Friday, March 21, 2008

Thursday 20 March 2008 - Maundy Thursday Meditation

This meditation is a bit difficult to communicate 'in writing'. It alternates with scripture readings and hymns (not indicated here). In the service, the whole story moved toward the celebration of The Lord's Supper.


Exodus 12:14-20, 26-27

Passover. A terrifying night. We’re huddled inside our home, the only home we have ever known. A lamb has been slaughtered; its blood painted on the front door, the body has been roasted and consumed. But we can’t quite believe what’s happening all around us.

It’s the middle of the night, but we’re not asleep in our bed. Our bellies are full – but we wonder how long it will be before they are full again. Because we’re dressed and packed for a long journey: a journey into the unknown.

All around us in the darkness of the night, we hear the screams of our neighbours. And we know that all of the firstborn males – men and boys who we know – have died. The angel of death has mercifully passed over our houses – the houses of Israel – just as Moses and Aaron said he would. But that does not make this night any less terrifying.

This is the day of redemption: the day that Israel will be delivered from slavery. But it’s not a comfortable redemption: death surrounds us everywhere we turn.

Why did we ever think that redemption would be comfortable? As the reality hits home, we laugh at ourselves for such an innocent assumption. We had longed for our freedom, but foolishly we had not imagined that it would come at such a terrible cost.

But God is wise. Had we known that night what would become of us, we might have chosen to stay in Egypt; we might have chosen death for ourselves.

For close to forty years we have endured hunger, thirst, and great illness. In our anger and confusion we turned our backs on God more than once. But despite our faithlessness, God has been faithful to Israel. He has kept his promise, his covenant. In the fire of our trials and in God’s faithful provision for us, we have learned that redemption is not just physical, but also spiritual.

There is no such thing as redemption easily won. In order for there to be new life, the old life must be left behind. In order for death and the fear of death to be conquered, it must be faced.

One thing we have learned: when you pray for redemption, be careful what you pray for.

Matthew 26:14-35

We arrived in Jerusalem a few days before Passover to celebrate the festival in the Holy City. Like our ancestors before us, we’d travelled a long way. Perhaps not physically, but spiritually. And like our ancestors before us, we had reason to wonder whether we had gone on a futile journey.

The journey wasn’t the one that we originally expected. And now we were deeply sad, bone-weary and more than a little bit frightened. What had begun with so much hope and energy looked like it was going to end in defeat, despair and death.

We remembered that, thousands of years ago, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of our ancestors… Yet, death seemed to be lurking just outside the door that night, biding his time, waiting for the right moment. We could almost see and hear the Angel of Death moving in the night shadows. We prayed fervently that he would pass over our doorpost that evening even as we wondered whether an agent of death might be lurking inside.

Passover – ha! – the festival of redemption. For us, it was looking more like a festival of defeat. Our ancestors might not have known where they were going, but at least they knew that they were escaping slavery, escaping death. It was beginning to look more and more like we had walked right into the jaws of death and would not be able to escape.

It had begun to dawn on us – and we kept pushing the horrible idea from our minds – when Jesus said that he was going to suffer and die, that he actually meant it in a literal way. If ever there was a time for Jesus to proclaim himself as Messiah and call down an army of angels, now was the time. If ever Israel was to be redeemed, now was the time.

As we ate, Jesus picked up the bread and gave thanks, nothing surprising in that. But our breath almost left our bodies as he picked up Elijah’s cup, poured wine and drank from it. He was proclaiming himself Messiah! It was what we’d been waiting for!

Then he told us that the bread was his body and the wine his blood. And we knew. Somehow we just knew.

Why did we ever think that redemption would be comfortable? As the reality hit home in this terrible moment, we laughed at ourselves for such an innocent assumption. We had longed for our redemption, but foolishly we had not imagined that it would come at such a terrible cost.

Matthew 26:69-75, 27:1-10

I wonder who it is you identify with in this story? I suspect that most people identify with me – Peter. I reckon that you can imagine what it was like to be in such a position: surrounded by people; not knowing who might be hostile and who might be a friend.

My life might have been in danger; I didn’t know. And so I took the safe route: I denied that I even knew him. Ha! That was a bit of a joke, the servant girl sussed me out right away by my Galilean accent. At the end of the day, there was no hiding who or what I was.

But Jesus forgave me. After his resurrection, he gave me the opportunity to heal. He let me tell him three times that I loved him. That’s what he was like and that’s what being his follower is about: forgiveness.

But what about Judas? You might not feel that you can identify him, but I can. I lived with him for three years: The thirteen of us: we travelled together, ate together, laughed together and cried together. I loved Judas like a brother. We all did. Believe me when I tell you that Judas loved Jesus; he wasn’t so different from the rest of us.

What it was that caused Judas to betray Jesus to the authorities, I don’t know. Perhaps he was disappointed with the course that events were clearly taking. Perhaps he was coerced. Perhaps he was afraid. Whatever it was that caused him to betray Jesus, clearly the whole situation caused him great agony.

The events surrounding Judas’ suicide haunt me even to this day. Because I loved him, I can identify with him. We even heard that Judas repented of his terrible deed. The only difference between him and me is that Judas couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine the possibility that he could be forgiven. And the results were tragic.

Did Jesus have to go to the cross in order that the world can be forgiven? I don’t know.

What I do know is that Jesus submitted himself to the worst that human nature could dish out: Denial. Betrayal. Shame. Humiliation. Rejection. Excruciating Physical pain. And he forgave. Even as he hung on the cross, he forgave.

Why did we ever think that redemption would be comfortable? We had longed for our redemption, but foolishly we had not imagined that it would come at such a terrible cost.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday 16 March 2008 - Thunder of Hope

This is a sermon for Palm Sunday. I attempted to use the whole service to bring the congregation into the events of Holy Week, beginning with the Palm Sunday readings, transitioning from triumph to the self-examination of Holy Week via the sermon and the symbolically proceeding into the rest of the week via the Lord's Supper.

The sermon is based on Isaiah 50:4-9 and Matthew 21:1-11



I turned on the television the other day to amuse myself whilst doing some ironing and I found myself watching a travel channel. The location that this particular programme was set in was Capetown, South Africa. And a resident of the city named Clive was talking about the day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Clive was standing in a square in the city and he pointed to a balcony where Mandela had spoken to the people. He had been in the square on the day of Mandela’s release from prison and he said that there had been about 100,000 people there that day and that the excitement had been tangible.

With an animated voice, Clive described how the air had bristled with electricity and with hope. He said, ‘Finally, after many years of Apartheid, this was the day that the people of South Africa were going to get their rightful government.’

Mandela opened his mouth to speak and Clive remembers him saying to the nation: ‘We must go forward in reconciliation and forgiveness. If we are to have any hope of a future, we must learn to forgive each other in order to rebuild the new South Africa.’ The people cheered and began to chant over and over two words: ‘Grandpa Mandala’.

And then my ears perked up as Clive continued to describe the mood of the crowd. You could see by his bright face and his animated eyes that it had been a great day, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Clive said that the crowd was like thunder, like an earthquake, it was almost as if the heavens and the earth moved, so great was the hope and the expectation on that historic day in Capetown.

My ears perked up because his is how Matthew described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

This morning’s reading translated it rather weakly: ‘the whole city was stirred’, but the Greek word translated as ‘stirred’ is one that is used for the ground tremors that happen during an earthquake. The picture that Matthew is trying to paint of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the same sort of picture that Clive was painting about the day that Nelson Mandala was released from prison. An historic, once-in-a-lifetime experience of a great man bringing the promise of peace and of a bright future to a weary and worn-out nation. An almost supernatural sense of hope for life as it is meant to be. A new beginning. A day where everyone present could feel the electricity in the air.

Jesus failed?

The ironic thing is, of course, many people would see Mandela as having succeeded where Jesus failed.

Mandela – and, of course many other South Africans committed to peace and reconciliation – succeeded in an environment where defeat almost seemed inevitable. Seventeen years after Mandela’s release from prison – whilst the situation in South Africa is far from perfection – certainly history has shown that the worst-case scenario has been avoided.

On the other hand, in our story today, Jesus only has five days to live after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Most people would have thought twice before challenging both the Temple authorities and the authority of Imperial Rome. Common sense tells us that making a name for yourself as someone who stands up to a ruthless regime is a fairly stupid thing to do.

But according to Matthew, the first thing that Jesus does after entering Jerusalem is to go into the Temple and knock over the tables of the money-changers. He then curses a fig tree – the symbol of the Jewish people. He attracts sufficient attention to himself that the Chief Priests and the elders ask him who he thinks he is – by what authority does he do these things?

Jesus does not give them a direct answer but proceeds to tell a number of parables that suggest that the prevailing values system does not encourage people to be genuine followers of God. This section of Matthew’s story ends with Jesus denouncing the Scribes and the Pharisees and predicting the downfall of Jerusalem.

Not exactly a way to win friends and influence people. If we go by the picture that Matthew paints, it’s hardly surprising that Jesus was executed.

The Kingdom Come is Coming

But what has all this ‘politics’ got to do with Christianity? Isn’t the Good News of the Gospel that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins? And aren’t the events of Holy Week the tools that the Father used to get Jesus on to the cross so that we could be saved?

Absolutely, the cross and the crucifixion are vitally important in the story of salvation. But the opposition of Jesus’ own people and of the Roman Empire were not just divine stage-sets whose sole purpose was to get Jesus on the cross so that you and I could go to heaven.

The truth is that much of what we think of as reality and as ‘the way things are’ today stand in opposition to the way that God wants the world to be. The same sin and violence that put Jesus on the cross exists today. And this is the reason that Christians believe that it is our sin – my sin and your sin – that put Jesus on the cross. And this is the reality that we are asked to think about during Holy Week.

Of course, we also know about Easter: we know that after the crucifixion, comes the resurrection. The resurrection keeps us from despair and from believing that God will allow sin and violence to have the final word in creation.

But, during Holy Week, we are invited to linger in the events of Jesus’ suffering. We are invited to contemplate the violence in the world and the violence in our own souls. We are invited to identify and confess our sins.

We remember that, although the Kingdom of God has broken into the world, it is not yet fully realised and so there is still pain and brokenness on this earth. And we remember that God came to be with us in the pain and suffering of our world. He walks with us and he suffers with us, although he could have chosen not to.

And Jesus doesn’t just walk with those suffering physical pain: he walks with those who cannot get justice for themselves. He walks with those who, through no fault of their own, must live lives of shame and humiliation.

And, as Christians, we journey with Jesus and Jesus with us. He walks with us in our sorrows and he asks us to walk with others in theirs. He forgives us when, in our weakness, we fall short and he calls us into a life of love and self-giving.


A week from today, we will once again hear the thunderous, earth-shaking cries of hope: this time, of a hope that has triumphed over sin and death. For now, we set aside a week of our lives to contemplate the love of a God who suffers both with us and for us.

And as we do so, I invite you to join me in my prayer that the God who journeys with all people will make his light known in the darkest of places. Amen

Sunday 9 March 2008 - Resurrection Life

This is a sermon for Passion Sunday, based on: Ezekiel 37:12-14, Romans 8:1-11 and John 11:1-6, 32-45.



Today we find ourselves in the fifth Sunday of Lent, commonly called ‘Passion Sunday’. In the old traditions of the church, Passion Sunday was the Sunday when the cross and the altar were draped with black and when Lenten disciplines and repentance became extra zealous.

But then, surprise, surprise: this morning/evening we find that our Gospel reading doesn’t even focus on any aspect of what we commonly call The Passion Story. In fact, today’s Gospel reading is about resurrection. It’s about the only other named person in the New Testament who experienced a form of resurrection: Jesus’ friend Lazarus.

And today’s Old Testament reading, used in our call to worship, paints an extraordinary picture of resurrection: Dry bones being breathed on by the breath of God to be reconstituted into living, breathing human beings.

Two reading about resurrection in Ezekiel and in the Gospel of John and two readings – in Ezekiel and Romans – that give us a hint of how this mystery came about in the first place. Ezekiel: ‘I will put my spirit within you and you shall live’ (Ezekiel 37:14) Paul: ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ (Romans 8:2)

The Spirit of God - the Spirit of Christ - is something powerful and life-giving. And for Paul in our reading from the letter of Romans, the Spirit of God was something that transformed everything: The Spirit transforms us, the Spirit transforms the world and the Spirit transforms the way that we look at the world.

The Flesh and the Spirit

A world without the light of the Spirit of God in it is a world where corruption reigns. When Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ he doesn’t mean to say that there is anything displeasing to God in the physical world. The word is really a technical term – a bit of jargon if you will – to mean human lives and societies that don’t operate by God’s rules. In other words, human lives and societies that don’t have the Spirit of God in them.

When Paul talks about ‘flesh’ he’s talking about a world, a realm, a way of thinking, where corruption reigns. By normal standards, by the standards of the world where corruption reigns, resurrection is not something that human beings experience: it is only something that we know by faith. It is by faith that we can imagine a resurrection world, a world where corruption does not have the last word, but rather abundant life.

Please don’t think that by using the word ‘imagine’ that I’m trying to make faith small. I’m actually trying to make faith big. When we imagine a resurrection world in the power of the Spirit, we are yearning with God for the kind of world that he originally intended for human beings: a world where the Law has been fulfilled. This is the world that Jesus imagined when he began his journey to Jerusalem and to crucifixion.

Except that it was the ‘rules’ of the world of corrupt flesh that were in operation during the course of Jesus’ trial by his own people and by the conquering Empire of Rome. And it was at the hands of this ever-present corruption that Jesus was executed: executed by the occupation army for sure but with the blessing of his people, and with the cooperation and denial of his close friends. In a world ruled by corruption, it is not just the corrupt rulers who participate in evil, but even those who see themselves as victims of evil, even those who are close friends of the victims.

In other words, you and I put Jesus on the cross just as surely as did Pilate or Caiaphas or Judas or even Peter. We all have guilt on our hands.

Jesus died because of our sins and Jesus died for our sins. But Jesus also died imaging – in the power of the Spirit – the resurrection life, a life where the Law of God has been fulfilled.
Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father because of his faith in this Kingdom of God, this Resurrection Life, which did not yet exist. And by his faith and his actions, he became the fulfilment of the Law and the Kingdom – although not yet fulfilled – was born.

A World where the Dead Rise

The American Methodist Bishop and theologian William Willimon said: ‘Most of the defences in our world assure us that the dead stay dead.’*

It is only in a world where the dead stay dead that power and influence can be used for the purpose of creating terror. You can’t terrorise a person who has no fear of death. And you certainly can’t terrorise a person who is looking forward to the resurrection life.

Such a person is free indeed.

And I think that’s why Paul tells us: ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ The Spirit of God is something powerful and life-giving. When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, we are given the ability to imagine something that does not yet fully exist: the resurrection life, abundant life, the life that God has always wanted for his creation. And, in the power of the Spirit, we are given the means to learn to lose our fear of the corrupt world of the flesh.

And Jesus showed us the way to resurrection life, he showed us the way through the fear of death, and he unlocked the door so that we could enter the Kingdom of heaven.

This is what it’s all about: Jesus’ march toward the cross. It’s about the resurrection life, the Kingdom of God, the fulfilment of the Law. It’s about disarming the world of corrupt flesh by removing the fear of death. It is about hope, about forgiveness and about new life.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and, at that time, the story of Jesus’ march to the cross is a rapid one. Received as a king on Palm Sunday, Jesus is crucified five days later.

As the story of Jesus moves inescapably to the cross, we remember – as painful as it is to do so – that it was our sins that put him there. But we also remember in gratitude that in dying on the cross, Jesus opened the door to the resurrection life and to the coming Kingdom of God. And we remember that, in this life, he opened the door to forgiveness and to reconciliation with him.

As Holy Week draws nearer, I pray that the Spirit may draw especially close to each one of us so that we may be enabled to imagine the resurrection life. I pray that the Spirit will open our eyes to the ways that we collude with sin and corruption but also give us the assurance there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. And I pray that we will all be strengthened at the Lord’s Table as we meet him and remember him in the bread and wine. Amen

* William Willimon at: Sermon Nuggets: Lent 5A, March 9, 2008, [accessed 8 March 2008]

Sunday 2 March 2008 - The Parenthood of God

This was a Mothering Sunday sermon delivered to a small congregation where three members had lost mothers and wives over the past year. We had a 'children's talk' earlier in the service where we discussed the origins of Mothering Sunday and how it was about 'Mother Church' and a hiatus in the Lenten Fast.

The Scripture Readings for this sermon are: Exodus 2:1-10 and John 19:25-27.



I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that Mothering Sunday is – shall I put it diplomatically? – not one of my favourite Sundays as a preacher.

Earlier, we talked about the fact that, for the Christian Church, Mothering Sunday isn’t about human mothers. It’s not about coming to church one day a year to celebrate motherhood or mothers. If it were, then by rights we should also do the same thing for fathers. And this contrast between what the Church thinks Mothering Sunday is about and what the world thinks it’s about one reason that Mothering Sunday can be difficult for preachers.

The other reason is that, really, we do all come to Church this morning with thoughts of mothers and Mother’s Day.

And that opens up a whole different set of issues for a worshipping congregation: thoughts we may have – positive or negative - of our own mothers, of other people’s mothers, about our own motherhood or the motherhood of our wives, daughters or daughters-in-law. Some people will be mourning mothers or wives lost recently or even many years ago. Others will be filled with feelings of thankfulness for their mothers. Others may have feelings of bitterness or even anger. Still others may have mixed feelings about their mothers. Then there are those women – and their husbands – who may have wanted to become mothers but weren’t able to. It all gets very complicated and I’m sure that we could probably spend another five minutes thinking of a variety of other issues around the subject of human motherhood.

So I think that it’s probably wrong to turn Mothering Sunday into a day where we worship human mothers, even as we recognise the importance of being a good mother – or a good father for that matter. But I do think that it’s important that we acknowledge that, in any congregation, different people will be having different feelings about the day, and that’s perfectly OK.

We come together – and notice the image here – as Christian brothers and sisters and we can give space to those who need space, we can walk with those who need companionship, and we can celebrate with those who want to celebrate.

The Parenthood of God

But the most important thing that we as Christians can remember and celebrate today is the parenthood of God.

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Moses in the bulrushes. What a horrible society in which to become a parent. The Egyptian Pharaoh was engaging in a slow form of genocide: The boys of the children of Israel were to be slaughtered, in order to weaken the blood-lines of the Israelites. The girls could be sold into slavery in Egyptian homes and would eventually bear children with Egyptian men and the whole Israelite culture would gradually disappear. (As we hear this story, we might a connection with expectant Palestinian mothers today who are sometimes not allowed to cross restricted zones in order to have access to medical care.)

And in the middle of this hostile atmosphere, a young Israelite mother bears a child, hiding him for 3 months - as long as she can. Then – no doubt with many tears and prayers – she releases him into the wilds of the Egyptian landscape, hoping against hope that he will survive, that he’ll be taken in by an Egyptian family who will raise him as their own. It was all she could do in the circumstances, really. Far from being cruel, it was Moses’ only chance for survival.

His mother did not abandon him but did everything she could in a terrible situation: first sending the baby’s sister to watch over him and then, by a miracle of coincidence (or was it a God-incidence?), she was able to nurse the baby until he was weaned. When Moses mother finally said good-bye to him, she knew that he had survived infancy and that he had been adopted into a good home.

Weaning him and letting him go must have been among the most difficult things she ever had to do in her life. But no doubt it was her love for Moses that gave her the strength to let him go.

Father and Mother Images of God

I don’t think I need to spell out that the picture that I have just painted of Moses’ mother might also serve as a beautiful and poignant picture of God’s love for humankind.

God is most often pictured in Scripture as ‘Father’. This is because, in the cultures in which much of Scripture arose, the role of ‘Father’ tells us many important things about God’s relationship to us.

The picture of God as our Father tells us who we are in him: how we are given an identity in him (a surname), how we are shaped by his authority, but maybe most importantly of all, it tells us about the inheritance that he has promised us as his children.

Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, believers have God’s unbreakable promise that we will inherit his kingdom. And this inheritance is a very important thing for us to understand about God’s Good News. It’s not that we inherit these things because God is a male parent, it is simply that ‘Father’ was the right image for that culture that conveyed this promise of receiving God’s divine inheritance.

But the bible is also full of images that are more stereotypically feminine. In addition to Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem and saying that he longs to gather it under his wings like a mother hen, there is much use in scripture of the concept of loving-kindness and God’s nurturing care for his children. In addition, ‘Wisdom’ is portrayed as a woman and said to be necessary for discipleship.

God is neither male nor female and therefore is neither a human father nor a human mother. I believe that Scripture testifies to what we might call God’s mothering nature as well as to God’s fathering nature. It is as important for us to understand the nurturing side of God as it is for us to understand that God gives us an identity and an inheritance.


Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent and during Lent we tell the story of Jesus’ walk toward Jerusalem and toward crucifixion. I believe that Jesus’ walk to the cross was as deliberate as was the decision of the Son to take on human flesh and to walk with us in our humanity. Indeed, Jesus could not have died on the cross if he had not become human.

In walking with us and in understanding our suffering, God was demonstrating his nurturing nature. In dying on the cross because of our sins, Jesus was demonstrating God’s intention to save us and to bring us into the inheritance that he desires for all people.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we saw the tender nature of Jesus as he gave his mother into the hands of another in the same way that Moses’ mother turned him over to the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. On this Mothering Sunday, let’s reflect on the fact that God is like a Father and a Mother.

As we come to the Lord’s Table in the few minutes, I pray that we remember that the God who saves us also nurtures us and walks with us. And may we grow in the faith and the knowledge of God’s Kingdom by this sacrament. Amen