Messages of Hope

Month: August 2017

The Hope We Have

Published / by Sandy

(an edited version of a New Times online article published on the SA Synod website)

Hope Released

This week’s The Hope we Have conference in Adelaide featured speakers Karina Kreminski and Mike Frost. Their research and experiences demonstrate the nature of authentic evangelism in the Australian context.

Here are five principles:

Love your neighbour – Karina Kreminski talks about this as ‘the art of neighbouring’. Jesus gave everyone a practical plan to live life “love your neighbour as yourself”. This means knowing someone’s name – humanising and seeing people in what can be a dehumanising world. Discovering your neighbour’s names, building genuine friendships, practicing stick-ability – show people you are around for the long haul.

Self-sacrifice – Allowing yourself to receive from others, this often means relinquishing power and control in order to relate to people authentically.  Self-sacrifice involves having conversations in order to build relationships with those you would not normally converse with. For Jesus, this was dining with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. Non-Christians can be buffered and resistant to hearing the Gospel. It is possible to counter that sense of being buffered by creating space that is safe so people feel comfortable with discussing deeper issues. Find out what people are craving, help people develop the longings within them. The longings that are the real stuff of being human. Things like gratitude, joy, kindness, forgiveness.

Don’t stereotype people negatively
People are yearning for affirmation, not the opposite. People don’t want to be told how ‘not good enough they are’. They are yearning to be valued, taken seriously as a person, as a precious subject of personal love. When people come to know Christ, the first thing they notice is the beauty and kindness of God. It is in the face of such beauty and kindness that sin can then be seen for what it really is, and real change happens as a result – not from guilt but from grace.

Bless others – Mike Frost gathers with a group of Jesus followers in Manly, Sydney each week. They call themselves ‘Small Boat, Big Sea’. One of their weekly actions is to bless 3 people each week and to eat with 3 people each week. Mike says these actions of generosity exemplify good community and spark a cycle of giving and generosity by the receiver which is also deeply and progressively transformative to the giver.

Look for the overlap – Mike encourages 3Story evangelism. 3Story is made up of ‘My Story’, ‘Your Story’ and ‘God’s Story’. My Story is how God has transformed us. That is, how is God shaping and transforming our lives. Your Story involves active listening. Listening to the stories of others and pointing out how there is a mutuality and respect between My Story, Your Story and God’s Story that can be accentuated. God’s Story refers to what God is doing in the world. The overlap refers to the space in the middle of the three stories. How does God’s Story shape Your Story after hearing My Story? More on 3Story can be downloaded here.

Karina Kreminski is releasing a book in late October, titled: Urban Spirituality:embodying God’s Mission in the Neighbourhood. She also has a blog post which can be followed here. Mike Frost has written several books and also has a website and blog which can be viewed here.

Justice as a deeply spiritual practice

Published / by Sandy

This article was written by U.S. based Stephen Mattson on Sojo Net. A thoughtful catalyst for discussion in the Australian context.

Many Christians are wary of participating in social justice because of a deep-rooted fear of being labeled “liberal,” “progressive,” or “secular.” They don’t want to be associated with “secular” movements, and are uncomfortable delving into issues that go beyond their cultural comfort zones.

But the Bible tells us that Jesus cared deeply about the social causes around him.

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”

Jesus went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice. Participating in a movement seeking justice, positive reform, and empowerment is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.

Christians must recognize that our society is filled with numerous groups and communities facing systemic oppression, and we must act. We must be willing to admit and address the complex realities within our world that create such problems, and avoid the spiritual laziness that tempts us to rely on generic excuses and solutions.

Christians do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’ ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes. We like to generalize the words of Jesus and transform his life into a one-size-fits-all model that can apply to all of humanity.
Throughout the New Testament Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for.

He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately addressed very specific causes. He radically addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of the time and shattered the status quo.

Jesus wasn’t just preaching a universal salvation message for the world, but he was also addressing specific political, social, and racial issues. He was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed.

Involving ourselves within these issues – serving those who need justice – is an example of following Jesus that today’s Christians must adhere to, because throughout the world there are millions of people who are suffering. But many Christians remain simply apathetic, ignorant, or refuse to admit any problems exist. They’re uncomfortable facing the complex and controversial issues surrounding race, ethnicity, history, and culture.

To avoid such discomfort, many Christians assume that equality and justice looks like a total dismissal – and rejection of – any cultural, ethnic, or distinguishing form of identity. They believe our very humanity should supersede all other labels or descriptions, and that a love of Christ wipes away any “superficial” characteristic such as skin colour, heritage, or other cultural identifier.

They see verses such as Galatians 3:28 that states, “ There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” to mean that nothing else matters beyond our faith in Christ.

Ironically, verses like this show that these things – race, ethnicity, culture – DO matter to God, because God is recognizing the very public fact that there are various laws, expectations, practices, and opinions regarding each distinction mentioned.

Paul is validating all of the cultural issues associated with Jews, Gentiles, slaves, the free, men, and women rather than disregarding them. He’s stating that Jesus is relevant to these differences, and is working throughout their lives by understanding and recognizing the unique pros and cons they’re dealing with – the privileges, disadvantages, stereotypes, assumptions, treatment, rights, social value, and expectations they face on a daily basis.

Participating in social justice is a Christian tradition inspired by Jesus, not liberal causes, populist agendas, media platforms, lawmakers, or mainstream fads. It’s a deeply spiritual practice.

Instead of being motivated by political affiliations, financial gain, power, pride, control, or our own secular motivations, we should be active participants for the sake of following Jesus – for the purpose of glorifying God by through acts of justice, empowerment, and love.

Because everyone is created in the image of God and loved by God, we are responsible for identifying with the victimized — not rejecting their existence. That’s why the New Testament goes into great depth detailing the newfound worth given to the Gentiles, slaves, and women. These countercultural instructions to believers were radically progressive, to the point where the gospel writers had to put them in writing to make sure they were implemented within the newly formed church.

While God does love everyone and all believers are united in Christ, this doesn’t negate the fact that we have a unique cultural identity and upbringing and are called to recognize the marginalized, help the oppressed, and avoid rejecting their significance by denying their identity or ignoring their plight.

By acknowledging and actively participating in the #blacklivesmatter movement, addressing racism, immigration, gender equality, and a litany of other issues, you are following in the steps of Jesus.

It’s not a matter of pitting social causes against the gospel message of Christ; it’s a matter of realizing that these causes ARE actually an important part of that gospel message.

Read the full article on Sojo Net here.

Hospitality and Grace – God’s antidote to the dark side

Published / by Sandy

A sermon by Geoff Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church, Sunday August 20th.

Hospitality and Grace – God’s antidote to the dark side

Genesis 45: 1-15 Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Executive Summary:
Today’s text from Genesis is very rich. One could explore the dynamics of prejudice and bullying, forgiveness and intimacy or family relationships. But I am choosing to reflect on two principles at work in the story – karma and grace. In many ways, this story prefigures the agenda of the enigmatic Jesus: that the risk of hospitality and compassion trump blind, static and comfortable obedience to cultural norms. The brothers represent small mindedness; Joseph represents openness and vision. The brothers are victims of their own doing and represent a life lived by karma; Joseph represents a life lived by grace.
——————————————————————————————————
Sandy and I once visited a young Australian woman who had volunteered in a pre-school for disadvantaged kids in the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa.
During her time there she had begun to support a group supporting homeless people and had been befriended by a family who lived in a makeshift cardboard shelter in the old disused central bus station.
We joined her and the group one night, with hot food and a supply of aspirin and medical dressings in the boot of one of the cars that were doing their ‘run’ across the inner urban centre.

At first we felt out of our depth to be among such desperate people, but were consoled by the fact that the organisation was run for the homeless by the homeless themselves! We were immediately welcomed as friends!
Inside the little shanty, lit only by a fire of waste wood in an old oil drum, we met the family. They were full of joy to meet us, and of course their ‘adopted daughter’!

I asked how they supported themselves and heard how they collect old telephone cables and strip them to get the thin coloured wires; then mother weaves them into bowls for sale. I noticed her arthritic, gnarled hands, cut by the weaving process. She showed me an example of her work. Then she immediately offered it to me as a gift!

I was gob-smacked! I, who by comparison had everything, had brought the family nothing! She had offered me a piece of her own creative handiwork – probably a week’s income!

Have you ever experienced a moment like that?

Sandy and I have experienced a number of these kinds of situations. In Soweto, in Palestine, in India – you never forget and you feel bonded to these wonderful people forever. Forty odd years later, we still catch up with friends who took us in when we were in need in London!

Grace is the giving and receiving of an unmerited gift. Sometimes it’s harder to receive than to give.

Today’s reading is full of the unexpected – a surprising moment for everyone concerned.

Joseph, stereotyped, abused and shunned by his brothers and sold by them into slavery, would have given up all hope of ever seeing them again. His memory would have been the rejection and abuse he was subjected to during his growing up years.

But Joseph had made the best of his situation as a slave in Egypt. His native skills, so despised by his brothers, turned out to be what the Egyptian Pharoah was looking for. Joseph was open to using the gifts he had and to receiving unexpected favour. By grace – as a gift – he found himself elevated up the ladder of success in Egypt.

The brothers on the other hand, thought they had got rid of their embarrassing brother and would never see him again. He didn’t fit their mould. Now, forced by a famine to seek food aid from Egypt, they come face to face with the Egyptian Prime Minister – none other than the one they had despised in their youth! They are gob-smacked!

What will Joseph do? Send them away? Exact revenge? Seek justice for their despicable behaviour – tantamount to murder? That would be the expected response in a tit-for-tat, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, karma culture!

But Joseph had learnt grace – free, unwarranted, unmerited gift -giving.

There is a wonderful statement by Bono of U2 at the end of their song ‘Grace’, on YouTube.

Commenting on the song, Bono says:

You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in spiritual laws – every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that “as you sow, so you will reap” stuff.
Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.
I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge… It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.

One senses the Irish context for Bono’s statement on grace – the bigoted militancy of Paisley’s Protestants and the guilt, hellfire and damnation credo of the Irish Catholics. Bono holds out grace into the future in the hope that he escapes judgement. For Bono, grace is his escape from karma.

But grace seems to me to be on a another plane altogether than sin, law, guilt and judgement; and certainly not the triumphalist certainties of biblical literalists.

Law tries to keep doors closed that, if opened, will cause harm. Do not murder, do not steal, do not drive through red lights. To motivate you not to murder, steal or run a red light, we have police to enforce consequences for breaking these laws and courts to dish out the punishments. We are deterred from breaking the laws that have been legislated through a democratic process. Law protects us against the selfish and wilful and establishes norms for order and cohesion in our society.

Grace, on the other hand, opens new doors. It is all gift, not guilt and looking back over one’s shoulder in case you’ve transgressed. Grace would have the policeman pull you over to tell you you are driving beautifully and to accept a $250 reward for doing so! ‘Think of the good you can do with that!’ says the policeman as he rides off!

That is the reality Jesus insists is in the mind and heart of God. That is the ‘good news’! Life is a gift. You don’t have to prove anything!

Joseph prefigures this good news demonstrated by Jesus by not demanding payback, but forgiving. He mourns the squandering of opportunity for happiness, and weeps in celebration of the hope of a new future, living in the much bigger, surprising, open, risk-taking and life-giving world of grace.

Grace…
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace. Do you feel the strings lifting you?
Or is life just notes on the music page?

Walking on water

Published / by Peter

At the beginning of Matthew 14 we read about two feasts or meals. There is the feast of Herod at which John the Baptist’s head is brought in. It is a party for the elites which displays the power that is capricious and removes any who stand against it. This contrasts with the feast of the Five Thousand where the powerless are fed through the grace of God – Jesus directs his disciples and through obeying him a seemingly impossible situation is overcome. Five thousand people not counting the women and the children are fed and with more than sufficient. We have Jesus’ feast of life contrasted with Herod’s feast of death. So we begin . . .

22  Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. 23 After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. (Matt 14)

Why now? I think that the writer wanted to show that Jesus had to wrestle with new temptations. When Jesus was tempted in the desert scripture notes in Luke’s version that “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” It is probable that Jesus was beset with issues many times as he travelled towards the cross. Note also, that he went up into the hills. This metaphor indicates he needed to get closer to God and he no doubt needed some quiet time to recharge and think. He had been told by John’s disciples what had happened (v12) – the awareness of his inevitable clash with the powers and principalities of this world grew.

And that is what we face today. How do we explain and show the Kingdom of Heaven, what I would rather call the Commonwealth of God, to people today when we are beset with the terrors that the powerful unleash on the vulnerable? Whether they be the people on Manus and Nauru or Aboriginal people still incarcerated and dying in numbers that are out of proportion despite Royal Commissions – the early deaths and the institutional racism besets our legal system. Governments would rather terrorise us by focussing continually on fear and by re-arranging the deck chairs rather than dealing with the inequalities and despair in our communities. So we are being battered by the waves and some may feel like the ship is sinking!

24 Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves.

The sea is a fearsome element. Calm and serene one minute, it can become a raging maelstrom the next. Di and I have direct experience of what it is like to be in a small boat driven by wind and waves. We were in a 6 metre trailer sailer, spinnaker up and surfing on a massive wave in the upper reaches of Spencer Gulf as if the boat was a surf board! It was a fearsome experience. Scary. But there was also a confidence in our friend who handled the boat and gave the orders. I can remember just watching the other boats around us heeling over and feeling a surreal sense of calm in those moments while I watched. The disciples in the boat had experienced sailors among them but perhaps you might sense that once panic sets in no one listens to the captain who know what needs doing. And when the team panics then the boat is in danger of sinking.

25 About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”  27“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”  28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”

Jesus sometimes seems a long way off when we need him. Nathan Nettleton suggests that “perhaps real faith is the capacity to keep trusting that, even though we are in the boat with a bunch of flawed people who are no better at believing than we are, we are better off in the boat than out of it and that Jesus will come when we have learned what we need to learn and been shaped as we need to be shaped by the experience of being in the storm together, and that when he comes he will not be wanting us to jump out of the boat, but that he will get into the boat with us and bring us safely to the shore of the promised land.”

But I think there is another side to this story. Perhaps the one that has entered our culture in the phrase “walking on water” used to indicate any impossible thing. It was experienced only by his disciples. No one else saw it happen. And what would be the easier thing, walk on water or still a raging storm? Likely as not this story was not meant to be taken literally. And it is not a repeated miracle. When Herod says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “You’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool,” Jesus refuses the temptation.

And it is about temptation – temptation to follow Herod’s party, to take the easy way, to party on, to not rock the boat, to keep our heads down lest the powers of this world notice us, to stay safe by sheltering in the shadow of the powerful, to stay comfortable. Are we afraid to question why our world is in the mess it is and the reasons for it? Do we dare to more than dream of a new world, God’s Commonwealth here on earth? Are we afraid to sail out of the sight of land and into the storms?

Some commentators suggest that the problem with Christians is that they need to get out of the boat! If we want to do the hard things, the seeming impossible things, we need to get out of the boat. We need to chance getting our feet wet. We may sink many times but we are sure to be pulled, as need be, back safely into the boat. When we have that sinking feeling we can be assured that Jesus will lift us up again. When we have learned what we need to learn and been shaped as we need to be shaped by the experience of being in the storm together, then we will have the courage to get out of the boat and do the things that need to be done.

But in the end getting out of the boat is really a metaphor for leaving our comfort zone. It is not about leaving the church. So, in a way, we can be in the boat and out of the boat at the same time. We take the boat with us when we do God’s work in the world. Maybe some of us need to be in the boat, to make it safe and ship shape and to be ready to lend a hand, to welcome people seeking shelter from the storm. Others need to be out doing the hard stuff, but depending still on the boat to be there when we need it. Like Geoff said last week, we need to have a Resource Centre, a place where we can come to charge our batteries to get help and support and perhaps a blessing. We can’t do stuff on our own nor can others do it for us. We need to confront our fears. We need to find Jesus in the storm.

Finally some more context. There are some verses missing from the end of the set reading that finish this chapter.

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

The boat isn’t always at sea or in stormy weather. The boat has to come back to shore sometime. That’s when we get out of the boat. For what? So people can be healed. It’s not the boat or us that people come to see. The boat only helps us to get to that place where Jesus wants us to be. The attraction is when people see something in us, by what we do or say, when we reflect Jesus. We are not the ones who bless or transform. It is Jesus who we have with us that blesses and heals. He goes with us as we journey out into the community. As we allow him to be with us, as we allow ourselves to be transformed by his presence, we start to identify not with the party of Herod, but with those Jesus fed, the marginalised, the poor, the oppressed.

. . . . so in the end faith isn’t measured by God doing what we ask.
Faith is measured by us doing what God asks, confronting our fears and walking with Jesus, wherever he may lead, maybe even on water!

May it be so.

Peter Russell

Edited from a sermon delivered at Pilgrim Uniting Church on Sunday 13 August. 2017 – For the full version listen here.

References:
Bible Readings from New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011.
Nathan Nettleton http://laughingbird.net/SermonTexts/0425.html

A prayer from the streets of Charlottesville

Published / by Sandy

Perhaps like you, I am incredulous at what has happened in Charlottesville on the weekend. Lauren Grubaugh  was part of the counter-protest and has shared this reflection and prayer. She writes:

I am exhausted by the hate and the fear and the violence and the death. So the first thing I wrote when I returned home from Charlottesville was a prayer, because I needed to remember God after what I saw today.

I have struggled to pray today. The image of God to which I so often default — an image that has been instilled and reinforced by white supremacy and patriarchy – is a white, male God. Over the years, incorporating inclusive language into my prayer has helped me reimagine God in color and warmth and light. But today’s events were a sombre reminder that the racist, patriarchal god is still deeply embedded in my psyche, and all the more so in that of our nation.

This is a prayer to the God whom we have forgotten, and whom we had best remember.

***

To the God whom we have forgotten;
To the God who is not male and is not white;

To the God who takes no pleasure in violence;
To the God who is Love;
To the God who is tender-hearted and warm embrace;
To the God who is not deaf to Her children’s cries and is moved to tears by their suffering;
To the God whose law is love of neighbor, hospitality for the stranger, care for the weak;
To the God whose touch is healing, whose gaze is compassion; whose way is lovingkindness;
To the God who is Justice;
To the God who tramples fear and hatred under Her feet;
To the God who convicts our hearts, stirs our spirits, transforms our minds;
To the God who revels in the joyful dance of community and invites us to do the same;

To the God whose own child’s lynched body hung limp on a tree,
not by Her own hand,
but because of the fear and hatred of those human beings
who feared the kind of world they were promised would be ushered in
and hated the changes they would have to undergo to get there;

Our memory is so short:
Our failure to remember the sins of our parents,
Our aversion to repentance,
Our refusal to make reparations,
is killing us.

Our souls are wasting away.
And black, brown, female, queer, trans, Muslim,
differently abled bodies
are dying.
Every day, so many.

O God whom we have forgotten,
We do not even know how to call on your name.
We have not seen you in the faces of our sisters and brothers.
We have not felt you in the pain of our neighbors, strangers, friends and enemies;

O God whom we have forgotten,
Do not let our imaginations be infiltrated by war-mongering forces of violence.
Do not let our spirits be colonized by the depressing fear of our oppressors.

Transform our minds that do not know how to think of you existing without these heavy chains we have placed on ourselves and on each other. Amen.

Lauren Grubaugh
A prayer from the streets of Charlottesville

Also, article from World Council of Churches titled, In Charlottesville, can the ‘power of love’ prevail?

‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

Published / by Sandy

A reflection by Geoff Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church, August 6, 2017 

Jacob Wrestles at Peniel. Genesis 32:22 – 32.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Reflection: ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

Many of my congregation at Flinders over the last 20 years were those who had given up on the institutional church because it was not giving them a blessing.

  • A lady marries an Orthodox man, but she cannot stand the patriarchy in the church. She now nurtures her own spirituality.
  • A lady suffers a divorce and when it becomes known in her church, she is given the cold shoulder. She leaves. She joins the growing throng at coffee shops on Sunday morning, meeting with friends who accept her, as she is, without judgement.
  • An older academic tries going to church, but finds pettiness and an old-fashioned conservative culture. He joins Rotary to find the connection he craves and, by contributing to the well being of others from the well of his experience, finds the meaning and sense of satisfaction he needs.
  • A young academic, who had grown up in the church, loves the wonderful people there, but can’t relate to what they call worship. Not just his intellectual but his emotional and cultural life don’t connect. Going to church has become more about loyalty than human flourishing.

Likely, none of these examples are unfamiliar to us.

Should they have wrestled with more persistence for the blessing?

Today the Jacob text prompts me to reflect with you on one of life’s paradoxes – wrestling on the one hand – and letting go, on the other. My conclusion is that the key to negotiating this paradox is whether it results in blessing.

The key to dealing with paradox is to resist the temptation to collapse the opposite poles together into a grey mediocre compromise. Rather, it is to hold the opposites and live with uncertainty. That requires faith.

Was Jesus human or was he God in human form? I’m holding both together. Can God be a God of love in the world when there is so much horrific suffering? I’m holding both together – the reality of evil and the reality of love.

To live with uncertainty, to live by faith, is to keep open the space for God’s surprise, to keep open to what God may be offering as gift.

The text might suggest that we must wrestle for a blessing. But the other pole of the paradox is that we must let go to allow blessing the space to be received and enacted. That is the background to Jesus leaving his disciples – to create the space for the Holy Spirit to be received. Those of us who have retired from work may well be able to tell a story of surprising blessing that may come from the new space that quitting paid employment may bring.

Sometime blessing comes from hanging on and wrestling, other times it comes from letting go. Both may be as painful as each other.

Jacob had good reason to wrestle for God’s blessing. He had swindled his elder brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. He deceived his dying father by posing as Esau, gaining the final blessing that rightfully belonged to the eldest son. He ran away to his uncle Laban and when he heard that Esau was approaching with a small army, he sends gifts to try to placate him. He had his father’s blessing and consequently the status as head of the family and every material comfort as a result. But it is not enough! Only with God’s blessing can he face the future. Only with God’s blessing can he count on the surprise gift from God that may reconcile him with his brother. Jacob himself will not be able to resist Esau from taking revenge. So he wrestles for that blessing from God.

From the beginning, Jacob has been wrestling – being the second born in a culture that gave everything to the first born. Even in getting married, this culture has stood against him. Jacob has wrestled his way through the disadvantage life served up to him.

There is a cost to wrestling, even beyond the energy expended in the struggle. The antipathy created in Esau, 14 years hard labour to marry Rachel, the love of his life, at the expense of leaving Leah, the eldest daughter, with a loveless marriage. And in today’s reading, body damage at a time when they did not do hip replacements!

But when is the cost too much? When is it better to let go?

Let me return to my Flinders congregation.

Any organised grouping of human beings must wrestle with toxicity, particularly wrought by those who take out their disappointments in life, on themselves and others – the injustices, the disappointments, the pain, the fears and the deep hidden anger, making life difficult for all concerned.

What makes the Church different is what it claims for itself.

If the Church claims to be the source of blessing – the mediator of God’s blessing – then no wonder outsiders looking on will wonder how on earth such an institution can deliver! We may have ourselves to blame, in that the church may not have been so good at being open to confronting and expressing its own brokenness and too willing to tell others they are the sinners in need of redemption.

The church that thinks it is the mediator of God’s blessing will believe that only it has the truth, that the world is sinful, and therefore in need of what the church has. Therefore the mission of the church becomes an evangelism that is conceived as a crusade. And of course it is too easy to recognise the speck in another’s eye and be completely unaware of the plank in our own! Royal Commissions and media investigations are now revealing the dissonance between what the church has claimed for itself and aspects of its actual practice.

Yet we are pilgrims on a journey of transformation, serving one-another, and others, in the name of the Christ, who has shown us what love means, and, through his demonstration of life over death, the hope that is promised before us.

The struggles we all have in our lives and the knowledge of tough times among members of our community have contributed to Pilgrim being a church of empathy. When it comes to being surrounded by a community of care in tough times, Pilgrim is a wonderful church to belong to.

Sandy and I were first attracted to Pirie St Methodist in the 70’s by its openness and freedom. We did not feel any sense of restriction and there didn’t seem to be church-culture pettiness that undermined exciting experiments in music styles, the creation of new forms of liturgy and expressions of community. There was an absence of ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ signs around the place. Rather, we were welcomed and empowered not to conform, but to be who we were in Christ, and contribute our gifts as we were able.

In more recent times, it seems, every little change at Pilgrim, even re-arranging furniture, has demanded a huge misdirection of energy – a huge waste of energy – with inevitable spiritually depressive consequences. Who would want to put up one’s hand to be on the Council of a church of in-fighting?

But I am in awe at those among us who continue to wrestle for blessing and not for the counterfeit complacent comfort of gatekeepers who seem to have taken upon themselves the role of nay-sayers, believing they are doing a good thing.

No newcomer comes to church without hope of a blessing. They come for ‘yes’; they have long experienced ‘no’. No newcomer arrives without deep needs for healing, for being understood, and a family of care to belong to. Every stranger is looking for a blessing. We care, but we must ensure we point not to us, but the Source of blessing, and through that relationship find a spiritual home that becomes a touchstone for life with authenticity and integrity. Not to do so, places us as glorified social workers, and we can be sure that fatigue and adaptive desensitisation will be just around the corner. By ourselves, the needs of the world will overwhelm us, and we will become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

So the first point is that we are a community of disciples, practicing the love of God on a journey of continuing transformation. We may accompany others, we may reflect God’s love as in a mirror dimly, but we are not the Source of good news in ourselves. A time to wrestle and a time to let go are practiced here.

The second point:

We change the unrealistic expectation of the church being the mediator of God’s ‘Good News’, when we accept that God, the source of blessing, is at work in the world, not limited to the church.

This was the lesson the Jews had to learn when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 584 BC. Jahweh was at work beyond their limited religious imagination.

So if God is primarily active in the world, where does that leave the church?

I like to consider the church as an experimental resource centre, partnering with God in what God is doing in the world. It is not the mediator of God to the world. The church is a touchstone that assists our orientation to the Source of blessing.

With Justin’s forbearance, (and with deference to any medicos among us), a medical analogy.

Just as doctors not only develop knowledge and skills in the medical school, they also continue to keep up with what’s happening by staff meetings and corridor conversations, as well as conferences and reading journals and so on. They also learn from their patients. They practice medicine. And that practice continues to evolve.

But while the doctor creates the best conditions possible, the actual healing takes place in the patient. To expect the doctor to heal is a false expectation. The doctor’s knowledge and skill creates the optimum conditions for the miracle of healing taking place in the patient herself.

So the church might be likened to the medical profession. It cannot of itself heal. But it can be a community of spiritual practice, learning and keeping on learning, to create the best conditions we can for the healing that God’s love is yearning for God’s world. Best spiritual practice!

Going back to my Flinders congregation, in as much as we are judgemental, in as much as we fail to value and empower those who are different to find and worship God in their own cultural ways, in as much as pettiness and wilfulness to maintain irrelevant practices that alienate ‘normal’ people, inasmuch as we gatekeep and try to control decisions of the church in our own interest, and in as much as such toxic behaviour is not openly and honestly confronted, God will continue to be God active in the world, leaving the church to its own stubborn devices.

We wrestle with our own human frailties. It is a spiritual law: give up, let go of, the attitudes, thoughts and practices that feed those human frailties that deny blessing to ourselves and others. Keep wrestling for blessing; and keep letting go of toxicity to make space to receive it.

In conclusion:
I have talked this morning about those who have given up the wrestle with the church and given some reasons that might also implicate us.

But that doesn’t mean they have given up their wrestle with God for the blessing they know God holds for them. Its just that its unlikely they will come through any church door any time soon. They have understandably lost confidence in the church.

Today the Jacob text has prompted me to reflect with you on one of life’s paradoxes – wrestling on the one hand – and letting go, on the other. My conclusion is that the key to negotiating this paradox is whether it results in blessing.

I invite you to spend a moment to reflect on your response to this text of wrestling with the angel for a blessing and perhaps also reflect on what might be the opposite side of this story – what must be let go of to open the space to receive such a blessing, to let go of all that adds to toxicity in our community and undermines the spirit of love and freedom that God promises to us as a blessing.

What are we wrestling with, and what must we let go of, to receive God’s blessing?

Kindling hope in a time of escalating tension

Published / by Sandy

On the Hiroshima-Nagasaki anniversary, a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons has kindled hope.
(a statement by the World Council of Churches)

On Hiroshima-Nagasaki anniversary, new treaty to ban nuclear weapons kindles hope
participants in the memorial service, Nagasaki, Japan 2017 (photo: Paul Jeffrey WCC)

On the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world can find hope in a new treaty, the text of which has been negotiated and agreed by a large majority of the world’s governments, to outlaw nuclear weapons.

In comments reflecting on the anniversary, World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit said, “for the survivors of the atomic bombings in 1945, and for all who seek the complete elimination of nuclear weapons on humanitarian, ethical and moral grounds, the new draft Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed at the United Nations on 7 July 2017 is cause for thanksgiving and a catalyst for renewed resolve.”

“This new development in international law is best understood against the mass destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 and the suffering and abiding sorrow that ensued,” he said.

On this anniversary the WCC joins survivors of the bombings and the victims of nuclear weapon testing in other parts of the world in welcoming the new treaty. Tveit continued. “We are grateful for every member church united in public witness for nuclear disarmament over many decades, and for all those ecumenical, civil society and UN partners who have contributed to this recent achievement,” he said.

The treaty cites religious leaders among those who raise public conscience for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

“By putting humanity first, the draft treaty is a fitting tribute on the anniversary of a human tragedy unleashed 72 years ago,” said Tveit. “It stands in stark contrast to the nuclear deterrence doctrines and war plans which a handful of powerful governments still follow. As the daily news currently reminds us, those who seek power and security through nuclear weapons are endangering our whole world to this day.”

(Worship resources for Hiroshima anniversary – August 6th –  here).