Reflection Sunday 17 October 2021
I have to admit to being cynical when I hear church ministers put the word ‘lead’ before the word minister and claim to be the ‘lead minister’ of a congregation.
The word minister comes from the word to serve. So in a sense when one puts the words ‘lead’ and ‘minister ‘ together there is a contradiction in terms. With the term comes some irony because the intention of ‘to minister’ means to serve, to be a servant. In the church we try to acknowledge this irony by using the term ‘servant leadership’ to articulate more clearly the kind of leadership that is expected from a minister.
Perhaps my cynicism and distrust of others using the words ‘lead minister’ comes from my own struggle with the word ‘leader’. I have always struggled with the hierarchical structures of the church as it seems at odds with the ministry of Jesus, and who Jesus calls us to be as his followers.
Perhaps the roots of my uneasiness comes from reading the very challenging Gospel passage Mark 10:35-45 and in particular where Jesus says, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
James and John had decided that they wanted to be the leaders next to Jesus, to lead over all the other disciples, even over all the world, when Jesus came into his glory; when the kingdom of God would fully come. Jesus’ reply shows very clearly that any desire we have to put ourselves next to Jesus as rulers, needs to be carefully considered. If one desires to be like Jesus, to live as Jesus lives, to lead as Jesus leads, to be glorified as Jesus is glorified; then one must die as Jesus dies. This death is not just a physical death, but a death to the ego, a continual denying of self, a death to any desire to put ourselves above any other person, or any other living thing. The cup that Jesus drinks is a cup of suffering. The baptism with which Jesus is baptised is a baptism of hatred and violence.
In 1 Peter chapter 2 the writer urges her/his readers to follow the example of Jesus. ‘As servants of God’’… For to this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
James and John and all the disciples that day learnt that whoever wanted to be great among the disciples must be the servant of all and who ever wished to be first among the disciples must be the slave of all the disciples.
It is not just in politics or business or churches or any other institutions that power struggles occur. They occur in every group, including bible study groups. Someone always wants to assume leadership or to challenge the leadership of others. There is something in us that seems to want to be on top, to be in charge. It happens within our families and in our relationships with our partners too.
Whether we are part of a large institution such as the Uniting church or a member of a small home church we can face the same challenges regarding power. Being aware of this is perhaps the first step in breaking our addiction to power and wanting to be in control. The business of Jesus was not to be served but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many.
People find ‘a freedom’ not by taking control of others but through relinquishing their control over their own lives and so joining with Jesus in the freeing of others from the powers that bind and control them.
Jesus awakens us to the awareness that our thinking (even in the church) is often dominated by unseen forces around us: forces operating within human institutions and systems which feed on our desires for power, for recognition, for status, to be important, to be successful. But the goal of these powers is not to lead us into eternal life but rather to increase competition between people, to retain an energy that keeps us trapped within our minds and responses, always wanting more and to be more, never content with what one has or who one is.
Jesus’ eyes were not focused on the glory of ruling over others but on the cross, on serving rather than being served, giving his life a ransom for many. Jesus led from the heart not from the mind. Jesus led from the heart connected to the source of life.
Before us always is the sacredness of life but whether we see it or not perhaps depends on whether we are seeing with eyes trained by the world or with eyes seeing from the heart, eyes connected with the source of life within us, God.
Some questions to ponder
Who or what is leading you? If you took the attitude of serving more seriously what difference might that make to the lives of those around you? What differences might it make to your life? Would your suffering also increase? In what ways might you be also blessed?
Serving is not just putting up with abuse. As followers of Jesus the decision to serve is a conscious choice. In different situations how might you consciously choose to serve? Perhaps you could ask yourself how might I serve in this situation? How might I serve at work? How might I serve in church? How might I serve in my family? How might I serve God?
God of grace, as we draw close to you we become acutely aware that your ways are much different to our own. We can never fully comprehend your mind. We glimpse and see only a shadow of the wonder of who you are. We are always a long way behind you in our thinking. We are a lot slower in our forgiving. We are awkward in loving. We are often far from gracious. Forgive us.
Take the hardness from our hearts and the unwillingness to really see with our eyes and to hear with our ears. Set our feet upon roads that lead to justice and upon paths that are laid with mercy and compassion. Help us to walk in grace and in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Photo: taken by Gabriella 2013
Reflection Sunday 10 October 2021
Do we possess things, or could it be that the things actually possess us?
Please reflect on that for a while.
Pick up an object close to you, it can be the first thing you see. For example, it could be a pen or a book, or a purse or a fork, any object at all. As you look at it in your hand ask yourself, is this ‘a pen’ (for example) or when I see the pen do I say this is ‘my pen’? Now look around you, when you look at the room in which you are reading this does you mind say this is ‘a room’ or does your mind say this is ‘my room’ or ‘my house’ or ‘my garden’? Even though they are very small words the differences between ‘a’ and ‘my’ can be enormous. How much power do even these small things have over us?
In the Gospel reading today a man comes to Jesus and asks, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" After the man declares that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus says to him, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." The man was shocked by Jesus’ answer and he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The man comes seeking eternal life, but Jesus identifies something that will prevent him from entering into the fulness and wonder of the life Jesus offers in the kingdom of God. It his attachment to his many possessions.
What place do possessions have in our lives? How much possession do they have over us? In what ways might they be blocking our entering into the fulness of God’s salvation, of experiencing eternal life?
When Jesus goes on to say how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples are astounded and they ask, “Then who can be saved?” What does the word ‘saved’ mean to us?
Certain sections of the church tend to see being saved and salvation in the narrower sense of who is and who is not saved from hell as punishment for sin. But in a wider sense salvation is a fuller deeper life that one enters into. It is something one participates in now and not just a life in heaven which we escape to when we die.
Salvation means deliverance. It can mean deliverance from illness, or from death, or from enemies, from trouble, from poverty, from almost anything.
Today, as we think about whether things are our possessions or whether things may actually possess us (even little things), do we need deliverance from the power possessions may have over us?
Advertising keeps inviting us to possess things: to buy to consume. Advertising tells us what we must have to have a fuller life. But 1 Peter 1:18,18 tells us that salvation cannot be bought - For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Attachment to possessions distracts us from the path of following Jesus, from the path that leads to the cross. When we love our possessions more than people, we have stepped off the way of the cross. When we want something at any cost, that cost may be paid at the expense of the poorest people in the world and by plundering and destroying creation.
The hunger for more and more possessions is evidence of our lost consciousness as a human race. Claiming things as our possessions reveals our disconnectedness from God, from each other and from creation. All things belong to God, and we belong to God, and we belong to each other, and we belong to all creation. Attachment to possessions gets in the way of our attachment to God, to one another and to creation.
In 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 24 and 25 it says:
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
This is a sobering thought but one that it is good to hold in mind when we consider what is most important in life and whether things have got a hold of us. It is also a good reminder that we all will face death one day. Now is the time to be freed from all that prevents us from living life to the full.
My dad didn’t quote the bible much but one thing I heard him say often was that we come into the world with nothing and leave it with nothing.
This means holding things loosely, being aware that things can possess us. Having this awareness may be enough to ‘save’ us.
Holy God, we praise you for Jesus Christ our great high priest, who has entered into the fullness of the kingdom of heaven and opened for us the gate of glory. May we approach the throne of grace with boldness, and in the time of need know your mercy and grace.
God, you promise never to leave us nor forsake us, but to bring us to life. Forgive us when we become possessed by our possessions and consumed by consumption; when we glory in our goodness and lose our compassion; when we settle for our religion, remain secure in our own salvation and cease to follow you.
God of all who are cast down, you call us to seek good and to meet oppression with justice. Teach us to find salvation in the emptying of ourselves for the sake of those in need, so that goodness may prevail and your kingdom come in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Photo: taken today 9 October 2021 of an Echidna across the road in Bulli
Longing for God
Reflections for Sunday 3 October 2021
Scripture passage: Mark 10:2-16.
10:5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you.
In this passage Jesus names hardness of heart as the reason that Moses allowed men to divorce their wives. Divorce was a symptom of the real problem – hard heartedness. Divorce was only one symptom of hard heartedness. It is something that we all can have and it expresses itself in many ways in our lives, effecting all of our relationships, not just with our partners, but in our family relationships, friendships, work relationships; even our relationship to nature and to God. It was not just the Pharisees who were hard hearted, the disciples of Jesus also reveal their hard heartedness by speaking sternly to parents who were trying to bring their children to Jesus. It is easy for us to identify the hard heartedness in others but somehow be unaware of our own hard heartedness.
The symptoms of hard heartedness are evidence that something is not right with our relationship with God, but also our relationship with nature - the whole of creation. We have stopped longing after God. We have not held and nurtured the mystery and wonder of God in our hearts. We have satisfied ourselves with other things, things of our own creation. We have longed for what others have. We have become jealous and envious. We have sinned, fallen short, gone astray. We have seen ourselves as disconnected or separate from nature not one with it, not part of nature. We have degraded and destroyed.
In Ezekiel 36:26 God promises a new heart - I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Recently I have been working with a special type of cement which is used to level uneven floors. It flows into the lower points by itself filling up the holes and cracks but there is a warning with the instructions. The instructions say that once it has been mixed with water in needs to be in place within 10 minutes because it becomes hard very quickly and then it is impossible to work with. How quickly we can become hard hearted. A hard heart is very difficult to work with also. We may want to change our lives and we may want to improve our relationships but if our hearts are hard like rocks it is very difficult to really change. It is like we are battling against our very selves. Once hard, cement cannot become soft again, but our hearts can be softened. For us something has to happen deep within us for real change to occur. The good news is that it can take but a moment to change, not a lifetime. It takes but a moment to soften our hearts, but we need to keep our hearts softened.
I wonder how the disciples felt when Jesus exposed their hard heartedness. People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Hard hearted is something that we can become over time, as we grow older. According to Jesus hard heartedness was not something that children had yet developed and so he reprimands the disciples, saying instead of hindering the children, welcome them and become like them because if we do not receive the kingdom of God as a little child we will never enter it. If the disciples had not received this reprimand with grace, they would have become even more hardened. To soften our hearts, we need to allow grace to find its way deep into our hearts, in the same way that water finds its way into the cracks in rocks. This needs humility, confession and acceptance.
God is calling to us from this place, longing for us. In the book of James (chapter 4 verse 5) it says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit God has made to dwell in us.’ It is Jesus who reveals the tender heartedness of God. It is in Jesus’ relationships with people that we see God’s longing for oneness and depth and intimacy of relationship. It is in Jesus that we see God’s longing for us to come home, to come home to God, to come home to ourselves, to come home to our hearts and make a dwelling there with God and to come home to nature, to realise again our oneness and connectedness with all things. Our destruction and devouring of our environment is evidence of our hard heartedness.
We need to come home before we destroy ourselves along with our planet. Life in the city can be a great distraction from the longing we have for home, for God, Sometimes, it is only in nature, in wild nature, that we can attune our selves again, and rediscover the longing heart, that desire for God, that desires the life that flows from God. What is the longing of your heart? Our minds can become dulled, numbed by the news, carried along with the crowd. Covering over the natural longing within for God. Through silence and stillness, we can open up a pathway to direct that longing to its source.
Some questions to ponder
What are the words for God in your first language?
In our different languages the words we use for God can carry with them a different sense to the English word God. Some of these words reflect our cultural and ecological backgrounds. They throw some more light or more mystery onto the one we name as God. This God we know from our homelands can seem to be a different God to the God in the busy, fast, crowded, self-absorbed cities we live in that are disconnected with nature.
What is the word for longing in your first language?
In Welsh Gaelic there is a word that is said to be untranslatable into English. It is the word Hiraeth. Hir means long and aeth means sorrow or grief, but this literal translation falls far short because of its many cultural overtones. In a sense only someone born and bred in Wales might express hiraeth the longing for what has been lost to them or what they have been separated from. Hopefully from this example and your own longings for home you will appreciate something of God’s longing for us to return home from our hard heartedness and find that longing again for who is life.
If English is your first language you may like to research the words for names of God and for longing in the languages of first nations peoples.
A Poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats to reflect on…
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
A prayer by John Philip Newell
Clear our heart, O God,
that we may see you.
Clear our heart, O God,
that we may truly see ourselves.
Clear our heart, O God,
that we may know the sacredness of this moment
and in every moment
as the Living Presence in every presence.
Clear our heart, O God,
that we may see.
Prayer of Confession
You know the secrets of our hearts.
You know when we stray and when we return.
Forgive us when we do not treat your children,
the peoples of this world,
with the same patience and love that you have for them
and for us.
Open our eyes and minds and hearts
that we would see and welcome all your children.
In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Photo: Eastern Blue-Tongue Lizard, Bulli NSW
A Bible verse
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation