Stumbling discipleship

rock-texturesYou have seduced me O Lord, and I have allowed myself to be seduced. Perhaps Simon, the hero of the Gospel last Sunday, took these words of Jeremiah to heart when after one of his rare triumphs, he so quickly falls from grace. It must have really been something – after being praised so highly and then renamed and commissioned to be the rock upon which this new community of God’s people would find their identity – and then to be told to get back into your place behind Jesus, because the suggestions that you thought were so good and logical and sensible are apparently enough to be rebuked as ‘satan’! After all, since Simon loves the Lord so much, it is only natural that the Messiah should now make his way down through the region of Galilee where Jesus has done so much good – teaching, healing, feeding thousands of people – people who would readily support Jesus as the true Messiah and rightful king. They could easily have organised a sizeable force which could easily have overthrown the small Roman garrison in Jerusalem and established Jesus there. Instead, when Jesus declares that the only way forward for him was the way of suffering, defeat and death – it must have seemed madness.

Yet what Jesus was so very clear about – was what the will of the Father was for him. His prayer was never attempting to cajole the Father into letting Jesus have his own way – and the way of discipleship that Jesus is giving to his followers then and now is the same. The way of the kingdom of God can never begin with my plans and my desires. As the old joke goes – how do we make God laugh? Answer: tell him your plans. Or in Simon’s case: how do you provoke a rebuke from God? Tell him that the true way of life does not involve denial, suffering, death and the cross.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (6’59”)
Sunday 22, Year A.
Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Rocky Simon’s declaration of faith

caesareaphilippiThe Gospel today has Jesus taking the disciples on a very unusual road trip. They walk to the very north of Israel, on the border of Lebanon and Syria to the foothills of Mount Hermon. There in the region of Caesarea Philippi – a town that was being built by King Herod to honour a pagan ruler who was oppressing his people and who identified himself as the ‘son of God’ they came to the source of the river Jordan – the springs of Banias (Panias). The name of the springs point to the reason that the area was famous – it was the site of the Temple of Pan, who in Greek mythology was the son of the god Zeus. Near the temple was the entrance to a cave that was thought to be one of the entrances into Hades (or in Hebrew understanding Sheol) and the place of the dead. Above the temple is a massive rock wall which leads up to the mountain proper.

Understanding this background and geography is very helpful to understanding more clearly what happens when Jesus asks the disciples these two questions: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” The gospel of Matthew is clear that the disciples offer many opinions that were commonly understood by the people, but when Simon steps forward to speak on behalf of all the disciples, he doesn’t only say that you are the Messiah (as in Luke and Mark), but Simon goes on to declare that Jesus was the “Son of the Living God.” Given that this took place in the surrounds of the temples to the Greek god Pan (which was a fertility cult which would have featured ritual prostitution and various expressions of cultic sexuality) and the Emperor Philip, the declaration of Simon that Jesus was not just another son of God, but the true Son of the Living God.

It is then that Jesus provides rare praise for Simon, declaring that it is not flesh and blood that has revealed this to him, but ‘my Father in heaven’ and then he goes on to give to Simon a new name (perhaps referring to the large rock wall behind them as he does): “You are Rock and on this rock I will build by ekklesia.” Even though they are near a famous temple, and the temple in Jerusalem was understood as the meeting place of heaven and earth Jesus chooses to use a new word to describe this new reality that would be built upon the person and faith of Rocky – ekklesia. He could have said this is where I will build by new synagogue or my new temple, but instead he tells the disciples that this was the initiative of his Father in heaven to call a people out from the world and to call them into the new life of the kingdom. This world ekklesia – although accurately translated as ‘church’ is a radically dynamic reality capturing a people that are invited to be the very sign of the presence of God among his good created world.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm Mass (12min)
Sunday 21, Year A.

Foreign faith

young_womanThe Gospel that we are presented with today is hard to deal with (Matthew 15:21-28). We expect that when Jesus is presented with a situation of desperate need that he answer with compassion and mercy. Instead today, when he flees to the pagan northern region of Tyre and Sidon and meets a local woman in need, he addresses her first with silence, then a third-person rebuttal based on her ethnicity and then an outright and disgusting insult, comparing her to a house-dog. Even if you make allowances for Jesus being tired, or choosing the description of a puppy rather than a wild dog, the insult is still shocking. The fact that the liturgy today pairs this reading with the prophecy from Isaiah that longs for the day when even foreigners who ‘attach themselves to the Lord to serve him and to love his name and be his servants’ will also be brought to the holy mountain and their offerings will then be acceptable. It is perhaps even more shocking to us who have lived through too many genocides and episodes of racial cleansing and violence and hatred that is based on race, skin colour, religion and sexual identity. The continuing poor way that we treat refugees and asylum seekers in our country is also surely motivated by such factors. So how can we make sense of what Jesus says and does today? Is there a way that we can even begin to understand what may have motivated such action on his part?

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’22”)
Sunday 20 in Year A.

Storms and Silence – Elijah and Peter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe audio at the start of the homily today is from the video “Elijah” by Dan Stevers. Elijah in I Kings 17-18 is presented as the dude – the great hero of the people of Israel. He is able to break a 40 month drought, beat a chariot in a 30km race, raise the dead, call down fire in a contest with 450 prophets of the false God Ba’al. He is a verifiable super-hero and I suspect that most of the young children in Israel would want to be Elijah when they grew up. So it comes as a shock in I Kings 19 that his whole world-view has fallen apart. He flees for his life after Queen Jezebel threatens his life, going first to Beersheba in the southernmost point of the next Kingdom of Judah – well beyond the powers of King Ahab and Jezebel from the northern kingdom of Israel. But then leaving his trusted servant there, Elijah heads out into the wilderness and calls out to God to take his life because he has had enough – perhaps a little like Moses in Numbers 11. But instead the Lord provides food and drink for Elijah to give his strength for the journey. Elijah then sets out on a pilgrimage even further south across the Sinai peninsula to the mountain of the Lord – Mount Horeb (also called Mount Sinai). There he finds the cave that Moses had gone to when he wanted to experience the glory of the Lord (Exodus 33). The Lord first questions Elijah and then promises to make his presence felt. While Elijah waits on the side of the mountain, three mighty signs that normally signal the presence of the Lord are unleashed upon the mountain – the wind storm that is so strong that rocks are split and shattered (the sounds of the storm); an earthquake that continues to break apart the mountain (the feeling) and a fire that can be seen. But despite these mighty signs that can be heard, felt and seen, the Lord is not present in any of these signs and wonders. Instead Elijah hears the faintest whisper of a voice – literally ‘the sound of fine silence’ [qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ].

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (13’17”)
Sunday 19, Year A. I Kings 19:9a,11-13a; Matt 14:22-33

Grief and Grace

canadian-lakeDuring the week as I was bombarded by both traditional media and social media with increasingly violent and horrific articles and images of the death and destruction in the conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, it was difficult not to feel completely overwhelmed by grief and sadness in the face of such hatred and cruelty. All of this grief compounded on Friday afternoon when I celebrated a funeral in our chapel for Gabriel – a tiny stillborn child. Being with the family who had lost so much and feeling so completely inadequate to the task of speaking hope and grace into their lives, the palpable grief in the chapel overwhelmed me and I also began to weep and barely managed to complete the service. Perhaps it was something like this that confronted Jesus after he heard the news of the death of his cousin and friend, John (the Baptist). As he left the crowds behind to go to a lonely place to sit in the silence of his grief with his disciples, the lonely place becomes another place of encounter as it is filled with an even greater crowd, hungry for the teaching that only Jesus was able to offer. Although I suspect I would have been likely to turn the boat around and head for a lonelier place, Jesus has compassion on the crowds and begins to heal their sick. Late in the afternoon, the disciples remind him that it is a lonely place and that he should show compassion to the crowds (and to the disciples) by sending them away to the villages around the lake where they could find something to eat. But Jesus has other plans.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’14”)
Sunday 18, Year A.