|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Almost a hundred years ago, a notable book of English Modernist theological essays was published. One leading conservative voiced a classic critique. The book, he said, was a typical example of liberals thinking less about God and far too much about a secular audience. Liberals, he alleged, are constantly asking ‘what will Jones swallow?’ – Jones being the name for the supposed average person in the street. The response from the editor of the book was swift. ‘I am not asking what Jones will swallow’, he retorted, ‘I am Jones themselves, asking what there is to eat.’ For there is a big difference, isn’t there? The idea of asking ‘what will Jones swallow?’ is undoubtedly a conservative prejudgment of liberal intentions. Yet it can be one unfortunate dynamic in faith circles, sadly leading down the path of reductionism and beyond. Asking ‘what is there to eat?’ is a much more radical and open question, possibly leading even to revisiting aspects of diets left aside in the past. For a self-confessed ‘progressive’ church like Pitt Street Uniting Church, it is certainly a question which needs to be at the heart of our healthy spiritual pathways. After all, as the missionary theologian D.T. Niles once memorably said, sharing the Good News is essentially about ‘one beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.’ So what does this food look like today? And what does our reading this morning from John’s Gospel have to say? For John chapter 6 is a lengthy excursus on the bread of life, and how it may be found, or not. What challenges, and opportunities, does this raise for us, as individuals, and as a community together, at this stage in our development?...
What shape is your table - your dining table, or another table you love?
A few years ago two of the Little Brothers of Francis ran a parish weekend for us in Toowoomba. Afterwards, as we offered some hospitality, Brother Geoffrey commented positively on our dining table at home. ‘A square dining table’, he said, ‘that’s unusual, but I like it very much.’ Perhaps a square table is unusual: I hadn’t thought about it before. It was certainly very appropriate for the Brothers’ visit. For, as you may know, St. Francis recommended that each Franciscan Hermitage should have no more than three, or four, Little Brothers. In the chapel of the Little Brothers in Tabulam therefore, there are just four prayer stools or chairs: one in each corner, each facing the Gospel in the centre, balanced symmetrically. Is such mutually enriching balance reflected elsewhere in our church and our world, I wonder? Well, it was for Penny and I and the Little Brothers on that night of their visit. For as we finished our meal together, Brother Wayne suggested we say compline together around the square table. Each of us facing towards a symbol of Christ in the centre, we were then in perfect symmetrical balance, focussed in Christ in mutual enrichment.
Is that an image we usually have of what it is to live in community with Christ, I wonder? If we hear tonight’s Gospel rightly, it is hard to have any other picture. Jesus not only shares food and prayer at table. He waits on his disciples at table, washing their feet. In doing so, he shares with them, in deed and word, the meaning of God’s new commandment he has for them. And then, having symbolically summed up the way of life he taught and embodied, he lives it out to the full. Jesus loves and serves to the very end: even through betrayal, trial, torture, execution and death. For love, only love, is his way...
Most of us probably know the old saying about some of the great Australian metropolitan cities: in Sydney, it is said, they ask ‘how much money do you have?’; in Melbourne, they ask ‘which school did you go to?’; in Adelaide, they ask ‘which church do you attend?’; and in Perth, they ask ‘so what did you come here to get away from?’ There is some truth in that even today. What then, I wonder, would be the question we would ask in Toowoomba? My hope is we would ask ‘what gifts do you have to enrich our world?’ This question is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ good news and behind today's Gospel passage about the nature of divine table fellowship. It is assuredly a great question for us on our parish thanksgiving weekend…
How do you picture peace? I wonder if your vision is quite the same as that of the prophet Isaiah in the John the Baptist story in our Gospel reading today? Isaiah says this: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Well, that definitely doesn’t work for me if it were taken at all literally. For I was born in the North Pennine hill country of England, which owes so much of its life, history, wildness and picturesque beauty to the variety of its landscape, its hills and valleys. I certainly know that the folk of the Durham Dales would do all they possibly could to avoid every valley being filled, every hill being made low, and the winding paths and rough ways being made smooth. I suspect too that few people in Toowoomba would take kindly to such an environmental transformation of our own Range, valleys, hills and landscape. No. On this second Sunday in Advent, as we centre on the theme of peace, we need to look deeper if we are to find fuller meaning in today’s Gospel reading. Perhaps we are helped by re-casting Isaiah’s words a little. To that end, I offer some words of the great El Salvadorean archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero: words which I believe catch up the spirit of the Advent prophets, that “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.” Let me return to that, and to John the Baptist in our Gospel, again, in a moment…