Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

One Man's Web

There never was a lone cowboy rode into town. There was always an invisible legion riding with him; brothers and uncles, even the father he never knew, and his mother, well armed. When I first took a laptop on a long solitary ride across the country, my dear father printed out every blog post for himself, and then reprinted the photos with varying degrees of success and mailed them to my sister already reading the blog in England. Why? Because he was riding with me. The journeying that is me, was him; he gave it to me; he taught me; he formed me. As a four year old I heard Jesus on the road as I was hiking alone; already my father had me travelling, and Jesus began to intrude into my family relationships at the same moment as he affirmed my travelling and searching.

It is not that we are for our families or against them, but something deeper. We are our families, or we are in reaction against them— which is to say: still formed by them in reaction!— and we are our hometown or suburb, and our nation. We can only be Jesus' person if we become somehow detached from these other entities; that is, if we hold to them lightly, and if we will not be subject to their commands and calls to arms as we become aware of them. We can only be Jesus' person if we filter the call and conditioning of family through his way of being human. Families will sometimes feel such detachment as hatred, and will hate us for it. For their existence and survival, and the survival of their members, depends on solidarity. It depends on faithfulness. It needs us for assurance, for support, and even for blood... Read on >>>>

(You can listen here)

In last week's gospel, we had the image of a woman who was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. The Greek text of that story contains an extended pun about being bound and set free. The message seems to be that Sabbath rest is meant to be a thing of freedom for us, not an imposition. The woman is set free on the Sabbath. Sabbath is for remembering and recollecting who we are, and remembering what life is about; keeping a Sabbath sets us free from the rat race.

In this week's gospel, the story is again set on the Sabbath day. It's a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus is invited, he trolls the Pharisees and authorities on the Law. He asks them if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not. And they stay silent, which means they know they can't win the argument.

He heals the man, who has dropsy and, it says, "sent him away." It sounds so much like the last story that the lectionary leaves it out and goes on to the argy bargee about who gets to recline where at the dinner table. Which I think... means it misses the point of the whole story.

If the woman is bent over and can't straighten up, we immediately think of burdens and sorrows weighing her down. We may see a metaphor about oppression, and see that Jesus sets her free, or looses her.

So what about dropsy? Today, dropsy is usually called oedema.  It's the swelling you get when your limbs, or other parts of the body, retain too much fluid.

What does dropsy suggest to us as a metaphor? If Luke tells us a story about dropsy, he wants us to find meaning— to find a symbol— in the illness. Any suggestions... ... ... ... ...?

What about swelling?  What does swelling suggest about behaviour and attitudes in our culture... ... ... ...?

Anyway... at the time, philosophers thought dropsy was a sign of greed and excess wealth. So what we have in the Pharisee's house is a man whom people assume, from the state of his health, is greedy, which is to say... sinful.  They would have 'fat-shamed' him, essentially.

Jesus heals him, and although the Greek word  ἀπέλυσεν  (apelusen) is translated, sent him away, the underlying word is to release, or set free.  You could say that Jesus healed the man and said, "You are now free to leave this place." Or even, "You are free to leave this place of sickness." ... Read on >>>>

You can listen here.

Following on from a lection about a woman who "was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight," we see men who are already upstanding, and who face a similar confrontation by Jesus; he heals on the Sabbath. Except the lectionary leaves that bit out!

The NRSV English translation obscured the fact, last week, that the woman was made to stand up straight. (ἀνωρθώθη1) She did not stand up on her own, but as a result of Jesus' laying hands upon her. It does not escape Jesus' notice that these men, already honoured by the invitation to a meal,  yet busy jockeying for further "places of honour," are seeking to stand tall on their own. There is a sermon right here....

At the table, one man is swollen with retained fluid, the other men are swollen with their own importance.

Dropsy is often accompanied by deep thirst. If this were John's gospel our mind would go to Chapter 4 and the woman who asked for the water which means "I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." John 4:15.

Stories are never innocent; things never "just happen" despite the NRSV use of that phrase for the Greek word behold. The Greek says pay attention to this man... and his disease. He is not merely sick; the actual disease is specified, which means it is significant; it is 'part of the behold.'  We begin to see the metaphorical import of illnesses which cripple, or of blindness, or being deaf, quite quickly. We understand a withered hand says something about a loss of agency and power, but dropsy?... Read on >>>>

You can listen here.

One day, I woke up at the traffic lights... I'd come to work the day before to find that one of our clients had an emergency, and I nursed their server through the day, got it stable, rebuilt it over night, and was coming back to the office around lunchtime the next day, when the lights changed. I stopped, and promptly fell asleep. I'm not actually sure how many sets of lights I slept through until I noticed that traffic was driving around me.

This might be an image for many of us who have to work today. Jobs just want us to go and go and go... and if we fall over, they'll get someone else. It's not just that this is physically dangerous; it is, I could have fallen asleep at the wrong moment and ploughed into a kindy and killed ten little kids.

But when we live like this as an individual, and as a society, we suffer another kind of exhaustion which is even more dangerous. We get so much on the treadmill, so much on autopilot, so focussed on keeping the customer happy, or on staying in government, that we forget who we are. We lose track of our values.

If we are lucky, we end up being miserable. We end up wondering what the point of it all is. "What does life mean? How can I keep going? Why would I want to keep going?"

And that is a lucky place to wake up, because other folk who are a bit tougher, or a bit less reflective— I don't know what it is— they end up with a different set of questions. "How did I end up here? What on earth did I think I was doing? How could I have been so stupid? How did it get to this?" ... Read on >>>>

Jesus the Disruptor

We hear about disruptors in business; GoogleFacebookUber... the list goes on. But, in reality, nothing has changed, business goes on. Talk to a motel owner, or a restaurateur, or taxi driver, and we will find that the likes of Trivago and Menulog and Uber are often felt as a kind of predation, rather than a service. My understanding is that much of this so called disruption often creates nothing really new; instead, it is a battle between old and new money. Old money (and its techniques and investments) finds itself outflanked by new competitors, rather than by anything which is a real innovation. In other words, the key issue in disruption is the holding of power, and who holds the power, rather than the technology or new ideas. In this sense, solar and wind power are not 'new' or innovative— how long have we had windmills; those embracing wind and solar power have outflanked the coal companies due to circumstance and luck. Business as usual, in other words.

To see that nothing fundamental has changed, observe how the new businesses can't seem to help themselves as they become like the old ones: Google began with the motto "Do no evil," but its Chrome browser is often referred to as "Google's Surveillance Software." It seems that the new companies continue the worst of the old companies' exploitation of workers and consumers. Facebook and Twitter and other "social media" have empowered propaganda (aka fake news, doxing, election meddling, etc) to a level which Joseph Goebbels, who headed Hitler's Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, would have envied.

In my denomination, newer congregations, and new expressions of faith, sometimes champ at the bit over regulations and structures, and feel held back by other parts of the church. There are deep differences in theological opinion. A colleague wondered recently if "we are preaching different gospels." Yet other groups feel that hard won lessons of the gospel are being ignored, or even rolled back. We often express these discontents through lenses which talk about being faithful to the gospel, or being faithful to the Basis of Union, but I find it hard not to see much of the discontent being, at base,  a series of arguments over power— a battle between oligarchies which wish to define the constitution of the church. I can't help but observe that, on all sides, we speak of 'freedom' and 'faithfulness to the gospel,' but nonetheless impose our own set of shibboleths along with our 'free and faithful' structures. New expressions of faith can be as exclusive and condemning as old curmudgeons like me, and people who extol inclusion often find it hard to include those who don't meet their standards for being inclusive.

In this week's text, Jesus specifically says the woman was "bound for eighteen long years" by Satan... Read on >>>>

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

You can listen here.

The gospel reading this week is part of Jesus' reply to Peter, who asks in Luke 12:41 whether the promise of the Master who will return from his wedding and serve the slaves, who might just be his bride the church, is a parable "for us or for everyone." Jesus replies with another parable which suggests that rather than the church having some special privilege denied to everyone, it has instead a special responsibility.  "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Luke 12:48)...

McKenzie says that the Luke reading this week is commentary on those preceding verses of Luke 12: 41-48 where Jesus answers Peter and so is really speaking to "us." As I read Micah 7 (which is echoed in the gospel reading) and as I consider my own life, I wonder if the verses are also commentary on a tacit confession made by Luke. It seems that Jesus' answer to Peter is not so much warning of what may go wrong in the discipleship of the church, but what has gone wrong.

In the first flush of faith I was delighted. I began to realise I was a part of a community and a way of being which was much greater than myself. I worked hard to discern and express what Jesus is about for my time and place, and to escape the social Christianity which, quite early, I began to realise was often about its own personal comfort. I did not then have the language I would use today, but my Pitjantjatjara mentors began to teach me about the same exclusions and privileges which I later would find used against women and LGBTIQ folk and folk from other religions.

Somewhere in that I realised that despite all learning and seeking to follow Jesus, I had been a fellow traveller with the world. I saw how much, even as a disciple and as clergy, I was invested in worldly success. Not the Mercedes Benz kind of success, but a generally comfortable material existence, and the assumption of social stability and, as a man with multiple degrees, a certain respect and privilege. The second part of my life is now slower and more difficult in its learning. I see it not so much as repentance; I am repenting, but I see it as a slow and difficult divestment of the world. I am deeply challenged by how hard that is, and by how little I have been shaped by the Christ, so far.... Read on >>>>

 

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Dear Elwyn, who you remember used to preach for us, was a twin. He grew up at Tailem Bend across the River from where my Mum was raised. She often used to tell us kids how dangerous the river was, and how many people had drowned. It was no place for ten year old boys on their own, but Elwyn and his brother skipped school one day, and went swimming in the river.  Somehow, Elwyn's dad got to hear that the twins were in the river rather than in the school. Elwyn told me they looked up to see their father looking down on them from the top of the cliff. Elwyn said, "We ran for our lives!"

Elwyn's dad had concern for his sons. In an act of love, he left his work and came to their rescue in a situation which could have destroyed them, yet the sons could not see love or concern, but could only see punishment and retribution.

How terrible would it be to have the God of love come to us, and for us not to see love, but only see danger and terror?

There is a great promise in the gospel reading today: "it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom." It is said to a tiny church, a group of people so small that Luke has Jesus call them a small little flock. I know the English translation says "little flock," but already, the word used for the sheep is a diminutive. It's as if we were talking about Lachlan and calling him Lachy. Lachy is already a term of endearment, and Jesus adds to it by calling him "Little Lachy," and by calling us his "small little flock."

All the fullness of the completed creation, all the joy of a world of justice and community is offered to us. That’s what kingdom is. Injustice and exclusion and isolation will be removed. And in the little flock we can begin to experience moments of the fullness of that creation already. We can find a home, and a place to be... Read on >>>>

You can listen here.  The links between the pieces of Luke 12:13-48 mean any divisions by the lectionary are artificial, but it seems telling that lectionary leaves out vv22-31 and vv42-48, which are particularly challenging for we who are rich. My first conclusion on reading the text is that we are so rich that we do not know how to read these words, and my second is that we have left out some of the most challenging words.

At church last night I told people of a younger friend who had said, "Given my age, I may just get to die in bed." She and I were talking about the consequences of global warming, which now seem to be an unavoidable climate catastrophe.  I suggested to the meeting that if we are not addressing how to live in a dying civilisation and, perhaps, even as a part of a dying species, then we have nothing to say to younger people. Climate catastrophe is their world, and their reality. Do we take seriously that it is in such a world that God wishes to give us the Kingdom, or are we carefully averting our eyes from the rising waters and temperature?

NT Wright says of the text

Jesus ... is now warning that a crisis is coming, a great showdown for which one must be prepared in the same way as servants who listen eagerly for their master’s footfall and knock at the door. Jesus seems to have envisaged a coming moment at which the forces of light and darkness would engage in a terrible battle, resulting in his own death, and a devastating catastrophe for Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular. Though this passage and others like it have often been taken as predictions of Jesus’ final return, Luke throughout his gospel seems to suggest that they refer principally to a complex of events which Jesus knew would happen within the lifetime of his contemporaries. (Luke for Everyone pp156 SPCK 2001)

Does Jesus speak to our coming catastrophe? Will we have anything to say to our contemporaries? How can we be prepared and "dressed for action?" (Luke 12:35) I begin this post with the climate catastrophe because climate catastrophe is a direct result of giving our hearts over to material riches rather than the Kingdom of God. And we westerners must begin with the admission that we especially are blinded by our riches, and that much of what we say needs to be the confession of enslaved hearts. It is truly a time for us to listen.

The Heart
The heart is the centre of my passions and being. It is who I am. It is the thing which drives and empowers me. The heart is also the centre of my happiness; it is the part of me which feels that the life I am living is "real" rather than a pretence, or a mistake, or an illusion, or has no meaning at all. We people properly seek to fill the longing of our hearts; there is no other way to live. The latest power tool or gadget, the newer model phone and, indeed, the latest fashion of any kind, all promise to comfort and fill an empty heart, so that a person may live. Yet most men's sheds are full of clutter they thought would comfort their heart and give them meaning, but which didn't. And our full sheds show us how little we have allowed the Christ to fill our hearts.... Read on >>>>

20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Sermon

The thing that is horrific about this story is not that the man dies. Everyone dies. And if we knew that death was simply oblivion, well ... I guess we would learn to live with that. What's horrific is that the man's does not just die; his life is 'demanded of him.' The phrase reminds us that we do not own ourselves. Our life is not our own. What the story implies is that when the man dies— when his life is demanded of him —  he has nothing to give. He only has money.

Understand me here. It is not that God will reject this man. God leaves no one behind. 'Nothing… can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord,' Paul said. And centuries before Jesus, God said to his prophet Ezekiel in chapter 18:32 "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone."

No one is left behind, but despite this, our best thinking and our deepest praying cannot not escape the sense that the way we live has consequence.

I remember a town where the church hall was basically a tin shed with a rough cement floor and the red dust always seeping in. During one hot summer a lad got stuck in town waiting for money;  his wallet had been stolen; he needed help. I offered to turn a couple of the padded pews together in the church, for a bed. In those days, I think the church building had the best air conditioner in town.

But the lad chose to sleep in the dirt on the bare cement. Is that the future of the man with many barns? Does something about his riches mean that  like that lad, he can only turn away from, and refuse, the love of God when it comes to him?

What do riches do to us?

There was a time in Australia, when if you wanted to hire a colour TV in your hospital room, it would cost you a few extra dollars over the price of a black and white TV. My theology teacher went to visit a rich man who had hired only a black and white TV. He asked why. The man gave him a lecture in financials—percentages, and compound interest. He had all the pricing worked out; I suspect he gave my colleague the annualised cost of having a colour TV instead of black and white, and how much money he was saving. He said his father had taught him all this; money makes the man, you see. But he knew, the staff knew, and my colleague knew, that he would be dead in two weeks. Yet even then he could not enjoy a colour TV. He was a slave to his wealth.

On the other hand, I look at my mum's comfortable, but not that salubrious aged care room, and I say to myself, "When I need a place like this, I wonder if they'll let me put up my hiking tent in the garden," because... it's obvious I'll never be able to afford to stay in a place like that. Maybe the black and white TV man made the right decisions about money.

How much money is enough? What does it mean to be rich towards God?... Read on >>>>

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