Heartfelt obedience?

If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will.


Matthew 21:23-32

None of us likes to be on the receiving end of direct orders. Even when the order comes from a legitimate authority, the moment the order is delivered, we bristle. Our autonomy – to do what we like when we like – is threatened.

Even in institutions which function by giving and following orders like the military, the wise officer only gives direct orders in the context of a shared mission: this order is for us, rather than for you.

We recognise in ourselves the two sons ordered to work in the vineyard. We too can say ‘Yes’ to an order and then work out how to get out of doing it. We too can say ‘No’, and then grudgingly turn to obedience. In our fear and timidity, we can also find a dozen other ways of passive-aggressive obedience or disobedience.

Jesus asks, ‘Which of the two did the will of the Father?’ (Matthew 21:31a) His listeners sided with the son who obeyed after initially refusing. But his was the ‘least worst’ option. Neither of the sons responded with a heartful ‘Yes’ and went out and diligently worked the vineyard. That would have been their father’s hope.

The father, the owner of this vineyard, got it wrong. God is not like this father. This father needs lessons in human resource management and parenting. Jesus is teaching a better way of leading than giving direct orders. If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will. This kind of authority neither the ‘chief priests [nor] the elders of the people’ (v. 23) could understand.

God generally does not give direct orders. God builds relationship and empathy. God invites and calls. God knows what we are like. God knows we trip over our autonomy when told what to do.  God always leaves us room for a free response.

We as Christian leaders can do better than the owner of this vineyard: we can lead by love and example, as Jesus did. People will respond according to the authenticity they see in us.

As Christian followers, our challenge is to discern God’s will and try to do it in heartfelt obedience.

Day Labour

This is a moment in history when we should stop treating people just as expedient labour and build a more just and caring community.


Matthew 20:1-16

For me to really get it, I had to be taken at 6 a.m. to the Post Office in Durham, North Carolina. The sun was up, and the day was already hot and humid. On the Post Office steps groups of men, about 30 in total, stood around, waiting. My guide said, ‘These are undocumented Mexicans. Some people joke that they are people who don’t exist.’

Eventually a farm pick-up truck drove by, pointed to two or three of the men, ‘You! You! You!’ and the men who were beckoned scrambled onto the back of the truck. Some minutes later, another truck arrived, and the same procedure followed. The rest of the men waited, waited. At about 7:30 a.m., the street began to wake up as workers on their way to air-conditioned offices glared at the men. It was time to disperse. Those remaining were unlucky that day.

These men were all desperate to feed themselves and their families. The picked workers would be given cash, $15 or $20, at the end of a ten-hour shift in the oppressive humidity of summer. This was day labour, southern U.S. style. I imagine that, 30 years on from then, day labour is still employed in much the same way.

The men were treated, not as human beings with needs, but as what they were worth to the employers. They were exploited.

Post Office, Durham NC

Jesus tells the story of an employer who goes back again and again throughout the day to the Post Office steps, employing as many workers as he can, and then insisting on paying them according to their need, not his economic advantage. No wonder he encountered resistance – from the workers who had ‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’ (Matthew 20:12b), and most probably from other employers too.

This employer’s actions seem revolutionary. What he had done was to defy the economic realities which ignore the dignity of human beings. He treated the workers with worth and generosity.

Today’s news reminds us that Covid-19 has made many more people vulnerable, looking for a little work just to survive. Let us bear them in prayer and offer a practical hand to them when we can.

We also note that there are executives who ‘earn’ annual salaries of millions of dollars. These amounts cannot equate to value for work done, nor do they relate to people’s needs. Our economic system is currently not producing a fair society.

Eventually the world will get through this pandemic. Let us ask our leaders to re-build a world where people are not grudgingly de-valued, but where every person is treated with worth and generosity. We should encourage the Government to continue and expand programs like JobKeeper and JobSeeker. We should invite politicians to seriously look at new ways of caring for every member of society like, for example, Universal Basic Income schemes.

This is a moment in history when we should stop treating people just as expedient labour and build a more just and caring community.

The Pathway Out

For us Christians, the question might be, where is God leading us to through this pandemic’s Pathway Out?


Exodus 14:10-15:21

The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is convinced of two things about God: one, God will show God’s people a pathway out; and two, God will lead God’s people back to God. Jews and Christians tell the story of “The Pathway Out” (The Exodus) at least annually.

Passover meal – telling the story of The Pathway Out

It is one of humanity’s great stories, bursting with the power of God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by parting the Sea of Reeds to allow the Israelites to pass dry-footed to the other side, and pouring the waters back over the pursuing Egyptian army.

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.” (Exodus 15:4-5)

The joy of this escape reverberates through the Bible. The Psalms sing of the joy of the Pathway Out, “for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Psalm 136)!

But the story of The Pathway Out does not end on the north bank of the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites have still to learn to follow God’s lead, and it takes them a generation to find their destination. God is patient with God’s people until they are prepared to battle through the wilderness and arrive where God is, a land of milk and honey that God has prepared for them (Deuteronomy 6:3).

Our political leaders are working hard to find a pathway out of the pandemic. We should pray for them; as Moses learned, leading people through the Pathway Out is taxing and personally costly. Part of our prayer for Premier and Prime Minister may be to email them messages of support.

To give us hope, our leaders are showing us the end point, the return to a “new normal”, with the community re-opened and again functionally healthily.

For us Christians, the question might be, where is God leading us to through this pandemic’s Pathway Out? What new world is God preparing for us? Where we can we follow God to assist in breathing new life into the community? How will we know that God has led us back to God?

Part of the answer may be for us to look further afield than our suburbs. Those who were already vulnerable at the beginning of 2020 are most vulnerable to Covid-19: the poor, especially those in crowded slums, prisoners and refugees. We are so blessed in Australia’s modern medical system and our public health response, but we must not be blind to nations which struggle to provide care for their people.

For example, we may give of our abundance through CBM, World Vision, or Oxfam or our favourite charity to their Covid-19 appeals.   

The Hebrew Bible has it right: God will show us the Pathway Out of the pandemic, and God will lead God’s people back to Godself. Are we willing to follow?

Being a kintsugi pot

Our prayer and our goal should always be to undertake the emotional work of bridging those divides and of mending those broken friendships in Christ.


Matthew 18:15-20

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and gold. The idea is that the whole history of the pot is valuable. The gold (or silver or platinum) draws attention to the points of breakage. The places of healing are important, and the scars are to be celebrated, not to be hidden.

Jesus shares a vision of the church as a place where the work of reconciliation is ongoing. When there is a breakdown in relationships between believers, Jesus lays out a pathway to heal the fellowship. First, try to reconcile privately, then in a small circle of witnesses, then in the wider church. Only then might the church take the extraordinary step of expelling a member.

This is not a series of ‘reconciliation tasks’ to be ticked off as an excuse to get rid of a difficult member, rather the opposite. This is a picture of people taking time, over and over, to heal breakdowns in relationships, a church where the healing is valued. This is a community busy with creating and maintaining fellowship.

Scars show and they are valued.

A constant temptation of the church is to be nice, to substitute niceness for the emotional  work of ongoing reconciliation. There is nothing wrong with niceness, as far as it goes, but being nice is not enough to keep believers together through conflict and misunderstanding.

There are ample opportunities to get offside with one another; whether it is a personal dislike, or whether it is a deep theological conviction. Our prayer and our goal should always be to undertake the emotional work of bridging those divides and of mending those broken friendships in Christ.

These months of enforced distancing because of Covid-19 when we have spent less time in the company of fellow Christians give us an opportunity to reflect on our church community and the way it deals with fractured relationships. It is a time when we can resolve to foster deeper fellowship in what we do as individuals in our parish or community.

Bridging the Swan River (Derbarl Yerrigan)

Each time two or three come together in renewed fellowship, Jesus rejoices, ‘I am there with them!’ (Matthew 18:20).

The truth is that the church goes on being broken, over and over again, and God weeps for it. And so, the work of reconciliation goes on, over and over again. We are like a kintsugi pot in that we should value the places where we have been healed and put them on display. We are unlike kintsugi in that the church’s work of reconciliation is never finished this side of the Kingdom.

Marked as Christians


Romans 8:15-28 and Matthew 16:21-28

How can you tell which ones are the Christians?

We are the ones who are marked with a cross. We are the ones who are drawn to suffering. We are the ones who provide meals for the disadvantaged through soup kitchens. We operate Op. Shops to help them be dressed with dignity. We are the ones who nurse the dying in hospice care. We are the ones who accompany the grieving at funeral services. We visit prisoners. We care about the suffering of the Rohingya people forced into exile. We protest the treatment of refugees and send money to care for those in camps. We take our part in attempting to preserve wildlife.

Of course, Christians are not the only ones who do these things. Christians don’t have a monopoly on the works of mercy. But we Christians do these things because we are marked with a cross. This cross is not just a piece of jewellery or our logo. This cross, traced on our forehead when we were baptised, is a symbol of our willingness to follow Jesus in his suffering. We identify with his pain.

It’s not rational, this putting ourselves on the side of suffering. The rational thing is to avoid suffering. We identify with the suffering of Jesus and begin to learn solidarity with all people and all creation. We follow the suffering right through to its end and learn how character grows with suffering.

Jesus asks us to walk with him to Jerusalem.  If we follow, we must be prepared to die with him. His promise is that, if we die with him, if we identify as much as possible with his death, we will be raised with him. Jesus is inviting us into this cycle of death to life, suffering to freedom, pain to release.

Aidan Hart Sacred Icons

There is a tradition of beautiful painted crosses with two sides: on the grey side are depictions of Jesus being crucified and grim symbols of death. On the richly coloured side are depictions of the empty tomb and saints and angels applauding Jesus as he bursts to new life.

We are people of the cross, people of both sides of the cross. We identify with the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all creation. As we enter more deeply into this suffering, we discover, to our joy, signs of healing, love and new life.

Influencers

But for Saint Matthew, Jesus’ question is not about number, it is a personal matter. Who do you follow as your influencer?


Matthew 16:13-20

Some people, usually young and internet-savvy, make massive money by making videos of themselves. Those with most followers may be demonstrating a skill, face make-up for example, or performing a wry diary of their world, or selling gadgets. If you follow Instagram or WhatsApp, you will recognise these ‘influencers’, people who command a following and change behaviour.

Others may have a real-world platform and have converted this into a large internet following. Barack Obama, former U.S. President, has 121 million followers on Twitter. Obama is a big-time influencer.

Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a cosmopolitan trading port. It had a strong Roman influence, reflected in the name ‘Caesarea’, and the Herod family had added ‘Philippi’ (‘Philip’s)’ after Herod Philip and to distinguish it from the other Caesarea.

Caesarea Philippi had previously been called ‘Pania’, Pan’s town, and in the time of Jesus the shocking rites for the god Pan were still celebrated. The ‘Gates of Hell’ is a real cave that played a role in these ceremonies.

Gates of Hell, Caesarea Philipp

The trip to Caesarea Philippi may have been Jesus’ lesson in influencers.  Who can induce you to change your behaviour? The Roman Emperor certainly constrained behaviour. He is an influencer. The Herods derived their influence from the Emperor, so some people in Jesus’ time would be influenced by them. Maybe the Roman gods were influencers. Pan evidently had many followers in Caesarea Philippi. From the perspective of many people, devotees of Pan were seduced into behaviour that destroyed families and tore communities apart. Pan was an influencer.

Jews in Caesarea Philippi were influenced by rabbis and teachers. Their behaviour conformed to many rules and practices laid down by the Jewish leaders.

In the midst of all these influencers, Jesus was asking his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter is praised for his answer: ‘You are Messiah, Son of the Living God.’ (Matthew 16:15-17) Jesus continues to ask, ‘Who do you say that I am?’

On the face of it, Jesus is an influencer with 2.3 billion followers, so that’s a possible answer to Jesus’ question. But for Saint Matthew, Jesus’ question is not about number, it is a personal matter. Who do you follow as your influencer? Who do you allow to change your behaviour? Following Christ is more than naming oneself a Christian. Following Christ means rejecting the influence of others, whether their power is political or personal, and accepting only the influence of the Son of the Living God. Following Christ means doing life differently, attempting to love and care for the world in the way Jesus did.

Who is your influencer? To the extent that it is possible, the answer should be, ‘Only Jesus’!

Mothers love


Mothers Love

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 1:39-56

The thing about my mother’s love was that she was always on my side, yet she always taught me to be concerned about others and put that concern into action. Her love changed as our circumstances changed, but the love itself remained constant. Her last words to each of her five children was to tell us again that she loved us.

Far from being sentimental, maternal love is a force binding families and communities. There’s truth in the proverb, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ What mothers do is teach children to love. There is no greater task in society; sadly our economics-driven world devalues mothers’ love.

Mary the mother of Jesus loved her Son. She stayed by his side from his birth to his shocking death, and on the cross, Jesus indicated how great her influence had been on him when he commended her to John’s keeping (John 19:26-27).

When we celebrate Mary on August 15 each year, we celebrate her maternal love as it unites with the power of divine love. When maternal love and divine love come together, love expands in every way!

The divine love is the love of the Creator, and the Creator’s love sings in the web of love with every created being. The wondrous development of the baby in the womb, the connections between all animals and humans, between all life and the environment, between this earth and all the planets and stars and galaxies: We are all created for each other in a great outpouring of creative love.

The Creator’s love blends with mothers’ love in such a way that we all are nurtured by our being-in-God.

The divine love is the love of the Spirit, blowing through us and revealing God to us. The love of the Spirit inspires us to delve into our souls and find Christ hidden as a treasure in the depth of our being. The love of the Spirit inspires to share with others the richness of life in God. The Spirit gives us discernment, joy, peace and self-control.

The Spirit’s love blends with mothers’ love to create for believers a family, a safe community to express and grow in our faith. When we experience our church community as people who love us for ourselves and for the sake of Christ, then Holy Spirit’s love and mothers’ love have united.

When my mother was dying, I was fortunate that she could tell me then that she loved me. I don’t remember what I said in response, but I felt gratitude, so I could have said ‘Thank you.’ But a much more commensurate response would have been not only ‘Thank you’, but also ‘I love.’ Not just ‘I love you,’ which was true, but because of you, ‘I love.’

As we remember the earthly Mother of Jesus, we too can be grateful for mothers’ love and we can marvel in response, ‘Yes, I love too.’

Water Walking


The disciples were in the ship, and the ship was being ‘tormented’ (14:24) by the contrary winds. What was the storm the disciples were facing? The story is told in symbolic language. The stormy winds were not just a literal storm on Lake Galilee, rather, Matthew is referring to the stormy passage through which the disciples were travelling.

Herod had just beheaded John the Baptiser. Because the Jesus movement was close to John, the disciples had every reason to fear the enmity of the King. Herod’s violence was making them uncomfortable. Herod represented the Jewish political class, and, as a puppet king of Rome, also represented the power of the Roman Empire.

John, we remember, had denounced Herod for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias. Herod was sensitive to the criticism and first arrested John, then murdered him. This mutual ‘discomfiting’ of church and the powers that be was to become a pattern.

When Matthew then tells this story for his mainly Jewish Christians community, conflict with the synagogue was increasing, and the Romans were harassing the emerging Christian Church. Just by being true to themselves, Christians apparently ‘discomfited’ the authorities, and they in turn ‘discomfited’ the Church.

This is a pattern that should always be part of the Christian Church’s experience. It becomes a litmus test: if the Church is too cosy with the worldly powers, if there is no mutual ‘discomfiting’, then we are not being true to ourselves.

It takes courage to speak truth to power, especially corrupt power. In 1993 and again last year during the ‘sports rorts’ affairs when political pork-barrelling by Labor and Liberal Ministers overcame good governance, few Christians condemned this immoral behaviour, perhaps too quietly to ‘discomfit’ the Government. The louder voices raised in protest are likely to be punished in some way for their dissent.

Photo courtesy Love Makes A Way

At other times, the ‘Love Makes a Way’ movement sitting in politician’s offices, has set off anger and vindictive behaviour against Christians, including police strip-searching peaceful protesters. Insisting that love is the way is being true to the Church’s calling, so the mutual discomfiting is not surprising.

It seems we cannot avoid this clash with politics. Our efforts, even as we remain true to our calling, will always be messy. In this chaos, this uncertainty, Jesus insists, ‘Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!’ (14:27). The promise is that Jesus will grasp us, as he did Peter, and hold us safe in the storm.

We can say with the Psalmist:
‘God reached down from on high and took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.
He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.
They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.’
(Psalm 18:16-19)

The Perils of Abundance


Genesis 32:3-31

Matthew 14:13-21

Most of us in Australia we are surrounded by abundance. We take for granted that there will be food for the day and for tomorrow. We have clothing for every day of the week. Advertising bombards us and warps our appetites. We are even conditioned into thinking that shopping for things we don’t need will make us feel better; we call it ‘retail therapy’.

COVID-19 has reminded us that much of the world lives in scarcity. The World Bank estimates that 10% of the world’s population (734 million human beings) exist on less than $1.90 a day, and that number will rise because of the pandemic. They believe that ‘the COVID-19 crisis will have a disproportionate impact on the poor, through job loss, loss of remittances, rising prices, and disruptions in services such as education and health care.’

Jacob had an abundance of possessions, human and animal. Living with his uncle Laban, he had acquired ‘oxens, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves’ (Genesis 32:4). When he returned to his brother Esau, these possessions gave him no comfort. They simply made him afraid: afraid that Esau would attack and purloin all his wealth. His plan is to sweeten his brother with gifts. The numbers are fantastic: he offers Esau ‘two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys’ (Genesis 32:13-15), and that’s just the first tranche!

It is only when he has completely separated himself from these possessions, ‘when he was left alone’ (Genesis 32:24) that Jacob finds his true treasure, One who will bless him, One who re-names him Israel for a new purpose. Simply by himself, Jacob sees God face to face (Genesis 32:30).

How are we to find the way to undo the emotional attachment we have to our abundance? What could motivate you and me to learn how to do without the material things surrounding us?

In the Gospel reading, Matthew shows the crowds who came to Jesus in a deserted place with nothing: no food for the day, nothing extra except their desire to follow him. The five thousand men, plus women and children, have only five loaves and two fish to eat. Jesus distributes what he has, he gives and goes on giving, and it turns out to be abundance.

Our desire as Christians is to follow Jesus, a path which is difficult to tread with our abundance. Having possessions is itself a burden for us. Like Jacob, they make us fearful, because we know the security that they offer is a fiction.

But we find it so difficult to change. Our challenge is to detach ourselves from our emotional connection with possessions. We begin with the desire to do so, and then, like Jesus, we give and go on giving. In sharing everything with those who are without, we find a new kind of abundance, and a security that will last forever. Our new-found generosity will also be such ‘good news for the poor’ (Luke 4:18).

Pearling

The pearl we give everything for is the life-long process of seeking and knowing God.


Matthew 13:45-46

In 2003, Rae and I celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary by being tourists in Broome for a few days. We learned how pearls are grown off Broome’s coast. The pearl grows in a frame just beneath the ocean’s surface, starting as a tiny irritant inside the oyster’s soft tissue and over its lifetime growing to be a much-desired jewel.

Pearling can be dangerous. In the early days of the industry the lives of indentured Malay and Indigenous divers, slaves in all but name, were held cheaply. Many died then, but even in recent times, young divers have lost their lives.

Jesus’ parable about the pearl is a jewel in itself, only 24 words long in the original Greek. This pearl is extraordinary: it can be found in a field, but the finder cannot simply pick it up and claim it as her own. The finder must want the pearl so fiercely that she is prepared to give everything she has to obtain it. Even then, the pearl cannot simply be bought by itself; the whole field must be bought.

The parable speaks of a pearl as valuable as life itself. For what would we be prepared to sell everything we have to acquire it?

This 1870s engraving depicts an enslaved woman and young girl being auctioned as property.In the world of Jesus, and in the United States from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, people owned other human beings – slaves. Trafficking in human lives is still a wicked problem in the 21st Century.

As property, slaves have no freedom to order their lives: their time and their bodies belong to their owners. Some slaves could imagine no other way of living. Other slaves were prepared to give everything they had to free themselves and their families. Some saved up money out of crumbs to buy their freedom. Some risked their lives to run. Of these, a fraction succeeded to find their freedom in the northern states; others were killed or taken back under even more harsh conditions.

The pearl, for slaves, was freedom: freedom from being owned by another, freedom to be oneself.

Jesus says wanting to obtain the pearl is ‘like the Kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 13:45). The pearl we give everything for is the life-long process of seeking and knowing God.

We have been slaves. Nothing like the actual slaves of 18th Century America, but we have been unable to choose the right actions. We have let our greed for money, for others, for selfish pleasure, rule our bodies. Our thought-patterns are permeated by the sinfulness of the world, so without choosing it, we too are racist, we too are xenophobic. We have all been there. As hearers of Jesus’ parables we are former slaves on the way to freedom from these forms of imprisonment.  The Holy Spirit works in each of us to become the person God wants us to be.

We can deceive ourselves that we are happy the way we are, or we can choose to work with the Spirit for our freedom. We can decide to keep our eyes on the prize, the pearl.