Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Reflections from The Hill – God and Maths – Trinity Sunday 2012

The Holy Trinity has been a significant part of my life’s journey: my mum and dad went to church at Holy Trinity, Kelso (NSW); the first Parish I served in as a Deacon was Holy Trinity, Dubbo (NSW); I was Ordained Priest in Holy Trinity, Mackay (QLD); I worked as the Rector of Holy Trinity, Woolloongabba, QLD); and now our Retirement Village address is Trinity Court. Neat, eh.

It’s a pity that the doctrine of the same Holy Trinity doesn’t match the neatness of this roll-out of my life, for you’d have to go on a long day’s hike to find any preacher anywhere for whom this day or subject is a favourite.

Part of the problem, as I’ve already hinted, is the mathematics: three-in-one; one-in-three. How does one figure that? What does it mean? I’ll be a wealthy man if my attempts at doing these sums were remunerated.

Of course, I’ve tried being erudite, especially after I’d read some theologian or other on the subject, but all that’s happened is that I’ve become too smart by far.

Which of you readers, for example, will recall the Trinity Day sermon I preached while wearing three hats: a Stetson: a Beanie and a safety helmet? There are some still alive, I’m told, but memorable? Only for the wrong reasons.

Not only could I not swap these titfers around quickly enough to make the point, the whole thing looked like a circus juggling trick for which I had no skills.

If we’re serious about trying to get our heads and hearts around this theological conundrum called The Trinity, the best and first thing to do is to ditch the maths. It’s simply not going to work.

Instead of trying to do sums that won’t work (that’s a bit like Sudoku in my opinion) maybe it’d be a good idea to turn our focus on The Big Fella himself, onto his character and his nature and see what makes him tick.

Behind all the Trinitarian controversies of the 3rd and 4th centuries, behind all the doctrines, philosophies and convoluted attempts at preaching it to our congregations is a God who disrupts our preconceptions. He came in weakness not power, in shame not glory, in what looked like defeat not victory.

The early Christians figured that if they could be wrong about the coming of the Messiah, there might be other things they could be wrong about, like what they thought about God himself. It’s just so confusing.

Part of the confusion, I think, is aided and abetted by The Night Visitor, dear Nicodemus. He’s a nice bloke but, man, is he mixed up. The fact that he’s a religious leader who came ‘at night’ (the time for confusion and doubt) is enough to set the alarm bells ringing.

Even though Nico recognises Jesus’ teaching authority yet doesn’t understand what that means, he also fails to comprehend what Jesus is on about when he talks about being born from above.

Even when Jesus talks plainly to him about the mystery and the power of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus still asks the “Yes, but how?” question so loved by sermon tasters the world over.

Nicodemus’ confusion rests in two misunderstandings about God: first, he misunderstands what God’s freedom means. God, and those born of God, Jesus says, is more like the wind that blows where it will than like an immovable rock. He is a dynamic God, and his activity is not always as predictable as we would like it to be.

Drawing help and comfort from a capricious God can be a scary option, especially if we fail to recognise Nico’s second misunderstanding about God: that The Big Fella is, above all else, a God of Love.

This is the touchstone of John’s Gospel. We see its inherent power in the world’s most famous Bible verse: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).

It’s staggering to think that, for John, all of Jesus’ work through the Spirit is to save us from our own stupidity and our own overweening penchant for self-destruction.

In fact, if we read to the end of verse 21 and don’t cut the Reading short, says David Lose, we may be horrified or surprised or even pleased to find that God doesn’t seem to have any plans at all for our punishment or rejection.

Rather, the Big Fella desires only our health and salvation. He wants us to have life in all its fullness, both now and in the ages to come.

Surely this is the scandalous love that can be grasped only by the Spirit of God, the restless and dynamic spirit that blows where it will, who helps us to receive the unexpected Messiah and reveals the gracious and loving Father to us.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Names – John 17.9-17
It can be tough living with a name you’ve inherited. Someone else’s reputation can be a millstone or some other inconvenience to you. Children who grow up with famous parents know what I’m talking about.
For example, the famous Aussie cricketer, Don Bradman, had a son called John who, for many years, called himself “John Bradson” because he couldn’t stand the pressure of being known as The Don’s son.
The person doesn’t have to have world-class fame either. If you go to a school where your older brother and sister was dux – or villain – it can be a hard task just establishing your own place. Often, especially in clergy families, knuckles have been known to be helpful.
On the other hand, names can be a bonus. All sorts of doors can be opened or indiscretions overlooked for the son or daughter of a well-known person. Names can count in this world sometimes.
So I ask: what’s in a name? Most of us wear our moniker well but there are some for whom their name is a particular burden. What’s in a name, indeed? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, surely.

Well, no. Sorry Mr Shakespeare, any name will not do, not for people anyway.  No. The essential thing about names is that they are connected to identity. They are about who we are and, in today’s Gospel reading, whose we are. 
Why does Jesus pray that we’ll be connected? Because he wants to have the same identity that God first gave him, that’s why. That puts a different kind of slant on things. Our identity is now tied up in God’s identity.
There are a few parts of God’s identity that we could well do to adopt as our own. The first is Reconciler “Protect them in this name you have given me, so that they might be one, just as you and I are one.”
With the rhetoric of reconciliation off the public discourse since the ‘Sorry Speech’, it’s a bit hard to make connections with practical examples. That’s not a bad thing: there are other examples.
It doesn’t take too much imagination, though, to see Jesus speaking up for the original occupants of this country. You don’t have to read much of what Jesus had to say about the relationships between the possessors and the dispossessed to know where he’d stand on the issue of indigenous versus settler peoples in Oz.
Of course, there’s much more to reconciliation than this; even if we start with the Indigenous issue, there’s a long way to go before all the issues to do with reconciliation are dealt with. 
One-ness and Unity among God’s people is not a pipe-dream or even a vague possibility: it’s part of our identity as Christians and its practice is needed all the time. That’s what being tied up with God means.

There’s more. If we adopt God’s identity as seen in Jesus, we’re committing ourselves to a lot of praying. Jesus continues to represent us to God, praying for our well-being, our protection, our strengthening and equipping for the tasks to which he has called us.
Both on Sundays and in our daily prayer, we begin to live into the identity we have inherited from our great high priest and, as we begin to grow into that identity, our actions begin to grow into our prayers.
That’s what “being part of the answer” means. Otherwise there’s not a lot of sense, or use, in praying for anything. The two (prayer and action) go together, just as surely as a singer needs a song. 
If reconciliation and prayer are two bits of our identity as Christians, by implementing both we discover the real miracle of God-with-us. That is, God, who is always real, becomes tangible when our identity shines. We are the Body of Christ.
The most tangible version of this is seen, not only when we gather together Sunday by Sunday (important as that might be), but when we leave that place to be Jesus in the world.
The name we inherit from Jesus Christ is both our security and our mission. We begin to grow into it in the place where Communion happens, and we carry that identity with us as we go out into every area of our normal, everyday, lives. 
The risen Christ continues to pray for us and, with our faith in him, we join his prayer and we grow into the identity he has given us, for there’s something beautiful about that Name. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Reflections from The Hill – New? – John 15.9-17

There’s something about human experiences that, well, amazes you. Quick impressions are a case in point: apparently, the effects of what we absorb in the blink of an eye, for example, are highly significant.

I read about an experiment that was testing this hypothesis. A group of high school students were given lists of unconnected words, and from those lists, were to pick four words and compose a sentence.

They did this but what the researchers were actually observing was what happened after the test. The students left the room together and moved as a group, walking slowly and lethargically down the hall.

Scattered throughout the rows of words were specific words that related to old-age, words like elderly, aged, senior, senility, and the like. Without knowing it, these adjectives had slipped into their thoughts and the young people waddled away like a mob of geriatric monkeys.

Being a bit of a wordsmith, wondering about the impact of words and thoughts is a matter of life-style for me. Even if those words seem to skim across our brains like flat stones across the water, they can have a significant impact.

In this context, then, the Gospel this week is quite remarkable. Throughout the Reading, John uses the word ‘love’ at least nine times. He’s making the obvious point that to follow Jesus is to enter into a deep and intimate relationship with him and, through him, to the Father.

Without this love, everything disintegrates and falls to the ground. Or, as last Sunday’s Gospel put it, we become like a fruitless vine.

People – and even Jesus himself – call this the “New Commandment” but I ask: what’s new about it?

Is it because it’s different from the love revealed in the Old Testament? That it contrasts with the love described there?

Hardly. The love of neighbours is strongly emphasized in The Law, as is the love of strangers and foreigners. Take a gander at the Book of Leviticus (not the most riveting piece of literature, I admit) and you’ll see this illustrated over and over.

John’s Gospel doesn’t have any contrasts with the Old Testament in mind. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, we get “You heard it said … but I say to you …” but there’s nothing remotely like this in John.

Instead, the command of Jesus to love one another gets quite an airing: we can overlook its impact but it’ll be there, none-the-less. Maybe the reason why it’s new is because it is a command of Jesus, not simply a feeling or just a good idea.

There is a further twist: not only is this love shown as something to be obeyed, it is also an intimate and personal gift from God to us.

It’s as if He’s instructed us to love then, almost in the same breath, given us the wherewithal to actually fulfil that commandment. How good is our God?

It is in Christ that the whole banana is peeled and laid bare and we see love as it is: he loves the unlovable. He loves the insignificant and wayward. He loves those who hate him and those who don’t. What’s more, he meant what he said by giving his life ‘for his friends’ (verse 13) because that’s what is meant by ‘no greater love’.

Of course, this has an effect on everyone, not just the Christians and to that degree, love is universal: it is up for grabs from everyone and is for everyone.

There’s more yet. The love of which Jesus spoke is new because it has been extended to each of us personally by Jesus. He lived in this world; he breathed this air; he knows our joys and satisfactions; he knows our sorrows; he knows our disappointments and defeats.

He invites us into an intimate and deep relationship with him. It is extraordinarily personal because it is offered to each one of us as if we were the only person in the world.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Going Wild (John 15: 1-8)

Don Burke, that doyen of TV Garden Shows (until Costa Georgiadis came along, that is) reckons that the Convolvulus mauritanicus is a good plant for rockeries, ground cover and the like.

Wrong. I reckon this little climber is a nuisance. Its common name is “Bindweed”, which ought to tell us a lot, for starters. Even though it covers itself in a swish purple cloak (the colour for depressives), its profligacy well outstrips its beauty.

On the other hand, the Pyrostegia venusta has got a lot going for it. It’s vigorous, too, but it is spectacularly showy in the early summer. Its common name is “Golden Shower”, a name that says it all. You’ll see examples on fences all over Queensland and beyond, lighting up the world with its golden joy.

Whether or not you plant these two side by side is a matter of wisdom, because what gardeners look for are results. They want to see flowers (or fruit) on their vines and if that doesn’t happen, then out come the secateurs and shovels.

Left to itself, a vine will grow where it wants to or can but critical to its fruitfulness is its trainability. Without the snip and tuck of training, a vine will go pretty much anywhere, more than likely with little produce.

To not put too fine a point on it, it’s the same with us. Take the pruning and the shaping out of the portfolio and all that we’re left with are the dangly bits. Fighting, quarrelling, anxieties never brought in the Kingdom of God, ever.

There’ll be plenty of words spoken this weekend about vines, the True Vine and the Seven “I Ams” from John 15 (where the Gospel Reading is from) but if we miss the connectivity between pruning and growing, we’ve missed the boat.

It ain’t easy to prune, especially when you’ve watered and nurtured and sung to your favourite plant and the results have been eye-popping. I have a couple of potted Ficus and an Ixora coccinea that fit that picture.

The alternative is to consign these little beauties to a miserable future. Aw, they will grow well enough and display their wares but this will not bring any joy to those who cast their eyes on them and will tell the world just how terrible the gardener is.

If the pruning and shaping doesn’t happen, the crop will not yield well. We end up not being a good look, and certainly the world will see an amateur-ish Gardener. Maybe that’s a reason why people aren’t disposed to spiritual things

If we go wild, we will grow willy-nilly, and won’t put much of our energy into producing the fruits of the Kingdom. Following Jesus means being trained, directed and being led to grow in the right way.

Our energies get directed to grow charity, forgiveness, justice, peace and all that and are not to be wasted on quarrelling or petty anxieties.

As we look to the kind of life Jesus call us to, how much of it is spent going wild? And how much are we letting ourselves be trained, guided, by the Master Gardener?