Christian bird song?


Sermon preached at

St Mary’s Busselton on

October 2, 2016, for the Feast of St Francis,

at the Blessing of the Pets.

Scripture readings: 

Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 10:8-15
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In the name of + the living God, Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
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You are very welcome to this service. Thanks for bringing your owners with you. I hope you enjoy being here with other animals, and you don’t find that Labrador too big, or that cat too smelly!

There’s a wild story about Saint Francis of Assisi, preaching and birds. Today we mark St Francis’ day, technically on October 4, and this saint, who lived 800 years ago, has a large part in our hearts. We like him partly because he seemed to have a special rapport with you animals.

The story starts with Saint Francis preaching. Saint Francis had a beautiful voice. In fact, one of the brothers, who used to be known for his elegant, resonant beautiful speaking voice, thought he was the best speaker in Italy, until he heard Saint Francis and was so spell-bound he joined the Brothers.

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St Francis preaching to the birds. Bardi Chapel – Italian School, (13th century) – Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

But on this occasion Francis was having trouble. A group a swallows was making a racket. ‘Little Sisters,’ St Francis said, ‘no-one can hear the words of the Gospel because of your noise. Please be quiet until I have finished my sermon.’ And they were. And so were the people. They were so moved that they wanted to follow him, leave their town, and become wandering preachers like him.

‘Don’t be in a hurry,’ St Francis, ‘and don’t leave, and I’ll arrange everything for your life with God.’ So St Francis set up the Third Order, which consists of Christians who want St Francis as their guide in Christian living, but who, unlike the Brothers, live in their own homes and get married. This Third Order still exists. My wife Rae and I are members of it.

But after this sermon, St Francis set out on the road again. He saw ahead of him a vast throng of birds. There were thousands of birds, maybe tens of thousands, more than you could count, maybe more that you could make with computer graphics. In any case Francis was impressed with such a mob of birds.

He told his companions to stop while he went ahead to preach, this time to the birds. He told this huge crowd of birds how much God loved them, because God had created them. He told them how thankful they should be for being able to fly and for being well insulated with two or three layers of feathers. They also should thank God for the air to fly in, and for the fact that they didn’t need crops to live. ‘You don’t sow or reap, and God feeds you and gives you the rivers and springs to drink, and trees and high mountains to make safe nests.’

The birds then opened their beaks and stretched their necks and reverently bent their heads to the ground. Their singing and movement showed St Francis how much they’d understood.

St Francis then made the sign of the Cross and let them leave. They followed the Cross Francis had signed. Some went to the north, some to the south, others to the west, the rest to the east. They sang magnificent songs, marvellous songs, as they flew off.

The birds set an example to us, to live according to the Cross of Christ, and to go in every direction, thanking God that we depend only on him, like the birds, trusting God to provide enough for each day, and singing our beautiful song, the song that tells the story of Jesus.

Our beautiful song is our song, our own song. There’s a legend about an African tribe that african-art-street-a-eececce-130355-2says a pregnant woman listens to the child in the womb and learns a song that is unique to that child. She teaches the father-to-be the song, then she teaches the midwives who sing it as the child is born. As the child grows up, each time the child falls and hurts herself, the village gathers around and sings her song. When she does something wrong as an adult, she is brought face to face with those she has wronged, the villagers form a circle around her and sing her song. The song is sung at the person’s funeral, and then is never heard again.

Our own song: one that our loved ones sing when we need healing or restoring. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

The song each bird sang as it flew in one of the directions of the Cross was its own individual song. At the same time, each song fitted in with the songs of all the other birds. It was in close harmony with the song of the community.

In the same way, our own song with its individual story of God with us, with each of us, harmonises with the song of the community with its story of Jesus who came among us to share love.

So when we sing ‘All Creatures of our God and King’, we are singing the song that was originally St Francis’ own song. It’s now the community’s song, and we sing it along with the whole community. But we also make it our song. We remember the times we have been awed by the night sky and we sing,

‘Thou silver moon with softer gleam, O praise him. …

Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,

Ye lights of evening, find a voice. O praise him.’

 

When we get to,

‘And all those of tender heart,

Forgiving others, take your part, O sing ye Alleluia’,

we can remember a time in particular when we forgave another, or when we were forgiven even though we were filled with shame and remorse.

I’m now going to make the sign of the Cross over you, and your owners can watch. When you leave, at the end of the service, you can go in the direction of the Cross that is your path, thanking God for God’s provision for you, and continue loving and forgiving your humans. As you go, go singing your wonderful song.

+  As you go to the north, or to the south, or to the west, or to the east, do not be guilty of the sin of ingratitude, but travel with God’s love and with your song. Amen.

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Two Women and the Whole Armour of God


ST GEORGE’S ANGLICAN CHURCH, DUNSBOROUGH

SERMON 23 AUGUST, 2015

I’d like to introduce you to two women I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately. Two women who wore the whole armour of God in very different ways.

They are the Australian musician Dorothea Angus and the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Frenchwoman Jeanne Jugan.

I am researching both women and writing feature articles on each, hopefully to get them published in suitable magazines.

Dorothea was British-born but came to Adelaide with her parents when she was six just after World War I. She got a scholarship to study piano at the Elder Conservatorium, probably enrolling in 1928 alongside Miriam Hyde, who turned out to be a famous composer.

The classmates made a pact to swap their new compositions with each other every year; and they kept to this pact for decades. Dorothea made more than 250 broadcasts and recordings on the ABC, and many of them were pieces by Miriam Hyde.

Dorothea’s piano teacher, Brewster Jones, died, and her scholarship ended. Her new teacher was the noted organist John Horner. Under his tutelage, Dorothea fell in love with the organ, and in 1938 was giving recitals in Adelaide and Sydney and enthusiastically received as ‘Australia’s top organist’. But getting a job was harder.

St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide, it seems somewhat reluctantly, eventually appointed Dorothea in 1936 as ‘Assistant to the Precentor.’

Now the organist at St Peter’s was J.M. Dunn who had been Cathedral organist since 1891 – a run of 45 years! The year Dorothea was appointed to the staff Mr Dunn died. His assistant Canon Horace Percy Finnis became the new organist. But this priest was also the Precentor and Bishop’s Vicar. It’s not hard to imagine the talented Dorothea, frequently, but anonymously, being called to the organ keyboard, or to lead choir practice, and for Canon Finnis to take all the credit.

Dorothea Angus 2_webIn any case, Dorothea’s mentor, John Horner, was on a visit to Perth, and heard that Perth College was looking for someone to play the organ for Chapel and to teach all the music in the school, and he persuaded the Principal, Sister Rosalie and Archbishop LeFanu that Dorothea was the right person for the job.

Dorothea arrived in 1938 and found the music at Perth College to be chaotic and was desperate to go back to Adelaide. Two things stopped her: the coming war, and a growing friendship with Sister Rosalie. This was a friendship of opposites: Dorothea was always stylishly and fashionably turned out, Sister Rosalie was an old-fashioned Anglican nun always in habit with veil and wimple.

Sister would often slip into the Studio late in the afternoon while Dorothea practised and sit quietly in a corner. The two women had big personalities and big ambitions. From my interactions with Dorothea, I imagine they talked about faith in an energetic and purposeful way. Dorothea was always a little prickly; always ready to take down an opponent in argument.

Later on in life, she was sick in hospital, and I visited her. As soon as she caught sight of my collar across the ward, she yelled, ‘I don’t want a stupid priest. I’m not dead.’ I enjoyed the banter. But it was sad that such a talented woman had put up such a defensive shell around her, an armour that was not really the armour of God, but armour that came from being so hurt by the church that she dared not let it happen again.

Jeanne Jugan also experienced being silenced by the church. Jeanne was born in 1801 in a small fishing village in Brittany. She nearly married in her twenties, but told her mother, ‘There is some work that God has for me to do that has not yet been revealed.’

In her forties, she was sharing a house with two other woman in the beginnings of a prayer community. One day Jeanne found an elderly blind woman and brought her back home. She carried her up the steep spiral stairs to their apartment and gave the old woman her bed. Jeanne slept in the attic. She had discovered the work she was called to do: in community care for the elderly who would otherwise be on their own.

To support this ministry, Jeanne took a basket and began walking and begging money for her elderly people. People responded to Jeanne’s request by giving generously. The work grew. In only three or four years, they had opened several houses around Brittany. Women were being attracted to be part of this ministry.

The three founding women were working out a Rule of Life for their little community. A shiny new parish priest Auguste le Pailleur arrived in their village. He became spiritual director to the other two women. When the Rule of Life, which was partly a Constitution, was put into action, there was an election for Superior. Jeanne Jugan was elected without question. She was in everyone’s mind the one who had started this work.

Father le Pailleur used his authority as parish priest and deposed her, and put Marie, one of the other women, in her place. He then had himself declared as sole Founder of the Order.

The Sisters acquired a large property for their motherhouse where they could train the large number of young women coming to join. The property was called La Tour. Le Pailleur decreed that Jeanne would no longer go about begging for the order, but would live at La Tour-St Joseph among the postulants and novices, with no rank or recognition. Jeanne stayed there until her death 27 years later.

When they had completed their Chapel, the Bishop came and they had a large celebration. After the Mass, the Bishop sat with all the Sisters around him in a large circle. He spoke. Then Father Le Pailleur spoke. He talked about their beginnings. He mentioned all the founding Sisters by name, one by one, all except Jeanne. It was as if she wasn’t there, and had never been there.

Only once in that 27 years was there any official recognition of her presence. The Sisters had been given the chance to earn rent from one of their properties. A rich benefactor had warned them that they really needed to make up their mind about this because their identity depended on it. The Sisters were divided. Some argued that the rents were God’s way of making sure they were provided for. Others believed that if they came to rely on rents they would forget that they were dependent every day on God.

Someone remembered Jeanne Jugan in the novice house. They called her to the meeting, even though she wasn’t formally part of the council; she hadn’t even formally been professed as a full member of her own Order. They gave Jeanne the casting vote, and her signature appears on that one document. Significantly Father le Pailleur’s signature is not on that document.

Then Jeanne returned to the novice house. Those who remembered Jeanne afterwards remember an old tall peasant women with piercing blue eyes. They remember how joyful she was. They remembered how she joined in their work and their recreation. They remembered the advice she gave them about being ‘little’: if they were going to be of real help to the old people in their care, they had to be genuinely little with the little people, not be ladies condescending to do good.

In her forced retirement, being pushed away into the ranks of the least important members of the Order, Jeanne discovered how to put on the whole armour of God. She refused to be bitter, as most of us would be tempted to. Instead, she went into that silence, that withdrawal, to find God, to find joy. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she discovered she was actually in a position to pass on her values to every new member of the Order as they came through the Novice house.

She died on St Joseph’s Day 1879, which was also Father le Pailleur’s feast day, so there was no announcement of her death. The next day, Father le Pailleur sent out a circular letter to all the houses of the Little Sisters of the Poor, thanking them for their good wishes and congratulations on his feast day. There was no mention of the death of the Founder of the Order.

The story does end well. The villain of the piece, Auguste le Pailleur, was eventually removed from his position as Superior and sent to a convent in Rome for the rest of his days. One wonders whether he found the same joy in his forced confinement as Jeanne had in hers.

Jeanne was recognised by 1902 as the Founder and first Sister of the Order. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and Pope Benedict made her a Saint in 2009.

You and I are unlikely to be beatified and canonised. We are the wrong denomination, for a start. But Jeanne Jugan reminds us to use the whole armour of God not as a defence against the world, but as a way of turning the world’s attacks into new opportunities for being close to God.

What is Prayer (I)?


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 2015 St George’s, Dunsborough Gospel: John 12:20-33 Some weeks ago, a friend emailed to say that his dear friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I could tell this story dishonestly and say that I prayed for his friend and the tumour turned out to be benign, and we gave thanks to God. Those facts happen to be true; but actually what he asked me was not to pray from him and his friend, but, “What is prayer?” That’s a much harder question. Especially as we know that many times, most times, we pray for someone to be healed, and it doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We don’t need much experience in prayer to learn that God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus granting our wishes just because we ask. In fact, it would be a little scary if our prayers caused anything to happen. If there was any cause behind the fact that our friend’s tumour was not life-threatening, apart from random cell growth, that cause is God, not our prayers. God heals, not our prayers. We don’t begin to know what to ask. We do learn that sometimes we batter on heaven’s door for a healing and God does not seem to answer. We also learn that sometimes God surprises with a healing that is unexpected and even un-prayed for. Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche communities where the mentally disabled live in community with the able. He tells the story of the parents of Vincent, a mentally disabled boy in Bangladesh. The parents felt great pain because of their son’s disability. They prayed and prayed that God would heal him. They were surprised when God answered their prayer – but not in the way they expected. They changed, not Vincent. They discovered they were more compassionate. They discovered that God had given them more strength to care for Vincent. They saw Vincent in a new light, as a loving son. They had buried his delightful personality by thinking of him as a problem, as a disability, and not a person. But we do want prayer to fix things. People with too much time on their hands have set up scientific experiments trying to show whether prayer works. In one experiment, they prayed anonymously for some patients recovering from heart surgery and not others to see whether their healing was fast-tracked. The results were inconclusive. Other scenarios have been tried, but prayer remains stubbornly inaccessible to science. You can’t prove one way or the other. The data is too vague. We Christians persist in praying. And this morning’s Gospel reading gives five indications why we pray and what prayer is.

  • In prayer we follow Jesus.
  • In prayer we recognise with Jesus that we live in a broken world.
  • In prayer we offer ourselves in solidarity and love, as Jesus did.
  • With Jesus we lose ourselves in the situations of others, hoping that our self-giving will bring transformation and life.
  • Prayer is an intention to serve the need of others.

Jesus does not see the world with rose-coloured glasses. He invites us, like him, to see the world as it is, a broken place. He gives us the strength to look steadily at its reality: not to look away from the friend with cancer, or the child with a mental disability, or the world at war, or the greed of corporations making the homeless hungry and Africans in the Congo desperate. We do live in a world where our children leave us for the Eastern States or overseas, and where the friends who we thought loved us the most betray us – like Judas. We can look at it all. Not to be overwhelmed by it, but to see it as Christ does, and still love it. The key word for me is solidarity. We give away our selves. In other words, we stop worrying about our needs. We stop putting ourselves at the top of the list of people to be served. We offer our own time and energy and strength in solidarity with the one in need. Often we cannot do more than hold out our heart in solidarity. Because of distance, or other practicality, there may be nothing more we can do. But our heart is powerful. When we when we hold out our heart to the one in need, when that is our prayer, we find Christ also standing there in solidarity with the one in need. That mutual solidarity can transform even the most hopeless of situations, even though, like Vincent’s parents, we cannot tell in advance what form that transformation will take.

Ghislaine Howard (1953 – ) The Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art No. 40

There will be times when, in the strength of Christ, we offer not only our heart, but our practical help. So when I pray, I should be looking not to get God to do something, but looking for something I, and often only I, can do. My prayers often turn into cards and words. Sometimes they become phone calls, conversations in which I may have some particular knowledge or insight, or just share the load over a cup of tea. Sometimes they turn into Betadine on a scratched knee, or a letter to a politician, or a referral to a physiotherapist who has soothed the pain in my back and might do the same for the one in need. But in reality, those practical things are a small part of prayer. They are the tip of an iceberg. The main part of prayer – the nine-tenths that is mystery, that is hard to see – is the offer of solidarity, the sharing of love. We pray because, as Christ’s people, we can’t help expressing love. Real love involves letting go of our ego – losing our life for Christ’s sake, and standing in solidarity with Christ and the one in need. The end result of dying and rising with Christ is service, a life of service, and prayer means letting our selfish needs go so we can be transformed to serve. Prayer is a way of loving the one in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that! Books have been filled trying to answer the question my friends asked, ‘What is Prayer?’ I would encourage you: keep praying. Keep gazing on this broken world. Keep looking for ways to love it. Keep sharing your heart. You will continue to be surprised by Christ loving the world alongside you, and turning your tiny seed of love into a flowering of sharing and solidarity.

Jonah and the Projection of his Dark Side


Sermon 25 January 2015

Epiphany 3

St George’s, Dunsborough

There have been Christians in Iraq since the earliest times, probably as long as, or even longer than there have been Christians in Syria. The Iraqi Christian community may be the oldest continuous Christian community in the world. In recent years, their numbers have been decimated. In 1987, there were 1.4 million or about 8% of the population. We should not have been surprised that Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister, was a Christian. By 2010, the number had dropped to between 200,000 and 400,000.

The terror group calling itself Islamic State in Syria and the Levant has reduced the number of Christians even further; and, it should be said, the number of Yezidi, and Shia Muslims, and even Sunni Muslims who are not intense enough in their beliefs, all have been reduced by ISIL.

ISIL proclaimed its “caliphate” in Mosul just across the river from the ruins of Nineveh, and made its destructive presence felt not only in beheadings and mass executions but also by blowing up Jonah’s tomb, not because they had anything against Jonah, who is also a prophet in Islam, but because their brand of fundamentalism worries that people might worship the shrine instead of the God to whom it is dedicated.

Even so it’s not immediately obvious why Jonah is an exemplary prophet. The rabbis debated as to whether Jonah should be included in the Bible, and many Protestant scholars regard him as a failed prophet.

His story is told as a four chapter novella – a fictional form. Whether there’s history or not behind the story is your judgement call. In the first chapter, God told Jonah to go and proclaim to Nineveh, the largest city in the world. Go to New Delhi; or go to Shanghai; go to Nineveh. But Jonah booked a passage for Tarshish. That’s like buying a ticket for South America. He headed as far as possible in the opposite direction.

Then “the Lord hurled a powerful wind on the sea. Such a violent tempest arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” (Jonah 1:4) The terrified sailors each cried out to their own gods. Jonah went below and went to sleep. He didn’t help. He didn’t even pray. This storm, he knew, was his doing, and he was still running from responsibility.

Eventually the sailors drew lots to discover who was the cause of the storm. Jonah drew the short straw. The sailors questioned Jonah, who then – at last – began to preach. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). This made the sailors more frightened and the storm grew worse and worse until Jonah offered to be thrown overboard.

It’s only then that the storm stopped. Many commentators believe that the storm was an internal storm. It was happening in Jonah’s head. It was telling of his emotional state. Denying his responsibility caused turmoil within him. The moment he took responsibility the storm stopped. But he didn’t admit full responsibility. The admission was squeezed out of him. So a further step had to be taken before Jonah was behaving like an adult.

As the storm calmed, a big fish swallowed Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. Three days and three nights is a significant period in the Bible. One life ends and a new life begins. Sometimes the bible talks about two days, sometimes three days; sometimes it talks about a new life beginning “on the third day”. It all means the same. You can easily get confused with the numbers, just like when you are talking with a travel agent about a travel package – a week’s holiday might be six days. Two days, three days – it depends when you start counting from – but it always signals a transition time.

So in the fish’s stomach for three days Jonah told God how sorry he was, and after the transition time, the Lord commanded the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. (2:10)

All that was being mulled over in his head, stirred up, with that feeling in the pit of his stomach, unable to see the way ahead, suddenly became calm and light: Jonah could see the way ahead.

The Lord then gave Jonah a second chance to go to huge Nineveh, the enormous city, and proclaim the message that the Lord will give. Jonah’s message was five words in Hebrew, the shortest and most effective sermon ever. “Forty days until Nineveh’s overthrown!” ‘

Much to Jonah’s surprise the people heeded Jonah’s message: they repented. The king, the people, the cattle, the sheep, everyone repented; and so whole-heartedly that God repented too and decided not to destroy the city.

“This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry.” (4:1) Chapter 4 is wonderful comedy starring the irate Jonah. God appointed a little plant to grow over Jonah and shade his head to rescue him from his misery. And “Jonah rejoiced with great joy” (4:6) over the little plant.

But then God sent a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah was furious about the destruction of the plant. God mildly made the point that God was concerned about destroying a mega-city with more than 120,000 people – plus animals – and Jonah was concerned about one plant.

If it wasn’t so tragic, Jonah’s story would be funny.

Jonah was not at ease in his own skin, he was a prophet who ran away, who was churned up inside about his vocation, and the story reveals what happened when these inner emotions were allowed out.

Rather than take responsibility Jonah was quite happy to let a ship full of sailors break up and go down. When he got to Nineveh, he was still a reluctant prophet. He went only one day’s walk into the city. He preached only five words. He pronounced the destruction of an entire city.

There’s an old riddle: how do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A liturgist is an expert in how things go in worship, what colour you should use for what season, what vestment you should wear, what gestures you should make. What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist. The joke is funny only because negotiation is not what terrorists do. They hold to ransom. They demand. They stipulate destruction.

Jonah’s job, on the other hand, was to “proclaim”. The difference between “proclaiming” and “stipulating” may be difficult for a fundamentalist to grasp, but for the rest of us, “proclaiming” includes “engaging with”. Jonah was supposed to learn that his task involved discussion, persuasion and responsibility. Instead he contemplated the annihilation of the biggest city in the world.

God does not work through mass destruction, whether it is the massacre of journalists in Paris or the beheading of Christians in Iraq.

Jonah’s story brings us up short with its perceptive psychology. It’s not really about recruitment for ISIS. It’s about us and how we can be like Jonahs in our own homes and in our own communities.

When we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, we can become manipulative and destructive towards others. We blame. We blame God. We blame people who are different. We blame people who are close to us. We confuse our feelings with the world outside. The dark side of Jonah leads me to create a check-list so that I don’t end up like him caring more about the life of one little plant than a whole community.

  • Am I leaving others room to make their own decisions?
  • Am I really taking responsibility for my own actions?
  • Am I acknowledging my changing moods and feelings?
  • Am I really prepared to repent, and to change?
  • Am I open to God so that God’s love can flow through me to others?

“No sign will be given this adulterous and sinful generation,” declares Jesus, “except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4, Luke 11:29). Jesus rescues Jonah’s reputation on two counts. Firstly, Jonah and Jesus both sleep through a raging storm, and then with the stilling of the storm it is revealed who is the Creator of the sea and the wind.

Secondly, Jonah’s three days in the big fish, being swallowed at the end of his old life of denial and being disgorged to a new life of obedience, pre-figure the three days Jesus spends in the earth between the crucifixion and the resurrection, entering the tomb a dead man and rising to new life for all people.

By that calculation, Jonah is far from being a failed prophet. He’ll go on causing laughter and discussion and leading us into deeper insight into being real before God.

Holy Massacre


Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

St George’s, Dunsborough, Christmastide 2014.

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (Chapter 2 beginning at the 13th verse):

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

[NRSV]

The Gospel of our Lord:
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of God the Creator, who was born a human being, and lives among us as Spirit. Amen.

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under.” (Matthew 2:16)

The shock of a psychopath in power. In the 20th Century, Stalin behaved something like Herod. The sad thing is that we remember the psychopath and not the names of his victims. Dmitri Volkogonov writes,

“Stalin personally signed 357 proscription lists in 1937 and 1938 that condemned to execution some 40,000 people, and about 90% of these are confirmed to have been shot. At the time, while reviewing one such list, Stalin reportedly muttered to no one in particular: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one.” “

 King Herod would resonate with that sentiment.

Mao Tse Tung reportedly killed 45 million people in four years. The records are carefully catalogued in the Public Security Bureau, and researchers can read about the violence Mao ordered and permitted, including deliberately starving the elderly to death because they couldn’t work efficiently. But scholars don’t write critically about Mao: it seems that the Chinese don’t want to face these horrors.

From what I understand, people also tried to forget Herod “the Great” as quickly as humanly possible.

Stalin, Mao and Herod. Eight children murdered by their mother in Cairns. A siege in Sydney by an unhinged Iranian. The horror of it all seems to have set out to spoil our Christmas. We want Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas to be Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer without a care, yet, with the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the church sets a trap for us three days after Christmas.

Christmas can easily become a fantasy, especially in our consumer-laden culture. People travel hundreds of kilometres to view Christmas lights, and where communities have some success with colour and light one year, householders compete with each other the next year to be brighter and more spectacular than their neighbours. Cummins, a little town on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, turns its RSL hall over to a Christmas Wonderland. Carols by Candlelight have become so commercial and so un-focused that I can no longer watch them or join in.

These sparkling displays at Christmas empty Christmas of meaning. And I know that conflict, the conflict between Christmas and Yuletide, has been going on for nearly two thousand years, so I’m not going to win that. But I do know that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is a necessary corrective for us each year. It shocks us out of a fantasy Christmas world back into the real world.

It points out again where God’s concern is in Christmas: not in the cute superficialities of new babies, but in the pain of child-birth, the challenge of poor families, the survival – or not – of refugee families.

God knows the name of each of the boys under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who was killed by Herod’s men. God knows the name of each peasant murdered by Ivan the Terrible. God knows by name each of those massacred by Stalin and Mao. God cares for each, as he cares for each of the children killed in Cairns, and weeps over their mother, Mersane Warria.

God can name 141 Pakistanis, 132 of them children, less than two weeks ago in a school in Peshawar.

·         Hamza Ali, 14 years old. Dead.

·         Farhad Hussain, 15. Dead.

·         Hamayun Iqbal, 14. Dead.

To God, the 141 killed last fortnight and the 41,000 Pakistanis in total killed by terror since 2001 are all beloved individuals.

God mourns for the lost lives of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson killed in Sydney; and unlike the tabloid press, God does not count Man Haron Monis as monster, but as a human being; he was damaged, disturbed, dangerous and responsible for his crimes; but still of immense value simply because he is a human being, God’s image in him marred and spoiled – as it is in each one of us.

So on the third day of Christmas, the church invites us to gaze compassionately on the horrors of the world. It takes courage, and sometimes it’s a little easier when we know that the victims are Holy Innocents.

We take seriously that God has taken human flesh, God became man in Christ. This means that he gazes through our eyes. God uses us to see. We are called upon to look with clearer focus; to be able to gaze without flinching on horror, and to allow Christ’s compassion to flow through us.

Some rather wonderful things happen when we allow this compassion to gaze through us: it transforms what we see.

First of all it turns victims into treasured human beings; we see them not just as people that happened to be in the way, but in Bethlehem as Jacob and Paran’s and Eliab and Naomi’s little boys, or in another massacre as someone’s lover, someone’s daughter, someone’s friend, someone’s father.

Secondly, this compassionate gaze shows Herod up for what he is – just a petty angry little man, not deserving the title of king. It shows that his values are bankrupt. We will have to deal with Herod as an individual, or someone does, but he is not the king he claims to be. In this story, we see clearly who is the king, who has the values of strength and love and care for his people – and that is God. The real claimant to the throne, not just of Israel, but of our lives, is revealed. God cares.

You may know the story Elie Weisel told of the men hung during the holocaust. As one boy struggled at the end of a rope, with the crowd being forced at gunpoint to watch minute after minute, a voice cried out, “Where is God in all this?” A man pointed to the struggling boy, and said, “There he is.”

God is in the midst of the pain and suffering. That is simply a re-statement of the Christmas message that God has come to live among us. Wherever there is pain and suffering, God is in the midst of it. God is in the outpouring of grief in Martin Place. God is in the fierce anger of the Pakistani government and people. God is in the bewilderment of the community in Cairns.

This God, the God who cares about our suffering, about our human condition, comes to surprise us at Christmas.

There are shepherds and there are wise men. The shepherds struggle. They struggle to make a living looking after the sheep of someone else. They struggle through long shifts in the cold and wet. They are tough, but life is hard. God’s news comes to them first, because God comes to share our struggles.

The wise men are learned astrologers. They know what is wondrous and amazing. God’s news comes to them too, because the coming of God as human being to share our suffering is wondrous and amazing. We are not learned astrologers. We need to be told over and over again.

God has become a human being and shares our suffering however horrific; and God with us is wondrous. Shepherds and wise men were there on the Third Day of Christmas. Glory to God in the highest!

Rachel weeps Artist: Sarah Hempel Irani http://vimeo.com/user13875354

Dying and Rising – Sermon for St Francistide


Galatians 6:16-18

In the name of the One who died and has risen – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Saint Paul boasts that on his body he bore the marks of Christ. In the Greek, he speaks of the stigmata of Christ. The idea is that somehow the marks made by the nails and the spear when Jesus died were on Paul’s body.  He doesn’t describe these marks, these death marks, in any detail, but it was the only thing he allowed himself to boast about. ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / save in the death of Christ my God,’ to use Isaac Watts’ wonderful words.

I assume that the reason St Paul does not describe these marks in any more detail is that he does not want us to spend our time speculating about what they were like. What he wants us to pay attention to is the death of Christ – where the marks came from.

1300 years later in central Italy, Francis of Assisi was praying and fasting on lonely and wild Mt Alverna. Brother Leo was bringing him water and food and checking on Francis daily, but apart from that he was as alone with God as he could be. He was praying that he could be as like Jesus as possible. He had probably fasted too long and been on his own too long, but on one day he had a vision of Jesus on the cross. There seemed to be light coming from the wounds of Christ’s wrists and feet and side, and they seemed to come right into the body of Francis.

When the vision was gone, St Francis had on his body open wounds which never healed; on his hands and feet and side. He was embarrassed by these wounds and kept them covered. During his lifetime only Leo and the other two or three others that nursed him when he was ill had any idea about these stigmata. On the night Francis died, he asked to be laid naked on the bare earth in his beloved Portiuncula, down the hill from Assisi. Then, and only then, quite a number of Brothers saw wounds.

I’m not sure whether I am completely convinced of the literal truth of the stigmata of St Francis; I am perhaps about 80% sure. There is certainly no requirement of anyone to believe in them. To get hung up on whether they were true or not, or exactly what form they took, is to miss the point. Like Saint Paul, St Francis bore on his body the marks of Christ. Being personally marked by the death of Christ – that’s the point.

St Paul and St Francis believed they were personally marked by the death of Christ because they were baptised: ‘Do you not know,’ Paul asks the Christians in Rome, ‘that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ (Romans 6:3)

‘All of us’ includes you and me. We were baptised into his death. Archbishop Rowan Williams uses the word ‘swamped’. As Christians, we are swamped by the death of Jesus. That’s why we come into a church-building dominated by a font – where we were drowned – and a cross, where Jesus died. To be a Christian is to be overwhelmed by the death of Jesus.

Our death; and the death of Christ. The two come together in Christian faith to bring life.

Most of us are in the third third of our lives; closer to our death than to our birth. Being a Christian is about being personally marked with death. The death of Jesus, and the experience of St Paul and of St Francis urge us to reflect on our own death. While that may sound morbid, I believe that reflecting on our death actually leads us to life, to deeper life in Christ.

What does it mean to be personally and individually marked with death? For one thing, it means that our psyches, our souls, if you like, have the scars from the particular bereavements we have suffered, the marks from the struggles we have had when death has come to visit us closely. How we deal with the death of loved ones makes a difference. How we allow the grace of God to open us to new growth, to new life, when we suffer the loss of those who are dear shapes us to be the people we are. It matters how we respond to death.

And we get more practice the older we get. It’s not our grandparents who are dying now. It is our parents, and sisters and brothers, and spouses, and lifelong friends. It is easy to build a tough shell and hide from Sister Death, but that way, though it might be easy, leads to us shrivelling up. Let us resolve not to become hard and cynical, but to value deeply the love of each as they pass.

Our bereavements as we grow older can lead us into a deeper experience of the love of God as we open ourselves to all the love given and received in our friends and lovers, living and gone before us.

Secondly, in this third third of life, we are marked with the experience of our own dying. Thankfully, we don’t know exactly what that will be. It may well be that we will die in our sleep, and not be aware of the actually moment of dying.

There used to be many books called something like ‘The Art of Holy Living and Holy Dying’.  How we die matters to God and to us. I have a home communion set given to me by Fr John Wardman as a gift when he was dying. It was wonderful to spend time with that priest in the weeks before he died, as he recollected himself before God, and as he reaffirmed how he believed that his being in God was permanent. He radiated a peace and stillness that was appropriate for him. He died well.

The challenge for me is, What will it mean for me to die well? What outstanding matters of loving relationship must I attend to?  How should I deepen my relationship with God? Do I identify any fears within myself about dying?

Sometimes, when I worked as a parish priest, people would ask me not to visit their relative in hospital. ‘They’ll associate you with dying,’ they would explain. And it’s true. A couple of times I wasn’t warned and people were quite angry with me for visiting someone. I suspect that they were angry because they, the relatives, didn’t want to think about death and dying, and they knew that it is part of a priest’s job to raise the subject.

It’s never too early, really, to start thinking about how our lives are marked with death; how we are to identify with Christ in his death. We live such sheltered lives here in Busselton. We don’t have to face Ebola outbreaks or the massacres of religious fanatics. But maybe we can take a lesson from Ebola and ISIS: many people on the planet face death on a daily basis.

The more urgently we face our coming dying the more we can thank God for each day we live. Each day now is a wonderful gift, even if it is marked with sickness and pain, or if it is spoiled with disappointments in love. One of the things I have learned with a body that doesn’t always work well is how wonderfully it does work.  Our prayer is thank you. We come to this church to make Eucharist. Evcharisto, simply the Greek word for ‘Thank you, God.’

The more we look at death in the face, the more we see it as not a full stop, but more like a bus stop. It’s a staging point. We may not understand what comes after, but we believe with full hearts that we are marked not just with the death of Christ, but also with his resurrection. ‘If we have died with Him, we believe we shall also live with Him.’ St Paul again. (Romans 6:8)

All that love – the love of brothers and sisters; the love of parents, the love of spouse, the love of childhood friends – is not lost. Somehow we know that we will find those loves again after death. St Paul tells us, and it’s one of my favourite verses, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, God has prepared for those who love him.’ (I Corinthians 2:9)  In other words, for what happens after death, we imagine the best possible outcomes, and God makes sure that it will be better, far better, than we can imagine.

So for the future, when we look death in the face, the death which marks us in a personal and individual way, as Christians we are filled joyful anticipation. To bear in our bodies the marks of the death of Christ is no bad thing. It leads to the fullness of life.

Matching Abilities to the Tasks of God’s People


Sermon 6 November 2011

St Mary’s Busselton

Shaped 2011: A (Abilities)
Readings:
Exodus 35:30 – 36:3
Psalm 18:30-37
I Corinthians 3:5-15

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Matthew, the eleventh chapter, beginning at verse 28:
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
28 Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
For the Gospel of the Lord:
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

At different times in the history of God’s people, there has been a task. For the people of Israel settling in the city of Jerusalem, the task was to build a temple. Before that, in the civil war that tore Israel apart for many years, the task was for David to survive and to defeat Saul. In the years after the death and resurrection of Jesus the task for God’s people was to spread the Good News that Jesus rising from the dead had made a difference.

Each of the tasks required God’s people to get on board, to offer themselves for the task, to work to implement God’s will. God invites us to share in the work that God is doing. Many of the tasks set for God’s people, perhaps most of the tasks, are beyond the capacity of human beings. But the story of God’s people shows us again and again that God equips God’s people to carry out these tasks.

Expert jewellers and fine craftsman were required to finish off the Temple. They were called, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and commissioned for the task. The final product – the first Temple of Solomon – was extraordinary. Bishop Gregory of Tours listed it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Bezalel and Oholiab and the other craftsmen evidently did their job well!

Solomon's Temple

Before there could be a capital city for David, there had to be a peace settlement. David rebelled against King Saul, and spent twenty years waging guerrilla war against Saul. I find East Timor an intriguing parallel, because José Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao, who both started out as theological students, compared their guerrilla war with that of David against Saul. Gusmao modelled himself directly on David, describing himself as a poet-warrior like his hero.

Xanana Gusmao

For guerrilla war, you need warriors, and not just any warriors but warriors equipped for a dirty war in the harsh terrain of Palestine: warriors with the agility of mountain goats and deer; warriors trained to wait on a higher rock and pounce from above on their enemy; warriors who could handle the crossbow, the most high-tech weapon of the time; warriors who could outrun their enemies with sure footing on slippery, winding paths.

I’m not sorry that God’s people don’t need warriors now. The idea is repugnant to our era. But they needed them then, and God, through David, called them, equipped them and used them.

Paul knew that God’s message of risen love needed messengers to tell it, and we can pick this attitude out from the messy controversy that Apollos seems to have caused. You don’t need to take sides: I’m with Paul; I’m with Apollos. What you do need are more messengers. And although we now don’t know the whole context, Paul is calling for specialisation. If he has built the foundation, they now needed some messengers to consolidate those foundations, others to build on them, others to take them further afield.

These are just some of the Biblical accounts of how God’s people challenged with a task found that God raised up and equipped people with the right abilities.

You know that I am a fan of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis was born into a Europe that was changing. Trade was bringing into existence the first Eurozone. As a boy, Francis travelled with his father on trips from Assisi in central Italy across the Alps into France to buy cloth. In Francis’ time, cash money – coins – was just becoming the currency of choice. St Francis noted, for example, that the wealthy held onto the first-rate coins and the poor tended to have the poorly minted coins which lost their value. The rich could become richer, and the poor even more destitute.

St Francis marries Lady Poverty

The task for God’s people was to challenge this greed, and St Francis, with his radical message of voluntary poverty had the particular abilities needed for this task. I think if St Francis were alive today he would have been occupying Wall Street. He would have understood how greed distorted the money system and unjust men could rip off others. But notice a crucial difference: the means by which the bankers have been ripping off the poor in America is by sub-prime lending. St Francis would probably not be the man to confront today’s task of calling out greed; someone else whose abilities are related to today’s injustices is being called and equipped and commissioned for the task of God’s people. No doubt St Francis would be a great inspiration for that person.

During World War II, God’s people were called on to resist Nazism. This task split the Lutheran church and caused great tensions in the Roman Catholic Church, which are still there today. Was Pope Pius XII hero or collaborator?

The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself with the abilities needed to resist Hitler. He first challenged the myth of the superior Aryan by nurturing a non-violent community in his underground theological seminary at Finkenwalde. He was involved in two plots to kill Hitler, and we might debate whether he was morally right to go down this path. He was imprisoned and hanged a month before the capitulation of the Nazis.

What can’t be debated is the mix of skills and background that Bonhoeffer brought to the task. He was a fine theologian; his family were the cream of Berlin society with all the connections that implied; he was articulate in person and in writing and a man of courage.

Pastor Bonhoeffer

In the series of SHAPED 2011, we are today at the letter ‘A’ for ‘Abilities’. You remember that we started two weeks ago with ‘S’ for ‘Spiritual Gifts’. The foundational fact is that we are loved by God. This is the most basic spiritual gift. Being loved means we know that we are worthwhile, that God can use us to work with him. Being loved enlarges our capacity in turn to love others. We are given a heart for God’s work. Last week’s word was ‘H’ for ‘Heart’ or ‘Passion’.

David, St Paul, St Francis of Assisi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are all mighty examples of people who knew how deeply God loved them, and who responded with heart and passion to that love. We will see next week under the letter ‘P’ for ‘Personality’ that God used people’s unique personality to set about his plans. Each of us has a unique combination of talents and potentials. No one is like you, and it is precisely your uniqueness that God uses.

For this week, however, our focus on ‘A’ for ‘Abilities’ is an encouragement that God provides the abilities needed for the tasks of God’s people. All the talent this congregation needs to perform the tasks God asks of us is here.

Some questions for you to ruminate on then: what are the tasks of mission God is calling St Mary’s Busselton to? What talents, skills, platform – abilities – are needed to carry out these tasks? Do some of these abilities seem too hard for the people God has on hand? And what are the talents you bring? What are the abilities God will find in you to foster and encourage and use for God’s glory?

Let us pray:
Loving God, you give to those ask the ability to carry out the tasks that you have set your people: Give us insight, we pray, to know what mission you are calling this parish to.
Show us the abilities needed to fulfil this mission.
Stir our hearts to ask you for the abilities we need,
and give us the courage and confidence to use those abilities in your service,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
AMEN.