Do Not Be Afraid, A reflection on Matthew 10, verses 26-39
Some sayings stick in the mind. “Life was not meant to be easy” is a memorable comment of the late Malcolm Fraser. It is salutary to think that this one phrase is his most famous utterance. Another memorable phrase is that of Gisela Kaplan, who said, during a Radio National talk on the magpie “No two magpies have the same feather pattern”. This got me thinking that there is no mass production in God’s world. It sharpened up my observation of the flock that co-inhabits my neighbourhood. I recalled that saying when Jesus remarks about the sparrows, of how each is cared for by our dear Father.
Matthew chapter 10, verses 26-39 contain some striking promises of the love and care of God. They are, each of them, sayings of Jesus that are like Malcolm Fraser’s memorable remark. Bible scholars suggest that these sayings were committed to memory, or even written down, while Jesus and his band of disciples were travelling, that they became a stand-alone book, placed in circulation even during Jesus’ earthly ministry, authentic, jaw-dropping sayings, to be recounted, re-told, treasured.
Mathew writes that these sayings form a briefing to his disciples. Luke however, says that they were delivered to the crowds, crowds so dense that they were treading upon each other as they strained to hear the teacher.
The most repeated command in the Bible is contained in this briefing. “Do not be afraid”. It was immediately memorable because of the setting. Jesus tells his disciples words like “The authorities will be after you. You will suffer physical and emotional violence –do not be afraid.” Or “You will run the risk of being arrested as revolutionaries – do not be afraid” .
Jesus then commands them “What I tell you privately is to be proclaimed openly” They are not receiving secret teaching, They are not to be intimidated. While they were indeed a small minority, Jesus believed that God would ensure that his teaching would have great impact. And so it has.
At this stage, another new concept is introduced. They are not sent just to heal the sick and proclaim God’s kingdom, but also to witness to Jesus. There was no precedent for this, So it was memorized.
And then, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow in my steps is not fit to be my disciple” This is shocking talk. Jesus is not talking about shouldering the burdens that life brings, not talking about the afflictions that we all must bear. This is self-denial. This is something that you need not do, but do it for Jesus. Matthew, in writing his Gospel, knew that Jesus really meant this but at the time, people said “”Phew, did he really mean that?” - and committed it to memory.
So this ‘briefing’ is really a collection of Jesus sayings. Each can stand alone. Each is memorable. Each is valuable guidance. Each is counter-intuitive. Each is a key to Life.
We may now consider the every day application of these sayings of Jesus.
When our forebears came to this part of the world it was bush land, far from civilisation. Every man carried a gun and, each evening, to prove that he would be prepared to use it against robbers and claim-jumpers, he would stand at the door of his tent and fire his gun into the air. In my fathers generation there was a gun in every household. As for me, in my teens, with a good understanding of Christian teaching, I resolved to never carry, or fire, a gun. Do not be afraid, said Jesus. And I have never felt the need of a gun. In his small book Rev. Dr Wes Campbell says “The only response to this world’s madness is not to carry arms”
In his column “Matters of Faith” in the Castlemaine Mail, Rev Jim Foley .tells that he and Margot were in Manchester at the time of the explosion at the Arianna Grande concert. “Within seconds of the explosion people ran toward the casualties to do what they could to help –regardless of the risk to themselves. “ Surely this is a response to Jesus command to take up your cross and follow in my steps.
A third example is to be found in Don Watson’s “American Journeys”. The famous Australian writer was in the near vicinity in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. This was the United Sates’ most devastating natural disaster. It killed 2,000 and left hundreds of thousands of people – mostly African Americans and poor renters - homeless. Don Watson wrote” Hurricane Katrina had hardly blown out to sea than a wave of volunteers from all Christian denominations from all parts of the country descended on the wreckage” The military response was next, with armed services personnel sent in to patrol the streets. Days later the humanitarian aid arrived from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Days later!
So it was volunteer Christians who demonstrated the reality of Jesus’ claim, that people are worth more than the sparrows. They were not going to let the victims of Hurricane Katrina fall to the ground unnoticed. Don Watson goes on to state “ New Orleans revealed that religion has a purpose and a principle. It has the capacity to imagine something beyond and higher than the present reality and to make it possible for people to transcend self. This purpose or belief guides and energises.”
St. Paul would agree when he writes of “being alive to God by the workings of grace”
Jesus’ sayings give us the confidence to trust to God our lives, our souls, our bodies, everything. Whilst we face temptation and danger it is our allegiance to Jesus that comes first. Jesus reason for saying “Don’t be Afraid” is because a time will come when everything will be revealed, and what will be revealed is the follower’s loyalty and faith. But Jesus reminds us of those who would hold us back – the near intolerable pressure which arises when an unprecedented creative proposal becomes evident. To take the newly opened course will be costly. It must have been hard for the Christian volunteers to leave family responsibilities to drive across the United States to bring relief to the people of New Orleans.
Jesus followers today – you and I - are like the emergency workers who are voluntarily first on the scene of chaos. You don’t have to look far these days to observe scenes of moral and relationship chaos. Do not be afraid. Life was not meant to be easy but you can transcend self so long as you are alive to Christ. . Do not be afraid. You are precious to God. Do not be afraid.
Mr George Milford - Harcourt
HYMN 403 Come Holy Spirit
FIRST READING; ACTS 2: 1-21
PSALM 104 –HYMN 65 (verses 3 & 4)
SECOND READING: 1 COR. 12 3b-13
GOSPEL JOHN 7:37-39
A huge ocean wave was pictured in The Age recently, with a tiny surfer gliding down the face of the wave, plunging at last into the turbulent waters below. Seeing the force of these waters it’s not surprising that ancient Hebrews, desert people, feared the ocean. For them it was a place of nothingness that can take your life away. It’s as the first verses of Genesis pictures it: in this darkness and void, blows a great wind.
We have seen people to our north take the risk of sailing in those dangerous threatening waters, boarding flimsy boats, risking being swamped, drowned. Such are the waters in the story of Noah and the flood. The Tsunami in the 1990s, you may recall, drowned whole communities. Now rising oceans and cyclones threaten Pacific Islander peoples.
Tim Winton, in his novel Breath explores the limits set for young surfers. They hold their breath under water risking suffocation and death.
The Psalms tell of the great wind of God that blows into our world, where all living things - birds and trees, even rocks, share the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit breathes life into them. At the end of life the Sprit is withdrawn. When a person dies, Aboriginal people tell of the movement of the Spirit as it leaves. The body visibly shakes. Life is extinguished.
[Francis of Assisi knew of this intimate connection with other creatures.]
Another image of the Spirit presented in the writing of this sermon: in 1983 as the long drought came to an end in Victoria. I recall vividly driving on the Tullamarine Freeway into a wall of red dust being blown from the north, and the large drops of muddy rain that signalled the end of the drought.
We are not accustomed to speaking of the Spirit in this way; the Spirit is more often presented as a personal, private, ‘spiritual’ experience. Whereas the Bible depicts the Spirit more like a tornado, as we hear in Acts with its great sound of wind and flames of fire. [All the more apt as we meet here today – as I am reliably informed that in this terrain we are in tornado country, a path.]
In the Book of Acts of the Apostles those onlookers who saw and heard it could only stammer accusations that these Galileans must be drunk.
Do we get the force of this? Peter (who shortly before had denied Jesus and witnessed his death at the authorities’ hands), now stands in the market place of the city that murders prophets. He declares that in this very Jesus who was killed and should have disappeared, the new age is here. Now here in Jerusalem (and later Galilee) the Spirit breaks through to imprisoned peoples, and new communication happens.
Peter stands and declares that now there is a new day breaking, centred on the crucified Jesus. The risen Jesus is forming a new literacy. He is now opening bonds between people of differing languages and cultures, making a new community. The shock of this would be like walking into the Market Building and seeing materials concerning Aboriginal communities in this country, with information about their culture strange to us.
Or it would be like stepping into a street in a Middle Eastern city, waling among women wearing scarves, and men with long dark beards.
A new community emerges, driven by peace, shaped by love of the enemy. A new world is emerging. The terrified followers of Jesus (as depicted in Acts), are now a people bearing the signs of the Spirit, a fire for new life. Now, no longer hiding in back rooms, they stand up and declare a new thing.
A question? Did these earliest Christians have the capacity to refuse the call? In Matthew’s telling of the gospel we are told that among the disciples who met Jesus after his resurrection ‘some doubted’. What we can say is this: they were overcome by this new power – it is a power that energises but will not coerce or force them.
People are being drawn into a surprised, vibrant, vigorous, baptised people who are not only shaped into a community of the Spirit, but are given courage to speak for Jesus, to point out that in his resurrection Jesus calls us into crucified and risen life.
This takes us into new ways of thinking and praying.
So the hymns today bring us to the Spirit who, as our Mother breeds life; who, as a Friend, walks with us in this new way.
What a contrast to news reports we hear every day which try to convince us that our world will never be free of bombing ,of violence, tit for tat.
Let’s take a few small examples that mighthelp us.
I was reminded that all creatures, living beings are given life by the Spirit. The dog that our son and daughter-in-law have at home took this seriously when he discovered my book which spells out the Spirit of Life’ and began to eat it!
In preparing to preach – and in preaching itself I am facing a new experience. Parkinson’s affects the body differently. I am finding that to produce audible wards, I have to muster the breath in me and to breathe it out. Such is new life in the Spirit. By letting others know our life-struggles, we open to nbei8ng supported by them.
In Reconciliation Week we newer Australians are being asked to remember that in 1967the situation changed for Indigenous Australians with the vote to change the Constitution. That was matched by the Mabo Findings that overturned the legal fiction that Australia was ‘terra nulius’, an empty land, before European occupation. Now the Uluru Declaration invites us to the call for a Treaty.
As Uniting Church people were are reminded that we have altered the church constution with a Preamble. In several sentences we are reminded that God was present in this country before Europeans. And Indigenous people understood the Spirit was active for life here.
I understand that before they came to this Land Europeans called this continent ‘the Land of the Holy Spirit’. That means we can learn, with our indigenous sisters and brothers, to recognise the Spirit in this land. And with that we must also admit openly the brutalities that were inflicted on the First Peoples of this land. Most graphic are those photographs of men with chains around their necks. In those times of settlement church people did seek to offer the good news of the Gospel through various acts of support but they were also caught up in supporting Government policies that led to separation of children from their communities; tragically waters were poisoned and lands snatched away.
These things that are familiar to us also recall the upheaval in and among the first Christians in Jerusalem. As they stood out in Jerusalem they were learning to be citizens of a new country. They were not first citizens of the Romsan Empire with its boots and swords, keeping order and ‘peace’, they said. Rather, the first baptised community began to learn of a new loyalty: - headed by Jesus, who took the hurt and wounds of our world onto himself – into himself - breeding courage and new imagination, so that the strange peace of the crucified Lord shaped a new path in the nworld, just as Paul spelt it out to the new congregation in Corinth.
We are being called into that new style of community. For that we are baptised with water, fed with bread and wine, and pushed out into the wider community, so together we may celebrate the gusty, swirling life of the Spirit, who with Jesus the Son and the Father draw us into new life. AMEN
Lent 1 5th March 2017_3
Psalm 32 Hymn 20 vs 1 & 2
Romans 5: 12-19 From one man
Mathew 4: 1-11 Jesus is tempted
In the next six weeks the church will be preparing for Easter. There will be baptisms. Jesus was baptised, even though John resisted it. And Jesus doesn’t take baptism lightly. That is why we, regardless of age, can consider seriously what baptism means to us.
We are left with a question: If John baptised people who were sinners, why would the sinless Jesus come for baptism?
Matthew tells us that Jesus goes down into the waters of the Jordan: he takes onto himself the heavy weight of his people’s sin, and becomes the capital S, Sinner.
Baptised, Jesus is driven into the desert, to fast and pray, and then to face the Tempter.
Matthew certainly knew the Genesis readings we heard today. We read only a few verses; II encourage you to read the whole story in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 with a good commentary.
Warning: there are ways not to read this. Literalists who say they believe every word will miss the wrestle and engagement of this tale.
Moderns or Progressives may well recognise the ancient story, but are embarrassed by words such as sin, repent, guilt, and they stop reading.
You know this tale: Genesis tells of a Garden Paradise, where the man and woman are at home, and care for it. .They are naked and not ashamed.
So we have here a sort of biblical Dreamtime. When Jewish teachers want to tell something important they tell a story.
We have here a gripping tale of a serpent, a crafty creature in the Garden, who challenges the Creator’s warning that the man and woman may eat of every tree except one.
With the assistance of the crafty snake the man and woman face a question: ‘Did God say?’
With that the humans are drawn into testing God – they are the first theologians.
Perhaps their questioning is not so shocking to us, because our science is based in asking questions, where the philosopher Descartes came to the conclusion, ‘I think therefore I am.’
But if some think these actions by the humans are making them mature and wise, not the biblical story teller who is filled with horror by what happens.
As the humans reach up to grasp the fruit of all knowledge and power, the world is changed.
The serpent assures them that they will not die, but something more tragic happens: their world is fractured
The human pair do have their eyes opened, they see they are naked, and are ashamed. This is the power of death. When they hear the Creator in the garden, they hide in the bushes. When they are called out of hiding, they admit they are naked, and blame others for that.
Humans are set against their creator, against other creatures, and against their human partner.
It is not that they fall over dead, but death has entered in here.
They are no longer at home. And they are now excluded from the garden.
(Note this: when the church has made the woman to be the cause of sin, the story sees both man and woman as partners in crime. The apostle Paul regards Adam as responsible for sin’s entry into our world.)
Matthew presents the Temptations echoing the snake’s tempting. Jesus is not in a garden but in a wilderness. There Jesus, announced in his baptism as the Chosen Son, faces the Tempter, Satan.
This connects directly to Jesus’ baptism. The vision Jesus saw as he came out of the water confirmed him as God’s chosen - He has come into the world to announce that God is near. That is exactly why the Tempter attacks him, challenging Jesus to seize power and use it for himself.
Mathew’s Satan echoes the challenge. f you give yourself to me, you will rule the world.
The tempter uses scripture to claim Jesus, offering power and glory.
Here we might say that ‘Alternative Facts’ are at work! And with three attempts at it the Tempter is met by three rebuffs from Jesus the obedient Son who also quotes Scripture: But the tempting is not over: Satan will return to wrestle with Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on his cross.
Jesus refuses to worship Satan.
He accepts his own calling as the Son and takes onto himself the fracture of the world, the weight of sin, and the reign of death.
Paul knows the threat Jesus faces in this world ruled by law, sin and death. Later Martin Luther spoke of it as the ‘bondage of the will’.
Paul shows us how it works:
In one rebellious man, Adam, came law, sin and death. But in one obedient man, Jesus Christ, came life.
As Charles Wesley never tired of saying and singing Christ takes our shame and guilt from us. He acts for God, rescuing and bringing us into new life.
Charles Wesley sang:
O For a thousand tongues to sing; my great redeemer’s praise
the glories of our God and king,
The triumphs of his grace.
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
He speaks and listening to his voice
New life the dead receive. (210)
And what about:
And can it be that I should gain an interest in the saviour’s blood…
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and natures night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray - …
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light!
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose went forth and followed thee. (209 verse 4)
At the cost of his life, Jesus sets us free for new life.
Where can we start?
The psalmist tells us this begins for us in silence. As we are silent and listen -- we may receive new life. So in this Lenten season, silence your chattering. Listen carefully.
So now we come back to the man and women expelled from the garden yet clothed to hide their shame and guilt.
Though human pair are shut out of the garden they continue to act in and for the world. They, make music, they farm, and also make weapons.
The protection provided by stitched leaves points in a sense to Jesus who provides us with protection and renewal.
Notice something surprising. The humans cover themselves because they are ashamed.
In our society that has been reversed.
We live in a culture that is ready to strip for the camera, to take selfies, to send nude photo by phone. In a TV program strangers meet and are disrobed and get into bed.
I heard reports of an event in the Gallery of New South Wale where a nude painting is on display. Dancers and patrons at the opening of the exhibition were naked. They then proceeded, nude, to view the rest of the exhibition.
Typically in our society the response has been to cover up.
Yet strangely here is a reversal; by stripping, naked people try to experience life, deeper than skin. Just as naturists do.
Sexuality also exercises its power, particularly where casual sex is taken to be an expression of freedom.
This is all more important as Royal Commissions have had to wrestle with abuse of children. We are pressed to appreciate the power of the body, and to explore what it would mean to ‘sew leaves’ together for protection.
We do well not to turn this into a moralistic question. If we did that we would lose something significant.
There are people who dissent and reject the move to nudity. By dressing differently they produce an element of shock, even fear. Especially women covered from head to toe, concealing themselves from public view. And in the most challenging way, covering their eyes.
Our Islamic and Catholic sisters present a vision of life not driven by sexualised life.
We might recall that not all that long ago it used to be mandatory for women to wear hats in church!
If we do not join in the process of covering up, we are pressed to consider what clothes mean to us.
These ruminations on clothing and shame must cause us to pause, and deter us from taking up weapons against them. After all, we Gentiles have been grafted onto the Jewish story; and that includes Muslims too.
If we entrust ourselves to Jesus we may discover in him a new freedom for God’s world, trusting that gives us partners, quite unexpectedly, regardless whether they wear the Burka or Bikini, the Burkini or budgie smuggler!
And will it help us to appreciate the Church’s strange practice of putting a clothed person under water - ‘drowning’ them in the waters of baptism as a sign of new life?
If you are not baptised, consider this Lent whether now is the time! And if you are baptised, receive again Jesus’ victory over the Tempter as your liberation!
To the Chosen One, Jesus Christ, be all thanks for the Word he speaks, guiding us into life. AMEN