Monthly Archives: February 2018

MtE Update – February 28 2018

 

  1. Our worship space during Lent will feature a number of icons, increasing in number over the period to Easter. More details about this part of the worship can be found here, including a link to the icon for this Sunday, March 4: Lent 3
  2. Our Lenten studies for this year continue tonight, 630pm for soup supper and 700pm; details are here.
  3. A web page summarising our “Read it as if you wrote it” session last Sunday is available here.
  4. For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday March 4, see the links here.

Lent 3 March 4: The cleansing of the Temple

Icon: The cleansing of the Temple

All too often this story has been used to justify violence. The argument goes, “Jesus used violence to drive the traders from the temple. Therefore there are situations where violence is warranted. Therefore this situation requires violence.”

The problem with this is not so much the fragility of the argument, as the distraction that it has become.

The emphasis should fall on the words of Jesus, “This is a house of prayer”. (A quote from Isaiah 56:7) Silence and prayer in the place of worship is paramount. Mark includes a second phrase from the Isaiah quote – “For all nations”. On one hand, the action of Jesus is an attack on the sacrificial system, for he drives out those who provide the animals for sacrifice, replacing those rituals with prayer. On the other hand, he also attacks the exclusiveness of temple worship, by overturning the tables where Roman money was exchanged for a special temple coinage.

All four Gospels refer to the cleansing of the temple, but there are differences, first in detail and secondly in placement.

In the synoptic gospels, this incident upsets the priests and it becomes the occasion for their determination to kill Jesus. For them it is an attack on the whole legalistic, sacrificial system, which Jesus wants to replace with a life based on grace that is available to all. Thus Matthew, Mark and Luke place the cleansing at the beginning of Holy Week. In John, the motive for the plot to kill Jesus is provided by the raising of Lazarus, and the subsequent popularity of Jesus.

John couples the cleansing of the temple with the wedding at Cana, where water is turned into wine. Both narratives contribute to the theme that Jesus takes something old and turns it into something new. “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days”. The new temple is the temple of his body, a place of prayer. Christian worship is to differ in kind from that of the Jerusalem temple. As Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman at the well, two chapters later, the physical location of worship, whether in Jerusalem on the Samaritans’ holy mountain, is not important. True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

The icon depicts the essentials of the narrative:

Jesus has a whip, though a tiny one,

One small table is overturned,

Coins are scattered,

A money changer flees with an empty box,

The cattle are two sheep and one goat,

The temple in the background is a series of courts.

But there is more in the icon than the narrative. One person with a small rope is not sufficient against so many. Some other power than the so called violence of Jesus is driving the merchants out.

Consider the architecture. Three arches dominate. Many Russian churches have this form, and it is always a symbol of the Trinity. Thus the temple is changed into something new. The icon adds a traditional device. A curtain indicates the difference between the seen and the unseen worlds. Above the curtain is the realm of the spirit, below the material realm where things can be seen and touched. This “temple” rises from the world below, pierces the curtain and provides a way into the presence of God. It is a place of prayer for all nations.

As I contemplate this icon, I feel I belong in the new temple of Christ’s body, and find peace and silence before God. Yet sometimes I wonder if there is still a bit more cleansing to be done within me, and within the church.

CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER

Lord Jesus Christ, the temple of your body is a living reality, clean and pure.

Your body is my temple too.

Let me not stumble at the cleansing of my temple. Always there is need for me to grow, to leave something behind, something new for me to find.

The church is your body, your temple, and there is room for cleansing here too.

Come, cleanser of the temple.

                Come to your church, as it is today,

                Come to all nations and peoples, as they are today,

                Come to me, as I am today,

Come and create a house of prayer, and blessed silence, a hope for the world.

May worship in spirit and in truth prevail, and provide a foretaste of the world to come.

 

 

25 February – How not to fall on your face

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Lent 2
25/2/2018

Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19
Psalm 22
Mark 8:27-38


Conventional wisdom has it that falling on your face is, generally, not a good idea.

And yet in our story this morning, in which God repeats the covenant promise to Abraham, the patriarch falls on his face twice – once for better, once for worse.

For the better, Abraham’s first fall is in holy awe. God declares ‘I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous’. This is, for Abraham, a very good thing. Falling on his face is an appropriate response to the presence of one whose intention is sheer, overwhelming gift.

But then, for the worse, Abraham falls on his face with laughter at the suggestion that he and Sarah would now share a child. This is not happy laughter but derisive, and Sarah later laughs in the same way (Genesis 18.12ff). ‘Come on God, let’s not be silly’, and he takes God aside to show him Ishmael: ‘The son I already have can be your means.’ And God says, No. So much for at least one human reception of divine gift.

Yet, when we swing across to the gospel we see the same dynamic. In response to the question about the identity of Jesus, Peter apparently answers perfectly: You are the Christ. In Matthew’s more expansive account Jesus congratulates Peter for recognising who Jesus is. We are here at the midpoint climax of Mark’s gospel: Jesus accepts the title ‘Christ’, and the very next episode is the Transfiguration of Jesus: This is my Son; here is the sheer gift of the God. Peter’s declaration is a falling down moment of holy awe, even if he remains upright.

But then comes the derision. Jesus tells of his coming rejection and suffering at the hands of the people and Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke him – another falling down in mocking laughter. And Jesus says, No.

If, on account of their significance in the biblical stories, we were to take Abraham and Peter as types – as models or patterns – of how the holy people receive the holy God – then there is something about us which both enables us to recognise God, and causes us not to.

What are we to do with this? I’ve titled this sermon, How not to fall on your face, to which we now come: the ‘application’ of what we’ve seen in the readings today.

It hurts just as much whether you fall on your face with holy awe or with derisive dismissal of God’s proposals. But there is a difference between the pain of these two falls: one is God’s gift and the other is God’s curse.

The gift is the shock which wakes us up in the way that only a fall can. And we need to be woken up, sleepwalkers through life that we are.

The curse is God’s response to our presumption to speak too quickly. Having just woken and opened our eyes, we imagine they are already adjusted to the light. No longer asleep but blinded, we find God to be a stumbling block and we hit the ground again, now unnecessarily.

Falling on your face for the better is an entirely appropriate response to a God whose approach fills and illuminates and completes far beyond your wildest dreams.

The way to avoid falling on your face for the worse is simply not to get up after the first fall. Presumably Abraham recovered from his initial shock and climbed to his feet before he hit the ground the second time. For Peter, the difference between a fall for the better and one for the worse is the difference between answering a question Jesus had asked him and presuming to answer a question Jesus had not asked.

Christian discipleship is about not getting up after falling on your face that first time. This is what it means to take up a cross and follow Jesus.

This is all metaphorical, of course. I’m not talking about ‘giving up’ or refusing ‘to get back on that horse,’ or staying on the ground as a doormat for others or even for God. It is important to counter such defeatist mindsets when we meet them but we are far beyond the power of positive thinking here.

Carrying our cross, or falling on our face for the better, is a matter of adopting an appropriate posture before a God who draws the world as it is into the world which is promised by such crazy means as a Geriatric Conception (let alone a virginal one) and a crucified Christ. For these are the same thing: God pressing through what we believe him to be, to become the God he wills yet to be.

To take up a cross and to follow Jesus is to look up from the ground and to blink into the light at the sight of an impossible child in an impossible place – Jesus on the cross. It is to let the light which that sight is slowly to wash out the shadows, slowly to come into focus. It is to see that the last thing God should do is the only thing God does.

To take up our cross and follow, or to remain prostrate in holy awe, is to live in thanksgiving, that even the unholiness of the holy people of God is no barrier to the overwhelming gift of God.

According to your preference, then: Take up Your Cross and, or just Fall on Your Face, and watch as God calls into existence things as yet unimagined and raises the dead – even us.

MtE Update – February 22 2018

 

  1. TONIGHT, 630pm: Brother Peter Bray from Bethlehem University returns to Melbourne, and is again hosted by MtE in a public forum; more details are here. If social media is your thing, please help to make this event known via the Facebook link.
  2. Our worship space during Lent will feature a number of icons, increasing in number over the period to Easter. More details about this part of the worship can be found here, including a link to the icon for this Sunday, Lent 2
  3. Our Lenten studies for this year begin next Wednesday, February 21, and Friday February 23; details are here. It would help to know if you plan to attend!
  4. “Read it as if you wrote it”. Attention all rostered (and potentially rostered!) in-worship Scripture readers: we’re planning a workshop on the important ministry of lector after morning tea this Sunday February 25 — “Read it as if you wrote it”. Please plan to be there if you’re able; those who don’t read the Scriptures for worship also welcome!
  5. For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday February 25, see the links here.

Lent 2 February 18: The raising of Lazarus

The Gospel is Mark 8:31-38. The icon is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-53).

The reading from Mark follows Peter’s confession. Jesus predicts his death. Peter objects. He and the other disciples only partly see. Jesus talks about losing life to save it. There is no icon to match this passage, so the raising of Lazarus has been chosen for its parallel themes. Lazarus loses his life but saves it. There is talk about death and resurrection. Many come to believe, to see, but others do not. The event triggers the plot to kill Jesus.

The icon touches additional themes for contemplation:

  • Lazarus responds to Jesus’ command “Come out!” Life in Jesus defeats death. Also, coming to life in Christ is an experience of coming out of a personal tomb.
  • The raising is so that the glory of God may be seen. The life of the end-time can be known now.
  • “Jesus wept”. The story may touch our personal grief for loved ones lost.
  • The stronger the evidence of Christ’s life giving power, the more intense is the opposition.

This form of the icon was developed by the Novgorod school in Russia in the fifteenth of sixteenth century. It was re-interpreted by Solrunn Nes in her book “The Mystical Language of Icons” in 2,000, which was then used as a model for the icon you see here.

CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER.

“Yours is the glory, risen conquering Son,
Endless is the victory, you, o’er death, have won.”
Jesus, I too am confronted by the powers of evil and death,
Strive with me.
I too have deep experiences of grief.
Weep with me.
I too must face death
Give me your life.
Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

 

AN ADDITIONAL APPROACH.

This icon lends itself to the Ignatian method of contemplation. Imagine yourself as part of the scene. Move around, identifying with one person, then another. There is:

  • The worker opening the grave, and another unbinding Lazarus, hand on nose because of the stench,
  • Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus, as if washing them (John 11:2 & 12:3),
  • Martha, whose devotion seems a little more restrained,
  • The disciples gathered behind Jesus, seeing through him to the victory of life over death,
  • The crowd of Jews, looking in different direction. Perhaps the one with the philactory went to the Pharisees,
  • Lazarus, emerging into a new life,
  • Jesus, his red garment indicating humanity (Jesus wept) and the blue, divinity (“Come forth.”)

Come to rest where you find yourself most comfortable. If you were there, where would you be standing?

Reflect at length on where you are in your spiritual journey.

February 27 – George Herbert

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

George Herbert, faithful servant

George Herbert (1593-1633) was an English priest and poet.  He was born in Wales, a younger son of a wealthy and well-connected family.  Although he excelled at Cambridge and won high preferment, he was disenchanted with his academic life, which did not suit his sickly constitution.  He also longed to move in the more exalted circles of state, and served briefly as a Member of Parliament, where he attracted the attention of noble patrons and King James I.  But these dreams came to nothing, and eventually he chose the path of ordination within the Church of England.  When he was counselled that this profession was socially beneath him, he replied, “I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them”.  Sadly he served only three years as a priest in a small rural parish before his death, aged forty.

Herbert is counted among the “metaphysical poets”, and his work is concerned with religious devotion.  It is characterized by a close intimacy with God, a deep humility and sense of indebtedness and joyful gratitude.  There is also much introspective wrestling with his own sin and persistent rebellion against God, which perhaps reflects his long struggle before accepting his priestly vocation.  Herbert was an accomplished musician, and that is reflected in his verse, in the intricate and varied metrical patterns and short lyrical forms suggesting song.

Some of Herbert’s poems have been adopted as hymns; in The Australian Hymn Book and Together in Song, these include “Let all the world in every corner sing”, “King of glory, King of peace”, “Come, my way, my truth, my life”, and “Teach me, my God and King”.

The man who emerges from the poems is humble, witty and wise, deeply in love with God and well acquainted with himself; his verse overflows with the profound joy he has found in the love of Christ, abundantly but not cheaply.

The favourite poem Love is an apt illustration:

Love bade me welcome:  yet my soul drew back,

                   Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

                   From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                   If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:

                   Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull?  Ah my deare,

                   I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                   Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them:  let my shame

                   Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

                   My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

                   So I did sit and eat.

by Martin Wright

 

18 February – Living with a forgetful God

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Lent 1
18/2/2018

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25
Mark 1:9-15


Noah-and-the-ark is perhaps the best known of all Bible stories, not least because it involves animals, and animals make great toys, and so nearly every kid gets to play Noah-and-the-ark at some stage or other. But what we all know about the story is typically the form and not the substance. The form of the story is Noah and the animals and the rainbow. The substance is, How to keep God under control or, perhaps better, Living with a forgetful God.

Of course, notions of keeping God under control, or God’s forgetting of his promises, are impious. But, as it happens, that such thoughts are necessary comes from God himself. We know well enough the flow of the Noah story. There is sinfulness across the face of the earth, except for Noah and his family; God resolves to wash away all humankind but them; the flood comes and goes; God resolves not to do this again and gives the rainbow as a sign of this resolution. It is the rainbow stage of the story which matters for God-control purposes.

As a sign, the rainbow is not a mere sign, in that it could have been something else. A rainbow bends in the way an archer’s bow bends; more than a sign, it is a symbol, in that it resembles and so reminds of an archer’s bow. The rainbow signs that God has laid down his weapon and will not attack again: “I have put my bow in the sky.”

But notice to whom the sign-symbol is given. Specifically, it is not given to us that we be reminded; it is given to God, in order that God not forget the promise, Never Again. The rainbow declares that the people stand only when God remembers the covenant; only God can control God. The point at which heaven and earth meet is marked with something of such scale that God cannot miss it, and in such a way that we know God cannot miss it.

This pre-historical story with its ancient mythological symbolism seems a long way from the much less mythical gospel narratives of the ministry of Jesus. Yet it is not so far as we might first think. For Jesus is himself the point at which heaven and earth meet; Jesus is himself the New Testament’s rainbow.

But at the same time Jesus’ ministry culminates in the cross, a crisis of divine forgetfulness: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, forgotten me? (Mark 15.34). It is all the more poignant that Jesus should cry out so with the baptismal declaration still ringing in his ears: You are my Son, the Beloved. The cry from the cross is precisely a challenge to God that a covenant has been forgotten, despite the faithfulness of Jesus. Such a death for Jesus ought to be impossible, for how can God forget the Beloved? Yet the chaotic flood of human politics, religion and morality washes him away. This was not “the plan” as if it were supposed to happen; nothing is supposed to happen except that God remembers.

Has God forgotten, forsaken here? Yes, and No, as it always is between us and God. Yes, for what else could the cross be but God turning away? No, for what else is a resurrection but God remembering a beloved? The cross and the resurrection, the forgetting and the remembering, have to be held together in this way.

But it is a tight tangle of thought threads here, almost nonsensical. The language of forgetfulness and remembering makes no sense if we begin with the conviction that God knows everything and so cannot forget. But the Scriptures reduce neither God nor us to such simple notions. Simple ideas cannot reflect the experience of what passes between God and the world, between life and death, between remembrance and forgetfulness. These are never poles between which applies a strict logic; God-and-the-world requires its own way of thinking, part of which is a tangle of remembering-and-forgetting.

Jesus is baptised into our world, into the realm in which it is imagined – and so experienced – that God has forgotten. And so his being in the world is, specifically, as one of being forgotten and being remembered by God. The very baptism of Jesus at the outset of his ministry involves the recognition of Jesus by God – the re-cognition, the re-thinking, re-calling of him: You are my Son, the Beloved. God re‑cognises, remembers, Jesus as the Beloved, and this is the basis of Jesus’ own life and joy: the joy of finding himself thought again by God.

And us? God recognises us as beloved in another sign, given for divine and human remembrance. The sacrament of broken bread and blest cup is a drama of remembered forgottenness: a broken body, healed.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

The remembrance here is no mere “thinking about old stuff”; it is a more potently a making real and present here and now what Jesus is. What is Jesus? The forgotten, forsaken world, remembered. And, when remembered, healed, because healing is what happens when God remembers.

The rainbow is an enormous sign at the point where heaven and earth meet. God cannot not but see it and be reminded of how he has promised the two shall be related.

The enormity of the sign which is Jesus himself is not spatial but relational: My Son, the Beloved. This God cannot forget, and it is God’s remembrance of Jesus which is the sign given to us. We break bread and bless a cup, we eat and drink, that God’s remembering of the forsaken Jesus might again be among us, that we-in-him might know the joy of being remembered.

Lectionary Commentary – Lent 3B

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Exodus 20:1-17 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Psalm 19

John 2:13-22 see also By the Well podcast on this text

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 see also By the Well podcast on this text

 

Reading the Scriptures in Worship

The ministry of lector (Scripture reader) in worship is a very important one. The reader’s role is to enable the first hearing of the Word of God, upon which the preacher will build.

It matters, then, that the readings are heard as clearly as possible. This is best achieved with practice beforehand, and a good sense for what the text is actually about. Practice will help to annunciate well – especially difficult Semitic names and places – and read at a hearable speed (which is generally slower than you might think!).

Yet a text can be well-read, in terms of annunciation and speed, and still be read wrongly or even misleadingly. Once you have the turn of phrase and speed for reading about right, you then need to read it as if you wrote it. This is a matter of allowing the emphasis to fall on the right words.

Consider, for example, the opening verses of much-loved Psalm 121

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

If the emphasis falls on ‘hills’ in the first verse, then the implication is that this is the place where the Lord is to found: I look to the hills, where the Lord is to be found.

The ‘high places’, however, were locations for pagan worship. It is quite likely that the emphasis in verse 1 should fall on “my help”, echoed in the ‘My help’ and then “the Lord” of verse 2: others may look to the hills, but I look to the Lord.

The difference is enormous.

When we write and read our own texts, we naturally place the emphasis in reading on the points we are trying to make, because we know to whom we are writing, and why. A letter to the electricity company emphasizes that I’ve already paid the account. A love letter announces that I love you and you alone. Reading such things aloud comes naturally.

For the most part, the Scriptures are polemical writings, constantly drawing contrasts and bringing corrections to understandings of words and actions in the same way as our own writings do, only we didn’t write them. A clear reading of the Scriptures in worship requires understanding what it against which, and for which, the texts are arguing: help comes not from the pagan high places, but from the Lord.

There are many resources to assist in understanding the polemic of a biblical passage. Bible commentaries with critical-historical information are very useful. For Revised Common lectionary readings, good background on the texts can be found on the web pages of Bill Loader and Howard Wallace; links to these pages are usually circulated to MtE members in the Sunday before the readings are heard.

Another valuable resource – usually a bit more extensive in its comment than the Loader and Wallace pages, is the Texts for Preaching series. These are available in hard copy or electronic form and are well worth the expense (about $100 for the 3-volume set).

If the text for a Sunday doesn’t come from the set reading, then try to find a general commentary on that book, or simply ask the preacher where he or she thinks the emphasis falls!

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