Cleansing of the temple

By Giotto di Bondone – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94625

Candle lighting

For gathering today in this sacred space, We light the flame.

To sing hymns of praise and adoration to our God, We light the flame

For sharing together in the mystery of holy communion, We light the flame

And to honour the presence of Christ in all: We light the flame.

Call to worship

The God of rainbow and covenant, the God of Wilderness experiences,

The God of dark nights of the soul, the God of abundant love and gracious calling

Journeys with us throughout Lent; to guide and guard us in moments of temptation and trust;

In fear and in faith; in sadness and joy, grief and healing.

Therefore let us bless our God, rejoice in Christ’s presence and seek the strength of the Holy Spirit – and let us worship God.

A Pause to Gather Ourselves in Silence

A moment to pause; to gather yourself from all the places you have already been scattered this day; to breathe slowly and deeply as you enter fully into this present moment.

The ministry of music

All the earth is a living icon of the face of God” In these words, which inspired Malcolm Gordon’s song, St. John of Damascus reminds us that every place is sacred, full of God’s presence and glory – the glory that shows itself in light and in darkness, in beauty and in brokenness because it is the glory of love that ‘ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’. (1 Corinthians 13:7)

The Gospel reading


By Bernardino Mei – 8gGjtgJKKO7AGQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22177903

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me. The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Some thoughts for reflection

In almost all the images I could find for this story Jesus is shown with a fierce looking whip and a fierce expression on his face. He is obviously threatening violence to men and women and scaring the children. People are falling left, right and centre, and there is horror and outrage. But when I read this text carefully, I notice it says that on seeing the marketplace in the Gentiles court of prayer, Jesus made a whip of cords (bits of rope lying around?) and drove out the sheep and the cattle. He tipped over tables and spilled the money. He didn’t throw cages of doves about, and there’s no mention of people being attacked.

I wonder, then, why do we imagine it like this? Why are we so quick to assign to our God the violence we humans seem to have no trouble inflicting on each other? I have heard this story used in the arguments for a ‘just war’ theory, as if this is a precedent set by Jesus: when the offence is against a sacred value then violent defence is allowable. This angry and violent perception of Jesus has been used to justify our own angry and violent thoughts, words and actions.

The story is open to our interpretation – do we see what we expect to see? Do we see what we want to see? Is there a way to see that Jesus is making an energetic, bold and dramatic statement that is provocative but not violent? What difference does it make?

The season of Lent offers us many opportunities to be aware of and explore more deeply some of the big themes of Easter. This year with the pandemic still gripping our world we might hear this story in a different light, with more awareness of the importance we give to the places where we gather for worship, what that place means to us and how we behave in it.

Gathering freely has become a privilege, something that can be and has been taken away from us on occasion, but for so many around the world, this has been taken away for a long, long time. We are more keenly aware of the value of togetherness – in its many forms.

When we are able to gather freely and routinely each week, then our buildings often become connected with a sense of community identity. They, as much as we who gather within them, become invested with significance because of time, energy and financial efforts put into them. They become a focus for our attention and activity. Occasionally being kept out of them and away from each other over the last year has pushed us to shift our focus and given us the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. I wonder what that has been like for you?

On another level, the cleansing of the temple also invites us to consider the space we keep within.

Having just returned from ten days away in the quiet and beauty of Queen Charlotte sounds, I am very conscious of how easy it was to slip into rest and relaxation there, away from the routine and habits of ‘normal’.

Of course, it’s not impossible to find ways to restore my energy and nourish my soul here at home, it just takes more planning and a certain amount of determination to stop. To ignore my phone. To turn off the TV and to tune out of the dramas playing out around me or in my head. To put down the To Do list that never, ever gets any shorter. To choose non-doing, to see and enjoy and keep a space, an inner temple, clear and quiet and prayerful.

So perhaps you might like to spend some time this week considering the inner temple of your own heart.

What may need to be cleansed within that space? What excuses, denials, opinions and expectations, what self-satisfied complacency, what rattling anxieties, what misplaced zeal, what idolatry are trading their wares in your inner sanctuary ?

What are the obstacles to your opening to the divine presence who already dwells within you?

How might your inner temple be a house of love and acceptance rather than a shelter for fear and bitterness? What spiritual practices might support you in a purge?

Questions for conversation

What is your earliest memory of experiencing a sense of the sacred/ divine presence?

Where do you see the longing for sacred space being expressed or explored in our culture today?

Communion

Prayers of the people

It is with a sense of deep gratitude, eternal God,

that we come together in the sacred space of our hearts and homes.

We take a moment to pause in your presence

recognising our desire to offer our thankfulness and praise to you,

to bring our longings and hopes into the light of your presence.

In silence and stillness, rest in the inner temple of the soul.

As thoughts, emotions and sensations arise and ask for your attention, simply and softly let them go…there is no need to follow or engage….the divine presence asks you only to rest in love. There is no need for words, explanations or requests.

All is known. All is held. All shall be well.

Prayer of the day

At the beginning of time and at the end

you are God and we bless you.

At our birth and in our dying, in the opening of the day and at its close, in our waking and in our sleeping

you are God and we bless you.

You are the first and the last, the giver of every gift, the present without whom there would be no present, the life without whom there would be no life.

Lead us to the heart of life’s treasure that we may be bearers of the gift.

Lead us to the heart of the present that we may be sharers of your eternal present.

Amen.

Celtic prayer from John Philip Newell, adapted.

Blessing

As we go forth into the sacred mystery of everyday life, may we move with the flow of grace and be carried along your way by the energy of mercy and compassion.

May we recognise, hidden in our routines and our relationships, your many invitations to follow you on the way, and to learn from you how to walk this pilgrim’s path.

May we daily glimpse the underlying reality of Love that is stronger than death and live in the way, the truth and the light of this hope.

Amen

pausing to process

You can find the reading for this sermon here

http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55653

There is lots to think about here. I think the ancient story of Moses’ death – on the cusp of transitional change for the people of Israel – has some unexpected resonances for us in our times… see what you think.

This story marks an important transitional moment for the people of Israel, and as I reflect on it, I think there are a number of insights we might take from the passage and apply to our current circumstances.

There’s definitely something here for us to reflect on regarding how we approach and process death. This is a personal story of Moses, a man who experienced extraordinary times but who was, in the end, just a man – as human and flawed and beautiful as every one of us here – and this is how he faced and met his death.

This is also a collective story of the death of a leader and the loss of the stability and safety that he represented.

For the people of Israel, Moses has been the one constant since the escape from Egypt – well, God has also been constant, but in human terms Moses has been the mouthpiece, the figurehead, the guide, leader, advocate, model, judge and general for the people. From their perspective, he began this movement, he drew the people together and he orchestrated their getaway. He has wandered with these people in the wilderness for forty years watching an entire generation die around him, waiting for the time when the people and the promised land will finally be united.

But God has already told him that he will not be allowed to enter the land. Even when Moses tried to negotiate God would not budge. So he is tasked with taking the people to the edge of the promised land and he knows – because God has told him – that once there, he will die. He’s 120, but he’s still limber enough to hike up a mountain, his eyesight is still clear enough to see a long, long way and he’s still…vigorous. But God lets him look at the land and then, on command, Moses dies.

So there’s the personal piece. He’s known it’s coming, so I like to think that Moses had taken that time to ensure that he died a good death.

I recall a visit I once made with a 98 year old man who was in hospital and looking forward to a full recovery. He had no interest in contemplating any alternative possibility. I think he was probably genuinely surprised when he died.

By contrast, I volunteered for a while at mercy hospice in Manurewa and I saw again and again how most people slowly took in and courageously came to terms with a terminal diagnosis. The woman who headed up the day unit where I volunteered and where patients came to give their caregivers a time out, was a bit of a live wire with a pragmatic sense of humour. She used to tell people that a terminal diagnosis meant that they had a much clearer timeline to work with than the rest of us. “The reality is that none of us knows how long we’ve got”, she’d say with a grin, “I might get hit by a bus tomorrow!”

So in some ways, this knowing ahead of time was a gift to Moses. The news that your days are definitely numbered can serve to sharpen the focus of attention on what really matters and on how you want to live these last months, weeks, days, breaths.

Because most of us glide through life in a fuzzy haze of endless dailyness. Yes, things change, seasons come and go, children are born and grow, there are achievements to celebrate, special occasions to enjoy. There are arguments and failures, disappointments and the occasional disaster. But we live with a gentle blindness to the end of our days…it will come, eventually, but not yet…not yet…not yet.

God’s command to Moses was that he would die when God said so and that was before the crossing of the Jordan. Moses had time to prepare himself and do all he felt he needed to do, say what he needed to say. The wise ones of the early church used to give this advice: keep your death always before you. Which is to say: keep your focus on what is really important. Is that disagreement worth staying angry about? Is that hurt worth holding on to? Is that fear worth living with?

What is really important?

And this is where the personal story becomes a collective story, because Moses knew one of the things that was really important was to make sure that the people would be able to move on without him. He knew that there was a totally different kind of journey ahead, with totally different challenges. He had time to prepare Joshua and the people for new leadership and a new direction.

Perhaps he also knew, given his familiarity with the stiff-necked resistance of the people, that they would not necessarily embrace these changes with grace and enthusiasm. He probably suspected that they’d cling to what they knew and what felt normal, bearing in mind that by this time, for the people of Israel, “normal” is wandering in the wilderness eating manna with Moses. They could see this was wandering way of life was coming to an end, and they may even have been pretty excited about what lay ahead.

But when Moses dies, notice that they collectively take a whole month to grieve. They take a whole month to pause and process, to let this truth sink in and to start the work of letting go of the old normal. They also give Joshua a month to get his head around what his new responsibilities are and to begin to get the feel of the shoes he’s stepped into. His is a very different leadership role as the people go from aimless wandering to moving with determination toward a very particular destiny.

Even with the warning, the preparation and the pause, this level of change, this depth of loss and disorder is very unsettling. Of course.

We know something of this too.

In the last fifty years or so we have been living with the effects of significant shifts in our culture from the slow collapse of the traditions and values of Christendom. The evidence of this is all around if you are willing to see it and the loss of this worldview as a given in our culture has provoked the classic reactions of grief – denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

There is unsettling disruption and disorder in all mainline denominations as our numbers of ministers and members dwindle. This is a reality that has been and is keenly felt and collectively we seem at a loss to know what to do next.

It’s not that a leader has died, but a world view has died and along with it we have lost the stability it gave us.

On top of that this year we have seen the massive impact of a pandemic. It has disrupted so many lives and so many systems – health, politics, economics, international relations, education, religious and family social systems to name just a few. The pandemic has proved a challenge to so many of the givens of our normal way of life. It is front and centre of the news globally but also it is the subject of everyday conversations – a consideration in our everyday interactions.

I think we are all aware and feeling this added pressure to an already bewildered community.

So perhaps we also need to pause and do some processing.

Perhaps we also need to slow down rather than rush to return to ‘normal’, rather than rush to fix the ‘problem’ of so many of our churches on the edge and vulnerable without enough leaders to lead.

We probably need to name and recognise what is already lost and what is slipping away; what is too hard to face alone; what we can’t bear to lose; what is scary and uncomfortable.

This is counter-intuitive, I know, and it’s not the pattern that our culture endorses. The urgency of the issues seem to force us to action before we really take time to see the whole shape of what is gone and what it is time for us to leave behind.

If we don’t take the time to pause, process and prepare, there’s every chance that we’ll just attempt to recreate the sense of safety we had before things started to unravel – and that’s a long way back.

There’s every chance we’ll limit what we can move toward, we’ll limit what new horizons we can open to and what particular destiny we are called to live into in these times.

So I wonder what you would say is normal for the people of St Peter’s?

And what is your sense of the new direction that is beckoning ahead?

This is a question that I ask you without judgement – it isn’t a question of rightness or wrongness. Because God is love and works all things for good. So the time spent wandering in the wilderness wasn’t a waste of time although it may have seemed so for some. Equally, the time to move into the land was wrong until it was right. So the time and energy given to sustaining the life of this church through the last 130 odd years also hasn’t been wasted.

But perhaps the time has come for crossing the Jordan.

The death of Moses and all the generation of people who died in the wilderness remind us that death and resurrection are the foundational, unavoidable shape of life. Everything, everything dies when God calls back the breath – and then life springs forth in newness, in eternal constancy.

You can’t have one without the other. You know this.

So, I wonder where you find yourself today?

Are you ready to climb the mountain and see what God gives you to see even though you may well not get to touch it?

Are you wavering in denial, grasping on to what is slipping away and convinced that there is no life without it?

Are you angrily defending the values and treasures of ‘normal’?

Are you flat and hopeless – wondering what is the point in trying anything truly new or different?

Where you are is simply where you are starting from. Any of these responses is a part of what it means to pause to grieve the loss of what is ending as long as we know this is a pause.

As long as we know that when the time is right, we’ll leave behind the way things were and set our eyes on the wide horizon of grace and love waiting for us, surrounding us and promised to us.

AMEN

manna and Mystery

Candle Lighting

In the mystery of life about us there is light.
It gives us a way to see

And a place to be, to grow, to rejoice together.
It opens the pathways to love.

Let the Christ light we kindle be before us, between us, within us –
strong in hope, wide in good will, inviting the day to come.

Call to worship

We are a pilgrim people, called to journey in faith

With hope and imagination,

With passion and courage.

We are called to pioneer forth toward a future yet unnamed, along an unknown path, leaving behind what we long to cling to, trusting ourselves to God’s guiding.

So let us join in worship of the One who calls, who leads and guides, and who will never leave or forsake us,

for our God is Now,

our God is Always,

our God is Life.

Reading: Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?”

And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him–what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'”

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.

The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.

When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another,

“What is it?”

For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.

Poetry for the soul

From Steve Garnaas-Holmes – unfolding light

The word “Manna” in Hebrew
sounds like “What is it?”

It’s not a name,
it’s a question.

There is no handle for grace.
No tag, just a tug.

No logic,
just wonder.

You can’t name it,
understand, measure it.

You can only take it in.
Like a kiss.

Grace comes to you.
It leaves a taste in your mouth.

All you can do is receive it,
and wonder.

And live
the question.

Reflection

complaining and blaming

As I listened to this story over the week, what I noticed is that this story from so long ago still offers us some fascinating insights into how a community functions under stress, and what the role of a leader often is at these times. The people are nearing the end of their resources. They have been worked half to death in Egypt until Moses appeared with an unexpected announcement – God has heard your cries and he has sent me to lead you to freedom. They fled for their lives, taking only what they could carry and now here they are in the wilderness, apparently on their way to the land that God has promised to their long ago ancestor. Apparently now is the time, and this is how God is choosing to fulfil that promise.

But for these people – hungry, bewildered, afraid and overwhelmed – they are not seeing promise fulfilled but rather disaster approaching. As the anxiety rises, the people of Israel demonstrate for us some of the five things that all people everywhere do when they get stressed.

First of all, they collectively engage in under functioning. Under functioning is when the story you tell yourself goes something like this:

We can’t do anything. This problem is way too big for us to tackle. It’s useless – we’re helpless here and we’re sure someone else will know what to do. Also, we’re pretty sure that it’s not our fault that we’ve ended up here. This wasn’t even our idea. We had a better idea, probably maybe.

This may be ringing some bells for you, but if not, chances are you have a tendency to over function under stress. This is a different but not less damaging stress response.

As a faith community, it’s easy for everyone to fall into the under functioning mode of thinking because we believe that God is ultimately responsible and that we do have a significant element of helplessness hardwired into our very existence. Every breath is a gift. We cannot increase the span of our lives by a single minute. What comes to us is often – always? – completely out of our control.

But God is looking for active partners not passive puppets. God is inviting us to participate in the flow of life, so our helplessness is tempered with our capacity to choose to cooperate, to accept and receive, to offer and give away.

The people of Israel don’t know that yet, so they do the next thing that people under stress often do. They look for someone to blame. The story they tell themselves shifts from, “we’re tired and hungry and scared and lost” to:

we trusted Moses and he clearly has no idea what he’s doing! We’ve lost what little we had in Egypt and it’s his fault! Our families are at risk and suffering. Where is this all going? Are we just going to die slowly in the wilderness? Why is it taking so long to get to this so called Promised Land? How is this ever going to get any better??

As I wrote out this list of questions, it occurred to me that the chances are some of these thoughts, or versions of them, may well have crossed your mind in the last year or so. It is always something of an anxious time as you move into a vacancy and then the pandemic jolted everything up a notch. All of us are in communities experiencing anxiety about our lives on a global and a personal scale, with pressures from outside and inside and still with the normal daily rounds of family/work/health/finances to manage.

When things feel out of control, when we feel beleaguered and under the pump then blaming is a popular coping strategy. Finding someone else to hold accountable for our pain gives us a target to release some anger onto. It allows us some relief both from the helplessness we feel and from the sense of responsibility for our own lives and the outcomes of our own actions. It gives us a way to shift focus from uncomfortable feelings to feelings we are more able to manage.

If you don’t do outright anger, you’ll probably find that snide comments, sarcasm, complaining, undermining and grumbling are more your style.

The people of Israel started with the complaints. Later they get more openly aggressive, so much that Moses tells God that they are ready to stone him. But here, they are just murmuring. Obviously loudly enough for it to be clear what the problem is…

The people of Israel have only recently been introduced to God. They do not yet know the character, the constancy, the faithfulness and tenderness of this God who has claimed them and liberated them. So God offers reassurance. What else would work to ease the tension and fear they are quite naturally experiencing in those stressful circumstances? God provides for their needs with gifts that are new every morning. With grace that is sufficient for each one as they need it. With the fleeting kiss of manna, of mystery and of glory.

This is what we get to sustain us. Not certainty. Not nailed down and in the bank security. But enough each day. Enough for now.

This story reminds me that humans are hard wired for survival. For the most part, we have a tenacious hold on life that we do not easily give up. At every level we want to survive – as individuals and as part of a family, as a community of faith, as a nation with a viable economy, as a species in an increasingly endangered habitat. But more than that, beneath that we want to thrive. We want life, the promised life in all its fullness.

Fullness of life means the light and the shadow, the hunger and thirst as well as the feasting and savouring. Fullness of life means suffering and sadness as well as love and delight. Fullness of life means eternity lived in each moment, heaven all the way to heaven and a death without a sting.

Blaming doesn’t lead that way. Neither does under or over functioning. Complaining, gossip and distancing or avoidance don’t lead to fullness of life, but when we are anxious they are often second nature. It feels natural to avoid those who are making you feel crazy or scared. It feels natural to blow off steam about them to a sympathetic friend. It feels natural to micro manage the situation or to throw up your hands and walk away.

It’s just that God offers us a much better, admittedly more challenging way to live. It’s also a way to live that is life giving. And I think that’s really what we need. Don’t you?

I also think that this story invites us to dwell with some questions that are particularly pertinent for these uncertain times.

Conversation questions

What are the ways I react when I feel anxious and dissatisfied?

How have I seen this community deal with stress before and what was my part in that?

What do I expect of a leader?

And then:

How have I seen God provide for my needs and reassure me when I am uncertain of the way ahead?

What might help us as a community of faith to trust God more deeply?

Prayers of the People

Loving, joyful God, it is with a sense of deep gratitude that we pause in your presence desiring to offer our thanks and praise to you

Silence

For the mystery of love, which draws us, excites us, animates and connects us, God we bless you, we thank and praise you.

You have provided us with friends and family, communities where we learn to practice compassion, trust and grace.

Give us teachable hearts, listening ears, willing hands and humble tongues we pray.

Silence

For the energy and vitality of love, that inspires us to dreams and visions, that nurtures hope and casts out fear God we bless you, we thank and praise you. You have given us imagination and creativity, a scope for seeing beyond what is to what may yet be.

Guide us and inspire us to live in the hopeful now, and dwell in its fullness we pray.

Silence

For the wisdom and discernment of love, that teaches us the peaceful paradox of learning to live with more questions and less answers, God we bless you, we thank and praise you.

You have provided us with guides through the centuries, women and men who knew the humbling experience of being so loved by you that they responded with joyful abandon, uncompromisingly; offering themselves to you as generously as you have offered yourself to us.

May we also be inspired to live with integrity and unrelenting courage we pray.

O God, we bless you, we thank and praise you. Amen.

Blessing – from ‘Benedictus’ by John O’Donnohue

May the maker’s blessing be yours
encircling you round
above you
within you

May the angels blessing be yours
and the joy of the saints
to inspire you
to cherish you

May the Son’s blessing be yours
the wine and the water
the bread and the stories
to feed you
to remind you

May the Spirit’s blessing be yours
the wind, the fire
the still small voice
to comfort you
to disturb you

And may my own blessing be yours
a blessing rooted in our common pilgrimage
the blessing of a friend

Amen

wholly holy

Candle Lighting

We light the flame,

a symbol of the light of Christ among us and within us:

a beam we learn to bear

and to bear witness to.

Call to worship

With our lips we praise you, O God,

We tell of the astonishing beauty of your creation and the joy of your unending love.

With our minds we praise you, O God,

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

We ponder the depths of your compassion and discern your way of justice and mercy.

With our hearts we praise you, O God,

We feel our soul’s desire for you and our response to follow as disciples of Jesus the Christ.

We give you thanks for this opportunity to gather;

to learn and grow and share in the life of the Body of Christ.

Amen.

Confession

We confess we have forgotten that we human beings are part of the community you created and that we are reconciled to one another through the cross, called to be in solidarity with all creation.

We confess we have failed to celebrate the diversity and richness of the world and the peoples you have created.

We confess that we have failed to show hospitality to the stranger, and that we have valued our own traditions and cultures over those that are unfamiliar to us.

Lord, in your mercy forgive us.

Open our eyes to the work of the Spirit in the world and to the truth of our belonging to one another and to you.

Amen.

Poetry for the soul – You wait for me

From Meister Eckhart’s book of the heart by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows

I think mine

is the work

of finding You,

but You wait

for me in my

joy and strife

to reveal

who You are,

which is love,

and to radiate

what You are,

which is light.

Reading: Exodus 3:1-6

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
NRSV translation

Reflections

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking and thinking about our values, the stories that have formed our values and the way those values are then embodied in what we do. Anne Overton shared some stories where she has seen the values of love, acceptance, grace and gratitude brought to life through practical caring, creating spaces where people can gather, learn, work, grow, laugh and share.

It would be easy to assume that because you gather together each week, most weeks, you share the same values and have versions of the same kinds of stories about how those values have been formed and are now embodied in the activities of the church. We could take these as a given and move on to thinking about how you might begin doing something different or doing more. But this time between ministers which often feels like a time of disruption and vulnerability – like a hermit crab between shells – has also seen the additional pressure of the pandemic and the total dislocation of all things ‘normal’.

During our first lockdown, there were many who made the observation that this had changed everything…that even when we were allowed to go back, we couldn’t go back. There were those who suggested that things – the shape of life and the norms of life – had been unalterably changed. And then the restrictions were lifted, and yes, things were a bit different, and we know that some have lost jobs and others have lost more… We are all living with more uncertainty and a bit more awareness of the pull of busyness and business as usual….

But has anything really changed?

The malls are still thick with shoppers, the food courts still teeming, queues outside MacDonald’s and a longing for sports, movies, theatre, live music…. It seems that there are still many things in place which feel so utterly solid that we can’t imagine they really could change or that we might have to live without….

A trip to the islands in winter….

A readily available, moderately priced paperback book ordered online and arriving within two weeks….

A weekly routine of gathering to sing, pray, listen and reflect….

Or whatever it is that you hold as ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ – a given or perhaps, even, a right.

So since the pandemic is forcing us to adjust again and again, and since you are still bang in the middle of a time between ministers, I thought it would be good and helpful to spend some time digging in to the origin stories of this community by digging in to the origin stories of the people of Israel. While we have been exploring the parables in depth, the lectionary readings of the Hebrew scriptures have been following Moses in his journey from baby in the basket among the reeds to murderer and then sheep herder. We pick up the story in the wilderness, as Moses approaches the mountain of God and sees something inexplicable. His curiosity is piqued, and he turns aside to look more closely, only to hear God call him by name. Moses responds with the same words we hear in the mouths of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Samuel when God calls to each of them. ‘Here I am’.

Now two interesting things happen next.

First of all, God tells Moses to take off his sandals.

We have our own cultural context where removing shoes is a sign of respect for the space you are about to enter. It’s also a bit of a housekeeping thing – the communal space is cared for by community responsibility for cleanliness. We shed the outer layers in order to leave the dirt of everyday life outside and in order to preserve the space inside. There is probably other significance in this gesture of removing our shoes, and I wonder what it might mean for you?

Moses, though, is standing on a mountain. He is not about to enter a building. There’s no issue of tracking dust into the temple. And yet God tells him to remove his sandals.

There is still this call to shed the outer layers when we encounter the Holy One. Take off those skins, take off the leather sandals, but also shed whatever protective skins you have put on – whatever stories you are telling about yourself and about God – and come before God with nothing to hide behind, nothing to shield you.

Moses was a displaced child, raised by a woman who was not his mother in a culture that was not his own. What kind of story would he have told about that? Moses was also a man with a dark secret. That’s a story on its own. Moses had gone for a prince in the house of Pharaoh to a sheep herder in the wilderness of Midian. Now a husband and father and exile. I can imagine what kinds of stories of shame, pain, blame, fear, loss and dislocation he might he have carried within him.

So here’s a question to ponder….

I wonder what kind of protective skins you have taken on…I wonder how you have hidden from love?

Question for conversation

When Moses is told to take off his sandals, he is also told why – for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. The ground is already holy. It was holy before the angel lit the bush on fire, before Moses turned aside and before God spoke from the bush.

Moses is on holy ground. So are we.

The earth is the Lord’s, every common bush is afire with God, the heavens tell of God’s glory, this space, this ground, this whole earth is holy.

You may have no difficulty agreeing with that.

But, so what?

What does that mean for the building we call the church?

What does that mean for the activity we call ‘worship’ every Sunday morning for 60-80 minutes?

What does that mean for the other ten thousand minutes of each week?

Do you live them on holy ground?

What would it look like, feel like, sound like if you approached life with the skins off and aware of the holy ground all around you?

What’s stopping you from living this way?

Prayers of the people

God of wilderness and jungle, God of liberation and revelation, you call to us, inviting us to turn aside…may we learn to respond ‘Here I am’ in each moment and each breath.

God of beauty and wisdom, God of awe and wonder, you inspire us, inviting us to draw near….may we learn to shed our resistance and surrender to Love in quiet reverence.

God of grace and goodness, God of healing and compassion, you energise us… may we learn to let you guide us into the flow of your peace and joy so we live and move and know ourselves alive in you.

God of connection and partnership, God of community and communion, you draw us on….may we learn to live more and more with an open heart to all, to offer the gifts of our lives in the service of your healing, restoring work in the world, for the world.

In the holy name of the Three in One we pray,

Amen.

Blessing

As you prepare to leave this sacred space and to move into the sacred space of your homes and work, may you go energised, enlivened and renewed.

Go into the world:
dance, laugh, sing and create.
We go with your encouragement, O God.

Go into the world:
risk, explore, discover and love.
We go with your encouragement, O God.

Go into the world:
trust, hope, struggle and remember.
We go with the assurance of your love, O God.

Blessing words
May the Spirit who moves through all creation,
who speaks through the prophets and the poets,
and who acts through those who care,
awaken us in each moment of our lives
to the flow and power of love.

Amen.

Training in treasuring

Candle Lighting

We light this flame to affirm that new life and light
is ever waiting to break through to enlighten our ways:
that new truth is ever waiting
to break through to illumine our minds,
and that new love is ever waiting
to break through to warm our hearts.

May we be open to this light,
and to the rich possibilities that it brings us. 

Call to Worship

Yesterday is no longer in our hands, but belongs to our history as individuals, and to the history of humankind.

We remember the past with thanks for all goodness, with sorrow for our failures and missed opportunities and with joy for our achievements and all love.

Tomorrow is not yet ours; it belongs to a future for which we work and plan, but can never possess as it is always unfolding.

We look forward to the future with hope for the possibilities, with some hesitations about its uncertainties and with anticipation for the new horizons it will open.

The time we have is now, our time to be fully alive, to celebrate life, to enjoy and use the gifts of God, to allow grace to shape our hearts and lives until we reflect the fullness of God’s love.

We welcome this day with all it brings, ready to live as the people of God and grow into the likeness of Christ in this place and for these times.

Let our lives become a continuous flow of worship as we live awake to the glory of God in each moment.

Poetry for the soul

The Real Work by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

The Lord’s Prayer (translated from Aramaic)

O Breathing Life,

your Name shines everywhere!

Release a space to plant your Presence here.

Imagine your possibilities now.

Embody your desire in every light and form.

Grow through us this moment’s bread and wisdom.

Untie the knots of failure binding us,

as we release the strands we hold of others’ faults.

Help us not forget our Source,

Yet free us from not being in the Present.

From you arises every Vision,

Power and Song from gathering to gathering.

Amen – May our future actions grow from here!

Scripture reading: Matthew 13:51-52

51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 

52 And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

Reflection

So, first of all, let’s unpack a key phrase from these two verses – the scribe of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus refers to the scribes who are trained for the kingdom of heaven as the ones who bring out the new and old treasures from the storehouse. In Jesus’ time, the scribes were the ones who were immersed in the law and in the commentaries on the law. They were the ones who were experts in deciphering and applying the scriptures. So whenever there was a question about what is right for the people of Israel, the people of Yahweh, anyone could go to a scribe and ask how they interpreted the laws in the light of what the prophets said and in the context of the moment.

You are probably aware that most of Jesus’ interactions with scribes were less than positive, and he had some pretty harsh criticism for them and the way they carried out this role. Which makes it interesting that here he takes that title and role and uses it in a way that implies there is something different about how interpretation of tradition and application of scripture is meant to happen among disciples of the kingdom of heaven.

Through the gospel stories we can see that Jesus was training the disciples. He sent them out on preaching journeys, he taught them to pray, he showed them how to teach and to heal, how to tell stories and ask questions. If he was training his disciples to be scribes of the kingdom of heaven, what was the difference between the way the scribes and Pharisees carried out that role and the way that Jesus was teaching the disciples?

I think there are two images that help us understand this.

The first is the veil in the temple that kept the holy of holies separate from the inner sanctuary – the veil that Matthew tells us was split in two at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross. There is no separation. God is not an object for our worship or even our love. God is love, inseparable from our loving, part of every loving encounter, every loving intention and expression no matter how incomplete and flawed – God is present and knowable as love. This is a knowing that is not about belief or expertise in Greek and Hebrew. This is a knowing that is open to all, whether we are highly educated or illiterate; whether we enjoy full mental functioning or are differently abled or experiencing declining mental capacity.

We know love. We don’t need a PhD to know love.

And since there is no separation, since God has made it possible for anyone and everyone to experience and receive the fullness of life through the fullness of love, we don’t need a special expert to tell us what love is, or to tell us how love loves, how grace flows, how Spirit moves. Each of us is equally able to let scripture speak into the depths of our hearts and slowly, gently but inevitably break us open to greater capacity. Slowly we are able to receive more love, more grace, more wisdom and we are able to allow the flow of grace to move through us.

This is the training that will help us become scribes of the kingdom of heaven. But I know that this is not generally how we have been taught to approach scripture. For the most part, we have continued with the same approach as the scribes and Pharisees.

Forgive me if this is not your approach, but this is how I was taught, and it seems quite widespread…. We approach the scriptures as a blueprint for how to live. There are some clear guidelines, some laws that are set in stone (literally!), and some stories with interpretive possibilities and obscurities. We are often aware of some of the aspects of the different culture and context that the stories come out of which can add to their being hard to understand at times. So, understandably,  we look to experts to explain and interpret.

This is where the second image comes in.

I think of the scriptures as more like a plate glass window than a blueprint for how to build a good life, please God and get to heaven When you are out and about and you look into a café or a shop through a plate glass window, and when the light is right, you can see into the shop but you can also see your own reflection. Some of the light particles are passing through the glass, illuminating what is on the other side, and some of the light particles are bouncing off the glass and showing you your own image. This is what happens when we approach the scripture with love, from the heart space, not the head. When we are looking to understand the depths of God and our own life together. When we are willing to look deeply at both at the same time, to see what God sees in us, to let God look on us through the words of scripture and at the same time, to gaze into the heart of God, to open to what God reveals and to receive the grace of this loving exchange.

The training of the disciples to become scribes of the kingdom of heaven is the training to recognise, receive and share love. Everyone who follows is called to this training. Everyone who follows is a scribe and disciple of the kingdom of heaven. Which means that it is worth giving some attention to this training… there is a fundamental transformation we are called to in partnership with God’s saving, loving, healing grace.

It’s a transformation that  happens in the secret chambers of the heart, not the head.

So our training needs to focus on what we hold and treasure in these chambers, not what we can memorise or explain or give justification for.

It’s a process that requires us to trust God and to learn to listen, to trust the Holy Spirit as our inner guide and to trust the Holy Spirit in our communal gathering – to learn to listen and trust together.

Questions for Conversation

I wonder what your response to that different approach to scripture and discipleship is?

I wonder how you feel about trusting God to heal and guide your heart through your deep listening to and wrestling with scripture?

There is training for those who are scribes and disciples of the kingdom of heaven – what has your experience of discipleship training been like?

Have you learned new skills or developed deeper understanding as you have grown as a follower of Jesus ? How do you see the various relationships, activities, obligations, values and commitments in your life reflecting your desire to live as a disciple of Christ?

What are the treasures in the household of your faith? – what are the stories or experiences you cherish, people who you look up to, ideals you aspire to, practices you commit to keeping and deepening?

How do you know what to treasure? How do you discern what has value? What are the values that guide your choice and your discerning whether to conserve and share or whether to let go and shed?

These are questions to journey with, to talk over and maybe to write and reflect upon….

It may help you to consider what troubles you when it is changed/absent/disrespected? It may bother you when the church seating is rearranged, for example. This is a sign of value to you….but what’s the value attached to orderly seating in the ‘usual’ formation?

Conversely, consider what delights you when it is present/ honoured/ celebrated/affirmed? What is the value that you associate with those things? For example, you may love to hear the children’s story and see the youngsters gathering to listen. Is that because it reminds you of the time when you brought your children to church? Is it because it assures you that there is a future for the church in these children? Is it because you love stories? What are you actually valuing?

I wonder if there are others you might ask these questions of?

Prayers of the People

Offering blessing

God, you are good to us, providing all we need for life. God, you are good to us, guiding us in your way of joy. God, you are good to us, restoring us to peace and opening our eyes to abundance.

We offer our lives for your service, our gifts for your blessing and our hopes for your love to be all in all.

Amen.

Blessing

On our heads and in our homes: The blessing of God

In our coming and going: The peace of God

In our life and believing: The love of God

At our end and new beginning: The arms of God to welcome and bring us home.

Ever loving God, we pray, united in Christ and secure in the promise that you will hear and answer us. Amen

St Peter’s and the hood

Candle Lighting

In the presence of God, we light this flame, ancient symbol of life, passion and hope.

Kindle in us a flame of love for our neighbours, for our foes, for our friends, for our kindred, all.

From the humblest thing that lives to the One who is highest of all, kindle in our hearts within a flame of love.

The candle is lit.

Call to worship

In the beauty of this moment
All: We worship you
In the fellowship of your people
All: We worship you
In the presence of your Spirit
All: We worship you
In the company of all creation
All: We worship you
Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Glorious Trinity
All: We worship you

As your family we gather here today
Not because we have to, but because we want to.
We are here to offer you our worship, our prayers
and our lives in service to you and to our neighbour.

We have as our example your Son who chose not to rule but to serve.


Your Son, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly
All: Thanks be to God
Your Son, who came that we might know love, and knowing, might share
All: Thanks be to God

‘How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us’
ALL: That we should be called children of God’
1 John 3: 1

Poetry for the soul

You are the peace of all things calm
You are the place to hide from harm
You are the light that shines in dark
You are the heart’s eternal spark
You are the door that’s open wide
You are the guest who waits inside
You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling of the poor
You are my Lord and with me still
You are my love, keep me from ill
You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Saviour this very day. 

Catching up on Community

An opportunity to share our milestones, celebrate and remember together, and notices for events, news or other important announcements.

Listen to the scriptures

Micah 6:6-8

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

An interview with Anne Overton

Communities feeding communities – a story, a vision, a journey.

Pausing for thought and creative reflections

What we do flows from who we are.

Are there values that jump out at you as essentially ‘st peter’s’ values? How would you describe them and where do you see them being lived out by the community as a whole? (not just one or two stand out individuals)

Are there other values that you would identify as foundationally important to the character of the church community and to guide our engagement with others?

How might we make those values manifest in our community and in our neighbourhood?

Prayers of the people

God of grace, we have known you in the warmth of the sun and the wildness of wind….we see the fresh green of spring growth and are soaked in spring showers… we pray for this our earth, waters and sky.

Teach us to honour, cherish and protect our planet so that we may learn to tread lightly and reverently upon the earth.

God of grace, we have known you in the warmth of a friend’s smile and the wild joy of first love… we see the bonds of family and community reaching out to offer care, understanding and support….we pray for those who are part of our web of life, family, church family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, walking partners and fellow enthusiasts of all kinds.

Teach us to recognise your face in all the faces we see so that we may learn to honour, cherish and protect all your children.

God of grace, we have known you in the dark of despair and the pain of suffering – in mind, body and spirit – for in the midst of this emptiness and agony we encounter the mystery of your presence as wounded healer.

We pray for all who are in distress, who are weary and heavily burdened.

Teach us true compassion without condescension or prejudice, so that we may learn to be humble of heart and generous of spirit.

God of grace, you have known us from before we were born and the stories of our lives find their meaning and fulfilment within your story of our lives.

Our hearts are as an open book to you, and so in a moment of silence, let us hear God’s invitation to offer to the open book of your heart to God’s loving embrace.

We offer these and all our prayers in the name of Christ our Lord,

Amen.

A psalm of praise

40 I patiently waited, Lord,
    for you to hear my prayer.
You listened and pulled me
from a lonely pit
    full of mud and mire.
You let me stand on a rock
    with my feet firm,
and you gave me a new song,
    a song of praise to you.
Many will see this,
and they will honour
    and trust
    you, the Lord God.

You bless all of those
    who trust you, Lord,
    and refuse to worship idols
    or follow false gods.
You, Lord God, have done
    many wonderful things,
and you have planned
    marvellous things for us.
    No one is like you!
I would never be able to tell
    all you have done.

Sacrifices and offerings
    are not what please you;
    gifts and payment for sin
    are not what you demand.
But you made me willing
    to listen and obey.
And so, I said, “I am here
    to do what is written
    about me in the book,
    where it says,
’I enjoy pleasing you.
    Your Law is in my heart.’”

When your people worshiped,
you know I told them,
    “Our Lord always helps!”
10 When all your people met,
    I did not keep silent.
I said, “Our Lord is kind.
    He is faithful and caring,
    and he saves us.”

11 You, Lord, never fail
    to have pity on me;
    your love and faithfulness
    always keep me secure.

12 I have more troubles
    than I can count.
My sins are all around me,
    and I can’t find my way.
My sins outnumber
the hairs on my head,
    and I feel weak.
13 Please show that you care
and come to my rescue.
    Hurry and help me!

14 Disappoint and confuse
    all who want me dead;
    turn away and disgrace
    all who want to hurt me.
15 Embarrass and shame
all of those who say,
    “Just look at you now!”

16 Our Lord, let your worshipers
    rejoice and be glad.
They love you for saving them,
so let them always say,
    “The Lord is wonderful!”

17 I am poor and needy,
but, Lord God,
    you care about me,
and you come to my rescue.
    Please hurry and help.

Blessing

With the love of God may we be warmed and welcomed

With the justice of Jesus may we be challenged and made whole

With the breath of the Spirit may we be filled with courage and life.

Go in peace to love and to serve in the name of Christ

Amen

Wedding banquet surprises

Photo by Mat Brown from Pexels

Candle lighting and call to worship

As we gather together today, a sabbath pause in the busyness of life, we light this candle and remember:

Christ is our light;

Christ shines in us;

Christ shines through us.

Creator God, you formed the heavens and the earth and all that is by your Word and your Spirit.

You give us life and breath, and so we come to praise you.

Redeeming God, you came to us in Jesus and walk this journey of life with us.

You know us completely. Our hearts and lives lie open to your loving gaze.

Healing God, your presence is balm to our hurts and in your loving forgiveness we are set free.

We freely offer ourselves to you, and trust you, Holy Spirit, to guide and inspire us.

The Lord’s prayer

–The Prayer of Jesus in Aramaic, translation from Desert Wisdom by Neil Douglas-Klotz 1995

O Breathing Life, your Name shines everywhere!
Release a space to plant your Presence here.
Imagine your possibilities now.
May your counsel rule our lives and make our intentions clear
for the common creation.
Embody your desire in every light and form.
Grow through us this moment’s bread and wisdom.
Untie the knots of failure binding us, as we release the strands
we hold of others’ faults.
Help us not forget our Source,
Yet free us from not being in the Present.
From you arises every Vision, Power and Song from gathering to gathering.
May our future actions grow from here!

AMEN

Thoughts on a wedding ~ by Steve Garnaas-Holmes

God isn’t waiting till we die to decide whether to be with us forever.

God’s goodness isn’t dependent on ours.

God is in love with all Creation, and wholly devoted. Life is the Beloved’s marriage to us.

The whole world is God’s wedding ring, given in steadfast love and fidelity.

Every sunrise is wedding music. Every breath is God’s “I do.”

We hope for all sorts of smaller blessings— good weather, good food, good hair, good health, good feelings, good parking. But deep down you know how minor those things are.

Our deepest hope is for God’s good love, God’s unfailing presence.

And that’s a done deal. A promise.

None of life’s uncertainties can change that—the delights and disasters, the marvels, the suffering—none of it changes

The Absolute: that God loves us like crazy,

will be faithful to us forever,

will give us everything God owns and do anything to be with us,

will die for us; and that even suffering and death will not part us,

but bring us closer.

We are God’s. God holds us close.

And what God has brought together, no one can break apart. That’s the good news—this weekend, and to the end of time.

Reading: Matthew 22:1-14

And in reply, Jesus spoke to them in parables again, saying, “The kingdom of the heavens has been likened to a man, a king, who arranged wedding celebrations for his son. And he sent out his slaves to summon those who had been invited to the wedding celebrations, and they did not wish to come. Again, he sent out other slaves, saying, ‘Say to those who have been invited, “Look: I have prepared my luncheon, my bulls and fatted beasts have been sacrificed, and all things are ready; come to the wedding celebrations.”‘ But they went away in indifference, one to his own field, another to his business; but the rest overpowered the slaves, treated them brutally, and killed them. The king was then enraged and, sending his armies, destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he says to his slaves, ‘The wedding is indeed ready, but those who were invited were not worthy; go, therefore, to where the roads let out, and summon as many as you find to the wedding celebrations.’ And those slaves, going out into the streets, gathered together all whom they found, both the bad and the good; and the wedding hall was filled with those reclining at table.

But the king, coming in to see those who reclined at table, spied there a man not clothed in a wedding garment; and he says to him, ‘Friend, how did you enter here not wearing a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.

Then the king said to his servants, ‘bind his feet and hands and throw him into the darkness outside.’ There will be weeping and grinding of teeth there. For many are called, but few are chosen.”

~ A translation by David Bentley Hart

Context and Considerations

This particular parable is given as part of a directed response to the chief priests and pharisees. It has a parallel in Luke’s account of the gospel, but there are some significant differences between them – most obvious is Matthew’s wholly unique exchange between the king and the guest without a wedding garment followed by having him bound and expelled into the darkness outside. Matthew seems to have a thing about the wailing and gnashing and the (final)judgement that separates some into light and others into darkness. Six of the seven times this is mentioned it’s Matthew who is telling the story. Despite how infrequently this version of judgement is found in the New Testament, the images of exclusion and rejection are frightening and loom very large in the Christian imagination.

This could be, in part, because our brains are hardwired to attend to and recall negative experiences, possibly because they pose a threat to our survival and so we need to learn the lessons fast to avoid repeating them. That means that painful, difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings all stick like velcro in our memories, and often pop up uninvited when we are quiet. By contrast, warm, affirming, joyful and pleasant feelings slide out of recall like oil on teflon and research shows that if we want those good experiences to stick, we have to consciously embrace them for at least 15 seconds. You’d be amazed how long that feels when you try and sink in and embrace a warm fuzzy moment.

So, that enduring sense of threat around exclusion means that we have made much of these few instances when it occurs. Matthew’s account of the gospel is the one where we are reminded over and over that God is with us. That’s the bigger perspective we need to embrace and consciously recall as we acknowledge that there is tension in this text.

It’s probably also helpful to recognise our usual response to tension…for many of us, that means we attempt to resolve it/fix it/explain it….

or we may choose to avoid it/ ignore it/pretend there is no tension here….

Or you may like to wade on in and poke it with a stick…

So as we engage with this text, first of all I am wondering where, listening today, you felt the tension in the parable?

Was it in the rude dismissal of the invited guests when the king let them know that everything was ready and it was time to celebrate? Was it in the violent murder of the messenger slaves which prompts the violent responses of the king? How does this fit with Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek, loving your neighbour and forgive, forgive, forgive?

Did you feel the tension in the radical hospitality of extending the invitation to good and bad alike to come join in the wedding celebrations? What does that say to you about the hard work in the journey of discipleship, of the importance of faithful living or the mysterious but foundational inner work of transformation? How do you make sense of that?

Was the tension most noticeable for you in the exchange between the king and the wedding guest who wasn’t properly dressed for the occasion? If the guests were all just invited, how could any of them have been better prepared to attend with a wedding garment ready? Why call him friend and then toss him out? Why toss him out at all? What are these credentials for inclusion that the king requires and how are they acquired? And how does that fit with the radial inclusion we see in Jesus’ ministry, his forgiveness of sin even when there is no prior sign of repentance, his healing of those usually deemed unworthy and unwelcome?

Was it the dire consequences for being speechless? I don’t even know what to say about that.

Was it in the last line – the gap between those called and those chosen? What does it mean to be invited (called…same word in greek) but not chosen? Who does the choosing? On what grounds? Where do you hear freedom and grace in this story?

And lastly, I wonder if this parable shows us what happens when humans get involved in the telling of Divine Grace? Our scriptures are a collection of stories of ongoing struggle to receive and process the revelation of God’s grace and love. We resist the expansive inclusion. We limit and set boundaries, we can’t accept the paradox of unworthiness rewarded with worth. I wonder if, here in our very scriptures, is the acknowledgement our own tendency to meddle with God’s freedom to include, to forgive, to give up power, to love and to love without end?

Conversation Question

Consider how you have noticed and resolved these tensions in the parable in the past…and what (if anything) has been left unresolved in your heart…. take turns sharing your perspective on this text and what it says to you today.

Feedback

Prayers of the people

God, may our love be genuine.
May we let go what is evil in us,
and open ourselves to what is good.
By your Spirit in us may we truly love others:
not just to tolerate them but to honour them. 
Give us your zeal, your energy, the true desire to serve you.
Give us the faith to rejoice with hope,
to be patient in suffering, and to persevere in prayer.
Help us take the opportunities we will have today
to contribute to the needs of those around us…
to extend hospitality to strangers…
to bless those who oppose us— to bless and not to curse them.  

We are mindful of those who rejoice, and we rejoice with them.
We are mindful of those who weep, and we weep with them.
May we be present for them today. 

Give us your grace to live this day in harmony with others. 
We do not need to pretend that we are wiser than we are.
Help us not to be haughty
but to know that the lowly are our peers. 

Give us grace to not repay evil for evil,
but to focus on what is good for the sake of all.
Give us grace to live peaceably with all.
Give us your grace to feed the hungry even if they oppose us,
to give drink to the thirsty even if we do not like them.

We pray that we will not be overcome by evil,
but that we may overcome evil with good,
by the grace of your love in us.
Amen

~from a prayer by Steve Garnaas-Holmes, based on Romans 12:9-21

Blessing

May the Lord bless you in your working and your resting,

in your laughing and your crying,

in your eating and your fasting,

in your travelling and your staying.

May the Lord abide with you,

each day, each night.

Amen.

Go in peace, to love and to serve in the name of Christ.

Parables of justice

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Candle Lighting

The candle light with its flickering flame reminds us:

the transforming winds of creative life

are the breath of God.

The passionate flames of justice and love

are the graceful signs of the Christ.

The flights of freedom in movements of truth

are the joyful life of the Spirit.

We light the flame and we celebrate this day

and the signs of God in our midst.

Opening Responses

Out of darkness came light;

And the power of God was revealed

In the running wave and flowing air,

In the quiet earth and the shining stars.

Out of the dust came life;

And the image of God was revealed

In the human face and gentle heart

In the warmth of flesh and the depth of the soul

Out of justice came freedom;

And the wisdom of God was revealed

In the need to grow and the will to love

In the chance to know and the power to choose.

And God looked at the creation,

And behold, it was very good.

Reading: Parables of justice

Matthew 18: 23-34;

Matthew 20: 1- 17;

the unforgiving servant Matthew 18:23-34
workers in the vineyard Matthew 20:1-17 NRSV

Matthew 21: 33-40

The Wicked Tenants Matthew 21:33-40 NRSV

Some thoughts and questions

The transcript of the audio clip follows below:

(in)justice and (un)forgiveness

These three parables give us a patchwork perspective on justice. The parable of the workers in the vineyard and the parable of the wicked tenants will surface again in September, so we’ll focus today on the justice of the unforgiving servant parable.

We are, most of us, familiar and comfortable with the idea of justice as retribution – a form of punishment that ‘makes up for’ or evens the balance of pain suffered.

An eye for an eye seems fair to this way of thinking.

A toe for an eye isn’t enough. And two eyes would be too much.

Biblical scholars note that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, when the laws of limited payback were introduced as foundations for the way the people of Israel would be in community, this equity of retribution was a New Thing.

Prior to this, vengeance and retribution had a tendency to up the ante – two eyes for an eye makes the point more clearly about how much the first wrong caused suffering to The Innocent Party.

The reasoning being that since the party who caused the original suffering Did It On Purpose, they should suffer more.

This attitude is not uncommon still – revenge is a strong and recurring motivating factor in much of the entertainment industry story lines. Somehow, paying back violence with more violence still makes sense.

I wonder, do you hear childish reasoning in this?

The voice of one who has not yet grown wise enough to recognise the nuance of cause and effect, the complexity of relationships and the difficulty of applying more suffering as a satisfactory solution to suffering?

The parable of the unforgiving slave seems to fall into the category of retributive justice. In this case,though, it’s not pain for pain, but grace for grace.

But I think this parable is saying something more subtle than ‘a debt forgiven for a debt forgiven – or else!’.

So, let’s dive into it.

The King wishes to settle his accounts.

He starts at the top, bringing before him one who owed him so much money that it seems ridiculous. How could the slave possibly have accrued so much debt?

It may help to remember what we know about how tax collectors worked in this time. Taxes were collected from everyone, not as a fixed sum per amount earned, but as much as could possibly be squeezed, threatened and extracted – and the collector skimmed off everything he could get away with keeping.

So, a Roman governor may rightly expect that a province would provide, say, 10,000 pieces of silver in a year. The tax collector could legitimately attempt to collect twice that much and skim off whatever was extra.

Likewise, a king may expect that the farms and commerce in his kingdom would provide income in a similar way, and a slave who was a manager of those farms would skim, just like a tax collector.

Could this be the reasoning behind the enormous debt? The king sets an expectation. If the slave doesn’t collect enough or doesn’t deliver it all because he’s attempted to keep too much, then there’s a shortfall.

The system of extortion and oppression ensures a steady flow of wealth towards the top.

Like a tax collector demanding a crippling sum from day labourers and artisans alike, so the king makes his ridiculous demands on his manager slaves, who pass on the pressure to those below.

But not this king.

This king has compassion and says, “Let’s forget it. Let’s not keep this system. It is broken. I am not going to play this game anymore.”

Everyone heard the king say this: I am not going to call in the debts. I am not going to keep accounts like this. I am not going to set such ridiculous expectations anymore. The system is broken. From now on, we aren’t going to do things this way any longer.

And we would expect that the slave is really, really grateful. He’s just been saved from losing everything and everyone he cares about.

Except he is also owed money. He is also in the system, keeping accounts and he doesn’t want the flow of wealth up to the top to stop. He is benefitting from it, even as it threatens to crush him.

It doesn’t matter to him that it is unjust. He is far enough up that he still wants what he’s owed. He seems to think that his ridiculous expectations are his rights.

So, when he demands his money and the slave below him in the system can’t pay, he follows through with the threat. His gratitude and his compassion are swallowed up by the grasping need to take and keep and control.

He will not let go of the material benefits of his power, wealth and status in the system, nor will he recognise them for what they are – the benefits of oppression and injustice.

No wonder the other slaves are concerned. They heard the king say that the debts were cancelled; that things were changing and that there would be a different kind of justice now.

A justice that restores, brings liberation and hope.

The king’s response sounds punitive. It reverts to the old system, the tortuous way of retribution and meticulous accounting.

I guess the question I want to ask then is: who chose this path?

For Conversation and Reflection

And so what does the parable really say to us about forgiveness?

What does it say about how this kind of forgiveness might change the way we perceive the world….. justice…. and the ways we participate in injustice?

What does it mean if the system of retribution is bankrupt? 

And if that’s how you have been taught to understand the cross, what does this parable say to you?

On a more personal level – who are you holding to account?

What might need to happen in you for you to forgive their debt?

How would that challenge or change the way you see justice?

Conversation and chance for feedback

Prayers of the people

The Taize chant ‘The Kingdom of God is justice and peace’ may help to inspire, prompt and guide your prayers today.

Blessing

The love of the faithful Creator,

The peace of the wounded Healer,

The joy of the challenging spirit

The hope of the Three in One         

Surround you and encourage you

Today, tonight and forever. AMEN.