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 …

 

In Whose Hands?

You’ve got the whole world in your hands is the creative new ad on the ABC about the quality of their news and information. Some folk have been disgruntled about the appropriation (or misuse) of the old Gospel song, but I am continually caught by the images of hands fromhands serving around the world, which are updated as our news changes.

If we push beyond a clever ad, (because now you’re all humming that tune as you read this…) we step gingerly into a social and theological heresy. It’s all in our hands … we can fix this … it’s up to us. it’s the self-improvement slogan which inspires us to work harder, or to become healthier and that, in itself, is a good thing.

But it’s when we think it’s all in our hands and we can fix it – whatever it is – that we stumble and eventually fall.

The human slogan in the US presidential race stated last week “I will fix this” – poverty, fear, immigration, employment – and many people, desperate for hope and safety, applauded. The inherent deceit echoes with our self-deception: it’s entirely up to us.

When Jesus invokes the image of the rich fool in his parable, we see a man who  is convinced that his soul is in his own hands. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; eat, drink and be merry.”

There is surely a comment to be made about capitalism, or the Coles-Woolies duopoly, or superannuation discounts, or debt in the developing world. I think that’s vital, but at this moment, I’ll leave it to others.

Whether it’s building bigger barns, or saving the church,  we often have the conversation with ourselves and not with God. When we imagine that it’s entirely up to us to save either money or souls, we miss why we are here at all. When our only conversation is with ourselves, or with those whose primary task is to enhance our frailties, or to confirm our false ideas, or our fears, then however we much we claim to have achieved, we are in poverty.

The fool with his barns is firmly convinced that he has saved himself. The temptation for us is to believe we can do likewise. If we are good enough Samaritans, or repentant enough prodigals, we can save our own souls.

How does God call us? To what does Jesus invite us? Where does the Spirit urge us to be present?

If we worry enough about tomorrow, or boast loudly enough about today, we can shut out the whisper of God’s call. This is the call to consider those whose hunger is for justice and peace, as well as bread.

However, our actions begin in our hope in Christ, not our confidence about ourselves or desperation about the world around us.

We pray and act because of what God has proclaimed in Jesus. We pray and act because of the nudgingin his hands of the Spirit who has always hovered over creation’s chaos. We pray and act because the world is held in God’s hands and not in our ours.

God’s call, Jesus’ invitation, the Spirit’s urging, is to participate in hope; God’s word is the first and last word. God’s word assures that we are already saved for the future, and in this hope we serve those around us. When we grieve at violence, when we watch systemic injustice, we hold to the hope we know in Jesus. If it’s in our hands alone, it will slip through our fingers.

In God’s hands, our creation is not only shaped, but made whole, in God’s hope, declared in the crucified, risen Christ.

 

 

The Prayer’s The Thing

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

I had a conversation with a friend recently, about Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s least-performed plays. It reads like the script for a Tarantino movie, or one of the bloodier episodes of Game of Thrones, with virtually every one of the characters enduring a violent death. The tale is grotesque.

I’ve seen a lot of wonderful Shakespeare performances, and revelled in reading a great deal more, but have never – until now – touched this play. If I had read Titus first, I may well have consigned The Bard to the bin. I would have missed Puck’s mischief, Falstaff’s roistering humour, Macbeth’s malevolence, Lear’s insanity and the tragedy of the star-cross’d lovers, Juliet and her Romeo.

I love Shakespeare, because there is no one direction in which to point, and some places, like Titus, require a detour.

In this climate ofsnoopy theology debate about faith and fear and fundamentalism, people make claims about other faith traditions which often reflect the limits of their experience. They hear a sensational story and form their opinion from exaltation or despair.

In the same way, we can’t form theology, or law, or make life-changing decisions, based purely on anecdotes. In our world, when it feels like we hear of tragedies every day, we need to be able to think clearly. Our reaction can’t only be about our fear, or someone else’s violence. A recent director of Titus Andronicus argued that it best reflects – of all Shakespeare’s plays – the violent actions of our world right now, and our thirst for revenge and honour.

If I am selective from scripture, I can randomly argue that God is creative, or destructive, or healing, or violent, or forgiving, or vengeful, or loving, or absent, or present. We all know that there is more to the story than a single anecdote. Jesus’ ministry is not one moment of blessing or healing, it is a consistent event of hope, for the ten-commandments-commentsleast and everyone else.

This prayer Jesus offered his disciples – and us – is the best known bit of anything Jesus said. The least-churched among us can often recite a version of these words, usually at wedding, or funeral, or hospital bedside. It echoes everything Jesus said, did and is.

It is not only a supplication for God to sort things out. It is a declaration of the character of God, to feed and forgive. In praying this prayer, we affirm the character of God in Jesus Christ; by praying this prayer we identify ourselves as participants in God’s purposes.

This astonishing affirmation stands opposed to violence, which destroys; Jesus declares forgiveness, which creates and restores. When Jesus asks for bread, he asks on behalf of all those who hunger – for food and for justice, which almost always sit hand in hand.

Our time of trial is before us. Shall we be tempted by Titus Andronicus and his destructions, or shall we embrace the hope that in Jesus Christ, God has answered our fears? This kingdom of God is about the life we find in Christ and offer, in hope, to others.

Standing To One Side

Where you stand determines what you see.

This is one of those aphorisms, much beloved by Christian writers and speakers, which holds true most of the time.

How you read the parable of the prodigal sons depends on whether your read it as a parent , or a child (obedient or otherwise). How we understand the tale of the good Samaritan will hinge on our experiences of caring 2016-01-26 07.41.47for strangers, or being in need of their care.

And so we come to the story of this week, Mary and Martha, illustrated by a parable in full sound and colour, on ABC television’s Q&A on Monday night. A question from one of the audience was about how domestic violence is “normalised” by certain behaviour, like men joking about hurting women.

The questioner was a man whose sister had been murdered by her partner twelve months previously. It was a challenging question, but the engagement from two of the panellists illustrated the heart of the concern, when the older Anglo man constantly interrupted, dismissed and then derided the younger woman beside him with “You’re just being hysterical”.

Now, don’t forget, where you stand determines what you see.

How a large man understands violence against women must be different from the experience of a woman, victim, or not. But the response of the male panellist was an attempt to diminish, or dismiss, what the woman was saying, perhaps even “to put her in her place”.

One of the reasons for violence against women is that some men dismiss their worth, or feel threatened when they move out from their assigned “place”.

How do you see the story of Mary and Martha? Some would argue that Martha has accepted her assigned place, that of service, and is offended by Mary’s behaviour, neglecting to help her sister. I think that perception continues the problem of devaluing Martha and her valuable ministry.

It is Mary who has grasped new possibilities, looking for a new place for herself, as others do when they meet Jesus. Mary is a disciple of Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening to “Jesus’ word”.

Are we confused, even offended, that Mary is called a disciple? Are we scrambli11027486_10153046053807205_3704428019308427908_nng around to classify the originally named twelve as inner circle, leaving Mary on the edge? Do we simply dismiss the possibility that a woman can be a disciple of Jesus at all?

Have we found that bible verse which (we think) assigns women their proper, subservient, silenced, place in the Gospel? And have we collated our theological scraps sufficiently in order to justify our behaviour?

Please remember, where we stand determines what we see.

As we are challenged, even confronted, by the questions which this powerful story asks, take a few steps to one side and consider it again. Sit down and look up; climb a ladder and look down. Ask different questions: why do I think this way about this story? Ask a friend, one of a different gender, different culture, different faith, and listen to how they read this event in Jesus’ life, in Martha’s life, in Mary’s life.

Then look again.