There Is Hope!

The first week in Advent, the first week in the new year of the church’s calendar as we prepare for the coming of Christmas, is about HOPE.

I was reminded of the story of a teacher who was assigned to a large city hospital to visit children there.  She received a routine call requesting her to visit a particular child.  She took the details, the boy’s name and room number and was then told by the teacher boy’s teacher: ‘We’re studying nouns and adverbs in class now.  I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t get behind the others,’

It wasn’t until the teacher reached the boy’s room that she realised it was located in the hospital’s burn unit.  No-one had prepared her for a young boy horribly burned and in great pain.  She felt she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, ‘I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.’  The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, ‘What did you do to that boy?’

Before she could finish a profusion of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: ‘You don’t understand.  We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He’s fighting back, responding to treatment… It’s as though he’s decided to live.’  The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realisation.  With joyful tears he expressed it this way: ‘They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?’

This wonderful little story reveals the truth of hope.  When there is something, an intangible something, that creeps into our consciousness and transforms our experience – there is hope.  Hope is such a powerful force in life.  Without hope people give up.  With a hint of hope they can turn lives around, believe in the impossible, push on through the harshest situations and overcome tremendous obstacles.  Hope is vital!

We’re not talking here about a false, made up kind of hope that is superficial and melts like ice on a hot day as soon as the bright light of reality shines upon it.  Hope is not empty promise that is used to fool us into believing something nonsensical or untrue.  Hope is grounded in something deep and sustaining, something that helps transform our belief, our reality and enables us to see through and beyond what is to what might be.

Hope, it seems, comes from beyond us and fills our experience with questions and doubt about the veracity and power of the current reality.  Hope descends into or arises from within the experience of being lost and defeated to offer a glimmer of that which might be.  Into the bleak blackness of the human condition where all seems lost, alone and defeated, comes the slightest glimmer of light.  It penetrates through the darkness with flickering, varying intensity, an alternative to everything we think or believe.  Hope arrives as a slight fracturing of the certainty that all is lost.  This fracturing provides a possibility that what we feel may not be all there is.  Perhaps there is another twist, an alternate outcome – life not death.  Hope comes quietly, gently and confidently into a life that feels deathly and lost.  Hope keeps us alive and living through the darkness that enfolds us in the midst of life’s terrible situations.  Those who have been incarcerated in prisons, POW camps and so on, have held onto the slim and slight notion of hope and survived where others have lost hope and let go.

This week’s readings (especially the Gospel – Mark 13:24-37) begin with images of the daily reality experienced by those whose lives are threatened through persecution, oppression and hopelessness.  Many of these images are cosmic, with sun and moon darkened and overwhelmed.  The forces of darkness are powerfully overwhelming the lives of ordinary people and their whole world.  These apocalyptic images express the inner feelings of those who confront the powers and forces of pain and suffering in human life.

Into this chaotic and hopeless world, with the powerlessness of human life, hope emerges.  In fleeting images of light and order, hope emerges and grows like yeast in a loaf; a seed rising from the depths of soil into the radiant light of the world.  This hope is often intangible, a hope grasped but not held.  It flows through our hands and head until it finds a foothold within our hearts.  The soil of hope is a life that cries in desperation and despair, bereft of life and at the whim of painful emotions.  Sometimes hope comes crashing in like waves in regular rhythm smashing the rocks until we awaken, angry or passionate, in response to where we find ourselves.  Sometimes hope is the gentle friend that gives comfort and peace when we know that there is nothing for us to do but let what will be, be; to allow death to take its course and free us into another realm, another reality, another phase of being.

In these moments where hope emerges gently or with terrible fury, bursting the bubble of hopeless contemplation on that which never can or will be, we may see the fleeting face of God.  This surprising face is glimpsed in the faces of others or the stories shared of hope lured, restored and thrust upon another unfortunate soul.  This Conceiver of Everything creates a new possibility, a new belief, a new world of sorts that surpasses the hopeless reality of our fears and experience.  God enters the darkness and enlightens us with the possibility of life to be lived, of a new joy breaking in with the dawning of a new reality in our midst.

In our Gospel, Jesus portrays the darkening experience of the world of oppressed minorities under Rome and Jerusalem.  He warns that hope is the face of God in their midst, a Human One who speaks of and promises a different reality.  This face of God dares to dream a new dream, becomes the dream that embraces human life.  It is the dream that God is with and for us and will never let us go.  It is the truth that light will overcome the darkness and release us to be who we are.  He invites to remember that when the Jacarandas blossom, summer isn’t far away – winter’s cold does not endure forever.  The dawn promises the light of a new day in our lives and God is present within, through and around this new day and our lives.  God will not let us go – ever!  There is hope!

 

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By geoffstevenson

The Surprising Reign of God!

Have you ever turned up to an event and been surprised by someone else who was there?  Some years ago when I was at Parramatta Mission we engaged Nick Farr-Jones, the former Wallaby captain as the Patron of the Mission.  He really got involved in the Mission’s work and was a great hands-on supporter.  When we began a ‘soup kitchen’ for those in Parramatta who struggled to survive and needed nourishing meals, Nick Farr-Jones came down and served in ‘The Kitchen’ (as we called it).  We regularly took business leaders around on tours of the Mission to show them the reality of the other world that they never knew, and of the work we did amongst the most needy people.  We were hopeful of garnering support from them and their companies in our work.  The final stop on the tour was ‘The Kitchen’ where they would be served a meal and would be able to sit with the homeless and poor of the city – a confronting experience for most people.  When they arrived, there was Nick Farr-Jones, former Wallaby captain, behind the bain marie working with and serving the poor.  He stopped to have photos taken with the clients, engaged them in conversation and looked at home.  I think many of the business people were surprised to find him there and were taken aback.  It made them look at what was happening differently.

I have often found myself in situations where I have felt like a fish out of water, places and situations that either feel completely overwhelming and difficult or unfamiliar and uncertain.  I remember being asked to go and visit a couple who had had a still-birth a few months into the pregnancy.  The baby was very, very small and frail.  It was still developing but it was clearly a small baby.  I was asked if I would baptise the baby and give it a name and pray that God would love this frail being that had never known this world.  I felt uncertain because, theologically speaking, this didn’t make sense.  Pastorally, however, there was no doubt what I would do – the question was how to do it???  I prepared something that had elements of baptism and funeral, a very simple service we could do in the hospital room.  We poured water over the baby’s head and the mother held it and thought about everything she had hoped and dreamed about for this child.  It our midst it became a real being loved by its parents and by God.  The strange thing, for me, was that I discovered God was very real and present in that room, in our midst.  Perhaps God was in this frail, vulnerable child that had not lived?  Perhaps God was in the grieving, vulnerable parents who were so sad and bereft?  Perhaps God was in me or the other pastoral person with me who felt so inadequate and unprepared and little before the profoundness of this difficult experience?  Wherever and however, God was there – perhaps in and through all of us – and that was surprising!

I have often discovered God in places where I hadn’t considered God might actually be present.  Sometimes in the places that are really messy and dodgy, where there is violence and bad language and tension and people are on edge, fearful and reactive.  Sometimes in the places that feel ugly, where persecution and injustice thrive, there in the midst is God, the face of Jesus lurking, caring, admonishing… Sometimes in the places of greed and power, where people are highly individualistic, caring only for their own ambitious future, God materialises and offers an alternative in the face of a person who lives gently and differently in their midst.

Sometimes I discover the face of God amidst people who never step inside the church and don’t even know what they think about God but God’s face shines in acts of love and justice – and I am surprised!  Sometimes God’s face shines in the life of the church when we are loving, caring and seek justice in the life of our communities.  Often I am simply surprised by the face of God in another human being that challenges my world view or inspires me to live with deeper love or compassion or to embrace others into a community of grace – to be a better person.  God turns up in surprising places and in surprising ways!

This week, in the life of the church, is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the church’s year before we begin Advent and the season of four weeks leading up to Christmas.  The Gospel passage for Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46. It is an odd and wonderful passage where Jesus tells a parable of the ‘Last Judgement’ and everything is turned on its head because the basis of life is whether we have lived according to love and justice not beliefs and worship.  In the story everyone is confused, not so much by what Jesus says about them – that they either did or didn’t give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, comfort to the sick and imprisoned and clothing to the naked and cold.  As one commentator suggests, they seem surprised by where/who they discover Jesus is – amongst those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned…  He tells the people that when they have helped one of the least of these, they have done it to him, to God.  They seem puzzled that he would be amongst the least, the most vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, the forgotten – one in need!

On this Sunday as we consider the Reign of Christ/God and what that means, our world is turned upside down by this reading.  God is not to be imagined as inhabiting the realms of the wealthy and powerful leaders of this world, doing what they do.  God is not to be confused with those who reign over the empires, kingdoms and nations of this world.  God would not necessarily turn up to the G20 – certainly not flaunting wealth and power in the manner of so many of our leaders. If God did indeed role up to a G20 meeting God would subvert it and ask the testing question about how we are going in terms of the world’s poorest people, the environment, the indigenous communities that are oppressed, the minorities, the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill…  These, it seems, are God’s primary concern, not because they are better than the rest but because they need the most and have the least – and because God is good and just!

The Reign of God/Jesus turns our humble world upside down and surprises us deeply.  When we think we have it all together and our faith has everything in place, God turns up in unexpected places and challenges us to see differently, to live justly and to love generously.  God meets us in surprising places.

By geoffstevenson

To Invest or Share???!

There was a Master who had much property.  He was leaving on an overseas jaunt, presumably to increase his wealth through his immense business dealings.  He called in three of his servants and distributed responsibility for some of his investments into their hands.  One man received somewhere in the region of $2 million to look after.  The second around $1million and the third, $½  million.  They were given responsibility for these sums whilst the man was away.

The first man went about his work of ruthless investment and doubled the sum of his Master.  He felt good.  It was a difficult and risky strategy.  He was ruthless, bold and brazen and he made money.  The second man was slightly less ruthless but still a bold investor who soon doubled his portfolio.

It was the last man who was the surprise package. He knew his boss to be a ruthless man who didn’t gain wealth by being fainthearted.  He was a strong and ruthless man who dealt equally harshly with friend and foe alike in his bid to increase wealth.  The man shrunk before this image and felt uncertainty, fear, and discomfort.  He couldn’t be a ruthless investor.  He couldn’t do hard-nosed business and he wasn’t sure he could even make significant sums of money.  He didn’t want to fail but nor did he want to take risks or be harsh.  He put the money away where it was safe and left it there to return it to the Boss.

When the Master returned, he called the three men together and asked how they got on.  The first proudly stepped forward and gave the man his original portfolio and then added 100% profit.  The Master smiled and praised the man, as he rubbed his hands in pleasure – surely this was better than he imagined!  The second man stepped forward and gave him the original sum plus an equal sum in profit.  Again the Master rubbed his hands with glee and praised his servant.

The third man came forward shaking in fear and anxious anticipation.  He said: “‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your money in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.”

This ancient story appears in 2 different versions in the New Testament and in a different version outside the New Testament.  Mostly it is read in a manner that suggests that God is the Master and expects us to work hard, double our responsibilities and be ruthless for the sake of God’s Reign.  There is much condemnation of the third man and his actions in not investing the Master’s money.  He is lazy, fearful and a poor example of how to live before God.  In Matthew’s version (Matthew 25:14-30 – our passage for the week), the word rendered for the money of the Master is talent, which was a measure of gold – about 14 kg.  It was a sizable amount, especially in the 1st century.  Many preachers have cleverly confused the notion of a talent of wealth with ordinary talents, as in skills and giftedness.  We have been urged to lived boldly and use our talents profligately, with extravagance and risky adventure.  This sometimes suggests that the ends justifies the means.  If we are living boldly for God and the advancement of God’s reign, then [almost] anything goes.  We have been encouraged to invest with all of our energy and resources to make more for the sake of God – more people brought in; more money in the coffers; more power to control; more prestige, more relevance, more dominance; more, more, more.  God, in this scenario, is obviously a judgemental figure who is somewhat hard-nosed and decisive, who hates wasted talents, wasted time and wasted opportunity.  The church (Kingdom of God???) is to be disciplined, focussed, single-minded, strong and to exercise hard-nosed opportunism in the world to further God’s Reign wherever and however possible.  We are to take every opportunity and to do it boldly, courageously and with deep conviction.

So it has been, in many parts of the church.  Single-minded, harsh, strong-willed, driven people who have done many things that have improved society, expanded God’s Reign and been received with great praise and honour.  There have also been [are] single-minded fanatics who abuse and use in the name of the Kingdom of God.  The church has been [is] complicit in violence towards other people, cultures and ethnicities – from indigenous populations to anti-Semitism and marginalised, minority groups.

What if this story of Jesus does not assume that the Master is God, or even good.  The description of him portrays someone who seems to care little for people and to be consumed with wealth.  He is a violent man who projects fear and power over others, demanding absolute obedience and hard-nosed resourcefulness, even when a man doesn’t have that aptitude.  What then, if this parable is intended to reverse the world relationships and view of life?  What if it is the third man who is the example; he refuses to invest in ways that demand procuring interest, something the Jewish Law forbade, and in so doing was living a more Godly life than his fellow servants?  What if he is the hero and they the co-conspirators against the goodness of God?

Perhaps Jesus was opening up a conversation about the world and how we respond to the powers and forces around us.  The Roman world grew rich and powerful on the back of those it conquered and held in its power.  They demanded interest and taxation even when people couldn’t pay and it left them desperate and destitute.  What if Jesus is confronting the world powers that demand and encourage aggressive accumulation of wealth into persona holdings?  What if Jesus holds to the Biblical mandate that everything belongs to God and God demands we share resources with all people so that everyone has enough?  What if the gentle third servant who refused to take from others to promote his Master’s wealth is actually the hero and the one we would best imitate?  This story is indeed striking in the face of the G20 meeting in Brisbane.  If Jesus’ words held sway, how different it would be!  How much more just for all!

By geoffstevenson

Will You Choose To Follow?

There are moments in life when we, as individuals, families, communities organisations, nations…, stand at a significant point.  We stand between the ‘what was’ and the ‘what will be.’  There is the moment of marriage that includes lead up preparations and celebrations but culminates in the moment before Minister or celebrant to say ‘I do’.  This is the moment beyond the ‘was’ but before to ‘will be’; beyond the past but before the future, the indicative moment.

Another such moment is the birth of a child that builds over months into that great burst of agony, struggle and birth.  Holding the baby for the first time is the moment beyond ‘what was’ but before the ‘what will be’.  There are many such moments in our personal lives but also in the life of families, communities nations and the organisations we belong to.  There are moments that are bigger and more pervasive than other moments – watershed moments that change everything and draw us into a newness of being and perspective.

Sometimes we stand before a ‘new world’ as it were, where little will seem the same.  I imagine there was much of this celebrated in the memorial service for Gough Whitlam the other day.  Stories of remarkable change and transformation is a chaotic few years in our political and social history.  Whilst most will point squarely to Gough’s legacy, perhaps it was a watershed moment in our history?  Perhaps all of the groundswell of revolutionary change that had swept through Australia in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s was awaiting fuller expression and a leader who could embrace it.  Once it was tapped and unleashed by a vision of what could be there was no stopping the transformative change.  Perhaps it needed halting when it did because so much had been done in such a short time that our nation needed time to breathe, to pause and regroup and survey the new world that encompassed our lives?

Our society has been confronted by some momentous changes in the last half century.  Aboriginal people have been recognised as equals, at least in some ways – there is more to do.  Australia has found itself as part of the Asia-Pacific region, rather than an appendage to Britain and a pretender to Europe.  We have found a more independent voice.  The social revolutions, however, have embraced us in more dramatic, personal ways.  Communications technology has changed how we interact with each other and the world.  Transportation advances have opened the world up to exploration and adventure, as much as it has brought the world to our doorstep.  No longer can we think in terms of Christian faith as the exclusive religion of our world – all faiths are present in our midst.  Ethnic cultures continue to bring diversity and colour, language, food and cultural forms that enhance and challenge our lives.

In every possible way we stand before the moment of a new world.  ‘What was’ will no longer be.  The world of last century makes claims on our memory and yearns to re-appear in our lives.  Perhaps it is the simplicity, the quietness, the slower pace, the sense of local community, the uniformity, our ability to comprehend more of what is happening and so on that we yearn for.  Whatever it is our memory seeks to grasp, it is part of the ‘what was’.  It remains in our life memory and important in informing our lives but the younger generations don’t identify with what older generations experienced and forge their own way into the world that will be.  They have attached themselves to technology and it is burned into the psyche.  They see a world so different from their parents and grandparents because they, and we, stand before the cusp of this new world that is forming before our eyes.

The philosophers have given us the language of postmodernity and the deep analytical reflections.  Science has taken its own cosmic leaps and historians have documented semi-millennial revolutions in Western society – one we are encountering now.   We, as a society, as individuals and as churches, stand before this new world and wonder… With anxiety, hope and faith, we wonder.

In our Old Testament reading from this week (Joshua 24:1-3,14-25), we hear of a story of this leader of the Israelites people at Shechem.  He surveys the past and looks to the future, the moment of new world expectations.  He reminds the people that this relational God they worship has been with them, guided, strengthened and endured with them.  This is the one God in whom they can trust but who has expectations upon them.  This God brings life but there are always alternatives, choices and other ways of living.  This God is justice and love personified and demands justice across the earth.  In this moment, the people are challenged to choose between this God, whom they have known in various ways in their own lives and their history, and other gods that will come before them.  There will be new and exciting gods the seduce them.  Some of these gods will have names and images and live in the heavens.  Other gods will be revealed in personal temptations to live differently, to strive for other goals, to turn to other ways of life.  Some of these gods will be about wealth and acquisition and following these gods may make a person rich – but there will be a cost.  You will lose something of yourself in this act of devotion and you will necessarily build conflict with those who have to sacrifice in order for you to claim more.  There will be the gods of power that will make you feel strong and bold but will alienate you from other people and you will be tempted to embrace the gods of violence as well.  There will be many seductive gods in this new world so you have to choose up front, to be conscious of what lies ahead.  You must understand what it is you want to hold onto and what dream you have for yourself, your family and community.  Can you look the poor and despised in the eye or will you turn away ashamed or confused?  Can you stand to look at an earth that burns and floods and struggles under climate change?  Can you stand to watch the evening news and believe that the gods of this new world are delivering what you yearn for?

If not, then perhaps you will choose the Living God who is a relational God of love and justice.  Perhaps you want a vision of the new world that accords with the Reign of God where liberty and peace, justice and love abound?  What will you choose in this emerging world?

By geoffstevenson

God’s Transformative Power

On Wednesday evening some of our congregation were part of the Sydney Alliance Western Sydney Assembly.  It was a fabulous night and an inspiring sight to have Parramatta Town Hall filled with over 400 people.  This included some of our local State MP’s and one Minister of the government.  It was a celebration of Western Sydney, of who we are, and a sharing of what is important, the very real issues that so many face.  As one the leaders of the Assembly, it was very moving to see so many people from so many diverse organisations – religious groups, community organisations and unions.  We invited local MP’s to respond to the stories and issues, asking them to commit to our agenda for the well-being of all people and the common good.

The 4 issues we particularly presented were Affordable Housing, Transport, Employment and Parking, Transport and Patient drop-off at the Westmead Hospitals.  People shared deeply moving personal stories.  Henlietta spoke of how she shares her home with her daughter’s family and adult son.  The costs of rent and housing, along with difficulties in finding long-term employment make it difficult for many younger families to secure affordable housing.  A young woman, Teisa, shared how she has struggled to find work after completing the HSC.  She desperately wants to work to help support her parents and siblings but cannot find work in Sydney’s West.

This region is diverse and vibrant, where people from across the world come to build new lives and contribute to a rich cultural milieu that is resilient and proud. Here, people battle the odds to achieve remarkable outcomes despite the setbacks they often experience.

Inspired by the Western Sydney Wanderers and the fanatical support base (of which, I confess, I am part), we sang for Western Sydney.  We sang with great pride and solidarity.  We sang as more than 30 organisations representing 1000’s of people across this region stood to represent their organisation and members.  These were churches, across several denominations, dominated by the Uniting Church and Catholic Diocese of Parramatta.  There were other religious groups represented – Muslims and Jews in particular.  There were broad ranging community organisations from the Cancer Council, Western Sydney Community Forum, Migrant resource centres, Settlement Services International and many others.  The trade union movement was also well represented, bringing together people who support those experiencing injustice and struggling to make ends meet.  Each of these organisations brings something to the coalition that is Sydney Alliance. Together we commit to make a difference and work for the common good and the well-being of our community.  We told our stories, offered our researched solutions and asked our elected leaders and business leaders to work with us to achieve these common goals – they did!

In the experience of the Assembly I recognised that this is the place where Jesus would be.  He seemed to be attracted to places where transformation and change were happening.  He provoked leaders and offered alternative visions to the status quo. He organised ordinary people to work together to share their stories, their passions and challenged them to stand up for the common good.  He brought diverse people together to challenge the ways of the world around them and fight injustice.  He called for a fair go for all and expressed justice as the face of love. This is God’s Reign!

Friday evening was Halloween, a commercialised festival that has lost connection with its origins.  Its roots, of course are based in medieval Catholicism – it is All Hallows Eve, or the night before All Saints Day.  Many contemporary images have evolved from early traditions and even superstitions of the medieval church and society.

Halloween is significant for another reason: It was on this night in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg – the Great Reformation dates itself from this action. In reality, the Reformation was the result of many factors and many secular influences.  Western society was changing rapidly under the impact of the Enlightenment, the development of the printing press and other social and technological forces. The social revolution in the wider society was also felt in the church and people like Luther drove the transformative processes.

Out of this major upheaval, the Protestant Church formed.  It was a new thing that had never been experienced.  The Catholic Church also changed in response, such that the church was never to be the same again.

We are going through similar all-consuming societal change currently and the church is changing again, in response to transformation in transport, technology and communications.  Our Assembly on Wednesday brought together a diversity of people to work together.  Jews, Muslims and Christians, together!  Unionists and more conservative people working together.  Atheists and people of faith working together.  It is vital in this emerging world that we recognise our need to find commonalities and work together to achieve our common goals for the well-being of our society.  At a time when so many forces seek to drive us apart and cause us to be suspicious of each other, trust must be built and our common humanity shared and respected.

Prior to our Assembly there was the launching of the Olive Ribbon – an Act of Solidarity between people of difference – in religion, culture and ethnicity, in a society broken by mistrust and persecution of those who we don’t understand.  We committed, in our Assembly, to stand with people of all cultures, faiths (and no faith) and ethnic backgrounds, to listen to one another’s stories, to share each other passions and to work together as brothers and sisters sharing this world.  Together we will work against injustice and against those forces that seek to harm and oppress, to deny rights or use violence, to divide us and marginalise people.

In our Gospel this week (Matthew 23:1-12) Jesus invites us to think about the issues our leaders present, the way they lead us and the traditions we blithely accept. He invites us into new ways of living and being that proclaim God’s way of justice and love.  We are invited into this way of transformative life, changing our world in God’s power.

 

By geoffstevenson