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Monday, December 31, 2007

The Incarnation: Jesus and vulnerability



Isaiah 63: 7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2: 10-18 Matthew 2:13-23


Preached by Rev John Simpson, St Thomas Anglican Church, Upper Ferntree Gully, Victoria

Author Peter Lord, was skiing in Colorado and saw some people wearing red vests with the words ‘BLIND SKIER’ on them. He thought, ‘I have a hard enough time skiing with two good eyes, how can they ski successfully with none?’ The answer was – they had a guide whose instructions they totally trusted and followed! As the guide skied beside them, he’d tap his ski poles together to assure them he was there. Then he’d say, ‘Go right! Turn left! Stop! Slow! Skier coming up on your right!’

What a picture. Life is like skiing downhill blind. We can’t even see five seconds into the future or the struggles to come

Following Jesus is like that. It is like skiing blind with only him to be alongside of us, to guide us. When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were living like this; new borns revolutionalize parent’s lives. And he did this to them. Then it was not long before they had to go with Jesus to Egypt to protect his life, the fragile and vulnerable life of an infant. Following the visit of the wise men to Jesus, Joseph is told to take him away, because Herod was seeking to kill him.

Herod was known for his ruthlessness and murderous acts. He had three sons killed to keep his crown. The Roman masters were equally as ruthless. They were known to raze a whole town and kill all that lived there, to warn other local towns. So for him to spill blood to keep power, did not bother him. It’s estimated that twenty children died within days. Matthew seeking to understand this by quoting an Old Testament passage of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Rachael weeping and sobbing and loud lamentations.”

Often these ‘fulfilments' of the OT were allusions to already fulfilled prophecies, more like a poetic reflection. Then Joseph has two more dreams in which he is told to return to Israel, which he does. But on learning that one of Herod’s sons is ruling there, he takes the family into Galilee and the obscurity of Nazareth. Again Matthew sees in this an OT fulfilment, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”

He is trying to make sense of what this means if you follow Jesus the Christ. Basically I think he’s indicating to us: that God’s plan to restore us to himself will not be thwarted by evil.

As present day followers of Jesus, when we are confronted by evil, such as we’ve seen in this century, we are to “hold fast to our confidence in God and not give it away” (Hebrews 10 my paraphrase). To follow Jesus Christ we will have to go through the minefields of life, knowing that Jesus can show us how to negotiate our way, without loss of compassion; and actually doing something to help. Jesus, like the skiing instructor, will be alongside of us as we walk ‘blind’, by faith in him.

Following Jesus in vulnerability

Joseph and Mary were the equivalent of modern day refugees seeking safety in Egypt, from Herod’s cruelty. He takes his family there in obedience to the angelic message. Then again he is told to return; this time however he finds that one of Herod’s sons is ruling. So he goes to little known Nazareth, out of the way of Herod’s spies. Jesus coming was not free from the evils and heartaches that assail us. He, like us, is a vulnerable human being.

God did not give a special kit of things to protect him in his vulnerability – for that would have meant that he was not fully human. Instead the writer to the Hebrews tells us that:

Since the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself shared the same things
Through death he destroyed the one who has the power of death…and freed all who all their lives were held in slavery, by their fear of death
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

This is a very different Lord Jesus to the one I was raised on – the One who appeared in those lovely pictures with him surrounded by adoring children. God took an immense risk in making Jesus to be fully human. He did not come protected by special influences emanating from his Divinity. Rather he meets the times of trial, the force of evil; with the same help each of us now have.

Think on this, The Christ of God was vulnerable because he shared in our flesh, flesh that had become so connected to sin. God lets him feel the full force of trials and suffering. To follow him means we have to hold fast to him in faith, and not be discouraged by evil, like the killing of Ms Bhutto, nor shrink back when the going gets tough. The late John Macquarrie, an Anglican Theologian of great note, speaks of Jesus facing the full force or brunt of human life, as “God’s letting-be”. Parents come to this, when they know they have to let go and let their young ones, meet their own challenges and live with them. God’s letting-be is not a passive thing. Rather it is God giving us the room to find and live out our life. God does not crowd us with good advice or keep trying to persuade us to do things his way! By giving us room, we find our true selves – warts and all!

Following Jesus is to let this vulnerability be, to follow its way, and so mature. It does not mean that I will not grieve or not ask him, “How come, God!?”

Following Jesus in the struggle

An article in the Age last Monday, headed ‘A man worth emulating’ was by a secular Jew, Leslie Cannold. In looking at the Jesus story she ventured that he was an outsider, one of the poor of his day, and considered illegitimate. Leslie sees Jesus as there for the needy, suffering, and lost among his own people. Others try to re-write the Story according to their culture. Often this reduces Jesus to a nice guy. The South American liberation theologians rightly see in Jesus, one who comes to liberate people from all that oppress them. He was on the edges of his society, considered from the point of wealth and power.

Yet this was and is his strength – his ability with the struggles of people, to fight against the temptation of the quick fix, to refuse the satan’s offer of quick power by worshipping it. He tasted all that is human, so that he could renew our human-ness. God plunged him into non-religious life, as a child with suspicion that he was born the wrong side of the bed sheets; the religion of the poor was looked down upon by the religious leaders. And they were powerless in the face of Rome. However he starts his ministry with the declaration that challenges religious protocols – “I have come to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, to set at liberty those in darkness….” I wonder what Jesus would say about the dark episode in Australian politics, of the treatment of David Hicks?

Jesus struggles with these issues and had obviously thought them through. Full humanity for him meant:
Going to the unclean, lepers and tax-collectors; having women disciples including his mother, and some women who supported his work; going into pagan territory, healing many there, and finding more faith in them than among his own people. Some even suggest that he married that woman – Mary Magdalene!

Following Jesus has taken me out of my religious world. A friend remarked to me, after I’d been ordained some years, “john, you now swear, go to the pub for a drink and even tell risqué jokes!” I did not take this negatively! It was a part of my tasting the full humanity, following Jesus had shown to me.

Some years ago Chris and I were on holiday in Cornwall. We were walking down a country lane towards a bus stop; the wind was so strong you could lean into it. We stepped out of the wind’s force and sought relief. That was good. However we never moved…..forward. To grow like Jesus we have to meet the full force of the winds of life.

Conclusion: Following Jesus asks no more than that I love him with my all
Be vulnerable to all that is human
Be a struggler in the way of Jesus so as to minister to others

Another way of saying this is this prayer:
Day by day, Dear lord, three things I pray:
To see you more clearly;
To love you more dearly;
To follow you more nearly, Day by day.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Monday, December 17, 2007

The Archbishop and Childhood Depression

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wisdom - an inclusive view

Abhipanya at with bowl and robe has a post with which I resonate. How I wish more people in my immediate community of faith could background themselves with such wisdom to advance our conversation more! And I hope I can have such self-insight that will enable me to take the conversation further, too.

Advent 3: Gaudete Sunday: Rejoice - and again I say rejoice

To-day takes on a rosy hue. It is Rosy Sunday. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice. Light the pink, rose coloured candle on the Advent Wreath.
Mary's response to the Angel
My soul doth magnify the Lord / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded / the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth / all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me / and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him / throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm / he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat / and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things / and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel / as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Simon Barrow
Simon Barrow has to be one of the busiest - and most talented - people around. He is Co-Director of Ekklesia. I am indebted to Simon and his blog, faithinsociety, for referring me to the wonderful thoughts of Reinhold Niebuhr expressed below. Simon, in turn, passed his thanks to Jane Stranz who blogs at Of life, laughter and liturgy.

Reinhold Niebuhr
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, Therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; Therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Advent 2: Daring to Hope


‘Daring to Hope’

What a theme! Hope is when I have a confident expectation that keeps me going, while I wait and work for it to come to pass! Remember the ‘waiting’ message of last week? “Practice creates Miracles”. I wait confidently; yet hope also calls me to dare to do something towards it.

I Practice; take a few courageous steps into the unknown. Like when we decided to have our new (yet old) home renovated and took the builder's advice to do more! Or when I’m on the internet and looking for a site, and at the bottom of my screen the words “unknown territory” pops up. It’s exciting, yet it’s scary! I’m confident and venturing into the unknown.

When I was ordained I had lots of utopian ideas, like those found in the first reading.
Are these great visions of peace and harmony among peoples just a fairy tale? No; they correspond to the deep longings of the human heart and point to God’s ultimate goal for us. Such visions nurture our souls and our hearts. They give energy to keep waiting, practicing and daring.

John Baptizer. Jesus Messiah : The Darer and the Doer.

John dared people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Matthew tells us that the Baptizer was the Voice, the Voice that dares all to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”. From his mother’s womb, John’s life was determined by his mission – for he is said to have leapt in her womb at the voice of Mary, the mother of the Doer, Jesus. His call was to prepare us. He did not seek personal fulfilment through his work. He came to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

In our own place and circumstances, we each have a role to play. It calls for some ‘daring-do’. The divine will and purpose, like a link in a chain, depends on each of us obeying the role God’s given to us. Many great things depend on us remembering that we are children of God – that we are divine beings. John Baptizer did what God asked of him – he recalled people to their true nature. He went out daring to do this. Later we are told he did not know Jesus, until he saw a dove descend on him at Jesus’ baptism

And what a result! Allowing for some exaggeration, the whole region around the Jordan and people from Jerusalem and Judea, came out to hear him. Big turn-out! A bit like Christmas Day at Midnight! Yet that was only the beginning. As they heard him, people were said to be, “On the tip toe of expectation”- just what Advent can be for us as we practise our waiting. Many were baptized, acknowledging they’d “missed the mark”, through forgetting they were God’s. John Baptizer dared, and many had a burden lifted – not in the temple or by the priests – but in the desert and by the Voice and baptism water.

If John was the Darer, Jesus was the Doer: he also came to be baptized. Jesus did this to identify with John’s mission and with the people seeking God’s coming. Together they brought Hope into view. Hope became the people’s new Horizon. The Voice did his work. John Baptizer saw the utopian vision beginning – it must have been exciting to see folk coming with a longing to hear the word of the Lord. And doing it for themselves!

How daring was John?

John showed courage when he took on the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Produce good fruit worthy of your repentance.” They were quick to condemn the non-religious and I think John threatened them with his tongue in his cheek!

“Vipers”! They were slithering down to the Jordan, and John was not afraid of them, even if they were poisonous. That takes some daring-do! Have you ever spoken boldly to someone to make the point? I have a few times. I once told the son of a friend, who was on drugs, that he was on the “road to hell’. He agreed - though his parent’s friends thought I was wrong! His mum and dad did not!

“Who warned you to flee from coming wrath?” Not a concept we associate with Jesus and God. Can God be said to be wrathful, angry with us? John did. Maybe he had a point, that hypocrisy and not loving others, displeases God. Certainly Jesus got angry on several occasions. I prefer to think of wrath as my receiving the consequences of my own actions. “What you sow, you will also reap.” What goes around, comes around.

“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘ we have Abraham as our father’.” In other words, ‘whatever your family tree, you’re on your own, here boys!’ Each one must be responsible for him or her self. This is a strong theme in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Elijah – the one John is most like, fiery and challenging. You’ve been baptized as children of God – so bear the fruits of this Baptism. Live like the divine beings you are.

Taking responsibility for yourself is what’s being dared here. It can be mighty uncomfortable. It’s almost like shedding your skin, as snakes do, so as to grow into a new one. Yet, Utopia will be made up of those who are responsible for themselves, ready to shed the old skin and dare to do.

Being a Darer-Doer
This is to be a people of hope, followers of the Jesus Way. Courageous and responding to the deep longings God has placed in your human heart. Daring to act from the vision. Courageously taking up the cross to bring new life. Boldly being a voice for the vision of love, harmony and Jesus the Christ. “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone”.

Here’s some ways : “Practise Creates Miracles” So try making these ones!

• Remember each day, say to yourself, “I am a son, a daughter, of the Living God – I’m divine. When upset or distressed, stop and be calm. Remember who you are. And let the life of Jesus flow!

• Speak tenderly whenever you “hear” the deep longings of another person’s heart, they are part of God’s plan, a step they can take to bring more of heaven to earth.

• Speak more boldly than you usually do, when you hear a person going down a road that leads to death, to loss of dignity, of themselves.

• Be in touch with your own deep longings, take a moment each day to think “Have I been true to my hopes?” Share them with us. Ask how Jesus and John can guide you?

• Take responsibility for the things in others, that make you angry. These tell you the matters you do not like in you!

The Bird of Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
Did it ask, a crumb of me.

By Emily Dickinson
(from Sunday Liturgies)

God's Kingdom, Reign & Justice: Prison & Sentencing: Victims and the Oppressed

On Sunday, 25 November 2007, the Feast of Christ the King and the last Sunday in the Year of the Church, Jonathan Chambers - who heads Anglican Criminal Justice Chaplaincy in Victoria - delivered the following sermon at the Church of St Thomas, Upper Ferntree Gully.

The Reign of God in Luke’s Gospel .
Feast of Christ the King 2007 UFTG
Nature of the Kingdom of God -What sort of Kingdom?

Jesus’ Final Words to another human being before he died were to the Criminal beside him “….Today you will be with me in paradise”

The Kingdom of God is not something in the future- It’s NOW
“Today you will be with me in paradise”
Why would Luke finish this way?
What clue does it give us to the Nature of the Kingdom of God?

To understand the nature of this Kingdom, it is necessary to go back to Nazareth and the Jesus Manifesto, his campaign speech:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And he rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them,
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

……“Today you will be with me in Paradise”
The Reign of God which Jesus declared and commenced with his ministry was about:
God’s Justice
Relief from poverty
Release to Captives
Recovery of sight to the Blind
Freedom for the Oppressed

In Luke, we see Jesus living out His Manifesto about the Reign of God - and what it looks like - in his life, ministry and teaching

Good News To The Poor
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation
blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

And then there were:

The Rich Man and Lazarus
Zacchaeus – the rich man who shares his wealth. Salvation has come to your house Today

Jesus was concerned about the gap between Rich and Poor
Luke was concerned about the gap between rich and poor in the Christian Community for which he wrote his Gospel.

Look at:
Housing at Docklands and the High Rise Commission Flats of Fitzroy or Flemington
Median Household Income in Braybrook is $575 pw
Median Household Income in Kew is $1850
(Median Household Income in Upper Ferntree Gully [where St Thomas’s is] is $1277)
25% of Victoria's Prison intake comes from only 13/647 in Victoria

The Reign of God is about the rich like Zacchaeus sharing wealth with the poor; and including the socially disadvantaged through equal education, maternal health care, adequate housing, employment.

Hugh Mackay in yesterday's Age spoke of reclaiming egalitarianism- a fair go - which was part of our Australian culture only 15 years ago.

Release To The Captives
Jesus brought release and community inclusion from captivity of sin. He included the sinful woman who anointed his feet; release and inclusion to the Leper; release and inclusion to the sick woman bent over for eighteen years; release and inclusion of the hated Samaritan Leper who returned to thank him for healing.

In the Gospels, Jesus didn’t spring anybody from prison.
But in the Book of Acts, Luke records four occasions when early Christians were released from prison by Divine intervention. Demonstrating God did indeed come “to set the prisoners free”

“Holding people captive” is a foundation of our Criminal Justice system in Victoria in the hope that paying people back with deprivation of liberty will deter them and others from offending again.
But 62% of those who go to prison will return.
The payback system.
How does it sit with Jesus command to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you?
If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, contrast the response of the Loving Father and the Older Son to the Prodigal. We are challenged and overwhelmed by the generosity of the Father who doesn’t “give the prodigal what he deserves”

The wisdom of God’s Reign as shown in this story is demonstrated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following apartheid.
“Healing through truth telling”.

Jesus shows the futility of inflicting more harm in order to “pay the price for the harm done”
Walter Wink says:
“As a society we run the risk in endeavouring to fight evil with evil – of becoming the very evil that we hate”.

God’s Reign and Kingdom looks to the future and aims to restore and repair the harm done. It builds up. It doesn’t beat people into submission.

Recovery Of Sight To The Blind
I discovered that The Blind in Luke’s Gospel were not the physically blind - whom Jesus healed - nor the spiritually blind who regained sight like Zacchaeus.

The Blind were Scribes and Pharisees who always complained about anything Jesus did to help anybody. “Tut tutting”. They are like Older Brother who complains that the son isn’t getting what he deserves, or like the Pharisees who complained that Jesus was breaking the rules.

In Victoria, The Blind - as far as the criminal justice system is concerned - are the Community in general. Because what goes on in prisons is hidden, we don’t know – other than what the press tells us. Or what the Ombudsman reports, as we saw this week.

The Press, generally, only report newsworthy stories- ones that will reinforce peoples’ beliefs and, particularly, prejudices. They don’t portray people as someone’s son or daughter, but dehumanise them stereotyping them as “Monsters” and defining them by the crime.
Murderer, Rapist, Paedophile, Thief.
Truly dangerous serial offenders = 2%.
The rest are tarred with same brush.

So the public are blind to the true story - and so there are calls for tougher sentences and longer jail terms.
  • Academic studies by psychologists, criminologists and sociologists point to the futility of locking people up.
  • Anyone who works in the prison system agrees it is counter productive and makes people worse.
  • Politicians associated with the prison system know that it’s costly and ineffective, but not one is willing to risk the electoral backlash if they appear to be “soft on crime”

With no other voices, other than the media, the Community continues to be Blind.
We like to believe it’s a Just system,.
Collusion terms are there like “Collateral Damage” in War.
We talk about:
Humane containment. Duty of Care. Modern prisons.
We hide the damage done by kidding ourselves we are rehabilitating
And we euphemistically call the govt dept ‘Corrections Victoria’ – when 62% return !

You can’t bring about a change of heart when you’re holding someone under force, isolated from the community. We each need community to survive.

The Reign of God is demonstrated by the story of the Shepherd who would care for each lost one so much that he would do the irrational thing of leaving 99 to go after that one. And when he finds it, like the loving father who found his son, throw an extravagant party.

The kingdom of God is not about condemning the lost by exclusion,

but by seeking them out, costly caring and celebrating –

even when they don’t deserve it.

To Let The Oppressed Go Free
The oppressed in the Gospels are those who are captive. To Roman and Jewish Laws- which were oppressive. Served law makers – not the people.

In the Criminal Justice system “The Oppressed” are the Victims of Crime- who, because of our legal process, don’t get a fair hearing. Crimes aren’t against a victim; they are offences against the State.
Therefore the only reason for involving a Victim is to call them as a witness.

Howard Zehr:
We don’t listen to what they have suffered and need
We do not seek to give them back what they have lost
We do not help them recover
We may not even let them know what has transpired since the offence.

Consequently, Victims feel that no justice has been done which recognises their loss. There is no closure .Which leads to anger, fear, and demands for vengeance.

Consequently Victims of Crime Groups are angry –
because they are oppressed

A Restorative Justice system, focussed on healing the wounds, with compassion as seen in the tender treatment of the Good Samaritan to the victim of crime on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would go a long way to letting these oppressed go free.

A compassionate system which gave a place for victims to be truly heard and which still held offenders accountable to restoration could result in more Victims of Crime becoming Survivors of Crime.

The Reign or Kingdom of God as shown by Jesus actions and teaching in Luke are clearly at odds with the values of the Kingdoms of this world.

The Day of the Lords Favour, which Jesus declared began with his ministry
“Today this scripture had been fulfilled”.

If God’s Reign, which commenced in Nazareth is to continue, then WE are called too - as Christ’s Body to-day -to practice what we preach.

We are to do what we can to:

  • Restore the poor.
  • “Make poverty history” not just overseas but for the households of Braybrook who receive $570 per week
  • Set the captives free.
  • Work to find better ways of making offenders accountable rather than locking them up. Impossible? We did away with the death penalty. They said you couldn’t abolish slavery yet Wilberforce knew about the Kingdom of God. As did Mandela.
  • Open the Eyes of The Blind.
  • We need to let the Community know the truth about what harm prison does. We need to inform politicians that they will lose their seats if they let this injustice continue. Because God’s justice isn’t about payback. It’s about restoring right relationships.
  • Let the Oppressed go free.
  • We need to change the legal system – so that it is not combative with winners and losers. To change it to a place where victims are truly heard and offenders are truly held accountable. A place where people don’t just look at an offence and say : “this is what you will have to pay for breaking the law”, but instead we ask the Victim “what can we do to heal the damage, what can the offender do to bring restoration, what reparation should be made to the community, and what can we do to help prevent this offender from needing to offend again.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ final words to another human were addressed not to his disciples but to a criminal. Most of his followers had abandoned him. They were words of inclusion to the outcast who on his own admission was guilty - but who sought Jesus’ acceptance.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled
“….Today you will be with me in paradise”

Can we be as inclusive –
so that the Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.
I believe yes, we can –
as people who want to live in the Reign of God and God’s Justice.

Jonathan also handed out a document with the title Victoria's Prison Population: 2001 to 2006. It, along with its statistical documentation, can be found here. It is a publication of the Sentencing Advisory Council.
For more about Howard Zehr and his work with Restorative Justice, see here.

Travelling in The Way

Out walking the other day, I came across this Hut...
tucked away in farmland behind this fence.
A little used track runs beside the Hut.
The Hut itself is partly obscured and protected by a hillock.
Two things I think about from this:
The Hut is off to one side. Cars whizzing by on the busy bitumen road nearby would scarcely notice or be able to see The Hut. To take it in, its position, the track, the hillock, one has to make a conscious decision and go off the well-beaten bitumen. The Hut is simplicity itself and the track is not beaten bare with human passage. Come aside, it says.
The Hut is very much like me. Not the most attractive edifice to present to the world - and it is placed in obscurity. It is built of a durable, practicable material - one considered to be the iconic Australian vernacular. Basic features of The Hut have been broken or fallen into disrepair over time. Yet this very brokenness and disrepair allows the elemental in. It shares the fate of the rest of creation. The Hut's utility in its current state is questionable - but it is there to think upon, to remember and recall, and to ponder anew.