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The parable of the dishonest manager

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation III – Pentecost + 15 –Jer 8 18-91, Ps 79 1-9, 1st Tim 2 1-7, Lk 16 1-13

Children:  There’s a soft toy called Jeremiah the Bullfrog; he’s big, soft, green with spots, a worried look on his face, and he has a rough, croaky voice. I wonder what made them call their frog Jeremiah. Maybe his croaky, grumpy voice made them think of the prophet Jeremiah. People didn’t like how the prophet Jeremiah spoke. We’ll hear from him in a minute, so you can see what you think of him. Jeremiah kept warning his people about the dangerous hot water they were in. He told them that they should stick with God. Otherwise, enemy countries would take them over. Oh, and hot water’s dangerous for frogs; ask anyone.

People don’t like warnings. We don’t like anyone telling us to stop doing what we like. Anyone who does that used to get told to stop being a Jeremiah. That’s how we tried to make them keep quiet. I think poor old Jeremiah the prophet would have liked to keep quiet, because people did terrible things to stop him talking. But God wanted him to keep on warning them, and so he did, no matter how lonely it made him.

That makes me wonder; should we think of Jeremiah the Bullfrog – the soft toy – as someone who warns us. Did you know that the hotter the climate gets, and the more pollution and rubbish we make, some of the first creatures disappearing are frogs? They’re a bit like us; if things get slowly worse – slowly hotter – they don’t notice, so they stay put until it’s too late. They don’t seem able to notice the danger. And soon, they’re gone. They’re like a lot of us people, aren’t they. And we have to listen and change. Anyway, let’s listen to Jeremiah the prophet.

Sermon – Luke 16.1-13:  This story is usually called the parable of the dishonest manager or the unjust steward. It’s a challenging story. After the manager was dismissed, it tells how he secured his future by giving enormous reductions in the rent that local tenant farmers owed his master. The tenants would naturally believe he was doing his master’s bidding – that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. But he’d be credited with engineering this reduction, so he’d always have lots of friends in the village. So the tenants would celebrate the master’s great generosity and also love the manager.

The master would have seen the writing on the wall the moment those falsified accounts were in his hand. If he went down to the village to tell everyone it wasn’t legitimate, his name would be mud. The manager bet that his master wouldn’t risk that; and he was right. It stayed a secret and so the manager got off scot free. A very elegant scheme. So should he be called a dishonest or unjust manager? Let’s see.

In his Earth Bible commentary on Luke, About Earth’s Child pp 214-16 Michael Trainor opens up different dimensions to this story. Michael begins by reminding us that Jesus is telling this parable only to his disciples – to us. Michael reads the parable from the perspective of its near-eastern culture. He also reads it from the perspective of Earth, and with the conviction that the whole Earth Community was given by God – was given equally for all; not just so the powerful could grab it and take control.

Michael reminds us that in that time and culture, when Jesus identifies the land-owner as wealthy … [it] automatically means he’s greedy. In a world of limited economy, he’s achieved his wealth at the expense of the poor, those who, in the parable, are his debtors.

We’re meant to read this from the perspective of the tenant farmers, like the disciples would have. Then we’d see how Luke shows us a manager working out ways to help the wealthy share their possessions with the poor. For the disciples, the manager has acted as an authentic disciple; he’s dispersed wealth for the benefit of all. cf Acts 2.44-46 – also from Luke’s pen

Michael highlights the fact that the commodities owed to the master are Earth products – olive oil and wheat. He also points out that the quantities are huge – 100 measures of olive oil is 3,500 litres, and 100 measures of wheat is two to three acres worth.

These excessive amounts owed to the master illustrate his greed and his attitude to Earth. These fruits are for his own benefit and status; their accumulation deprives others.

In the face of such greed in Middle Eastern eyes, Michael sees this parable presenting the manager as something of a hero for everyone concerned.

His master will be greatly honoured for what the manager has done, so even he commends the manager for his shrewdness. And everyone in the village benefits from their reduced debts. Earth is restored again to rightly being the source of God’s impartial blessing for all.

So the manager appears as the disciple concerned about the harmony of every member … of Earth’s household. For the benefit of all, he redistributes wealth – which is unrighteous mammon – and in terms of this parable he is a model for all disciples to follow.

So what does that mean for us as disciples of Jesus?

The main thing is that we’re called to focus on things from the perspective of the little people, and on the perspective of the Earth.

The little people – hear Jeremiah and all the prophets: ‘For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me.’ Jer 8.21 God is crying to us to do something about the obscene, growing disparity between rich and poor. We – the Church – are big enough to be heard. There’s always a twin strand to this Season of Creation; justice for Earth and justice for the poor. We should not just lie down and accept the catastrophic consequences of unlimited economic growth and unfettered accumulation – it is something which we disciples must challenge.

If Michael’s reading of this parable is to be taken seriously, we are called to actively challenge these evils. Earth is suffering – Earth is abused, insulted, belittled endangered; people, birds, animals, frogs, fish are suffering, abused, insulted, belittled, endangered – by the doctrine of unlimited growth and consumption which is destroying our biosphere.

Our study group is seeking to keep positive during this Season of Creation – to focus on what we can do to improve things; to protect and encourage thriving. Yet Jeremiah reminds us that God also calls for evil to be named and exposed for what it is.

So today, I offer a prose-poem from a modern prophet who has done this, the American poet, Mary Oliver.

 Of The Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver. From her 2008 collection, Red Bird, p. 46. Published by Beacon Press 2008

My prayer is that the worldwide Church can hear this warning – that we can turn and help the world to hear this warning – that we can turn and envision positive change and inspire the world to open up to better ways of being here together.  Amen

A topical book-launch which took place at the Effective Living Centre yesterday

https://www.facebook.com/effectiveliving.org/videos/471604664867688

 

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation II – Pentecost + 14 – Jer 4 11-12, 22-28, Ps 14, 1 Tim 1 1-2, 12-19a, Lk 15 1-10

In her talk on creation care, Pauline helps us see how we can all be careful with things that are precious. Most important is Pauline’s commitment to care for the things that belong to everyone, like water, clean air and food. Because if we treat them badly, or if we’re just not careful enough about them, everyone gets hurt.

In the reading we heard from Jeremiah, we get a shocking picture of just how dreadful the hurt can be if we don’t take care; particularly when we don’t think of God’s poor. v. 11 Jeremiah says it’s God’s poor who will be in the greatest danger. Anyone who exposes God’s poor to such danger is described as foolish, stupid and without understanding. v.22

The dangers Jeremiah describes have uncanny similarities to the horrors that are afflicting the vulnerable around the world right now. Hot winds vv. 11-12, disappearing wildlife and entire populations leaving, v.25 desertification, v. 26 and the heavens turning black. v. 28 His choice of words – Earth being waste and void v. 23 – is what Creation was before God’s Word called forth light and life. Gen 1.2 Jeremiah is describing ‘de-creation.’  v. 27a The other time de-creation was described in Scripture was Noah’s flood. Gen 7.11

Maybe the fact of this warning coming from an acknowledged prophet rather than from today’s studiously ignored body of climate and environmental science might be able to get humanity engaged more deeply. Maybe Jeremiah’s direct language about foolish stupidity can spur the action we all must take to care for Earth and for God’s poor.

I’m grateful to Pauline for reminding us of a time before we became so insulated from the realities of daily life; a time where we lived in a world where we all had to be careful just to get by; where we all had to look out for each other just to survive; a place of deeper and more truly connected community. Europe looks to be facing the challenge to recover this in the coming winter.

These very important reminders take us into the same place that Jesus’ parables do – the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I find hope in the interpretation Brother Benedict Ayodi gives them. He’s a Capuchin Franciscan friar from Kenya. He writes about these parables in a joyous way that I find inspiring. And because he has taken a vow of poverty and joined a community, for me, his words carry great integrity. He says,

The two parables tell us that God loves us equally and will not rest if only one sheep is missing nor one coin is lost. … Parables always teach us about ourselves. The lost sheep is helpless and vulnerable; it needs the flock and the shepherd to protect and guide it. Just so, every person is created to find meaning and fulfilment in communion with God, and others – thus the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbour. The lost coin is completely without value unless it is possessed by its owner. Likewise, each of us has a mission in life, a purpose and a task, but its proper place is within Christ’s Kingdom. These are wise words.

Further thoughts from Br Benedict can be found at https://preachingforgodsworld.org/season-of-creation-week-2-14th-sunday-after-pentecost/

So today, we’ve heard Pauline telling us about the nuts and bolts of her take on creation care. Then we’ve heard Jeremiah warning us about the absolute dangers of injustice – of selfishness. And we’ve heard Jesus answer the cruelty of an apartheid world of insiders and outsiders; of haves and have-nots in his parables. Jesus confronted this head on with God’s love for every last one of us – especially for the poor and the least and the ones who have strayed or been excluded or lost. God is willing to risk everything to retrieve these lost ones.

Br Benedict says this ‘… expresses a crucial truth. Giving something up for something less significant is a feature of heavenly power rather than human possessiveness.

We are called to learn to be more like God, to form a community which cherishes all creatures as God does; to leave our own importance behind and enter into the wonder of God’s love for each and every part of Creation.

This call challenges us to see that the self-deprecation which can honour God’s cherishing of the smallest and most needy is intrinsic to justice in the world.

Such humility is needed for proper care of the Earth that is God’s gift to all. The Church community – some 2.38 billion of us – is capable of bringing this lovely way of God to a world that is daily more desperately in need of justice, peace and faithfulness. And today, we have been shown practical ways in which we can each join in this mission. Amen

Being clay in the hands of a Divine Potter

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation 1 – Pentecost+13 – Jer 18 1-11, Ps 139 1-5 & 12 – 18, Phlm 1-25, Lk 14 25-35

(Background: In 1989 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Dimitros I proclaimed September 1 as the Orthodox Day of Prayer for Creation. Here in Adelaide, we began to mark the Season of Creation around 2000, from that September 1 day of prayer until October 4, the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. A group based here and led by Prof Norm Habel created and trialled new liturgies and a special lectionary across churches of various denominations around Australia and internationally. This group also founded the scholarly Earth Bible Project, whose writers seek to read and interpret Scripture from the perspective of Earth’s own voice.

The Season of Creation caught on very rapidly here and overseas, and in 2008, the World Council of Churches invited all churches to observe the Season through prayer and action. In 2015 Pope Francis made the Season of Creation official for the Roman Catholic Church. The Season is now resourced by an international Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant advisory committee (which still includes Norm Habel). The resources they’re developing are wonderful.

The committee has given this year’s Season of Creation the theme Listen to the Voice of Creation which is very much in continuity with its co-beginnings with the Earth Bible Project.)

In my weekly, I described the development of the Season of Creation from its beginnings about thirty years ago. While I was writing it, I was suddenly struck by the pace and the magnitude of the change it represents. Can you believe this of the Roman Catholic Church, the Worldwide Anglican and Lutheran Churches not to mention so many others? We’ve put another season into the church’s year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Creation, and Kingdom. In the Church where change is normally measured in 500-yearly increments, this has all happened – and happened ecumenically – in a mere three decades.

I find this very exciting. Last week, I talked about the worldwide Church as the only organisation big enough to tackle the world’s refugee crisis – but in the back of my mind, I had a niggling worry that getting something like that going ecumenically could be really hard. But today, look, we’re embarking on an official church season which didn’t exist twenty-five years ago. And a significant impetus for its beginnings happened in Adelaide. A small group of visionary people here decided to challenge the way we’ve read scripture throughout the industrial revolution – to challenge the distorted theology which permitted the exploitation and trashing of God’s good Earth.

I’m glad to know we can change so dramatically for the better, because when I look at the readings set for today, they demand radical change. As God’s Church, we must always be open to criticism; we must always be prepared to change dramatically; to turn from wrong ways so that in God’s hands, we might be effective instruments of divine blessing for the world. We whom the Psalm depicts as woven from the dust of the Earth, we are called by Jeremiah to open ourselves to being clay in the hands of the divine potter, open to being reshaped by God into vessels of living water.

That call to dramatic change shows us a practical face in Paul’s letter to his friend, Philemon. Paul is in prison and Onesimus, a runaway slave of his friend comes to him. Why, we don’t know. There, Onesimus becomes a Christian, and Paul sends him back to his master, Philemon, but not for the customary punishment. Onesimus carries this letter from Paul to Philemon which asks him to set his runaway slave free.

Paul wants Onesimus to work as one of his missionaries.

What Paul is asking Philemon is huge; he’s asking him to set aside the conventional social expectation of severe punishment and instead, set his runaway slave free. Slavery was seen for millennia to be as much an economic necessity as economic growth is today. Imagine suggesting we challenge the doctrine of economic growth!

Dramatic change is very threatening, but it’s actually the stuff of life. When we stop changing, it’s a sign that life has stopped. But what more dramatic change could we be challenged with than Jesus’ demands in today’s gospel – hate your family; hate life; give up all your possessions. All the commentators agree that Jesus is using a form of hyperbole which was common among Rabbis of the time; make your point in a way that’s so completely over the top that you’ll get something close to the response you want from your listeners. They couldn’t say he was being serious, could they?

Yet Jesus left his family behind for his mission; Jesus gave his life for the world; Jesus emptied himself of his possessions – his divine power and glory to be one of us. His birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection tell us his followers that profound change – leaving all our former assumptions about our priorities behind – profound change is not only possible, but a necessary prerequisite for followers of Jesus if God’s mission – God’s will – is to be done.

So what are we up against?

The Rev’d Dr Rachel Mash is Provincial Canon for the Environment in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. She helps us understand the change required for this world when she quotes Gus Speth, a US scientist and formerly an environmental advisor to the Clinton administration.

He says: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

‘For such a spiritual transformation to take place’, says Dr Mash, ‘we need to awaken the sleeping giant that is faith communities. And the Season of Creation is one of the ways to do just that with faith communities.’

Dramatic change is needed, and we’ve shown already that across the worldwide Church, dramatic change is possible. So, let’s get on board with this Season of Creation.   Amen.

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Web links provided by Heather in her address to the congregation about restorative work in the Adelaide parklands.

Bush For Life – Trees for Life

Louise Flaherty past projects and plant carers

Bessie-Davidson Gallery

Aboriginal cultural burning

Turn from exclusive hierarchies and welcome outsiders

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 12 C Heb 13 1-8, 15-16 and Lk 14 1, 7-14

Hossein’s Story

Some of our refugee friends, when released from Inverbrackie, were put in a different suburb from other family members. Two of their adult boys went to live near Marion but the rest of the family was placed in Elizabeth. Hossein, the Dad, told me how, after visiting the boys, he and Mum and their daughter had their first hair-raising experience of taking public transport to get home on their own. They got off the Elizabeth bus one stop too early, and they had no idea where they were.

But at the bus stop, Hossein told me there was a poor man. He saw they were in trouble and offered to help them. He guided them to their home. Hossein is sure this man was Jesus. He reminded me of a Bible study we’d done at Inverbrackie where we’d read that sometimes you might meet an angel or Jesus without knowing it. Hossein had remembered that Bible study.

Their daughter told me later that the poor man was Aboriginal. I smile to think that a member of the first people in this country was the one who guided some of the most recent people in this country safely to their home, here.

Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honour at the table. Lk 14.7 Jesus gives us today’s parable because he sees people trying to grab honour. The Mediterranean honour/shame system is something we have to know about if we are to make sense of this parable of Jesus. (Kids in the Servis-Taxi story if time permit)

In Mediterranean society, the greatest treasure of all is honour. (Patron / client, honour / shame, limited goods exchange system) A host has lots of honour and guests receive some of that honour by being invited to the meal. But any guest who can make it look like their relationship with the host is closer than other people’s, they’ll leave that meal with a tiny bit more apparent honour than the other guests. That’s what Jesus saw people trying to do – take more honourable seats than they should have. In our culture, we’d say they’re like social climbers, climbing over other people to get to the top.

Jesus watched this little game being acted out, and in that wonderfully embarrassing way of his, he did what a guest should never do if he wanted another invitation. Jesus said out loud exactly what he saw happening. He did it by telling a parable. His parable taught that honour is not something you can steal; it’s not really even something you can earn. It’s something you are given. When your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. Lk 14.10b The parable says that the host gives honour to the guests; it’s a gift, not a market commodity to be seized and hoarded.

Artificial hierarchies and the accumulation of goods are anathema to the Kingdom of God. Think back to Mary’s song – Lk 1.52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. At the end of today’s parable, Jesus reminds us of that great reversal his mother prophesied; he says … all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus doesn’t stop with unmasking the social climbing game. He calls his host to embrace God’s reversal; to live Kingdom life now. That call was pretty well impossible for his host to hear. When Jesus demanded of his host that he open his table to God’s little ones—the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, the man must have been appalled. No Pharisee could invite them in; they were all ritually unclean. To associate with them would disqualify everyone in the room from temple worship. But we know something this Pharisee doesn’t; that Jesus emptied himself of honour for our sake, and we have committed ourselves to following Jesus on this path.

So we leave that baffled Pharisee there, and we come to ourselves. I don’t think this is the sort of teaching we can respond to as individuals. With his call to invite outsiders, Jesus challenged something that had to do with a whole society; the sorts of habits and customs a society sets up to keep its boundaries safe.

Boundaries are things to keep outsiders at bay – people who are different – and boundaries are also designed to keep insiders in line. This parable and Jesus’ application of it challenges our society’s boundaries. He challenges every Christian community like he did Luke’s community. Jesus’ parable taught that honour can only be received as a free gift, like everything else that God has given. Jesus applied his parable by making it a call to turn from exclusive hierarchies and to welcome outsiders with a hospitality usually reserved for close friends.

On this day of prayer for refugees, more than 100,000,000 of them, it’s going to take the whole Church of God to solve the crisis. We must all recognise that God’s grace is not just for us, but for everyone – recognise it and live it out. We can do our bit and support charities who help refugees. But even the UNHCR is helpless before the challenge we face. It needs the whole Church of God to tackle this. And the question is, how do we get this movement happening. The whole Church knows what Jesus wants from us. So how do we here start to get things moving?   Amen.

Follow the pattern Jesus sets

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 11C  Isaiah 58 9b-14, Ps 103 1-8, Heb 12 18-29, Lk 13 10-17 

We are all baptised into a royal priesthood; a priesthood of service. The blessing at our baptism sets out the terms of our service; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; give honour to all; love and serve the Lord. All of us are called to this work. By doing it, we express the breadth of God’s love and kindness – it’s something we learn from watching Jesus at work.

And we just saw him at it in the gospel today. Jesus is at Synagogue. He sees a woman with a spirit which had crippled her for eighteen years. He sees her and calls her over; he declares her release; touches her, and suddenly she’s free.

We met her as a hostage to her condition – held to ransom by a spirit which had crippled her. Now we see her released. Naturally, we – or any normal person – should rejoice at her deliverance. So we’re shocked by the reaction from the Leader of the Synagogue (ἀρχισυνάγωγος). I don’t think he truly represents his people. He sounds more like one of those sad people you meet sometimes who are obsessed with control over their little power base. And they often manage to create a one-person bureaucracy to protect it.

Sadly, like many such people can, this Leader of the Synagogue has developed quite a bit of control over the regular congregation. We see him play to the gallery: … he kept saying to the crowd, ‘Come on the other six days to be cured – not the Sabbath’. But he doesn’t have that authority. He’s not a rabbi / teacher. He’s somewhere between a verger and a master of ceremonies. He manages the physical arrangements of the synagogue’s worship; he may choose who does the readings. It’s a serious ministry role, but he’s lost the plot somehow.

As he plays to the gallery, his cronies must be nodding; people who might like him to choose them as readers, or for other prominent roles. We can guess this because Jesus doesn’t respond to the Leader of the Synagogue, but to the people the LoS is appealing to. You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey … and lead it to … water? There is wriggle-room in rules, and for good reasons. Hebrew Law has many nuances.

In Hebrew theology, there are two complementary emphases on the significance of keeping Sabbath. (I owe this insight to Em Prof Charles Raynal.) These are expressed in the two versions of the commandment to keep the Sabbath – the one in Exod 20.8-11, and the other in Deut 5:12-15.

Exodus placed its emphasis on the seventh day of creation; Gen 2.2-3; we rest because God rested. But in Deuteronomy, your slaves and animals should keep Sabbath because God rescued you Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. So keeping Sabbath – imitating God in that sense – means passing on that freedom. So holy acts of justice – particularly freeing people – were appropriate to the Sabbath.

So there was a different, but complementary emphasis on Sabbath observance between Jesus and some people in the synagogue? For Jesus, the Law is first about grace, not propriety; justice, not who’s right; release, not captivity.

Jesus is not alone among Jewish ethicists. In Lev 25, we find the call for a time of release from bondage in the Sabbath year – the year of release from debt and captivity – when birthrights given as surety on loans were restored. This woman’s healing from the spirit that cripples her is her Sabbath release. So as Jesus teaches, healing her on the Sabbath was absolutely appropriate. The crowd is convinced and rejoices with her. Jesus taught the crowd – not the leader of the synagogue. They could be brought to the light.

This story reminds us that the struggle which has been wracking the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Church of Australia for decades – our widely-publicised debate over what Scripture actually says about human sexuality – that this debate over what is right is no new thing. This dispute in our gospel over an appropriate interpretation of the law about the Sabbath is a helpful parallel.

Many Christians desire the clarity and simplicity of definite black and white rules; to know the difference between right and wrong. And many Christians find Jesus’ choice to prioritise justice and compassion to be their guide when making their own choices. That difference is a point of contention in our church and in many others. The way we manage that contention with each other is our witness to the wider community. Jesus prayed that we might be one – in order that the world might believe. Jn 17.20-21 How we manage our dispute is critical to God’s mission.

Our role as members of the royal priesthood is to follow the pattern Jesus sets. As we saw today, when he’s challenged, Jesus calls for compassion and integrity to return to hearts that have been hardened.

We should do what Jesus does, and like him, work for justice, mercy and faith; the things he called the weightier matters of the Law. Mt 23.23 Then I believe we will do our bit for answering his prayer that we might be one.   Amen.

Disciples make peace; disciples make justice

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 10 C – Jrm 23.23-29 Ps 82 Heb 11.29–12.2 Lk 12.49-59

We may need a bit of recovery time from our readings; particularly Jesus’ strong words in the Gospel. So we’ll come back to them in a minute. We need a way into them first, and for me, one way comes through yet another recent conference; Lambeth, the worldwide Anglican communion’s ten-yearly bishops’ conference. Abp Geoff recommended that we all listen to a keynote address by the Abp of York, Stephen Cottrell. I sent you a link to it in my weekly. https://youtu.be/ZccZazNlnMI Start at 31’24” It’s a speech about mission and evangelism, and early on, he makes some very clear statements about our core mission as a church. He says, The Church of Jesus Christ makes disciples. Not converts; disciples; followers of Jesus. And what do disciples make? Disciples make peace, disciples make justice, and disciples make the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. We are not trying to build the earthly empire of an institution called the church. What we are about is this. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

Disciples make peace; disciples make justice. As we look around the world today, we shudder to see what happens to many of the people who work for peace and justice. If you do that kind of work, you invariably confront vested interests. Our readings today remind us that it was ever thus; that worldly power is often violent and remorseless in its defence of the status quo. And it’s that type of power’s opposition to missions of peace with justice which our readings describe today.

So in Jeremiah’s oracle, God sees charlatan prophets trying to blind people to the truth, and Jeremiah is sent to confront them. Propaganda demonises its opponents with lies about them, and then uses its lies to justify their persecution. Jeremiah’s persecution is graphically remembered in the reading from the letter to the Hebrews. We’re no strangers to propaganda in our time. Right now there are bogus websites being registered by Australian parliamentarians. They intend to use them to peddle lies and foment division about the upcoming referendum to make sure it fails; bogus websites with names like ulurustatement and voicetoparliament. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-10/pauline-hanson-one-nation-may-lose-voice-referendum-websites/101317366

Jeremiah reminds us that God sees this sort of thing quite clearly, and that when we see it happening, like him, we’re called to speak out for justice so others see what’s happening too. The Psalmist is quite clear that God sees this as a core element of our vocation – to see injustice and call it out; judge for the poor and fatherless, it says, vindicate the afflicted and oppressed, rescue the poor and needy, and save them from the hands of the wicked – rescue these dear ones from walking about in darkness. So as we see the gap between the haves and have-nots steadily widen, we’re called to challenge that vigorously; to make sure others see what’s happening too. Peace without justice is an illusion.

This is not to say we’ll prevail in our lifetimes; but even so, it’s what we’re called to do – to see things the way God sees them, and to risk saying what we see. In our reading from the letter to the Hebrews after listing the successes of God’s people early on, there’s a turning point at v. 35 where things turn very ugly. There’s a series of chilling descriptions of people suffering dreadful violence and isolation. That’s what happened to God’s prophets – like Jeremiah – and to many early Christians. The letter to the Hebrews tells us they didn’t get to see what was promised, but as ‘a great cloud of witnesses’, they watch over our continuation of their struggle. One sobering detail is that the Greek word for witnesses is martyrs.

So I think we’re ready for the Gospel now. This shocking outburst from Jesus is one we instinctively read as prescriptive – as though he wants all those divisions to happen. But in the context of the journey we’ve walked with him since the end of June when we saw him turn his face to Jerusalem (9.51) – a journey where disciples and opponents alike have put him under a blowtorch; a journey to certain death – he’s describing his own experience, and Luke is describing that of the early church.

Jesus has not called his followers to validate the status quo [of haves and have nots]. His missional agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice shatters such a status quo. If we follow his call, there will be inevitable divisions and contentions.[1]

So if we disciples are to make peace and justice, how do we do that? We probably won’t be able to avoid opposition, division or contention. But even Jesus couldn’t dodge that. So what do we do?

Abp Stephen Cottrell encouraged us to embrace evangelism – noting that the word Angel – messenger – lies at its heart. But he didn’t mean hard-sell scalp-hunting evangelism; he meant something quite beautiful.

He remembered the best definition of evangelism he’d ever heard as One beggar telling another beggar where they might find bread. If we thought of our witnessing to what God has done for us in those terms, if we didn’t get confused and imagine ourselves to be the baker; then our discipleship wouldn’t resemble the status quo that such humility so powerfully challenges.

Disciples make peace, disciples make justice, and disciples make the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. We won’t necessarily see that happen in our lifetimes, but we will be living witnesses to it in God’s good time.

Amen.

[1] Carlson, Richard. P. (2010). Exegetical Perspective on Luke 12:49–56. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C (Vol. 3, p. 363). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Christ creates a generous, open community of belonging where all are safe

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 9 – Isa 1.1, 10-20 – Ps 50.1-8, 23-4 – Heb 11.1-3, 8-16 – Lk 12.32-40

It’s lovely to be back here with you all. Week by week during our absence, you’ve faithfully gathered here to worship God with your usual care and friendly joy. I’m very grateful to all of you who’ve seen to that.

Those services have often been a pleasure we’ve shared with you online as we’ve responded to the text message that St John’s has gone live. We’ve been in lots of places over the past months, had some wonderful experiences and learnt a huge amount. Thank you for helping to enable that.

Some time ago, I started looking at the Bible passages set for today and I worried about how they’d come across. People often tell me they struggle with the God of the Old Testament, and today, Isaiah’s in full flight letting us have it. Isa 1.15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. They’re confronting words. I worry about how the kind, faithful people of St John’s feel when this is read out at them?

Lots of people have trouble with Old Testament portrayals of God, and I worry that today’s readings contain just the sorts of sayings that drive people away from reading the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s unfortunate that we don’t get to hear these readings in their full context.

In this case, we need to be aware of the oppression of poor peasant farming families back then by a rich, politically-connected religious elite. Isaiah is saying what God feels about corrupt Temple priests who required compulsory offerings three times a year from these poor people. And they set the level of offering, not the peasants; the poor people had no option to say they couldn’t afford it.

So you might understand God’s disgust at these priests as they offered sacrifices which cost them nothing, but left many farming families destitute? That’s where the strength of the language comes from.

But that was thousands of years ago; what’s it got to do with today? I heard similar words to Isaiah’s at the Receptive Ecumenism conference. A distinctive focus of RE is that we seek healing from other traditions for the wounds and failings of our own churches.

One speaker – a Pentecostal professor from the USA – told us Pentecostals have wounded, dirty, bloody hands; they’ve lost some of their inclusiveness, and have become more identified with fundamentalism and nationalism. One practical outworking of that was their participation in the religious right’s support for Donald Trump. She was gutted to have to own this. Her words bloody hands echoed Isaiah’s!

Our tradition has blood on its hands too. Our history as a church putting its prestige first and protecting paedophiles is just one case in point.

So should we want God’s view voiced any less forcefully than Isaiah put it today? I think not. But without access to historical context and such a present-day parallels, Isaiah can be hard to read.

The difficult readings don’t stop with him today. Isaiah and our gospel both recall last week’s warning parable from Luke 12 about the rich farmer. I shudder at the way ‘giving texts’ like this used to be brandished in stewardship campaigns. People felt hounded by a Church that just seemed to be after them for their money. Historical context helps us to read these texts too in a way that Jesus might have wanted us to.

At the New Testament conference last week, Prof John Barclay gave an extraordinary paper about the social significance of giving in the time of Jesus. He started by talking about a 2nd century writer called Artemidorus who interpreted people’s dreams; people from all walks of life.

Unusually for an ancient writer he didn’t just deal with rich, influential people, so he opens a rare window onto the world of ordinary people in antiquity. Many dreams he interpreted from poor people revealed that their deepest desire was to be able to give. That’s interesting!

Prof Barclay spoke of a strict social convention in the ancient world about reciprocity and equal exchange. It was so strict that many poor people weren’t just denied life’s chances like poor people are today, but in their inevitable, frequent times of crisis, they got locked out of almost all social relationships.

To survive, you needed ‘a network of mutual support, where you could hope for material aid from relatives, neighbours, and friends on the assumption of a commitment to help them when they needed it.’ The ability to give and receive on equal terms decided if you belonged in society or not.

So when Jesus calls people to give, he’s saying something quite different from what we might have heard during the Gospel reading. It’s not about making us feel guilty, it’s caring about our survival; about helping us to belong. We need to belong. In the majority / poor world, this value persists.

We all have stories of being in tight situations where help has been offered just when it was needed. And like many of you, I’ve heard travel stories where the people who gave help were extremely poor. What they gave represented a really significant part of what they possessed, like a whole week’s food.

So today’s scriptures don’t confront us with the challenges we might have felt when we first heard them today. But they do confront us. They bring us face to face with God’s passion for justice for the poor, and for rehabilitating the rich and powerful: face to face with God in Christ who would go to the Cross to create a generous, open community of belonging where all are safe.

We are called to be that community here and now. Amen

Secret Christians

David Hilliard OAM

 As some of you know, I am a retired academic historian, and when I lead the intercessions at our Sunday eucharist I try to say something about the lives of the saints and heroes of the church who are commemorated in the Anglican Church calendar around that day. This morning I would like us to think about the significance in the Christian story of a man we commemorated yesterday, Joseph of Arimathea.

Joseph from Arimathea we meet in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. All that we know of him is that he was a wealthy man and a member of the Jewish council but had taken no part in the condemnation of Jesus. He was ‘a good and righteous man’, says St Luke, ‘looking for the kingdom of God’, a disciple of Jesus but secretly. After the death of Jesus Joseph bravely asked Pilate for his body and buried it in the tomb that he had prepared for himself, newly hewn in the rock.

Early in the history of the Christian Church Joseph of Arimathea became the subject of legends which reached their peak in the twelfth century – that he was in possession of the holy grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, and that he had gone to Gaul (France) with the apostle Philip to preach the gospel. Philip had sent him to England and the king who received him gave him an island later called Glastonbury, in Somerset. It was later claimed that Joseph of Arimathea was buried at Glastonbury and that the staff he planted in the ground produced a thorn bush which flowered at Christmas, and so on. Combine these stories with legends about King Arthur that associate him with the same place and you will see why modern Glastonbury is such a popular place for tourists and for those who gravitate to places they see as magical, endowed with supernatural vibes.

Joseph is associated with Nicodemus, an influential Pharisee whom we meet in St John’s Gospel. In chapter 3 Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to ask him questions about his teachings, in chapter 7 he speaks up on behalf of Jesus, and in chapter 19 he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial, binding it up in linen cloths with an expensive mixture of spices that he himself had contributed. One wonders about what happened to these men afterwards but they disappear from the New Testament writings.

Both men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, were disciples of Jesus in secret. This idea of the secret followers of Jesus is worth thinking about. These have been many Christians who have made themselves invisible in order to survive. The theologian John Calvin coined the term ‘Nicodemites’ to refer to them. It was not a compliment. He saw them as cowards, timorous people who refused to stand up and witness to the truth before kings and those in authority. He could point to those words of Jesus (Matthew 10: 33): ‘Everyone who acknowledges me before men I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.’

There are many examples of ‘Nicodemites’ in Christian history. When the Christian Church began to persecute heretics – those it regarded as holding erroneous beliefs and therefore sought to exterminate – to avoid death, the so-called heretics had a habit of conforming outwardly but still holding their views. They held the faith within their families and remained in contact with like-minded people through secretive networks. In England for example there were the Lollards, the followers of the fourteenth-century heretic John Wycliffe who survived in some places for 150 years. In those parts of Europe and the Middle East where militant Islam overran the early Christian communities and imposed mass conversions there were many crypto-Christians in Syria and Turkey and Cyprus and other regions who outwardly conformed to Islam but managed to survive by practising their faith in private, in their own households.

During the English Reformation of the sixteenth century that minority of the population that persisted in their loyalty to the Pope rather than accepting the monarch as the head of the church managed to survive as an underground Roman Catholic network under the protection of gentry or aristocratic families. Their big houses provided space for secret chapels and places to shelter visiting priests.

There were secret Christians in Stalin’s Russia when his persecution of the church was at its peak in the 1930s. In China, Christians learnt to hide during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Since then, Christianity has been tolerated and the major denominations are recognised by the government; they are the only authorised Christian churches. However, it is estimated that tens of millions of Chinese Christians – some say the majority of them – do not identify with what they see as government-controlled churches. They prefer to worship in small groups, meeting in private houses as unregistered gatherings, and keep a low profile. The government of course knows who they are but occasionally, to make life uncomfortable, they might get a visit from the police, or someone gets arrested for infringing a government regulation or other offence.

How did these secret Christians sustain their faith over time? This is an important question but often hard to answer because secret groups by definition tend not to leave much (or anything) in the way of records. For Protestant Christians underground it was the Bible and well-known psalms and hymns. For Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians underground it was prayer books, liturgical texts, holy pictures, icons for the Orthodox, the rosary for Catholics. And sometimes they might get a visit from a priest in disguise to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments.

So Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as secret followers of Jesus had many successors. Most of us would not seek martyrdom. At a time of persecution we would all want to survive if we had a chance, and probably we would learn to compromise and lie low. We should honour those who have maintained their Christian faith underground.

Obviously if all Christians had been secret and kept their faith to themselves the Christian Church would never have got off the ground. It would have withered and died. On the other hand, those underground Christians over the centuries have displayed great courage in just holding on, in very hostile environments. They kept their eyes on Jesus. They remembered his teaching, in today’s gospel, that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. They absorbed St Paul’s words in his letter to the Colossians that we heard this morning: ‘Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’

The best-known prayer of God’s family.

Canon Bill Goodes

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  2022  Hosea 1:2-10,  Psalm 85, Colossians 2:6 – 15, Luke 11:1 – 13

“The Lord said, ‘Go, take yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord’ ”  (Hosea 1:2)

No, I am not going to get into the arguments concerning the legalization of Prostitution, and I don’t think that the prophet Hosea had anything to say about it either.   He was using that irregular expression of sexual urges as a picture of the way the people of Israel were practising religion in an irregular way.   He went on to use the names of the children that he and his wife had as clear messages about the fate that was to befall Israel at the hands of the Assyrians — a fate that Hosea was quite clear was God’s punishment for Israel’s disloyalty.   The children are named “Jezreel,” the valley where Israel’s defeat will happen, “Not Pitied” (Lo-ruhamah), because the Lord will no longer pity his people, and finally “Not my People” (Lo-ammi), because the Lord has rejected them as his own.

These family relationships were to be seen as a picture of God’s relationship with his people.   In the final paragraph of the section we had read this morning, God promises to restore the fortunes of his people.  Even there it is in terms of family relationships that this restoration is pictured:  they will be  “Children of the living God”.

It is no surprise, then, when Jesus is asked to teach his disciples to pray, that he begins with a familiar relationship, “Father”.   For some people today this presents difficulties, but it is important to recognize that the term is a picture of the disciples’ relationship with God, not a theological statement of God’s very nature.   It is but one of any number of such pictures of God, and it is useful as it pictures our relationship with God in family terms.

I’d like us to spend a little time this morning with this best-known prayer of God’s family.

There are two versions of the prayer in the Gospels, both of them rather shorter than the version that we use day by day.    The version in Luke that was part of this morning’s gospel is  the shorter of the two.   It addresses God:  “Father”.    It  goes on to express something of right relationship with God:  “may your holy nature be recognized” — “hallowed be your name”.   It prays that God’s purposes might be fulfilled, as God’s rule is expressed in the life of the world — “your kingdom come”.   It prays that our daily needs might be met— not of course our accumulation of wealth, but what we need each day — “give us each day our daily bread”.   It asks that our fractured relationships with those around us might be restored — “forgive us our sins”.   It asks that we might be spared from “the time of Trial”, usually thought of as an end-time, eschatological event rather than earthly trials and tribulations.

So, on which of these clauses do you focus as you pray the prayer?

Clearly Matthew and Luke had different ideas as to the heart of the prayer.   Matthew places the prayer in the context of forgiveness.   The prayer is introduced there with talk about not heaping up of empty phrases, expecting our prayer to be better heard because of the many words.   Jesus assures his hearers that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”   Matthew adds to Luke’s shorter version the request “your will be done on earth as in heaven”, and at the end “rescue us from the evil one”, but moves immediately from the text of the prayer to unpack its content: “for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”.   He clearly wants his readers to see the prayer giving attention to forgiveness.

Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear that Luke thinks that the focus of the pattern prayer is on “Give us each day our daily bread” — he follows the prayer with all that teaching about asking and receiving:  “Friend lend me three loaves…” and even though the friend is reluctant, (who likes being disturbed from a warm bed these nights for any reason?) finally he gives what is requested.   Then he gives the assurance that we will be given what we ask for, what we seek, where we need to enter — and that the gift will be what we really need, not some poor substitute.   Did you like the way today’s  Prayer of the day expressed it:  “we ask, we seek, we knock at your door:  help us so to seek that we may truly find, so to ask that we may joyfully receive, and so to knock that the door of mercy may be opened for us.”

So, we are to ask for the meeting of our daily needs — but somehow we have become conditioned to say “I shouldn’t ask for anything for myself”, but clearly this teaching of Jesus encourages us to ask.   I sometimes wonder whether we forget this when it comes to praying for healing:  somehow we think it is better to ask for healing for other people than to admit our own need for greater wholeness.   “Ask, and you will receive”, Jesus assures us — even if we ask for ourselves!

Certainly, our prayer for forgiveness, and for the healing of human relationships is important also.   And the prayer suggests that those who are unwilling or unable to forgive others may find it difficult to accept forgiveness for themselves.   (It is interesting to compare the two gospel writers here, as well:  Luke: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”  — does he have a rather rosy view of our willingness to forgive those who owe us something?    Matthew: “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors”, rather giving the impression that our receiving of forgiveness will happen in the same way as we have offered it to others).

But our prayers for ourselves, whether in terms of daily needs, forgiveness, or in eternity, are always made in the context of God’s nature, God’s relationship with us, and the structure of the Prayer Book collects makes that clear.   These beautifully-crafted prayers begin with an address to God, and then a remembering of some of God’s character.   For example, the Prayer of the week for this week begins “O God, the protector of all that trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy” — and it prays all this before it goes on to pray “increase and multiply upon us your mercy”.   Is this something that we need to remember as we come to God in prayer, or as we lead the prayers of the congregation?   Certainly we are to place our requests, our needs, our concerns clearly before our loving Father, Mother. King, Lord, Provider,…, but it is good for us to recall something of the richness of God’s nature as we do so.   “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come” comes always before “Give us” or “forgive us” or “save us”.

Thanks be to God for this wonderful prayer:  may we use it not simply as a summary but also as a pattern of our prayer day by day, and Sunday by Sunday.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and for ever.

 

Give ourselves to lives of righteousness in both our cosmic and commercial contexts.

Canon Bill Goodes

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost  2022  Amos 8:1-12,  Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15 – 29, Luke 10:38 – 42

Sunday 17 July 2022

“Hear this, you who say, ’We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practise deceit with false balances’”  (Amos 8:5)

This is a verse we could well have quoted when some weeks ago, a neighbour left a note for us objecting to the Climate Change Now banner outside the Church.   “I want climate change action,” he wrote, “but it is not the concern of the Church!”

Well, clearly, Amos the prophet, speaking God’s word to the people of Israel, would disagree:  the dishonest dealing in the market-place, “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and selling the sweepings of the wheat” — this was just as much an affront to God’s righteousness and the integrity of God’s people, as was any hypocritical reliance on the externals of worship.

As we think about that little section of the prophet’s message, we see how the dealings in the market-place were placed in the context of cosmic events: “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight”.   And within this connection between cosmic and commercial, the prophet identifies “a famine…of hearing the words of the Lord.”

We find this connection also in the domestic setting in the Gospel reading, with Martha, the conscientious hostess being “distracted with much serving”, while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying”.   It is easy for us to become “distracted”, particularly by the word “better” in the Lord’s answer to Martha’s complaint — in fact the adjective is not comparative at all, it is the word for “lovely”:  “Mary has chosen the lovely part, which shall not be taken away from her” —  clearly both the listening to God’s message, and the daily domestic duties were significant offerings to the Master.

When Saint Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians, he was concerned to stress this concern of God for everything in life.   In the first paragraph of the reading from Colossians 1 that we heard this morning, Paul uses the word “all” over and over again.   “In Christ all things in heaven and earth were created”, “in him all things hold together”, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”.   Through the cross, Jesus is making peace with all things.

What comes to mind for you when you hear “all things” in this context?   Is it the amazing photos of far-off galaxies taken by the latest space telescope — are these among the “all things seen and unseen” of the Creator, and of him “through whom all things were made”?   Or is your picture  of “all things” one of land-forms, oceans and atmosphere —do we see that these geographical features can come to a state of peace through Christ?   Perhaps “all things” for you conjures up pictures of the vast range of different plants or animals, not only surviving but thriving under the hand of the creator.   What an amazing claim the writer is making — that it is in Christ that these mind-blowing collections of creatures find their place, their purpose, their peace!   But of course “all things” does not only refer to the grand celestial scale, but the mundane as well — it includes the activities, the ideas, the people that we deal with day by day, in what Amos would refer to as “the market-place” — the commercial as well as the cosmic!

Paul goes on from these exalted heights to talk directly to his Colossian readers, for these are clearly among the “all things” that he is singing about:  “you …he has reconciled”.   It is the one who deals with “all things” who also deals with us, and presents us “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him”.   He then draws on his own experience of suffering to point to his calling as an apostle of Christ’s reconciling work, and then directs his readers to “the riches of the glory of this mystery”, — and that word “mystery” might be better translated as “the revealed secret “ — these riches are “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.   We move swiftly from inter-galactic space to the human heart!

Does that expression give you a warm feeling in your heart — that this amazing, creating, reconciling Christ is “in you, the hope of glory”?   Perhaps the message of the Psalmist occurs to you, “What are we that you should be mindful of us:” he cries:  “what are we that you should care for us?”    The one whose glory is proclaimed by the heavens themselves, is in us, filling us with “the hope of glory”!    Amazing!

But the warm feeling is all very well, but it should express itself in worship and praise, in the common life of the People of God, in our joining in the worship of the church.   (Though all these things are motivated not simply from the warm feelings, but from deeper, more lasting convictions and from a faith that says, “no matter what I am feeling, God is true, God is love, God is calling me into relationship with him”.)

But whatever is motivating our being with the Church this morning as it offers worship and celebrates the Sacrament, the prophet makes it quite clear that even this activity is worthless unless it is done in the context of the integrity and honesty of our life in the daily activity of the market-place. Earlier in his short book of prophecy Amos puts it most starkly, in the words of the God who called him to be a prophet, “Take away from me the noise of your songs;  I will not listen to the melody of your harps, but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

And what comes to your mind when you think of this justice, this righteousness?   Is it in ecological crises that this rolling down needs to take place?   Or is it in the warfare and civil strife that we see so starkly displayed in the news?   Is it in climate change, in family violence, in employment conditions, in social security provisions, in political dealings, in racial relationships, in gender equality?   Is it in some of these that we long to see justice and righteousness flowing?   In all these areas and many more, God, the God who made, loves, reconciles all things, calls for “justice to roll down like waters”, and calls us, in whom Christ lives, “the hope of glory”, to give ourselves to lives of righteousness in both our cosmic and commercial contexts.

When, at the end of our liturgy, we respond to the Deacon’s cry, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, we are committing ourselves to the pursuit of this justice, this reconciliation, this peace, this hope of glory!   “In the name of Christ.   Amen!”