter-cultural. Even our European version is only a mild form of the “Big Man” Syndrome beloved by many, so any suggestion that the ‘Big Man’ would be a servant is a scary proposition.

It’d be enough to keep cardiologists in business for decades, such would be the amount of hypertension.

This model that The Man is espousing is a far cry from what The Team expected. They weren’t expecting to suffer and die but that’s where they were heading. They expected The Man to run with the leadership thing, to be made into Big Men themselves. What they weren’t prepared for was servanthood.

God’s people are not spared the pains of living in a foreign land, in a world not our own. To lead in Jesus’ way, means to follow and serve, and it may even mean to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Discipleship and suffering go together.

Unless I’ve missed something, we’re not much into suffering these days. Rather the opposite is true: we all want to live pain-free, happy, lives but, thanks to the magic of television, we can now watch and hear others do it for us and we say “Oh dear.”

Of course, we can send money to sponsor a child or to support a missionary without risking sickness or disease or our own safety just by being at home, in our own lounge room.

Of course, we can do what we can to spare our own children hardship and suffering, and can exercise our freedom of choice and do it our way and have it thought of as a Good Thing.

What ever happened to The Man’s invitation for us to join the Suffer Club? Isn’t that what he was on about when he talked about a radical discipleship?

Isn’t following him and being part of God’s Reign now opening our selves to the realities of this beautiful, broken world? No one will get out of this life alive; suffering is simply part of the fabric.

Being in the Suffer Club means to discover that there is beauty, joy, and hope in serving others. As we use our membership of that Club and share the suffering of others, we learn what it means to be fully dependent on The Man.

Getting a slice of the action in the Suffer Club means getting in touch with others across time and place who bear the name of Christ. It’s a big club, with a vast table and good company, where there’s always room for one more. Sure beats waiting to get picked.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Reflections from The Hill – A Person Like Us – Mark 10.17-27

There’s a story in the folk-lore of this Diocese about a priest who spent much of his time wandering the streets of his town, saying hello and chatting to those he knew (who were a large number) but saying hello and asking “Which church do you stay away from?” of those he didn’t.

As I recall the story, this method of pastoral visitation had some interesting side-effects, not the least of which was a community that had a low view of the church. I’m not sure you could ask the same question with impunity today. You’d probably get a thick lip more likely.

The action of this well-meaning but inept sky-pilot raises questions of what people should expect from coming to church or, more specifically today, from meeting clergy.

I know why I come to church. I know why I love to preach. I know why I love writing Reflections each week. All this and more helps me to meet Jesus.

I would like to think that this is also true for you. I would like to think that the real reason why you get out of bed on the one day in the week where you could justifiably lie in and read the Sunday papers is that you want to meet Jesus, too.

So here we are today reading a story from Mark’s Gospel about a bloke who met Jesus. I have no doubt that he was a real individual but, in the sense that I’ve been talking, he could easily be a representative ‘man’ without detracting from the story.

This man stands in front of Jesus, representing all of us. He wants a serious answer to a serious question about eternity. In his answer, Jesus turns the question into a reminder about discipleship.

Down the sands of time, many others have done the same. Some who were standing there listening to the interchange between Jesus and the man had given up everything and followed Jesus. It wasn’t an easy road for them. Often, it was a perilous road of misunderstandings and risks.

As they watched and listened, the latest one to meet Jesus was having his turn.

“Yeah, well, I’ve done all that and got the tee-shirt,” the man says. “Haven’t you got anything else? Why do you keep going around the same round-about?”

“Mate, that’s all I’ve got,” said Jesus, “I keep telling you because it’s important. That’s what eternal life’s about: it’s about doing the right thing and following me. The way to eternity is through discipleship.”

Did you get that? In answering his question about eternal life, Jesus invites him to “Come, follow me.” It’s almost left-field stuff, eh.

For the man, the cost was too great; the price was not right. He ‘went away grieving’, slumped shoulders leading his way, his bottom lip so low that it threatened to trip him.

This Reading is the only story of someone refusing to follow Jesus in the whole of the New Testament. Think about it: here’s a person-like-us being invited to be a Jesus-follower and, this person-like-us walks off in the opposite direction. It’s newsworthy, if nothing else.

I can understand him. I even have some sympathy for him. And there is a part of me that wants to chase after him, to change the rules to fit his case and make him a new offer. “I didn’t really mean that,” I’d blurt.

Jesus doesn’t do that. He steadfastly stands his ground and watches the man walk off into the sunset. That’d take some, er, guts, I reckon. Right here, Mark reminds us that there are good, understandable and reasonable reasons for not following Jesus.

How so? It seems to me that Jesus is too often presented as the solution to all our problems. But this Gospel reminds us that Jesus is sometimes only the beginning of a life we would never have had if we had not met Jesus.

Sometimes I think we have made discipleship such a small, trivial thing, that it makes disbelief look dumb. Today, we’re being reminded to fix that and to put it right.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Beyond The Boundaries. (Mark 10.2-16)

In one of my previous incarnations as the priest in a country parish, I encountered a lady who was too angry to come to church because she believed we “preached against adultery all the time.”


She spoke, not only with fire, but with a fair bit of hyperbole: I don’t recall ever preaching against adultery. Not once. The so-called hard sayings of Jesus aren’t my most productive source of preaching or encouragement.


Maybe we ought to rename them. Something like “painful” or “agonising” might be a better description than bland old “hard”. In any case, today’s Gospel raises the Jesus Cringe Factor by a whopping 200% with these Painful Sayings. We avoid them at our peril, even so.


My guess is that the number of church people for whom this Reading touches a sore spot could be quite large. With the increase in divorce rates, the days of long, monogamous, marriages are becoming an oddity both in the church and in the community.


In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear of men and women, as church members, who find this passage a bit like having a garbage bin emptied on their heads.


I’ve got to hand it to Mark, though. He has an extraordinary ability to make the place where Jesus happens to be, carry a meaning about Jesus’ purpose. Here, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem but takes a detour through Judea and the region beyond the Jordan.


That’s simple enough as a piece of geography. What Mark does with it is to use that setting to tell us something about boundaries.


Jesus is now in a place, physically and emotionally, where the status quo can be challenged and the proclamation of God’s mercy can be directed to everyone, not just to a specific few.


In a world where wives could be divorced for burning their husband’s toast, what Jesus has to say about divorce is really important. I kid you not about the toast. Leave aside the adultery, which is an issue, just continually messing things up for the husband was enough for him to get out his ‘Divorce Her’ pen and paper.


The result was devastating for the wife. She was shamed. She was disgraced. Economic hardship was her best future; prospects of any future for her children were, at best, limited. This is 8-ball country and it’s no place for a woman.

It was a man’s world even then, but Jesus wasn’t about to stigmatise divorcees. He was about to provide a new basis for the care and protection of those vulnerable ones.


Talk about riding outside the fences. Is it any wonder the authorities killed him.


The thing that intrigues me, though, is the way Jesus turns the question about divorce on its head, moving away from the legal interpretation to the relational. He’s elevating, maybe even restoring, marriage to its right place.


For the most part, marriage in history was not about romance or fulfilment, as it is today; rather, it was viewed as a legal contract, the lawful exchange of property, of which the wife was but one piece.


By taking that view by the horns, so to speak, and giving it a good hip-toss, Jesus takes us back to the start, to God’s Big Idea, and provides some safeguards on the way.


All this takes place while Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. This takes him beyond the usual boundaries in order for him to bring the Good News to everyone. When Jesus gets to Jerusalem, he himself will be taken beyond the boundaries of the city to be hung on a cross in the middle of a garbage heap.


As David Lose remarked, “All this he endures in order to witness to God's abundant mercy, steadfast love, and amazing grace for all people, …” divorcee or not.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Innies and Outties – Mark 9.38-50

Each of us has one (or the other). We share having it and it connects us, past, present and future with the whole of humanity. It crosses racial, ethnic, cultural, physical, age and gender boundaries.

I’m not talking about navels, although I could. I’m actually addressing the issue of another thing that has the same ubiquitous power to connect us, and that’s our ability to draw boundaries.

No matter who we are or where we live or what school we went to or what our job is or what colour our hair, eyes or skin happens to be, we humans have this in common: we have an extraordinary ability to create two groups of people, usually labelled Us (or me) and Them.

We see the results of this ability whenever Grand Final footy is played, or a boat load of refugees appears near Java, or a person makes a video belittling someone else’s faith, or a host of other circumstances.

As I say, it doesn’t take much for us to draw boundaries. The results of boundary-drawing are neither particularly pleasing to the eye or to the emotions, except if the Bulldogs beat the Storm this weekend.

What’s worse is the accompanying desire we have to let someone else sort out the difficulties: for some bureaucracy to come in and enforce conformity to manage our anxieties.

In the Gospel for this week, Jesus gets confronted with this line drawing, Innie v Outtie, battle. His disciples were getting twitchy; they want him to stop another bloke from casting out demons in his name because (horror of horrors) he wasn’t one of them.

I am not surprised that Jesus didn’t buy into this. It doesn’t surprise me that He goes on to point out that anyone who does a good work in his name will have a hard job doing anything against his name in the future.

It’s almost as if we are hard-wired to make lines, whether they’re racial, ethnic, linguistic, political, sexual, physical or religious. Truth is, religious lines are particularly well drawn and so simple.

As I contemplate this Gospel passage, I wonder whether it could shape or re-shape how we might think about those who see God differently from us, if they see him at all.

While we know that the unnamed exorcist was acting in Jesus’ name, what we don’t know is whether that makes him/her a follower of Jesus, a wanna-be disciple or just someone on the make.

What we do know is that he’s scaring the disciples witless and they want to shut him down but can’t.

It’s right here that Jesus does one of his Let-me-turn-the-tables-on-you tricks. He gives his boys a little warning about stumbling blocks and the dangers they pose for people on the move.

Now I really am in a dilemma. I’m now asking myself: Is it my zeal for God or is it my xenophobia that is putting a stumbling block in front of people, drawing a line between me and those who have another faith, or none? Which one is it that makes it harder for them to see and know the great love of God-in-Christ, my faith or my fear?

A few years ago, people wore rubber bangles on their wrists with WWJD? written on them (we still see a few here in NQ, such is our penchant for things of antiquity). The question posed on them (What Would Jesus Do) was built on the assumption that there was something that Jesus did that is always useful to know.

What he did, of course, was to say that his followers were not to prevent doing good stuff for people, even if they weren’t an Innie. There are no boundary lines when it comes to caring.

He told us very forcibly that we were to help others even if we didn’t know what they believed. We’re not to put a stumbling block in front of anyone who is needy or vulnerable or both, and for us to be at peace.

“Here’s the thing”, said one commentator “every time we draw a line between who's in and who's out, we'll find Jesus on the other side."

As we get more and more pluralistic, multi-cultural, complicated and diverse, the chances of us actually meeting people from other faith families, or none, is increasing exponentially.

The Gospel this week shakes our foundations. Jesus calls us to be at peace with everyone, even those who name God differently or those who aren’t able to name Him at all. It’s a direct result of a No-Innie or Outtie stance.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Looking for the Invisible Mark 9.30-37


Sometimes, I just don’t understand the way the minds of Lectionary compilers work. Maybe this week’s selection was made because we’ve had a bit of a doing this year as far as Transfiguration stories are concerned or, maybe, that’s not the reason at all: maybe I’m just being scratchy today.


In any case, the context of this week’s Gospel actually assists the message of the Transfiguration, so I really don’t know why it’s been omitted. Let me fill you in on a few details.


Jesus knows that it’s a mistake for people to hang onto the experience of Transfiguration. In fact, his coming death and resurrection would give them something even greater than what they would ever experience on the mountain.


Jesus mates just didn’t get that message. They were still hooked up on who was the greatest. Three of them had seen the Glory with their own peepers and they reckoned that this gave them some kind of privileged position, which is a pity because there were another nine blokes, plus the women, to deal with.


When greatness is based on reputation and status, when our sense of self-importance blossoms and divisions begin to appear between people like cracks in the concrete, that’s when a muscular Christian needs to take us aside and explain a few things to us firmly.


It’s not surprising that Jesus takes a child to illustrate his point. OK, so a kid’s not a muscleman but right there, in front of twelve grown men full of their own importance, Jesus clearly announces that greatness isn’t found where they think. It’s found in simple, child-like trust; in inferiority, not superiority.


Jesus treats the child, someone socially invisible, as his own body-double (‘seen but not heard’ was the way I was taught) because he sees something in the child that the people with him don’t even know that’s there.

If we could put this week’s Gospel on a bumper sticker, I reckon something like “Look for the invisible” might be a good start. Start looking for the invisible, not because it’s good to do so, or because we can congratulate ourselves on being the greatest at seeing.

Start looking for the invisible because to receive that invisible one is to receive Jesus, and to receive Jesus is to receive the one who sent him. Learn to entertain strangers: they may well be angels.

Start looking for the invisible. Ancient literature knew this. Like modern fairy tales, the far-past is full of stories where gods and other supernatural beings disguised themselves as human beings, sometimes as the lowest of the low variety, and roamed throughout the world to see how people would treat them.

I don’t believe that it’s accidental that Jesus uses this same model to drive home his point to his listeners (that’s us in case you’re wondering).

We’ll never really know when the next little one will be put in our midst to expound some extraordinary insight. However, our expectations should be sharpened and our inner radar at the ready because we never know when, or where it’s going to come.

The flash might just as easily come from someone at the other end of the age spectrum, as the following story attests.

An eighty-year old Jewish Rabbi, who used to stand daily as thousands came to him for a blessing or for his advice, was asked how he could do it for so long without appearing to be wearied by the experience. His said “When you’re counting diamonds, you don’t get tired.”

While diamonds aren’t invisible, seeing people, and young people at that, as precious pieces of pressurised carbon changes one’s whole outlook. They could just as easily be stones.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Elephants in the Room (Mark 8.27-38)


In a world that seems obsessed with clichés, even if it’s about avoiding them like the plague, I’ve found one that has to do with elephants.


I’ve used it plenty of times myself, so I guess I just hadn’t seen its coming as a cliché, which is the story of my life, really.


The elephant of which I speak is one of those recurring themes of the Christian life. It is, by far, the one that is least talked about, except on rare occasions and is, by far, the one issue that took up most of my time in the counselling work I did once.


I refer, not to those great questions of doctrine or theology nor of what people do in Church on Sundays. It’s sad to report but this elephant needs to be handled with care, mainly because of the way we’ve been raised up.


Either people believe it’s unseemly to think like it or they believe that it comes down to a lack of faith. There’s no middle ground here. Either way, they say, we’re on a slippery slope. It’s not coincidental but that happens to be the very best reason to expose it.


Today, in the Gospel Reading, we get up close and personal with this pachyderm. We note it in Jesus’ question to his A-Team, we note it in his direction not to tell anyone about his Messiahship, we note it when he ticks Peter off for not having the right kind of mind-set.


Our elephant, of course, is called ‘disappointment with God’.


No matter that the A-Team came from a background of Bible knowledge (Lamentations and Psalms, to name two) which deals with disappointment. No matter that they knew that naming disappointments is part of faith’s renewal. No matter that they’re human like us.


Even after the flash of inspiration that caused Big Pete to blurt out that this Bloke, his leader, is the One everyone’s been waiting for and that he couldn’t imagine for a second that the he, the hope of Israel, would be killed in an extremely inglorious way, Pete meets The Elephant.


I’m perpetually amazed that he didn’t seem to hear Jesus say all that stuff about resurrection, but maybe I’ve missed something.


There are many people like Big Pete who worship regularly, who pay their tithe, who pray and read the bible yet who find it hard going when The Big Fella seems to smack them in the mouth or it feels as if He’s just gutted them.


There are many people who believe it’s wrong to be disappointed with God, especially after they’ve discovered that their child has been diagnosed with schizophrenia or that their Dream Job has ended in redundancy or when any number of disappointments, even disasters, comes their way.


The Good News is that it’s not wrong to be disappointed with God. I rail often at the thought of this beautiful guy having to suffer the ignominy of the death he died. I am overcome with embarrassment when I think that he hung on that cross buck-naked, with the passing crowd walking and gawking and only some of them averting their eyes.


It’s not wrong, either, to struggle with following this Bloke. It’s OK to be in the compost of life because that’s where the best flowers grow. It’s OK to be dead because that’s where resurrection comes from.


It’s OK to talk about the pain of lining up on Sundays while the Church seems to be going out backwards and is, seemingly, helpless – or ignorant – to stop the rot.

It’s OK to talk about the elephant when people all around seem to not have heard a word about reconciliation but are, rather, intent on revenge and retribution and all we want to do is to send them back to where they came from.

Maybe dealing with elephants in the room goes by another name. Maybe dealing with elephants is actually another word for discipleship.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Freeways and Freedoms (Mark 7.1-23)


Then there’s the one about the guy who was watching the local news one night when a story came on about a car going in the wrong direction on the freeway. The man knew his wife was on the freeway, so he called her. (ed: don’t try this, please).


He said, “Sugar, please be careful; there’s some idiot in a car going the wrong way on the freeway.” She exclaimed, “A car? No dear, not one; there’s hundreds of them”.

One of the reasons that’s funny is that we believe, for most of the time, that we’re absolutely right, no question about it. Those other cars on the freeway (or whatever) are the ones that are in the wrong. It couldn’t possibly be me.

It’s a bit like the old tale I read once that told of a man who fell ill at the mid-point between two villages. This presented a problem: who was going to care for him? The authorities decided that the village to which he was closest would take care of him. Problem solved? Not.


One village maintained that the distance should be measured from the man’s navel; the other village argued that it should be calculated from the man’s mouth so, while the two communities argued over a mouth versus a navel, the guy died.

I sometimes reckon the same kind of thing happens with Churches: it’s more than possible that our understanding of what is good and right and pleasing to the Lord is short-sighted. It’s more than possible that, like the woman driving on the freeway, people can actually be going the wrong way.


Moreover, it’s more than possible that, like the authorities in the two villages arguing about who was closest to the sick man, we can be majoring on the minors while, all the time, people are dying.

The Gospel for today shows Jesus challenging the religious authorities with exactly that conundrum. Remember? When the Pharisees and Scribes saw Jesus’ disciples not wash their hands before they sat down to eat, they went berko. They said, “You aren’t teaching your disciples to honour God like our ancestors did.”


I think this sounds a lot like the argument over mouth v navel measurements, don’t you? People are on a slippery slope to Never-land but don’t actually know it.

Jesus told the Pharisees, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

The Pharisees and Scribes were driving the wrong way on the freeway and they thought that Jesus and the disciples were wrong. They were worried about gobs and navels while people around them perished.


The real tragedy is that those guardians of faith and order (the Scribes and Pharisees) are still alive; their spirit lives on. Whenever we take a matter of grace and turn it into a requirement for the Kingdom of Heaven, we honour God only with our lips.


Whenever our worship becomes a matter of law rather than a matter of grace, we honour God only with our lips. And the real sadness of living a life of bondage to rules and requirements is that Christ actually died to set us free from them.

Worship is not about rules and regulations; it’s not just about liturgies or hymns. It’s not about how well we memorize or read Scripture or whether we’ve taken a 2-year rather than a 2-week Baptism or Confirmation class.

Honouring God is about meeting Him on His terms. Worship is not about doing something for God, but rather receiving a great deal from Him: receiving his forgiveness and trading our sinfulness for his perfect and holy way of life.