26 July 2009

Hungry to be satisfied

17B – Season of the Year – John 6:1-15

This year we have been reading from the Gospel of Mark. Last week we had the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing over the lake and coming to find a large crowd of people, which he set out to teach at some length. Rather than continuing the story from Mark, we interrupt the story and change to have an extended reading from the Gospel of John, so that we have his unique perspective. John’s gospel was written much later than the other gospels, probably late in the first century. You have this deeply reflective, theological and spiritual understanding of Jesus and the mysteries of the Church. One of the curiosities of John’s Gospel is that when you go to the Last Supper with John, there is no mention of Jesus blessing the bread; of Jesus taking the cup and telling the disciples that this is my blood. We can wonder – why aren’t what we call the Institution Narratives – the story of the institution of the Eucharist mentioned in John’s Gospel? It is because it is here, in this sixth chapter of St John. I invite you as we journey through this magnificent chapter over the next five weeks to take the time to prayerfully and slowly read through the chapter. Take the time to ponder these majestic words and allow them to sink deeply into our spirit.

Here in this Gospel, one of the things we must remember is that nothing ever happens by chance. Every word is carefully chosen to drive home this deep symbolic and rich meaning. The gospel begins with Jesus and his disciples going up a mountain. This should evoke every other mountain in the Scriptures – from Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb to Mount Tabor – all the other mountains in scripture that have that rich sense of those places that you go to be with God; where God will reveal his presence and his power and his majesty. Then it simply says that there Jesus sat down. We probably will miss the significance of this: in the ancient world a master would sit down and his disciples would also sit down at his feet in order that he could teach them. This was the symbol and gesture of teaching. So Jesus sat down to teach and instruct his disciples. It is why when we gather at the Eucharist we sit down to listen to the readings – to hear the word of God – and to allow the readings being proclaimed to nourish and enrich us. Hopefully this will also happen in the preaching of the priest as he tries to expound upon the words of God. John is reminding us that what is happening here in this scene is what happens every time that we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. First we sit down to allow the word of God to nourish us; to allow Jesus to teach us.

But then he says the Feast of Passover was drawing close. What happens at Passover? The Lamb of God is sacrificed. That lamb of God that allowed the people of God, the Hebrew slaves to escape the judgement of God upon the kingdom of Egypt. They remembered this every year as that time when God delivered them from slavery to freedom. This is the signal for John to remind us that we are moving from that time of teaching in the Mass into that time of sacrifice. Then Jesus looks and see this massive crowd of 5000 people approaching up the mountain. He says to the disciples ‘what are we going to do? How are we going to feed this huge crowd?’ Philip speaks the words that are on all their lips – even 200 Denarii or six-month’s wages – would not be enough to buy food to even give them a little bit to eat. Even that much money is not enough – and we don’t even have this much money. Then Andrew recognises at least something that is available. He says, well actually there is this little boy, this child has five loaves; he has a couple of fish. But what is that among so many? Perhaps that is what we sometimes think when we get to the offertory at Mass; when those few scraps of bread, that little jug of wine is brought forward as a sign and symbol of what our offering is; of what you as the people of God bring and what I as the representative of Jesus in this gathering receive on your behalf. Such fragile attempts – mere scraps – and yet we know and we trust that somehow in that the Lord will take it; the Lord will take our lives; the Lord will take what we can offer; he will take and he will receive. Jesus does this – he takes these small and fragile offerings of this young child and he gives thanks. That word, in Greek, is eucharisteo – it is why we call this gathering the Eucharist – because it is here that we give thanks; that we gather to give our return to the Lord – to bless him, to worship him and to offer our thanksgiving for all that he does through us and in us. So Jesus does this; he gives thanks to God – he prays the blessing of God to be upon this fragile offering which is our lives. Then he himself breaks and gives – a sign of those four central actions that are at the heart of every Mass. We take the offering of our lives, we give and bring up the gifts which are blessed in the Eucharistic Prayer; where they are broken at the Lamb of God, and then distributed to each of us so that we can feed.

Here, when Jesus feeds personally each of the people in this crowd – then everyone eats and is full. Everyone is satisfied at this feast. We have so many hungers – don’t we? We want pleasures, we want recognition; we want to be like everyone else; we want to have the thrill of money or of sex or of wealth or of whatever we want... But none of these things every truly satisfies. Even if we have our fill, even if we have the latest gadgets, even if we travel to the four corners of the world, we are never satisfied. But here in this place, when we are allowed to eat of the very life of God, when the Lord himself feeds us, then we can be satisfied; then our hearts and our longings and our desires can be filled and fulfilled in Christ. That is why he feeds us; that is why we gather to give thanks. That is why we bring those fragile offerings of our lives because the Lord always wants to work with us; he always wants to take what we can give and bless that, and multiple that and fulfil those deepest longings in our hearts and spirits.

The final curious detail that is given to us in the Gospel, is that Jesus instructs them to gather all the scraps and fragments together that are left over from the feast. It is the same thing that we do at the Eucharist – that we are very attentive even to the smallest fragment of this precious gift – because we want to gather it, we want to collect it so that others also can share in this gift. It is that sense of unity in being gathered. John tells us that there were twelve baskets full of scraps and fragments at the end of the feast – the twelve as that richly symbolic number representing the 12 tribes of Israel – that fullness of the whole people of God. All of us are called to be gathered in unity as his people; as different and diverse as we are we are called to come together in this place, for this Eucharist we are allowed to be one; we are allowed to be gathered into the great feast of the Lord. Today as we celebrate this Eucharist. As we allow the gifts of our lives to be brought up and to be offered; as I pray that great prayer of thanksgiving on your behalf when I ask the Spirit of God to come and fall upon these gifts to make them into the body and blood of Christ; as we break them and as we share them, know that the Lord himself is feeding our deepest desires and longings. He is bringing them all to be blessed and multiplied and in our turn we are invited to give thanks for this great gift of the Eucharist.

Recorded at St Michael's 9.30am (10'23")

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19 July 2009

The true shepherd

16th Sunday in ordinary time – Year B.
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34.

In order to understand our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah today, we need to understand what has been happening in the history and practice of Israel. We need to go back a few hundred years. When the people of Israel first left the slavery of Egypt, and they moved to the Promised Land and began to settle there the Lord himself was their leader; he was their guide. For the first few generations, the Israelites had a series of leaders called Judges, which we read about in the book of Joshua and Judges. There came a time however, when the leaders of the people came to Samuel and asked him to let them have a King like all the other nations had. This of course should give us cause to pause. Israel was called to be different from all the other nations - not to be just like them. God wanted Israel to be unlike all the other nations around them. He wanted them to uphold justice and truth and virtue. He wanted them to be his people and to image him in the world.

We read this story in the first book of Samuel chapter eight. There the Lord instructs Samuel to do what the elders of the people ask him, even though the Lord said to Samuel “when they asked for a King they’re not rejecting you; they are rejecting me”. As you go through the history of Israel from this point, one of the striking characteristics of that history is the fact that the Kings who come to be the leaders of the people of Israel are always presented in the truth of who they are. So unlike other kingdoms and other peoples who tended to eulogise their kings and leaders – for example in the Roman Empire which even divinise their emperors – in the history of Israel the Kings, we are told, were lazy, corrupt, indifferent and pathetic leaders. And again and again the Lord sends prophets to correct them and to rebuke them. The passage that we have from the Prophet Jeremiah today is one example of that. There are others in the book of Isaiah, in the Psalms and most famously in the Prophet Ezekiel (chapter 34). Here the Lord rebukes the shepherds of Israel who have allowed his people to be scattered and lost. He says that he himself will gather his people by raising up shepherds who will pasture them without fear or terror. He then gives one of the great messianic prophecies of a new leader, who like King David of old, will rule with wisdom and integrity.

In the Gospel today (Mark 6:30-34) we see this prophecy come true. When the disciples return from their mission where they had relied completely on God (remember? - ‘take nothing for the journey’) they are tired and in need of a break. But the crowd that is there is now pressing in on every side and keeping them all so busy that they do not even have time to eat. So the Lord invites them to ‘come away and rest for a while’ and they set off across the lake in a boat. But they crowd are not so easily dodged, and they, along with an even greater crowd from all the towns and villages near by race ahead to meet him where they guess he is going – and so when Jesus arrives at that place he is confronted by this huge crowd and he has pity on them for they are like ‘sheep without a shepherd.’ So Jesus sets about teaching the people – the new role of the true shepherd – at some length. (So if you are annoyed when the priest’s homily goes on a bit, know that we are at least in this, following in the example of our master!)

Once again, however, we are confronted with the dilemma of what the true nature of the messiah –the leader of Israel was meant to be. If he was meant to be the one who gathered the people so that they could have a great victory over all the political enemies of Israel and they could once again resume the empire like in the days of King David and King Solomon – all of this seemed to be dashed when Jesus did not only not raise an army against the powerful and oppressive Roman empire, but he was subjected to terrible torture and death at the hands of that empire. In order to understand how the early Church understood the way in which Jesus did in fact fulfil the call to be the true Shepherd and Messiah of Israel, we need to turn to the second reading.

St Paul continues his discussion about the amazing difference that was brought about by the ministry of Jesus – the Messiah. He addresses two groups of people in the verses before our reading today (in Ephesians 2:11-12) – those who were circumcised and those who were not. The first considered themselves close to God, because they have been following the law, and considered the others to be far away. But Paul addresses both and says that even you who were far away have been brought close by the blood of Jesus. Paul understands how the death of Jesus on the cross appeared to be the great defeat of any claim by him to be Israel’s true Messiah. Appearances can be deceptive. For in fact, what happened on the cross, and through the blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross, was that the barrier which used to keep Jew and Gentile apart was broken down and destroyed. Paul knows that the deepest burden that any of us can carry, the greatest problem that any of us experience, is not oppression from outside as a result of political powers, but oppression from within – the oppression caused by sin, hatred, fear, prejudice, bitterness, unforgiveness... These are the walls and the barriers and the hostility that have been torn down because of the blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross. This is the way that Jesus demonstrated that he was to be our true leader and shepherd. This is the way that Jesus demonstrated what true shepherd leadership was all about.

Let us pray that we will always accept the true leadership that is offered to us by the Lord. Let us also pray for all those that the Lord has placed in leadership over us, that they will continue to model the true gift of leadership given to us in the Lord, and to always remember the great gift of King David – who ministered with the Father’s heart. Only then will the cross of Jesus be able to achieve its work, and break down all barriers and hostility. Then we can be gathered together as God’s one, true people united under one Shepherd.

(I forgot to record the homily ... so only the text this week)

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12 July 2009

View from a high place

15th Sunday – Year B – The view from on high (Ephesians 1:3-14)

I am going on holidays in the middle of August to the United States. I haven’t been there before, so I have been looking around at various maps, trying to work out my itinerary. I have been using Google Maps to work out how to get to the places that I want to visit – like Denver to visit some of the pilgrims who stayed in our parish last year during WYD – and Toronto and Steubenville to visit friends. With these maps I can get an overview of the whole country to see where places are in relation to one another, but also to zoom in to see a place in a little more detail and to see the lay of the land. I don’t think that I am alone in wanting to do this – everywhere you go, whenever you find an accessible high place, our ancestors have so often built a lookout there so that you can see where things are in relation to one another. How many of you have been up Cambewarra Mountain to see the vista of the Shoalhaven; or visited Mount Ainslie in Canberra; Mount Wellington in Hobart; Mount Coo-tha in Brisbane; or No (One) Tree Hill in Auckland? If you do you can begin to see the way that the city works and functions and the way that it all connects together.

There is a need for us to do this – to have that sense of how the whole story fits together. And that is what Paul presumes when he goes into this magnificent prayer of worship in our second reading. He has the usual greeting in the first two verses (which are not in our reading) and then he goes in to this almost ecstatic prayer and he gives thanks and praise for the wonders of what God has done across the centuries. So I will take you on a brief survey of the whole of salvation history to provide something of a background for what it is that Paul is leading us through. The first thing that we as a Christian people – as the inheritors of the promise that was given to the Jews – encounter in the Scriptures as we read Genesis 1 is to read that God created the heavens and the earth. What we see around us is not the result of a fluke; it is not the result of a random series of events that have come to pass and somehow (miraculously) have formed what it is that we see. No we worship a God who created the world and created it as good. Over the course of the tens of millions of years, indeed the more than four billion years that the world has existed, the Lord’s hand has been there – forming and shaping and crafting. He created us as part of that process. He created us to be in relationship with him as part of his good creation; created us to be one with each other; to be good stewards of what he had created. But then of course as the story moves on, all of that very quickly began to unfold. There is the sense of those first few chapters of Genesis of what began to happen; as we began to compete with one another and began to compete with God. This is what scripture calls the fall – that sense of falling out of that intimacy of union and relationship with God and consequently with one another. That quickly began to unravel even more – within the first chapters of the book of Genesis you see this story becomes more and more violent. In the next chapters you have the story of Cain and Abel beginning to act aggressively and which ends with the murder of Abel. More and more the people begin to be alienated from one another and from God. As these mythical stories and tales lead us into an appreciation of and understanding of what is happening.

But God does not allow this to be the end of the story. God begins to act to deal with individuals and through individuals to form a people. That is the reason that we have the story of the call of Abraham as he is called to be the father of a great nation. He is called to be in covenant with God. This covenant continues through his sons – through Isaac and then through Jacob and his twelve sons when they travel down into Egypt. The story continues – the story of God forming a people. It continues with the great events of the Exodus and Passover; the journey into the desert to meet the Lord on the mountain of Sinai – when God again reaffirms the covenant with his people. He reminds the people that he wants them to be his hands and feet. He wants them to be his people. He will be their God; he will set them apart and consecrate them as his chosen people – to go into the world as the bearers of this mystery; the bearers of God’s righteousness and God’s justice. But of course, the people are still fallen and they don’t get it right – and so you have again and again throughout the centuries, even though God continues to send his prophets to lead the people back into proper relationship with God – they don’t get it right. There is the sense of the great failure of the people of God.

Then of course you have finally – as planned from the beginning of time – the Lord sending his Son. Jesus is born and teaches and proclaims what it is to live the truth of the kingdom of God. Then all this climaxes in the great events that we celebrate at Easter – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah – the one chosen by God from the beginning to be the fulfilment of this calling. Finally we are given the opportunity to live this covenant. Finally we are able to have that freedom from sin so that we can indeed be the proclaimers of the kingdom of God. In the beginning we were called and created to be in the image and likeness of God – but it is only when Jesus dies on the cross; it is only when he is raised to new life – that we are actually able to do that.

Finally we see the fifth movement in this story: the first was creation; the second was the fall; the third was the covenant; the fourth was the redemption and now the fifth is the mission that we receive as church and the great commissioning. This happens, of course, in the power of the holy Spirit. This happens in the great outpouring at Pentecost of the Spirit which allows us to live this truth and to be this people that have been chosen by God.

When Paul begins this prayer, he begins simply by blessing the Lord and praising the God who, from the beginning chose us – not randomly – but in Christ. This phrase ‘in Christ’ appears again and again in this reading; it almost becomes a punctuation mark that Paul users to remind us that the whole of our life revolves around the person of Jesus. Everything that happens occurs in relationship to the Messiah, to the king, to the Christ. Jesus is the source of all that happens. He created us and chose us; he destined us to be in him. Even before we were created; even before our parents made love to conceive us; even before we were only a twinkling in our parent’s eyes the Lord destined us to be his own. Not simply to sit back and think that this is lovely; this is wonderful. No – we were commissioned for a purpose. This purpose is to ‘praise the glory of his grace.’ This purpose is to be his hands and feet; this purpose is to continue to build the kingdom of God here on earth – to be the bearers of his mission; to be the ones who bring the kingdom of God to birth in our world. That is that whole sense of the inheritance – that Paul talks about at the end of our reading. That the Lord has given us all of these gifts, all of these treasures and wonders as the first down payment of what is to come – that whole sense of the new creation that the Lord is preparing for us.

So we have this place in history – we have this place as his people; chosen to be his own. So I invite you today to take time to sit with this reading and read the first part of the letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:3-14). These 12 verses in a sense sum up so much of our whole history is about and gives us this opportunity to see the lay of the land and to see our place within it. Let us make this prayer our own. Let us also bless God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has chosen us to be his own adopted sons and daughters. Amen.

Recorded at St Michael's 9.30am (10'16")

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05 July 2009

His grace is enough

14th Sunday in Ordinary time (2 Cor 12:7-10).

One of the interesting things is that when you read the stories of some of the great saints across the pages of history, almost inevitably when you go through their story you come across some great shadow or darkness that hung over their lives. For example when the diary of Blessed Teresa or Calcutta came to life after her death, we have seem that for so much of her life, Teresa struggled simply to believe. Even though she was so widely acclaimed as a living saint; even though she was in such demand to address the United Nations, Presidents and royalty; even though her work amongst the poorest of the poor in Inida was so highly valued - she struggled at times simply to acknowledge the existence of God. Other saints also - like St Therese of Lisieux - went through this great period of darkness, where she couldn't pray or believe. She found it impossible to get through the thick cloud that surrounded her.
And yet these saints continued - like so many others who are afflicted with grief, who experience physical illnesses or disease, trials and turmoil, who are in the depths of sadness and suffering because of the loss of a child or a loved one. Whatever it is, the thing that marks their greatness - is not the particular tragedy - but the way that they deal with that; the way that they find life through that tragedy - in the midst of that tragedy and darkness.

I guess that is what St Paul is struggling with in our reading today. Paul had a lot of reasons to boast. He had an incredible ministry from the Lord. In the previous chapter of 2 Corinthians and in the beginning of this chapter 12, he goes through in those 33 verses of chapter 11 and the first 7 verses of chapter 12 a long list of experiences that have marked and characterised his life. All the ways that the Lord has blessed him and given him incredible gifts and allowed him to suffer. But he says - so that he couldn't boast about these incredible visions that he had received - that he was caught up into the seventh heaven that he had these personal encounters with the Lord. He had received these incredible words of insight into the mystery and experience of God. So that he wouldn't boast; so that that wouldn't be the thing that would mark and characterise his life - he says he was given this 'thorn in his flesh.' We don't know what this thorn was. There have been over centuries dozens and dozens of interpretations as to what this might have been - ranging from the bizarre to the more likely. From the extreme literalists who have said it was an actual physical thorn that had become infected, to those who said it was some form of illness - of epilepsy; or headaches; of hearing loss or speech impediment; others have said it was some form of temptation such as sexual lusts. We have all sorts of people projecting these things onto Paul as to what this thorn may have been.
Whatever it was - he wanted it gone. Whatever it was it caused him great suffering. He said this caused him great suffering. He said that he begged the Lord three times for it to be gone. Now that is not like a child asking for an icecream: 'Please...', 'Pretty Please...', 'Pretty please with sugar on top...' It is the deep heartfelt longing for this to be gone. Three times in the Semitic mind represent a fullness - it means he begged the Lord again and again and again. In the previous part of the passage Paul speaks of events that happened 14 years ago - that is the time frame of what he has been experiencing - the time frame of his desire and his prayer and his heart-felt longing for the Lord to take this thing away from him.

How many times have we begged the Lord in the same way; how many times have we pleaded with the Lord for whatever it is that is our thorn in the flesh? How many times have we thought if only this thing was not there: If only that darkness; if only that depression; if only that sadness; if only that illness or sickness; if only that member of my family wasn't like that; if only the people at work weren't like that; if only I could forgive that person who wronged me; if only I ...
And then the Lord addressed Paul; then the Lord gave to Paul what is perhaps one of the deepest insights that we can achieve in the Christian life. If we get this one realisation correct and true, then I think we can truly call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ. If we understand (with Paul) - that my grace is enough for you; my grace is sufficient; if we begin to realise that it is not about what I do - it is not what I achieve - it's not my benefits or the things that I do well; it's not my strengths; it's not because I'm good or holy; it's not because I come to Mass; it's not because of any of these things that the Lord has favoured me. It is because 'his grace is enough.' It is because in my weakness the Lord can be strong.

If we can grasp that; if we can cling to that; if we can find our life in that - then the Lord can do work; then the Lord can satisfy his desire to fill us; to free us; to bring us life. So let's ponder the thorn that is in our flesh; let's consider whatever the areas of darkness or trials or tribulations that we endure - that are part of our life - and let's rejoice today that the Lord allows us to sit with them; to stay with them. Let's celebrate with St Paul the great gift of finding life in that - of finding our strength in our weakness - because it is in that place that we discover that God's grace is enough.

Recorded at St Michael's 8am (8'38") - with Matt Maher's 'Empty and Beautiful'

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