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?


Here’s Looking Anew, Kid

My brain has fooled my eyes, or my eyes have fooled my brain. Or perhaps they have both simply conspired to fool me.

A few years ago, I had some significant trouble with the retina in my left eye, eventually requiring me to sit at home for three months, doing nothing. The final result is that my left eye is no good for reading, but is useful for most everything else – except for spotting the occasional worship recalcitrant out to my left (you know who I mean).

However, I can’t tell that one eye is damaged, unless I close my good one. With both eyes open, I think I can see just fine, because my brain has compensated, or something. So, like I say, my eye have fooled my brain, or vice versa.

As you may imagine, I am more cautious now, than previously. I am also occasionally surprised when something leaps out on my “blind side”, as it were. I also appreciate being able to see at all.sight

I imagine that being bent over for eighteen years must have been exhausting,  narrowly defining everything about that woman’s life [Luke 13.10-17]. She could see no more than a few feet in front of her, and never saw anyone’s faces, whether exhibiting concern, disregard, or love. We don’t know if she was thirty, or sixty, but her life was shaped by her shape.

When Jesus heals her, everything changes. She becomes part of the world around her, able to match faces to voices, to raise her own face to the sun, to stand with her hands lifted in praise of her God.

Her world is no longer defined by the single pace in front of her.

Yet there are those around her whose world is just as narrowly defined, but by their own decisions. You can’t heal her! There are rules! As if healing from a generation-long disease is not breaking all the rules we know.

The Sabbath is for rest! When the gift Jesus offers her is rest from the exhaustion of her disability and exclusion for two decades. Their blinkered implication is that Jesus’ gift to her was work, not blessing; labour not renewal.

This is the wrong day for setting people free. Because we need regulations to know when people can be liberated and when they must remain incarcerated.

We know these people – they might even be us.

There are ways that our family, or our church, or our community works. We know some of the parts don’t work well, or are broken entirely, but change isn’t easy. We know; someone told us.

We become accustomed to truncated vision, then convince ourselves that our perspective is fine.change

When someone points to a new vision, or when we are invited to look for ourselves, we tell the story that prevents us ever looking. There’s no point looking, it just makes you unhappy. It’s an illusion.

What will happen if we pray for a new vision? If we beseech Jesus to open our eyes to what life before us? If we implore the Spirit to un-bend us so that we can see more than our shoes and look to the horizon, to the stars?

Consider your own particular community of faith. To what have we become so accustomed that we cannot see more than a pace before us?

Now, just imagine what the God of all creation might show us if we asked!



Dealing with Oxymorons

We had a great conversation in worship a few weeks ago, during our acronym driven MGEM (multi-generational-educational-moment). We asked about the prophet Amos and the issues he was raising – and railing against – for the people of Israel.

Several people noticed that many of the topics which arise from the prophets (there’s a whole stack of them at the back end of the Old Testament) resonate very loudly today, and have since Amos and his mates first spoke them. The intention of God to advocate for those on the edges, for those whose relationships are broken, who are pushed to the fringe financially, who are strangers in a community, or who are crushed by unfair structures, is declared again and again.

The refrain “the widows and the orphans” occurs throughout Scripture as the measure of how well our community car541799_602836626421154_670571790_nes for those who are most in need.

As we move briefly into the prophet Isaiah, this week and last week, we notice how issues that are current now were just as current then. The injustices in Israel included a housing shortage through a form of advanced negative gearing, or gentrification which appears to be out of control, “you who join house to house … until there is room for no one but you …” [Isaiah 5.8-10] and people are binge drinking from early in the morning.

It’s the next part which captured my eye and causes me to wonder if this challenge is always true. You who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness… is this not what we feel so often at the moment?

As a leading politician deliberately conflates ISIS and Barack Obama, in order to cause fear and to win an election; when powerless people on Nauru are accused of bullying our government by setting themselves on fire; when gambling is proposed as being positive for our economy, have we not reached a point where evil is named as good, and good as evil?

The reasonable person asks “How can good be called evil?” And yet, here we are. A child is imprisoned, abused and victimised and we tell each other that she is safe, under our protection, or that by being a victim, she threatens us.

What would Isaiah, or Amos, or Hosea, say? What does the Gospel say?

Shouting in anger and horror is not sufficient. The Gospel invites us to protest for those who are voiceless and hopeless, but Jesus invites us to even more. We need to declare another way of living, of life, as disciples of Jesus.

We welcome people into our lives, our homes, our churches, our co344050_1524mmunity, because we have first been welcomed by God. The whole Gospel is God, in Jesus, seeking to welcome us home.

We risk ourselves in love and justice, because that is precisely how God in Jesus acts towards us. The risk God took – and takes – to love, forgive and save us is beyond our measure, beyond our hands to hold.

We challenge our community and each other to live this way, because Jesus challenged his community to forgive, to welcome and to embrace those who had been told they were beyond forgiveness, welcome and love.

We stand in prayer before our leaders saying “no!” to vast injustice, because Jesus stood before Pilate, Herod and the high priests, saying almost nothing, yet saying everything.

We are disciples of a God who saves. Let us live the truth of Jesus Christ.


Poles Together

In the last few weeks I have a had a couple of similar, interesting conversations about the “social justice” element of discipleship, as opposed to the “evangelistic” element of following Jesus.

One of the frustrating patterns of discussion is when people only want to understand a point of view when it is exclusive … “You can’t believe both this and that, you can only have one or the other.” We know, of course, that this is clearly untrue; you can like both opera and cinema, you can enjoy both country and western music (or so I’m told). However, people of all positions – politicians, preachers and pundits – use the argument that you can’t hold both ends of an argument.

People who have self-tagged themselves as evangelical Christians often talk about social justice as if it is an aberration of true discipleship. Our task is to bear witness to Jesus Christ, and to bring people to faith. So when Jesus tells all who are listening to be “dressed for action” it is about our proclaiming the Gospel to anyone we can.

Advocates of social justice,be of good cheer on the other hand, will argue that our actions speak louder than words, and that how we echo the reign of God in the world is far more articulate than any sermon. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions and give alms”, it’s clear that we need to live the Gospel and not rely on our words.

The problem with both these arguments, and with this theology, is that Jesus almost never makes that distinction. You’ll find that Jesus talks about being dressed for action immediately after selling our possessions [cf. Luke 12.32-40].

I am engaged in advocacy for those in need because I believe how I bear witness to my faith in the crucified and risen Jesus is by feeding the hungry, asking why they are hungry, and sharing my experience of a God who feeds all those who hunger for bread and new life.

Isaiah lambasted people’s worship, telling them their hands were covered in blood. “Pray all you like,” says God through Isaiah, “I won’t hear you.” The prophet speaks for those who seek justice – for the oppressed, the widowed and the orphans.

My confidence in Jesus’ death and resurrection guides my ministry. God is with the broken, the sinful, the pushed-to-the-edges people, and thPope prayerey need to know their suffering is not the whole story. The sins of my life and those around me do not define me or sum up who I am. I am defined by the life and death of Jesus, as are my actions. When I feed the hungry, I hope my actions – and often, my words – declare a loving, transforming God.

When someone believes that their behaviour leaves them outside the ambit of God’s forgiveness, I offer them first my forgiveness, as a poor echo of God’s intention and then talk about Jesus.

The church has always, correctly, been criticised when our words and actions have no integrity. We can’t sing about a God of justice and fail to seek it in our world. When we care for someone, it is critical that we can give an account of our hope in Jesus – not in hifalutin language, or some memorised lines, but in common sense words about forgiveness, love, healing and hope.

The gospel in one hand and bread in the other …