Christmas Day – the Compassion of God

PARAY1There is an extraordinary line in the second reading today – ‘When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any righteous thing that we had done, but because of his mercy.’ (Titus 3:4-5) We have often understood Judaism and its focus on the laws and commandments of Torah which included the 613 mitzvah to be about a religious system that emphasised the keeping of the laws and the rewards that this would merit. But this reading turns that whole emphasis on its head to remind us that to be saved is all about God’s kindness, favour and compassion – not our righteousness. And for this we can be eternally grateful.

Recorded at St Paul’s (7 mins)
Christmas, Midnight Mass (readings of the Dawn Mass)

Pentecost as promise of a new life

To fully appreciate the significance of the celebration of Pentecost you need to remember the origins of the Jewish festival of Shavu’ot. Although according to the Book of Leviticus the festival celebrated a week of weeks after Passover (the fifty days) was a Harvest festival where the first fruits of the seven kinds of grain were offered, in the intertestimental period (the period after the Hebrew Scriptures were written) the Rabbis added an additional significance to the festival – the gift of Torah on Mount Sinai. The second reading for the Vigil Mass retells the covenant proposal found in Exodus 19 as God wooed an ordinary ragtag tribe of people who were called by their previous Egyptian captors the “dusty ones”. But ever since their father Avram was called by the Lord to leave his homeland of Ur (Gen 12) to a land that God will show him, and Avram went, this people began to rewrite human history. They began to realise that god could be bigger than a local totem, that history is linear rather than circular, and that they were now being claimed by a God who was a verb not a noun who was calling them into a future marked and shaped by hope. Because of the resurrection and the events that occurred on this particular remembrance of the covenant festival, this tiny group of Jewish believers were going to be transformed into a people marked by an even greater hope because of the new covenant that the wind of the Spirit opened up to them and us.

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Recorded at St Cols. Pentecost Sunday, year B. link

Abraham and the bound sacrifice of Isaac

821isaacOur first reading from Genesis 22 is often regarded as one of the finest examples of a short story in all or Western literature. In 19 short verses, the reader is taken on a terrible and shocking journey along with Abraham and Isaac – your only son, the son that you love – for three days until they reach the mountain of Moriah (which 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us would become the temple mount in Jerusalem). Although the reader knows that this is a test for Abraham, he is not in on that little secret; so we can only wonder how he endured these three days while he would have been beside himself in grief as he walked along with Isaac, prepared camps, ate meals together and shared stories around a camp-fire – and yet pretended that nothing was amiss in this horrible pilgrimage.

 The lectionary reading skips over some of the details, so it well worth reading the full passage to see all the details – and especially the poignant exchange between Isaac – now carrying the wood that would be used to burn the sacrifice and his father, as in innocence Isaac looks up at his father and asks the powerful question: ‘here is the flint/fire and the wood – but where is the lamb of sacrifice?’ With the faith and obedient trust that has become Abraham’s greatest mark and honour, he answers with powerful prophetic insight: ‘The Lord himself, will provide the lamb – my son.’ We are left to wonder whether ‘the son’ is meant to be ironic – a hint from Abraham to Isaac of the darker purposes that he is being forced to embark upon. When they reach the summit of the mountain, there Abraham binds his son – an act that provides the title for this sacrifice – the Akedah of Isaac (or in Hebrew, Akeidat Yitzchak). We are not told how old Isaac is at this point – at the end of Genesis 21 we are simply told that ‘a long time passed’ so Isaac could be a young boy (yet old enough to carry a pile of branches), or a young man. Whatever his age, it seems that Isaac, who now knows that he is to be the lamb of sacrifice, allows himself to be bound and so offered to the Lord. He also seems to be the stronger one in the pair – since he is the one assigned to carry the wood for the fire of sacrifice.

It is only after Isaac, now bound, and placed upon the newly constructed altar, and as Abraham – presumably racked in grief and tears – reaches out with the knife to lunge it into the neck of his beloved son. As he begins to bring the knife down, it is then that the angel of the Lord intervenes to prevent this heinous crime of human sacrifice from taking place. Then we are informed that a short distance away, a ram is caught up in the bushes, and so is available to take the place of Isaac and be sacrificed. Note it is a ram – not the lamb that Abraham prophesied. After this passage, any careful reader of scripture should be looking for this lamb – when will God come through and answer this promise? When will God finally provide the lamb of sacrifice?

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Recorded at St Columbkille’s 9am – with the assistance of Daniel, a whole lot of rope and a huge knife from the presbytery kitchen.
The recording from the Vigil Mass is also available (where Mark assisted me):

Lent, Sunday 2, Year B.
Genesis 22:1-19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10


The longing of Advent

SittingAs we begin this new liturgical year and return in Year B to the Gospel of Mark, it is a little odd that we don’t begin with the opening lines of the Gospel. Surely we should be reading from the Infancy Narratives in Mark. Oh wait – there aren’t any. Yes, that’s right, you can tell the Gospel story and not worry at all about the story of the birth of Jesus. In fact St Paul does a rather splendid job of telling us about the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the only detail that he tells us about the birth of Jesus is in Galatians 4:4 – For in the fullness of time, God sent his Son into the world, born of a woman, born the subject of the law.” Yep, the only thing that Paul tells us across his thirteen letters about the birth of Jesus is that he was – gasp! – born of a woman. Thanks Paul. That is very helpful. So we could tell the Gospel story about Jesus and celebrate Christmas with just four words and fewer distractions: Merry Christmas. Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus was born of a woman. Even the Gospels that do mention the birth of Jesus – Matthew and Luke – would function rather well without all those stories and beginning like John* and Mark do with the adult public ministry of Jesus.

So what about this new season of Advent? Can the meaning and significance of all this longing for a Saviour and Redeemer also be cut out from the bible and leave it pretty much intact? Not likely – given that this theme makes up at least half of the Hebrew Scriptures and a huge chunk of the Christian Scriptures as well.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm
Advent, Sunday 1, Year B.

Isaiah 63:16b–17, 19b, 64:2–7; Psalm 80:2–3, 15–16, 18–19; 1 Corinthians 1:3–9; Mark 13:33–37

* Okay, yes, of course John has his Prologue that talks about the incarnation of Jesus – being born in the flesh – but you could also argue that John 1:14 doesn’t add much more detail than Gal 4:4 already gives us: “And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, LEB)

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.

Behold the Lamb of God

Lamb of GodWhen John the Baptist, sees his cousin Jesus coming towards him, it seems a little odd to declare “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Presuming that John has not simply forgotten the name of his cousin, there must be something much deeper going on. As we have often seen before, one of the best ways to understand a word or phrase that seems to be out of context is to begin by looking through scripture and see where the word first appears. This is called the ‘principle of first mention.’ So when we do this, we find that there is even more odd story in the pages of the book of Genesis, in chapter 22. The Rabbis called this story where Abraham is called by God to take his son, Isaac, and offer him as a sacrifice the “Akeda Sacrifice.” We recall that Abraham had been called by God to leave behind the security of his homeland to go to a place that God will show him, whereby he will become the father of a great nation. After many years of waiting, the Lord finally answers this promise when Abraham and Sarah give birth to a son, whom they call Isaac – the child of laughter. Some unspecified years have passed when the Lord calls Abraham to take “your son, your only son Isaac (in case Abraham is confused), whom you love,” and sacrifice him in the wilderness. Even though we are 22 long chapters into the Book of Genesis, this is the first time that the word ‘love’ appears in scripture. That has got to be significant!

Not knowing exactly what is to unfold, but trusting somehow in the creative goodness of God, Abraham does what he is told and journeys into the wilderness with his son and two servants. On the third day Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees the place in the distance. Leaving the servants with the donkey, he loads the wood upon Isaac and they travel the final distance to the mountain. It is here that Isaac asks the question that will burn in the hearts of believers until the day that Jesus offers his own life: “Father… behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers in a most prophetic way: “God himself will provide the lamb.” Father and son arrive on the mountain top, and they build an altar and prepare the wood for the sacrifice. He binds his son (which is where the word ‘akeda’ comes from) – Isaac seems unusually compliant through all of this, especially if he could be a fourteen or sixteen year old man at this point and could easily fight back against this act of child cruelty – and lays him down on the altar, with hand poised on the knife, ready to slaughter his son. It is at this point that God intervenes – phew! Abraham looks up in answer to the voice of the angel ordering him to stay his hand, and he sees caught there in the thickets of a nearby bush – not a lamb – but a ram, able to be offered in sacrifice. Abraham names the place ‘Moriah’ – the Lord will provide. [It is on this same place that hundreds of years later King Solomon will build the temple.] So yes, God provides the ram – but not the lamb for the sacrifice. So the people of God began to ask – when will God provide the lamb? Who is the lamb of God?

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Recorded (badly) at QCCC Mt Tamborine, during Ignite Summer Camp.
Gospel proclaimed by Fr Morgan Batt, Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
Sunday 2, Year A. John 1:29-34

An Apocalyptic Age

curtain-openingOne of the styles of biblical literature that causes great misunderstanding is apocalyptic. This is not helped by the many, perhaps more fundamentalist interpreters who attempt to find literal meaning in the events of the present world, when the only direct literal meaning concerns events at the time the texts were written. In this case, the Gospel of Luke concerns the events leading up to the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem in the year 70AD. Nevertheless, the apocalyptic genre of writing offers great hope for the Christian church across the centuries as we do all that we need to do to allow the breaking in of this new messianic age which first happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (6’57”)
Sunday 33, Year C. Luke 21:5-19

The Acts 7 Church

TheRoadLessTraveledThe speech that St Stephen gives in Acts 7 is the longest speech that St Luke records in the whole of the book – so clearly it is very significant for us. It reaches a climax shortly before the members of the Sanhedrin are so incensed by what Stephen says that they begin to pick up rocks (they always seem to be readily lying around in those days!) and condemn him to death. So let us listen to the word of God and allow the force of the story that Stephen tells carry us where the Lord would like to lead us today.

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Recorded at Young Adult Weekend, 29 June 2013, in Brisbane. (32’22”)

Remember and believe

empty-tombI remember a day when I was bushwalking in the coastal range down the South Coast, and I had been walking for a while just below the ridge-line – so I was unable to actually get a view of the breath-taking coast-line. At one stage I saw a rocky outcrop that was just above the track, and I thought that if perhaps I climbed to the top of it then I would get a view above the trees. So I found a way to scramble and climb to the top, only to again have the view blocked by trees. Then I spotted a large boulder that seemed to offer a possibility of a view over and through the trees. It looked massive and immovable so I climbed on to the top of it – and was rewarded with the most fantastic view of the coast-line below. No sooner had I climbed on top, but the damn thing began to move! As the boulder began to fall – taking me with it of course (dow’h) – my heart began to race and pound like the drum-beat of early heavy metal music. Thankfully the rock quickly resettled into its new position, and I was left standing there on top of it, shaken and vividly reminded of how small I was in a massive and beautiful world.

I remember a call to the hospital, and taking the lift to the fourth floor, proceeding to the nurses’ desk to find out which bed the person I was visiting was in. Then, upon entering the room, to see my friend with her husband as she held her new-born baby lying there in her arms with the look of love on both of them at this tiny creation of love and cuteness.

I remember the joy of friends as they fell in love with each other and shared such happiness and delight as they prepared for the day of their marriage. Then when first I spoke to the husband, only months later, as he began to grieve and sorrow about the way their relationship was going. Later you talk to her and there is the expression of grief and sorrow about how their marriage is failing – how could it turn out like this?

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Recorded at St Paul’s – Easter Vigil (9’59”)

The true shepherd

  • From the archives… I am away on holidays, visiting friends in Europe. So this is a homily from the archives.

In order to understand our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah today, we need to understand what has been happening in the history and practice of Israel. We need to go back a few hundred years. When the people of Israel first left the slavery of Egypt, and they moved to the Promised Land and began to settle there the Lord himself was their leader; he was their guide. For the first few generations, the Israelites had a series of leaders called Judges, which we read about in the book of Joshua and Judges.