Calling in crisis

The following sermon refers to the gospel reading from this week’s lectionary texts, which you can find here.

The gospel reading today gives us a much more familiar version of Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him than we heard last week from John’s account. In Matthew’s version they drop their nets, leave their boats and their livelihood to obey the call of Christ.

The call is to follow, and in following they are led to change – they are not fishermen anymore, although they do return to their boats as a familiar, safe haven in times of confusion and transition. As they follow Jesus, he leads them away from the water, and instead of working with wind and weather, nets and whatnot, they are working with people, with crowds and miracles, with parables and Pharisees, with stories, questions and quarrels – they are working with spirit.

And that calls them into growth…their ideas about God are shaken and re-made. They outgrow the familiar things of their faith and they find that what has fit before is no longer fit for purpose. In the same kind of vein, last week I identified a number of different concepts, ideals, and patterns of belief and behaving which we need to re-examine because they are not fit for purpose. They are not fit for the kingdom of heaven – that rule and reign of God that empire of the Spirit of Love.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus begins his ministry by calling the disciples and by proclaiming that this kingdom has come near.

Repent, he proclaims. Change.

Really, it couldn’t be any clearer that the call of Jesus is into change, into growth and into transformation – just consider what happens to the disciples as they follow that call… At the end of the gospel accounts, the disciples are all gathered in the upstairs room, traumatised by the events of the previous days and terrified of their consequences. They are overwhelmed by fear.

At the beginning of Acts, they undergo a joyful transformation. They are like women who have laboured through the night and now the baby is born, and all the pain of labour is forgotten. But they are the ones who are born anew, they are the ones who see life with eyes that have never seen before. Crisis and tragedy are transformed by the power of love over death, by the power of the resurrection. And out of that crisis, Peter and the other disciples emerge as carriers of God’s message to the world.

In a way that they probably didn’t realise, they have been trained to communicate this message by being with Jesus and by their interactions with each other. And although they didn’t feel ready for the next part of the calling until it was brought upon them by the crisis of the crucifixion, they find that out of tragedy comes creativity. Out of death comes life, and they are called to show that the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near by the shape of their lives, by what they value, how they show and share the grace and love of God.

So how do we answer that call? This isn’t a trick question, but it doesn’t seem to have a straight answer, does it? So I am coming at it slant.

Later this afternoon I am officiating at a strange sort of wedding. In fact, I married the couple in question two and a half years ago, between lockdowns and in the back garden with less than 20 people attending. We had KFC for the reception dinner – that part was unforgettable, but for me, not in a good way.

The wedding they had originally planned to have is finally taking place this afternoon, with 150 guests and family from Malaysia, Australia and China attending. The couple wanted some kind of ceremony to happen, but the essential parts had already been covered…so what to do?

Well, in the past two and a half years, there have been some big changes for them…they now have a son – two has become three. So as I prepared some options for them to consider, I wondered if there was anything I could draw in from this huge shift from being a couple to becoming a family. I did a bit of reading around and I came across this piece of wisdom from relationship therapist Esther Perel’s book ‘mating in captivity’.

She quotes one of her clients, an exhausted mother, who said:

“I knew we were in trouble when I couldn’t even think about relaxing and connecting with my husband until all the toys were put away”…it’s as if making order on the outside can bring peace on the inside.

But the thing is, in some way, it does. There is something about getting that kind of stuff done that gives a sense of control and efficiency, and offers immediate, measurable results that make you feel good.

We clean the windows, fix the blinds, dust, vacuum, sweep, mow…but none of these jobs is ever truly done except in an ongoing way…and yet how readily we identify these as priorities and we put our energy into these things more than in the less measurable, more risky efforts to build and grow connections –

through thoughtful conversations, through sharing stories, fears and hopes, through asking our questions and wonderings and listening to each other.

We use what energy we have to achieve a practical result that we can feel good about. But the thing is, in doing this, we have only created a fleeting sense of peace, a temporary sense of achievement. We choose to take care of what is at the surface over what is underneath. In no time at all the dust settles, the grass grows, finger-marks appear on the windows…And so we go around again.

At our parish council meeting this week I asked this question: How much energy do you think we have as a congregation?

I wonder how you would answer that question: how much energy do you think we have? How much energy do you have? And what are you willing to put that energy into?

Then I wanted to know, if our energy levels are low – and for many good reasons that’s the general sense– what will regenerate them? What can we do together that fills the tank rather than depletes it? What would you feel excited to do, or look forward to? And just as important, what would feel like an obligation or a burden?

Would you, like the exhausted mother, rather mop the floor or connect with others?

I could be wrong, but I don’t think looking after the building is going to overwhelm us with joy or inspire our creativity, lead us to new life or fresh vision. But if this is what you have energy for, we need to look at that straight on, not slant.

We need to see what is here and what is not, and then – then – we can hear again the call to follow knowing that crisis, struggle and even death are part of the journey into life.

Calling, Identity and Mission

This sermon was preached from the lectionary texts for Sunday 15th January: Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians1:1-9; John 1:29-42. You can find those here.

It’s not often I find it hard to pick one of the readings to focus on, but this week, I found myself wanting to say something about all three of them. I found that together they brought into focus a theme that I hope you’ll agree, we need to explore and act on with a greater sense of urgency this year. The main theme I noticed is Calling. Each of these texts says something about calling and also says something about Identity and Mission as a result of God’s call.

In the Isaiah reading, there is the calling of the servant, the nation of Israel, who are then given a twofold mission– to show forth God’s glory and to be a light to the nations. Now, remember the context of this call.

Isaiah is telling a defeated, devastated, traumatised, exhausted group of people that their honour will be restored, they will be liberated, AND that they are to be a light to all nations. Last week we heard Isaiah telling the people that God is doing a new thing.

The restoration which God promises the people is not just for them – that’s too small. God’s calling is always bigger and more expansive than we think or assume. Even though the community is in crisis, still they are called to be a blessing, a light to others, not just to look after themselves, not just to minister to their own.

This speaks into our context too, don’t you think? This calls us to consider if we are looking just to our own survival. This suggests that the call of God on the church is not to revive or renew the church – this is too small a thing. I believe that this cannot be the focus of our purpose, our mission, not just because it’s too small, but also because I believe that God’s idea of the church is not the same as ours. I think we, the church, have misunderstood our identity.

Paul also has something to say about this. He begins his letter by affirming the calling of the folks in Corinth to be saints, and their calling into the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord. This calling he is talking about isn’t about joining an organisation or about conversion into a new belief system. It’s a call that draws us into constructing a new identity. An identity that is shared with others (fellowship) who are also orienting their life around the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The call to be a saint in Corinth is about a community living a different way, grounded in love, hope and peace.

Paul’s opening in this letter also indicates that while he’s very pleased with the Corinthians, he wants to shift how they understand certain things about grace. And what he wants to shift in them is their speech and knowledge. Grace is the capacity to speak in a certain way, and it is the capacity to understand things in a certain way…Paul doesn’t think the Corinthians quite get it yet. He tells them that they aren’t lacking in any spiritual gift AS THEY WAIT for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are perhaps a bit overconfident, or a bit impatient. They think they’ve heard it all already, that they know all they need to know and there is nothing left to learn. But Paul says faith is a journey and you have a long way to go yet.

You, collectively have many gifts, he tells them, and there are still more to come. And some of what is still to come will come from outside of your current community, because this is how we are a light to the nations. Your journey together doesn’t have a clear, set path for you to follow. You will make the way as you go, guided by prayer and the Holy Spirit and connecting with others along the way.

Now, in the past, the church has understood mission as going out with the intention to convert (get others to believe), and then to bring those others in to the church (so they can belong), once they are regularly among us, we can instruct them on how to behave so that they can be like us. This model has been in operation for decades, and for generations. But over generations it has found fewer responsive hearts and minds, and in the past forty years, there’s been a growing recognition that this ‘Believe, Belong, Behave’ model of church and of mission has many flaws.

Some of those flaws may be very obvious to you, some less so. Until we examine this model of church and mission and recognise what its flaws are, we can’t be part of the new thing that God is doing. Until we can look honestly at our assumptions and notice our blind spots, we won’t even be able to perceive the new things that God is doing. We’ll sabotage our own efforts if we rely on what we think we know and what church has always been and done.

We have to reckon with the fact that in our organising of church and engaging in mission we haven’t truly understood and accepted that God forgives all of us by including all of us in forgiveness – instead we’ve made it conditional on a belief system.

We say God created all of us, but we can’t imagine that God therefore delights in diversity – instead we’ve identified what’s acceptable and what’s not.

We talk of God’s healing us and setting us free, liberating us from everything that keeps us small, stuck, shackled and afraid – but we’ve created systems of worthiness and control through guilt and shame that keep us small, stuck shackled and afraid.

And although throughout the scriptures God shows especial concern for the poor and oppressed– we’ve kept structures of status and power.

I don’t exempt myself from this failure to understand God’s call to us to be church and to partner in the mission of living as a community of light, hope and healing love. I am as mixed up in the missional thinking of the church as any one of you, and my theological education has helped me identify the issues, but not given me any clear way to shift that thinking into a different model. We are on a journey together in this and like the Corinthians, we’ll make the path as we go, guided by prayer and the Holy Spirit and connecting with others along the way.

But one thing I can do that will help us start that journey is to identify four good reasons why we as a church collectively through history, have not stopped to challenge the missional assumptions of our faith:

Because of four Ps.

Firstly, because of prejudice. We thought we were better – more civilised, better organised, more successful, more sophisticated than other peoples. We thought poverty meant lacking in everything, we couldn’t see and didn’t value the abundance that was present in different cultures and peoples, and we didn’t recognise the potential that was repressed.

Secondly, because of privilege. We assumed everyone was starting from the same place, and failed to notice when others were starting with fewer options, fewer resources and fewer opportunities.

We preferred those who are like us, and we were quick to judge difference as failure, often full of arrogance and lacking compassion. We couldn’t see our own advantages.

Thirdly, because of patriarchy. We allowed systems of power and authority to form and inform our communities, minimising the gifts of women and children, dehumanising and elevating men. We let patriarchy determine which bodies were valued and which were shameful or useless because they are weaker or differently abled.

And lastly because of penal substitution atonement theory.

That’s a technical term, so let me explain it for you. Penal means punishment or penalty. Substitution means one person stands in for another. Atonement is the work of reconciliation between God and all creation. And a theory is an idea. Together, this provides an explanation of how the cross works in Christian faith. This theory has been the backbone of much evangelical Christianity – it’s certainly how the gospel and the cross were explained to me at age 16.

This way of understanding the atonement says that God is holy and that humans are sinful. God cannot simply ignore human sin and be true to God’s holiness. So there must be a just punishment. Jesus the Christ, the God-Human, willingly stood in the human sinner’s place, absorbing God’s just punishment on sin and sinners. Christ’s righteousness is placed over us, just as our sin was placed upon him on the cross.

There are several passages of scripture which support various parts of this understanding of how the cross works, and Paul certainly uses this substitutional sacrifice language at times.

But.

Scripture offers us a multifaceted witness to God’s revelation of divine love. There are many ways that the whole testifies to the way that God works, to God’s nature and intention, and the theory of penal substitution is just one among many.

Theologically, there are at least two major issues with this as the main way to understand the atonement.

The starting point of holiness that demands punishment and love which promotes grace leads us to a dangerously bipolar image and experience of God. I have heard people speak of the cross as the Son stepping into the gap to avert the punishing wrath of the Father, or of the Son placating the Father’s wrath. if you accept that this God exists and is your creator, then you find yourself in a relationship with a God whose attitude to you has swung dramatically between death dealing anger and self-sacrificing love – and in return you are expected to feel only love and asked to surrender yourself to this God.

In the same vein, I have heard the gospel described as bad news followed by good news, which requires people to believe first that they deserve an eternal punishment simply for being human, and then that a divinely sinless human has taken that punishment for them, which they can only benefit from if they will repent and try diligently to behave better.

Although I found this a comfortingly clear explanation of the cross for some time, if it’s the only way you have to speak about God’s saving love and action, it seems to motivate an underlying response of fear rather than trust. And when the focus is on wrath, on God as holy, on the cross alone, omitting the life and teaching of Jesus, the resurrection, and Holy Spirit, that means the larger redemptive grace of God is often out of focus. It may be that you hold this theory as the basis of your faith, and that you now feel anxious or angry about it being questioned. That is how I felt when I was first challenged in that understanding.

It’s not my intention to destroy faith or to provoke anger, but I accept that the chances are each of these four Ps touch a raw nerve for most of you and so it’s fair enough if you react with some energy to that.

So, please see this as a conversation starter, and not as a declaration of war.

I do believe that how we speak about and how we understand grace has to shift, and I’m not alone in this – there are churches and church leaders all over the world recognising this is true.

In the words of missional leader Alan Roxborough,

“the most important question we must address is this:

In a world confronted with cascading catastrophes, what does it mean for God’s people to form communities of hope that offer to our world an alternative way of living? This is the leadership question we must address as God’s people or become irrelevant.”

We have a big shift to make. But I believe we have all the resources of grace available to us, AND I also believe that shift can happen when we make conversation and contemplation the foundation for our fellowship. That’s an alternative way of living. When we humbly listen to each other and appreciate each other’s learning journey, and when we humbly listen to God in scripture and in silence, that’s an alternative way of living – and we open a way for grace to move among us.

When John points out Jesus to two of his disciples and says, ‘here is the one you are looking for’, they leave John and follow Jesus. It’s not so much that Jesus calls them, but that they are already primed to follow. Jesus invites the two disciples to come and see where he lives, where he abides. And when they get there, the two abide with him, and then they bring others they already know, and whose hopes and longings they already know, to meet Jesus.

This is what God calls us to. To come and see and to abide. To be a community who live a different way, who are grounded in love, hope and peace, so that we reach beyond ourselves and touch the hopes and longings of those we meet.

So let’s talk, and let’s keep on talking and listening and praying together as we face into this year with courage and compassion.

Teach us to pray

The lectionary texts for this week are here. I’m reflecting on the gospel reading.

The last two weeks we have heard again stories which we have heard before. The good Samaritan, Mary and Martha and this week we hear Luke’s particular version of another very familiar piece of scripture – the Lord’s prayer.

When I reflected on the Mary and Martha story last week, I shared about the life changing shift that happened for me when I stopped treating the familiar tasks of my life as the frustratingly repetitive, necessary chores and errands of maintenance, and instead approached them with energy and attention.

No longer just keeping things going, no longer just loading endless piles of laundry into the washing machine, making endless trips to the supermarket to prepare an endless round of meals for my continuously hungry family.

With energy and attention, I’m not involved in maintenance, I’m taking care of things. I wonder if you tried this shift in attitude, in bringing energy and attention to the familiar, mundane aspects of your life this week? If you did try it, you may well have noticed that it’s hard. It’s hard to bring active interest to the familiar. After all, we develop routines so that we don’t have to bring active interest to things! We keep things the same so that we don’t have to think about them – we can just do them. We think that’s going to save us some time or some energy somewhere down the line…

But what actually happens is that our routines let us cruise so much that we kind of fall asleep at the wheel of our lives. We’re not really giving any attention to what we’re doing. Have you ever got in the car to go somewhere and then found you’d gone the wrong way- and you find yourself driving to go to work even though you were meant to be going to the movies? Or have you ever arrived somewhere and had no real memory of the journey – it was all on autopilot while your mind was somewhere else entirely.

If you start to pay attention to what you are doing, especially when it’s familiar and part of your routine or your habitual patterns, you might be surprised to discover how much of your doing is really running a maintenance programme. That doesn’t mean your life is dull and uninteresting. You may be very active, very busy, very interactive. There may be many dramas, many happenings, many big moments. The thing is, we can do all of those on autopilot too. If pretty much anyone in your family can accurately predict how you’ll react to a certain kind of news, a certain kind of invitation, a certain kind of person – you know you’ve got autopilot patterns.

I can say this with complete confidence, and also without any judgement or sense of superiority, because we all have them. We all get into comfortable routines of life and when that happens, we start to live less.

It takes energy and attention to live fully. It takes energy and attention to learn how to live life in all its fullness, which is the promise of Jesus for those who follow him.

So, it’s really interesting that in the reading today, we hear how the ones who were following Jesus have been watching him repeatedly taking time to pray and now they ask him to teach them how to pray.

These are people who have grown up with prayer as part of their family lives, as part of their social and cultural identity. They had been taught to pray, been saying prayers and hearing prayers their whole lives, but now they ask Jesus to teach them. Perhaps they see Jesus bringing energy and attention to his prayer. Perhaps they see that when he recites a prayer, he’s not just saying the words. Perhaps they see that when he prays, something shifts. Sometimes that means something amazing and miraculous happens. Sometimes that means something shifts into clarity and he asks a question or makes an observation or tells a story that goes to the heart of the matter. Perhaps they sense the depth of his inner silence. Perhaps they sense the fullness of his presence, the freedom of his being, and they think: we want to live, to be fully like that.

So they ask. And Luke gives us the Lord’s prayer in these five sentences. Just these.

So we start with a term of relational intimacy that conveys God’s enduring commitment to us.

Does Father say that to you? If you bring energy and attention to this opening, connecting, reassuring name of God, does Father resonate? If not, what is the name that does sound like that to your soul? And with this intimate connection framing the prayer, we recognise God’s holiness which was, at the time of speaking, currently embodied in a brown skinned middle aged Jewish man, so we hold that beautiful, redeeming paradox of holiness and earthliness in our hallowing of God’s name.

Now we invoke and invite the kingdom of this holy and intimately loving God,

opening our hearts and minds to this other vision of how we are to be in relationship with each other and all creation. Those three words – your kingdom come – name a wholly new reality. You may have already prayed them a million times before. Have they been alive in you with attention and energy? Have they signified a shift into clarity about what’s important, about who’s important? Have they reoriented your desires, have they softened you where you are overly rigid, or given focus where you are prone to be rambling?

Next, we ask for what we need, not with pleas and explanations or justification, but simply and with rather direct frankness. So, is that how you ask God for what you need? Or have you learned to add extra details? Offer reasons…and have you learned how to discern between what you want and what you need? We often assume that we know what is needed, what the best outcome of any situation may be…. But how often is that just what we want dressed up as a real need?

After we’ve asked for our daily needs, we ask that God, who is forgiving, forgives our sin.

And, because the only response to that grace received is grace to give, we forgive those who owe us. Luke’s version of this prayer makes a distinction between our sin that is forgiven by God, and the debts that we forgive each other. We forgive those who owe us – and if I’m awake and alert when I’m saying this prayer and I’m bringing attention and energy to it, surely I’m going to start wondering …what is it that I think is owed to me?

And lastly, we ask that we not be brought to the time of trial – the implication in the text is that this is the trial of persecution. I’m sure you know that the early Christians experienced a great deal of persecution. God did not save them from that. God did not protect them from that. So how do we pray this? What are we actually asking for? It can’t be that we are asking for a free pass from challenges, pain and suffering – Jesus is also very clear that if we are following him then we will share in his sufferings. And if you visit the icon art exhibit currently on at the gallery, you’ll see some great examples of Christian art which is full of images of martyrs suffering quite hideously.

Perhaps that’s the clue for us. It may sound odd, but there were those who looked for martyrdom and hoped to be brought to the time of trial. One of the early church fathers wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, implying that the martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives leads directly to – inspires – the conversion of others to the Christian faith.

So, we pray ‘let there be no fanaticism here’. No seeking after that kind of glory, no ego-fuelled self-sacrifice. You may not be tempted to look for ways to die for Christ, but the little martyrs are still among us, aren’t they? Some kind of heroic self-sacrifice is still one of the ways that we may try to find meaning, value or significance in a life of habits patterned on autopilot routines.

It’s so easy to be interested in what’s new – to give our attention to something that’s different, whether that’s because we love it or because we hate it. It’s easy to bring energy to something when you are learning it – you have to be interested if you want to learn, you have to give it your careful and ongoing attention. It’s much harder to bring that same level of interest, that same level of energy to the familiar thing, the well-known friend who reacts in the predictable ways, the well-known story with no new angles to explore, the well-known prayer which rolls off the tongue without thinking.

But here’s the delightful paradox in this prayer: it bears repetition. When we say the same words over and over, even if we say them without giving them our attention, they still sink in. They sink in and get lodged in your bones such that in moments of despair, or joy or deep grief they rise up out of nowhere and offer themselves.

When the archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy Terry Waite was kidnapped and held hostage for years in Palestine, much of his time was in solitary confinement.  And he said afterwards that it was the prayers of the daily Anglican office which sustained him. He prayed his inner prayer book; prayed the words which had been layered into his being by habit, by daily discipline and repetition.

So, it is paradoxically a both/and situation. Habit, repetition, familiarity all help to form deep grooves of prayerful practice. Keep doing it, Jesus tells us.

And at the same time bring attention and energy into your awareness of God’s loving, faithful relational presence; into your intention to recognise the holy in the ordinary; into your desire to let the kingdom of Love come in you and through you; into your willingness trust God for what you need and to recognise the gift of grace which is a flow of give-and-take, receive and offer; into your surrender of every effort to make yourself worthy, and instead to accept your worthiness as a given and a gift of grace. It is through energy and attention that our prayer becomes transformational.

The homework from last week still stands for this week, then.

Bring energy and attention to the familiar things of life – the familiar things of prayer – and see if you don’t find something shifts for you, too.

Martha’s paradox

The lectionary readings for this week are here, and I’m reflecting on the gospel reading.

This story of the two sisters follows on from last week’s story of the good Samaritan. Last week, the Samaritan is the one who does what God does. In the unlikely enemy, the divine is manifested through caring and compassionate actions.

Love is a verb, after all, and a verb is a doing word, so when we love, we do.

This week’s story of Mary and Martha, though, has often been understood as highlighting the value of the quiet contemplative listener over and above the pragmatic and active doer, who is scolded after her rather pointed complaint.

In Luke’s account of the gospel, this family is only mentioned once, right here. It’s John who tells us about the raising of Lazarus, John who recounts Jesus’ conversation with Martha about the resurrection and the tears he shared with Mary. It’s John who tells us the story of the anointing with expensive perfume was at Bethany, by Mary. Luke has none of these stories. Luke just has the two sisters, the one who sits and listens and is validated and the one who is busy in the kitchen and then resentful and is chastised. If we just stick with Luke, then, we don’t have many details to fill out our image of these two women, and as a result, it’s all too easy for us to hear this story and fall into the convenience of opposites to understand it.

Sitting and listening to Jesus is good, being busy and fussily attending to the practical details is bad.

Human beings do seem to love matching things in opposing pairs. Up and down, Near and Far, Tall and Short – I’ve seen this on Sesame Street teaching children the basic skill of differentiation. We learn this skill when we are young and often we carry it through into adult life, and into our understanding of faith. Basic differentiation gives us a code of belief, our doctrines, which help us to define who is in and who is out. Who is saved and who is lost. Who is Near and who is Far. We have codes of behaviour which help us to define who is pure and who is impure; who is moral and who is immoral; what is sacred and what is profane.

But life is actually more complicated than that. And Jesus shows us over and over that these opposites have no place in the kingdom of God where all are welcomed, where values are turned upside down, where enemies embody God’s love, leaders serve, the untouchable are held, the last are first and so on until these differences make no sense at all.

In the stories of the gospel and in Jesus’ teaching parables we are offered many contradictions and paradoxes to dwell with and learn from. So let’s assume that these women are also more complex and that this story is more nuanced than it looks on the surface.

I think that part of what this story offers us is a further illustration of love as a verb – a doing word.

In last week’s story, the Samaritan’s love was embodied in many different actions. First there is the seeing – love looks a different way, sees through a different lens. Then there is the feeling – love is an action and it is also a feeling. A feeling that acts in us and upon us. Love is an emotion that rises from the heart, it’s an energy that fills and spills over, that causes physical sensations in our body.

Love is also a thinking – the feeling of love stimulates us to have thoughts about love, and those thoughts stimulate more physical sensations. We can have thoughts about whether we will act on this loving feeling, and if so, what action is appropriate. We might have thoughts about whether we feel safe to act. And we may then think about what will happen if we do, or don’t act. We may have thoughts about whether our loving action will be received or rejected.

Love is embodied through action, and that action may be: speaking; listening; being with; it may be a look; a smile; sometimes love is crying with someone, or crying for them.

Love in action has so many ways of being – many of them are subtle.

In this story, if we’re matching pairs of opposites, we see active Martha verses passive Mary. But if we look beyond those obvious differences, we can see a more subtle aspect to how love is being embodied here.

Firstly, I want to draw your attention to what Jesus calls Martha to recognise – how distracted she is as she goes about her work. How scattered her energy is as she attempts to do many things, and how her attention is not on what she is doing, but on what her sister is not doing. Mary is praised for having chosen to focus on one thing. On the surface it looks like Jesus is saying her focus on him is the better way.

But, I’m going to be potentially controversial and say that I think it’s not the object of the focus which is important here. Because I believe it is possible to serve like Martha, working on the practical aspects of hospitality, or whatever, with a focus on one thing, and that THIS is the better way.

Martha was chided not because she failed to focussing on Jesus. She was chided because while she was doing the tasks of preparation, her focus was on her sister.

In the middle of raising my children and working and volunteering at my church, the following insight was life changing for me, although I have no idea where I read it:

When you bring energy and attention to what you are doing, you are no longer engaging in maintenance. You are taking care of things. And taking care of things is love, given freely and wholeheartedly. While maintenance is duty, and duty can become a burden, lead to resentment and frustration and that leaks out in complaint or accusation.

Energy and attention have the power to transform daily, routine and repetitive actions into caring and compassionate love in action. Are there tasks in your life you might approached with energy and attention? What change might happen if you see whatever you are doing as taking care of things – as doing what God does – embodying love?

And secondly, the up-skilled version of putting everything into opposites is not seeing the world in fuzzy shades of grey. It’s being able to see beyond an either/or approach to life – either saved or lost, either sacred or profane – and instead to be able to hold the paradox of both/and.

The Christian faith is actually full of paradox, so this is a very necessary up-skilling if we are going to grow in love. Until we can hold the tension of paradox, until we can bear that two opposite things can both be true, we will try to keep things apart. That means, for instance, that you will think of faith and doubt as opposites – which mean questions, searching and wrestling cannot really be part of faith, and can even seem threatening.

But when we can hold paradox, we can see faith as a journey of trust where there is room for questions, for extended periods of uncertainty, for questing and testing and wrestling. Belief and unbelief mingled together and co-existing and essential if we hope to find our way to the possibility of growth. It’s the same for the opposites of sacred and profane. These opposites create a framework of purity which keeps God holy and separate from the common, the polluted, earthy, the dirty, the sinful things and people of this world.

And it is in these same common, sinful, earthy, impure things and people where God’s love is revealed, where God’s love is embodied, where God beauty is present and peace is active. It is in the messiness of life that we discover grace, that we learn to embrace the tension that we are both wholly loved, wholly worthy, and entirely helpless to help ourselves.

So your task this week is to see if you can catch yourself in the Sesame Street game of opposites, and to notice what happens when you do that? What happens inside you, and what happens to the other person who is the opposite of something you value, or the opposite of you?

And finally, I’d like to offer you an opportunity to make a passive response.

And when I say passive, I don’t mean just sit there like a blank piece of paper. I mean let’s pause here and allow what is present to take centre stage. Pause here and allow the energy of what is present in you to register.

What is rising in your heart? What is simmering in the background? What have you brought with you into worship today, what has been happening in your life or is waiting for you after this…..who is on your mind or who are you keeping in the compassionate chambers of your heart? And in the service of honesty and humility, let’s look as well for those we’re keeping in our heart to help feed our anger, or to re-open a wound, or they may be someone we pity or scorn. Because it’s true the opposites attract, and sometimes we love to hate.

So gently now, and honestly, what is it that you are being with?

Whatever that is, there’s an invitation for you this morning to light a candle in response.

This is an action that on the surface is utterly pointless, but this action points to an inner state of being. It is a focussed attention, it is your energy and attention which you are offering here as a service of the heart, and an embodiment of divine love. It is freely, wholeheartedly given as an expression of taking care of things,

As you focus here, you are engaging in some cleaning up, sorting and tidying your inner space, building a container for the tension of paradox, and so you give yourself a bit more room to grow…. And so the heart can expand just a little more.

This is my prayer for you. Amen.

Live free, live courageously, live creatively

Harvest in Provence, Vincent van Goch https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55315

The lectionary texts for this week are here. I’m reflecting on the gospel reading, and I used the Message translation to reflect on the passage from Galatians.

Last week we heard a chunk of the letter to the Galatians and a snippet from Luke’s account telling about what happened at the start of Jesus’ long and winding journey to Jerusalem.

This week we move on in both the letter and the journey. Paul is still laying out for the Galatians what it means to submit to the pressure of those teachers, who were insisting on the ritual practices of Judaism for Christian believers, and what it means to live free from the need to perform, perfect, please and pacify others.

Living into this kind of freedom is a slow process. How did you find it over the past week? Did you catch yourself being fuzzy to avoid conflict? Did you catch yourself pushing forward with focussed clarity and not noticing how much others are bending to get out of your way? If you didn’t, well, it could be that you totally forgot about it within a few hours, or it could be that you started to realise how hard it is to spot your own patterns that keep you from being free and from growing in love.

You may feel differently about this, but I find Paul’s letters to be overwhelmingly full of advice and instructions on how to live, how to behave and what to believe as well as what not to do or believe. It’s really difficult to take all of this on board, and we do tend to read large sections at once. In today’s reading, we are offered over a dozen different areas to work on, and last week’s assignment was hardly a simple task.

The format of the letter, and the way that we have mostly experienced being taught – which is that the teacher talks and the students listen, take notes and then answer questions in an exam – can easily give the impression that we are meant to hear Paul’s teaching, take it on board as best we can and then when we die our lives will be examined to see how well we did.

So, I hope you might be comforted to know that when Paul dictated this letter – well, most of it, although we heard in this segment that he also wrote in his own hand to give emphasis to the significance of what he is trying to communicate – anyway, the letter would have been carried by someone to the leaders of the church, however far away that was, and they would have read it at a gathering. The listeners would have questions – of course! They’d want to know what did that mean? Was Paul saying….? Who told him that…? What about when….? Or what if….?

And the person who had carried the letter would have helped explain its meaning.

We know from the two surviving letters we have to the church in Corinth that the church also wrote letters back to Paul –  imagine being part of that letter writing evening! And we know that we actually have what seem most likely to be letters one and three merged with parts of letter number four. So, a letter like this one to the Galatians would have given the community resources for months of conversation, questions, reflections and practice. Which means that while it’s tempting to pull out more areas for us to attend to, I’m going to resist.

Instead, I want to draw your attention to the broad theme of the first few paragraphs, where the Message translation gives us a wonderful fresh perspective on the rather curt and staccato instructions we have here.

This is how Eugene Peterson gives a more human, slightly less urgent voice to Paul’s instructions:

Live creatively. Be creative with forgiveness and grace, be creative with compassion and humility. Be creative with the place you’ve been planted and the people in your ecosystem – be creative with the inner resources you have. And don’t concern yourself with comparing your creative best with others.

Because this general approach will also serve us as we consider the story from Luke of the 70 or 72 disciples being sent out to greet, eat, heal and thereby announce, reveal and embody that the kingdom of God has come near.

This familiar story can also sound overwhelming to our ears. Going out door knocking is just not a culturally appropriate mode of communication anymore. Neither is standing on street corners and singing songs or shouting warnings disguised as sermons.

Jesus’ instructions about travelling light and trusting in the providence of God have certainly led to some great stories of last minute miracles and roadside conversions, but like Paul’s letter, we do a disservice to the text if we interpret this sending out as a template for mission or the best way to live out faith.

Live creatively, Paul says, not following habitual patterns of unfreedom, not shackled by religious dictates. Live creatively with grace, find creative ways to offer compassion and to practice humility.

Travelling light may help with that – not clinging to anything and receiving all of life as a gift is definitely a creative response to the ups and downs of being human.

Trusting in God’s provision is certainly going to help you live creatively because so often God’s provision is not what we expect. Often God’s provision comes in sideways or backwards – it’s the unexpected shared laugh in the midst of things going to custard.

It’s the gentle stroke of a hand when you need comfort or the touch on the arm. It’s a meal delivered just after you move house and everything is in chaos. It’s the kind word, the caring question. When we see these things as God’s provision, we are living creatively with the particular life that is ours.

And when we see those things we do as acts of mercy, as grace and compassion and kindness, we are also changed. The kingdom of God comes forth in us and through us by our actions and our interactions with others.

Love, when we open ourselves to receive and to give, love transforms us. When we have loved another, we are never the same. Every loving encounter, every loving expression expands us just a little bit more. It may not be a measurable amount, and the patterns of unfreedom are ready to snap that opening back whenever love brings with it the pain of loss, betrayal or rejection. And it almost always brings at least one of those. But if we have courage to love, then love will change us and grow us – no door knocking required.

The history of our tradition bears witness to the  multitudes of faithful Christians who have lived in ways that announce, reveal and embody the kingdom of God. No doubt you know people, there are people in this congregation whose lives announce, reveal and embody the grace, forgiveness, creativity, love and compassion of the kingdom. For sure that’s patchy – but you know what they say – practice makes progress.

So friends, let’s live creatively. Let’s live courageously.

Let love expand you a little this week and see if you can compassionately catch yourself in a pattern of unfreedom. And to help you, I’ve made a little card with a question for you to ask yourself, or your friend, or family member or life partner: When was the last time you felt free? You can answer this question in so many different ways, so ask it more than once, and listen for what freedom sounds like for others, and for yourself and then be creative!

Free to be clear and kind

Slaves waiting for sale Painted from an 1853 sketch — Eyre Crowe https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55468

The lectionary texts for this week can be found here. I am preaching from the Galatians reading and the gospel.

A couple of weeks ago, the parish council and I spent a day at the Peacemakers retreat centre near Helensville. St Peter’s is due – actually a bit overdue – for a parish review, and so in preparation for that we were revisiting the work that was done five years ago to form both a vision statement – who we are as a congregation and who we are aiming to become – as well as our mission statement – how we will live the vision into our shared life together. We began that work by reflecting on our values, those we hold for our personal lives, and those we bring to our communal life – and then we drew on the conversations and insights around those to form a new vision statement.

It’s this: We are a Christian faith community growing in love through the grace of God.

I hope most of you will find that resonates with you and offers space for others to belong. We tried to keep it simple and to avoid jargon, but of course there are aspects to unpack in that short sentence anyway. The most obvious one to me, at least, is this: What does it look like when we grow in love? And how might we do that? I’ve been talking about this week by week for some time now, so I hope you are beginning to feel ready for a few practical applications to work with.

The reading from the letter to the Galatians gives us some excellent entry points, I think. Firstly, those opening sentences: Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. Paul uses the concept of slavery as a way to describe the experience of being held captive, fettered or restricted by religious rules as opposed to the liberating, freeing and equalising life that is the gift of the gospel and the growth journey for all Christians.

This is the life calling for all of us – to learn to live in freedom and to use our freedom to help free others – and Paul ends this particular segment with a reminder that it’s not a warm, fuzzy feeling we get on Sunday morning or whenever, nor is it an idea we think about – it has implications for the details of every day.

Just as a side note, Paul uses the concept of slavery in his letters, sometimes making it subversively positive and sometimes used negatively. Slavery is something that in Paul’s time and culture was framed as a normal part of life – just the way things are –  and it appears that Paul himself hasn’t really got around to considering yet, if owning slaves is actually wrong in itself. Several times Paul flips the values of the day and refers to himself as a slave to Christ in his letters to express how he practices faithful living. Sometimes like here, he keeps the convention and uses slavery as a description of what it feels like deep inside when we fail to live free lives and instead allow faith to be a shackle and people to be oppressed.

But it’s not always the rules of religion that keep us shackled. Sometimes – often – it’s some unwritten rules that we live by and those can be both hard to spot and hard to drop. Another aspect of our freedom is articulated nicely by African American author Toni Morrison. She wrote that the function of freedom is to free someone else. This adds a lovely reminder to us that we aren’t ever talking just about personal freedom, or personal salvation. God’s agenda, God’s action plan and mission is always about everyone, everything, everywhere and all together. We are not truly free until everyone is free.

Salvation and freedom are big picture inclusive concepts and at the same time, the only way we live them is in the small steps, the little things, the daily ordinariness of our lives. If you make small changes towards freedom, you can positively affect those around you, bringing greater freedom for them, too.

And that brings us quite nicely to the gospel reading for today. In the commentaries on this passage, there’s often a reference to this little collection of exchanges as ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus. That phrase says a lot about our reaction to these sayings, more than to their content. We could just as well call them the challenging sayings, or the uncompromising sayings or the gritty, realistic sayings. But no. We think they are hard.

In these sayings, Jesus is clear about the cost and the commitment of discipleship. He’s not sugar-coating things because in the long run, clear is kind.

Some of us were taught that we need to avoid upsetting others if possible, so instead of making a clear request or giving a clear no, we soften and modify – to be kind. But the truth is that a fuzzy boundary is worse than useless – it’s unkind.

Clear is kind – which means that if I want to say no but I actually say yes and then pull out later, or I do it with resentment then I am being unkind. Or if I say maybe and leave you hanging in uncertainty, then I am being unkind. Or if I don’t ask for what I need, but I hope you’ll notice and guess, or if I do something for you that I want you to do for me, but I don’t actually ask you to do it – and then I get resentful that you haven’t done it for me…well, not clear, not kind.

Clearly saying what I want and mean, what I can do and what I can’t or am unwilling to, is much kinder than many of our efforts to be kind by being fuzzy. A clear no or yes, or even an I’m not sure yet, but I’ll let you know one way or the other within a given timeframe…that’s kind.

Jesus is clear. What we can’t tell, though, is what kind of tone of voice these exchanges had…clear doesn’t have to mean cold or harsh.

And since it’s Jesus who is saying them, I am sure that he’s warm and connected to the people he’s talking to.

I am sure he’s making eye contact, that he’s not just looking at the person who says they want to be a disciple, he’s looking into them. He’s seeing them as they truly are, recognising what is already there and what is still becoming and he’s telling them what they need to know so that they can choose if they want to carry on growing. I am sure he is free from the fear of their rejection. I’m sure he’s free from needing them to like him or from any anxiety about needing to increase his numbers. I have no doubt that he meets them with openness and holds a safe space where they can ask their question or make their offer.

And I am sure the other disciples are struck by his responses – that he does not pull just anyone along in his wake. That he cautions, qualifies and even puts people off.

Paul is also clear. In the Galatians reading, Paul is using clear, firm language because he’s incensed that another group has been influencing this community with teaching that is based on legalism and separation. Even when he’s motivated by protective love, he can be fierce! Paul doesn’t often go softly, and his style of being clear can easily sound like it’s not too far off of tough. And tough love when it’s not grounded in warmth and empathy is just a fancy way of saying punishment

No doubt you have noticed that not everyone learns to soften their edges to get by…some of us learned to approach things like Paul – with an excess of clarity, and a toughness that helps to push through difficult situations.

It’s good to be aware that neither of these two strategies are what Jesus is modelling for us here, and neither of them are signs of living in freedom. So if we’re going to work on growing in love, maybe a good place to start is to look at how free you are, and where you are stuck or shackled by fear – even if on the surface it doesn’t seem like it’s fear that is holding you back.

Maybe you might consider first, how unfreedom shows up in your life?

As we’ve seen, unfreedom can look different for different people.

Are you often worried about upsetting other people, or letting people down, or looking like you are shirking responsibility?

Are you afraid of doing the wrong thing and making a fool of yourself?

Do you get caught up trying to keep others happy and bend over backwards to avoid conflict?

What would it feel like to let that go? What would it be like to feel so comfortable in yourself that you can be kindly free and clear with others? Who else might you set free if that happened?

Perhaps you experience unfreedom differently.

Perhaps unfreedom shows up for you when you find yourself acting with too much clarity….do you get so sure you know what’s right that other people find you rigid, legalistic, or opinionated?

Does unfreedom mean you struggle to allow for difference of opinion, or doubt, or appreciate that others may have a different experience or want a different outcome?

What would it feel like to let that go? What would it be like to feel so comfortable in yourself that you can be free and warmly open to others? And who else might you set free by that change?

Perhaps you value freedom so highly that you are avoiding the harder parts of life, and you can spin anything to find the silver lining?

What would it feel like to let that go? What would it be like to feel so comfortable in yourself that you can be free and courageous to acknowledge the parts of life that really are hard and painful.

What would it feel like for you to unhook from all that effort to stay in your stuckness – because it takes a lot of energy to push all the time or run all the time or manage how you think others are thinking about you – and instead, to connect with your own inner light, to trust the deepest truth that you are the beloved and let that shine?

Here’s a practice that we’ll do together, and you can try this through the week too.

Let’s pray.

With eyes closed…..sitting in a comfortable and alert posture….next time you breathe in, draw the breath down into your belly and then let it flow out….do this two or three more times, letting the belly be soft, feeling the ribs rise out to the sides of your body and softly flow back in as you exhale….

Letting the breath flow like this….begin by bringing your awareness to your feet…see what you can feel now that your attention is there….just notice what you sense….and then move your awareness up your body – ankles, knees, thighs…feel the pressure of the chair beneath you….coming up to belly, chest, shoulders, arms, hands…..neck, jaw, brow….as you sweep your attention through your body, you are bringing yourself more deeply into fullness, more fully present to God’s presence….

If you would like to, imagine that you are a candle…a little flame that shines in all directions, sometimes flickering, sometimes burning bright…… the clarity of that light flowing freely, illuminating your daily life….showing you where you are stuck….guiding you into freedom….whatever rises into heart or mind in response, offering this to God as your prayer….

Amen.

Three in One

“There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and have recovered hope.” [from: George Eliot, Adam Bede, p. 333]

You can find the lectionary readings for this week’s reflection here. You can also find the poem referred to in the reflection – Start Close In by David Whyte – here.

I know that these readings are chosen for Trinity Sunday for us to recognise and be reassured that the doctrine of the Trinity, which the early church took quite a number of years to fill out and agree upon, is truly rooted and grounded in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

But, as I sat with this text this week, I kept returning to one phrase: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. “

I think it stayed with me for a number of reasons.

It stayed because I met a friend for coffee on Tuesday morning and she told me that she was going to a funeral later that day for a colleague’s 3 year old daughter who had been admitted to hospital on Thursday feeling unwell and then she died on Friday. And I don’t know how anyone can bear that.

It stayed with me because the news from Ukraine about war crimes and torture and of cities completely devastated just gets harder and harder to hear. And I wonder how the people of Ukraine are managing not just to bear it, but to continue to resist.

It stayed because of the school and hospital shootings in the US and the madness of the story of the right to bear arms.

It stayed because of how quickly important issues that are layered and historied and need careful consideration vanish from social media and news feeds to be replaced with gossip and eye candy.

And I can’t bear how easily we forget that Black Lives Matter, that refugees are daily risking their lives and pouring across borders, and that children are starving in Yemen and now in the horn of Africa and probably in North Korea only who can know for sure…. But I think mostly it stayed with me because there is so much that I feel like I cannot bear anymore.

Or, perhaps more truly, that I wonder how will I bear all these things…how I will stay in the fire of all these things and not reach for the distracting comfort of Netflix or ice cream… how will I not be crushed by the weight of all that is happening in our world even as, if you ask me ‘how are you?’ I will be able to say that I am doing ok. I am well. I am fine. I am managing what is mine, what is landing in my patch.

But I am so aware, so mindful of what is happening ‘out there’ – of the struggle and pain of the carnage and destruction, of the anger and the despair that is rippling out over the world from so many epicentres of violence and injustice.

So as I stayed with this phrase, I began to wonder….What was it Jesus had to tell the disciples that was too much for them to bear just then? He’d already told them he was going to be betrayed and handed over and killed. He’d told them they’d be sorely troubled and distressed, that they’d desert and fail him, and still there was more that they could not yet bear.

And I began to wonder if perhaps Jesus was talking about the joy that is waiting for them on the other side of the experience of devastation – a joy which makes no sense in the context of the last supper, which would have seemed impossible and maybe even monstrous to suggest at that time.

Perhaps that is what they could not bear to hear or know at that point?

It’s not at all that the promise of joy to come makes the suffering easier to bear – because it doesn’t. It’s not that it justifies the pain in any way or makes sense of it…you had to go through this in order to get that… It’s more that suffering and pain are an integral part of being human in the same way that love and joy are.

All of us, as human beings, have to say goodbye to everyone we know. There’s no one who is exempt from the heartbreak of farewells. The disciples are in the furnace of that heartbreak as they hear these words, even though they don’t fully know it yet. And every one of us have known something of this heartbreak furnace. All of us have come up against experiences of loss… and we all know that it is so difficult to look at this close up.

It’s easier to think about something as an abstract, to put some distance between our heartbreak and loss – to try and make it less or even to discount or deny it. Or you might try to rationalise it, or reach for a bigger picture to put your deep loss into perspective – it’s not as bad as…

It takes courage to be vulnerable, and this is what is at the heart of the cross and at the centre of Christian discipleship – courage and vulnerability. It’s what is at the heart of Pentecost too, because the Spirit is a gift that is never imposed further or more fully and deeply than we are willing to receive – and receiving requires openness and openness requires vulnerability.

Courage and vulnerability are at the heart of the life of the Triune God. Because Father, Son and Spirit exist in an inter-relational dance of giving and receiving – of pouring out and letting in.

Courage and vulnerability are the power of Love as it flows in  the relationships of inter-dependence of the Three in One, and in the act of creation God chose to expand that inter-dependence to us. God vulnerably allows there to be space for us as persons who are fully and freely other.

We get to choose what we will let in and what we will give away. You get to choose. At least to a point.

Because we all encounter the loss of people and of dreams and of pets and of abilities and of possibilities. But we don’t necessarily know how to let that in or how to let it go. And we all have the opportunity to encounter the delight of being known and loved, of being affirmed and accepted, of belonging, of feeling ourselves connected, and significant. But we don’t necessarily know how to bear that, and let ourselves receive it.

So here is the work for this week:

First of all, put on your radar for the moment when someone offers you a compliment, a word of appreciation or gratitude, when someone asks about your day or your preference or your opinion, when someone acknowledges you – it will happen this week.

When it does, pause.

Hold back whatever it is you usually do in those moments- whether it’s to shrug and say nothing, or to brush it off, or minimise it, or offer a bigger compliment in return – hold that back and instead in the pause, open to receive. Trust that you can, in fact, let in and bear this love.

Breathe it into your belly. And then simply say ‘thank you’.

And breathe it out. You don’t need to cling to it…there’s more where that came from.

I know that sounds easy, right? So you can do it.

And secondly, when you hear or read or otherwise encounter something sad or moving, some loss or hurt, and it will also happen this week – when it does, pause.

Hold back whatever you usually do in those moments- whether it’s to get angry with yourself or someone else, or to look for someone to blame, or to reach for something to keep busy with or to burst into tears – hold that back and instead, in the pause, open to receive it.

Trust that you can, in fact, let in and bear this sadness. And then meet it with compassion. Meet the sadness with love and tenderness.

Breathe it into your belly. And then check what that particular sadness needs…maybe you want to call up a friend to listen and hold a compassionate space for you. Maybe you want to offer a quiet prayer. Maybe you just need to take a few deep breaths as the feeling rises and moves through.

Many of us get stuck in sadness or in avoiding it, and many of us get stuck in chasing love or in shutting it out. This is how we keep ourselves from being vulnerable, and we do this out of fear. So we need to practice the pause so we can change and choose courage and openness.

These two practices are simple and at the same time they are harder than you may think. You may already have thought of some good reasons why they won’t work or they are not for you. But, if we are to grow in love, these are the first steps – letting in and letting go. This is an invitation to courageous vulnerability and an invitation to participate in the life of Love, in the flow of Love.

The invitation is for you – it is an invitation to hope and trust and wholeness. This invitation is the promise of the gospel and it takes more than an act of belief or repentance to nurture the growth into love. It takes practice and it takes community – we journey together as we grow in love.

So in the words of the poet David Whyte, let’s take the first step.

Pentecost – tongues and Babel fish

You can find the lectionary readings for this reflection here. We heard the reading from Acts 2 and from John, but I also reference the Genesis story.

We’ve been leading up to the events of the Day of Pentecost for the last seven weeks, since Easter Sunday, fifty days ago. This reading from Acts today is the unspoken background for all the other readings in those weeks after Easter, where we heard about Saul/Paul and Ananias, and Peter with Tabitha, Lydia and Cornelius. These are some of the many stories of Acts that tell of the apostles’ unfolding understanding of just how inclusive and wide reaching God’s plan for salvation is.

Every one of those stories about their preaching, beatings, visions and dreamings, healings and other works of power begin here, in this dynamic encounter with the Holy Spirit. You may be accustomed to hearing this reading from Acts is accompanied in the lectionary by the First Testament story of the tower of Babel in Genesis. That’s the origin story which explains how, given that humankind began with one family and one tribe, we still managed to end up with a world populated with many languages and cultures.

In pairing these two stories like that, it seems to be implying that the diversity of language that was the divine intervention in the first story is a kind of punishment for pride or a preventative measure on God’s part to thwart our reaching for the heavens and for a great reputation. In that reading, the development of many languages – and by implication, many cultures – is a problem, a source of our disconnection, discord and confusion.

And so, this manifestation of the Spirit enabling people to speak in different languages is a way of fixing that problem. I certainly jumped to that conclusion when I first heard these two stories together.

But this year I am coming from a different place.

I’ve been doing some work on broadening my own perspectives and recognising some of my cultural blind spots. I’ve been listening to podcasts by black, indigenous people and people of colour – people whose voices and experience and perspective are often so pushed to the margins. I’ve been trying – although it is hard – to notice the oppression that I’m part of; trying to notice where I benefit from the privilege of my own educated, middle class background, my white skinned body. And I’m trying to learn more about what it’s like for those who live in a colonised land but identify with a culture and language that is not Euro-centric.

That’s a big learning journey for me, and with its unfolding, I noticed this year some subtle and significant elements about the Tower of Babel story and how it’s not a problem that’s fixed by Pentecost. Because God comes down to visit the city where the people are building the tower very much like God comes down to walk in the garden with Adam and Eve, and the many languages that God inserts in the midst of the people is framed by the language that echoes Genesis 1 as a creative act – God creates diversity.

Which is really interesting because our tendency is to go in the other direction. We create homogeneity. We aim for sameness. We seem to crave uniformity – it’s easier to manage, regulate and control.

When the English conquered the Scots at the battle of Culloden in 1742, they outlawed Gaelic and tartan. Colonising countries around the world have imposed their language on other nations, have imposed dress codes and repressed and denounced indigenous customs and traditions.

So, here’s a shift of perspective: diversity of language isn’t a problem – it’s a gift.

And then at Pentecost, we are told that there are people from all over the place, from diverse cultures and speaking many different languages, assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the gift of the Torah. Into this diverse mix, the Spirit comes and through the disciples’ speaking in many languages. Each and every one is met and honoured, every language is represented, everyone can participate.

This isn’t one language to unite them all.

This is one Spirit to open all hearts and ears to the voice and call and gift of God in Christ. In the one Spirit, difference is preserved and included.

This is the work of the Spirit, who does indeed send us out into every nation and into diverse cultures, but not to make mini-mes  everywhere we go. Not to take the gospel to them, but to listen for where God is already. Where God is already revealed, already present, already active there we are called to fan those flames, to nurture those tendrils and so to grow together in understanding.

The stories from Acts over the last few weeks have indicated to us over and over that the Spirit of God is for all people, everywhere. For women and men, for slave and free, for Jew and Gentile, for every one of us for living the daily disciplines of a life of faith in all our relationships and every activity.

The Spirit of God is to help us learn how to be fully present and wholehearted in all of our life.

This story, though, this story of rushing wind and tongues of fire and sudden courageous preaching which, although we didn’t hear it in the reading, is followed by mass conversion – this story kind of sets us up for disappointment or for a sense of inadequacy.

Because everyday life is not Pentecostal.

And you might think that it looks like these lucky disciples got zapped by the Spirit and they never looked back. They are transformed in a moment without having to do the hard work of change. The practising of disciplines, the daily noticing, of unlearning unhelpful patterns and learning new skills of listening, of expressing and of responding.

And you could look at the gospel reading and suppose it also points that way. Jesus tells the disciples that they will do the same works he has been doing and even greater works. And you may feel as uncomfortable as I do about the idea of attempting to raise people from the dead or heal people who are sick or suffer from mental illness. So it’s worth reminding ourselves about the long oneness conversation that we have also been touching into over the last six weeks.

When Jesus talks about his power, his works, he also points repeatedly to his relationship with God the Father. I can do nothing alone, he says. I only do what I see the Father doing.

It’s about oneness. It’s about relationship. It’s about you dwelling deeply in love and seeing that love dwells deeply in the other. We can do this too. We can practice the art of dwelling deeply in love and we can practice seeing the love that dwells deeply in others. We can honour and meet that love, point to it, encourage and cultivate the connection which is already present.

At the core of the Christian faith is a call into relationship – to open to One who loves us, to join in the diverse gathering, to take our seat at the table and to invite others to come, sit, eat, share. This is a story we can tell with humility and with courage.

We are all guests at God’s table. We all come with wounds that need to be healed, with stories that need to be heard and honoured. And although there are dramatic moments, when we look at the pattern of Jesus’ activity, we see him doing many ordinary things.

He eats and talks and works and walks; he prays and asks questions, and he makes observations. We see him interacting with many diverse people with generous inclusivity and a bias towards those who are overlooked and underserved. That’s a great pattern we can do too, and one that we can practice both in learning new ways to pray and in learning new relational and communication skills.

Perhaps you need to learn first to put down some of the old habits you have. Some of the ways I learned to communicate from my family were…not especially helpful. I’ve had to unlearn those so that I can pick up new tools – ones that are better suited to the purpose.

Because it’s no good just telling you that following Jesus means ‘being more loving’ without out also giving you practical ways to live differently. You can’t grow in love simply by adding pressure to how you usually relate to others and telling yourself that you must do better. Apart from the fact that this simply doesn’t work, it also leads to self-blaming and shaming because old habits die hard, and you will slip into saying something hurtful or losing patience and getting angry or feeling offended and withdrawing.

So, I want to say this: that the story of Pentecost is perhaps first of all an invitation to those of you gathered here, to open and receive once more. However you find yourself here today, there’s an invitation to come, sit at the table and receive – receive love, take it in and let love satisfy the hunger inside, let love quench the thirst for belonging, for understanding, for acceptance. Then, in the one Spirit, we can participate in God’s work to create and re-create beloved community here, together.

And if you are still thinking that the over all goal sounds good but the path to reaching it still seems unclear, then be assured that over the next few months of ordinary time we’ll be focussing on and exploring together some everyday, real-world ways to learn and practice how to live and grow in love.

Organising Love

You can find the lectionary readings for this reflection here. I drew on both the gospel passage and the one from Acts.

Both of the stories we heard today explore some aspect of what the values and attitudes of the emerging Christian community of faith are, and how those values guide the way we organise ourselves.

That doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But stay with me, I think it could well be the most exciting thing you hear all day!

So, let’s look first at how the leaders of the church in Jerusalem reacted to the news about Peter’s encounter with the Roman Cornelius and his family. If we hadn’t skipped parts of the story, this would now be the third time we hear of Peter’s dream with the sheet and all the animals in it and the voice that told him to break Jewish purity laws and how he protested but the voice insisted that there were no unclean foods. This is the vision that prepared him to receive the summons to the house of a Gentile, to go inside and preach the good news and then to baptise the entire household after seeing that the Holy Spirit was already present and active in them.

That’s not the part that got him into trouble, by the way.

The leaders of the church aren’t upset because he preached to and baptised Gentiles, but they are accusing him of eating with Gentiles. And when they are silenced by Peter’s question: who was I that I could hinder God? What they recognise is that ‘God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

The issue they are struggling with here, is the realisation of a loss of privilege. Up until now, the Jewish people had clear and firm boundaries about membership in this faith. This new development meant changes so big that it took several confrontations to work out how to accept that membership would be different from now on. That belonging would be different. That traditions like circumcision and ritual purification and keeping kosher – these were losing their significance – they had become meaningless in the new community of faith.

Over the centuries, any time human beings have organised themselves as a community, we create structures of power and rules of belonging. Our rules and structures have become more sophisticated over time, and we’ve even experimented with more open, power sharing approaches to organising ourselves. But most of our clubs, associations, institutions, corporations work with a top down power dynamic and an in/out approach to membership.

When I first became a Christian in the 80s I was told that the Roman Catholics weren’t really Christians and were probably not saved. At a Baptist church in the US which we visited once, my daughter told the Sunday School teacher that her dad worked at the university. After the service we asked her how she had liked Sunday school as she looked very worried. ‘Most of the people in the university are going to hell’, the teacher had told her.

I don’t know, but I think sometimes we seem to enjoy excluding people. Theologian and saint, Thomas Aquinas said something along the lines of “the bliss of the blessed in heaven is made the greater by viewing the torments of the damned in hell” . Ahem.

The only way I can understand this attitude is that perhaps it increases our sense of safety, gives us a sense of power and control. We can say who is in and who is out.

How sad that this is the same thing that was happening in Acts and we have still not really learned how to do things differently.

Because it’s not like we don’t have any idea what needs to change. Jesus couldn’t have said it much more clearly, and he said it often in a number of different ways.

In the passage we heard from John’s gospel account this morning, we start with the words ‘when he had gone out’ – just for context, this is Judas Iscariot who has just left the upper room. And now we all know where he was going, and so does Jesus.

So, in these precious last moments, first he tells the rest of the disciples ‘what is going to happen next reveals God’s glory, and that’s probably not going to look like what you expect.’

And then: ‘I don’t have long left with you, so it’s important that you grasp this: love one another as I have loved you. This above all else.

This: Love. One. Another.

Love is the command. Love is the guiding value. And that’s gorgeous and beautiful, except that we don’t really know or understand what it means in practice. I have been giving this a lot of thought for quite some time now. Because love is confusing, isn’t it? I read recently that some researchers surveyed a huge amount of people asking them to put different words into categories – words like hope, love, shame, anger. Are these words nouns, describing a feeling, or are they verbs – an action?

Most people categorised love as a noun. A feeling.

I used to think that too, and so I always found this passage difficult because how can Jesus command us to feel a feeling? If I don’t love someone, I can’t just decide to feel love for them. We all know you don’t choose to fall in love with someone, it just happens – and the same with falling out of love with them. And, like many children of my era, I was scarred by hearing my mother say that she loved me but she didn’t like me. What kind of useless love is that? No child can separate ‘who I am’ from ‘what I do’. Obviously, my mother had trouble with that too.

Anyway, if love is actually a verb, an action, a set of actions, a way of moving, meeting, receiving, sharing, respecting, asking, waiting – if these are the actions of love then we absolutely can choose to love.

We can decide to act with love toward someone – even one who says or does things we do not like.

We can move towards them with respect and compassion, we can choose not to be offended by them or judge them. We can choose to show concern for them. We can decide to listen without prejudice; we can acknowledge their story and perspective without agreeing with them.

I find this a very freeing and encouraging idea.

However, like me, you may also have received some unhelpful messaging about how lovable you are. Love your neighbour as yourself implies that we can see both neighbour and self as lovable and can move equally toward self and neighbour with compassion. For many of us there’s some confusion around the difference between self-love and selfishness.

Self love is when we are genuinely caring for ourselves. It is being willing to see our light and our dark, accepting what we are and what we are trying to become. Self-love is recognising our faults without shame and blame and taking responsibility for our growth. This kind of loving regard offered to our own selves actually gives us space for the grace to offer the same loving regard to others – who are equally a blend of light and dark.

By contrast, selfish people are usually grasping for a sense of self-worth and living in fear. They are oblivious to the needs of others, find no pleasure in the joy or growth of others, or in giving but only in receiving – because they live in scarcity. Being selfish isn’t about loving yourself, it’s believing that you are not worthy of love.

Adding to the confusion, you have also probably met people who seem very giving, very unselfish. Sometimes that is genuine, and sometimes it is a way to tie others to them – to make alliances or to collect favours and have others be indebted. And sometimes that generous unselfishness is simply the inability to say ‘no’ to any demand. If you do not value yourself enough to see that you have your own requirements for growth, then always doing what others want is not unselfishness at all. It is falling asleep to and abandoning your self.

Love one another, Jesus commanded us. Love one another as I have loved you.

Jesus’ whole life and teaching is summed up here.

Do you know how he has loved us? The low hanging fruit here is that he died on the cross, isn’t it? And of course, that’s true, and yet, it’s actually not very helpful to us as a daily practice. We don’t have many opportunities to lay down our lives for our friends, literally.

So, how else has Jesus shown us, taught us what love in action looks like?

I have a list:

  • Daily/mundane acts of service (washing feet/doing laundry)
  • Asking questions (who do people say I am? What do you want me to do for you?)
  • Healing touch – kind hands, kind words, kind heart.
  • Sharing food – eating with the tax collectors
  • Inviting and accepting invitations – Zacchaeus, Simon the Pharisee
  • Compassionate connecting – tears for Lazarus, telling the leper who believed Jesus could heal him if he chose to and Jesus reply:I do choose.
  • Generosity – water into wine… so much! Feeding the crowds and leftovers
  • Inclusion and Diversity- Jesus is embracing and affirming – the centurion’s faith, the Samaritan woman, the disciples – zealot and tax collector – women and men, children are valued.
  • Space for grace – the rich young man turns away and Jesus lets him find his way to grace in his own time.

This is a great list of love as verb – love in action.

Now. What is one thing you will commit to doing this week as love in action? It can be an act of self love, can be love offered to another. It can be a small step, a little thing. Little can be big.

But pick something for this week and then tell someone so you can be accountable for your intention.

And then check in with each other. Ask, how’s that going for you? How hard was it, or how easy? What got in the way? These are great questions for us to ask each other as we practice these simple, small steps on the path to great love.

In your circle of family and friends, it’s how people will know that you are one of Jesus’ disciples, and in the bigger picture, it’s how we will learn to break the cycle of fear that leads congregations to focus only on preserving and protecting themselves.

Love in action is love for self and others and that means freedom for all – freedom from grasping for a sense of worth and fitting in so that you can belong.

And to end, Jesus shows us what love is and does, shows us God’s wide and wonderfully inclusive love. This is what it sounds like – these are the slightly edited opening words of welcome from the Evolving Faith conference in 2020:

To you who doubt, who struggle, you who feel lost – you are loved.

Athiests, agnostics, seekers – you are loved.

You who are disabled, you who carry chronic pain, you whose bodies challenge you in ways you are tired of explaining – you are loved.

Shy people and introverts, you raging introverts, you raging extroverts– you are loved.

You who do sex work to pay the bills and you who are clutching your internal pearls because I just said sex work – you are loved.

You Pentecostals and Catholics, latter-day saints, all manner of frozen chosen, Baptists, anabaptists, church surfers and the denominationally promiscuous – you are loved.

You white people, and you who are blessed with extra melanin – you are loved.

Conservatives, liberals, moderates, those who detest these classifications– you are loved.

Straight, gay, bi, trans, non-binary, a-sexual, pansexual– you are loved.

You who maintain a façade of perfection even as you fall apart on the inside, you who are flagrantly messy,

 you who bring incalculable grief with you,

you who are irrepressibly, annoyingly joyful – you are loved.

All who are simultaneously sinner and saint, all you children of God all you are cherished siblings– you are loved.

You all are loved.

God loves you.

Did I miss anyone out? God loves you.

This is love. Feel it. Know it. Hold it. All of this is there for you.

 Now, go and do your one small thing

Tabitha

You can find the readings for this week here.

I think it is a beautiful coincidence that we have this reading on mother’s day – since Easter is a moveable feast, this doesn’t always happen.

And although mother’s day originally began as a celebration of Mary’s yes to the angel and the subsequent conception of the Christ child – so a celebration of Mary as the mother of God – we reformers have done away with all that and made it about mothering in a more general sense.

Last week we heard the story of Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. We are so easily drawn to the dramatic aspect of that story, that the part Ananias plays is usually diminished. In my reflection I drew our attention to Ananias and how he is, in fact, the pivotal part in progressing Saul’s transformation. This week, although we are still in chapter nine of Acts, we have moved on from what Paul is doing to see what Peter is up to. I wonder if asked you who this story is about, what would you say?

Because obviously, this is a story about Tabitha.

If I had asked you before the reading if you knew anything about Tabitha’s story, though, I wonder what you would have said? The chances are you may not even have heard of her, and if you did remember hearing this story, you probably would have struggled to fill in many of the details about her. There are reasons for that.

Some years ago, when I was in a different church and in the process of applying to train for ordained ministry, I was invited to be on a Q&A panel for our youth group. The minister was asked too, and a lovely young man who was also one of the youth group leaders.

The youth were all invited to write their questions down and put them into a box and then there was some sorting into categories and checking for double ups before the evening. The questions ranged from sexuality to other faiths, from biblical authority to sin. Mostly, the three of us took turns to give our response and the others added or commented on what had been said.

One of the questions we were asked was something like: why is it there are so few women’s stories in the bible?

The minister jumped in and responded first by saying that this wasn’t true, and there were lots of women in the bible. He went on to say that feminism was divisive and that he preferred to think of himself as a humanist. The young man agreed with him and added something which I can’t remember because all I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears as I found myself silenced.

What could I say?

Up until that time I had felt great respect and affection for the minister, and I didn’t want to risk the relationship by publicly contradicting him – and I doubted myself enough to wonder if this were indeed the place to air such a confronting difference of opinion. So I said nothing. And I have deeply regretted that.

Because it may be true that women are mentioned in the bible, but there are very few stories that are women’s stories. And when they are included, we tend discount them and forget about them and focus instead on the men – which is what the biblical writers expected we would do.

So let me say it now: Women’s lives, women’s stories, women’s experience and perspective – our voices – are poorly represented in the biblical text.

For a centuries this has been normalised.

Moses, David, Gideon, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James…these are the ones whose faith we were taught to admire and invited to learn from. These are the models of discipleship we are offered, and if you are comfortable with that, it’s either because you are male or you have learned to accept that these models are good enough for men so they are good enough for you.

We can talk about man and mankind because as far as everyone was concerned, the word man implicitly includes women. But it’s not true.

The word man means men, in the same way that the word woman means women.

Man does not breastfeed his baby.

Man does not conceive life and carry it or bring life to birth.

Man does not know what it is like to bleed every month or to fail to bleed.

Man doesn’t experience hot flushes and Man has no idea what those experiences are like.

And if you are feeling uncomfortable right now, it is most likely because it is our embodiment where those differences cannot be denied. We experience life in a body, as a body, through our body. And women’s bodies have been shamed, blamed and judged for centuries.

But the good news is that the ministry of Jesus Christ is one which breaks down barriers, crosses boundaries to raise up the marginalised and oppressed – and for those who are in the centre, who are in the position of privilege and dominance this feels like loss and threat rather than the inclusive expansion that grows out of love.

It is not only men who are threatened by this kind of talk. Often women are the strongest resisters to their own equality because for centuries we have been told that we are less – and we have not only accepted that limitation, we have also taught it to our daughters.

That is a special kind of betrayal – the same kind I felt guilty of when I didn’t speak up in front of a group of young women and instead allowed the message to be reinforced for them.

And it’s hard to allow that to be true so instead, we dismiss our sisters who speak the truth of their experience and perceptions. We shame them and criticise them and try to silence them. But when we do this, we are simply agreeing with the values of Caesar and the empire he built. Because these are not kingdom of God values.

Jesus had many interactions with women. In John’s account of the gospel, the woman at the well is the only person Jesus reveals his divine identity to, and Mary is not only the constant companion at the cross and the first witness to the resurrection she is also the apostle to the apostles. We don’t tend to make much of that though, do we?

Jesus healed and raised from the dead women and girls – members of the society who were not valued. In the same way he broke down the boundaries between Jew and Samaritan, Jew and Gentile, he reached out to lepers and the unclean, to the despised and to children, who were also not counted as of any societal value.

I’m pretty sure Jesus was a feminist because he was all about equality, and when he says in our gospel reading today “I and the Father are one”, the word he uses is neuter. We are one without gender. God the father is not male, but it’s almost impossible to imagine this, in the same way that its’ impossible to image a man breastfeeding a baby.

The title of Father God is not about maleness or traits that we have labelled masculine. Because it is so hard to disconnect the idea of Father God from our personal experience of fathers, however you experienced being fathered – whatever your dad was like, good and bad – these are the qualities you will assign to Father God.

That alone is a confronting idea for many of us, so you may find that you are feeling very resistant to all of this, or want to justify your image of God, or rationalise or propose a counter argument. It’s ok. I’ve been there.

But for some, this is perhaps the most comforting thing you have ever heard.

These are the qualities of God’s parenthood: compassion, wisdom, joy, gentleness, constancy, tenderness, trusting and trustworthiness and above all and through all, fully present.

God as parent: holds, comforts and guides us, gives us space to stretch and to fail and at the same time supports and encourages; calls us to be accountable and to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions; shows us truth even when truth is painful because it is shown in a way that we can receive and take to heart, learn and grow from. I’m confident none of us had a father or a mother like that – or not all the time.

And for many of us, we can see that there are qualities in there that our culture denies to men and judges them for. And there are qualities that our culture encourages in and expects from women.

So if your image of God has, until now, been exclusively male and masculine here’s an invitation for the coming week: Let God be mother to you. Let some of those culturally feminine qualities shine through the divine image of Holy Wisdom, of our mother God – because God wants to be known and is never pushy or imposing.

Give it a try. Replace Father God with Mama God and just see….just see if it makes a difference, if it opens something new for you or draws you deeper in.

And finally, let me refocus our attention on the story of Tabitha and let’s once more discover some things about the unsung, ordinary disciple who this time shows us what embodied compassion looks like from a woman’s perspective.

Tabitha is named as a disciple. She is a significant person in this community, and we can tell that because the clues are there in the text . We have her name in both Hebrew and Greek, indicating to us that she was probably well educated (also unusual) and bilingual, ministering as a bridge between Judaism and the Greek world. We know she is devoted to a ministry to widows, a group that were particularly vulnerable, and it’s a ministry that has developed strong and deep relational bonds. Clearly, she is well loved and well regarded by all.

When Tabitha becomes ill and dies her loss is deeply felt by the whole community. Her special group, the widows, gather with garments that Tabitha had made for them. This makes me wonder – did she work with these widows to make the clothes, giving them skills, purpose, support group, meaningful work and dignity? Certainly, if she had simply been in the habit of giving widows a generous gift, that by itself doesn’t seem enough to prompt the outpouring of grief that we see here.

And it’s not just the women who are distressed by her death. When the community of believers hear that Peter is in a town nearby, they send two men to fetch him.

They send two men to fetch Peter for a woman. Wow.

The miracle that Peter prays for here is an intentional echo of Jesus’ ministry, one of many echoes throughout the book of Acts, all of which are designed to get across one message:

The ministry of Jesus Christ is now being embodied in the body of Christ, the faithful disciples – in short, us.

Tabitha was a resourceful, caring, generous, creative, compassionate and faithful woman. She didn’t have a mega church, she didn’t write best sellers, she wasn’t famous in her own time and we still don’t hold her up as a model of faith. But how many unsung, uncelebrated, unfamous women do you know who are quietly going about offering their ordinary gifts in service to love?  How many have there been through the centuries – women whose stories might inspire all of us to start asking this simple question: in the body-of-Christ-embodied ministry of Jesus, what is mine to do?

And then start doing it fully, sincerely and with great love.