Parish magazine article – October 2012

The Vicar writes . . .

Recently, as I’m sure we’re all aware, the Diocese has been facing up to the fact that its future is looking increasingly uncertain. To use a phrase which seems to crop up often in our shared discourse, we are facing a ‘Perfect Storm’ of circumstances, which in many people’s eyes call into question the viability of the Diocese of Dunedin.

Diocesan Synod met last month, and there we gave much time over to prayer and Bible study as we pondered what the Spirit might be saying to the church in the midst of this ‘Storm’. Interestingly I don’t remember any of us crying out ‘Save us! Don’t you care that we are drowning??’. Whilst our minds may been attentive to Scripture, perhaps there was too much confidence in our own ability somehow to navigate these threatening waters?

I don’t think I would have noticed this, but for a comment in a debate on a topical issue, which filled much of the rest of our time. In it the speaker said, almost in passing, ‘The Church disregards the teaching of Jesus in regard to this matter . . .’, but without any note of censure or concern. As if it was a matter of no import. As if, as with thinking about the future of the Diocese, we didn’t need, indeed desperately need the Wisdom of Christ. As if we can figure this out for ourselves. And I cannot help but think that the state of the Diocese may well be in part down to a deep rooted sense that we can figure this out for ourselves. [An attitude which it must be said has pervaded most of Western Christianity since the Enlightenment]

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel says ‘take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’. It is plain from speaking with many people about the future of the Diocese that our souls are far from being ‘at rest’ in this regard. Perhaps that is because we have not taken the yoke of Jesus? But, what is that yoke? This figure of speech is deeply embedded in the history of the Jewish people – for they had a King, Jereboam who laid a heavy Yoke upon the people. This was a Yoke of obedience, but one which was harsh. He was the King, but he did not care for his people. [1 Kings 12]. Jesus Yoke is easy – but it is still the yoke of obedience. In ancient times, the yoke would be put across the shoulders of two oxen. It was a means of ensuring that they worked in harmony with one another, for the Yoke would chafe if they did not. As Christians we are called to ‘the obedience that comes from faith’ [Romans 1:5] obedience to Christ. We gladly take up this yoke of obedience for we Know that he Loves and cares for us and that His Life is our Hope. So we are yoked to Christ and over the years learn obedeince (as he himself did – Hebrews 5:80) – to adjust ourselves in Eugene Peterson’s beautiful phrase, to ‘the rhythms of unforced grace’, the movements of Christ as we learn to live in obedience to him.

Of course we tend to read these things ‘individualistically’ as if their prime application is to the solitary Christian – but there is no such thing. Jesus here as throughout all his words addresses himself to the community of disciples, the infant church. He is saying to his church – take my yoke upon you and learn from me, that you, the church might find rest for your souls.

Following Jesus in obedience is not always convenient or easy. the winds of cultural change blow strong and we are easily deflected. When the Ox is deflected off course, the Yoke chaffs – and the Ox may wish to toss its head and leave the yoke behind – to ‘disregard the teaching of Jesus’ in this or that matter. But no longer yoked it all too easily loses its way, and even forgets, or perhaps does not have the faith in its distress to cry out ‘Lord! Save us! We are perishing!’  Lord, have mercy.

Bible study notes for Sunday 30th September, 2012

Bible Study notes for Sunday September 30th, 2012

Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

Take time to read through the three portions of Scripture. Share with one another first impressions. What strikes you from one or other of the texts? What puzzles you? How do they make you feel?

1. The Old Testament lesson is from the Book of Esther. A beautiful story of a courageous woman and how she is instrumental in the salvation of her people[1].

The story finds God’s people in tremendous peril through the treachery of Haman, someone who hates them. In response to their deliverance they celebrated with a great festival and it became an annual remembrance [The feast of Purim]. Each week we give thanks for a Great redemption in the Eucharist. Read the portion of Chapter 9 set. What are the elements of the Celebration? How much do we have a similar sense of celebration at the Eucharist?

2.  Turning to the Epistle to James – Read verses 13-14 again.

a.  People in three different conditions are mentioned: the suffering; the cheerful; and the sick. What links their responses to their different conditions?

b.  When we are sick, how do we respond? What are the prescribed elements of the response here (there are three)? How does this contrast with our response?

a.  In professionalising ministry to the sick, the medical profession, have we ruptured a good practise of faith, that we first turn to the Lord in the person of the elders of the church?

b.  What is the significance of calling for the elders (as opposed to ‘hoping they will somehow find out’; or not calling them at all)

c.  In what sense is calling for the elders actually the exercise of faith?

c.  Read vs 15, 16.

a.  Verse 15 – what strikes you when you read this verse? Do we see or understand sickness as in some sense connected to sin?

b.  Verse 16 suggests there might be some connection – perhaps not at the level of committing sins makes you ill, but more that as I have several times suggested, sin fractures the fabric of the world – sin ruptures things and often in ways we cannot see. Combining confession with prayer for healing understands the individual in a much richer context – that our lives and actions are all caught up together – Discuss

c.  This is further suggested in the command ‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another’. The repetition of ‘one another’ suggests a deeper social fabric is in play. When we think of faith and life – do we primarily inderstand them as individual [my faith]? If so are we impoverished, missing out on something which God would show us and so deepen our understanding of faith and Reality?

d.  We are told of the power of prayer in vs 17-18, but its context is very much communal. Most of the teaching on prayer in the Scriptures is that of communal prayer. Again, do we elevate our personal prayers over the prayers of the whole church?

e.  Speak to one another of your experiences of praying together. What have you found in such times?

f.    Vs 19-20 speak of a mutual accountability for our lives – of ‘watching over one another in love’ (see Matthew 18:15-18) What do we understand by ‘mutual accountability’ in terms of our faith. How significant does James think it? (vs 20) What might we do to grow in such accountability?

3.  Finally the gospel – the texts as you might have noticed in some respect are getting more challenging 🙂

a.  Note that these most ‘challenging’ words once more come from the lips of Jesus. Reading Verses 42-48 – do they throw any further light on the significance of mutual accountability?

b.  John says they tried to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. HOw does Jesus response to John lead into verse 42 and ‘putting stumbling blocks’ before little ones

c.  Who are ‘these little ones who believe in me?’ Q. How might we damage ‘simple faith’ in another?[2]

d.  Jesus seems to see faith as something that we enter into – not an understanding as such but a way of confronting reality – casting out demons in his name / giving a believer a glass of water because they bear the name of Jesus. Put another way, faith here is shown to be entering into a life of association with Jesus. In what ways might we also further enter into association with him? How might we encourage others to do so?

e.  Jesus then shows the terrible consequences for those who try in any sense to prevent this – and indeed the seriousness of ‘stumbling’. What is our response to this teaching?How well do our lives reflect the seriousness of matters of faith expressed in these verses?

f.    V49 is one of the most difficult in Scripture to understand ‘For everyone will be salted with fire’ The best suggestion is perhaps that it is a direct translation of a Hebrew figure of speech which had the meaning of things being destroyed by fire, which would of course follow on from the previous verse about hell, that all that ends up there is ‘salted’ (destroyed) by fire. [3]Jesus then changes the metaphor to one about having Salt in ourselves. What does this mean?? (cf Matthew 5:13)

[1] Interestingly it is the only book in Scripture in which God is not mentioned

[2] Romans Chapter 14 may be of some interest here – especially in the way it is declared wrong to cast doubt upon the action of another – if another is caused to doubt the rightness of a particular action (in this case eating food sacrificed to idols, and they eat with doubt in their mind, that is seen as sinful, not eating ‘believing – ‘All that does not come from faith is sin.’ This example is a good one which shows that believing is a stance of life towards things, as much if not more than a set of beliefs held. This is what lies behind the expression ‘putting stumbling blocks’ before little ones if we take the Mark passage as a whole

[3] [Hebrew does not have nearly as many words as Greek and far far less than English – so a word not only encompasses a spectrum of meaning but may indeed have two meanings. The word for salt is the same as a word for destroy in Hebrew]

Sermon for Sunday September 23rd, 2013

Sunday 23rd September 2012

Sermon Recoding 23-9-12

Proverbs 31:10-end
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3,7,8a
Mark 9:30-37

‘A good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit – the neglect of Christian Character??’

“Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

One of the, to my mind disturbing changes in the way the history of the last century is viewed, especially in Europe, is the way in which we all stopped talking about ‘the Germans’ with respect to culpability for the Second World War. Instead we just referred to the Nazis. I found that change disturbing, not because it was about blame, but because it moved the spotlight away from a deeply uncomfortable question. The National Socialist Party was numerically not that large, but it mobilised many many German people in its cause. Feeding on deep resentment and a sense of injustice, a sense that Never again should the proud German people suffer a humiliation like the Versailles settlement and all that flowed from it, a large part of the population was caught up in the moment, and lived to regret it.
Although there were many who saw through the Nazi rhetoric to an even darker and more sinister heart, many more were caught up in it, and afterwards found themselves implicated at some level or other. It was as if they were in some sense helpless in the face of what was happening, somehow swept along like chaff driven by the wind. The unremitting fascination in England with the history of the Second War saw endless TV documentaries, and all too many interviews with ordinary Germans who clearly couldn’t come to terms with their own involvement, their inability to Stand against it. By only talking about the Nazis, we were deflected from the troubling fact of the capacity for great evil that lies within each one of us, something which can spring up in a moment as people are as it were swept along

For this goes on all around us. Not thankfully, at least for here and now, in the rise of terrible totaliarian regimes, but in the moments of all our lives. People get caught up in something and before you know it others are hurt, relationships wrecked, words said which cannot be taken back. Or smaller steps taken unthinkingly which lead towards these things, guided as James puts it by ‘cravings within’, towards an external and permanent stain on the record. ‘We do those thing we ought not to do and we have not done those things which we ought to have done’, as the words of the Prayer Book general confession have it. And the things we do lead towards more things we ought not to do, at times, seemingly inexorably.

Last Sunday morning, whilst you were engaged in the worship of God, I had a too personal insight into that at Synod. It was a moment of realisation about this reality and about myself. In the midst of the business of the morning I too found myself caught up. I did something that on reflection I should not have done, and I did not do something I should have done.  It happened in a few brief moments, and I was not ready for that moment.  ‘Be on guard’ says Jesus ‘ . . . so that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.’ I got something very wrong and it has been a chastening experience. I was caught unexpectedly, and acted unwisely

Of course it would be all too easy to say in my case as in many millions of others, ‘There there, we’re all human you know, these things don’t matter all that much’, but as Christians we really do not have that luxury – for we believe in the one who ‘alone from first to last our flesh unsullied wore’, we believe in The Human – Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever anyone says to us – ‘well, we are all human’ as a way of salving our consciences, we should respond, ‘no we are not – but in the Risen Christ we are learning to be so’

As to these things not mattering, well again we know better. This is why we call such erring and straying, ‘Sin’ – we realise the damage these things do, fracturing the realm of Existence. It is why in the church we are to exercise the disciplines of mutual accountability, of confession, repentance and more. Those good practices which like the Person blessed in our Psalm,  move us away from being like the chaff which the wind drives away, blown hither and thither as we are ‘caught up in the moment’, and instead directs our being towards the stability of trees, planted by streams of water, which in the moment are not blown away but rather bear fruit. I realised in that moment last week, I was like the chaff – my lack of rootedness was revealed. It was a moment of Judgement  – the tree fell.

Life comes at us, ‘stuff happens’ as we have it – nowadays as fast as it ever has. We live in an age of rapidly accelerated change in which life offers us almost on a moment by moment basis choices to make, decisions to take. Many of them seemingly inconsequential – to ‘Like’ something on Facebook, to reply to an email, to answer the phone, to buy a new pair of shoes, to stop . . . that it seems is the one thing we are NOT encouraged to do – to Stop -to reflect – to ask ‘is this really the way?’ ‘What sort of a Life am I building by my myriad of momentary choices? Or. . . are my choices the result of a carefully built life?’

Moving here to New Zealand has of course resulted in an even greater variety of new experiences – more new things which all have the capacity either to enrich or diminish life, requiring discernment, or Wisdom. In particular I am getting used to a new language, not only New Zealand English which is subtly different to the language I grew up with, but also of course in the Maori tongue.  So I am learning new words, and my new word this week was ‘Mana’. A friend used it and though I had heard it and had a vague idea of what it meant, I went and did some further research. For those, probably few of us who don’t know, Mana when translated out of the Maori into New Zealand English might mean something along the lines of deeply rooted good character – that rare quality of a certain Weightiness and Authority in and of themselves. I’ll come back in a moment to the Maori sense, but first that idea of ‘Character’.

My sense is that we live in a culture which understands that character is in a sense something almost accidental, that you ‘just happen to be’ a person of character. That how we act in the moment is just who we are, or that who we are is a given, we have lots of traits and a very few have these traits which identify them as people of Mana. We think little if at all about if it is possible to develop our character – less about HOW we might build our character. In this regard, as in so many others we are crippled by a lack of sense of times past, when Development of Character was actually of great significance in society. People thought much about how character was developed – and indeed education was primarily seen in these terms. Not in terms of teaching a set of facts, but in terms of teaching a disposition towards the world, a way of being human. Our forebears would I think have had little time for those words ‘ah well, we’re only human’.
A sign that things have changed is perhaps the way we receive the phrase, ‘a character building experience’  – such a thing is increasingly understood as a negative. A child is sent away to boarding school – ‘it will be character building for him’ – the putting side by side of the Negative aspects of life away from home and the building of character, throws a negative light on the latter. Be Yourself!! is today’s mantra. But who says, ‘Become yourself’, as if Life was not in truth a covetous amassing of experiences, but rather the lifelong project of developing character, that when the testing comes, when the winds blow and the seas rise, the resulting house might not collapse as if built on sand.

Now of course such a view of character building is very much along the lines of the self sufficient rugged individualist way of doing things. We may leave this place and think ‘Mana’ – right  – I am going to pull up my bootstraps and build myself a life.
Perhaps we might think of that reading from Proverbs, about the ‘capable wife’ There indeed is what we might call Mana. As we read of this woman, she is awe inspiring in the integrity of her life, she has Mana, yet right at the end, there is a little note that the Western Individualist way is Not how she has built her life. What the word Mana carries with it in Maori culture, is that Character is somehow rooted in something spiritual beyond our own grit and determination – it is at once a work and a gift, and here it draws much closer to the truth revealed in Christ. As the writer says of the capable wife,  ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised’.  Proverbs is if you like a manual for a young man in living life and here in finding a good wife. What is her defining character out of which all else flows? That she fears the LORD. Her exceptional character is rooted in a living apprehension of God
For indeed it is hard to read the scriptures for very long to realise that this work of building a Life, Who we are, is one that we are given. Yet that in this work we are totally dependent upon Christ. ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me’, is the way that Jesus puts it. The Yoke is the symbol of obedience – the yoke of obedience – yoked to Jesus.

The saying goes, ‘it is all to easy to be wise after the event’ – wide and easy is the way that leads to destruction, but as Jesus tells us we are living in the times of the End, momentous times, times when our lives are put to the test – things happen one after the other after the other, our work is tested as if by fire on an almost moment by moment basis. It is easy to be wise after the event, but then it is too late. The deed is done, and the door is closed – we find ourselves on the outside, whilst the discerning and wise who were ready, go into the banquet. The question is ‘How are we to be wise before the event?’ How are we to be ready? How do we develop Christian character which is sufficient. How are we to become Wise before the event? Only in being Yoked to Christ – the Living Word, who is for us Wisdom from God, and thus growing into the fulness of who we are in Him.

Think again of the Psalm, Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. Meditating on the law of the LORD, paying attention to the one to whom we are yoked through baptism. How do we become the people we are meant to be? By entering into training with Christ in conscious obedience day by day by day. And at first this is difficult – this yoke seems to chafe – obedience to Christ is Not second nature, and we all too readily give up – we do not reflect on our mistakes and what Christ the gentle one is teaching us. We go back to trying to do it for ourselves or not bothering and resorting to the complacent – ‘ah well, we are only human’. As the writer to the Hebrews says ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’

‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’ says James, ‘But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.’ Character  is in the end is the outflow of our hearts – envy and selfish ambition in the heart produces disorder and wickedness.

The character of the disciples, their hearts, were shockingly revealed in their actions. ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ asks Jesus. Well at least they had learned enough to be shamed into silence . . . Jesus called these twelve men and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus does not primarily call us into a whole new set of things to do – that is secondary. Rather he First calls us into a whole new way of being.
Before setting out the actions of the sermon on the Mount he describes in the Beatitudes the type of people who can live in obedience to his teaching – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the pure in heart We can only begin to live the Life Christ has called us to as we begin the work of developing the life that is capable of living that Life. . . Christian character building comes before the Test, Wisdom is garnered before the event as grain is gathered before Winter – when the test comes it is Always too late to do the work of character . . . but fear not we have the very best teacher – one who loves us utterly and has given himself up for us – as he has given and continues to give himself to us, let us likewise offer our lives to him, that he might take them, discipline them, mould them more and more into his likeness, to the glory of God the Father of us all. Amen

What sort of a Life am I building by my myriad of momentary choices?
Or, are my choices the result of a carefully built life?
Lord have Mercy

Readings for Sunday 23rd September – 2012. Study notes

Bible Study notes for Sunday September 23rd – Theme “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”


Old Testament : Proverbs 31:10-31

Psalm 1

Epistle : James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Gospel : Mark 9:30-37


This weeks readings are So full of riches it is very hard to know where to start, but as we are going to spend time meditating upon the Word – begin by reading slowly and meditatively the Psalm, Psalm 1. [If you are following these notes alone, then read the words out loud to yourself – it is more helpful than reading in your head. If reading in a group, then perhaps a couple of people could take turns to read it through slowly, so everyone has the chance to Hear the word]



1 Happy are those

   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

or take the path that sinners tread,

   or sit in the seat of scoffers;


2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,

   and on his law they meditate day and night.


3 They are like tree planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season;

   and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.


4 The wicked are not so,

   but are like chaff that the wind drives away.


5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,

   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;


6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

   but the way of the wicked will perish.



  1. Our first reading is a little unusual – it is if you like a Coda to the book of Proverbs. Proverbs contains of course many ‘proverbs’, short pithy sayings, many attributed to Solomon. It is also perhaps the most explicitly ‘gendered’ text in the Scriptures. As we have increasingly sought to use inclusive language, the book of Proverbs provides quite a challenge!
    1. Read the passage quickly through and speak out your first impressions
    2. Now pause – read again more slowly – ponder the words. Does a second reading lead you to a different place than first impressions?
    3. This ‘Coda’ is actually all of Chapter 31 – read the ascription (Verse 1) – Does this in any sense affect the way you hear the passage?
    4. Is this text in direct opposition to
      1. Contemporary culture
      2. the culture of the church
      3.  The Gospel??

                                                . . . or is it more complex than that?

[If you would like to take a little more time to think about Gender in the Scriptural account, another passage from Proverbs might be worth considering – Proverbs 4:1-9. try and take all the Gendered language out of it, so father and mother becomes parent, and Wisdom is no longer ‘She’ but ‘It’. What happens to the text when you do this? ‘Male and female you created them’ we say in our liturgy – are gender differences of any consequence? ‘Moving away from acknowledging Gender differences enriches our common life’ – Discuss]


  1. Now move on to the Epistle – I suggest you ignore the omissions from the text set in the Lectionary and read right through from 3:13 to 4:8, in two parts, first Ch 3:13-end
    1. We move from ‘the Good wife’, with Wisdom personified as female in the background, to the letter of James – in some respects the most practically hard hitting of all epistles. It is about Wisdom for Life as are the Proverbs (despite Martin Luther calling it ‘an epistle of Straw!’ {note here by the way that even the Reformers had a more finely nuanced view of scripture than modern fundamentalist interpreters allow}. James 3:13 – are there echoes here of the Proverbs 31 reading?
    2. Remembering that James first calls us to pay attention to the use of the tongue and that we should be ‘slow to speak’, and that the tongue is a fire – how do these notions feed into the teaching on Wisdom in verses 14-18?
    3. James suggests that there are two types of Wisdom vs 14-18. What are they? What are their different fruits (the evidences of the two different types of Wisdom)? [Note: James mentions lack of partiality as a sign of Wisdom from above – a back reference to earlier in the epistle, Ch 2:3-9]
    4. Now read Ch 4:1-8 James begins to home in on the source of false wisdom, that leads to all the negative consequences of which we have read. This is one of the most compelling passages of spiritual diagnostics in all of Scripture. Contrary to Luther, James shows himself to be a Doctor of the soul. What does he see is the root of evil?
    5. When people are asked to list the ten commandments, there is a slight tendency to remember the ones we keep 🙂 We also have a tendency to forget the first few – that refer to God, and the last one. What is the 10th commandment??
    6. Think back to the old story of the man and woman in the garden. ‘Covetousness is the root of all our troubles. Being dissatisfied with our life in God and wanting ‘more’ is the root sin’ Discuss
    7. Read verse 4 in the light of verses 1-3. What in this context do you think enmity with God means? Is covetousness enmity with God? Remember this passage is all about the desires of our heart
    8. What does it mean to ‘cleanse our hands and purify our hearts’? What in this context does it mean to be ‘double minded’?


  1. Finally we come to the gospel which returns to the theme of last weeks reading after a few verses
    1. Read Mk 9: 30-32 What strikes you about these verses?
    2. A theme of Mark is ‘the hidden Messiah’ [a theme also found in John, but in a different way – ‘you cannot come where I am going’, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘”I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” etc. ] Why does Jesus seem to hide? Why does he seem not to want people to know who he is?
    3. Why were the disciples afraid to ask him?
    4. Read vs 33-37. ‘Jesus does not do away with heirarchy, he turns it upside down’ – Discuss
    5. Who is ‘the last of all’?
    6. This is the first time that Jesus mentions children in Mark. In the wider culture n which jesus lived, children were ‘no persons’. Here he stands a child literally ‘in the middle of them’ How does his action interpret his words about Welcome?

Words matter

Some wise words from my erstwhile bishop

Nick Baines's Blog

One of the things that winds me up is when people say that it's actions, not words, that matter. It assumes that words are somehow not actions. They are. Much language is performative: it makes happen what it says.

I have been sitting in the decisive House of Bishops meeting in Oxford discussing (seriously, constructively, intelligently and eirenically) the proposed wording of an amendment to the wording of the draft legislation to allow women to become bishops. The consensus on the way ahead was overwhelming and this will be evident in the statements being issued shortly. I don't want to preempt that, but I only have a few minutes to write this and then go to my next engagement. However, we leave Oxford having taken words apart and debated meanings. Words matter – as is evident if you ever get them wrong or use the wrong ones.

But, what shares…

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Bible Study Notes – Sunday September 16th 2012

Bible Study notes for Sunday September 16th

Proverbs 1:20-23

Psalm 19

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

Running through all this weeks readings is the theme of ‘Words’, so it would be good to begin this week by taking time to pray through our Psalm, 19, an expanded meditation on the speech of Creation and the Word of the Lord.

[When we say the daily office in church we ‘breathe’ the Psalms – that is we say the first half of the verse – give ourselves time to breathe, then say the second half. So much of our speech and prayer is ‘breathless’ – we need to give words space. Try saying the Psalm like this, together. It is a Good Discipline. It teaches us more of what it truly means to pray together (and how hard it is!)]

1The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

3There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

4yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,

and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

6Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is hid from its heat.

7The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;

8the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;

9the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;

the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

11Moreover by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward.

12But who can detect their errors?

Clear me from hidden faults.

13Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

  1. Now turn to the Gospel reading. Note that this is all about Speech – “Who do people say that I am?” – ““But who do you say that I am?”
    1. EVERYTHING hangs on our answer to that question. Why?
    2. What is Peter’s answer? What does it mean for Us, that he is “The Messiah (Christ)”
    3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in ‘Letters and papers from Prison’ says ‘’What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is , for us today.” How do You answer that question?
    4. The distinguished New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham says ‘in asking this question, Bonhoeffer presupposed the biblical account of who Jesus was and is, as well as the consonance of credal orthodoxy with that biblical account. Knowing who Jesus Christ is for us today requires us to rediscover his identity according to the Bible and the creeds in the context of our unavoidable immersion in our own here and now. Our task is not to create a Christ out of the needs and demands of our context, but to discern the relevance for our context of the Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday today and forever.’ Discuss
    5. Where in the Liturgy do we answer the question “Who is Jesus”? – what words do we use?
    6. Look up the Nicene Creed in your prayer book – p. 410. What do we the Church affirm about Jesus Christ?
  2. Now turn to the passage from James
    1. In the context of the passage, why does James suggest that those ‘who teach will be judged with greater strictness’?
    2. “Whenever we speak of Christ, we are to some extent acting as ‘teachers’”. Discuss
    3. Bearing in mind James teaching that we should all be ‘slow to speak’ 1:19 –
      1. what light does his teaching in this weeks passage throw on this?
      2. thinking back to the instructions on praying the Psalms, how much of our speech is ‘breathless’, or unthinking?
      3. What might me be wise to consider before ‘putting mouth into gear’? Is the Truthfulness of our speech the only thing to consider? Were those who thought Jesus to be ‘Elijah’, or ‘John the Baptist’, or ‘One of the prophets’, speaking truthfully? What is ‘Truthful speech’?
      4. In the passage we read a few weeks ago from Ephesians we read the phrase ‘speaking the truth in love’. Take a moment to share what you think that phrase means. now read the verse in its context, Ephesians 4:11-16. Note the significance of the teachers and doctrine in the verses leading up to ‘speaking the truth in love’. Now discuss again what you think the phrase might mean
      5. “Doctrinal truth is of far less significance in the contemporary church than it was in the early church in which the creeds were crafted’ Discuss. Does having weak doctrine affect our faith?
      6. ‘Speaking truthfully of Christ is a necessity if we are to live out the gospel’ – Discuss
  3. Finally read the passage from Proverbs in the context of this weeks study. Discuss.
    1. The Wise are contrasted here with the Simple, those who ‘hate knowledge’ How do we attain Wisdom?
    2. “ In paying more attention to the thoughts of others than the teaching of Scripture we become wise in our own eyes, puffed up with what is falsely called knowledge” In our lives as disciples of Jesus, how much are we shaped by his words – how much by the prevailing ‘wisdom of the world’?

[Note: Wisdom is personified as female in the Old Testament, especially in Proverbs. In Christian tradition, Wisdom is associated both with Christ and the Holy Spirit]

Sermon for Sunday September 2nd, 2012

Sermon for Sunday September 2nd, 2012

Song of Solomon 2. 8-13
Psalm 45. 1,2,6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23

‘The Life of Slavery and the Life of Liberty’


So we are now coming to the end of the weekend of prayer for the Diocese in what is without doubt a time of exceptional challenge. Not that it is unique in any sense. A document suggesting possible structural adjustments regarding arrangement of parishes and clergy has been circulated to clergy and vestries also will get a look. Not unlike many such documents I saw in my time in England it states that the purpose of the document is to enable Mission, yet it is all about arranging parishes together, – something which we called ‘managed decline’ back in the Church of England. No matter how glossily it was all dressed up, that was the driving rationale behind it all.
And, also as in England, there is little or no self criticism in the document – which suggests a disconnection from the deep roots of our faith. For throughout the entire Old Testament, whenever things turned bad, the community of faith through its prophets always had one explanation, and one alone. Not the times are changing, not people today they are different and we need to adjust. No, the consistent reason given was ‘you have abandoned God’.
When things got tough for the Israelites, they didn’t hold colloquia on the changing nature of society and ‘the need to adapt our methodology’ for a new era – they didn’t go into lengthy discussions of how the technological advances in the Assyrian chariot design had left their puny foot soldiers left behind. No, as it is written ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me teaching human precepts as doctrines’ If things had turned sour, the Israelites did not look for reasons ‘out there’ – they did not focus on the externals and a need to adjust themselves to new circumstances – they looked inside, to the state of their collective hearts – or at least that was where the prophets commanded them to look. ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’

And of course that looking at the externals rather than the internals was precisely the focus of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees – whom he accused of abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human traditions. (We may well in that context think of how our church has itself abandoned the commandment of God and rather, looking to the wider world, shaped itself a faith more in accordance with mere human traditions, but another time). But it is instructive to discover what the command of God it was that Jesus used as an example. Unfortunately, once again the lectionary has cut out the key verses so I will read them to you because they hit right on the root of the matter  Then Jesus said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say [Note here in a reversal, that Jesus who says ‘You have heard’, ‘but I tell you – and who always Intensifies the meaning of the Law, here accuses the Pharisees of diluting the Law – ‘You say ] You say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
All this respecting Father and Mother then as now was a very hard call, so the Pharisees had invented what amounted to a religious tax avoidance scheme. The Law was stringent on honouring father and mother – to curse your parents was punished by stoning to death, but the Pharisees had abandoned this commandment to honour father and mother and had established a tradition whereby they could withhold financial support for their parents by declaring the money set apart for God.

But you might say – those words of Moses which Jesus repeats, ‘whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die’ – they are terrible!! Are they?? Why honour your father and mother – because humanly speaking they are the source of your life – without them you have no life. This is made patently clear in the parable of the prodigal, where the son wishes the father dead – he wants him out of the way,and then discovers that apart from the father he has no life – life without the father is no better than eating pigswill. And so when the Israelites discover that their life is pigswill, they know why, ‘they have abandoned the Father who gave them life’ – whose commandments are Good and life giving – ‘that implanted word which has power to save your souls.’

The Pharisees were obsessed with the externals – Israel was to be preserved by rigid adherence to external signs of faith, but signs which had no interior reference, no inward glance, no suggestion that the Salve for their suffering was not by lives that were consciously ordered with respect to the world around them, but by repentance and faith. And one way or another too much in the modern church is exactly the same as the Pharisees – except we go in exactly the opposite direction – The Pharisees thought that their salvation depended upon their distinctiveness from surrounding society – today many in the church think that our salvation depends on our adapting ourselves better to the world in which we live. We are concerned with Relevance, the Pharisees couldn’t care less about relevance, but we are the same for their is no inward glance – no suggestion that we may be where we are because we have abandoned our heavenly parent. We have become like earthly children, living lives of utter independence.
There is a spirit alive and well in the church that thinks that we have in a sense ‘come of age’ as human beings, that we can now make our own plans, carve out our own paths – we can live without reference to the Commandment of God. ‘We know better now’ is the mantra of our age – we are free! So we would like to believe. But we are not – rather we are slaves, slaves to the desires of our hearts. We believe we have an absolute right to happiness and fulfillment on our own terms, and there are many who would abandon the commandment of God and take hold of enticing human traditions that promise us something elusive, not hearing the words of St Augustine, that we are made for God and that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee’. We are made For God, and that to seek happiness or meaning elsewhere is in fact a form of Slavery, slavery to our own desires, slavery to Externals to the detriment of our hearts

Our first reading this morning may well have cause one or two to blush – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

We may well ask what is such poetry doing in the Bible, and I might say – ‘that’s nothing! you should read the rest of it!!’ or, less flippantly ‘well of course the Bible is about all of human life, so why not’ – but rather I want to put it to you in line with the tradition of the church down through the ages, that the Song of Solomon stands here as testament to the passionate love that is betwixt Christ and his church and between God and the soul of the individual believer. That here figured is the glorious liberty known only in and through an all consuming love of God for his creatures and their response of love to him.

Christ says to his church as he says to us each as members of that church, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away’ Come away from what we may ask – to which the answer is ‘that slavery to your own desires, for I have set you free – why do you live enslaved in Egypt when you could dwell with me in the land of Promise. And these desires that we are enslaved to are So puny . . . as CS Lewis puts it in ‘The Weight of Glory’

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Put another way we were created for something far far greater than the love of those things which our hearts desire all to readily, that which the Bible calls ‘Idols’ – we were created for the Love of God. How many of us I wonder can read the Song of Songs – put ourselves in the place of the beloved and gasp with wonder and delight to find ourselves not only the object of such love, but the giver of such love in return – that we love God with all that we have and all that we are.
I must admit I search for signs of such passionate ardour for God in Diocesan documents and the like, and I search in vain – for the mark of a body that loves God with all its heart and all its soul and all its mind and all its strength.
But perhaps that is unsurprising. Bernard of Clairvaux, the C12 founder of the Cistercian monastic order gave a lengthy series of sermons on the Songs of Songs. In it he says that in order to love God we must be free of our false loves, we must reject all our false suitors. Put another way we must stop our restless searching anywhere else for our Life than in God himself. Bernard tells us that we are not ready for the Song of Songs, we are not ready for that love, until we have fully learnt the lessons of the two books which precede it in the Scriptures. Firstly Ecclesiastes, which details the search of the wise man for meaning in his work, in pleasure, in all the things of the world, which after extensive enquiry he declares to be a chasing after winds, Vanity, futility. Such is the Life that seeks its meaning in the world, such is the way of a church which seems to make itself relevant and reasonable, like a rather pathetic lover, seeking to please the object of its affection.
Then freed from the love of the world, Bernard says we must learn from Proverbs, we must stop learning to trust our own wisdom, but as James tells us, we must ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word which has power to save our souls’. Freed from the tyranny of slavery to pleasing the world, from the tyranny of our own opinions and desires, we are set free – truly free, free to Love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.

Such poor teachers has the church had down through the years that this fundamental aspect of our faith is all but ignored. We hear so many many sermons on loving neighbour, we may hear many about how we are loved by God, but how many on the our Love For God – the first commandment – that we might utterly Love our heavenly parent, that we might wait patiently and with great desire for his word of command – for we live and Love to do His will. For here is the great Paradox, that it is in our complete submission to God our Father that we know what it truly is to be free. And if I have lost sight of prayers for the Diocese in all this? My prayer for the Diocese is that we would turn back to the great lover of our souls, the only source of our life, and I end with a prayer – again of St Augustine – Let us pray
O Thou,
who art the light of the minds that know thee,
the life of the souls that love thee,
and the strength of the wills that serve thee;
help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee;
so to love thee that we may fully serve thee,
whom to serve is perfect freedom.