Sunday, 27 December 2009

Aprentice to Jesus

Christmas 1 year C Sermon 09

At this time of year... it’s easy to imagine the scene that marks the beginning of Jesus ministry...because we’re all there down by the river or the lake aren’t we? It's the event we call...Epiphany and the season starts next week.

The sun is shining...people are enjoying themselves in the water. They’re the eccentricities of Jesus weird cousin...the one they call John the Baptist...

A firebrand who’s calling them all into the water as an act of repentance. Calling them to turn back to God.

From the riverbank we can also see Jesus...a young man of only thirty... he feels the shock of the cold as he takes a few steps into the water toward his cousin...the two of them solemn but smiling…

Jesus dips right under the water... steadying himself on John’s arm... and then rises up... gasping ...into the glorious sun light... spraying water off his hair… as he shakes his head with delight...

Of course every good Jew at the river… knows this drama in the water is symbolic… and dangerously subversive...John’s call to repent… to turn away from false gods and back to Yahweh…is acted out in a piece of religious theatre symbolizing the ritual purification reserved only for only the Temple.

A dangerous and subversive critique of the ruling religious and political authorities.

It’s no coincidence Jesus joins his cousin in the Jordan that day. The stage is set to launch Jesus career as a young rabbi with a radical message. Like all rabbis he will recruit disciples to take on his yoke…to learn his way...his kind of life… his truth ...and his interpretation of their sacred texts.

But I doubt Jesus was prepared for what happens next in Marks story. Suddenly as he emerges from the water...there’s a tear ...a ripping of the very fabric of creation...a bending of the laws of opening between divine and human dimensions

and through this tear...something seems to bird’s wings ... something visible to the human eye... and from this opening pours communication …audible to Jesus’ human brain

"You …are my Son, chosen... and marked by my love... pride of my life."

A divine message… and a title…a title reserved until that very moment... only for the nation of Israel...

For Jesus…an unmistakable anointing… ...setting him apart...and in this calling
Jesus understands his identity and receives his mission

Some storytellers say... Jesus cousin John heard the voice too… that morning in the river...But the gospel of Mark only tells us… in that moment... Jesus

heard and understood… that somehow in the place of Israel... his own life...his actions...his teaching...would communicate the very will of God...for the world

He… was to be the light of the world.

the chosen one... promised by the prophets...

His vocation…his calling …was to be…to embody…
the very Word of God...

Somehow he would carry God’s saving message of Shalom to all peoples...Somehow through him…and amazingly not through Israel…God’s family would be established in all the earth...

The rabbi’s had taught Jesus everything a boy needed to know. And every Jewish boy knew... since God’s covenant with Abraham... it had been Israel’s personify God’s Son...God’s child...

Every Jewish boy knew the mission of God’s chosen people was to be a living example of God’s will... God’s shalom…God instructions for the salvation of the world…to live in peace with justice and compassion and mercy...and Israel was called to be a living light…for all the nations of the world.

But they had kept the light to themselves. And in that moment of the river Jordon...

Jesus understands…it’s his identity and his divine take the mantle of Israel upon be the Son of God take up God’s cause...and shine the light of God’s love for all people.

No matter what the cost... no matter what the sacrifice.

And from that moment on...Jesus begins to form the people of a new covenant...a people called...not just to believe in Jesus identity as the Son of God...but to be his disciples...his working apprentices...

Jesus begins to form a people who in turn... will shine the light for others and women who will carry the divine message of reconciliation and healing…wherever they go...across all borders… ethnic or economic… religious or political. [pause]

This morning we witnessed yet another small tear in the fabric of Creation. At God’s initiative... by the power of the Holy Spirit... a young child was brought through the waters of grace... into the circle of Jesus’ disciples.

In this sacrament we didn’t magic Tessa into a from decision or pain... nor did we exempt her from the cost of loving… as Jesus loved. And like each and every one of us…some day Tessa must answer Jesus invitation to follow him for herself.

I celebrate that until she’s mature enough to choose…she’ll be surrounded by Jesus’ disciples…in her family and community people who will teach her the story of Jesus’ identity and mission…people who will be a light to her…by the example of their own lives.

2000 years later… by the Clutha not the Jordan… Jesus is still inviting people to take up God’s cause of overcoming evil with love. Some of you will be wondering if you can be bothered.

Would my lifestyle allow for it…would my addictions and attachments permit it…could my ambitions withstand it? Would my idols fight.. tooth and claw… to keep their hold on me? Could I afford… to follow the light of the world?

You’re right to ask yourself those questions…following Jesus isn’t a cushy number... apprentices don’t just bask in the warm reflected glow of their teacher ...smugly observing the world from the cozy comfort of self-righteous seats in some church building...

No apprentices have to get out there and practice what they’re taught. Apprentices have to extend themselves beyond their comfort become like their master...and sometimes at a very great cost... sometimes under great pressure from their peers to act without love.

Everywhere you turn today someone is offering you a quick fix... or a cheap deal...for life and its difficulties…promising you popularity and success without effort or sacrifice or pain...

But with Jesus as your learn what it costs God to keep on loving …

to refuse to retaliate in the face of humiliation and rejection... you learn what it costs to love your enemies and turn the other cheek. In other words with Jesus as your guide…you’ll learn what it means to overcome evil with love.

Jesus will recruit you and teach you and then send you bear the cost of loving yourself ... to shine the light of God’s love… yourself...for your family…your friends… your workmates... in your pub or your club and in your politics…and even hopefully in your church...

Jesus will recruit you and teach you....then send you out... to practice the skills of humility mercy compassion and peacemaking…skills you will need… to stand firm… in the face of temptations and lies…cruelty and violence, rejection and injustice...

Jesus will recruit you and teach you.... then send you resist the principalities and powers of this world… which so oppose God’s cause of love...

Even if it costs you dearly... as it cost him.

You’re right to reflect on the costs…but still God’s anointed one invites you to follow him...that your life would become a divine message and your very being a light… to those who live in darkness and that where ever you are there too will be the realm and cause of God.

Let’s take a moment to respond in our own way in silence.

Friday, 25 December 2009

What does Jesus birth reveal about God?

Christmas Day year C 09 Sermon

I think today is a day when we can ask some very important questions. And one of them is this.

If Jesus came to be a revelation of God to us...then... what do we learn about God...from that very first Christmas?

What could God have been trying to tell coming to a baby in a manger... instead of a great warrior on his valiant steed...or a king on his throne... or a maybe a wall of dazzling all consuming fire? Why did God chose... a baby in a manger?

And what do we learn about God... from that?

Popular Christian writer, Philip Yancey... made a list... of all the connections that popped into his mind...when he asked himself that question.

Here’s his list. Humble Approachable Underdog and Courageous – Yancey was surprised at what turned up.

Because these adjectives hardly seem appropriate...for describing the creator of the universe. Humble Approachable Underdog and Courageous... and I’m sure we could all add a few of our own when we think of that night in Bethlehem..

But today I want to take a closer look at Yancey’s list. Starting with humble... in the first century the Messiah shows up... right in the middle of the great Roman Empire and the religious cult of Caesar... Jesus is born...not as an all powerful controlling God... commanding armies and political empires and moving his subjects around like pawns on a chess board...

No...the Messiah emerges at the edges of the Palestine ... as a baby... who can’t even speak or eat solid food. There were no bodyguards or bright clothes. No entourage except the animals in the stable.

God’s angel messengers on that night... sought out the lowliest shepherds... to announce Jesus’ birth.

Ok what about Yancey’s next adjective... approachable. That’s certainly not what Jewish people expected.

They imagined only awe and fear in the presence of God.

Anyone who experienced an actual encounter with God expected to come away scorched or glowing... or maybe half crippled like Jacob. And they were the lucky ones.

Jewish children learned stories of the sacred mountain in the desert... a mountain that was fatal to anyone who touched it. Mishandle the Ark of the Covenant and well would die. Enter the most holy place in the tabernacle... and you’d never come out alive.

And what happens... God makes a surprise appearance as a baby in a manger...among the God’s chosen people who walled off a separate place for God in the Temple...and refrained out of respect from saying God’s name or even spelling it out. [pause]

What can be less scary than a newborn baby... with his arms and legs wrapped tightly against his body?

So when we talk about Jesus as his birth, God finds a way... to relate to human beings... that doesn’t involve fear.

OK what about Yancey’s idea of ‘underdog’...that’s maybe the most difficult of Yancey’s ideas to swallow.

Yet, in the birth story of Jesus... we learn of an unwed mother... forced to look for shelter... while traveling to meet the heavy demands of a colonial government.

She lives in a country... recovering from violent civil wars and like half the mothers on earth today...

Mary gives birth in the East not the West.

She and the son she bears... become Africa where most of the world’s refugees live today.

In his adult life...Jesus would seek allies...not among the wealthy and powerful...but among fishermen and outcasts .

And what the fourth descriptor of God’s act in Jesus...courageous. Yancey believes it would take great courage to bring a saving message of love and peace... to a planet known for its violence injustice and greed.

Yet in the midst of the realities of this the infant Christ... we see a God of grace...prepared to enter into our human frailty... and more amazing...prepared to pay the cost of loving humanity... whether or not we love God back or heed his message of peace. In the infant Christ we see a God of love... not of power.

With all we know now about the nature of the created universe it’s easy to understand why no one has ever seen God…not even so much as a glimpse.

Yet in the birth of Jesus... this one-of-a-kind revelation of God…… has made God plain as day for those with ears to hear and eyes to see..

It’s not a dream…nor is it an illusion…it happened.and in this humble birth – God is revealed.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Mary’s consent

Advent 4 year C Sermon 09

Mary’s consent to God’s action in her life…
runs contrary to all the things that promise us… fulfilment in this world.

Worldly wisdom…material abundance…the perfect image for ourselves and our families…absolute security…are just some of the things the world wants us to crave.

Yet Mary surrenders her will and her life…

her future fulfilment and happiness… to the will of God.
When she’s invited to give
up her dreams and plans…
to the future God will reveal…Mary consents

‘May it be to me as you have said.’

The lead up to Christmas is a time when the world intensifies its promises to deliver happiness. Toys aren’t just toys…their marketing promises to bring us together

…as happy families…sharing golden moments of joy.

Products…promise to make us secure and safe and beautiful. Underarm deodorants promise to make us confident. Toothpaste promises to make us sexy.

‘Tis the season to buy fulfilment.’

The world keeps promising and we keep consuming.

The serpent in the garden promises wisdom…
and Adam and Eve turn toward
its voice…
leaving their trusting relationship with God behind.

But the message of the Gospel… is clear isn’t it

fulfilment will never come…from what we think we desire in the world. And if we’re unaware of this…the world of marketing and image management …will keep us too busy to even look for deeper satisfaction.

We discovered last week… just how much emotional investment we make in these cultural and market driven programmes for happiness. It’s just as Jesus said, ‘where our treasure is… our hearts will be also...

and we can see the evidence of this…

in our emotional reactions to not getting what we want...
and we feel anxious or angry when our desires are frustrated

And we heard how Jesus calls us… to turn away from futilely seeking happiness in all the wrong places…how he calls us to repent…and turn our attention in God’s direction… toward God’s way of mercy compassion and peace with justice.

And we discovered…that deciding to turn our lives around this way… is only the beginning…because even our best efforts to do the will of God…can be undermined by emotional programming that we’re simply unaware of.

So the real work of letting God renew our hearts and minds… by bringing all that is hidden into the light… so it can be named and let go. Allowing God to transform us from the inside out. In other words…
what follows logically from Jesus’ call to repent…
is the call to consent…
to God’s action in us.

But how?

Well, Mary giving permission to God is our clue. ‘Let it be to me as you have said.’

Mary’s consent to God’s action in her life… is unconditional.

She doesn't say… well OK… I’ll have this baby…but only if there’s no social fall out… only with a guarantee I’ll never suffer. No, Mary’s consent is one hundred percent…not ninety eight point nine percent.

So you might say that in giving her consent…Mary embodies the great commandment…to love God… with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.

If you can’t see yourself doing this...then think of our spiritual life as a dance with God. Because in a sense Mary has accepted God’s invitation to dance…

and she’s decided to let God lead.

Just for fun let’s do an experiment which demonstrates what I’m talking about. I’ve asked Janice and Carrick to come up for a little dance demonstration.

[Both try to lead then Janice lets Carrick lead]

Now it’s easy to see how awkward and graceless it is when both partners try to lead. But when the one who’s following can relax… and let the other do the steering… then the dance flows easily across the floor.

On the dance floor of life…most of us have difficulty letting go control… and allowing God to take the lead. We do try to turn our will and our lives over to God… but it’s scary not being in control. So time and time again… we take the lead back.

And at the root of this difficulty are questions of faith…

Just how much do we trust God?

Do we really believe God can and will change us from the inside out if we allow it…and do we really believe God’s way…offers us the deepest fulfilment.

And if our faith is weak… is there any way we can become like Mary and let God lead?

Is there some method we can learn…to make surrender possible…when we live in a world that’s competing day and night for our hearts and minds.

Well just like dancing cheek to cheek…learning to surrender our will and our lives to the care of God… takes time and discipline and practise…

just as on Dancing with the Stars.

For the past two thousand years… Christians have been letting go and letting God…in a form of prayer…It’s an ancient Christian spiritual discipline… called the prayer of consent…or the prayer of quiet…today it’s sometimes called Centering Prayer. It’s a discipline I’ve had for years… and the subject of my recent study leave.

We call the prayer of consent a spiritual discipline… because we’re disciplined about doing it. Here are Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6 in The Message translation:

"Here's what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.”

So in obedience to Jesus the first thing we do is make time. Time to open ourselves to God’s transforming action in us. In our busy lives it helps to have a set time every day…maybe just five minutes to start with…

but twenty is ideal.

But the hardest thing about of the prayer of consent…

is just learning to be still… the most difficult part for us to grasp…is that God does all the work…we don’t have to do anything…and we’re not very good at that…so we have to practise doing nothing…in the presence of God.

It’s hard to let go and let God…because our hearts and our minds…are on other things…even in prayer… thoughts and images are constantly swirling around in our heads…distracting us and taking our attention away from God…yet this is a time when
God must increase…and we must decrease.

And in the prayer of consent…we don't get up-tight about distracting thoughts… we just practise gently letting them go… and turning our attention back to God… in an attitude of openness and surrender.

Some people find it helpful to have a sacred word…

like the name of Jesus, or Abba…or Father…a word that symbolises their willingness to consent. And when they notice they’re caught up in their thoughts again…
they just gently bring to mind the sacred word…
to turn their attention back to God.

Now if you’re tempted to sigh and say ‘look…Diane…

its alright for you…but where on earth am I going to find time… just to sit in silence with God…I’ve got so many demands on my time already…people expect things of me…I’m so busy pursuing my other programmes for happiness …

Well… if you’re resistant to the idea of making time… to practice the prayer of consent… then the next time your tummy’s in a knot or you're your let down by a friend or frustration gets the best of you…I invite you to ask yourself… if a little resting in silence with God…

could be just what the divine doctor ordered.

When you lose your cool next time…

why not consider the possibility that God could and would transform your life… with your consent…
why not give God time… to conform you more and more into the image of the Christ…

Perhaps that’s what it means… to love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength…so you can gain the inner peace necessary to love your neighbour as yourself.

Far from withdrawing from the world…the spiritual discipline of the prayer of consent… can help us live in the world the Jesus way…. And with time and practise we will find it easier to consent as Mary did… to the coming of the Christ into her life.

May our Lord Jesus now enter our Christmas…in this sacred meal.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Be anxious for nothing

Advent 3 year C Sermon 09 Luke 3:7-18 Phil 4:4-7

What’s with those readings set down for today? Paul’s call to rejoice and be anxious for nothing…right after John the Baptist’s dire warnings…to repent…

Well let’s see how Paul’s words might work for us this Christmas.

Next time your tummy’s in a knot because you just don’t have enough time to shop for Christmas presents...
Just remember to…Rejoice in the Lord always!

Or next time the one you love…gets grumpy and irritable and bites your head off…just try quoting Paul’s words to them…Honey…‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone.’

And when you’re standing in a long queue at New World on Christmas Eve… I mean one of those looooong queues that goes right back to the milk and butter section… Just turn to the teenager behind you… who’s trying buy grog underage

… and whisper in his ear…‘the Lord is near! Don't be anxious about anything.’

Words to live by… right? All we have to do is make our requests known to God… in prayer and thanksgiving…and a feeling of peace and joy will flood through us…Uh… yeah ok…maybe for a wee while…but… the very next time we’re worried or frustrated…UP come those same old anxieties again. Something is wrong…

So what’s at the root… of these continuing emotional difficulties…Why are they so hard to get rid of? Why do we get bogged down in the same old emotional patterns…why can’t we just be happy…

Jesus was clear about why. Didn’t he tell us these emotions of ours…are actually pretty good indicators…of where we’re really looking for happiness? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘For where your treasure is… there your heart will be also.’

Ding dong…Now right there is exactly where the call to repent comes in. The one we heard in the other reading. John the Baptist…and later Jesus…are essentially saying… You’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places…they’re talking about surface happiness… haa hee happiness… but the kind of happiness that brings lasting fulfilment and contentment.

They’re saying Turn away from those things that are never going to make you happy…and turn back to God and God’s prescription for happiness. That’s what repentance really means.

But the problem is… some of our programmes for happiness have been wired in so early in life we can’t even remember. And before we can rejoice and receive God’s peace…they need to be rooted out.

Paul was as confused about this we are… wasn’t he when he said in Roman’s 15… I don’t understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

That’s why even for a great apostle like Paul …spiritual formation a process...and not the instant wiping out of our entire emotional history.

And in the call to repent…what John and Jesus knew in the first century…took modern psychology 2000 years to figure that out. Sometimes the sins we need to turn away from aren’t even ours…they’re the sins of our fathers or mothers…or teachers or peers. And sometimes they didn’t even know they were sinning against us.

One of my study leave mentors a priest with a Phd in psychology[i] explains this is easier to understand when we remember… that of all newborn mammals…none is more helpless than a human baby…who is completely dependent on the welcome they get…when they arrive in the world…

Thomas Keating says…The best a human baby can do to make its basic needs known for food and affection…is cry…loudly…But suppose a baby’s born into a world that’s not welcoming at all…where mum or dad wish they hadn’t been born. Now that baby’s likely to have emotional difficulty accepting life at all…

But in the next stage of our development…by time we’re two…we can do a lot more than cry to make people aware of our needs for pleasure and affection and appreciation.

We have an understanding of our own separate existence. We begin to want our own way…and so at this stage our desire for control develops.

But suppose a child lives where there can be no control…where their survival is in question…where violence is the order of the day…or where sickness or starvation or the danger of losing a parent…are ever-present?

Such a child will find it harder and harder…
to give emotional consent to any goodness and beauty in life or in the world. Because they have not known it.

Or maybe a child is born with some disability, or finds themselves in competition with big brothers and sisters for food or attention…in these circumstances they could develop lifelong feelings of inferiority.

When the needs of a child under two are frustrated they have no way to discern why it’s happening. They only have their feelings to go by…so if their mother is sick and can’t give them any affection…they have no way to explain it. All they feel is that their need for love is being frustrated. And this could lead to recurring feelings of fear or hostility… later in life

And even if we never experienced serious emotional trauma in childhood…we’ve all been through this time of vulnerability… and we all carry with us…wounds that can get in the way of receiving the peace of God…

Sometimes if we’ve been deprived of security at a early age…then the things… that symbolise security in our culture…can exercise enormous control over us.

And if this is true…when we can’t obtain the symbol of security we desire…the car…the house…the money…the partner…the image…or the prestige we want…

then we can experience very strong emotions…of grief or anger or jealousy…

if we feel insecure enough…our needs grow into demands…that finally ingrained as ‘shoulds’…bearing no resemblance to the virtues of the Gospel.

And in the pursuit of absolute security we come to expect ourselves and others… to conform to our demands whether they’re realistic or not. Unconsciously we need to control everything and everyone. And instead of a programme for happiness we’re pursuing a prescription for misery…because it can’t possible work.

And all this happens when our emotional lives are stuck…at the level of a two year old and we don’t even know it.

But wait there’s more…if we make it through toddlerhood unscathed…in the years between four and eight…other programmes for happiness begin to develop…and this is a time when children take on without question...the values of their parents…their teachers… and their peers.

The years between four and eight are when… our sense of who we are and what we’re worth…develops according to the approval or disapproval of those around us. When we live up to their expectations…we feel happy…if we don’t… then we sense their disappointment… and we feel bad.

And if we’re not aware of it these feelings can come right back in adulthood when we’re faced with disapproval.

But the good news is a few years later… at eleven or twelve… we finally arrive at the stage of development when we can think and reason for ourselves…what a relief…and this stage lasts for most of our lives…and if this were the end it we’d only seek happiness in rewarding places from then on.

But the bad news is…instead of using our rational intelligence to grow…we tend to harness our reason to the old programmes for happiness we bring with us from childhood…and we commit our intelligence to pursuing pleasure or absolute security or control and power…

And we rationally believe if we can only get enough of what we desire…finally we’ll be happy. I’ll give you an example … of the successful business magnate… who has a hundred million dollars in assets…and is still not satisfied. They make a million dollars a day… but their craving for more is insatiable. The nature of their emotional programming is this…when I have enough financial security…then I’ll be happy

Or for others if I can just get enough pleasure I’ll be happy…if I can just get enough control…over people…maybe even God…then I’ll be truly happy…[pause] …but they can never get enough because it doesn’t work.

Didn’t Jesus teach us riches and security and pleasure can’t actually deliver the goods…and if we think they can then we’ll always have a gnawing unfulfilled hunger…for happiness.

And most of us are unaware these programmes for happiness…are running inside us…influencing our decisions…our relationships…even our spiritual life. And meanwhile powers and principalities of greed and lust in the world can take full advantage of our insecurities...because we’re unaware of them.

And this brings us right into the heart…of the problem of the human condition. The problem addressed head-on in the Gospel… by John the Baptist and by Jesus.

With the call to…repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’

Jesus and John are not talking about the need to perform harsh religious rituals of self-punishment. They’re talking about… changing the direction in which…
you’re looking for happiness. Remember Jesus said…happy are those who…are poor in spirit. Happy are the merciful…the peacemakers…

And this explains why we can bring everything to God in prayer and still feel frustrated…anxious and fearful…because we're still aiming our efforts in the wrong direction.

You see in spiritual terms…it’s not enough simply to experience conversion…and intellectually choose the values of the Gospel. Conversion is only the starting point…

the real work of our salvation… is to name and dismantle these futile programmes for happiness…and replace them with the virtues revealed to us by Jesus.

But we can’t do it on our own we need God’s help for the process of change to occur. And if we won’t consent to God’s help…well… our misery making programmes will just keep running beneath the surface…till they’re activated all over again by frustration… fear… or failure.

You know when you and I come to church… we don’t pretend these futile old programmes aren’t there.

We accept that one way or another… whether it’s our fault or not… we’ve all fallen short …and we all have wounds that need to be healed…we’re all in need of the great physician.

The work of repentance is to allow God to bring these things to the surface so we can name them and let them go. What follows from the call to repent…is the call to consent. To consent to God’s transforming action in us…And learning to consent to Gods work in us… is my theme for next week.

And if the Body of Christ…if the Church…
is really going to have a show of helping to change the world… the process of change has to first happen…in the hearts of each one of us…through the divine therapy of the Holy Spirit… only then as a community of faith can we can effectively play our part in God’s transforming work in the world.

[i] KEATING, T. (2006). Open mind, open heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. New York, Continuum.

KEATING, T. (2008). Spirituality, contemplation, & transformation: writings on centering prayer. New York, Lantern Books