Today’s Gospel lectionary reading (Mark 4.20-34) invites us into Jesus’ way of communicating, which is not just about speech, even accompanied by silence and action. It is a way of being, a way of living: a way of living as parables, a way of being as artists…
One of things I’m thankful for in my years of ministry is the memorial cross I helped install in the Warriors Chapel in St Luke’s Church Toowoomba. It remembers the battle of Meewah, otherwise known as One Tree Hill, or Table Top Mountain. This was part of the devastating Frontier Wars in this country. It was led, on the Aboriginal side, by the great warrior Multuggerah and part of deep, and extraordinary skilled, schemes of resistance. It is intimately connected to the continuing debilitating impact of colonial dispossession. Without remembering and reconciling, such deep wounds endure. Yet so little of this story is named or reflected upon. In contrast, on this day (25 April), the awful pain of the Gallipoli landings is recalled: often, in recent years, with exceptional noise and attention. Why is it that some stories become enduring, and even ever enlarged, myths, whilst others, no less historically significant, are hidden or left to fester? How do we best make peace with our past? And how do myths and memories of faith distract or assist?
Human beings can’t walk on water. This is fairly easily observable. However I was once told by no less a person than a church warden, that if I could build a labyrinth for meditative walking in the religiously conservative city of Toowoomba then I could walk on water. She was trying to tell me it was impossible. But the Toowoomba City Labyrinth was built and continues as a great tool for prayer. And – I can’t walk on water! Nor, I venture to suggest could Jesus.
If Jesus did walk on water, then we rid ourselves of one problem – the questioning of the historical accuracy of the Biblical account. But we create another - a Christ who only pretended to be human. Because humans can’t walk on water. We can of course protest that Jesus is the Son of God and can do anything, but the moment we do that we open up a whole other set of problems around why Jesus does not do a whole heap of other things that might be felt more useful, like ending wars or saving children’s lives. If we do not want to turn the human Jesus into a capricious divine figure masquerading as a human being, we might have to accept that he did not in fact walk on water.
So, what about this story then? How are we to read it? Well some scholars resolve the problem quite neatly by declaring it to be a misplaced resurrection story. This makes a lot of sense. This is why the disciples for examples are afraid and think they are seeing a ghost. However, I do not think that is the whole answer...
On this Mother’s Day we have a gospel text that has Jesus talk a great deal about the Father! That is only problematic, if we then falsely equate God and fatherhood. God is of course beyond gender and inclusive of all genders. So theologically the writer of John could just as well have written ‘I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me.’ Had they done so, the shape of church life down the centuries might have been a little different! But what they were most concerned about was not the gender of God, but the nature of our relationship with God. On the eve of crucifixion, Jesus is depicted reassuring the disciples that what matters is that we all have our home, our dwelling place in the heart of God and we can trust this no matter what. Our relationship with God is as intimate as that between parent and child; our home in God modeled on earthly hearth and home.
When in the 1870s Julia Ward Howe established a Mothers’ Day for Peace, she did so from the passionate belief that relationship is what matters and can make a difference. All mothers raise children for life, and not as cannon fodder for war and destruction. Mothers raise children to maintain relationship and to care for one another. They do so because they understand well that God cares for each human child just like a good mother, with tenderness and equal love, while cherishing their diversity.
Mothers indeed provide to their children exactly the gifts that Jesus promises the disciples – life, truth and a pathway to follow. Every human child relies on a mother for the gift of life, nurtured by them in the womb. Those who mother us in later life, whether our birth mothers, or others who tend to us with motherly care, then offer us the gift of truth – the truth of who we are and have the potential to become. No one knows us better than the mother figures in our lives – some of whom of course may be fathers! It is also the role of mothers to offer us pathways, ways to navigate the challenges of life, drawing on their own experience and the pathways shown to them by their own forebears. Many of us will have been helped along the pathway of discipleship by the mothering love we received in Christian community.
So today as we give thanks for those who have mothered us, we give thanks too for our relationship with God – a relationship of intimacy and care, in which we receive the gifts of life, truth and ways to walk – the gifts of our true Mother. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Sunday 3 May 2020
Perhaps the most frequently chosen greeting on our Christmas cards is ‘peace on earth’. Regardless of the religious perspective of sender or recipient, we believe that this is a universally desirable message. However, what do we really mean when we send this? For true peace is about much more than the absence of conflict or some warm fuzzy feeling of general well-being.
What is God’s work on earth and how do we participate in it? These seem to me questions that arise from our reading today - a reading that begins with Jesus appearance to his disciples, and ends with Him sending them out as witnesses to the work of repentance and forgiveness that is to be proclaimed to all nations...
Let me begin with a famous story from the life of St Francis of Assisi.
A long time ago, the town of Gubbio in Italy had a major problem. A wolf had been eating their livestock and attacking, and even killing, those who had been sent to kill him. Understandably therefore the people of Gubbio grew very afraid, and even frozen in their fear, quarreling together about what was to be done and inflicting their anger and anxiety on one another. What could be done? In the end, they realised, perhaps only God could save them, so they asked the holiest person they knew, St Francis of Assisi, to help.
St Francis did not take the task lightly. He knew that the wolf was indeed capable of great violence. Yet, as someone who was particularly close to the ways of animals, he sensed that there might be another way. So he took courage and walked out into the woods where the wolf scarily lay. Then, in the depths of the forest, making the sign of the cross as the wolf came upon him, he spoke softly ‘Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.’ The wolf was caught in uncertainty. This man did not approach him with weapons and violence. He had no anger or fear. Instead, Francis’ powerful spirit of peace and compassion unnerved him, touching his own pain and fear. So the wolf sat down on his haunches and listened. Francis told the wolf what the people of Gubbio were experiencing, all about their pain and fear and anger, and he asked the wolf ‘why are you attacking the livestock and the people? Why did you kill?’
The story goes on that the wolf then told Francis his story: how he had been left behind by his own pack when he was injured: how he preferred deer and rabbits but he could not run fast enough to catch them, so had had to settle for the people’ sheep and goats; how he only attacked when he was really desperate and hungry; and how he had only killed people when they had seemed to threaten him. Hours passed as Francis and the wolf pondered together. Then Francis, understanding that the wolf had genuine remorse for what he had done, asked the wolf to accompany him to Gubbio, to ask forgiveness, that all might be reconciled. Slowly the wolf put his paw in Francis’ hand and they walked into the town.
In Gubbio, the people were amazed and powerfully moved by the wolf’s repentance. For those who had lost loved ones or livelihoods, it was particularly challenging. Could they too let go of their own pain and fear and violence, share in God’s forgiveness and begin again together in peace? Time passed with much reflection. However, in the spirit of Christ, anguish turned to healing and even expectation. The wolf was turned from enemy into friend, and the town’s greatest help and protector. How then might we too respond, in our fear and struggles, to those who seem to threaten us in our own day?...
The first Christmas sermon I preached here in Toowoomba empolyed words of a great poet songwriter singer: Leonard Cohen who, sadly for us, died recently. Let me then preach my final Christmas sermon here with reference to the words of another great poetic songwriter singer: Bob Dylan, who was recently awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. For like Leonard Cohen, Dylan’s lyrics have typically been grounded in a relationship to existence which we can call religious, in the very best sense of that word: namely a relationship which is not always conventional, and certainly not ‘churchy’, but which is always seeking to connect with the deepest ground of our being. It is from this place that we find our truest meaning, both for our individual lives and for our families, communities and wider world. For, in Dylan’s words which take us to the heart of the feast of Christ’s nativity, whoever ‘is not busy being born is busy dying.’ In the nativity we see the ultimate meaning, source and purpose of life. We are invited to share that light and love, by allowing it to be born more fully in us and the world around us…
My older sister was born in 1944 when my father was fighting in Egypt in the royal signals corps of the British army. He caught diphtheria in Egypt, foolishly swimming in the Nile in the company of a dead donkey or two, and consequently did not make it home from the war till late in 1946, to face a child he had never met, a wife whose hopes for their life together had dwindled and a struggle to find employment. He had a nervous breakdown soon afterwards and would never speak of his experiences. So my knowledge of war came through my mother, who lived through the blitz in Liverpool, and told tales of rationing and lucky escapes from bombed out air raid shelters, of knitting fine wool socks and of hours of work in the munitions factory in the bitter cold of winters with no fuel. She spoke of painful partings at railway stations when Dad had come home on leave, and for the rest of her life she could not bear to wave anyone off at a train. Such were the symptoms of trauma that stretched into my childhood many years later.
War is an evil and we are not here to celebrate it in any form. Wars open up opportunities for more evil, for anger, hatred, theft and human rights abuses of all kinds. Wars can shatter the human capacity for love and gentleness. Wars do not end in peace. They end in victory or defeat or dangerous stalemate. Peace, or shalom, wholeness, healing, takes a very long time afterwards to achieve and should never be let go lightly.
So why are we here today? We are here to remember the sinfulness of war; to acknowledge our human tendency to make a dreadful mess of things and to pray that we may do better. Today and every Remembrance Day our veterans remember their friends who never came home. We remember those who died too young and we also remember those like my parents who did not die, but whose lives and relationships were irrevocably changed in destructive ways. We give thanks for what our veterans did on our account, and what our serving forces continue to do, and we mourn the waste of human life and love...
When I was growing up, I was part of a church named after St Thomas, but we sadly rarely marked the apostle's saint's day. For the 21st December has often been the date for doing so in our Anglican calendar. Being so near to Christmas other things tend to overwhelm it. Admittedly, in the Easter season, we do tend to reflect upon the story of Thomas’ resurrection encounter. This is the Gospel reading in this morning’s pew sheet (John 20.24-29). It is a great story. Yet there is more to Thomas and his witness to God’s love than that and we can often miss that out. More recently indeed we therefore have the option of marking the feast of Thomas on this day, the 3rd of July, which is a great blessing. For it allows us to ponder Thomas, not only in relation to the resurrection, but also in relation to sharing God’s love with the wider world. So it is good also to reflect on the usual Gospel reading set for today (Luke 10.1-11). For Thomas is rightly revered today as a great missionary, not least across India, whose historic churches typically trace their origin to his sharing of the good news of God’s love and peace in the very early days after the resurrection. This is the mission of love and peace which Jesus entrusts to his followers: to Thomas and others down the centuries and to you and I in our own age…