Scandals and faith


SERMON – ST MARY’S, BUSSELTON/ST GEORGE’S, DUNSBOROUGH

September 30/October 7, 2018.

Pentecost 19/20
Saint Francis

I Corinthians 1:17-31

Mark 9:38-50

In the name of the living God + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The land where Jesus lived, the land of Palestine/Israel, consists of the Jordan Valley, which is a little bit green, and rocky hills and dry landforms. Jerusalem was the only city in Jesus’s day, so for the most part, there were no roads. Even the Roman road avoided Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan into Galilee in the northern extreme of the province.

The topsoil was thin, and there were always rocks that poked through the topsoil. If you weren’t watching, these obtruding rocks would trip you up. A rock like this was called a skandalon. We get the English word ‘scandal’ from this Greek word. A ‘scandal’ is something, like one of those rocks, that crops up unexpectedly and makes us stumble or fall. A scandal like the child abuse scandals can make us lose faith; we don’t trust the person involved anymore, we feel betrayed and we re-consider what we think of the person’s character.

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Skandaloi – rocky hills of the Negev

In this morning’s epistle and gospel, scandals are there, but somewhat hidden in the English translation. We hear of ‘obstacles’ to faith.  We hear how Jews are stopped from believing because the signs are wrong. Gentiles are stopped from believing because they don’t think Christian preaching measures up to their sophisticated world of philosophy. Or in the original Greek, the lack of proper signs is a skandalon, a scandal for Jews, the lack of wisdom is a skandalon, a scandal for Gentiles.

The signs were an obstacle for Jews believing. They indicated the wrong sort of Messiah; the Jews wanted a political or military Messiah, the sign of the cross indicates a Messiah for whom love and forgiveness were the winning combination, not defeat of the Romans and the unity of the Jewish nation.

The Gentiles looked for wisdom, the sort of wisdom they found in debates and complex philosophy. We know that the New Testament has depths of interpretation and meaning, but the Gentiles at the time heard only a simple and direct preaching of the cross.

Having tripped up on the issue of philosophy, the Gentiles then found other factors to be scandalised about. Christians appealed to the poor and weak, not to the masters and house-holders and the powerful. How could that make sense in a patriarchal world where the more power you had the wiser you were, and the wiser you were the more powerful? Women and slaves and children had little power. They could not possibly be wise, could they?

So the question Paul poses to us 2,000 years later is this: what is skandalon for us? What crops up unexpectedly to prevent you from believing, or believing more fully? For you, it could be – I know it is for some people – that the cross is a scandal. If Jesus was exterminated like a criminal, wasn’t that losing rather than winning? For you it could be, as it is for some people, that the cross is ugly, that Jesus’s people, tax-collectors and prostitutes, are not proper advertisements for God.

What obstacle do you trip over?

Let us turn to Mark’s Gospel where Jesus paints a picture of sin creating a skandalon. If your hand is a skandalon, cut it off. We don’t need much imagination to envisage our hand becoming a scandal; imagine the sins we can do with our hands – theft, murder, assault, fiddling our tax returns.

Perhaps we have to think a little harder to imagine our eye becoming a scandal, but we know from other things Jesus said that it is not only what we look at, but how we look, that can be a scandal, an obstacle to our faith. Looking at others’ spouses sexually, with lust, looking at valuable property enviously, in other words using our eye to desire things that if we possessed them would be harmful to others and ruin ourselves – that can become a scandal.

But what is this second sort of skandalon? This is not being tripped up by our wrong expectations; this is being tripped up by our own sinful actions. Imagine someone using his hand to enter fraudulent details on the internet, then he feels guilty for stealing. He is tripped up looking at himself as a thief, as a sinner, as guilty. Uh-oh! He should cut off his hand, perhaps by restricting his internet access, then repent, repay the money and re-consider his desire to be ahead in money or material things. Otherwise he will slide into a hell of self-recrimination, self-loathing and become so self-absorbed that he is unable to be in relationship with others. The path to ruin is too easy a story to write.

Jesus makes us squirm by compelling us to ask ourselves what we trip over with the actions of our hand and our eye. What ruinous actions could be our obstacles to faith?

The gospel today gives three remedies for skandalon; three prescriptions for removing these obstacles to faith.

The first is accepting a cup of water because of our faith. If we can’t be kind to others, Jesus suggests we reflect on the kindness of others to us. What does that mean? How does that recall us to our Christian standards and believing? What does their kindness say about the possibility of Christ working through that person, and through ourselves?

The second is a little strange on the surface. Jesus says, ‘Have salt in yourselves.’ Don’t lose your saltiness. There is a cluster of good things, like salt, that we should take into ourselves that will restore us to faith.

Recall the fire, the sharp burning taste, that is in salt. Allow the fire of appropriate criticism to burn away our inclination to turn away from God. It may be a member of your family or a stranger in the street, but when someone criticises our actions, we should welcome it as from God himself.

Secondly, let the strangeness of the Gospel change us. We say we are trying to be more like Christ. The implication is that if we hear something in the Gospel or in the words of other Christians that seem strange, that may well be because it points to unfamiliar characteristics, unfamiliar because it is not yet part of us, but is part of the Gospel. Welcome the strangeness of the Gospel.

Thirdly, a little sprinkle of salt affects the taste of the whole meal. Let the Gospel spread through the whole of your life so that every aspect reflects the love of God.

Last Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a hero and mentor of mine. Francis grew up thinking the church then, 800 years ago, was a scandal. Its main focus was wealth and the power needed to protect that wealth. For example, there was a large Benedictine monastery up the hill from Assisi. When Benedictine property anywhere in the region was threatened, the monks would down their farming tools, their hoes and scythes, and pick up swords. Even the Pope had a large and busy army.

As a cloth merchant, Francis had experienced firsthand how bishops loved the finest cloth for their vestments! Many of the clergy were squeezing peasants for land rents and whatever other corruption with which they could enrich themselves.

The church then was a scandal. St Francis did three things: firstly, he embraced poverty as a way of life. This meant for him that he constantly experienced the generosity of others. Francis believed that when he experienced people’s generosity he was experiencing God’s generosity through them.

Secondly, Francis could be weird, screwy, pazzo as his fellow Italians said. From

Francis & crucifix Brisbane
Saint Francis embraces the Christ on the cross – wooden sculpture in the guest house. Society of St Francis, Brisbane

eccentric dress to over-the-top acted parables, like spinning at a crossroads until you were dizzy to decide which way ahead. But there was gospel in his madness. In dressing down like the worst beggar, Francis reminds us of our constant concern about our appearance and what it says about ourselves. Not necessary in God’s kingdom.

 

In spinning at a crossroads for direction, Francis reminds us how little control we have over our own decisions. For him this points to the need for greater and greater trust in God.

Thirdly Francis was constantly doing little random acts of kindness, bidding people peace, smiling, listening, leaving behind little scraps of gospel wherever he walked, salting the world with hints of Jesus.

What we need to do to hear the gospel through the scandals will be different than Francis in the 13th century. But just like Francis, just like this morning’s readings we too need to:

  • Have salt in ourselves.
  • Allow the kindness of others to reveal Christ; and when other criticise, let that reveal Christ too.
  • Scatter little signs of gospel everywhere we go.

These are the ways to peace with God and with each other.

Peace be with you!

 

The Quadrangle at Wollaston Theological College


Dennis (former Warden, fellow-pilgrim)

transported the surrounding bush inside

to this once stark square where (when young)

we used to kick a footie and the Archbishop chide

that thongs were not professional wear.

 

Now that so proper lawn has gone.

A eucalypt roughly embraces a pencil pine.

She has lost her slender straightness

and has grown a new and swollen line.

She has a definitely pregnant air.

 

Dog collars and stiff stocks were de rigueur.

Now a Silver Princess sways at head height

like a demented and giant alien insect

hovering and bobbing with foreign delight.

a tree, a chimerical vision, creation’s dare.

 

Parrots in the colossal wandoo

scatter pollen, drop nectar to the ground,

neck and squawk their sweet nothings.

In no way to convention bound,

splashing seeds of new life everywhere.

 

The climbing plant has eaten the wall,

And grown a vigourous, lush and living screen.

The sun shafts aggressively rays,

making the rest dark, and wild, and green,

busting with birds and vital mysteries there.

 

We have grown a little wild and unkempt too.

The old straight edges are softened and coalesced.

God’s tendrils of outrageous vitality

have sprouted even in the hearts of his old priests,

neatness overturned for more authentic care.

 

***

Published in Access Press’s Galloping On VI, Winners And Selected Poems From The Grand National Poetry Stakes 1995.

 

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Photo courtesy Wollaston College

 

“He Died Singing” – the Transitus of Saint Francis


“He died singing, in the forty-sixth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his conversion”.

Today, October 3, we mark the Transitus of Saint Francis. May your Transitus be filled with blessings.

His biographers were keen to show that Saint Francis died happy, and we will repeat this line during the marking of his Transitus tonight. “He died singing.” Joy accompanies the “crossing over” of Saint Francis from this world to eternal life on October 3, 1226.

This cheery approach to dying can be off–putting. A Jesuit admirer of Saint Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was heard whispering throughout the day of his death, June 9, 1889, “I am so happy! I am so happy!” Even my dear friend Father John Wardman with whom I spent hours in the weeks before he died, was inspiring in his eagerness to step into the next page of the adventure God had for him.

For most of us, our own Transitus will not be so uncomplicated. We are circled with images of difficult dying: Will we die lonely in a nursing home? Will we die in pain? Will we die in an instant in a terror attack? These ways of dying are statistically unlikely, but even so it is hard to avoid these negative predictions of the way in which we will die.

But the cheery approach shown by saints to their death also has its problems. My main sadness about my dying is the break that it will mean with my beloved wife, children, grandchildren and others close to me. While I am dying, I am sure the disruption of my loves will cause me much grief. While I am convinced that dying is a door to a wider life than this present one, free from pain and full of praise, it is not unmitigated joyfulness.

The point about the Transitus of Saint Francis, the point about learning from saints how to die, is to restore the balance of our expectations about death. Because we love, we will grieve, but St Francis, poet Hopkins, John Wardman, and all the other happy deaths keep reminding us that we can make a good death.

When I was eight years old, I sang “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky”, and believed that heaven was just above that blue dome. [Or was it just behind the blue altar curtain in St Mary’s, Tambellup?]  Now I think of heaven in more existentialist terms, a state of being in the presence of God eternally, and I look back and see the many ways in which my concept of the afterlife has grown more sophisticated. The sense of mystery about it has also grown. The more complex my conception of it, the more it is shrouded in a sense of unknowing.

StainGlassFranClareSo part of making a good death is constantly interrogating one’s picture of the afterlife and updating it as we update our understanding of God and how completely his love covers our existence.

Practising for a good death includes taking now every opportunity for joy and praise. For me as a musician, singing must be part of my preparation for dying.

Preparing for a good death also includes being conscious of those we love and continuing to work at those relationships, not to increase our grief, but to celebrate the great love which God shares with us.

So while it may be true that I will die in some sadness at leaving behind those I love, I also dare to hope that those with me in those last hours will also be able to say, “He died singing”.

In marking the Transitus of Saint Francis today, we can resolve to turn our attention, however old we are, to preparing to die singing, held by love.

Ships of States


Ships of States

What is poetry?

craft carved from hard words and soft,
coloured for the eye and sounded well,
and polished along the true,
tacked with perfume and fathomed for a spell.

argosy launched from the mire of mind
to sail in auditors’ ears,
and float in currents of readers’ specific
memory, bliss and tears.

tender (legal or outlaw) convoyed from hand to hand
rich koine valued by someone new
or poems pocketed lying idle
lost change hiding in plain view.

****

Ted Witham 

Joint Winner WA Poets’ 2018 Occasional Poetry Prize.

 

 

Sing for your faith


1462742661-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! How Worship Transforms your Life, Family and Church, Nashville TN: B&H Books, 2017. 176 pages hardback.

ISBN:  9781462742660. Not yet in Public Libraries.
Online $15 second-hand, $17 new. (My second-hand copy in new condition cost $7)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

What an encouragement to be told that Christians must sing: for the Gettys, congregational singing is both privilege and obligation. They point to many places in the Bible where we are commanded to sing, and, while conceding a place in worship for song as performance, their focus in Sing! is on the central place of congregational singing.

The Gettys make a living from writing and performing songs and encouraging the Body of Christ in music. Many of us have sung their In Christ Alone, an example of a singable melody and strong Biblical content. The chapter headings of Sing! assert that we are created to sing, commanded to sing and compelled to sing. We are to sing with heart and mind, with our family and with our local church. They write of the radical witness when congregations sing, and in a series of ‘bonus tracks’ provide checklists for pastors and elders, for worship and song leaders, for musicians and for songwriters and ‘creatives’.

Each chapter is followed by questions for reflection or discussion in a study group. Sing! would work well as a book club discussion, or a study for the whole congregation.

Sing! invites Christians to consider the first principles of congregational singing. It critiques performances that do not help the congregation to sing. The Gettys affirm the wisdom of a familiar repertoire, limiting the number of new songs and hymns.

In many congregations the idea that singing is compulsory will be controversial. As a musician and priest, however, I am pleased that the case for singing is put so strongly. How much stronger in faith singing congregations can be. How much stronger in faith are families and individuals who sing or listen to the songs and hymns they have sung in church on Sunday. And how much joy is evoked by the beauty and artistry of good music and poetry.

Sing! is not primarily for pastors and worship leaders. They don’t need convincing. A resource for all Christians Sing! will encourage all of us to sing more heartily.

Prime Ministers and Christianity


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Photo: Courtesy Agence France

In Church this morning, someone thanked God for our new Christian Prime Minister. I felt disappointed by this rush of enthusiasm. Before I lose my readers, let me state that I am very happy that Mr Morrison is a regular church-goer. I rejoice that God calls Christians to the vocation of politics: our country needs them. However, I reject the implied criticism of Mr Turnbull. For Scott Morrison’s faith to be a welcome novelty is simultaneously a judgement that Malcolm Turnbull is not one.

Mr Turnbull converted to Roman Catholicism. He chose not to politicise his faith.  In his recent book God is Good For You, in interviews with Malcolm Turnbull, journalist Greg Sheridan ‘was astonished at the depth of his knowledge of Catholic theology.’ Sheridan comments that Turnbull ‘affirms his belief if asked, nonetheless doesn’t talk publicly about religion all that much, but he very frequently makes reference to love. Perhaps he uses the word ‘love’ more than any previous prime minister.’ (p. 175)

Turnbull’s use of the word ‘love’ is significant as the way he parlayed his faith into the public realm. Even his enemies have noticed this intensely theological language. In fact, one of his detractors mocked his use of ‘love’ in the wake of his defeat.  But Turnbull chose not to use his faith as the public face of his policy making. He believed that arguments in the public sphere must stand on their own merits and not on their theological rationale.

Bill Shorten, too, is a convert, in his case from Catholicism to Anglicanism, the faith of his wife Chloe. Shorten is a product of a Jesuit school. Sheridan, no Labor apologist, is impressed by Mr Shorten’s’ serious knowledge’ of Christianity. Shorten takes into the public realm a quote from the legendary Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, ‘to be men for others’ as a key theological virtue. But like Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten disciplines the boundary between his faith and public life.

The stance of Turnbull and Shorten may even make us question politicians who let their faith be known because it is good politics. It may (or may not) increase Mr Morrison’s vote, but it won’t justify the decisions he makes a Prime Minister.

So, all power to PM ‘ScoMo’. I will pray for him as duty bound, and with added interest because he is a fellow-believer. But I thank God for Mr Turnbull too, and for all who choose to serve the community as politicians. It’s a hard job, and they need all the help they can get.

The priesthood: no other life?


Brian Moore, No Other Life, London: Flamingo 1994. Paperback 216 pages,
ISBN 9780006546924.

In W.A. Public Library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Brian Moore (1921 – 1999) was a well-known writer of the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote the 1991 screenplay based on his novel, Black Robe, exploring the Jesuit missions with Native Americans in frontier Canada. Moore was short-listed three times for the Booker Prize.

In No Other Life, the black robes of Jesuits are exchanged for the white robes of the White Augustinians, and the cold places of Canada for the warmth of Ganae. a desperately poor Caribbean island.

The Augustinian Fathers run a school where the mulâtre (mixed-race) elite educate their children. The noirs, the blacks, are kept in wrenching poverty by corruption. The island has always been run by a mulâtre dictator backed by the army.

Father Paul Michel wants to increase the number of black children at the school. He rescues a talented boy, Jeannot, from abject poverty. Jeannot is a single-minded boy who declares he wants to be a priest like his mentor. He eventually joins the Augustinians but runs a parish for the poor rather than work in the Order’s school. Jeannot’s oratory raises the hopes of the poor and he is elected President. But the effects of his leadership are ambiguous: is he an old-style socialist rabble-rouser, or is he a saint? The locals think he is their Messiah.

When the Augustinians expel Jeannot, he turns to his mentor. He implies that he would rather give up everything than be stripped of his priesthood. There is ‘no other life’.

Father Paul finds himself at the heart of a dilemma: is a priest an educator of the rich, or the servant of the poor?  Is faith a pre-requisite for the priestly life, and what happens if a priest loses it? From the moment he meets Jeannot he feels a bond with him, but as their friendship grows, Father Paul learns how to love. When violence and chaos erupt from the actions of his friend Father Paul asks how far does loyal love extend?

This is a gripping and beautiful story, written with a sure touch. The events on the island of Ganae are presented in a fascinating manner, but the themes of ambition and identity resonate everywhere.

No Other Life is certainly a book for priests. What is the core of Christian priesthood, and by extension, Christian practice? Is there ‘no other life’ that we can imagine for ourselves? And if not, that goes to our vocation and identity.

But is also a novel that will draw in any person and open us to the love that is in our midst even when we feel it is absent.