Wedding Party

Organising a party takes a lot of work. There’s the venue to be set up; the catering, entertainment and music; the invitations. If it’s a wedding then there’s all the ceremony stuff as well. When we throw a significant party, we’re happy to do lots of work and planning so that it will be a great event that everyone will totally enjoy. But sometimes things don’t go quite to plan.

When Jesus travelled around Israel, he announced that God, his Father, was throwing a huge party – the wedding of his Son. Everyone was invited. But people in Galilee and now people in Jerusalem refused the invitation. Although God was inviting everyone, there is a sting to this inclusivity that is totally uncomfortable for us in a politically correct world.

We don’t want to hear anything about the wicked being judged, or about high standards for holiness, or a place with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Yet God wants us to be grown-ups, not babies. Part of being a grown-up is that we learn that our actions have consequences, and that character and moral choices matter.

So although everyone is invited to this amazing party and God’s love will always reach us exactly where we are, his love will refuse to let us stay where we were. When the blind and the lame went to Jesus, he didn’t say to them “You are all fine as you are.” No, he healed them. So when prostitutes, murderers and corrupt officials went to Jesus – his love welcomed them so that their lives could be healed and transformed.

When we are invited to be part of the kingdom party – we need to wear the clothes of love and truth and mercy and justice. If we don’t want to wear these clothes, then there really isn’t a place for us at this wedding. Which is such a shame. But this is the reality.

+ Jesus, help us to be so overwhelmed by your love that we long to let you continue to heal us and change our hearts to grow into your original redeemed image of our lives.

Grace and peace!

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Sunday 28, Year A. 

** Please pray for me as I undertake an Ignatian thirty-day retreat during this month near Boston, MA **

The Vineyard and the Stone

I remember always being a little annoyed and scared by this parable. We are used to Jesus talking about the landowner as God, his Father. But as the story goes on and the wickedness of the tenant farmers becomes clearer, I want to shout out to the landowner – no! Don’t send your son. They are not going to respect him either. Sure enough, they grab him, drag him outside and murder him.

When Jesus asks the religious leaders what the owner will do, I have to wonder about our own church and other leaders like me – have we returned the owner’s share of the harvest or tried to keep the estate for ourselves? It’s such a huge question!

This powerful and sorrowful story was told by Jesus just after he had arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He knows that he is going to be rejected by the religious leaders and he will be taken outside the city of Jerusalem and be put to death. He came to Israel – his own people – and called them to repentance and to be the light that God wanted it to be. But his own people rejected him then – just as so many of us continue to reject him now. Even so, God will remain faithful and Jesus as the stone rejected by the builders, will be vindicated as the cornerstone – the stone that will only fit in the highest place in the building – the place with the highest honour.

+ Jesus, you are the cornerstone. When everyone around us rejects you, help us to return our gaze back to you and to honour you as the centre of our lives. Amen.

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Sunday 27, Year A.

** Please pray for me as I undertake an Ignatian thirty-day retreat during this month near Boston, MA **

Doing the question

After Jesus had made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the start of chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel, the question that everyone was wondering was – is he the one? Is he the long awaited anointed king, the one the Jewish people and leaders called the Messiah? So, Jesus tells a parable to the religious leaders. The parable is in answer to their question: ‘By what right are you doing that?’ For country bumpkin Jesus from backwards Galilee had come into the temple and acted with great authority. In fact, he behaved as if he owned the place.

Two sons are asked in the parable to go and work in their father’s vineyard: one says no but then ends up going; the other says yes but doesn’t in fact go. At a simple level, the parable emphasises that doing is more important than mere words.

On a deeper level the religious leaders imagined that they were doing the will of God yet they refused to believe in both John the Baptist and now in Jesus. But those who seemed to be a long way from God like the tax collectors and other sinners who were regarded as deeply sinful and as violators of the law – they had responded to the call of John to repentance.

The challenge of this passage for us today is partly this: to make sure we are responding to Jesus, allowing him to confront us at any point where we have been like the second son and said ‘Yes’ to God while in fact going off in another direction.

Secondly, the powers of that age were deeply challenged by the things that Jesus was doing. So a good question to ask as the followers of Jesus today is: What should we be doing that would challenge the powers of the present world with the news that Jesus is indeed its rightful Lord? What would provoke people to ask us similar questions? What stories should we be telling that would help people to find the source of true life?

+ Jesus – we have said yes to you by being part of the Church. Help us say yes again by actively welcoming and encouraging others to join us in this field hospital for all the sick and needy in our world.

Grace and peace.

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Sunday 26, Year A.

** Please pray for me as I undertake an Ignatian thirty-day retreat during this month near Boston, MA **

God is Generous

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts” says the Lord in the first reading. Which is such good news when I’m having a bad day and my thoughts are all over the place!

This truth is so central to getting our heads around this gospel today. Our deeply ingrained sense of justice kicks in, and when we hear that the workers who only had to work for the last hour of the day are paid the same as the ones who have laboured under the hot sun for the whole day – we are outraged. Where is the sense of justice in that? We are not surprised that the a ll-day workers would grumble and complain.

But Jesus is telling us something about the Kingdom of heaven and not so much about social justice and labour conditions. He is telling us something about what God is like by telling us this parable. And he has already told us that the kingdom is all about reversals – the first will be last and the last will be first.

The workers who were called last told the master that they weren’t working all day – simply because no one hired them. I think some of us know what that’s like – being the ones that get overlooked, that no one wants. Ouch.

Most likely Jesus was also thinking about people like us – those who are trying to do the right thing and follow the Lord. He is giving a warning to the disciples who were following him then, and we who are trying to follow him now.

God is by nature generous. But what we receive from God is not like a wage – it is not a reward for the work that we have done. We are not in a contract with God – although many of us grew up thinking we were! No, God is in a covenant with us. He promises us everything – and is always faithful to his promises.

+ Jesus, help us to receive your generous love and your goodness as a free gift. Help us also to join you in the marketplace as you look to welcome all those who have been overlooked and ignored by the world. Amen.

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Sunday 25, Year A.

** I am currently away on Sabbatical leave; podcasts have been prepared for most weeks ahead; please pray for me over the months ahead! **

Reconciliation Flow

Peter asks a very valid question today: “How many times must I forgive a sister or brother (who has not even necessarily repented or asked for forgiveness) – as many as seven times?” He points to the reality that forgiving someone is not easy. It is one thing to forgive a person who asks for mercy; it is quite another to forgive even when they don’t deserve it. Perhaps Peter is alluding to the first time the topic of vengeance and revenge is spoken of in the bible – with Lamech (a descendent of Cain) who boasts to his wives (already a bad sign) about the spiralling out of control of this cycle of violence and the perpetuation of the myth of redemptive violence:

Then Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to my voice;
O wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
Even a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech will be avenged
seventy and seven times.   Genesis 4:23-24

In answer to this, Jesus says: no, not seven times, but  “hebdomekontakis hepta” times – which can equally be translated as 77 times or 70 x 7 times. Which doesn’t mean that we should start keeping track and we are let off the hook once we are able to forgive someone 490 times (which would be for each individual offence anyway). The story that Jesus tells next highlights the limitless quality of mercy. Two servants owe money. The first servant owes the equivalent of $10,000,000,000 to the king; the second servant owes the first servant the equivalent of $20,000 (using the rate of a daily labourer as $200). Even though after pleading the first servant is forgiven this huge sum of money, he does not learn the lesson of mercy and does not let go of the need to seek revenge. So when the second servant pleads to him in exactly the same words as he uses, he is not moved to mercy. And as a result he must face the consequences until he does.

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Sunday 24, Year A.

** I leave this week for sabbatical leave, travelling first to Brisbane to take part in Ignite Conference, before travelling to Boston to take part in a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat at the Campion Renewal Center, before going to Jerusalem to take part in the sabbatical program at Tantur Center, returning to Australia for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney in December. **

Learning to forgive

When you are in the middle of a fight – what do you do?

Every day we see the results of not doing forgiveness and reconciliation well. On the world scale, it is the continuing threat of terrorism, wars, suicide bombs, ISIS, etc and on a more personal scale, it is seen in broken marriages and other relationships, rifts in ministries and churches, shattered families and divisions in neighbourhoods.

Usually, we just pretend that it isn’t an issue, which means that even as Christians we don’t face the facts, and swallow our pride. Instead, we paper over the obvious cracks and carry on as if everything is normal. Some of us just avoid the other person or make sure the topic doesn’t come up in conversation or in posts on our walls.

If someone has been aggressive, dishonest, bullying, or offensive to us, then we need to confront the real evil that has occurred. True reconciliation won’t happen if we pretend that nothing happened. Forgiveness is required when it did happen, and it did matter. The solution is to deal with it and desire to love and accept each other again anyway.

Forgiveness is always crucial, but often we misunderstand what forgiveness actually is. Forgiveness is more than a feeling, or a moment, and it is not about pretending something never happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a Christian message. Rather, forgiveness is often a process, a flow that we need to be part of. You may forgive someone and decide that they are such a toxic presence, that for your own health and safety they cannot be in your life. But even in this instance, forgiveness is still crucial, because forgiveness is first and foremost an attitude of your own heart. It has much less to do with others than we commonly think.

The solution that Jesus offers us is both severely practical and ruthlessly idealistic – a fantastic combination. The sequence he recommends here is vital. Firstly, go and see the person, one on one. This needs courage, prayer and humility. The other person may well respond with a counter-accusation, and there may be truth in it which you need to recognise. There are always two sides to a story, but it certainly isn’t always the case that both sides are equally to blame. If this works, it really is a wonderful thing. As Jesus says, “you have won that person back.” Even more, when you have had that courageous conversation with them, an even closer and stronger bond is often formed.

Sometimes this doesn’t work and, after further thought and prayer you know that the wrong still remains to be settled, we move to the second stage. Jesus here tells us to “take one or two others and go back again.” They should be mature enough to be honest with both of you, even if it might make everything super awkward.

If your witnesses acknowledge that you are in the right, but the other person fails to see it or do anything about it, then you can ramp it up to stage three. This final act is to take it to the church. In the time of Jesus and the early church, this would have meant little groups of his followers meeting together, praying the way he taught them, reminding each other of what he taught and trying to be faithful to this. Above all these communities were small-scale, local assemblies of God’s renewed people.

Stage Three introduces the really hard part of this teaching. We are told that if a person still refuses to accept the church’s decision, then you should treat them as “a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” At one level, this means just continuing to love them with a fierce love. Remember, Matthew who gave his name to this gospel was himself a corrupt tax collector – but the fierce love of Jesus broke through and called him into life.

But at another level it is also clear that Jesus is telling us that if there is real evil involved, and the person just refuses to face the problem, then they have already broken the communion. There can be no reconciliation until the problem is squarely faced. This does not mean that forgiveness has failed, but that sometimes we need to accept the truth that behaviours and attitudes have consequences which cannot be resolved except through change. If someone has injured me, and they do not change their attitudes or behaviours, they cannot be truly repentant. Even if I continue to pray for them, and forgive them from my heart, reconciliation and continued relationship may be impossible.

Yet Jesus also promises us that his presence will still be with us. We will not be left on our own through all of this. Where only two or three are gathered, Jesus promises that he will be there with us. If we take this teaching seriously, there are going to be struggles and great costs – but also such joy and wonder.

+ Jesus, when relationships go south, help us to have the courage to face them squarely in your love, and continue along the path of mercy.

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The Cost of Discipleship

Just before our Gospel today, Jesus asked the disciples who the people and then who they said he was. Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples, declared that Jesus is not just another prophet like the crowds say he is – Jesus is the true, anointed King of Israel, and the Son of the living God.

Jesus clearly has the support of the crowds – he has after all been giving them food when they were hungry, teaching them with kindness and authority and healing their diseases and sicknesses. So the natural next move for Jesus and his many followers, should be to march on Jerusalem, picking up more supporters along the way, and then with the element of surprise – launch an attack on the temple so that Jesus could be installed as the true King.

Instead today we discover that the way to the Kingdom of Jesus will be the exact opposite of this supposed wisdom. It is going to involve suffering and death. We also see an important truth about Jesus – his death occurred as part of God’s plan of salvation. It was not a meaningless accident of history and Jesus is a willing and knowing partner in this divine plan.

Just as St Peter found it difficult to understand why Jesus had to suffer and die, so also many in and around the church today still find this part of the Gospel message very difficult to swallow. The Christian life is the polar opposite of the egocentric culture that we live in. But when Jesus calls us to deny ourselves this does not mean that we should just give up more things – because that will only make us empty! The point of denying ourselves is to make room for Jesus – to allow him to be our true centre.

We are called to make a confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and as God’s once-and-for-all act of salvation and revelation. But this confession can only happen within the context of a community of disciples.

Unfortunately, you really cannot explain in advance what the meaning and cost of discipleship will be. The only way to learn how to be a disciple is through beginning to journey along the way.

+ Jesus, we know that in every generation there are always some who are prepared to take you seriously. Help us to make the decision today to be one of them.

Sunday 22A – Matthew 16:21-27

Who is Jesus?

I bought a Google Home recently – it’s a voice operated speaker that lets you geek out to control your music, lights and find out stuff. It comes with a guide to let you know the kind of questions that you can ask it. One of the questions that it suggests is: “Hey Google, who am I?” Honestly, I was a bit excited about this, because I thought if anyone knows who I am, after using the internet for most of my adult life, it’s probably Google. The answer was less than exciting. Google simply told me: “You told me your name was Richard”, which was way less significant than I’d imagined. Maybe I’ll have to stick to asking this question of friends who know me well to have any hope of getting a decent answer.

I suspect that in today’s Gospel, when Jesus asks his disciples this question, it was probably more than him having an existential crisis during a bad hair day. Many Jews at the time believed that God would send an anointed king who would be the one to spearhead the movement that would free the whole of Israel from its Roman occupation and oppression and finally bring about peace and justice for the whole world. No one knew where or when this anointed king would be born, although many pointed to the writings of the prophets to say that he would be a true descendent of King David and be born in Bethlehem (eg, Micah 5).

The word for this “anointed King” in the Hebrew language was “Messiah” – in the Greek language it was “Christ.” No one could say exactly what the Messiah would be like, or how you could tell when he arrived, but many thought he would be a warrior king who would defeat the pagan overlords and establish a new properly Jewish kingdom of God.

When Jesus asks his question of his disciples, he takes them far away from their normal lives, walking for days to arrive at the town of Caesarea Philippi. He would have known the kind of answers they would offer, but he wanted them to say the answer out loud. Firstly, they offer the opinion on the street – Jesus, you are one of the wild men of old, one of the prophets who stood up fearlessly against wicked leaders to speak and act against injustice.

But Jesus was so much more than just another prophet, as wonderful and amazing as this is. He knew that his followers had grasped this, and he wanted them to own this truth by actually speaking it aloud. Peter steps forward to be the spokesperson for the group: ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’

Jesus was God’s Messiah. He was not merely speaking God’s word against the wicked rulers of the time, although he definitely did that. He was God’s true anointed king, who would replace them and their corruption, and establish a new kind of kingdom.

Jesus wants us to answer this question ourselves. To speak it aloud ourselves. To own it ourselves.

Peter is the first to make this declaration, so he became the rock at the starting point and centre of this new community of Jesus’ disciples – all those people who have or will give allegiance to Jesus as God’s anointed king. Peter will still make mistakes and he has much to learn, but Jesus doesn’t call the perfect. Falling down and being forgiven is all part of the process of this new community of faith, this new Kingdom of God.

+ Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Help us to find time today to answer your question aloud – who do you say I am?

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Sunday 21, Year A.

The Canaanite Woman’s need

This is a very difficult gospel. It is hard to listen to, and hard to pray with a gospel where Jesus appears to be so sexist and racist, especially in the light of ongoing violence in so many countries around the world, all of which is based on discrimination and hatred because of difference. We can hope that he had a smile on his face when he said such a terrible thing to the woman – but we will never know. We might remember the great line of St Teresa to Jesus – well, if this is the way that you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them.

The only way that we can make sense of this passage is by looking carefully at what Jesus says to his disciples and the woman – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” His mission was not to heal all of the sick people in the world at the time, or to drive out all of their demons. His mission was to reawaken Israel back to it calling as the covenant people, chosen by the Lord as the promise-bearers for themselves on behalf of the whole world. If we forget the centrality of Israel (as the Christian church often has) we forget something that is at the centre of the mission of Jesus. We also think that the church exists only for ourselves – but both Israel and the Church (and thus the sacraments and the whole life of the church) exists for the sake of the whole world. But this was only true after the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But this woman, with her deep faith and profound compassion for her daughter, could not wait until after Easter. She wanted to bring God’s glorious future crashing into the present. That is why Jesus can say to her that you have great faith.

We are also invited to be the promise-bearers of God’s covenant people – to bring the great things of God alive in all the small daily decisions that we make.

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Sunday 20, Year A. Matthew 15:21-28.

Post #500

Walking on Water

The Gospel begins with Jesus sending the disciples off in their boat, while he sends the crowds home. Just before this passage, he had heard that his friend and cousin, John, had just been executed by the ruthless tyrant Herod. He wanted some time alone. He needed some time alone. So he went off in their boat to try and find some space to pray and think and grieve – just to sort himself out. Instead, when he arrived at what he thought was going to be a deserted place, it was full of people. I think I would have turned the boat around and found another place to go – but Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and teaches them, heals them and then as the final act, he feeds them too.

No wonder he still needs that time alone.

So he prays. And he prays. Not just for a few minutes, but for hours. From the afternoon, until the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, the disciples are in trouble, out in the middle of the lake. A strong wind has arisen and the waves were beginning to break over the little boat.

I love the next line: ‘about three o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.’ And what did the disciples make of all this – rightly I think ‘they were terrified.’ It isn’t every dark night that you see someone – in the middle of massive storm-tossed waves – just casually strolling about on top of the water. And so they screamed out in terror. To which Jesus, as he so often does, calls them to “Don’t be afraid” – although I am not sure that would have really helped given how totally bizarre the whole situation is at this point.

And then Peter pipes up. We should be used to Peter saying something a little left of centre. He seems to have that special knack of saying – or doing – something that is kind of weird – yet still wonderful. But his question is right up there alongside his other one-liners. What was he thinking? “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” To which Jesus naturally just says – sure, come! So, Peter just totally casually hops over the side of the boat – and joins Jesus – walking on the water. As you do.

Well at least for a while. The Gospel doesn’t tell us how far Peter got – but it seems to have been far enough that he was well away from the boat. But once he takes his eyes away from Jesus and begins to look at these massive waves that are blowing all around them – the natural consequence happens. He sinks and begins to drown under the waves and water, managing at least to cough out a “save me, Lord!” Which Jesus immediately does and takes Peter by the hand and helps him back into the boat, greeting him with the gentle rebuke – “why did you doubt me?”

We have so often focussed on the mistakes of Peter – but perhaps he is just meant to remind us of what we are all like. Perhaps the problem with Peter was that he needed to test Jesus by getting out of the boat and giving this whole walking on water gig a go. Perhaps he is gently rebuked because he was meant to just stay in the boat all along. Especially in this Gospel, the boat is a symbol of the church – the Christian community that struggles to make sense of everything that is happening around us. But even when we are being tossed around by the wind and the waves, perhaps the secret is just staying together in the community, trusting that even when Jesus feels like he’s absent, he will always be there when we need him. He will always stretch out his hand to save us, and he will always calm the waves and the wind and see us safely to shore.

+ Jesus, help us to keep our eyes on you despite the wind and the waves, and help us to be a community where we can stick together and grow in your love.

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Sunday 19, Year A. Matthew 14:22-33

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