Jesus’ new commandment

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Canon Bill Goodes

Easter 5C 2022 -Acts 11:1 – 18, Psalm 148, Rev 21:1 – 6, John 13:31-35  Sunday 15 May 2022

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another:  just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”   (John 13:34)

How do you deal with new things? I understand that there are people who are so keen on new things that they will adopt them uncritically, and champion them to everyone else. However, my experience is that many of us treat new things with a certain amount of suspicion — even hostility!   Has the COVID pandemic made us more accepting of the new situations that have dogged our steps over these last two years? Or have the constant changes to regulations made us want to hang on even more religiously to our past practices than we used to?

It is interesting to hear this message about the new things, in the context of last week’s meeting of the General Synod of our Church — was embracing the new the focal point of their discussions?

I must say I wondered about that phrase at the end of the reading from Acts 11 that we heard this morning. You remember “They were silenced:  they praised God, saying, Then God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” The General Synod decision on same-sex marriage was greeted by threats of division, rather than by accepting that this was the direction of the Holy Spirit! I wonder whether our Parish Council meeting this morning will find such ready and complete agreement to some account of the introduction of a new practice!

For what was being defended by Peter in the face of his interrogation by the Jewish Christians was a complete novelty — for the first time the Christian message of Good News was being offered to people who were uncircumcised non-Jews — a Roman centurion to boot! Unheard of, because all of the apostles, and all of those who heard the word and were baptized on the Day of Pentecost were Jews — it had always been so!   And here was Peter with his strange story of a sheet-full of all sorts of creepy-crawlies being let down from heaven and offered to him as good food. How could this possibly be? Perhaps Luke had forgotten, by the time he wrote this account, or had even chosen to ignore, the hesitations, the heart-searching, the denial that customarily go with making revolutionary decisions!

In both the Revelation reading and the Gospel, the word “new” lies at the heart of the message their writers are putting before us. Here were Christians under threat or actual experience of persecution. The writer of the Revelation, near the end of his words of encouragement to them, sees something radically new.  The old order of heaven and earth has passed clean away, and the new Holy City has come down from God. Every tear wiped away, death and the accompanying mourning done away with. All the limitations that prevent us from enjoying the fulness of life are gone.   Words of living hope are given here not only for these early Christians, but for those living in our part of the world, and in our time in history,  “I will give water from the spring of eternal life”. This is a complete re-writing of our story — the old has passed away, and the new is adorned, radiant, like a bride.

Then there’s the Gospel reading. The commandment that Jesus gives his disciples is very familiar to us — “love one another”, and “this is how people will know you are my disciples.” All very well-known — but sometimes we skip over the “new” part of the story:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” — or the “just as” part:  “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. The love that Jesus’ followers are being urged to show to one another is “of the same nature” as that shown in the love that Jesus has for them. Recognizing that this is set in John in the context of the Last Supper, with all its emphasis on the coming death of Jesus, suggests that our love for one another is of a particularly sacrificial and all-embracing kind! Jesus loves us, and shows that love by dying for us — our love for one another  is to be of the same quality!

And it is interesting that the “new commandment” is given to the twelve — just after Judas has gone out. Now it specifically does not say : “love all those that agree with you”, but “love one another — as I have loved you”!   It was interesting in the shadow of the General Synod debate that I was asked by a Year 12 student doing Religious Studies for her SACE, a number of questions regarding our Church’s attitude(s) to same sex marriage. She wanted to know the biblical background, and whether our church had “adapted to the change” in state legislation regarding marriage.   After outlining my own understanding, and that which I believe to be representing the range of views in this congregation, I also felt obliged to refer her to representatives of other traditions in the Anglican Church locally! I certainly saw that as an expression of the love for one another that is enjoined upon us!

But it is not only towards those we agree with, or even those we disagree with — this love for one another has an even wider application. In his presidential address to open the General Synod, our Archbishop, as Primate, asked the members of the Synod first to consider the widest scope of the context in which the Synod is meeting, and the need to be reconciled to those who “have something against us”. He also asked his hearers to consider the widest possible application of the church’s mission to follow Christ’s “new commandment”. He quoted from a book called “Imagining Mission with John V Taylor”, which asks its readers “imagine that church is not the point of church, rather church exists to participate in the healing of all things- the world, its people, the planet itself. Church is God’s people participating in that liberation, a communion in mission. Church is Christ’s body prolonging the logic of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in the world”. The book also suggests “that mission is a longing to see all things renewed – our relationship with God and with one another, with our environment and species, with our societies, our world, and our cosmos. It is the healing and redemption of all things under the lordship of Christ”.

For this “new commandment” that Jesus put before his followers, goes even beyond the newness embraced (finally) by the Church in Jerusalem in response to Peter’s plea:  it is to extend even beyond people of other religious traditions, or of none, beyond that of “our neighbours” or even “our enemies” — all of which is difficult enough! It extends to our love for the whole creation and the God who made it. It is this love that will enable “all things to become new”, and that will have us enter the radical new life inaugurated by the resurrection, to have our fundamental thirst slaked by water from the spring of the water of life.

The Good Shepherd knows us and loves us

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Canon Bill Goodes

Easter 4C – Acts 9:36 – 43, Psalm 23, Rev 7:9 – 17, John 10:22 – 30

“Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd…My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me’”  (John 10:11, 27)

I’m sure you have all seen pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is a widely-used image displayed in many churches in windows, on banners, and on prayer cards — the shepherd, crook in hand, is cradling in his arms a loveable lamb. It is a very still, settled image, and one which might have inspired poetry of the romantic age — or even hymns like “loving shepherd of thy sheep”. The famous “shepherd” psalm that we read this morning sets the shepherd and his flock  “beside still waters”,  “in green pastures” and speaks of “goodness and mercy following all our days”.   Even the shepherds who “ran to Bethlehem straightway the Son of God to find” felt secure enough to “leave their flock a-feeding in tempest storm and wind”.

So, it was something of a shock to me when we spent a weekend with our family a couple of weeks ago on a mohair goat farm in Western Victoria.   After Church on Sunday morning, our hosts took us into their shearing shed to talk about their journey as shepherds. From the time that they decided to run these special goats, they have faced so many challenges.    There must have been constant temptations to give up and do something a bit more predictable! They faced entrenched monopolies, refusal to share blood-stock, droughts that turned the river water they used for  their goats into a toxic drink that killed them. The market for their wool has had wild fluctuations, and some of those who sold it had taken short cuts which gave mohair garments a bad name. They had great trouble finding someone who would deal with the hides of the animals they sold for meat. The goats grow wool which has no lubricant in it, and their wool grows all over the animal, which makes shearing goats a greater challenge than shearing sheep.

At each stage, I was impressed by the way they approached the new situation and were prepared to try new approaches that would enable them to continue their committed love and care for these animals, and to do so in ways that are sustainable, both for the animals and their shepherds!

I was surprised at this tale of adaptability and commitment, but on reflection I realised that even biblical shepherds had their challenges!   Remember the lost sheep! That lamb on the shepherd’s shoulder in the stained-glass window was one that had been lost, had to be found and pulled out of the brambles with the crook! The passages about the Good Shepherd in the earlier part John 10 spoke of the wolves coming to ravage the flock, and the tendency of the hireling to leave the sheep to their fate when the wolves came. Or remember how Jacob suffered from the machinations of an unscrupulous landlord when Jacob had the responsibility of caring for the landlord’s flock (and marrying his daughters!) His inventive ways of managing the breeding programme (of the sheep!) enabled him to thwart the landlord’s schemes.

So, a shepherd’s lot is “not a happy one” in many respects, and when we speak of Jesus as “the Good Shepherd” we need to take into consideration the negative aspects of the job as well as the “green pastures and still waters” ones.

It seems to me that what our goat-shepherds showed me was first of all a commitment to the animals and the vision of caring for them. But that commitment was not simply a dogged “carrying on in the face of difficulties” — remember Dobbin in “Animal Farm” :  “I will work harder!” No, there had to be a considerable flexibility and a willingness to try new directions to take account of what was happening, events largely outside of their control.

And, you know, that is just what God is like! God’s commitment to his covenant relationship first with the Jewish nation, and then with the Christian community is absolute:  his nature as chesed —  steadfast love expresses that commitment:  “God so loved…”

But the way that commitment was expressed varied over time, as God’s people in their various ways frustrated his purposes. God’s commitment to his covenant is absolute and unchanging, but the way it works out seems to be almost infinitely variable! God’s people in slavery in Egypt cry out to God for deliverance, and God hears their voice. The writers of the story make it look as though God knows beforehand all that will take place, and that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the people go”, but perhaps there is another way of looking at it:  isn’t it just as possible that Pharaoh and his advisers changed their minds, went back on their pre-election promises, and then God’s steadfast love for his people made new provisions which took account of these changes of heart. Then when they were on their journey to the Promised Land, the provision of the bread substitute, meat, potable water, and safe travel were all provided in response to particular situations. Again and again throughout their history the Old Covenant people upset the direction of God’s purposes, and God sent prophets and other agents to work from the new situation that the people had caused, to re-establish the working out of God’s loving purpose.

The Gospel writers normally referred to Judas Iscariot as “Judas who became the traitor”, and so gave the impression that this was always the plan — as though Jesus chose him as a disciple knowing, or even willing that he would be the traitor. But of course, these accounts were written well after the event, and perhaps this description simply expressed the writers’ incredulity that anyone could be a close follower of Jesus, and yet betray him.

We also have the capacity to make decisions which are not what God would choose for us, as he wills that we should enjoy fulness of life, and for us to make the best use of our abilities and potential — but we make wrong decisions, and, rather than write us off with a “well if that’s how you’re going to behave” sort of comment and leave us to our fate, the committed loving God is flexible in his dealings with us, and acts to make the best of the situation into which we have dropped ourselves.

So in the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we may see ourselves as the lost sheep. From time to time we experience the end of the crook around our necks, trying to drag us, kicking and bleating, out of the delicious-looking thorn-bush into which we have pushed our way! The Good Shepherd knows us, loves us, and puts himself into danger to rescue us. And, once there, no one can snatch us from his hand.  Thanks be to God.

How did you come to relationship with the Risen Jesus?

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Canon Bill Goodes

Easter 3C 2022  Acts 9:1 – 16, Rev 5:6 – 14, John 21:1 – 19

There once was a man who fell down a well, and, as he fell towards the inky-black, death-dealing water, he called out to the Risen Christ, “save me!” Miraculously, his overalls caught on a spike that was protruding from the well’s wall, his descent was arrested, and he was able to find other such spikes at strategic intervals, and to climb out. “Thank you, Jesus; I’ll always be your missionary!”, he exclaimed, and spent the rest of his life pushing people down wells.

Today’s three readings point to a different truth, because they show three different ways that particular people have come into relationship with the Risen Christ. Each of these different ways is seen to be a genuine path, and none may be played down as of less importance than others. Two of the stories are so familiar that we may not have noticed this significant thread running through them – Saint Paul’s Conversion, and the Restoration of Peter are rarely set next to one another – even on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Then, the vision in Revelation 5 seems so removed from our realities that we can easily discount it altogether, but it too has a story to tell about relationship with the Risen Jesus.

Saint Paul’s relationship with the Risen Jesus is in this story one of “claiming”. Paul had been running around on the edge of Jesus’ community, harrying it. Perhaps he was seeing it as a threat to his established way of understanding life. In keeping with his “hands-on” approach to things, he held the coats of the people who were stoning Stephen, he saw to the arrest and condemnation of those who were following what people at that time referred to as “The Way” and then even following them to foreign places in order to see that this global threat was being controlled, even destroyed. A relationship of a sort, but not calculated to bear much fruit for the Risen Jesus. So, on the road to Damascus, Jesus said to him, “You may not recognize me, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting! I claim you for my own!” Does this story resonate with your own walk in faith? Has the Risen Lord placed a hand on you and said, “I claim you for my own!”?  Certainly Saul of Tarsus, Saint Paul as he became, is not the only one down the ages who has experienced the Risen Jesus in this life-changing way.

Saint Peter’s relationship with the Risen Jesus took a different path.   He had become a leading figure in the community of Jesus’ followers during his earthly ministry. He had been in the inner circle of three among the twelve known as apostles. But spectacularly he had lost that position, three times denying that he even knew Jesus, or had kept company with him.  Deeply troubled, in the uncertain times which immediately followed news of the resurrection, he decided to “go fishing”. Perhaps it was in case Peter might be going to follow in the footsteps of that other betrayer, and harm himself, his companions said, “We will come with you!” And Jesus, in that lovely story, alluding to Peter’s three times denial, three times had Peter assert his continuing love for Jesus. Peter’s story could be spoken of as “forgiving” or “restoring”. Does that shed light on your relationship with the Risen One? Certainly there have been many others down the Christian ages, who have related to Jesus in this way.

Then, in the dream-like or even nightmare-like atmosphere of the reading from Revelation, there is a story of “worshipping”. In this passage, there is a gathering around the throne. Now in the previous chapter this throne is described as having one seated on it looking like jasper and carnelian and surrounded by a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Before this throne of God is placed the “lamb standing as though it had been slaughtered”. In the code language used in this document, carefully concealed from the authorities of the day, the slaughtered Lamb stands for the Risen Jesus, who sends out his Spirit in sevenfold form into the world. The “four living creatures” have traditionally been taken to refer to the four Gospel writers, and they have the form of a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle — the usual symbols for Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

Before these powerful symbols of the Divine Presence there seems to be happening a concelebrated pontifical High Mass – twenty-four described as “elders”, with golden mitres, multiple bowls of incense symbolising the prayers of the saints, a magnificent choir singing “Worthy is the Lamb”, and “Blessing and honour and glory and power are yours for ever and ever”.   These are the representative worshippers, but they represent before God “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth”.

You notice how many references there are to what we are doing here this morning, with our more limited resources! The Gospel, the prayers, the singing, the words, the divine presence brought to us under different symbols. And we are invited into this worshipping to come into relationship with the Risen Jesus. I wonder how many have been drawn to Jesus by the experience of worship, with all that that represents?

How did you come into relationship with the Risen Jesus?  Here are three ways set out – claiming, restoring, worshipping – and each is set out as a legitimate way of coming into this relationship.

But did you also notice that each of these ways comes with a commission.   Saul is told, “Go into the city and you will be told what you are to do” — and we know that he was subsequently “told”; told that he was to be the apostle, the one sent out, to the Gentile world. Peter is restored, with the three-fold commission, “Feed my lambs, Feed my sheep, Tend my sheep”, and as a leading figure in the early Church he proclaimed and lived the gospel and cared for the flock. The great catch of fish taken at Jesus’ direction, was to be a sign of the abundance that might follow that restoration. Even the worshippers in Revelation are encouraged to take this good news into a hostile world, as the sealed scrolls of the revealing of God’s purposes were to be opened by the Lamb.

The Risen Jesus calls each of us into relationship with himself, each in our own different ways. This relationship is to be enjoyed both for its own sake, and also at the same time as a commission to bring others to him — not expecting that these others will come to him in the same way that we have experienced, but in ways that are appropriate for them, and to be celebrated. Of the four Gospel writers, Matthew most clearly puts the connection between our own relationship with Jesus, and our mission towards others. Remember that he concludes his account of the Good news by having Jesus say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Christ is risen. Alleluia! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!!

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Father John Beiers

2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some time ago, a man brought his family from the state of New York, USA, to Australia to take advantage of a work opportunity here. Part of this man’s family was a handsome young son who had aspirations of joining the circus as a trapeze artist or becoming an actor. This young man, biding his time until a circus job or even one as a stagehand came along, worked at the local shipyards, which bordered on the worse part of town.

Walking home from work one evening the young man was attacked by five thugs who wanted to rob him. Instead of just giving up his money, the young fellow resisted. The thugs got the better of him easily and proceeded to beat his body brutally with clubs, leaving him for dead. When the police happened to find him lying in the road, he was so badly beaten that they assumed he was dead. Soon after though a police officer heard him gasp for air, and so they immediately took him to the emergency unit at the hospital.

When he was placed on a gurney, a nurse remarked, to her horror, that this young man no longer had a face. Each eye socket was smashed, his skull, legs, and arms fractured, his nose literally hanging from his face, all his teeth were gone, and his jaw was almost completely tom from his skull. Although his life was spared, he spent over a year in the hospital. When he finally left, his body may have healed but his face was disgusting to look at. He was no longer the handsome youth that everyone admired.

When the young man started to look for work, everyone, just because of the way he looked, turned him down. One potential employer suggested to him that he join the freak show at the circus as “The Man Who Had No Face.” He did this for a while. He was still rejected by everyone and no one wanted to be seen in his company. He had thoughts of suicide.

This went on for five years.

One day he passed a church and sought some solace there. Inside the church, he encountered a priest who had seen him sobbing while kneeling in a pew. The priest took pity on him and took him to the rectory where they talked at length. The priest was impressed with him to such a degree that he said that he would do everything possible for him that could be done to restore his dignity and life if the young man would promise to be the best Catholic he could be and trust in God’s mercy to free him from his torturous life. The young man went to Mass and communion everyday and after thanking God for saving his life, asked only that God give him peace of mind and the grace to be the best man he could ever be in His eyes.

The priest, through his personal contacts, was able to secure the services of the best plastic surgeon in Australia. There would be no cost to the young man because the doctor was the priest’s best friend. The doctor too was so impressed by the young man, whose outlook now on life, even though he had experienced the worst, was filled with good humour and love. The surgery was a miraculous success. All the best dental work was also done for him. And the young man became everything he promised God he would be. He was also blessed with a wonderful wife, children, and success in an industry which would have been the farthest thing from his mind as a career – if not for the goodness of God and the love of the people who cared for him. This he acknowledges publicly.

The young man was Mel Gibson. His life was the inspiration for his production of the movie “The Man Without A Face.” He is admired as a God-fearing man, a political and religious conservative, and an example to all of a true man of courage. “The Passion of the Christ” is in part Mel’s way of thanking God for his many blessings.

Do you believe this story? For myself, I am not sure. I received the story from what is probably a reliable source but part of me says that unless I see and hear it from somewhere indisputable, I won’t believe. How could all that be true?!? We have a healthy scepticism when faced with something like this. Parts of the story sound all too plausible, especially the way some people were quick to put another person down or shun them rather than accept someone so damaged. But … part of us asks “what is going on here?” and withholds our belief. We think “I am just not ready to believe that, … yet, without more information.”

Today we read the story of Thomas (John 20:19-31). He gets a fairly bad rap in the overall scheme of things. ‘Doubting Thomas’ is the label with which he has been stuck. The criticism for his failure to accept the story straight away is easily on our lips. Yet I wonder how any of us would have fared in the same situation. When something seems incredible to us, we may all respond with doubt, at least initially. Actually, I think we have a lot to thank Thomas for. What he presented was healthy scepticism. He recognised that there were gaps in the story. He wanted to be sure before he could trust himself and his reactions to a story that clearly made a huge difference to his life.

Certainly, John the writer of today’s Gospel knew that. Writing near the end of the first century, he was addressing people who had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. The stories they heard were second or even third hand. John’s problem, which is a continuing problem for the church, was how to encourage people in the faith when Jesus was no longer around to be seen and touched. The story of Thomas gave him an excellent way to do that. By focusing on the apostle’s doubt, John takes the words out of our mouths and puts them in Thomas’ instead, so that each of us has the opportunity to think about how we do, or do not come to believe.

In John Irvings novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator John has a number of conversations with his friend Owen Meany about the meaning of belief. In one scene at the schoolyard, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene as twilight falls. When it has become so dark that the statue is no longer visible, Owen asks John if he knows that the statue is still there. John says that of course he knows. Owen keeps pushing:

You have no doubt she’s there, Owen nagged at me.

“Of course, I have no doubt’’ I said.

“But you can’t see her’’ you could be wrong, he said.

“No, I’m not wrong she is there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.

“You absolutely know she’s there “even though you can’t see her?” He asked me.

“Yes” I screamed.

“Well, now you know how I feel about God”, said Owen Meany. “I can’t see him, but I absolutely know he is there!”. The character Owen Meany is a great example of the kind of faith that St. John celebrates in chapter 20 of his Gospel. Because Owen believes so fully and completely in God, he stakes his life on his conviction. He does not need to see signs and wonders; he believes and orients his whole life around this belief.

We have choices, always. We can let the gaps in our knowledge bog us down, or we can grasp the truth we can see and step forward with confidence, always being open to search further, to learn more, to be corrected and guided along the way as we search for clearer answers. With this confidence we can say, with Thomas, and with Mel Gibson, and with all who have learned to trust: Christ is risen. Alleluia: He is risen indeed. Alleluia’!

Bless the world with our thanks for God’s grace to us.

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 5 CJohn 12 1-8

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! Ps 126.6

Mary’s gift of nard to Jesus is a wild extravagance. It’s not given to Jesus for him to keep and use. It’s squandered on his feet; neither he nor anyone else can ever use it again. It’s given as though none of them is going to see another day.

Like her sister Martha, Mary senses who Jesus is. Martha had declared to Jesus privately that he was the Messiah/anointed one. (11.27) Mary says the very same thing publicly by anointing Jesus. But by doing it the way she does, she evokes the anointing that has to do with the dead. Mary senses why he’s come to Jerusalem: it can only lead to his death. So she does what people do when a loved one might soon die. We do all we can to show how much they mean to us.

Mary of Bethany knows instinctively where Jesus is going, yet she doesn’t try to stop him. Watering the wheat today, we do something very similar to what Mary does when she anoints Jesus for his burial. We could grind and eat the wheat we have, but instead, we choose to give it up, and trust that God will bless our choice with a wonderful harvest: a resurrection. God’s abundance allows for death, but also, God’s story tells us to look for resurrection to a wonderful new life.

Mary’s gesture isn’t just extravagant; it’s prophetic. Firstly, it’s a proclamation of who Jesus is – God’s anointed one – the one God’s people had sought for over a thousand years. It’s also a well-wishing; ‘Godspeed the feet of the one embarking on this perilous journey.’ And finally, it’s a sign – the last in John’s book of signs – before Jesus’ providential entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Why can’t Judas be like Mary of Bethany? For that matter, why don’t all Jesus’s followers pour ourselves out like Mary did? Maybe like Judas, our spiritual senses are blocked, and we struggle to accept a God whose extravagance is so great that it blocks out even the terror of death – never mind our savings for tomorrow.

Poor Judas is cut off from Mary’s sense of wonder – her sense of gratitude. He’s trapped by a choice for fear in his world of mistrust – where you keep more fuel in your tank than you’ll ever need – even to the point of pretending you’re doing it for someone else. But wonder of wonders; Jesus came for just such people as Judas. Judas belongs in this story just as firmly as Mary of Bethany does.

Even though he’s one of Jesus’ disciples, somehow Judas can’t see who Jesus is the way Mary and Martha can. Doubtless there are very good reasons for his mixed fear and zeal. But fear is no foundation to build on. The only foundation is Jesus’ love for us; love we could never deserve. Our faith is our response to that love. That’s what we see in Mary of Bethany today.

Mary’s gesture may have been her thanks for Jesus raising her brother Lazarus – outrageous grace and an outrageous response. Mary of Bethany tells us that the fear and suffering and misery of this world are not the defining realities of being. It’s so healing when we meet these reckless givers! They transform our world. The world needs more people to give confrontingly.

Our giving to the poor and needy, our prayers for the sick, for the sad and for the unloved; our care for those burdened with responsibilities they may have chosen, but which eat them alive – our gifts and prayers and care are not inputs for which we expect outcomes. More like grains of wheat that we have learned God will bless if we give them up. We set prayers and kindnesses loose in the world as fragrances which gently, beautifully alert sufferers to the existence of a different reality?

Gifts and prayers and care make perfect sense when they are seen for what they really are; a response to the Jesus who has met us, who has called us, and who leads us in the Way of self-giving, joyful abundant extravagance. We are to bless the world with our thanks for God’s grace to us. And we pray that through our thankfulness, a sense of that infectious extravagance might just reveal its source to all who need to know God’s endless love.  Amen

Mothering Sunday-Church as our Mother

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 4 C – Lk 15 11-32 – The Prodigal Son

I wonder what his Mum told that younger son after the feast. Maybe something like this?

‘The day you left, you broke all our hearts. Dad couldn’t speak at all for days. Then month after month, he sat outside watching for you; just gave your brother and the servants their orders in the morning, then sat there watching, silent again.

I couldn’t do anything to bring him out of it. I could hardly get up in the morning myself. And your brother just got angrier and angrier. Every dinner time, I had to shut him up when he’d start ranting about what you must have been getting up to.

I don’t know what made Dad give you all that money. When I asked him, he’d just say you wanted him dead before his time. If you didn’t want to be with him – if you wanted to live as if he were dead – what was the point of holding on to you? You demanded that he give you your share of our family property. You didn’t want to wait for it. So Dad said “It’s only money. Better to give you what you want; let you go, and hope you come to your senses before you get hurt”.

He regretted it the minute you were gone. We couldn’t sleep for worry about where you might be; what might be happening to you.

Dad stopped going to sit with his old friends in the market. He couldn’t face them – didn’t want to hear the angry gossip about you – off in some foreign land full of strange people. What would they want with a fool like him anyway; a shamed man amongst honourable, sensible people?

Then the drought came; no food anywhere, no work for anyone. ‘What if he’s starving!’ he’d say, over and over. ‘Please God; bring him home alive!?’ Watching; watching: as if his hope and love could somehow keep you alive. I can’t bear to remember it’

Let’s leave her in peace for a moment.

Their younger son wanted everything that comes with belonging, but without having to belong. That’s common now in affluent countries where personal freedom is valued more highly than community. This living without belonging was unimaginable in the world of the parable – and in most of today’s world too. The younger son’s actions and attitudes rejected the core human value of belonging. But I fear he doesn’t shock us the way he shocked his own people. And if so, I wonder what that says about us.

In character, when he hits rock bottom, he thinks of a way to return home on his terms. As a hired servant, he can live apart from the family. He still doesn’t get relationship. Let’s listen to his Mum describe the homecoming.

‘The day you came home, boys from the next village rushed into our marketplace yelling out that you were coming back. A crowd started to gather; angry and ready with bitter words. Some held rotten fruit; a few held stones.

Dad saw all this and rushed out to get to you first. He didn’t care what people thought of him; he could only think of how bad you must feel, and how he had to protect you. The servants and I couldn’t keep up with him. Just as the first hand was raised to throw a stone, he reached you; hugged you; shielded you; kissed you. He ignored their angry words; he ignored your apologies; just yelled to the servants to run back and get his cloak, his ring and some sandals for you. He announced a great party: the whole village must come and celebrate with him.’

That embrace and the kiss were public signs of reconciliation. They were given before the son could give his prepared speech. That’s grace at work. Their relationship was restored by the grace of the father alone; certainly not by the son’s prepared speech.

Later, we meet the older brother. It was for people like him that Jesus told this parable. Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling about Jesus saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’”. The older brother grumbled like they did. He grumbled about his Dad welcoming his ratbag of a brother home and eating with him.

In telling those older-brother Pharisees and scribes this parable, Jesus did for them exactly what the Dad did for the older son when he humiliated himself again before his village by leaving the feast to beg yet another insolent son to come in. Jesus reached out to these older-brother types; upstanding people, certain of their inheritance and sure that God should damn other people. Jesus wanted them inside the love; not locked out by their rage; stopped by their arrogant refusal to come in and eat with him and the people they shunned. In this parable, Jesus tried to show those older-brother Pharisees and Scribes that God longs for us all to be inside, all together.

But it’s Mothering Sunday, isn’t it. Most often when I meet someone who forgives and trusts beyond all reason, that person is a mother.

So perhaps this story of this compassionate, forgiving father is right for Mothering Sunday. It’s a story which reminds us that this foolish grace – always ready to forgive, to trust; always determined to keep the connection alive, and always ready to bear the cost of it all – that this foolish grace that mothers find the strength to summon up, over and over again, is a wonderful way to help us understand the nature of God. When we think today of the Church as our Mother, and that she must be Mother to our children as she has been to us, gracious, trusting and tenacious, it’s good to spend time with this story to learn the nature of that Mother whom we must now embody ourselves.

Amen.

We are called to bear these three hallmarks; patience, hope and compassion

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 3 C  Lk 13 1-9

In last week’s One Plus One programme on the ABC, Rosie Batty interviewed Walter Mikac, a man whose wife and children were killed in the Port Arthur massacre. At one point in the interview, he talked about still having a faith in the face of this horror. But he keeps asking: How could a God who is good allow this to happen to children?

It’s surely a question echoed millions of times right now in Ukraine. And in Australia, every week as more victims of domestic violence and coercive control are killed – how can a God who is good allow this to happen to children? it’s the big question.

But a friend of mine has reminded me to wonder how poor old God feels about this. Wouldn’t God be asking: How can humanity allow these things to happen to my beloved children? Where on Earth is their compassion?

There was a rare compassion in Mikac and Batty’s interview – two people who had lost children to violent murderers.

When people talk about terrible things happening to others, instead of compassion, sometimes there’s an implied undercurrent in what they say. They sound as though they wonder if it there might just be some blame on the victim’s side. What did they do to deserve that?

Jesus sensed something like that in the people who told him what Pilate did to those poor Galileans. Jesus heard something in their way of telling that he wanted to challenge – an unspoken message that these poor Galileans may have deserved what they got.

Shouldn’t those messengers be protesting against the Roman governor? Very risky. Or supporting the victims’ families? Very costly. Instead, it sounds as though they chose to wonder if these people had done something to offend God; to imply in their message that Pilate’s victims were being punished by God. Other spiritual teachers taught that sort of thing, so maybe Jesus would too.

It’s a cheap, easy way out of compassion, isn’t it. You separate yourself from someone’s misfortune by casting doubt on them so they won’t deserve your compassion. Maybe something like this enables the cruelty that we human beings can perpetrate on each other.

Through the parable of the fig tree, Jesus teaches that it’s not just the problem of active cruelty and wrongdoing that concerns God. What worries the God whom Jesus reveals here people’s inactivity and procrastination in the face of that wrongdoing. In the parable of the fig tree. This is expressed as a question of fruitfulness.

But before we go into the parable, let me summarise what Jesus has taught in the first part of today’s Gospel reading:

  • sin is not just evil acts, but also good deeds left on the back burner;
  • there’s no easy one-to-one link between sin and suffering – karma is a lie;
  • Jesus’ compassion is not conditional – it’s offered to all who suffer.

The parable expounds this. Jesus won’t have anyone written off because of their misfortune, but nor will he see anyone written off because they don’t bear the fruit of compassion. Those messengers are portrayed as being like the fig tree in the parable that bore no fruit – bearing empty innuendo instead of the fruits of compassion.

But Jesus doesn’t write them off. He calls for patience and mercy. He’s the gardener of the parable, setting to work on the messengers, digging around; providing nourishment.

Jesus gives opportunities for growth and fruitfulness again, even where they had already been given and ignored. And when the tree does bear fruit, it won’t be by its own efforts, but by God’s grace; the grace we see expressed by the gardener, Jesus.

If you think about it in terms of a tree, it’s perfectly reasonable. If you think about it in terms of responsible adults, that’s when we seem to think the parable’s a little bit outrageous and permissive.

But that’s God for you; the outrageous gardener who prefers diversity to the routine, extravagant over-abundance to mere sufficiency, and who treasures creatures for who they are, and what God-given potential they’re capable of, rather than for their achievements.

This means three things for us.

  • Don’t judge yourself or anyone else as worthy or not; who knows what God might cause to flower?
  • And don’t be too hasty to give up on a seemingly fruitless venture. God knows, the Church would never have got off the ground if we had.
  • And finally, Jesus was calling those messengers from frugal disinterest to generous compassion.

The gospel calls the Church today to bear these three hallmarks; patience, hope and compassion. That’s a call to all of us. What a gift that can be to a humanity starving for those fruits.                                                                                  Amen.

Release the hold that worries have on us

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 2C – Gen 15 1-12, 17-18, Ps 27, Ph 3 17-4.1, Lk 13 31-35

For Kids    We’re about to hear part of the story of Abraham today. Abraham and his wife Sarah are very important to all of us Christians as well as to Jews and Muslims all over the world. We see them as our spiritual parents. Abraham used to be called Abram and Sarah was called Sarai. In today’s story, they still had no children, and they were getting pretty old. They’d moved from their home country, a place we call Iraq today. They’d set out to go to Canaan, the place we call the Holy Land, with Abram’s father Terah and their nephew Lot. But they didn’t get there; they stopped in Syria.

Then in the next chapter, 12.1-3, God tells Abram, leave your father’s house, and go to the place that I will show you. I will make a great nation of you – and through you, I will bless all the families of Earth. Abram obeys God. He takes Sarai and their nephew Lot and they travel south to Canaan. There, God tells Abram I’m going to give this land to you, your children and their children.12.7 They explore the land. But then there’s a drought and a famine, so Abram, Sarai and Lot go further south to Egypt to find food.

They have quite a few adventures. You can read about them with your family. But in today’s reading, we find Abram and Sarai back in Canaan. They’re both very old now, and Abram’s really worried that it’s much too late for them to have any children. He tells God his worries, and God reminds him of the old promise and who it is that made it. Gulp. Abram believed God. We know the story. We know God kept that promise. But Abram couldn’t help worrying. It’s always important that we talk with God when we’re worried about things. Now let’s hear what happens in today’s part of the story.

Sermon     I spend a lot of time with worry; with sick or injured people and with their families who aren’t sure they’re going to get well again. We’re worrying about my Mum’s stuttering recovery from Covid. Today’s readings about Abram’s worries, a Psalmist facing war, and Jesus threatened with assassination resonate with all our worries about the survival of life as we know it; about war, Covid, about Earth herself.

The ancient stories have a lot to say to us in these times of worry; they are stories with lots of connections. Today, as we’re back in Canaan with Abram, he’s worried that he doesn’t have any children to inherit this land or his money and livestock. So God reminds him of an earlier promise to give this land to Abram’s descendants. We’re told that Abram believes God, and God reckons Abram’s belief as righteousness.

It’s a strange story, this one about Abram’s struggles with God. Abram’s worries about who’d inherit his wealth are answered by a look at the night sky; his worries about where he’ll live are answered by cutting animals in half.

We struggle with symbolism; we struggle with obscure references to other stories which are meant to explain questions about the story we’re in. We call this sort of story myth. Sadly, our modern use of the word myth suggests that it’s a sort of lie. But it’s not. Sometimes we learn deeper truth from myth than we ever can from ‘factual’ reports. But it takes work; and it takes us out of the comfort zone of our wish for ‘objective truth’.

There are moments in Abram’s story which connect both with key moments in the biblical story, and with key issues of our time. To notice these connections, it helps to hear today’s episode in the context of other things we know about Abram’s life, like his journey to Egypt and back which I mentioned to the children. That connects his story with the central story of Israel’s relationship with God – the story of the Exodus. It also connects with Jesus’ experience in Egypt as a refugee. And that connects with our response to people who cry out for asylum now.

Connections: We read the story about Abram’s deep and terrifying sleep and maybe we sense links with the creation story where the first human was sent into a deep sleep so new life might emerge – the first woman. Maybe we sense a connection with Jesus in the tomb and his rising again. And Abram’s dream also looks forward to the Exodus: God as cloud and fire leading Israel from slavery to freedom.

This story of Abram’s sleep with the deep and terrifying darkness descending on him has been important to the spiritual insight our mystics have given us about the hope we can offer even to those lost in the dark night of the soul; that we can offer genuine compassion, hope and trust in God to our dear ones lost in their pain and horror; to friends; and also to strangers who are suddenly sisters and brothers like the people of Ukraine today.

In its context of the whole witness of Scripture, this episode connects us with a rich tapestry of stories to help us navigate ethical and human questions which go far beyond the experience or wisdom of any of us. And very important; these stories don’t let us imagine that our judgements or attitudes are in any sense the last word. Far from nurturing dogmatic self-righteousness, these stories humble us all before God. They cry out to our compassion and shape us as people who can respond in a godly, gracious way to the challenging truth of inhumanities that we confront today.

So worries? They have a context; they have connections everywhere – with our origins, with our past and with the people we’ll become – with our stories.

The ancient stories we’ve heard today – if we read them carefully – show us that our worries happen in the context of a much bigger story. It’s the story of God’s love for us, for the world, and for the reconciliation of all things. In such a context – in the connection we have with that much greater story – we can release the hold that our worries have on us. We can do that by talking with Jesus about them. In that conversation, we can learn to experience our worries in the context of his overwhelming love for us all, and trust him, because of his personal understanding of the anguish of worry. Christ is with us, always. Amen

The Kingdom of God is within you

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Rev’d Susan F. Straub

Lent 1

Introduction

Today is the first Sunday in Lent and the theme is: ‘Worship and serve only God.’ It’s that period in the Church year, when we are led by the Holy Spirit, who came to us at our baptism, back into the wilderness of spiritual re-evaluation, doubt, and inner conflict.

Some time ago, Susan Maushart (Weekend Australian 24th-25th February 2007) wrote: ‘What is fundamentalism, whether of the religious variety or the strenuously secular sort, but a toxic deficit of doubt….Perhaps doubt is like cholesterol …. There’s the good kind, and the bad kind. Bad doubt clogs the arteries of inquiry. It does not engage. If deflects, refusing to get off complacency’s couch. Good doubt is pro-active. It doesn’t just wait to see if problems arise. It assumes they will – like dandelions ….’

So, as pro-active doubters in the line of Jesus and Thomas, we prepare ourselves to renew our baptism, our passing from death to life, to say once more “Yes” to life. One way we might do this by denying ourselves something we ordinarily take for granted, or by doing something extra, which we believe will benefit someone else. Maybe using the money we’d have spent on a block of chocolate or other little luxuries, to give to those who really need it. We could give to fellow Australians suffering amidst the devastation of floods in our eastern states, or to Ukrainians suffering the even worse devastation of war, where people take their families to safety then turn back to fight for their country. Then again, we might invite someone to dinner rather than watch TV of an evening.

Whatever we do, we soon see that making even so small a change invites conflict. We find ourselves reaching into our own depths to find what we value most and examining and then grappling with motives:  we expose ourselves to temptation.   However, we do this in the power of the Christ within. We bring into this time and place the forty days he spent in the wilderness immediately following his baptism by John.

Luke 4:1-15

What Jesus showed us in the wilderness was how to hammer out, how to become clear, about those spiritual guidelines that will inform how we’ll think and in accordance with which we’ll try to act. This is construction work – the construction of identity, of character. Just as the people of Israel did it as they wandered in the wilderness. Just as Jesus did it in the wilderness, we’re doing it. Constructing, creating from the scriptures what it means to be born of God. Beginning with:  who am I?  A child of God. Then it follows that I may worship and serve only God. When we do this, we’re walking in the Kingdom, the Promised Land.

Within the Kingdom of God, we each create a self we can live with. The word of God, ‘be doers and not hearers only’, is more important even than food. We can be honest about our beginnings for after all we have no influence over the circumstances into which were born: ‘a wandering Aramean was my ancestor’ or Jesus was the son, as was thought, of Joseph, son of Heli, and so on.

We can be honest about our troubles and ultimate dependence on God ‘we cried to the Lord’ and ‘the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness’. God not only lifts up the lowly but fills the hungry with good things.

When the worship of God or being a servant of God, when humility then is more important to us than personal power and authority.

Within the Kingdom, the worship of God, being a servant of God in humility, is more important to us than ego, and truth more important than any outward show of power. By not accepting without question even scripture, used duplicitously by one intent on amassing power to dominate, Jesus, in spite of extreme hunger, withstood the temptation to deny his calling.

As President Volodymyr Zelensky said in response to President Vladimir Putin’s national address: ‘We don’t have time for lengthy history lectures. I am not going to talk about the past. Let me tell you about the present and the future…(the) truth is that this is our land, our country, and our children and we will defend all of this.’

When we have such faith that we can doubt, question, wrestle, accept, then we see how God works in and through us, particular persons with particular characteristics. We become who we are called to be as persons and a people. And that is worship in spirit and truth.

 

Clearly reflect God’s grace and Christ’s self-giving love.

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Transfiguration – Last Sunday after Epiphany – Ex 34, Ps 99, 2 Cor 3, Lk 9

Imagine looking into a mirror and seeing an image of yourself that’s much lovelier than you expect. You look more whole; more alive; more at peace; more joyful; more kind. The mirror shows you the person you know you can be. And then imagine, that, as you watch, you start to change – you start to become like that wonderful person you see in the mirror. We heard Paul describe this today as something quite real. 2 Cor 3.18 we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become more like God. The Message

Transfigured – we saw it happen today to Moses, his face alight, shining with God’s reflected glory. And far more wonderfully, we saw it in Jesus today – but his light wasn’t reflected: Jesus’ light came from within him. The Gospels are all about Jesus. But they’re also given to change us.

Jesus’ transfiguration is meant to show us what God intends for us too: we are to be transfigured. Day by day, we are to become clearer mirrors of God’s love and joy and peace and beauty. We’ll learn more about that progression between now and Pentecost. The great light we see revealed in Jesus’ transfiguration will become the incandescent fire inspiring the disciples at Pentecost. So it’s meant for us too.

But it’s a daunting journey from Transfiguration to Pentecost. Good Friday, Easter, and Christ’s Ascension are inescapable way-points. What encouragement can I offer, that we might willingly travel this road together with our Lord? Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth-century spiritual writer wrote this: … as a mirror returneth the very self-same beams it receiveth from the Sun, so the Soul returneth those beams of love that shine upon it from God. For as a looking-glass is nothing in comparison of the world, yet containeth all the world in it, and seems a real fountain of those beams which flow from it, so the Soul is nothing in respect of God, yet all Eternity is contained in it, and it is the real fountain of that Love that proceedeth from it. Centuries of Meditations C4.84 https://ccel.org/ccel/t/traherne/centuries/cache/centuries.pdf

This Wednesday, we will enter the season of Lent – the season of preparation. We are called to risk it: to voluntarily embark on this journey of transfiguration: called to look in a mirror, see in it the person of Christ. We are the community called to clearly reflect God’s grace and Christ’s self-giving love. That’s the call, and by God’s grace and because of Jesus, we will! Amen