Good news

The Gospel of Mark was written, most likely, around the year 65 in the city of Rome. It was a very turbulent period, after the great fire that had raged for seven days through the city in July 64. The Emperor Nero needed someone to blame for lighting the fire – although many suggest that he was the most likely arsonist – and the Jewish Christians who lived across the Tiber and were untouched by the devastating fire were an easy target. A persecution against the followers of Jesus began, that resulted in many, including both Saints Peter and Paul, being martyred.

The death of so many of the early leaders is the likely catalyst for wanting to put down in writing the good news of Jesus the Messiah. The oral stories of the life and ministry of Jesus that kept the faith alive, now needed to be kept for future generations as well.

What a story it is! Many people in the Jewish world had been looking for signs from God. Most of them wanted a Messiah that would lead them in a revolt against Rome. Few if any expected the sign would be a prophet like John the Baptiser calling them (in Hebrew) to t’shuvah.

Across the pages of the Jewish scriptures is told again and again a story of freedom from oppression and slavery. John is retelling the story of the Exodus and inviting his hearers to join in the action, to come down into the water and find life and freedom for themselves.

Just as Moses had invited the people to leave behind the slavery of Egypt, so John is now inviting anyone who will listen to leave behind their world of sin and rebellion against God. God had invited them to walk along the straight path of freedom, but they had wandered away and forgotten who they were created to be. John invites them to ‘come on home’ – to return to the path that leads to life, joy and wonder. This is what t’shuvah means. John invited his people then, and we are invited today to turn around and stop going down a road that will only lead to destruction, pain and hurt. T’shuvah he says. Stop dreaming and wake up to the new reality of the bright light of the one who is to come. He will lead you into the new life of the Holy Spirit.

+ Jesus, you call us to wake up to the good news that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. Thank you for the freedom that only you can offer. Amen.

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Advent 2, Year B.

Stay Awake

Happy new year! (Such a geeky liturgical thing to say!) We begin this new season of Advent today, and with this Sunday the whole cycle of the church’s year begins again. We switch from listening to the gospel of Matthew and begin to listen to the first of the gospels to be written, the gospel of Mark. It has been three years since we have heard the unique voice of Mark as part of our Sunday readings.

But wait, if we begin reading from Mark’s gospel today in this season of Advent, then why aren’t we beginning with the opening verses of the Gospel? Why are we in chapter 13? And if Advent is all about preparing for Christmas, why aren’t we reading about the birth of Jesus – you know, from the infancy stories that Mark tells?

In fact, if you open to chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, you find there are no stories about the birth of Jesus. The opening lines – which we will hear next Sunday – are brilliant, but they are all about the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist.

Today Jesus uses an image of the fig tree in full blossom as a sign that summer is near. He points to all the events that were going down around him as a reminder that the community needs to stay awake, be alert, and keep watch. The image is like soldiers standing on the fortifications that surrounded the towns of old, keeping vigil as they gazed across the landscape.

There will be no signs that we can read to know when the Son of Man will come again. Jesus is very clear that only the Father knows when the right time will be – so our task is simply to remain faithful to God, no matter how dark the night, and to keep awake, watching for the new day to dawn.

+ Jesus, keep us focussed on the new dawn of your day of justice, and help us to be attentive to all that really matters in our lives. Amen.

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Advent, Sunday 1, Year B. Mark 13

Christ, the King of Justice

Justice is something that we learn very early as children. We have this strong instinct for when something doesn’t just seem to be fair. Perhaps as a result, justice is one of the most profound longings of the human race. When there is no justice, then we know that something is wrong from deep within ourselves. Justice is both hard to define and hard to enact. This has never stopped humans from seeking it, praying for it, and working hard to find better ways of doing it. Justice means bringing the world back into balance.

The scene of the last judgement that is presented in the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 25 has burned itself deeply into our consciousness – not least because of its depiction in many paintings. The Son of Man is identified as the king who sits on his glorious throne admitting on one side the righteous to the final kingdom of God – prepared from the foundation of the world. In contrast is the other side with the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The common image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the similarly coloured goats is used.

In this present moment, these two kingdoms are interwoven and confused through the ambiguities of history. But the kingdom of God is the only true kingdom. What appears to be the present struggle between the two kingdoms will not last forever, because ultimately only God is King!

Part of what is proclaimed in this gospel is that in the coming of the son of man, justice will at last be done. This passage comes as the climax of a whole series where Jesus has denounced his own people and especially the leaders for their failure to live as God’s people should.

What Jesus wants the church to know is that he is already ruling the whole world as its rightful Lord. This is especially true where the kingdoms of this world treat many of our brothers and sisters with contempt, torture, abuse and too often with death. Then, as now, this passage provides great encouragement for all who work for justice in the name of the kingdom of God.

+ Jesus, as this year draws to a close, help us to rest in your amazing love. Take away any fear or anxiety, because we know that you’ve got this whole world under your care and protection. Amen.

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Sunday 34, Year A. Christ the King. Matthew 25:31-46

** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **

Hidden Talents

When you get to the end of the year, there are always tests and exams and assignments for students. Some of these may be less serious – merely serving to help teachers know what they will need to spend more time revising in the new year. But for others, these tests will assess everything that the student has learnt over the whole of their schooling and the results will shape much of the life for the student for some years.

Some people think that God has given us a syllabus to study, rules to follow, and lessons to learn. They think that when God returns he’ll set a test to work out who will fail and who will pass. We might imagine that the really good people will get a special award; the really bad ones a decent kick up the pants.

Jesus today tells a parable about a rich man heading abroad, who entrusts his property with three of his servants. A talent was a measure of money – equivalent to what a worker would earn over the course of 15 years – think of it as a million dollars. God wants us to be wise and shrewd in using the talents that he has given us. But this is not a parable that encourages capitalism or becoming an investment banker. The treasure that is spoken of is the good news about the love of the Lord.

While we must read this parable – like all of them – in the light of all that Jesus says about coming for the sick and the sinner, this parable is certainly making a positive judgement on the first two servants who have heard the message of Jesus and have responded to all that God has given to bring about something new. The parable also judges the ones who have hidden their light and kept it for themselves – the worthless servants who do not share the good news of God’s love with others.

+ Jesus, you are such a treasure for us. Help us to freely share the abundance of your love with all those around us. Amen.

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Sunday 33, Year A.

** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **

The reality of heaven

What we come to when we wish to ponder the place where Jesus has gone, and where our beloved dead have gone to – it is not another where, not another place, but another way of being. Heaven is not some place elsewhere, but it is a different way of being – the place where God is and where the will of God is always done. It is important in this month of November that we spend time reflecting on the nature and reality of heaven. Using the beautiful writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, and reflecting on the images that St Paul uses in the second reading today, we can reflect upon purgatory, hell and heaven as part of our hope for ourselves and all our brothers and sisters who have gone before us.

** I am currently away in Jerusalem on sabbatical leave. This recording is from the Archives (recorded in 2011) **

Practice your Preaching

When you are setting out on a great adventure, you want the guide who is helping you to choose all the gear, plan your route, and help you train to have hiked the same planned journey – not just watched a video about it on YouTube or Discovery Channel. All too often we have guides and teachers who are more concerned about their outward show and appearances than authentic practice.

The reading today begins the fifth and final section of teaching that you find in Matthew’s gospel. This section, which runs for the next three chapters, is full of woes and judgements and the last things. Which makes sense for it takes place during the final week in the life of Jesus, only days before he dies.

Jesus offers three criticisms: that the leaders and teachers say but do not do; second, that they burden others but do not act; and third, that they act for the wrong reasons – to make an impression. So, Jesus says what they teach is good – but they need to practice what they preach.

The warnings that Jesus makes in this chapter certainly apply to the leaders in the church – the Rabbis, Fathers and Teachers ­– but it also applies from top to bottom of all modern societies. No one is completely immune from the criticisms that Jesus levels here. All of us are social creatures who want to be known and liked and accepted by our peers.

When Jesus makes these criticisms, he wasn’t sitting on a great throne. He says these things when the cross that will kill him is already looming large. On the cross he will humble himself and be the servant to all, carrying the heaviest burden of all, so that his people would no longer have to be weighed down by all our garbage.

+ Jesus, help us to get over our little show and appearance. Help us to see that you call us to live an authentic life of service, and to follow you each day along the way of the cross. Amen.

Grace and peace.

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Sunday 31, Year A.

** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **

The law of life

The question that Jesus is asked in the gospel today from Matthew 22 was a common one that the Rabbis of the day would be asked – “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Since in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, also called the Torah, the Rabbis had discerned a total of 613 commandments or mitzvot, there were many possible answers to this question. A mitzvah is a commandment – much more than a good deed or work that you can do. They were broken up into 248 positive prescriptions – things you must do, such as to keep holy the Sabbath and to honour your parents, take care of the poor; and 365 negative prohibitions – things that you shall not do, such as do not murder, do not steal and so forth.

Jewish teachers were often asked to summarise the law in a brief statement – some have said that it was a summary that you could say while standing on one leg. The answer that Jesus gives, drawn from chapter 6 in the Book of Deuteronomy – is also common. This commandment – to love the Lord your God with all your heart, life and strength – is not just among the things that the Jews were supposed to do. It was a central part of the daily prayer of every devout Jew morning, noon and night – a tradition that continues to this day. The prayer is called the Shema – from the Hebrew word to hear.

To this greatest commandment Jesus quickly adds another, taken from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19 – to love your neighbour as yourself.

Knowing the commandments – and living them are unfortunately often two very different things. Far too often we try to obey these commandments in our own strength. But when you see them in the light of the larger Gospel story of Jesus dying for the sins of the world and rising to bring new life – along with the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit to empower us to be changed – then these commandments become invitations and promises of a whole new way of life. When we live them like this, then bit by bit we can slowly allow our hearts to be transformed by his grace, so that all those bits of darkness – pride and hatred and impurity and selfishness – all of these things can be left behind and the love that lies at the heart of our faith can become a reality.

+Jesus, may we be caught up each day in your amazing story of love. Help us to receive your love by diving deeply into your love, so that we can live each day in the freedom to love you and love others. Amen.

Grace and peace!

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Sunday 30, Year A.

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

Real Revolution

As an Australian, we can often feel small and forgotten, because we seem to be so far away from where all the action is happening. Our population is relatively small, we don’t have a huge army, or nuclear weapons to protect our vast land area. Yet we are also one of the wealthiest nations, with high income, good health, long life, and enviable lifestyle. And we have an alliance with and the protection of one of the greatest military superpowers the world has ever seen. Which means that we often miss the point of many things in the bible.

For the bible was written by a tribe of Jewish people that had experienced hundreds of years of suffering and abuse living under a whole series of more powerful and oppressive empires. And the Jewish prophets kept reminding both people and leaders that the oppression they experience and the freedom they seek is for a specific purpose – to maintain justice and righteousness and to care for the weak – the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.

Apart from many trips overseas, I have lived in Australia my whole life – which means that the capitalist system has been whispering subversive messages into my ears my whole life.

The main message is: More… You need more…

You need more stuff. More money. More land. More influence. More power.

Because more, we are told, is always better than less.

Except when more is actually destructive and damaging. Sometimes more is in fact evil.

So, when we read this confrontation between the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus today with this question about taxes – we need to wade through all of our social background first as members of the victorious dominant western culture rather than the underclass.

A few revolutionaries had tried – and failed – to overthrow the Roman occupiers. Most people hated having to pay so much in tax, leaving almost nothing to feed your family. So, the question that Jesus is asked is explosive.

He begins to answer by asking for a coin. The Jews knew that they were created in the image and likeness of God, so it was wrong to put images of people or gods on things, because it could confuse people.

But the coins that people had to pay their taxes with not only had an image of Caesar on them, they also had an inscription around the edge that proclaimed him “Son of God … high priest.” So, his questioner has to admit that he carries around these hated coins that bear such a distasteful and terrible picture and title.

Jesus answers this specific question brilliantly: give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God. He doesn’t provide a policy for all time about how we must resolve every economic question that we will face as we navigate our way in the world.

The mission of Jesus was not to be another revolutionary like the others around. The kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, but only because the love and power of God will always conquer not only Caesar but the even greater power of death and destruction itself.

+ Jesus, help us to be reminded of your constant call to care for the weak and oppressed, and to always make serving your kingdom our first daily priority. Amen.

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Sunday 29, Year A.

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

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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Transfigured and transformed

Have you ever had an experience that was so sublime, so magical, so amazing – that you struggled to share all its details even with a close friend? Maybe the event wasn’t even all that weird or far out – but all the elements came together in a way that you know that mere words or photos are just not going to come close to even beginning to share the full impact of what transpired in those incredible days or moments.

I suspect that the event that we listen to today from Matthew 17 is like this – only a thousand times more amazing. When the different gospel writers attempt to describe what happened – and even more so to share the emotional and spiritual impact of what happened that amazing day – they are struggling at the limits of human language.

We are told that Jesus is transfigured before them – literally, in the Greek language, he writes that Jesus is meta’morphosed (meta=change; morphe=form, so a change of form, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly). When the disciples look at Jesus, he glows with a transcendent glory that is reserved for the heavenly beings. Jesus is joined in this splendour with Moses and Elijah – not only to represent the “Law and the Prophets” – but because they were both prophets who were rejected by the people; advocated for God, the covenant and the Torah; worked miracles and ultimately were vindicated by God as representatives of the heavenly world.

But I suspect that Bishop Tom Wright is correct, when he invites us to meditate upon the transfiguration scene – by holding and contrasting in your mind the scene of Calvary and the crucifixion of Jesus. Here on a mountain-top in Galilee, Jesus is revealed in glory; there, on the hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus is revealed in shame. Here, his clothes are shining bright; there his clothing has been stripped by the soldiers. Here, he is flanked by Moses and Elijah as two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there, he is flanked by two brigands, as a sign of how far Israel had fallen as a result of its rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness falls upon the land. Here Peter cries out about how wonderful it all is; there, Peter hides in shame after denying the Lord. Here the voice of God booms from the cloud declaring that Jesus is my beloved son; there, it is left to a pagan Roman soldier to declare in surprise that this really was God’s son.

Perhaps this moment of glory can only be appreciated and understood when we can also see the glory of the cross. The three disciples who accompanied Jesus to that high place that day – Peter, James and John – were rightly surprised by the sublime power, love and beauty of God. But we also need to discover a way to recognise that same power, love and beauty in the voice of Jesus when he calls us each day to take up our cross and follow him as disciples.

This is the Journey Radio recording text. Available here.

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6 Aug – Feast of the Transfiguration (replaces Sunday 18A). Matthew 17:1-9

Treasures of the Kingdom

Today we conclude a three-week series of readings from the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This chapter is jam-packed with parables and their explanations. The section today has three short parables drawn from ordinary life – a treasure that is hidden in a field; a fine and valuable pearl that is found by a merchant, and a dragnet that gathers fish of every kind. Jesus concludes the section by praising the steward who brings out of the storeroom both new things and old things.

The chapter lies at the very centre of this Gospel, and it seems that we are being invited to be the scribes who draw out of our storeroom things both new and old. The new things are this brand new and magnificent vision that the kingdom of heaven is bringing; the old things are the centuries-old wisdom of the ages and the witness of the people of Israel and her stories and hopes. The way of the Gospel is about planting the new deep down within the old and allowing the ancient wisdom to come to fresh and exciting expressions in the new.

The shape of Matthew’s gospel is meant to remind the careful reader of the first five books of the Bible – the Torah, or the Books of Moses. The content, however, that Matthew gives us in this gospel is new and explosive. There is a decision that must be made urgently. It was fashionable then, as it remains fashionable now, to imagine that there were many different pearls or many kinds of treasures that you could collect in the various religions that are on offer. But Jesus says no – there is only one pearl and one treasure, which is the Gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus was declaring and living out.

Besides all this Jesus declares that the world is not just going around in circles – but it has a clear direction and is heading in a straight line towards its goal in the final judgement. It continues to move towards that glorious day when God will remake the whole world in truth and justice, and of course, in love.

These parables continue to challenge us to both understand them and to place them into action as the wise scribes that we are urged to be. We are called in our thinking, speaking and living to be firmly rooted in the wisdom of the ages and also to be the bearers of the fresh new work that God is doing. For God is always doing a new work – but this work is always an evolution from the continuing work of God across the centuries.

Today we are invited to carefully reflect upon our lives to make sure that the fruit of our lives is both old and new.

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Sunday 17, Year A. (Description from the Journey Radio Program)
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