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.

Ananias Acts

The readings for Sunday May 1st can be found here, and the following sermon focuses on the passage from Acts.

This story is usually known as the Damascus road conversion. It’s not quite true, though. Conversion is about a change of belief system- say from Muslim to Christian, from atheist to Buddhism and so on.

Saul already believes in the God who meets him on the road to Damascus. What he actually experiences is a revelation, a moment of epiphany with the God he already knows – but this moment reveals a truth about the familiar God which was, until now, utterly unknown. So Saul is not truly converted – he sees the light of the risen Christ and is blinded by it. And then he spends three days in the dark, without nourishment…almost like three days in the tomb.

This experience may well be what inspires Paul, when writing to the churches he has planted, to say that we have died with Christ and been buried with him. Perhaps, this is what helps him to identify so deeply with Christ in his death and in his risen life. Perhaps also, this is what fills him with joy and directs the passion which was so focussed on destruction prior to his encounter with Christ.

Either way, although the focus of this story is almost always on Saul, it’s only when Ananias, as a representative of the Christian community turns up in obedience and receives Saul into the community through healing and baptism, that Saul is able to return to life.

We often discount the part that Ananias plays in this story, but I suspect that there is a lot more for us in his part of the story than in the part about Saul.

Ananias is worth our attention because he’s probably more like us than Saul is. I identify less with the impassioned debater and unflagging evangelist than I do with the faithful believer who is called to embody and share the love, forgiveness and healing of God that I have received from God.

And, just before we focus on Ananias for a bit, a word of caution: don’t be too put off by the immediacy of Saul’s change of heart and his nearly instant move to preach. Acts is a very action-oriented book where everything happens immediately – after three days of inaction, Saul eats, is baptised and starts preaching about Jesus. This is the character of the book and the writing style not a reflection of what all life in the Spirit is supposed to be like.

So let’s consider Ananias. Essentially God instructs him to visit a religious extremist who has done great evil to the Christians in Jerusalem and who has been granted the authority to bring Ananias in chains to Jerusalem for trial.

More than that, Ananias is asked by God to offer this man who has done great evil – and who some might right off as entirely evil – forgiveness and healing. He is asked to offer the very same forgiveness and healing that Christians in Damascus have been preaching and practicing and being persecuted for.

In the most confronting way imaginable, Ananias is asked to walk the walk of faith.

As he does that, he shows us very clearly what Christian living and witness looks like. Ananias embodies compassion and courage even though he has a fairly resistant conversation with God before he agrees to visit Saul.

So, I have two things for you to consider.

Firstly, do you have those conversations? Do you push a bit and question a bit when you sense God’s prompting to move in a particular direction? Because I think that’s a very important aspect of following Jesus. Here’s why.

Sometimes, the voice of God seems really clear. Sometimes it’s not.

Ananias received a visionary visit from God – and even then he offered a challenge – are you sure? Do you know what you’re asking and what kind of man he is, what kind of danger I’ll be in?

I have never personally experienced a visionary visit. I don’t think they happen very often or to many people – I think most of us have much more trouble tuning in to God’s voice and identifying the prompts and nudges of the Spirit. For a long time, I thought that discerning the ‘right thing’ was a combination of a feeling of rightness and reading the signs as events aligned, as doors opened and as the path was smoothed out.

The trouble with that is that the feeling of rightness is self-referencing. I am not going to feel right about something I don’t want or don’t like or don’t agree with – not without some extra pressure being applied. I can’t trust a feeling of rightness without examining it very closely for self interest and even then I have to allow for my own hidden agenda, my blindspots – what I do not want to admit to myself or about myself.

And the trouble with expecting that God will make the path smooth – or not –  is that it makes God into a stage director, acting behind the scenes to coordinate the movement of lights and action. And I have come to see that God is not a micromanager. Certainly, God is in the details, but that does not mean God is controlling the details.

Love does not reach for control – love gives freedom.

Often in Christian circles we’ll talk about God having a plan for our lives and I used to think that means there is a kind of heavenly blueprint we are trying to follow – the job we are supposed to do, the life partner we are supposed to meet and marry, the church we are supposed to belong to….

Despite being given very few distinct directions about it, we are supposed to fulfil this quite detailed and particular plan. I used to believe that completely and not without some anxiety.

But no more.

Obviously God does have a plan for life – for your life and mine. But that plan is that we will grow and flourish, and there are many, many different ways we can do that. If that is God’s plan for us, then it makes sense that sometimes the path to flourishing takes a meander through darkness and even depression – but that is still the path and God is still working for shalom through each stage.

I have come to believe, and to know that there is nothing God cannot use to bring about growth. Saul/Paul’s story is just one example of how God can take what is destructive and hurtful and turn it around. Peter, too, has a story of failure and restoration – I’m sure if you look at your own life and those around you there will be stories of good coming out of pain and of attitudes changed by love.

There really is nothing outside of God’s capacity to transform.

No matter what path we take, our God is moving and acting for love, for flourishing and healing as best as can be without compromising the freedom of our choices.

And the second thing to consider is this:

How might you embody love, forgiveness and healing to those who seem to be against you? We are not in the stark position of having our lives threatened for our faith, but still, I’m confident we’ve all had some experience of confrontation, of feeling attacked and maybe even persecuted.

What if you were free to forgive, to love, to heal that person?

Because this story assures us that we are indeed free to do just that – and this is what it means to follow Jesus. This kind of compassion and action does not come naturally to us. We have to work at it. We have to choose it – because we have that freedom not to choose love, not to act with compassion.

Just imagine how your life might be transformed by the conscious choice to show love even when you have been hurt or are afraid of rejection. Who knows what forces for change, for life and flourishing might be set in motion by your courageous act of compassion?

And if you are wondering what that might look like in your life…. Maybe it’s really listening to someone with complete openness; maybe it’s asking some questions to show that you are interested in them; maybe it’s finding a good quality in someone you have trouble liking and then letting them know that you appreciate that quality in them.

The old saying that charity begins at home is especially pertinent here. You cannot truly give what you have not allowed yourself to receive…so begin with your own self and listen to how you talk to yourself, listen to the things you say and ask some open and curious questions about that – is this the way I would talk to a friend? I wonder why I think this…react that way…? And look within your own self for the goodness you can affirm – a quality you have that isn’t what you do, but who you are.

This isn’t rocket science, but oh, my, it is hard.

We have to make it a practice, though, otherwise our following Jesus is less like being on a journey and more like a nice sit down on a comfortable couch.

You may not have been blinded by the light of the risen Christ, or visited by God in a vision, but you are called to follow nonetheless…

So some homework for you this week:

Ask with interest. Listen with openness. Appreciate and affirm the good.

I know you will have the opportunity to practice at least one of these things over the next week, and little by little, this is how we participate in the prayer of Jesus- that God’s kingdom will come here on earth as it is in heaven.

Shout it! Whisper it! Live it…

Last week I reflected on the metaphors we use to explain and explore and understand Atonement – the everything that God does to bring all of creation into communion with God.

There are many metaphors that give us windows into this landscape, and each one offers us a different perspective on the whole – a whole, which is thoroughly beyond our full comprehension, but which we experience with wonder, nonetheless.

And after the grievous journey to the cross and into the empty silence of death, we come to today – a day of fullness, of celebration and shouting with excited delight.

The resurrection is an atonement moment, and again we can hardly find words adequate to speak of this thing that is too big for us to grasp and cannot be contained – not by tomb, not by mind, not by metaphor.

But it can be experienced, this fullness and celebration of life that is endless generosity. We can know this. We can participate in this.

In the epistle reading today, we heard Paul telling the church in Corinth that sin touches everything – all die in Adam, which is his shorthand for humanity in all our capacity to wander, get dirty, be unfaithful, fail, overstep ourselves, rebel and generally stuff things up.

Sin touches everything and everything ends in death.

And in the resurrection, everything is made new. All will be made alive in Christ….did you catch how big that vision is? All will be made alive in Christ. Not just we who believe, behave and belong to the church – the right church, obviously.

All will be made alive, all made new, God has reconciled all of creation to Godself.

God’s generosity is endless, God’s love without limits.

When you think of all things being made alive in Christ, of all things being made new – the book of revelation offers that vision of a new heaven and a new earth – how do you imagine that looking?

For many of us, we have an idea of heaven as perfect – that the garden of Genesis 3 was a garden of perfection which was spoiled and that this work of atonement we are talking about brings the spoiled thing back into perfection.

God’s idea of perfection seems to be quite different, however.

We think perfect means without fault – pure and clean – not cracked and muddied, patched and mended. Not bruised and scarred, nailed and pierced.

The wounds remain in Jesus’ resurrection body because Divine perfection is the ability to include what seems like imperfection.

The ability to draw in, and embrace fully and completely without reserve, that which seems not to fit.

Look at Jesus’ ministry if you doubt this. Look at the male disciples who are a wildly mixed bag of men.

Look at the women who also followed and learned alongside the men.

Look at the stories of who Jesus chose to heal, to talk with and to eat with.

Look at the stories Jesus told that challenge the idea that some people, some races, some genders, some followers of other faiths do not fit.

Nothing is left out of God’s love – no one is left out. There is a place and a way for all to belong – and in belonging and being embraced and accepted as we are – we are changed and transformed by love, into love.

The resurrection shows us that it is overflowing joy that is at the foundation of the world – it is divine joy that is wrapped in flesh and in swaddling bands. It is overflowing joy that seeks and calls, learns and laughs, eats and sleeps, shares, weeps, suffers and dies.

And it is joy that cannot be held or contained, that cannot be manipulated or extinguished.

Love is joyous and love is a verb, a doing word. Love is movement, and perhaps a metaphor would be helpful for us here – this one is mine.

Like the ocean, this joyous love surges into life – a mighty force that can quite literally move mountains.

And this joyous love is also like the slow seeping of water, moving so, so gently through the earth. This joy dissolves the hardened defences we carry within and makes beauty in the hollow emptiness of our longing.

And sometimes this joy is like a clear spring that wells up out of the depths, moving slowly and steadily, almost undetectable except that it doesn’t stop and there are tiny ripples that indicate the freshness that is feeding the flow.

Love flows. The emptiness is filled, the fullness overflows, the cracks shine with light, the darkness is luminous and fear – fear has nowhere left to live.

This joy burst forth from the tomb, this joy makes the guards faint and the women tremble – it is terrifying and tremendous.

So let’s pause for a moment and consider – how do we receive and respond to the joy of this day?

How is joy moving you?

I was moved to consider this question by a telling of the easter story which was written by a friend of mine and she had a friend of hers record it.

Easter morning story written by Kristin Hollenbach

All will be made new, alive in Christ. This is resurrection life. This is good news – news worth shouting every now and then.

News worth whispering gently too.

But it’s actually more complicated than that, isn’t it?

Talking about it isn’t particularly easy. How do we share this good news and participate in the mission of God?

I had an email from the presbytery last week reminding me, gently, that it’s time for St Peter’s to revisit and refresh our mission statement.

And I have been thinking about that – how do we form a mission statement, what is our mission, our goal, what are we hoping for here?

I have been thinking about it in light of the resurrection, and this flowing joyous love that moves in so many different ways through us and in us.

And it seems to me that we might talk about good news all we like.

We can tell people there’s a river of love, there’s a deep well of forgiveness and liberation from fear and there’s a gentle washing of wounds and there’s a gradual softening of anger and there’s wave after beautiful wave of creative inspiration and there’s always more…

But for many of us, we have done little more than dipped our toe in those waters.

We’ve heard about it, we believe it, we are committed to it… and if you are like me, then at first, prayer was a delight, or at least it felt meaningful and important. And bible study was stimulating and there was lots to learn and consider, to talk about and maybe argue over.

For a while I stuck at it even when it became dry. When prayer began to feel like I was just talking to the air, and I confess that once I felt familiar with the scriptures, I found it harder and harder to go back and read again – especially on my own.

After all, if I had heard it and understood it already, and I still couldn’t integrate that wisdom into my life, then what good would it do to read it over and over? I only knew how to read to know, not how to dwell so as to be known…

And there are obviously parts I don’t understand and simply reading those words over again does not help me to understand.

Does that sound at all familiar to you?

While that was happening in my daily practices, I kept up regular church attendance. I hardly ever missed a Sunday.

I was very active in lots of different areas of church life, but my own inner life was parched. I came to church hoping for a good dunking in the water of life- which didn’t always happen- and then I gradually dried out again over the week.

And the good news became this: there is a community who know where the water is – if you join us, you’ll get a sense of it and some weeks it is truly flowing among us.

Other weeks, not so much, but you have to keep coming in case this is the week when the Spirit is moving and you don’t want to miss that.

Does that sound at all familiar to you? If it does, I want you to know that you are not alone and that it doesn’t mean you are failing as a Christian or that there is no way to change the state of affairs as they stand.

Because if there is indeed a river of love which is making all things new, which is the life of God flowing in us an in all things

and is an unstoppable force for healing and growing into our fullest potential….

if that’s the good news of the atonement and all that is needed is for us to allow God to love us like God is willing to, wanting to, waiting to…

Then it seems to me that telling people the good news isn’t so much the problem.

Actually receiving it is….

Receiving it over and over and deeper and deeper, and living into it as a daily practice;

as a returning to the inner well, as a tuning in to the trickle of that hidden spring of love and actively dissolving the barriers to its flow… that’s the part that’s hard.

And in fact, that is the journey of life in faith.

It’s probably more than a life-time’s worth of work, but it is never too late to become who you were meant to be.

Shout it or whisper it, it doesn’t matter.

How can we give to others in mission that which we have not allowed ourselves to receive?

I am not calling you to return to daily bible reading that is dry and informational, or to a prayer life that is a shopping list of needs to bring to God’s attention.

I am calling you, inviting you, to a daily practice of opening to love, of resting in love, of allowing love to hold you as you are, warts, wounds and all, and to hear love telling you: you are beautiful. You shine so brightly.

When we live the good news of love, when we receive it and let it soak into the depths of us, we won’t need a mission statement. We will be a mission statement – a living, flowing, growing body of Love.

Love is stronger than death!

Opening Words

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Call to worship

Long and long our God has declared it: All things will be made new!

And God’s promises are sure.

All the heavens and the earth; All the seas and dry lands; All the stars and moon.

All will be made new!

All the forests and the fields; All the valleys and the mountains; All the rivers and the lakes.

All will be made new!

All the fish and the corals; All the birds and the beasts; All the worms and the insects.

All will be made new!

God has already begun it!

God has turned death into life.

God has turned brokenness into wholeness.

God has saved his people!

For Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Candle Lighting

In the dark before dawn,

Love lights the way.

In the daily pattern of our lives,

Love lights the way.

In the comfort of sorrow and the surprise of joy,

We celebrate the Love that lights our way.

A chance to connect

Readings 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

Reflection

Prayers of the people

Blessing

As you go out from this place on this day of joy, may you go with the seed of hope nestled in the dark womb of your soul.

May this hidden hope rise to fill every tiny crevice and cavity, and spill through every crack and cranny so that your life is gently and beautifully transformed,

So that love grows and flows and you find yourself joining in the shouts and whispers of joy and wonder from the first Easter morning that even now are echoing through all creation.

Go out into the day treasuring the gift of your life, the gift of each other and the gift of all things being made new in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

Atonement moments

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One of the things I enjoyed most about studying for ordination was the library. I love books and reading and the Hewitson library is well stocked as you would expect for a denomination that puts a high value on having educated ministers of word and sacrament.

One of the books I borrowed from the library is The Community of Atonement, and I took it out because in my first year as an intern, as part of the worship module we had an assignment that required us to plan, curate and deliver one of the Easter services.

My mentor minister gave me all of them, and said, ‘Go for it’.

I wrestled with those two sermons and with the liturgy and the creative, responsive elements I wanted to incorporate. But mostly, I wrestled with the sermons. It was a lot of responsibility for a trainee, and I remember meeting Malcolm Gordon in the supermarket carpark in Howick on Thursday morning of Holy Week.

He greeted me in a friendly way and asked how I was and I literally grabbed him by his coat collar and said “I don’t have Sunday’s sermon yet! I don’t have it!!”

Anyway, it did come, just in time and I lead the services and then handed in my assignment. Graham Redding marked it, and his comments suggested that not everything I had said about the cross, forgiveness, sin and redemption quite hung together. Which was disappointing since I had tried really hard to gather all of the various bits and pieces of those doctrines and connect them with scripture and with lived experience and theological reflection.

Then this book appeared in the Hewitson and I grabbed it – because the cross is at the heart of our faith, and clearly I wasn’t clear about what it means and how it works…you know, as much as we can clearly fathom the mystery of how love works…

Anyway, I got about half way through this book and realised this is a book I want to be able to read with a pen in my hand so I can underline significant sentences and write in the margins. So I bought my own copy. That was six years ago. I finally finished it last week.

It’s a really good book, and here’s why:

The cross does indeed sit at the heart of our faith, and it is written about and talked about using a number of different metaphors.

A metaphor gives us a way of talking about a thing without being the thing itself.

So in the story of the teacher and the student and the teacup, obviously the student isn’t the teacup, but the teacher gives him the metaphor of overflowing tea to help him understand a deep truth about himself, about the nature of learning and the partnership of teaching.

And because he does this with a metaphor of pouring tea, he cuts through the student’s defences and avoids getting stuck in an intellectual argument that leads nowhere.

In the same way, our faith has several metaphors to talk about the cross and atonement.  

Scott likens them to different golf clubs in a bag, each one useful for a particular circumstance but – and this is crucial –  none of them useful in every circumstance.

You can’t play a round of golf using your favourite club for every shot, any more than you can have a favourite metaphor for understanding the cross and use it to explain every aspect of how God works to bring about atonement.

Now, most of us were expressly taught one or maybe two metaphors to understand the cross and atonement, but I certainly never heard anyone explain that the metaphors are complementary not competing.

For a long time, I thought that there was one way to understand the cross. One right way, at least, and some other wrong ways.

But no. Not at all.

Paul, who wrote prolifically on the meaning of the cross, uses many different metaphors to explain how the cross fits into the covenant with Israel and how it is our doorway to healing and restoration.

He uses the commercial metaphor of ‘redemption’ when he is talking about sin as bondage or we might say addiction.

He uses the priestly metaphor of ‘sacrifice’ when he is talking about sin as falling short of God’s glory.

He uses the interpersonal metaphor of ‘reconciliation’ when he is talking about sin as alienation.

He also uses the court room metaphor of ‘justification’ and the military metaphor of ‘ransom’.

Each one of these is a window to help us see different perspectives on all that God does to resolve sin

and bring humans into the fullness of their relationship with God, with themselves, with each other and with the world.

The reason why there are so many different metaphors is because none of them is adequate on their own. And none of them is adequate partly because sin is so complex.

In the Old Testament, sin is named as rebellion, infidelity, disloyalty, getting dirty, wandering, trespass, transgression and failure or missing the mark.

That’s a lot of variety of understanding and we lump them all together into one word.

On top of that, in recent centuries, we have come to understand sin almost entirely and exclusively as personal. Many of our modern songs focus on me, on my sin, my song, my relationship, my devotion, my longing.

There’s nothing wrong with that – personal accountability is foundational to a spiritual path… no one else can walk it for you, learn for you, grow for you. But the personal is only part of the whole picture.

Sin is also corporate. We are in this together, we have a collective responsibility – it is not just you, alone, who sins. We, the human collective, stand shoulder to shoulder and we are incorporated into the sinful whole of humanity.

And sin is systemic. It’s woven into the organisations we form, and it is in their foundations where inequity, prejudice, hierarchies, power plays and marginalisation are normalised and reinforced.

It’s in the preference for white skin and male bodies, it’s in the culture that covers up wrongdoing or blames and shames the victims of power misused, it’s in the objectification of women and children, the dismissing of the differently abled.

Sin is complex and massive, and the antidote for sin, the everything that God does to resolve sin is equally complex and massive.

You may have a metaphor for understanding the cross that makes the most sense to you. That’s great.

But. Don’t settle for that. Don’t imagine for a moment that there isn’t more for you to do your own wrestling with.

Your understanding of this story matters – it matters because it affects how you live and how you die. It matters because it affects how you pray and why. It matters because it affects how you love and how you receive love.

And it matters because there is more going on here than we can grasp.

Because sin is complex and massive, and so is atonement.

What God does to resolve sin is not achieved solely on the cross.

The incarnation is also a work of atonement, as St Francis saw so clearly.

This moment when Divine Essence, Pure Being, the Ground and Source of all that is – God – takes on human form.

The limitless submits to the limitation of bone, flesh and blood. The all-powerful becomes all vulnerable.

This complete identification of human and divine – this is an atonement event.

God shares our nature and becomes what we are so that we might share God’s nature and become what God is. By grace, we are invited to become a participant in the life of God, in the divine dance the flow of creative joy.

The crucifixion is a work of atonement– the wages of sin is death – not eternal torment – and in dying as one of us, the Eternal Son, the Word made flesh participates in the terror of the finality of death.

Before the cross, death was a place of God forsakenness – a place where God – who is Life – could not be.

And Jesus, identifying with us in life, invites us to identify with him in his death – every time we celebrate communion we are responding to this invitation. This is my body – eat. This is my blood – drink.

When we do this, we are incorporated into his death – he died so that we might have life without fear of death. He dies and with the eyes of faith, we benefit.

So when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, he fully, freely puts himself in harm’s way. He knows the danger to his life, and he chooses to embrace it.

He is one of us all the way down into death, and when he hangs on the cross experiencing the total absence of God, we learn the mystery of God’s inescapable presence.

There is nowhere that God is not – even death is full of God.

However you have been accustomed to understand the events of Holy Week, I invite you today to make a little room in your tea cup for something new to be poured in.

Make a little room, perhaps for a different metaphor to speak to your life, or for seeing sin differently, or for looking more fully at death, and fear, and all the foretastes and deputies of death like shame, humiliation, illness, isolation, rejection, and the reducing of all your abilities.

The cross lies ahead, and we journey towards it in this coming week, and yet we also know – the cross is not the last word.

The resurrection is a work of atonement, and Pentecost, and the work of atonement is unfolding in your very life, in your very being, in this very moment as you follow Christ.

May you find a little extra room in your cup – perhaps by tipping out the current contents and taking another look at them by letting a fresh perspective flow in.

Gratitude, grief and lavish love

This story is told in all four of the gospel accounts. It’s not always told in the same way, with the same woman or the same objections, and it sits in different places relative to Jesus’ ministry and his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. But it is not often that we have a story all four gospel writers recount, so that tells us that this act of anointing was a well told, well known story.

And the differences in the ways that this story is told reveal it to hold layers of meaning and significance for those who were seeking to make Jesus and the gospel of love and reconciliation known.

John’s account of the gospel is notably different from the other three in many ways and his is often described as the most mystical gospel telling. Mark starts straight in with action – John the Baptist in the wilderness and Jesus steps up to receive his baptism. Luke begins with Mary and angels and Matthew begins with a long list of forebears. John begins with the beginning before the beginning. He begins with Eternity and the Ever Living Word and Light and Darkness.

So as we hear this story today of the anointing of Jesus’ feet at Bethany by Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus we need also to place it in its particular John’s account context, because this gives the story more layers of significance and meaning.

It is a story about the beautiful exchange of giving and receiving; it’s a story about the understanding between two people that is beyond words; it’s a story about gratitude, grief, compassion, connection, courage, generosity…and it’s also a story which simply embraces mystery.

So, here we are six days before the Passover, and Jesus has recently performed a miracle. He raised Lazarus from the dead. Let’s just pause for a moment and let that sink in. A dead man, a man loved by Jesus and by his two sisters, a man who was dead for three days, was called back to life by Jesus. Has that sunk in a bit??

There are some important relationship developments that thread through and connect the story of Lazarus and our anointing story.

Jesus arrived too late to save Lazarus – it seems he deliberately delayed on the way – and so the sisters Martha and Mary experience both the anguish of watching their brother die, and of knowing that Jesus did not save him. How awful to be powerless and to know that someone else could have, but didn’t, do what you were unable to. The grief of loss is always made greater when we add the mental torture of what might have been, of what needn’t have been…

So the two women are weeping for their brother, but when they hear that Jesus is approaching the town, first Martha and then Mary go out to meet him. They both have conversations with him that reveal a depth and steadiness of faith and understanding that we simply do not see in the men who are named as Jesus’ disciples – not this side of Easter at any rate.

Martha expresses her absolute belief in Jesus as the Christ, as the light and life of the world. Mary expresses her utter faith that Jesus could have healed her brother and saved him from death if he had only arrived in time. This kind of trust and faith is not easily won or easily given. What a gift to Jesus, six days out from the Passover. Six days out from betrayal, abandonment and a tortuous death.

In response to their trust, and to their grief, Jesus’ own heart cracks open for these two women. And he gives them a precious gift in return. He trusts them with his tears. Their love and devotion make a safe space for him to weep and to let his own heart break open for them and with them.

Then he turns to the tomb and calls Lazarus to come forth, despite the concerns about the bad smell. Lazarus is restored to life.

After this, Jesus has to leave Bethany, because the chief priests had become highly alarmed by this miracle and the consequences likely to flow from it. This is the point where they begin plotting to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. So it is some days later and still at some risk, Jesus returns to his friends’ house for a celebratory feast.

Martha serves, Lazarus reclines at the table and Mary takes her wildly expensive perfume and pours it out over Jesus’ feet. She uses her hair – her head uncovered – to mop up the excess.

The whole house fills with the beautiful scent.

Judas objects and even without John’s explanation of Judas’ thievery, we are predisposed to see his objection in a poor light. But to be fair, I think he objects in the way that many of us might, for all that John assigns a meanness and self interest to his words. How many of us, good Presbyterians, wouldn’t object to waste? I hate throwing out things that are perfectly usable, although if I think they are ugly I’d like someone else to take them so I can have something I like better…

But I don’t like waste. I keep the last nubbin of soap and squish it onto the new bar. And I do like to wear things out – slippers, jeans and jumpers as well as cars, couches and carpets. How many of us would be perfectly happy to ‘waste’ a year’s worth of minimum wage to fund a piece of art or a play or a lavish dinner?

Many of us are uncomfortable with extravagance.

Many of us were raised with a sense of scarcity or lack – not enough or just enough…and this isn’t just about being warm, dry and well fed. It can be a sense of not quite enough love, not quite enough safety, not quite enough understanding…

When we have that inner belief that there is not enough, it is very hard to experience the world as abundant, and so waste makes us understandably anxious. So let’s cut Judas a bit of slack here. He questions the use of resources – couldn’t we have done better than this?

And Jesus’ response reveals that Mary has a level of understanding and a level of connection with him that Judas has obviously missed. There is something happening here between them that is beyond words – that is mystery.

Mary knows something the disciples have not grasped and will not grasp for some time. With her costly perfume, she lavishly anoints Jesus in an act with two meanings.

Kings were anointed with perfumed oil, and next week is Palm Sunday when we remember and celebrate the so called triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the king riding into the city as the crowds cheered for him. But the dead are also anointed with perfumed oil as a preparation for burial. The king who rides into the city, rides on a donkey not a battle charger. The king who rides into the city will be dead in less than a week.

Mary knows something about who Jesus is, and what kind of Messiah he is. Not a conquering king, but a suffering one.

And in her act of beauty and extravagance she is telling Jesus: I know.

In Jesus’ acceptance of her lavish gift, and in his defence of her act, he is telling her: I know that you know, and I receive this gift from you. Mary’s gift is gratitude and abundance and grief and love.

In this last week before we begin Holy Week, in this final week of Lent Mary’s act invites us to consider our own responses of gratitude and abundance, our own expressions of grief and love.

So I have two questions for you to journey with this week.

How might you practice your faith in prayer – What extravagance can you express toward God by gratefully acknowledging God’s presence with you? Is it time? Tears? Tenderness? Some kind of offering of Beauty?

How might you practice your faith in action – Imagine how comforting it was to Jesus that Mary knew what his other friends did not – that he was soon to suffer and die.

In this time, when so many people, the Christ in others, need comfort – what can you do to bring comfort to the suffering, even if you can’t be physically present? How can you let them know that you know they are suffering?

And when the answers come to you…make your offering, even if it may not be understood by those around you. Make your offering even if there is a sensible voice within telling you that it is wasteful. Make your offering, for this is beauty, and the world can’t have too much of it.