Betting Against The Favourite

If you like that sort of thing, you put your money on the horse, or car, or team that you think is going to win, or has the best chance of doing so. At the moment, the All Blacks are at unbackable odds for almost every game they play, especially at home. That sort of bet doesn’t take a genius, and betting any other way certainly has its risks.

The series of encounters and parables we are wandering through at the moment, in Luke’s Gospel, has all the hallmarks of risky bets. Would you put your money on the foreigner being the only healed leper to come back and say thanks? In a male-dominated world of social and financial power, where’s the wisdom in backing the resourceless widow against the magistrate?

In a competition of wisdom and discernment, are you backing the wealthy hedge fund manager, or the disabled beggar in the street? And what about social credibility? You’d put your money on the clergy before the pawnbroker, wouldn’t you? kingdomWouldn’t you?

And you wouldn’t waste your time on children, until they were able to decide (or make money) for themselves.

So here we are, sojourning in a Gospel of reversals. Luke keeps reminding us of God’s intention in Jesus, and we keep being surprised. From Mary’s first song, we watch God’s plan unfold, and then encounter by story, miracle by word, Jesus shows us prophetically – and wonderfully – what God is doing, even now.

Which is precisely why this means so much to us. It’s not the best – educated, resourced, gendered, able, financed – of us who qualifies for welcome into the kingdom of God. It’s the least and the last of these.

And thus, it can be you and me. When the least are the first made welcome, we can discover our own place in God’s hospitality. There is a place for all of us.

Careful. This is where the floor can become slippery. We understand that we are welcomed, by God’s good justice-and-equalitygraces and not our own achievements. But incrementally, we can begin to believe that we’re entitled to this grace, that we are completely deserving, and suddenly we are the pharisee preening above the tax-collector.

Remember the grace of God. Remember: Abraham and Sarai, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. Remember: the cross and the empty tomb. Remember: do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?

God has bet everything on us in Jesus Christ, because in Jesus Christ we are worth everything to God. The outcome rests entirely – and wonderfully – in the hands of this loving God.

As for the All Blacks …

GM Congregations …

There was a person in one of my previous congregations – ever unknown to me, although I had my suspicions – to whom I referred as the “elastic pew goblin”. During the week before worship, I would arrange the first rows of chairs in a curve, to create a more engaged and welcoming worship space. Some time between my arranging and Sunday morning, the chairs would spring back to their old positions, regimentally straight. So, I learnt to arrive at worship ten minutes earlier than I planned and move them back. Again.

I attempted various methods, to no avail. No one ever complained to me, directly or indirectly, so it was a mystery and a game. It was also a lesson.cwc02cc

How do we encourage, enable, lead and create change? The old joke in church circles is that you can never move the pews, or change the worship time, but everything else is up for grabs, including the Minister… It’s rarely that simple, but there are some things that appear to be almost part of our DNA.

Our sense of worship, or welcome, whether we sit or stand to pray and sing; the way we share our faith, our expectation of the Holy Spirit; whether a Minister is the leader, a member of the congregation, or a mixture of both – issues like these may define us, or be side issues compared to something else.

Jeremiah announces God’s astonishing new intention: “I am changing the place of the Law and the power of sin.” No focus group, no consultation, no consensus – just an announcement thjeremiah-31at God was rewriting their DNA and using their hearts as the template.

Change may be forced upon us: changing jobs or relationships; an illness, tragedy or death; a new member of our family by birth, marriage or adoption. All of these we confront with family, friends and in the company of God.

However, can we believe that God is inviting us into change? Not simply the equivalent of pew-moving, but that God wishes to rewrite our DNA? More than this, can we affirm that we are open to God’s action?

The God of Exodus and Exile is inviting us to engage in God’s reign. What might we expect when we pray for this God to rearrange us in worship, witness and service? Dare we ask?

Grace and peace for this (re)new(ing) journey,


But this …

As our worship team was preparing for this Sunday, we noted the power of the language in the book of Lamentations, which offers two of the readings for the week.

Loneliness, weeping and struggle in the face of the appalling circumst304716_441550879222874_1002149512_n-1ances in which God’s people find themselves. They believe that God has placed them there, following the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon – the location for their faith and identity is gone. The author (perhaps the prophet Jeremiah) lists their despair in a poetic catalogue of woe rarely matched.

Then there is a splinter of hope. As the prophet declares the brokenness of his soul, these words come,

But this I call to mind, and therefore, I have hope:

the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning …

Astonishing. When I first sang these words in a youth group decades ago, they were a lovely affirmation of God in our world, realising nothing of the despairing circumstance in which these were first proclaimed.

Everyone knows a fraction of Jewish history; I wonder how thesehands-of-protest words might have been sung and affirmed across the centuries in despite of the darkness of forced migrations, persecution, pogroms and concentration camps?

It is, perhaps, the honesty of including this text which strikes me most. Only a profound faith would incorporate chapters of woe into a life story of relationship with the living God. And in the midst of the brokenness, but this…

This week and last week we talked about how we can understand and affirm our faith when we feel lost and confused in our changing world. The honesty in our conversations about same sex relationships and marriage gives me great confidence for our church. This is despite the struggle many of us have in trying to understand how our community and faith can locate themselves amidst the changes.

For some, we are being asked to change how we understand ourselves, our relationships and what our parents and grandparents knew and taught us. For some, it is part of the life we already lead – at school, university, or TAFE, in our workplace, in our family and with our friends. For some ofsim5var25 us, “marriage” is a word which means immense amounts, and for some of us, it is just a word. For some, it is how we comprehend God speaking and acting in our world, and we cannot lightly let that go. Nor should we.

So, here we are, seeking to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. There is a conversation in civil society which has some similarities with our faith conversation, but also many differences. The nature of commitment, covenant, relationship and marriage have been starkly changed – and often traduced – by moves in our community and a culture in which we are fascinated by the shambles of celebrity relationships and “Married at First Sight”.

As the conversation progresses, as we look to where God is calling, we may find ourselves disoriented, discomfited, or confirmed. But this we can recall and have hope, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.

Lazarus at the Gate: After Tiepolo | Peter Steele

Luke 16.19-22


A stub of cabbage and a heel of bread

Would keep him on the wrong side of the grave

A few more shadowy days and nights. Instead,

By staircase, marble sphinx and architrave,

A couple of menials haul the brimming trays,

A couple of guests are hobbling in their haste

Towards the villa, where in purple laze

A consort and the arbiter of taste.


Down from the barbered trees, by now unable

To fend away his licking dogs, your man

Can’t bear to think again of the garnished table –

Of wine and olive, pear and ortolan.

Bring me, he prays, to the banquet of the dead,

And feed the heartless as I have been fed.


Peter Steele | The Gossip and The Wine

I’d Like An Argument, Please

There’s been the predictable kerfuffle around Senator Hanson’s first speech in the new Senate.

Predictable, in that she deliberately said provocative and demeaning things about people with whom she believes she disagrees. Predictable, in the way some politicians and media responded by walking out of her speech, or criticising her afterwards. Predictable, in that the anger she fuels is real for many people in our community, because of the injustice – real, or perceived – which they experience.

Does this predictability create anything hopeful for our community? Does Hanson’s diatribe, the Greens’ protest and others’ criticism move the ball one metre forward? This is the equally predictable path – that we shout at each other about our inherent rightness and others’ equally inherent wrongness, clinging desperately to the belief that we will eventually triumph.

What does the conflictchurch’s voice sound like in conflict and debate? What role do we have in our community’s concerns about race, or justice? How do we maintain our faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus in both what we debate and how we debate?

Our community needs us to offer wisdom and leadership in troubling issues. This does not mean shouting from the sidelines; it means engaging with people, and working through these things together by offering compassion and hope. It is not sufficient to quote bible verses; we have to show how our faith in Jesus makes sense of our lives, and how our lives are a constant attempt to work out our faith.

As our community moves into decisions about same-sex marriage, the church cannot simply – and selectively – quote Leviticus, or Paul, and dismiss the conversation. We can’t talk broadly about a God of love, without mentioning holiness and discipleship in a changing world. It’s not sufficient to argue based on anecdotes: “I know a gay couple and …“, as if one experience is sufficient for an entire argument. How the church understands relationships and marriage in 2016 has many different aspects to our grandparents’ faith and community traditions.

Neither can we be led by our community; we need to shape our thinking because of our faith in Jesus Christ.

What’s vital is how we have the conversations. How we care for each other, how we love each other, how we suffer together, how we disagree with respect and how we affirm each other’s value because of Jesus. What does it mean when we affirm that everyone is created in the image of God and loved, that all humanity is caught up in the hope of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection?

We must begin and continue this conversation in the grace of God. It is where we begin and where we are made whole.comic-3

A Spoonful of Sugar … or the Gospel

I know I may well lose friends over this issue which has hounded us for fifty years, but I need to say it. P.L. Travers was right. It’s out there now and I can’t take it back – so, bring it on.

Let me explain.

Ms Travers was concerned that Walt Disney’s film would make a mockery of her story, Mary Poppins, that Disney’s interpretation would trivialise the storyline.

And she was right. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, spoonsful of sugar and all-dancing-all-singing-chimney-sweeps launder a story of mystery, magic, sadness and wonder and create a silly, insipid movie.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll see what I mean – wonderful idiosyncratic characters (some of whom never even mmary poppinsade it to the movie), shadowy storylines and this mysterious lead character, with a hinted-at past, led by the wind.

The movie was a mistake. I stand lonely and  resolute, in a group of one.

How easily we reinterpret the words of Jesus in the Gospel to suit us. We think we know the story and then repeat it, like that old children’s game of Chinese Whispers until it conforms to our shape, like that cushion on our favourite chair.

Jesus becomes a nice man, doing and saying nice things about loving God and ourselves and those neighbours we quite like. We see the broken people healed and forget the radical nature of what Jesus does when he heals – social acceptance, challenge for the temple and the community, confrontation for the powers that control their lives.

Sometimes we translate Jesus to fit our prejudices – whatever they may be. Jesus’ radical acceptance of others, like foreigners (female and male) and enemies, becomes entirely impractical, so we carefully leave it out. An online article this week asked why we can so easily refer to the ten commandments in our society, but not the Beatitudes … Blessed are you poor, who hunger, who weep, who are persecuted …  

A Disney Jesus would never ask us to sacrifice anything – let alone our families, or our own lives for something as insubstantial as discipleship for a kingdom that had not yet arrived. If Disney wrote the story, then it would all have neat aCTL02ADnd tidy, saccharine endings – with little substance and no real salvation.

When we hear the rigorous call of Christ, like this week’s reading, we need to attend to it together, as a community of faith. We seek to understand what it means, and we encourage each other when it appears impossible, or simply too much for us.

We can’t airbrush the call to discipleship, any more than we can smooth away the wonder of the miracles, or the astonishing grace of Jesus character, or the import of declaring Jesus as Lord, in defiance of the empire then and now.

When Disney trivialised Mary Poppins, he lost all the mystery. When we simplify, or smooth away the extraordinary words and story of Jesus, we make it about rules, or niceness and miss Jesus in the process. Read the story, don’t worry about the movie.


Forever Welcome

It was Joe’s 21st birthday and his family had invited Fiona, Fiona’s brother and me to celebrate. All three of us remember the meal, because Joe’s mum kept putting more food on our plates.

“You’re a big boy!” she would exclaim, while placing a second, then a third helping of the canneloni entrée before me. The carafe of wine in the middle of the table remained full, because Joe’s dad had a mysterious stash somewhere under his chair, so the litre of good chianti was there, just in case.

When dessert emerged, after our gourmet first few courses, we asked for a moment’s reprieve, because the cake obscured most of the table, requiring contemplation and reverence.

It wasn’t simply the extraordinary generosity, but the great enjoyment Joe’s family had in celebrating their son with us, and welcoming us into their home. It wasn’t about being polite, it was about the joy of friends and family and making us welcome.

I quite enjoy the precismeal preparedion of knives, forks, serviettes and wine glasses in their correct places for a formal meal – usually for our barrage of family at Christmas, or significant birthdays. Most of the time, however, we break bread around a barbecue, or meal prepared by the hands of everyone present, as chooks and salads and bottles of wine are laid out to share.

Jesus’ challenge to those guests and hosts around him resonates differently two thousand years later. Who and how we welcome remains critical, like those two young men with Orange Sky Laundry, providing washing machines, showers, conversation and self-worth to people living on the street.

Hospitality is not about making a list and checking guests twice, it’s building community where it was lacking, creating home and safety, offering welcome and recognition to those who appear nameless. Invite guests who can’t invite you in return.

It’s not how our society often works. That’s why those two young men appear to be radical, creative signs of the Gospel. Echo the kingdom of God.

A few years after Joe’s marvellous birthday, he was killed while riding a pushbike on a tour around England. Joe’s family flew their only son home. We sat in an Italian funeral mass, trying to decipher words, but knowing exactly what was being felt. A community gathered in grief tried to make sense of a tragedy which made no sense at all.

At the service, and afterwards, we were welcomed by Joe’s family into the worst moment of their lives, because it wasn’t about a funeral service and liturgical correctness, it was about the grief shared of friends and family. Community is not only about celebration, it’s about holding our lives in each other’s hands – wonderful and awful and impossible.

At the table we share the generosity of Christ, at the same time as sharing who we are – loved, flawed, struggling, forgiven people.

How can our table, at the heart of our worship, and our homes, welcome others as God in Christ welcomes us?