Tag Archives: Matthew

Not finding it in the lectionary this week

Edit: When I wrote this I was unaware that this week is reconciliation week. I feel a bit ashamed that I was unaware but I think some of my points work for that occasion. At church we reflected of reconciliation week, the need to decolonise, the recent arrest of the Catholic archbishop of Adelaide for covering up child abuse, our desire to move away from any model of church that is a “boy’s club” (a man said this), and our tears and love for the people suffering the fall-out of these toxic cultures. I also reflected on the fact that in the week gone we celebrated Pansexual and Panromantic visibility day and that people whose love is outside the box (but respectful, equal and between consenting adults) show the dance of the Trinity in their being.

The idea of “chosenness” that comes through in the first two readings and the psalm this week seems cosy and comforting but it actually if we look closer deeply problematic.

I speak with the anger and bitterness of the outsider- chosen last at team sports, excluded from games and parties and a child, ganged-up on, teased, criticised, harassed, written on with pen and then punished by parents for being written on. I speak with the pain of the eldest child in a large and dysfunctional family- although my feelings of being replaced and passed over were not (I now as a parent myself realise) a completely accurate reflection of reality, the feelings were real. I speak as the child who couldn’t speak English, the teenager who wore hand-me-downs from old people, the young single mother in a primary school where everyone else seemed to be comfortably middle-class. I speak as someone who has suffered mental illness, mild alcoholism, chronic dysphoria around sexual identity.

The minute someone is the “chosen people” you are also creating outsiders, the excluded ones, the ones who do not measure up. I felt this only on a gut level as a child – something about the presumed “chosenness” of the people of God (and lets not blame the Jews this idea is just as rife in the so called “New Testament”) something there seemed a bit off, even when I was a pious little child who assumed my inability to grasp this idea as “fair” and my desire to feel empathy for the ones who were not “chosen” was something I had to try to repress or grow out of (I spent my childhood repressing many things and got quite good at it, not so much now).

I speak with the amusement of the queer, feminist, deconstructive, almost post-Christian (except God doesn’t quite let me slip away). I speak as the outsider who no longer tries to fit in and be “normal”. My hermeneutic of suspicion is triggered by this first reading where we are supposed to believe that no one else ever experienced God until it could be done in the proper patriarchally approved and religiously institutionalised way in the correct sort of fire. This is what the Christian missionaries believed, the ones who worked tirelessly to aid colonialism, at times putting a slightly more benign face of it with gifts of food and clothing but nevertheless destroying cultures and families in the name of this great and good and only Lord and his structure of “rightness”.

Because if we are right then the others are wrong. If we are chosen then the others are rejected. If we have the only and one truth then the others have nothing of value.

And so it begins.

The gospel on this occasion gives no relief. Jesus is the proper rubber-stamped figurehead of the new world-order they worship him repressing their doubts and he commissions them to go out and reach everyone with his marketing message. We can try to cosy up to this, try to read the commissioning as preaching a gospel of liberation and justice, because that fits our theology it fits who we know God is and who we experience Jesus as.

What/who we know experientially and sacramentality is all we really have.

But the church has not necessarily read it this way, when they have seen “make disciples of all the nations” that has fed a deficit view of nations that are not already Christian and an expansionistic mission. Many missionaries no doubt meant well and some were kinder than secular colonists (mind you these colonists also would have considered themselves “Christian”) but this expansionistic mission did huge harm to many people, including perhaps my own people in Latvija colonised by German “Lords” and including certainly Indigenous Australians taken over and used as slaves by the English.

All of this was considered a faithful reading of today’s gospel. All of this is the shame I feel if I admit to anyone that I am a “Christian”.

I am not finding life or Godde in these readings (though perhaps a wiser preacher at church will glean something). I wanted to reflect on the Trinity, on difference and loving “other” or “thou” within God. I want to reflect on the diving dance “peripatesis”, as I learned at theology college the movement of the Trinity is in and out and through and around each other. There is love and beauty, there is relationship and great complexity at the heart of God.

Let’s leave behind colonialist traditions after seeing them for what they are and realising we will be called to account as a culture. Let’s reflect on how we are invited into the peripatesis of the Trinity, the respectful and madly joyful dance of God, the eternal turning toward the other. We are the image of God and as such are called to turn to the image of God in thoughtful listening like Jesus in prayer, in admiring love like the creator at Jesus’ baptism, in nurturing care like the spirit who flows in and through Jesus to the world.

I was hoping that the feast of the Trinity would remind us that “Wisdom has built a house” and invites all to celebrate. There is room then not to colonise, but to meet on equal terms the “others” who are not “Christians” but may have met Wisdom in another place because she likes to get out there- she is no enclosed victim-lady. Wisdom of course, the pre-existing companion of God the Creator is the one embodied as Jesus in the “New Testament”.

But if the lectionary has let me down, then I will dance right out of it to all of scripture and to the ultimate aim in life to understand and heal others. And I will pray:

Father, Mother, Creator of all, Midwife of each life that comes into being. Teach us to know ourselves in your image and see each other in your image. Teach us reverence for all your creation, showing us how to nurture seeds and stones and polar ice caps better. Thank you for naughty kittens and waddling penguins. Thank you for the clever things humans say. Thank you for the richness of which we see only a part. Call us deeper into the connection and love at the heart of your creative work.

Jesus, Christ, Wisdom, Sophia, Son, Word, Mother-Hen, Vine, Way, Truth, Life. As Wisdom you have the eye for detail and for joy. As Jesus you showed unbelievable courage and commitment. You are the one who seeks to protect, heal, scold, reform, feed, teach, guide, send-out and suffer for us and for all creation. You feed us your body and blood, you call us to honour what we eat and to live. Death cannot claim you because your nature is to live always. You bring us transformative possibilities and radical hope but nor without hard work and possibility of suffering also. If the whole world would love you then we would find newness of life. We will seek you and we will find you if we seek with all our heart.

Holy Spirit, dove, flame, fire, love, flow. Giver of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, reverence and respect of God. Pour out your gifts to us. Show us the Creator and the Word in our lives. Help us to read the gospels in the right frame, receptive to your Wisdom and closed off to hatred and abuse. Inspire us with life, fire us with pregnant possibilities like Mary pregnant with the Christ. Remain with us when we are troubled or suffering or even in death. Bring us back to our vocation to love. Bring us back into your presence giver of life.

Trinity of God may I see the love poured out in you each to the others and may I live my life in divine dance, seeking to connect as you connect, seeking to unconditionally love as you love, seeking where the hope is and strengthening there. May my life find meaning, joy, love, peace in you.

Amen.

 

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Nothing is going to get better…without your work.

I find the way sinfulness and repentance is portrayed in the readings today problematic. Here I go again arguing with centuries of tradition, but it seems offensive to have to appease and angry and tantruming Lord, to consider ourselves condemned unless we humiliate ourselves- that seems to go against the idea of a loving God that wants us to thrive and grow.

But if I assume that a loving God wants us to thrive and grow, what am I left with of these readings?

  1. It’s not too late to repent. In terms of the extreme sins of society that we are entangled in. In terms of our personal investment in those sins (lifestyles reliant of environmental degradations, disgusting inequalities, consumerism, cowardice, addictions). In terms of the lack of hope in humanity’s future if we don’t repent quickly the readings have a few things to say.

“Even now…return to me with your whole heart…” Don’t just despair that it ought to have been done a decade ago, get busy saving the earth now. “Let your hearts be broken…” repentance is an emotionally honest process, not a performative one. The second reading tells us that “now is an acceptable time…a day of salvation”. The time we need to be doing any work of repentance is NOW. Not despair over a past when we “should have”, not wishy-washy trust in a nebulous future but the hard yards need to happen “now” (there is a promise that we will feel joy).

  1. This is urgent. The business of fixing the values that we live by as individuals and demanding better from our society is urgent- more urgent than getting married, or other cosy lifecycle practices of human beings. At the same time I realise that this reading was written many centuries ago for quite a different time, so the universal call to leave family and celebration and make a serious and urgent event of repentance comes around again and again and again. Hence we have lent. It’s exhausting to live in a serious-minded lent frame of mind for long, so we can’t blame ourselves for needing other parts of the liturgical year, however lent has a sense of urgency- we need to change how we relate to ourselves, each other and the world, therefore improving our relationship with God.

 

  1. This needs to be real. Performative holiness, looking like the person who prays more and fasts more and does more for the church or good cause does not fool God. God wants a deep commitment, that other people don’t even always need to be aware of. Having said that, recently a young man confided in me that because he has not got any children he uses a truly staggering part of his salary each week (which he works hard for) to support a cause he believes in. I did not feel he was telling me this to make me approve of him or admire him (though it did have a positive effect on my opinion of him), he was telling me as part of his need to share his journey and his fierce hopes and looming despair. I felt inspired and connected by him trusting me enough to tell me- so I don’t think giving ALWAYS needs to be a secret. It can be a model, and inspiration for others we may have all sorts of good reasons to let people see our light. It is just that the gospel is picking up the theme of the first reading.

 

The point of generosity and goodness is not to appear holy or admirable, it is to make an actual difference within ourselves and the world. Reading smug parenting blogs with a passive-aggressive judgemental tone has taught me to look for my motivation in sharing something I am good or successful at. Am I really trying to be “good news” when I talk about something I think I have got right? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, and I truly appreciate the young man’s confession of how generous he is. Other times all I am doing is trying to look better than others or shame them. God is not impressed.

Ove the years I have seen some unhealthy tendencies in my own relationship with God. One is dependence, this is the one that is often encouraged in some churches- where God’s role in the relationship is to know everything and order everything and fix everything for me from my economic woes to my mental health. This is a seductive idea because it takes the responsibility to act and grow away from me, I am simply a victim of the divine and need to trust more or surrender more to be fixed.

In my experience, no matter how hard people pray and believe they don’t always magically get what they need. Then people will try to tell you it must be “God’s will” that you suffer. I reject that idea also. What is the good of life if God plays creepy, psychotic mind-games with us to “test” us or something? Theologies like that give rise to unhealthy power-structures and all sorts of abuses.

So my final point about repentance, and it springs out from these readings is that it is an active verb. We repent, change our ways, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”. We take radical responsibility for ourselves, including the responsibility to separate what is “sin” and what is “me” and not confuse the two. I can turn away from sin but I cannot turn away from myself (and in fact self-hate of various sorts has been a consistent and toxic sin that I have had to battle for many years). A measure of self-compassion needs to blend with our repentance, like that drop of water that brings out the flavours of a good whisky.

Repentance is not about holding myself to a higher and higher impossible standard, forbidding myself human weakness and moments of being trivial. But it is about trying to move away from “victim narratives” where the world is too awful to be born, or escapist and addictive behaviours and overfocus on the wrong things. God is calling us “now” to a fuller, deeper, richer, more meaningful life. We must care for ourselves AND others. This is not a chore but a fulfilment of our true nature in God. Look deep inside and allow yourself to care. Feel compassion for the child you were, the adult you have been, the adult you are currently and all the great and flawed things you will be tomorrow. You have been hurt. You have been harmed,

Then compassion needs to flow outwards as well. Who is suffering more than you? This is not to belittle the validity of your pain and scream of anguish, but simply to find solidarity and compassion for them, your God-given vocation. What do we all need for the best possible future? How do we look beyond our own private good to a “kindom of God” approach to life?

Rest up and heal if you need to but also stand up for things and give generously to others. Demand a world that does not crush your light (my light, your light are connected to every other light that God has put into creation). I won’t give words for a prayer today, it is too easy to hide behind words. I will look for my awareness of where my potential is to turn more fully to be facing God in the dance of life. I will look at where my understanding and compassion are needed. I will forgive myself for not being better, but I will do it with a joyful spark of knowledge that the “not better” is only a “not yet”.

I will work for the things that matter, giving up escapism (in my case dumb computer games) for the duration of lent and stop avoiding the deep reflective time that is needed for my growth. I will light a candle and contemplate without words (or try to).

 

 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not” (Dr Seuss, The Lorax)

When Jesus comes, the status quo is “greatly troubled”

Happy epiphany! Lectionary readings for the day can be found here. 

We live in a world, where it is supposed to be “common sense” to blame the refugee, the foreigner and the welfare recipient for hard times.  Firstly, these times are actually not all that hard if we are not a refugee or welfare recipient ourselves; secondly such as they are, they are caused by choices the government makes to support and shore up the rich rather than the poor.

It is not the person from a war-torn or flooded country that is taking funding away from public hospitals while allowing multi-national companies to use up the natural resources of the country without contributing any tax! It is not the injured breadwinner, the single mother, even the shiftless artist who is stripping funding from public schools to fund pointless and dehumanising plebiscites, give free money to the now foreign-owned propaganda machine and the mining companies; or who is tying our economics to outdated and inefficient coal and scoffing at new technologies that are proven in other parts of the world to work. And as far as “family values” go…it is not the loving and accepting parents of the trans child, it is not the two women bringing children up together that are telling us that compassion is a luxury we cannot afford and that everything needs to be ruled by the dispassionate, uncaring market…the values of the market are the values we now follow as a society. It seems we have a new God.

I reject that God and all the victim blaming and mathematically unsound “economics” such thinking brings with it.

I look for a star in the east, the new hope and I try to be like the magi. The magi got pulled out of their comfort zone, to go to a culture they knew nothing about and to find a poor (perhaps) and seemingly insignificant family that had had a baby. Sure in terms of the gospel, we are meant to nod and smile, this is “proof” that Jesus was someone special but the fact is that God is full of these sort of proofs, that in fact every foreign and poor and displaced baby is “special”. Each one is the hope that this world has.

Gold, frankincense, myrrh- these are material resources, worldly wealth for the “kingdom of God” after all. That is to say, our “spirituality” is not just about being “spiritual” and praying and feeling good and some sort of inner “niceness”. There is a practical dimension to our travelling with God and to the foreign baby, God. God demands an easier life for the poor- real gifts, real help, real earth-rooted and material signs of love and dignity.

Individual acts of “charity” may not change the world, but they change a life or three and they show a commitment– yes God we will go out of our way, yes God we will allow you to help yourself to the goods of this life, yes God even our “worldliness” is centred on you. It starts with the generosity I can show toward others in my life or in my networks and it flows from that to an attitude of acceptance and love, a desire to advocate for Jesus wherever s/he lies, whatever manger, whatever sheets- and let’s face it at times he is not the poorest of the poor either, his life is not the meanest of the mean but he needs something from us other than judgement and a turning away. When Jesus the refugee manages to get a decent job, to get into a decent school, wear fashionable clothes or buy a mobile phone you get people saying “see how easy it is for ‘them’- too easy” but Jesus is still asking us for acceptance, for love, for equality.

When Jesus the single mother can afford a haircut or a glass of wine or is given a nice handbag for Christmas, then she does not fit our idea of abject poverty and we may think that welfare payments are “too generous” that she “has it easy” that she is not suffering enough to deserve support or dignity. But the idea that Jesus lived in a stable in Bethlehem and froze in rags, though picturesque, is probably wrong (houses had mangers in them). Jesus was crowded, displaced, his parents had an uncomfortable journey and much stress (especially once Herod wanted to kill their child) but they may not have been so “respectably” poor.

The poorest, the homeless and the literally starving need our generosity and our support but so do the merely depressed or merely struggling or merely locked out of promotions…the lonely, the under-confident, the disorganised, the depressed, the apathetic and the uneducated. Jesus has needs and is not here to gratify our vanity by showing credentials, being the deserving poor- safely, tamely in a corner that we can define and get out of. Jesus is one of us and will irritate us with poor life choices and a less than warm manner at times!

I struggle to feel emotionally charitable to some of the people that I see on Facebook- I want to judge, condemn, block or destroy with reason many of the people who tell me they are fearful of Muslims for example, or of allowing children to be trans. Then there are the people who don’t understand that their inadequate dole payment and unsatisfying and underpaid work is because of the way we have structured society- not because of these “others” who also want something, who also have needs and families. Jesus is sometimes distant and foreign and hard to spot. Jesus challenges me, frightens me.

Like Herod when I hear of Jesus it will probably be in a context where some power or privilege I have is at risk. Like Herod the temptation is to pretend to help, but really to undermine.

But power and authority, do not always act as Herod. I can be pretty critical of bishops and church leaders, and with reason but occasionally they surprise me.

Today, according to the bishops is the beginning of Migration week in the US Catholic church. I’m in Australia but I like their idea and I will with them pray and reflect on how I can companion, support and advocate for migrants and refugees better. Even though the bishops are asking people to pray, there seems to be an underlying message here of a larger conversion toward better compassion  and acceptance. Prayer is suggested as a foundation for who we are as a people.

Baby Jesus,

I pray with Magi, with bishops, with the powerful, the foreign to me and those who search. I pray ready to travel, ready to receive people from other places.

I begin my year of travelling, searching, loving you in the world and within my own heart. Like la Befana from the children’s story I have been busy with trivial things that the world judges me on, but my heart yearns to be part of your miracle. Like her I know that seeking later is better than never. Like her I have the wisdom to see that every child can be gifted in your name and that every act of generosity is a step on the journey to you.

Like the magi I can be distracted by the Herods of the world- powerful people and their propaganda. I can look in the wrong places but I will eventually find. I can use the wisdom in my own life, in my own culture because every person and their culture are created in your image.

Baby Jesus, show me what to do to support those who are out of their own homes, those who search, those who are looking in the wrong places, those who only wish they could be in the safety of their own home. Help us build a world where you (or the “least of these”) will be welcome and safe in any corner of the earth and the earth itself is respected and healed.

We have seen your star, we come.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not being silent

So many readings to choose from for Christmas services…and many of them so well known they’ve almost become a cliché. But I will start with the vigil, which may sound like an odd choice (and in fact any Christmas vigil mass I ever went to used Luke’s nativity story which is more child friendly). The gospel is a bunch of this person “begat” that person. I didn’t bother using a more modern translation this time, because I remember when I was a kid referring to this passage as the “begatteries” (I think I got that from my Dad and thinking it was the most boring passage (and to me pointless) in the hole bible. I wondered who cared about hs patrilineal line that way as if he was a breeding animal or something. Jesus’ remarkable person was nothing to do with who “begat” who.

Later on, I noticed – or perhaps it was pointed out to me- that in this account of fathers and sons four women manage to squeeze their way in and for a time I thought it was a feminist victory of sorts. I don’t like “liberal feminist” ideas though that some women (often at great personal cost) can break into patriarchal places in small number, because of their own individual “empowerment” or some such- but the norm is still exclusion and low status of women in general. I sometimes see this in churches that begin to ordain women, it takes a long time for real change to happen (and to me it doesn’t matter so much these days who does or does not get ordained- it is the effect on the wider community that matters).

Then again this is God’s history, not “man’s history” and if you look carefully at what sort of women have got a mention in the patrilineal line they are transgressive types- Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, who in various ways broke conventions or used their sexuality and agency to achieve moments in the story of liberation of their people or themselves. Mary also, she has been colonised by so many artists and theologians- depicted as passive and submissive but if we knew her only from the scriptures then she comes across very differently- as outspoken, courageous and somewhat of a visionary.

So Jesus could be a male saviour in a male story of a male church- except God keeps calling women at various points in time (probably always) to transgress patriarchy (like Wisdom herself who is free from constraint) and to change history for the better. This text is not very feminist, the very few women mentioned are all mothers and wives, their other deeds unmentioned but they are THERE and if we look at the story in full then we know them. And we know who is missing- Jepthah’s daughter for example and other victim’s of men’s violence.

I’ll go back to the first reading with all this in mind, and proclaim together with it that I will “not be quiet”. The first reading is all about “Zion” depicted as female and needing advocacy (and waiting for God’s intervention). Unsilencing is a theme of Christmas, especially if we consider Jesus the “Word” of God- speaking and spoken (through Mary’s embodied production of “Word” and through Joseph making room for Mary’s work in this). God unsilences the voices that call for repentance, change, better ways of being and knowing and relating.

They sing that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” which I suppose is meant to be a moralistic guilt trip on the tendency of children to talk and complain so much, but instead I think little Jesus screams his lungs out like the healthy, fully embodied human he is, like the voice of unquenchable Wisdom, like the son of the composer of the Magnificat (and of God and of the quiet and assenting carpenter), like the future preacher and threat to the status quo. He screams that unjust hierarchies and powers will fall and Herod hears enough to be frightened (that comes later of course).

When I went to Latvija, I was in a relatively atheist state of mind. I was “over” church and I didn’t know what I believed apart from the fact that church is too often boring, depressingly patriarchal and generally unhelpful (this is not true in the community  I attend but while travelling further from home I often find services that shut me out in various ways). After walking out of a service which seemed to be about the little, guilty me having to grovel to the patriarchy (which is a form of idolatry anyway) I went to visit my great aunt, Stefanija, for whom I was named and who has since died. I have posted her picture on this post so you can see her.

She told me stories of what it was like living under the Russian regime. Atheism was part of the ideology of the state. People who strongly advocate for universal atheism, often claim that atheists have never visited religious oppression on anyone. That is simply not true. In Latvija during the occupation you could be deported to labor camps even for saying “Merry Christmas” on December 25th, the state proclaimed that the correct festival was the secular “new year’s eve” and any religious celebration was forbidden. Church was not available, nor were decorations and the like.

Enforced atheism has shown itself to be every bit as horrifying as any other enforced religion, for all that atheists tend to claim a moral high-ground…educating ourselves about the (un)beliefs of others in a spirit of tolerance might be a better thing to try.

Anyway Stefanija told me that she and her husband had some Christian neighbours, that they knew it was safe to say “Merry Christmas” to (very quietly so no one would hear and report them) with a little smile of significance because Christmas is still a big deal to a Christian even when you are not allowed to celebrate it. And I realised that my faith does mean something to me after all- when it can mean quiet defiance of an unfair regime, it can mean a joy and hope we are not “supposed” to feel.

So like the shepherds in the reading I didn’t get to discussing, we stop work for the evening to focus on someone else’s baby in wonder and awe. Like the magi in a few weeks we follow even a star, even a rumour of a hope to connect across cultures with generosity and respect. Like Herod we might be threatened by the politics of the kindom of God, and need to resist the temptation to defend the status quo by making othered families suffer. Don’t you think you are Herod? What is your attitude to refugees? To trans-kids? To teenage mothers? To the unemployed or homeless? The wonder and transformative power of the Jesus story has been very resilient over centuries and it is part of our identity as individuals and as communities.

Jesus was grounded within his own Jewish tradition with its problems (eg patriarchy) and its possibilities (eg the radical call to social justice). I am Latvian, my relatives were courageous about having a “Merry Christmas” under an oppressive regime.

Merry Christmas to all my readers and your families. Don’t be silent- be advocates for the oppressed, be hopeful, be joyful. Let us be in the Jesus movement together!

Nursing mothers and children of God

Dear readers, thank you very much for putting up with me through this time of sporadic posting. It makes my heart sing to see that people have looked in on my blog nearly every day. This is what I will “preach” at church in a few hours. I hope you enjoy it. I used the lectionary for the second reading (1 Thess 2:7b-9,13) and the gospel (Mt 23: 1-12) but for the first reading I used Marina by TS Eliot because I wanted to undercut some of the kyriearchy in the readings taken together (although I would not presume to CENSOR the bible, I do call into question the way the church juxtaposes various readings). For the psalm I used a bit of Disney (Hunchback of Notra Dame) although Disney is not something I would ever recommend uncritical consumption of.

In the second reading today, apostleship is compared to being a nursing mother. Let’s just sit with that a moment. Gentleness, affection, tireless work, radical self-sharing. And then the joy and thanks-giving to have the living word received. Because that sort of preaching really works, we are always inspired when people live and work their love not just speak about it!

I had an opportunity this week to go to uni, and speak about my “Activist journey” about what over the years has politicised and motivated me. I kept God out of it, because it was a mainly atheist audience, but to my surprise they started mentioning “love, courage, justice, right relationship, being authentically human”. People everywhere in every context are looking for meaning even if they would say they don’t “believe” in God.

There is a goodness and a beauty in people when they seek the truth that makes life better for others, when they work tirelessly for something bigger than themselves. I tried to get away from “motherhood” as the main theme and metaphor of my talk, but other people clung to it with determination and then here it is even in the bible. The idea of “mother” is so evocative for so many people.

Imagine leaders who come to us like that. Not as authoritarian judges, but as nursing mothers. Imagine the trust that could be fostered, the community we become when we encounter that sort of a leader…well perhaps here it is not so hard to imagine.

The gospel flips over this vision to show us what happens when it all goes wrong. Sometimes leaders do not put the people first- we have all seen what happens when leadership is about ego or power or greed or even cowardice. The gospel gives us permission not to be overly obedient, not to be trusting- to remain faithful to whatever is true in the message channelled through such leaders, but to view the leaders themselves with a critical lens.

Having told us this, Jesus then moves the lens back to us, knowing that we must also be leaders. We are not to seek a higher status as a “teacher”, a “father”, a “master” setting ourselves over and above the people we serve. There is liberation for both sides in equalising the relationship- the leaders can have the support of an active, capable community where everyone contributes just as much as members of the community gain a voice and dignity and agency.

All of this by the way strikes chords with me in terms of early childhood where the higher our respect for the capability and dignity of the child, the easier our work becomes as children work with us to build a positive culture in the centre.

But these readings seemed to me to mesh with TS Eliot’s Marina because life is about more than status and responsibility, even for those of us who are leaders or activists, teachers, or healers. The  poem goes through several movements, some of them dark in a journey over water and into memory. The driving force here is relationship, “my daughter” as well as the mysteriously intimate and distant presence that I think is God (or the atheists might call the same thing consciousness).

All the different empty things we could focus on are listed and dismissed as meaning “death”- the need for power and domination, the need to be noticed and glamorous, the need for escapist pleasures and an easy life, the need for meaningless encounters. So many things we are supposed to focus on to advance us in the eyes of the world or to make life easy in some way.

So many things we can waste all we have on, all meaning death.

And even working hard for a good cause in and of itself can be meaningless, can be about ego and about how others perceive us. But there is (as Eliot points out) also grace dissolved in this place, the face of God becomes less clear and clearer. We remember connection, we remember meaning, we remember hope. Hope is what we need as we wonder how to articulate our humanity in the face of some very cruel happenings in our world.

Esmeralda the gypsy experiences life as part of an outcast people– she herself is capable and resourceful but her heart hurts for her people. In her song she comes out of herself to radically desire God’s blessing and healing for others. She begins tentatively “I don’t know if you would listen” and ends claiming “We all were children of God”.

How do we be nursing mothers to a hurting world? How do we practice the gospel and not just use it to make identity claims? Where is the movement that means something more than death? And considering the people heartlessly abandoned on Manus Island and others whose suffering is very urgent, how do we uphold our common identity as “children of God”.

Please take whatever inspiration you can from the readings, and after a short time to reflect share with each other as is our habit.

Please if you did not already, go back and click the hyperlinks to find out about the awful things happening on Manus Island. I usually put the links there with no issue whether people choose to use them or not but I would really urge you to look at the three in the final paragraphs anyway. May God give us all an active wisdom!

Lip service or life? Called to courageous loving

Preached today to my wonderful community that give me all the support and love and really are a family in faith to me…

As I prayed and reflected on today’s readings, it was very hard for me to separate out the escalating feelings of fear, grief and hurt I have felt over the last week from some of the homophobic comments and lies that are circulating at the moment. As a queer woman, some people would say that I am “going to hell” or am locked out of God’s community, yet I experience God as knowing me better than I know myself and loving me deeply- allowing for my slowness to learn how best to live and encouraging my good intention. I have tried to resist the temptation to make my journey with this week’s readings nothing more than an expression of the pain I feel in this time. Yet I will name the pain because it is there. And then I will try to move on…

The first reading is the last part of a longer discussion about the way that each person owns their own conscience. Within it, a person is not judged by their family, culture or community nor by how others around them choose to live but insofar as they themselves respond to God and do what is right their path will be always into life. This is both a liberating and a troubling concept in our historical context, where we are increasingly facing the reality of climate change that will take more than the actions of a handful of well-meaning individuals to reverse.

And yet this is the reality we live in, things are happening around us that we have limited control to halt or change and we must somehow keep finding hope and meaning. Perhaps what we can find here is an antidote to the sorts of thinking that see decreasing compassion and rising inequality as inevitable. God does not desire our death, the call is always into life. We must embrace hope so that seeing the fallenness, imperfection or powerlessness of ourselves or those around us we must look for the potential for liberation and healing.

In the psalm we cry out to God to be compassionate and to teach us, this echoes both the awareness that things may be wrong and the determination to hope of the first reading. In the verses, God’s nature is revealed to be goodness and kindness, love and compassion. We can and must depend upon that whatever else we are emboldened to do.

The second reading is a sort of counterpoint to the first. Just as in the first reading, each of us was asked to think for ourselves, and to do good even if we are surrounded by wrong-doing, the second reading calls us to be community, to seek harmony and connection with others and to work for the good of others, not just selfishness. Hope then, is no longer a lonely place and we do not stand and judge from a moral high-ground but seek to know and serve whatever is vulnerable in each other.

Thus we come to the gospel, and the difference between giving lip-service to faith and living it. The first son is foolish and rebellious, he does not like to be told. I relate to him a lot and I see my own children in him too. And yet, once he has given his tokenistic resistance to the authority of his “father” he realises that the vineyard is something he is involved in and responsible for and he quietly gets in and works for the harvest. The second son is all performative obedience and moral superiority but when it comes down to it does not contribute to getting the harvest in.

This is a theology that Jesus points out even the religiously impure ones, even the tax collectors and prostitutes, instinctively understand. So what of us? Are we brave and honest enough to argue with the “father” when we do not feel as committed or engaged as we are told we ought to be? Would we dare to refuse to do what we are told…and then give ourselves the chance to rethink what we are really being asked to do, and what our role may be in the vineyard of God.

Or would we opt to look “respectable”, to follow from as great a distance as possible, paying lip-service but avoiding getting our hands dirty? Do we only go along with the call to love and accept the vulnerable so far as they don’t challenge or disgust us? Is there a limit to our ability to transmit God’s grace, or is it simply that we are busy and there are higher priorities than loving? But the first son’s apparently sullen attitude masks a deep love. Sometimes things may be better than they seem at first sight.

All three of the readings seem very sure in telling us that we need to risk being authentic before God. God’s desire is to always keep the option open for us to return and return and return into the heart of the community, into the work of the harvest, into life.

If we are called today, then what is our direction? Let us become aware of God’s love and allow ourselves to be authentic before it. Let us reflect on the readings for a short time and then as is our custom you might share your thoughts with the people sitting near you.

It is good for us to be here

I wrote this reflection and gave it at my church. I used the lectionary readings, which slightly differed from the ones used in the service, but it worked OK. I feel very supported and inspired by my faith community, thank God for them!

Without taking more time than usual I want to do two readings of today’s gospel. The first way of reading it, is not one that I like but it is one that seems to be invited by the context of these first and second readings, and by the way we know our church is structured. I will as usual read through a feminist lens, although it may seem like safety goggles in this case.

Women do not appear in the gospel reading. Jesus, takes three men with him only and they go up a high mountain to have a secret “inner circle” experience that others are not yet allowed to know about. This earmarks them as leaders of the future community after his death. While there he gets the seal of approval from two dead men from the patriarchal tradition. Even the voice of God stresses masculinity, uniqueness and power “this is my beloved son”.

Peter behaves quite logically. Upon seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah, he humbly puts himself at the service of the more powerful alpha-male and offers to build some sort of semi-permanent structure to preserve the power and glory of this moment. Why should there be struggle and weakness and dissent when we can have certainty? Why not establish a religion based on rules and answers and infallibility? “It is good for us to be here”, it is good to be the powerful and the privileged and the inner circle, rather than being rebels against the system- rather than risking social ostracism and hardship and crucifixion. Given that their ministry has already meant blistered feet and hungry stomachs as well as being dogged by crowds and not allowed to rest, I don’t completely blame Peter for wanting to consolidate the shining, certain moment.

A voice from the cloud interrupts Peter, the vision fades and Jesus tells them to tell no one just yet.

Rereading, I want to insert my own “what ifs” into the story. What if this story is somehow relevant to me, who am not male and am not a leader within the church? I need to put aside my childhood baggage of Peter the stern first Pope and forbidding gatekeeper of Heaven, and shake the hand of the Peter I actually encounter in the gospel stories, to see if he lets me into the story a little more readily. Peter in gospel stories is actually a lot like me. He frequently gets things wrong. He is well-meaning, passionate, impulsive, at times his courage fails him and his vision is always at least one step behind Jesus. But he is persistent, reflexive, ready to be wrong and to bounce back and throw his enthusiasm in again. He follows Jesus with all the eagerness of a teenage girl with a crush (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone). He wants to impress Jesus with his commitment, his readiness to bounce into action, his willingness to see and know new things. Like anyone who really wants to impress their hero this makes him at times quite inept.

I feel this Peter can bring me up the mountain, part of a larger group of believers- men? women? As Judith outlined last week in her reflection the point is not to pick a gender but we are all children of God.

Peter’s motivation for offering to make tents may still be suspect- he may crave an easy road without the cross at the end of it, but don’t we all? He may want to have certainty and to feel that connection to tradition and to God that we all only feel in fleeting moments. A softer reading of Peter may allow him to be worrying not for himself only but for Jesus. He has spent time on the road, watching a beloved person who is utterly committed to his vision of better ways of being. He has watched people demand miracle after miracle from Jesus, and Jesus wear himself out and make enemies of the religious and secular powers of the day.

If he can make tents for his heroes- Jesus, Moses, Elijah- he can keep them near to nurture them and keep them safe. Peter can probably see the cross beginning to loom over Jesus’ fiery words. I imagine he could feel about Jesus, the way I feel letting my adult children out into the world (not that I can stop them). They bite off more than I think they can chew and face hurts and disappointments I wish I could cocoon them from.

Sadly for Peter, whether he wants the power of being an insider of an exclusive club or whether he wants to keep himself or his friend safe the moment fades. As the second reading reminds us, this isn’t some cleverly devised myth of “happily ever after”.

We also have this experience of life. There are bright, shining moments when we feel uniquely connected in with deeper realities and with the meaning of life itself. These moments may come in church, or through prayer, they may come in relationships or through experiencing the beauty of nature or art. Sometimes they come through our talents, when we feel really good about something we are doing or expressing or through having our work recognised by someone, especially someone we admire.

Those moments are fading and elusive, while every-day routines of paying bills and washing dishes take over. Nevertheless, the fading is not total. The memory of these moments infuses life to allow faith. We carry in our lives traces of meaning, the passion of knowing “it is good for us to be here”. We are reminded of that momentary joy in little things, in a beloved-one’s smile or words, in the flick of a dolphin’s tail, in the evocative soar of a piece of music, in the scent of the earth on our hands when weeding, in the taste of food shared, in the knowledge that today we have given something to God, achieved something for God, chosen the path of love and justice for God, noticed beauty that is God. Even in the greyest and most ordinary of moments there is always something of this, some echo of transfiguration.

I have spoken as if we are Peter, but through the sacraments we are invited also into being Jesus. Through our Eucharist, and through more mundane meals made from the miracle of earth and shared in love we take in mystery. The glory of Christ-Sophia cannot be preserved in a tent or a museum, as a reassurance to “us” or a sign to “them” that we are right. Instead it spills over in our opportunities to love our neighbour, and to walk gently and lovingly upon the earth itself.

We too are the beloved children of God. Let us know that God is well-pleased with our capacity to fulfil that identity. Let us sit with that a short while and then listen to each other.