26 December 2009

Holiness today

Feast of the Holy Family.

In the lives of the saints we are presented with different models of how to live a live dedicated to the Lord. Perhaps this is because there is in fact no one way to be holy - all that we can do is to look at the lives of people - and in our feast today of families - and take inspiration from them in our own pursuit of holiness.

The first reading reminds us of the story of Hannah, who we are introduced to at the start of 1 Samuel as a devote woman who desires to conceive a child, but remains barren. She and her husband Elkanah go up each year to the sanctuary of Shiloh. On one occasion she is so distraught by her barrenness that she prays and weeps bitterly. But Eli the priest misunderstands her actions and thinks she is drunk (perhaps like many priests across the centuries?) but she (perhaps like many devote women across the centuries?) defends herself and receives his blessing. In due course she conceives and bears a son, whom she names Samuel, which means the 'name of God' or 'offspring of God'. Now, after Samuel is weaned, she takes him back to the sanctuary - in fulfillment of the vow that she had made. The holiness of Hannah and Elkanah, and their devotion to the Lord is clear, and is well expressed in their outward commitment to the Lord which mirrors their internal disposition.

In the Gospel we meet the Holy Family undertaking their annual pilgrimage to the Passover in Jerusalem - again an expression of their regularity in their commitment to the Lord. Of Joseph we know very little - but what we do know (mainly from the Gospel of Matthew) is significant. He is deeply devoted to his wife, and is easily prepared to lay aside his concerns upon the coming of the word of the Lord. Like his namesake from the book of Genesis, Joseph is prepared to listen to his heart and respond to the promptings of his dreams. It is in his dreams that he learns the identity of the father of his child; he learns of the violence and destruction that Herod intends to inflict upon this precious child and so flees with his family to Egypt; and finally responds when an angels tells him it is now safe to return. This openness to the word of the Lord, and his commitment to action when he knows what needs to be done marks him out as a man of holiness.

The obvious commitment of Mary to the way of the Lord needs little commentary. Despite her youth, she is very prepared to respond with all that she is to the way of God with exemplary openness and devotion.

And the second reading provides the ecstatic motivation for any of us to respond to the Lord - the love of God that has been lavished upon us. So let us see in these models of holiness a call from the Lord to enter ever deeper into his infinite and beautiful mystery, as an expression of our own life of holiness.

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Recorded at St Michael's Hall (6pm, 6'24")

24 December 2009

Mary the revolutionary

Christmas 2009 – a revolutionary Christmas
Christmas often brings out the very best in us; but of course it can also bring out the very worst. If we are honest, we can probably admit that at times all we want to do is gag at the very mention of it. Sometimes we tell the story of Christmas in a way that is absolutely detached: we talk about all the cute little animals, and eggnog, Santa, snow, reindeer, drummer boys and perfect babies that never cry or soil their nappies.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that “Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken.” (Luke 2:1)
Julius Caesar was the first person to declare himself emperor or use the title Caesar. He had no son, but when he was assassinated in 43BC, he passed on the rule to his nephew, Octavius. There was a power struggle for a number of years, between Antony and Cleopatra on one side, and Brutus and Octavius on the other. Eventually Octavius won, and became undisputed emperor in 31BC, taking the name Caesar Augustus. He would go on to rule for 45 years. He declared his adopted father to be a ‘god’, so Augustus then declared himself to be the son of God. He saw himself as a divine mediator between God and man, and required people who were part of the Roman Empire to greet one another on the streets with ‘Caesar is Lord.’ One of the popular sayings of the time was ‘there is no other name under heaven by which you can be saved, except for Caesar.’

Essentially the whole known world from England and Europe down through Africa to the Middle East and beyond was part of the Roman Empire. If the Roman Army came to your town you basically had two choices – worship Caesar as Lord, or face either slavery or death – usually by crucifixion. There are stories of people who tried to resist the onslaught of the Empire, and the response of the army was to crucify every person in the town, including one report where 6000 slaves were crucified as a sign to prevent others from rebelling.
Now Caesar couldn’t rule effectively such an immense area without using local overlords and rulers. So he would find people that were loyal to Rome. In Israel, the local ruler – Herod - was half-Jewish and half-Edomite. He is most famous for his incredible building program – including at least 8 massive fortress-like palaces, two new cities (both of which were named after Caesar – Caesarea which featured the largest human-made harbour in the ancient world and Caesarea Philippi) and the completely rebuilt Jerusalem temple. But to accomplish all of this, Herod added to the already heavy burden of taxation imposed by Rome, to the point that taxation rates were between 70-85%. And we think that a tax rate of 15-30% is too high!

This led of course to widespread despair, fatalism and doubt. Traditionally, most Jewish families would work the land and would own small plots of land that had been passed onto to them from generation to generation by their ancestors. (Think of all the parables that Jesus tells about farmers and shepherds.) Now, many had to rent themselves out as day labourers; some were forced off the land and had to sell their land and move into the cities just to meet the taxes. There was also a small elite who did very well under Caesar and Herod – particularly those who lived in Jerusalem and were directly on Herod’s extensive payroll.
The question on the lips of so many was – will Herod continue to oppress? Will this burden of taxation continue? Will Caesar continue to rule? Will those who have get more? Will those who don’t have enough get even less and less? How long will this go on?
DOUBT. If God is so good, why is this traitor and this oppressor Herod on the throne? Remember Herod is one of the richest people who have ever lived in the world – he could easily compare to Bill Gates. Why can Caesar call himself God – and get away with it? People are starving and sick – and nothing is changing. What about cancer?

How long will this go on? Where are you God? Why is life so unfair?
Doubt. Despair. Fatalism. How long O Lord?
Maybe you have your own question for God right now. Maybe you have been struggling with something for so long you have forgotten when it even began? Maybe someone in your family betrayed you? Maybe someone you loved desperately died recently? Maybe you lost your job? Maybe your spouse had an affair? Maybe your parents are divorced? Or your children? Maybe they have stopped going to Church? Maybe you have cancer?
How long O Lord? Where are you?

What about...
Taxation. Death. Warfare. Terrorism. Hatred.
Feuds. Betrayal. Violence. Divorce. Adultery.
Refugees. Indigenous. Homosexuality. Church.
Environment. Failure. Destruction. Politicians.
AIDS. Cancer. Strokes. Heart attack. Sickness.

Despair. Doubt. Anxiety. Fear. Failure.
Confusion. Loss. Fatalism. Hopelessness.

How long O Lord? Where are you?

(Musical interlude – Sons of Korah, ‘Shelter’)

Then, out of nowhere, this angel appears to a young Jewish girl – probably only 14 or 15 years old. Do not be afraid Mary. I got news for you – you are going to have a baby! (Luke 1:30-38)
Mary’s done her class in biology. She knows how things work … No, the Spirit of the Lord will do this – and that clears everything up just perfectly!
Mary: Here I am - the servant of the Lord – let’s get on with it!
Mary – Caesar is going down; Herod is nearly at the end. In fact he dies a few months later. Mary knows that God is not some kind of detached, esoteric saviour – floating away over there. God will come into this scene and take care of Herod and Caesar. He will come into the very midst of their trouble and be there with them when they suffer.
God is going to deal with everything that is unjust. Mary: I have seen the most powerful kingdom in human history – the Caesars – and it is nothing compared with what God can do.
Because, in my womb, I’ve got me a baby!
Herod is now just a pile of rocks. We don’t even have a reliable image of him. Caesar is much the same. But we are here tonight celebrating the birth of the baby that she carried.
God knows what we have been through. God has not forgotten us. He still remembers us.
God sent his only son into the world. In the womb of Mary.
Musical conclusion: Lady Mary (Sandra Sears)

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Recorded in St Michael's Hall (9.30am) - apologies for the static buzz - the new sound system obviously needs some work! (16'00")

20 December 2009

Leaping and dancing for joy

4th Sunday of Advent - Year C. (Luke 1: 39-44; Micah 5:1-4)

In a survey published in the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend it seems that around 68% of Australians still believe in God, but only 27% believe that the Bible is literally true. Which may not be a bad thing, if by literally true we think that reading the bible is like reading a history text book or a science journal. The original authors of scripture never intended us to read it this way. They want us to read it like we read any other story - which is more like reading poetry or listening to music. For when we listen to a song, we are usually aware of the emotional content and of echoes of other songs and other times that we heard this song and what was happening in our life back then. Powerful stuff. To gain access to this story of the visitation of Elizabeth by Mary, and to work out the significance of Bethlehem Ephrathah, and how they both connect with the anointing of a shepherd boy, the Ark of the Covenant and the call to worship - to leap with joy.

Recorded at Sacred Heart (12'23")

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17 December 2009

Vatican Museum App on iTunes

Last night I downloaded the new The Vatican Museums Interactive guide for iPhone and iPod touch. It is a great little app with wonderful audio commentary and fantastic detail on many of the wonders of the Museum. A really well-executed application and great value for only $5.99 in the Australian iTunes shop. Go on - you know you want to!


13 December 2009

What must we do?

Third Sunday of Advent (C) - Luke 3:10-18.

When you look through the teachings of Jesus, a number of themes emerge - love, prayer, money and faith. But as you consider the teachings of Jesus according to these categories, it quickly becomes apparent that Jesus talks about money and possessions far more than he talks about any thing else - in fact he talks about money 3 times more than he talks even about love (which conquers all); 7 times more than he talks about prayer; and 8 times more than he talks about faith and belief.

So it should come as no surprise to us when we continue with the teaching ministry of John, son of Zechariah, that he too should talk about money and possessions. You may recall that last week, after almost 490 years of silence - the word of the Lord was once again addressed to one of his prophets. And when John began to preach, he proclaimed that what was needed was repentance and baptism to cleanse us from our sins. Now as people come to him, they ask a single question - 'what must we do?'

John gives simple, practical advice in answer: 'if you have two cloaks, you must share with the person who has none' as well as 'don't rip people of' and 'be content with your pay.' John follows in a long line of prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in putting the demands of justice front and centre for followers of the Lord. His teaching has been emphasised by the saints across the centuries and by the popes, most especially since the tradition of the Social Doctrine of the church has been given, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891). There, the pope reminds us that once our basic needs have been met (food, clothing, housing, recreation, transport), then everything else that we have belongs to those who are poor. This is the idea that all we have belongs not to us, but to the common good.
"But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over." (Rerum Novarum, 22)
If we want to be followers of Jesus, then we must do the same. If we dare to ask the Lord, 'what must we do', then we should expect that we will receive the same answer. Establish justice. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. If you ask - but how much should I give? - then the traditional scriptural teaching is that a tithe - ten percent of your income - is a good starting point. Although not specifically taught in the New Testament (although it is clearly presumed in many places), the principle there is that everything belongs to the Lord and we are only stewards of the things that he has given to us. So if everything belongs to the Lord, then we should be prepared to give everything back to him, to take care of all who are (materially and spiritually) poor. And to whom should we give? Yes, we have an obligation to provide for the Church, but beyond that, we should give to any organisation that cares for the poor and needy and engages in works of mercy, evangelisation or charity.

What must we do? It is a great question to ask ourselves in this mid-point of the season of Advent. But be prepared to first look at our credit card statements and our cheque books before we ask it. Then we can know if we have the courage to actually do what the Lord will invite us to do.

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Recorded at St Michael's, 9.30am (10'54")

06 December 2009

The word of hope

Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) - Baruch 5:1-9; Phil 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6.

Luke begins the account of the ministry of John the Baptist with a list of strange names - what is he doing and why is he doing it and how does it relate to the splendour and integrity of a people lost in a foreign land?

In order to understand why Luke begins this account of the ministry of John, son of Zechariah, with all of those names - we need to do some background work. We need to go back to the first reading - from the prophet Baruch (the secretary of Jeremiah). Baruch prophesied during the same period - the time of Exile. This was an utterly devastating period in the history of Israel. For us to make any sense of the readings today we need to first attempt to at least get into the mindset of what it would be like for the whole of your life - and of the whole of your country to be turned completely upside down and inside out. They were treated as slaves and they lost all of the land of the promise; the empire of Babylon had swept down upon them and completely destroyed their land, their city and their temple. All that Jerusalem stood for was destroyed and taken away from them when they were escorted under military guard from Jerusalem into exile. Everything that they had based their lives upon was gone. It is hard to appreciate how devastating this was for them.

It is important for us to hear and understand what is happening when the prophet addresses Jerusalem - still in ruins and destroyed. The word of the Lord is addressed to Jerusalem to 'look to the east' to see the work of God - to restore and renew this people, who will come from east and west to fulfill the promises of God. Even though Israel knew that the exile was a result of their failure to live the covenant; even though they knew everything had been taken away from them because of their sin and breaking the commandments, the word of the Lord was telling them that God had remained faithful to the covenant that was first made centuries before during the Exodus, when the Lord had addressed the whole nation (not just individuals like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses) and made covenant with them (Exodus 19). God will continue to bring his purposes to pass. So he will flatten the mountains and fill the valleys so that the way of the people would be made smooth and allow their free passage to fulfill his purposes.

The word of the Lord continued to be addressed to Israel to bring them back from their exile and to restore them to their land and to the temple. But as time passed, the prophetic word was no longer heard. The prophet Malachi was the last of the prophets, and he ministered around 460 years before the birth of Christ. So for generation upon generation people longed to hear the word of God again, to receive a fresh insight into the plan of God for his people.

So when the Gospel of Luke opens, it is almost 500 years since there has been any recorded word of prophecy. The expectation that the Lord will speak to his people must have been overwhelming. So when Luke begins this chapter with a list of who's-who, it would have been even more jarring for the first hearers. The named individuals only serves to remind them of how far they have fallen as a people and community. They are under the oppression of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar (reigned 14-37 AD/CE); with his puppet governor Pontius Pilate (who reigned over Judea from 26-36 AD); then three of the four tetrarchs are named - the 2 sons of Herod the Great (Herod Antipas and Herod Philip II) and Lysanias. Finally, the current (Caiaphas, 18-36 AD) and former (Annas 6-15 AD) high priests are given. Even though Annas had left the office, he retained the title of high priest (cf. John 18:13,24). If there is an expectation that the 'word of the Lord' would come to someone, perhaps one of these 'high and mighty' individuals could be expected. Certainly you would expect that the Lord would address his people in a place of significance - like in the newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.

No, when the Lord chose to speak to someone after so many centuries, he addresses the word of God to a virtual nobody - to John, the son of Zechariah, out in the wilderness. That it was happening in the wilderness indicates that the great promises of Isaiah were beginning to be fulfilled in the ministry of John.

And what does John proclaim? That they (and we) need to undergo a baptism of repentance. So as we continue our journey through this season of Advent, we need to be mindful of this call of the Lord to prepare and be ready to receive his healing and cleansing word once again, so that we can be formed and prepared into the people that he longs for us to be, so that 'all flesh will see the salvation of our God'.

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Recorded at Sacred Heart, 9.30am (10'34")