Impossible Things for Breakfast


Gospel: John 6:1-21

You never seem to come to an end to this reading from St John’s Gospel.

When I was about nine years old, I discovered a book on my grandparents’ shelves called The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas… or was it A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom? The book explained the miracle of the feeding by suggesting that the little boy sharing his lunch shamed all the people into sharing the picnics they had brought with them.

And maybe that’s part of what John is saying to us: that when we recognise that people are hungry, we should share the little we have with our friends and neighbours and that will encourage a spirit of sharing in the community, and there will be enough to go around and more.

I think I knew even at nine that this explanation was a brush-off. Obviously sharing is a good thing, far better than the alternative, but a little disappointing if that was all Jesus was teaching. All the sharing that has happened since then has not made a dent in world hunger, and in any case, the people in the story were hungry, not for food, but for teaching and for a leader, a Messiah.

This is a story about two shocking events: a man who can feed 5,000 with virtually nothing, and who can walk on water. The story is firstly about who Jesus is, not about our puny efforts to feed the world.

I don’t know what to make of the two events. I don’t do miracles. But that in fact is the point. John is introducing a person who does things that cannot be done; a person who doesn’t fit the normal world we live in. We can’t go back in a time-machine and see exactly what happened, but we can be sure that Jesus was so far out of the ordinary that John shocks us into a new recognition: Jesus is no ordinary man. I may not do miracles; but I have spent my life trying to come to terms with who this Jesus is.

On the basis of John’s evidence, I can’t come to an honest conclusion. Jesus continues to escape my understanding. But if he feeds human beings with bread, and, not only with fish and bread, but with symbolic bread, himself, his presence, then, like the crowds, I want to keep following him. If his presence in stormy seas makes the journey more bearable, then, like the disciples, I’m glad to invite him aboard.

The crowds couldn’t pin Jesus down. They saw the signs he had been doing on the sick. These signs pointed to something important, something good, but exactly what Jesus was doing when you closely examined the signs was a bit harder to grasp. Not universal health-care; not every human being without health problems, but a sign that God’s kingdom was breaking in in a new way. While it may seem that evil and disease have the upper hand, the signs Jesus were doing on the sick were pointing to a different reality, and therefore worth following up, worth finding out more.

Maybe he was the Messiah who had come to throw off the Roman yoke. Jesus organised the crowd into men and women. In Mark’s version, they were in companies of 100 and 50, just like an army.

It’s a three-day forced march from Galilee to Jerusalem. There were, presumably, Roman spies in such a large crowd. The crowd acclaimed Jesus as the Prophet, and calculated that they could get to Jerusalem before spies could get to Roman headquarters at Caesarea and alert the Roman legion there, who would take many hours to prepare and then two days to march from Caesarea to Jerusalem.

A popular uprising could just work on that timetable. On the other hand, an uprising like that could be violently put down too. As soon as Jesus saw the way the crowd was thinking, he disappeared. He was not a political Messiah.

If not a political Messiah, then something else. The disciples stuck around to find out.

They were intrigued by Jesus’ handling of the fragments. Twelve baskets full. And of course John, as a master story-teller, is well aware of the symbolism. By the time John writes his Gospel, the Temple has been destroyed, the Jewish nation has been smashed, and only fragments are scattered throughout the Middle East. The twelve new tribes, the twelve fragments, so carefully and lovingly picked up by Jesus, are the new Israel, the followers of Jesus, the Church.

So is Jesus the new Moses? Like Moses he distributes bread to people in the wilderness. Like Moses he teaches on a mountain. As with Moses, the Passover is at hand. Jesus is to lead his people out of slavery to a new promised land. However, this cannot be a geographical Exodus. So what will this new Moses mean? What will his Exodus look like?

John doesn’t tell us that Jesus is God. He doesn’t make the equivalence. But he does tease us, and shock us, into asking the question, well, if not, what? If not God, what is Jesus? If not a political Messiah, what sort of Messiah? If not a new Moses, what sort of Moses? If not only a healer, then what sort of healer?

As I said earlier, I don’t have an answer. Of course, you can’t turn five barley loaves and two fish into bread for five thousand with twelve baskets left over. Of course, you can’t walk on water. But the response of the crowds, and the response of the disciples tells me that Jesus did things that cannot be done, and just like them, I want to know more.

In nearly 50 years of trying to find out who Jesus is, I have found that he feeds me. I gain an enormous amount spiritually and personally from exploring the scriptures and from sharing the Eucharist with you, my brothers and sisters. I have found that when life is hard, frightening, worrying, then in the midst of that, Jesus is there, and suddenly, I am through the storm.

And who Jesus is keeps just out of reach. I need to keep on following someone so intriguing whose only attitude to me is one of enormous love and goodwill.

Beloved Daughter, Beloved Son


Mark 5:21-43 – Gospel for Sunday 28 June 2015 (Pentecost 5)

Preached at St George’s, Dunsborough

These stories are partly about two women’s ability to have children. The girl is twelve years old. On her next birthday she would have been old enough to marry and bring a baby into the world. As modern Western people we recoil from this whole business of treating a girl as a commodity to be sold. Bride price, dowry, physical attributes, and then the sheer hard work of bearing babies and keeping house – and keeping to the house – for the rest of their lives. To us, the customs of those times were as repugnant as the Taliban’s are now.

But her age is mentioned for that reason. Jesus restores her to her life prospects as wife and mother.

The older woman has had a bleed for 18 years. It doesn’t specify what sort of bleed, and that leads most scholars to suggest that it was related to her womb, not a stomach ulcer. With the medical care of those days, there is no way she could have children. There is no way she could be a wife under the Jewish Holiness code. Her life as a wife and mother was on hold at the least, probably finished, dead.

Jesus restores both women to life; and that includes to restore the possibility of their cultural role as wives and mothers. Whatever we think would have been best for them, being wife and mother was what they would have known and wanted, and certainly better than being dead!

But as Mark tells us the story, he insists on two words which take the restoring of these women far beyond those cultural expectations. The two words:

  • life
    and
  • daughter

The woman has spent everything she had on cures. ‘Everything she had’: the Greek work is ‘bios’ which we know in English words like ‘biology’. She had spent her whole ‘bios’, her whole ‘life’, her whole ‘living’ on doctors and cures. At one level, it just means, she had spent all she had chasing a cure. But if you’ve ever had a complex medical problem, you know it’s not just the monetary cost. We are so blessed in Australia with Medicare, cost is not usually the problem. But we can find ourselves with so many appointments and treatments, visits to the pharmacist and physio as well as to the GP and specialists, not to mention waiting on the phone to make those appointment, that our whole life starts to revolve around our medical issues. Our life is in danger of becoming our medical impairments. There are times when we could easily spend our whole life on chasing a cure. It’s not good. That’s where this woman was.

Jesus healed her. Jesus gave her her life back.

Jairus’s daughter was dead. The professional mourners were already in place, and laughing at Jesus for thinking he could achieve anything. Her life was gone. There was nothing left but her pious burial. Jesus raised her from the dead. He gave her her life back.

Of course, both of these resuscitations are prefiguring the resurrection. And they are also mirrors to us. If we reach out to Jesus, just touch the hem of his robe, just taste his power in the Eucharist, then he may give us our life back. That’s what Jesus wants to do. There is no person, no thing, so far from God, who cannot be restored, who cannot receive their life back.

What that will mean will vary from person to person, just as it was different for the woman with the bleed and Jairus’s daughter, so it will be for you. But Mark is telling us the Good News that Jesus considers every person – even women in his society – should be able to live her life to the full, and that she can do that if she allows Jesus to restore life to her. Or him.

That’s more than the cultural script of being a wife and mother. That’s a gift of life that is wide open to all good possibilities.

The second word that Mark uses is ‘daughter’. Each of the women healed in these stories is called a daughter, because each is unconditionally loved. Jesus calls the woman he heals by the name of ‘Daughter’: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ (Mark 5:34). And then immediately follows the rest of the other story. ‘While he was still speaking there came from the house some who said, “Your daughter is dead”.” (5:35) Whose daughter? It is ambiguous, because she is both Jairus’s much loved ‘little daughter’, and a daughter to Jesus too.

I am blessed to have a wonderful daughter. I remember the day in 1983 when she was born. I remember a lot more of her childhood than she might like me to. I am so proud of her now as a young mother of three, working at an interesting job part-time. She is a lovely and accomplished young woman. Everyone knows that. But only Rae and I can call her ‘Daughter’. We have the privilege of loving her especially. The love that I have for Clare, and the love that I know is returned, is a real joy.

Jesus emphasises with the women in these stories that the Father loves each daughter just like, and even more, than a human father loves his daughter. Daughters, you are loved, you are loved by God, with a love that gives you your life and goes on giving you your life back. Sons, you are loved, you are loved, too, by the Father, but sometimes, even in this 21st Century after Jesus, the daughters need to be told more intensely, more Intentionally, that God’s love is for them in this way of deep joy.

But for all of us, daughters and sons, can we in reality imagine what Jesus is offering to us?

  • the fulfilment of our lives up to our expectations so that we can do what God wants us to do in this world, as the two women were given the opportunity to be wives and mothers;
  • secondly, to get our lives back richer than we can imagine and better than we can imagine: this is Christ’s gift to us. As we open ourselves to Christ, so we are being transformed into new people, leaving the old one behind, becoming the person God intended us to be from the beginning, and discovering more and more joy in that. This is why for me being fed with the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is so important, as it feeds us on that journey of transformation.
  • and thirdly, knowing ourselves deeply loved as God’s children. God has loved us from the beginning and will love us eternally.

This is good news. It takes time to seep into us. It can be hard to hear this good news. God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth to show us what God is like. And this is what God is like. This is what God delights in doing for people.

Sin is when we refuse to let this love, the love of Christ penetrate more and more deeply into our hearts and lives, when we refuse to connect to Christ. Christ for his part continues to offer us our lives back, renewed and better than before.

Out of our poverty, we become rich, as Paul said in this morning’s epistle (2 Cor. 8:9) – and what wealth it is. What Good News it is! And what good news we become for others as this transformation takes place.

If you think I am being too idealistic, I plead with you to go back to the reading and see again what the gift is that Jesus gives to the woman and to Jairus’ daughter, and then to resolve to go about your lives knowing that it is true. God loves you through and through for eternity. Let him change you into his glory bit by bit.

****

A Water-Hole Gushing Up To Eternal Life


I’m a proud Noongar woman. I belong to this country. And I know how to open the gnamma hole to get water. I know what to sing to the spirits. I shout loudly to tell them that I’m coming. “Kaya! Ngany nidja!” I call, “Hello! I am here! Woolah! Ngany nidja!”  I’m about to throw sand down the gnamma hole to purify the water, when this wadulah man appears.

He’s a wadulah and he’s a man. He thinks he knows everything and he thinks he owns our country.

But he waits, back where I called the spirits, and says to me, respectful-like: ‘Can you get me some water, Aunty?’

I’m a bit surprised. I’ve never heard a wadulah ask before. For anything. If they know where the gnamma hole is they rip the top off and help themselves. I’m a bit suspicious too. ‘What wadulah asks a Noongar woman to get him a drink?’ I ask.

‘If you knew who was asking you,’ he says, ‘you would ask him for living water.’

‘Where would you get living water?’ I ask him, ‘You got no gnamma hole and you got no spirits here. Our ancestors told us how the gnamma hole was made, and how the Wagul passed through the country. You’re not greater than the ancestors, are you?’

He said, ‘When you drink your water you get thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give will never get thirsty again. The water I give will be a water-hole gushing up to eternal life.’

I didn’t know whether to laugh or run away from this wadulah. ‘You’d better give me some of your water,’ I says, ‘so I don’t have to come out to the gnamma hole to get it no more.’

So he said to me, ‘Go and get your husband and come back here.’

‘Ain’t got no husband.’

He says, ‘Too right you’ve got no husband. You’ve had five husbands. But the man you’re living with now is not your Law husband.’

I swallowed. ‘Uncle, you must be a prophet. Our ancestors called on the spirits on this mountain and you wadulahs say people should worship in church.’

He replied, ‘Believe me, Aunty, time is coming when you will worship the Father not on this hill nor in church. You worship spirits you do not know. We worship God because he brings salvation. But time is coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in a real true spirit. The Father is looking out for people to be his true worshippers. God is spirit.’

I says, ‘The Mission told us Christ will come and when he comes, he will tell us everything.’ Then he turns to me and puts it to me: ‘I, this one talking to you, I am he. ‘

Just then, his followers came back. They looked shocked to see him talking to me, but they didn’t say to me, ‘What are you after?’ or to him ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ I dropped my water-can and ran down into the camp shouting to everyone, ‘I’ve met someone who’s told me everything I’ve ever done. Could he be Christ? Whoever he is, he’s made me proud of being me!’ https://i2.wp.com/hillcountryoutdoorguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/krause-2.jpg

Laudato Si’


My hymn

re-posted from https://franciscanhymns.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/hymn-of-saint-francis/

to honour Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’

Praise to Most High for sun so warm,
for moon and stars so bright;
praise to Most High for all that form,
the universe of light!

Praise to Most High for sparkling dawn,
for sunset splashed with gold;
praise to Most High for rich red soils,
and surf majestic rolled.

Praise to Most High for rain and wind,
for making new things grow;
praise to Most High for Mother Earth,
and  safe through death to go.

Praise to Most High for Jesus Christ,
His present power to heal;
praise to Most High that he was raised
and still his love falls real.

Praise to Most High for those we love,
and who are kind to us;
the gift of love we least deserve
is your sure sign to us.

Praise to Most High who shows the way:
love, joy, humility;
praise to Most High himself the gift,
our kindly Trinity.

8686 Tune “Nativity” TIS 204

© Ted Witham tssf 2008

St Francis praises God outside the Roman Catholic church in Collie, W.A.

St Francis praises God outside the Roman Catholic church in Collie, W.A.

Education, Education, Education!


First published on the Starts at Sixty website, June 12, 2015

Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.

ISIS online

And they are also ignorant.

Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.

I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.

They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.

It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.

Eid – a time of joy and peace for families after the fasting of Ramadan

They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.

It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.

Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.

Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.

The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.

We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.

Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!

The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of Religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.

Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.

In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.

Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.

Reptiles and Anniversaries


First published on the Starts at Sixty website, 11 June 2015.

Reptiles, Waterholes, Ranges

Why would anyone travel to Broome in December? Well, in December 2005, my wife Rae and I had an excuse. We decided we would use Frequent Flyer points to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our marriage with a few days in the far north of Western Australia. We flew into Broome for three days. On the first day it was 35 degrees and the humidity around 90 percent. Without a car, every journey to find a meal or to walk to Cable Beach was an unpleasant sweaty exertion.
That evening, we booked a day trip out of Broome along Gibb River Road. We figured that even if we saw little in the way of scenery, we would have two meals provided in air-conditioned comfort.
Comfort, however, is not the first word that describes the all-terrain military carrier vehicle, the Hummer, which bumped into our apartment carpark at 6 a.m. Even on hard tarmac, the Hummer rides like an ill-tempered camel. We bumped along at 120-130 km/h inland to Derby, arriving at about 10 a.m., as the temperature steadily rose. At a certain point, the heat overwhelmed the air-conditioning, and it gave out, leaving us to be conditioned only by the hot easterly air gusting through open windows.
As the temperature increased, however, the interest of the journey also rose. On a long straight stretch of road, the driver suddenly stopped the bus, jumped down and ran flat out. He returned two minutes later with a frill-necked lizard in his bleeding, bitten hands: the angry, frightened frill-necked lizard gave a wonderful display of his neck, large and red with emotion.
The Hummer bounced along the gravel corrugations of the famed Gibb River Road. On our left, the sheer jagged cliffs of the Napier Range rose abruptly where Bunuma resistance hero Jandamarra had hidden out in the 1880s and 90s.
Well after 1 p.m. we struggled through a darkened gorge, and swam in the deliciously cool water-hole at the far end of Tunnel Creek. Refreshed, and relieved not to meet a snake in the water with us, we enjoyed sandwiches and drinks from the car fridge, and turned back for Broome.
A red cloud of dust haunted the Hummer as the sun started to sink in the west. We stopped at Windjana Gorge, where a skittish posse of freshwater crocs played chasey with each other in the upper reaches of the sandy beach. ‘Don’t get between them and the water,’ advised our guide. It seemed to us tourists that wherever we stood we were between the metre-long reptiles and the water. However beautiful the place, we elected not to stay too long.
Darkness fell about 8 p.m. Back on the bitumen we stopped for a barbecue dinner, and with the Hummer’s lights turned off, visibility was nil. Rae and I walked off hand in hand into the darkness for the weird experience of seeing showy diamond stars piercing the ebony canopy but not being able to see our own hands or the tarmac beneath our feet.
The Hummer trundled into Broome after midnight. The driver said he would be up at 5 a.m. to re-fuel and repeat the experience with a new group of tourists. We could sleep in.
Next morning, however, another surprise blew into our wedding anniversary. The humidity woke us at about 9 o’clock. It was almost unbearable, even in air-conditioning. ‘The Build-up’, the locals call this time of year, and it makes people do strange things. The weather too.
The wind picked up, first from the north, then, it seemed, from every direction. Round and round like a whirlpool. A cyclone, which the day before had been over Darwin, was now threatening Broome. We prepared to leave for Perth.
Qantaslink staff hurried us through the airport and on to the plane. It was the quickest loading and take-off I have experienced. Forget security. As we circled over the town, we saw trees bending in half to the wind and felt the plane struggling to bank smoothly.
The speaker hissed. ‘We will be the last flight out of Broome until the cyclone has passed,’ announced the pilot. Rae and I sat back in our seats and smiled at each other. ‘I enjoyed our wedding anniversary,’ I said to my wife, ‘but now I need a rest in a cool quiet place.’ ‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘without reptiles.’

Re-Design my Pain


Todd Sampson reminded me on ABC TV last night that I can Re-design my Brain when it comes to my chronic pain. The three principles that I should meditate on for ten minutes a day are:

 

  1. This pain will pass,
  2. The pain can’t hurt me, and
  3. This pain won’t stop my body doing all (or most) of what I want.

 

The first principle is for those times when the pain flares up and is an invitation to live in the present. It is a reminder that in the future, I won’t have this pain. The future may be after I have slept tonight. The future may be after I have pulled the emergency cord and taken a pain holiday by consuming what my GP calls any “uh-zepam” drug. The future may be the next general anaesthetic I will some day have. The future may be after my death. It doesn’t matter how rare the future or how far out into the future, just the fact that there is a future where the pain changes for the better.

 

This pain will pass. Hang on to that.

 

This pain can’t hurt me. If I break my arm and then lift a heavy suitcase, that will hurt me. But my constant companions, the pains in my back and feet are not the result of new tissue damage or broken bones. I don’t have to limp because of my sciatic legs. The pain is just there, and movement will not make anything worse. In fact, movement may make things better.

 

Better to move than seize up. This pain can’t hurt me.

 

My body, considering all the things that are wrong with it, works very well. I can feel the wind on my face and see the waves down at the beach. I can hear the magpies sing their joyful carols. I can embrace those I love, and set my grandchildren on my knee and take them riding in my wheelchair. I walk three kilometres five mornings a week. I enjoy three meals a day. I can sit and type and engage my brain and fingers setting devious crosswords and writing stories.

 

Yes, I do have to work around the limitations of mobility that pain imposes on me. But my body can do most of the things I want to do.

 

Whenever I begin to be distressed by my pain, I can remind myself of these three statements of fact:

  1. This pain will pass,
  2. The pain can’t hurt me, and
  3. This pain won’t stop my body doing what I want.

These devious affirmations will change my brain’s perception of pain, and I will carry on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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