The secret of joy

Jesus makes today a series of fairly bizarre declarations about himself and his position. He tells the disciples – who at the beginning of this chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel are commissioned and sent out to share in his mission – that anyone who prefers ‘father or mother’; ‘son or daughter’ to me is not worthy of me. This must be read in context – because other places in the New Testament tell us how to have proper relationship with our family members – new and old. This is not a recommendation to ignore our family. This is about something greater. Jesus is not telling us these thing as some ego-filled dictator – but he is telling us this to prompt us along the way of life in the kingdom, and so that we are able to share in the absolute joy that he offers to us. Although it is not explicitly stated, these statements are claims about the divinity of Jesus and his share of life with the Father – and he invites us to share in this life by our placing the worship of Jesus as the first priority of our life. In this we are able to share in true joy – joy that abides in us, and not just at passing moments. There is only one way to experience this joy – and it is through having Jesus as the first gift of our lives. By sharing in his life, and receiving his love, then we have something to share and give to others and ourselves. Many years ago, someone shared with me the secret of joy – which is spelled out by the letters of the word: Jesus; Others; You. By remembering to keep Jesus first in our lives, then we open the door to true joy.

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Sunday 13, Year A. Matthew 10:37-41

Declare before God

Commitment Sunday

The Gospel today invites us as a church to ‘declare ourselves before God’ as good stewards. God loves giving – he gave no lesser gift than the wonderful gift of Jesus to ensure that we are not alone in this life. We are also invited to not be afraid – the most common commandment that the Lord tells us. When we think about our response to the Lord in the areas of time, talents and treasures, all kind of misconceptions and myths can get in the way. We imagine that (1) we need to earn God’s love – when we can do nothing that will make God love us more. We believe that if we (2) obey God we will not enjoy life and miss out on so many things – yet Jesus tells us that he came that we may have life in abundance (John 10:10). Finally, we think that God is angry and needs to be appeased, so we think that (3) we need to buy God off and try to do this at the least possible price – surely those few coins that we toss into the collection will be just enough!

In fact, giving shapes our hearts and lives. Giving is so much more about our need to give than God’s need to receive. He doesn’t need anything from us – but we certainly never grow until we learn to freely give. There are many places in scripture that teach the principle of the first fruits – beginning in Genesis 4 with the offerings of Abel and Cain – then the offering of a tithe from Abraham to Melchizedek (Genesis 14) and the instruction that God gave Moses to offer the first-born children to be redeemed by the Lord. This continues in the Exodus tradition of offering sacrifice, and culminates in the offering of the first fruits of the land once they take possession of the Holy Land (Deut 26).

Everything belongs to God!

When we think about our giving, we are invited to think about a few issues. The first is “How do I give?” – do I give intentionally, or only accidentally? The second is “What do I give?” – do I give my very best (the first fruits), or do I only offer the leftovers to God and the church community?

When we want to grow in any area of our lives, it is important to remember that it takes time to learn something new, and to become skilled and gifted in an area. So the first of the baby steps that we need to take is (1) begin to give regularly by making giving a priority in our lives. When St Paul teaches on giving (over several of his letters) he tells us that our giving should be Proportional and Regular (eg 2 Cor 8:1-3 and 1 Cor 16:1-2). As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, do not be afraid of this. It takes practice to learn to do anything that is truly valuable.

If we have been giving for a while, then we may be ready to move onto baby step 2. Which takes the commitment to not just give something regularly, but to consider our finances and carefully determine how much we can afford to give – and then increase that amount by 1%. Remember, it is not the whole dollar amount that we give that matters – it is the proportion of our income. If we only give from our excess, then we have not even begun to really give. If it is too easy – perhaps we need to add another 1% to what we give – or maybe even 5%?

Finally, if you have been committed to giving sacrificially for sometime and you are willing to really trust in the Lord, then you can really level up with step 3 – which is committing to tithe on your gross income. There is a strange economics that comes into play once you commit to tithing. Even with a degree in Economics and Accounting, I am not sure why my finances have continued to do so well after I made this commitment many years ago to give what is already God’s back to God, his church and his people. But I know that this is something that we can always trust in – we can put God to the test in this area and he will be faithful. Guaranteed!

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All resources
Video Reflection: We Give (Dan Stevers)
Song Reflection: Open Up Our Eyes (Acapella by Bammel Church)

Two on the road

The story of two disciples walking along the 60-stadia road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is rightly considered one of the greatest examples of resurrection life and discipleship-in-community ever written. One of the problems with this text is just how rich it is. There is so much material here that followers of Jesus are able to join Cleopas (the only named disciple) along the road many times in careful reflection and meditation without ever depleting the rich well of connections and spirituality. Today we will pause to consider five different aspects of this wonderfully rich resurrection scene.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (13 mins)
Easter, Sunday 3, Year A. Luke 24:13-31

I invited three different people to share their experiences of Alpha during term 1 and invited people to join the next session of Alpha which begins this week.

Resurrection Is (Easter Sunday)

One of the limitations of celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus is that for so many people in the church, they still operate with a tri-part understanding of creation, even though they know that this is not the case in the physical universe or according to the laws of science and nature. So we still think that the world is divided into heaven above, the earth here and the underworld below, and then dutifully assign the various characters into their realms which are rarely breached. So we allow God to be safely locked away in the heavens where he can go about his business without disturbing us too greatly. But a fundamental problem with this understanding, which has allowed the church to function as an elevator – is that it is so deeply unbiblical. It is not just the role of the holy ones, or the designated ministers to ascend into the heavenly places to receive lots of information and experiences which are then imparted upon the uninitiated (and in this worldview that is most people). The whole power of the incarnation is undone and the effects of the redemption that Jesus won for us are belittled. Thankfully this is not the witness of scripture.

Even if we insist on relegating God to the heavens and we insist on situating the heavens to being up in the sky, one of the lovely insights that Diana Butler Bass shares (in Grounded) is that the sky in fact begins under our feet and is as close as the air that we breathe – which is pretty close indeed!

Recorded at St Paul’s, 9am
Easter Sunday, Year A.


A Resurrection Worldview (Easter Vigil)

This year our parish celebrated the Easter Vigil early on Easter Sunday morning (beginning at 5am) as a Dawn Mass, rather than early in the evening on Holy Saturday night as has been the custom. In part this was because I never liked the fact that during the Easter Vigil celebrated at that time, you would speak of Jesus dying yesterday afternoon – which made little catechetical sense of speaking about the resurrection happening on the third day. In addition, all of the Gospel accounts that speak of the discovery of the empty tomb say that the women, and then one or more disciples go to the tomb just before dawn, while it was still dark. So a year ago I began to investigate the timing of the sunrise in Wollongong in mid-April and spent several mornings in the church pacing through the Easter Vigil Mass to calculate the best time for the liturgy to begin, so that all of the first two parts of the Mass – the Lucernarium and the Liturgy of the Word – would take place in darkness, but there would be the first hint of light and then sunrise to accompany the third and fourth parts of the liturgy. Although those wonderful red-bits in the liturgical books indicate that the whole liturgy should take place at night, this seems to be more of a directive against those parishes that begin the liturgy too early and light a fire and then the candle when neither is needed as a counterpoint to the daylight or twilight that surrounds the participants. As we celebrated the liturgy this year, the prayer in the sung Exsultet that “this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star” could finally be fulfilled! It was also good to make the connection with the dawn services that will be celebrated around the country next week for Anzac Day.

The altar cross is obliterated by the rising sun.

The Gospel from Matthew began with “After the Sabbath, and towards dawns on the first day of the week” and this was precisely the time that it was being proclaimed in our church. By the time that the Liturgy of Baptism was being celebrated, the light surrounding the church was more pronounced, the bird calls were louder, and the sun rose as we began the Eucharistic Prayer (see picture on left). When I asked the congregation at the end of Mass if it was worth getting up early again next year, there was a resounding ‘yes!’

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Recorded at St Paul’s, Easter Day (5am)
View Presentation Slides (Resurrection Is)


Passover Slave (Holy Thursday)

We begin these sacred days of Easter with this encounter on the eve of Passover – as we remember the meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples. The Gospel of John – which is our primary companion over these days – does not provide details about the elements of the meal itself – the bread and the wine. In the liturgy tonight, that role is given to the second reading from I Corinthians 11, which parallels similar accounts in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It is clear that although this community gathers to celebrate the Passover, what happens is a radical transformation of the meal into something that is no longer mainly historical, recalling the sacred events of the Exodus from Egypt, into something that is oriented towards the future. One of the ways that this transformation happens is when Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his clothes and begins to act in a most humiliating way as he washes the feet of his friends – something that is normally the activity of only the most despised of slaves.

Re-recorded at St Paul’s (original recording failed)
Holy Thursday evening, Mass of the Lord’s Supper 2017

Little Zacchaeus

Before I begin this gospel reflection, there is one thing that you should know about me: I am not height challenged – in fact I am much more likely to be asked to move out of the way so that others standing in a crowd behind me are able to see the action. So the story that is told only in chapter 19 in the Gospel of Luke about this height-challenged bloke Zacchaeus having to climb up a tree to see Jesus doesn’t really connect with me.

I’ve also sometimes joked that the bible may well be sexist, but it is also heightist – it is the little runt of a kid David who wins over the tall Goliath, and is chosen by the Lord in preference to the tall king Saul. But I guess you can’t win them all.

The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus stands fittingly as the last episode of the long journey that Jesus and his disciples have been taking from Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus has been mocked as a friend of tax collectors and sinners, so it is appropriate that the final act of Jesus is to eat in the house of not just a tax collector, but a chief or senior tax collector. These characters were really entrepreneurs – they were required to pay the contract amount in advance, and then employ others to help them to collect all the taxes, with a tidy profit built into the collection system. While all tax collectors right across history have never been the winners of the most popular awards, these chief tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews. The other people in the town no doubt had watched as Zacchaeus walked around town in ever finer clothes, with more servants at his beck-and-call, attending to his every need in his ever more beautifully furnished and grander house – and all at their expense.

Luke carefully weaves this story into the ones that have gone just before it. In the Gospel that we heard last Sunday – of the Pharisee and another tax collector – Jesus had declared that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Today we see this very thing in the person of Zacchaeus. He casts aside all regard for his own dignity by climbing a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. Also in the previous chapter, Jesus had challenged the rich ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, but that man went away sad.

Here, as soon as the eyes of Jesus met the eyes of Zacchaeus, there was a meeting of souls. Jesus had seen that look in many others that he had encountered before, and he knew that it revealed a sickness in the heart of Zacchaeus that only Jesus could touch and heal. But rather than providing the opportunity for a parable as the people in the crowd complain and groan about this meeting, we hear Zacchaeus himself speak to us in front of Jesus and the whole crowd, bearing witness to the extraordinary and extravagant repentance that has happened in this instance. Zacchaeus knows that words alone are not enough – so he makes a lavish offer to make amends. His offer to sell half his property and to make a four-fold restitution will impact his fortunes deeply. But he knows that in the person of Jesus he has found something of untold value – because today, salvation has come to this house. Now he is restored where he is as part of the renewed Israel. For the son of man has come to seek and save what was lost.

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Recorded for Journey Radio Program (3 mins)
Sunday 31, Year C. Luke 19:1-10.

Towers, Armies and Mission

Jesus is somewhat uncharacteristic today as he tries to win friends and influence the crowds by declaring that they will not be worthy to be his followers and disciples unless we hate the most significant people in our lives, including ourselves, take up our cross – which means to prepare to die – and give away all that we possess. Such strong stuff. To drive home the message, Jesus uses two images – both of which are very appropriate for Father’s Day – the Bunnings/Masters friendly man doing the DIY project of building a tower, and the very Game of Thrones friendly reference to two kings going to war against each other. The stakes are certainly raised. Jesus is deadly serious that this discipleship business will cost us everything. At the beginning, we must be ready to learn and grow – but he will ask everything of us – because it is only when we are free to follow him that we will find any freedom in life.

This weekend also marks the beginning of my second year at St Paul’s. So this Gospel provides the basis for this call to respond to the great commission that Jesus gives to us – to go, make disciples, baptise and teach. Only one of the four elements of the commission is central – and it happens to be the one part that the church has not been especially strong in – we have faithfully baptised people over the centuries, and built schools and educated children, and we have sent missionaries to new territories – but we have often failed to do the one essential thing – which is to make disciples. This has to change – because the central call of the church – the reason that the Church exists – is to evangelise and make disciples – which means that the reason that this parish exists is to evangelise and make disciples. So as we begin this new season of Spring, let us also make this a new springtime in the parish by embracing this call to make disciples.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am Mass (13 mins)
Sunday 23, Year C. Luke 14:25-33


A tale of two mountains

22C-2mountainsThe wonderful reading from Hebrews 12 today (second reading) may pass us by, because it presumes that we have a good understanding of the rest of the book, as well as Jewish history, geography, scripture and the Jerusalem temple. It probably doesn’t help that the name of the first mountain is not even given in the text, although the description makes it very clear what the author has in mind. The scene is from Exodus 19-20, when Moses leads the chosen people from the slavery of Egypt into this wilderness encounter with the Lord at Mount Sinai. Although it was a wonderful event, it is so dramatic and overwhelming, that most of the people would have been left as a trembling mess after this theophany. What the author wants us to know, is that as wonderful as Jewish history, centred on these key events of Exodus, wilderness wanderings, settling of the promised land, and the building of a people, then a nation, then a kingdom, which culminated in the establishment of the city of David on Mount Zion, where his son Solomon would build a temple and begin the traditions of temple offerings and sacrifices that shaped the identity of the Jewish people. When he turns in verses 22 to 24 to this contrast that is found on Mount Zion, it is not primarily to negate all that had gone before, but to speak of the ministry of Jesus as being the true and better way – completing and perfecting the limitations of the first and necessary system that was the Mosaic law. The way that he describes the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem is simply stunning. The even more stunning thing is that this access to God the supreme judge is made available through Jesus every time and in every moment that we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am (9 mins)
Sunday 22, Year C.

Jarred awake

If your image of Jesus is of Mr Nice Guy, always meek and mild, then the Gospel today will come as a massive shock. In the Gospel, from Luke chapter 12, verses 49-53, there doesn’t seem to be a hint of gentle Jesus, or even nice Jesus, but instead a wholesale picture of family feuding and fighting. Maybe we always imagine Jesus as the gentle prince of peace. But in this passage it seems Jesus is more the prince of division than prince of peace.

Maybe we are like the contemporaries of the prophet Micah, who reminds us in chapter 7 at the end of his book, that family dysfunction is a sure indication that everything is not the way that God originally intended. Micah laments about the many things that are going wrong in the world, and that there is only one way forward – which is to trust in the Lord and wait for the God of salvation.

Many years ago, I was in the habit of falling asleep while listening to music on my headphones, and mostly it was pretty quiet and gentle kind of music. One of my mates, knowing that this was my habit, decided it would be rather funny to add some extra music to the end of the tape. So just as the music was doing its trick, and I was calmly and gently falling asleep, it was all rudely interrupted by loud heavy metal music – which immediately jerked me wide awake.

Perhaps my friend’s trick was a bit cruel, but the shock of the crash of those notes interrupting the gentle melody is a great image of the warning that Jesus gives us in our Gospel today. Jesus sees a crisis coming. He says ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!

The crisis that is coming will centre on him – the baptism of his own suffering and death – and he can’t believe that the people around him can’t see the massive storm that is brewing. Perhaps we are being invited today to really wake up and take a long and hard look at all that surrounds us in the world. We have to read the signs of the times and act accordingly.

We pray in the Our Father for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it in heaven. Surely the church is called to ponder the events on earth and address them with the truth of heaven. Maybe we need to wake up with a crash so that we don’t remain asleep on the job.

Journey Radio Program recording
Sunday 20, Year C. Luke 12:49-53