Palm Sunday 2015 Sermon – “The Ministry of Donkey-Fetching”

NB: This sermon draws heavily on But it set me off on the theme for all the sermons of Holy Week]

+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, Palm Sunday (aka Passion Sunday) marks the beginning of the greatest week in the Church’s year, the week we know as “Holy Week”. Throughout this week, we are called to walk with Jesus from the time of so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, through Maundy Thursday’s Last Supper and foot-washing, to his trial and awful death on Good Friday, all the way to his glorious resurrection which we celebrate at Easter.

Today, this Palm Sunday, also marks the beginning of a new life for E [a sixteen-year-old-girl]. As an adult, E is coming for Baptism, coming to make a personal commitment to walking with Jesus for the rest of her life. Such baptisms usually are preferred to happen on Easter Day or during the Easter season, because of the connection of Baptism with the death and resurrection of Jesus. But I think the “coincidence” of E’s Baptism and Palm Sunday is wonderful, because it all speaks of journey and service.

In Baptism, E will be committing not only to belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but to serve God and the world, “shining in the world as a light to the glory of God the Father”. And at Easter we will all be invited to renew our own promises to do the same.

This theme of service is the one about which I feel called to speak throughout this Holy Week.

Today I want to talk about the “Ministry of Donkey-Fetching”.

Most ministry to which we are called as Christians is not particularly “out there” and spectacular. There are relatively few called to high office in the church, or to be great evangelists or famous missionaries. Most of us are called to simple and faithful service, mostly not widely observed or praised.

As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem, we are told that he calls over two of the disciples to send them to get a donkey. Of course the mundane task of donkey-fetching is made special by Jesus’ prediction about where the two would find the donkey and what would happen when they got there. Yet there is still a level at which it remains an ordinary task. It was just something that had to be done – someone had to fetch the donkey.

Imagine, years later, these two disciples trying to explain the significance of their donkey-fetching ministry. Maybe the omission of their names from the story reflects how they might have felt about it. So the question we could ask is why even bother including this part of the story, it has to be more than just filling space. Mark, particularly, seems not to waste words in telling his story of Jesus.

One of the things that strikes me about the inclusion of this aspect of the disciples’ work is that, even in mundane and ordinary tasks, God can be encountered. Jesus sends the disciples to fetch the donkey, and by predicting the encounter that the disciples would have, Jesus turns the event into a moment of revelation.

The appearance of the person questioning the disciples as Jesus had predicted affirms for them that God’s work is going on around them, even in the midst of a mundane task.

When asked, “Why are you doing this?’ their response is to describe what Jesus had said to them. They tell of Jesus’ prediction of the event. Through this, the disciples are once again reminded of Jesus authority and place within their lives.

Now, what, if anything, does this have to do with us? When we see this mundane and ordinary task as something special, an encounter with the divine, I believe we are reminded that even the most ordinary tasks in our lives can be places in which God speaks to us as well.

As we put our hands to work in the everyday humdrum of life making a meal, mowing a lawn, balancing our books, serving customers in a shop, or patients in a hospital or home, or students in a school, we can encounter God’s presence and be taught by God’s love just as the disciples were.

The great American preacher and activist, Martin Luther King, once declared, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Maybe in these moments of our everyday life we will hear someone asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Why are you doing chores at the church, or looking after the op shop, why is it that you are nursing or teaching? I wonder do we have a sense that God has called us to these everyday tasks of life as an expression of ministry in the world. Tasks that may seem everyday – even dull and boring – may be places we remember and encounter God; and maybe when asked we might even be bold enough to explain that we had a sense that Jesus had asked us to do it.

Just as with the disciples and their task of donkey-fetching, so too we are often called to do mundane and less than glamorous tasks in our lives. Ministry, service of Jesus day by day, can often be that simple – and that rich!

So the disciples return with the donkey; and we can safely assume they follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem.

This little part of the Jesus’ story is not a mere detail, but an essential part of his whole journey from his birth at Bethlehem to his death and resurrection.

We who know the story of what occurs should also understand our place within it. We are part of that crowd. We are not just the donkey-fetchers. We wave our branches. We gather in hope. Yet as we do so we know that despite our enthusiastic response, we too will probably lose our way with Jesus. Like his key disciples, we may well desert, betray, and hide. The crowd which welcomes Jesus into the city, may well be some of those who will cry “Crucify” on Good Friday.

This is how we live our lives with a strange mixture of belief and disbelief; with an annoying ability to do both things which are good and bad, often not even fully aware of which is which. We live as people celebrating God’s love, yet all too often denying his place in our lives.

Yet, the good news is that Jesus, knowing this, rides on. He travels towards the cross, towards his death and towards his resurrection, to break through our fickleness and so declare God’s love for us and inclusion of us in God’s very life.

This gathering on Palm Sunday shows the other side of the coin of our spiritual life to the low-key and mundane task of donkey fetching. The times we encounter God as a gathered community – just like running to the roadside to see Jesus, we come and gather here, and in worship and in singing our Hosannas, Jesus is present with us here in the midst of our fickleness, accepting our praise.

The hope that we find in the story of the donkey-fetchers and of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that Jesus is with us and alongside us. He is there us as we go about our everyday tasks and he is here as we gather together to celebrate, not because we are worthy in any way of his presence but because he chooses to be so out of love.

The ministry of donkey-fetching is probably much under-rated; but it is a ministry to which E and all of us are called, and to which we commit in our Baptism.

The Lord be with you.

Following Jesus

St Barnabas’, Carlisle-Rivervale

+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD”.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

“Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

In every account of Jesus calling the men who were to become his apostles, it seems that their response and following him are instant decisions, instant action, instant forsaking of the old life and embracing of the new.

Last week, we heard from John’s Gospel of the calling of Philip, of his immediately seeking out Nathanael and of Nathanael’s quick commitment to Jesus.

Today we read of the instant acceptance of Jesus’ call by the fishermen Simon & Andrew, James & John. “Immediately they left their nets … immediately they left their father”.

And, of course, as we read a part of the story of Jonah this morning, it would seem that Jonah follows the call of God pretty quickly, too. Except that the passage began, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” For Jonah, unlike the apostles, the call of God wasn’t quite so welcome!

His first reaction to the call of God to go preach in Nineveh was to board a ship going in exactly the opposite direction. Nineveh is a thousand miles east of Israel; but Jonah took passage for Spain, a thousand miles west! And I’m sure that many of us hearing the call of God have experienced at least the impulse to walk, run, sail or fly as far as possible away. I know I have been that way from time to time; and I don’t think I’m Robinson Crusoe in it!

Jonah finds himself and the ship in a great big storm on the Mediterranean, thrown overboard to appease the gods, swallowed by a great big fish and praying for three days and nights for forgiveness. The fish throws up, and Jonah finds himself on a beach in a nasty pile of the fish’s stomach contents – not, perhaps, the most pleasant experience!

And “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God is gracious but persistent! And I’m glad of that. Jonah is chastened, repentant and eventually obedient.

So we come to today’s passage in which Nineveh – its king, its people and even its animals repent and seek God’s forgiveness. And, even then, Jonah is unhappy. You need to read the next chapter to see his reaction. He was looking forward to witnessing God’s destruction of the city, and is disappointed at the mercy of God. Interesting thought in light of some of the awful incidents of “terrorism” we’ve been witnessing in recent years!

As an aside, let me encourage you to go home and read the book of Jonah in its entirety. It’ll only take you ten or fifteen minutes; but it’s worth getting the whole picture.

Now to the disciples and their calling and “instant” following.

There is no doubt that the four fishermen in this morning’s Gospel respond instantly to Jesus’ call. But it seems that there was still a process of dealing with that commitment which meant dealing with the effects of such a change of vocation.

I saw a cartoon the other day in which Simon is at the printers’. He is just picking up 5000 business cards which read “Simon Bar-Jona, fisherman, Capernaum, Galilee”. The next picture has Jesus saying to him, “From now on you will be called Peter”.

Commitment to follow Jesus and to become “fishers of people” undoubtedly took some time to organize, however immediate their response.

A new movie out this week is “Wild”, with Reese Witherspoon starring as Cheryl Strayed, a woman in her late thirties who walked the 1500-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Cheryl Strayed, in telling her own story of this journey, which she undertook to redeem her life from the self-destructive course in which she had spent several years, and from the fear and rage that had lived in her heart since the sudden death of her beloved mother when Cheryl was only 20, writes this about her commitment to this journey as a journey in itself, a journey that became part of her life journey:

There was the first, flip, decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it.
There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time.
There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the Trail crossed a highway.
At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected it would be . . . And then there was truly doing it.

These things must have been true of the disciples. Certainly the quitting of their jobs required some decency, some words about why, and some farewell. Simon, we know, had a mother-in-law, and stayed in touch enough to know when she was ill, so there must have been some goodbyes said there. And in sorting out what to take and when to go, there must have been some question, said or unsaid, about whether this was wise or foolish.

In calling others to follow him. Jesus often said that they must count the cost. Even Peter, well into the journey with Jesus, said to him, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you. What will we then have?” And Jesus reassured him that no-one gives up everything for him, who won’t in the end be rewarded many times over. But that’s not the point in following him, is it?

And those who followed Jesus “immediately” also went through times of failure. At the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was arrested, they all ran for their lives. This very Simon Peter even denied three times that he knew Jesus at all. But, like Jonah, to whom “the word of the Lord came a second time”, Peter was given another opportunity to commit to the following of Jesus, and he took it and followed all the way to his own untimely death.
The good news is that there is room for the immediate responder;
there is room for the reluctant;
and there is room for the runaway!
In the economy of God, in the grace of the One who calls us to follow, there is always room.

You and I are called to share the message – the good news – that God’s kingdom has come near, that repentance and faith are the entry, and that we are loved and valued and forgiven. In accepting this call, in truly following Jesus, there is no doubt that there is “stuff” to be left behind, there are attitudes which need to be abandoned and replaced, and there are priorities to be rearranged.

But those who’ve walked the journey with Jesus will tell you it’s all been worth it. You know and I know that our commitment to accept his call and follow him have rewarded us greatly already and there’s more to come.

In a few minutes, we are going to sing a hymn we used last week, “Will you come and follow me”, by John Bell and Graeme Maule of the Iona Community. Its last verse is a good response to Jesus’ call to us, and with it I finish:

“Lord, your summons echoes true
when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
in you and you in me.”

The Lord be with you!

God honours the faithful aged.



+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Amen.

When people ask me whether St Barnabas’ has a youth group, I usually respond, “That would be KT and me”. J   And when there is discussion about the future of the church – whether amongst clergy or laity or mixed groups, I so often hear the complaint that we are mostly made up of elderly people and that the church’s future is looking grim. And I will confess that as my own hair has reduced in volume and changed to grey, I am tempted to join in the general gloominess of such complaints. [pause]

But then I think of the story in today’s Gospel, and I am grateful for the many folk here and in our churches across the diocese for those who older than me and still faithful to the calling and teaching of Christ.

Quite a few of you have been a part of the church for longer than I have been alive, having been faithful in your attendance and taking responsibility for the efficient running of the organisation and reaching out in loving care for so much of that time

With age frequently comes wisdom; with age there is long and varied experience; and with can come a greater trust and confidence in the God who came among us as a child and shared our life, leading us to salvation.

In the Gospel today (Luke 2:22-40), we meet two very elderly people –Simeon, a resident of Jerusalem, and Anna, described as “a prophet”.

Simeon has probably been coming to the temple for many years, looking for “the consolation of Israel”. He has been promised that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”. And he has hung in for many years to see that promise fulfilled. And today is his day!

In come a fairly non-descript couple, probably not particularly well-dressed; clearly poor because their offering is only “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons”, which is the poor people’s alternative to the offering of a lamb. Their baby boy would seem to any casual observer just ordinary. But to the one who is watching and waiting, this little one is “the Lord’s Messiah”.

And Simeon bursts into a song of praise which has been recited in churches and homes forever since. It has become a permanent part of the liturgies of Evensong and Compline in most Anglican prayer books around the world.

Simeon, this old man, considers himself immensely privileged to have lived long enough for this wonderful arrival, and declares himself ready to die, now that his “own eyes have seen “have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”.

There is, of course, a sting in the tail as Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and the baby. He says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And because we know the whole story, we understand that she will suffer as she sees her son suffering and dying. And I suppose it’s true that parenting is not all or always joy. The old man understands from experience and from revelation much that is to come.

Now we are introduced to Anna, a prophet, a woman who is only 84 years old. (Some of you could give her a run for her money, I know J ) She is another immensely faithful worshipper of God, and has become a permanent fixture at the Temple, fasting and praying day and night.

Anna “just happens” to arrive on the scene, sees the baby and his parents, and begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. She has waited for this day for so long, and – like Simeon – is privileged to see her hopes and dreams fulfilled. And she can’t help but spread the good news to everyone who will listen – and probably to many who don’t want to hear J .

The news is so good that she can’t contain it. And, for an old woman, it has been worth the wait. Her prayers, her fasting, her constant presence in the Temple, have all been more than worthwhile.

Over the many years that most of us have been in and around the church, be it St Barnabas’, St Michael’s or many another, we have seen many people leave the church for a variety of reasons – logical, emotional and otherwise. I am grateful that many have been faithful and determined to serve God and to continue to look for his salvation, as did Simeon and Anna.

Bishop David Murray, when I was under his oversight as my Bishop, often used to say that the church’s job was “to keep the rumour of God alive”. I am grateful for every one of you who continues to meet week by week and more often to do just that – “to keep the rumour of God alive”. That you have done so for so long is a source of grace and beauty in a troubled world.    As St John has it in the prologue to his Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[1]

When St Paul was giving instruction to the young preacher Timothy, he told him, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”.[2]

I think it important to say to older folk, “Don’t let anyone despise you because you are old, but continue to set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.”  And I realise that it’s a good message to young and old and all in between.

Simeon and Anna show us that age is no barrier to hope for and proclamation of the one who came among us as Emmanuel – God with us, and who is yet to come among us as King and Saviour.

The Lord be with you!


[1] John 1:5

[2] I Timothy 4:12

Living Water

THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT- 23rd March, 2014




“There’s a hole in my bucket,

Dear Liza, dear Liza,

There’s a hole in my bucket,

Dear Liza, a hole”.


So goes the comic song everyone’s heard at some time or other.


“So mend it, dear Henry…

With straw, dear Henry…

The straw is too long, dear Liza…

So cut it, dear Henry…

With what, dear Liza…

With an axe, dear Henry…

The axe is too dull, dear Liza…

So sharpen it, dear Henry…

On what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza…

On a stone, dear Henry…

The stone is too dry, dear Liza…

Then wet it, dear Henry…

With what shall I wet it, dear Liza…

Try water, dear Henry…

With what shall I fetch it, dear Liza…

With a bucket, dear Henry….”  


When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well at Sychar, he is “tired out by his journey” and the sun is at its peak, because “It was about noon”. Jesus is thirsty – not surprisingly – and, unlike Henry, he doesn’t have a bucket – not even one with a hole which needs mending!


Jesus’ disciples have gone into the city to get food and Jesus waits beside the well.  But this is no chance meeting.  Our lectionary, for some unknown reason, began the Gospel reading at the fifth verse of John chapter 4.


Let me read you the beginning of the chapter:

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.”


“He had to go through Samaria.


Jesus is on his way from Judaea in the southern part of Israel to Galilee in the north.  But between these two territories lay the region of Samaria, which ran west to east from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.  The Samaritans were a mixed-race people, part-Jewish and part-Canaanite, regarded by the Jews with the sort of contempt not uncommon throughout history.  John tells us that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”, and that is something of an understatement!


Immediately before this story in John’s Gospel is the one we heard last week about Jesus’ night-time conversation with a devout Jew, by name of Nicodemus.  To Nicodemus, Jesus spoke of new birth and new life which comes through a response to God’s love shown in sending Jesus so that those who believe in him “might not perish, but have eternal life”.


Today’s story makes it clear that when Jesus says that “God so loved the world”, this love was not limited simply to the children of Israel.  “He had to go through Samaria” because there was someone there who needed to hear his message of love and acceptance.  Normal Jews, and especially religious ones, would cross the Jordan just before the territory of Samaria, head north along the eastern bank of the river, and cross westwards once they had passed the Samaritan border.


But Jesus – in the words I well remember from the King James Version of the Bible – “must needs go through Samaria”.  It is possible that he was in a hurry to get to Galilee, but you could say, “We know better”


Jesus comes to this Samaritan woman and asks for water.  Not an unreasonable request, except for all the reasons I’ve listed in the “Bugle” this morning:

  • She is not only a Gentile, but even more significantly a Samaritan, someone racially challenging to this Jewish rabbi
  • This person is a woman, and it was not considered proper for a man to be alone with a woman who was not his immediate family.
  • Not only is she a Samaritan and a woman, but she is a woman who has been married five times and is not married to the man with whom she now lives.  So she is undoubtedly regarded as being of questionable virtue. 
  • And – something I didn’t write in the “Bugle” – she was at the well to get water at midday.  Most of the women of Sychar would probably get their water in the cool of the early morning or late afternoon.  But this woman had probably been the victim of gossip and ridicule because of her marital history.  This time of day gave her a little refuge, however uncomfortable the climatic conditions. 

She is a complete outcast, not only to religious Jewish males, but even to people of her own race and gender.

And yet Jesus asks her for water and engages her in a long conversation.  It’s a pretty good lesson for us who proclaim ourselves to be Christians, followers of Jesus the Messiah.  We have met with Jesus, we have acknowledged our sins and sinfulness and been totally forgiven, restored to friendship with God, and given the “water of eternal life”.  We have been accepted and welcomed, despite all of our failings and inadequacies, and we are loved.

And, lest we ever get proud of our Christianity to the point of criticising or excluding those who are not of our faith, or denomination, or even parish, Jesus goes over and over in the Gospel stories to those who are “unacceptable” and “unworthy” and even “unclean”.

The message we are given is that of Jesus the giver of living water, the water which becomes “in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. 

The prophet Isaiah says in a wonderful poem, “Therefore with joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.”

Jesus came to a well which was abundant in water, but he had no bucket.  We have come to the one who has given us both the source of “water springing up to eternal life” and the bucket with which to draw.

How can we live with greedily drinking of that water and not reaching out to bring others to the well which is Christ himself?

At the end of this reading, we discover that the woman to whom Jesus has spoken has gone off to the city and – regardless of her inferior status and the obvious rejection of the citizens – has brought a whole lot of people back to Jesus, so that they, too, might meet the one who “told me everything I have ever done”.

And, what is even more wonderful, is that when they have met Jesus for themselves, “they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word.” And they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.


Let me tell you that, if you and I are willing just to introduce people to Jesus, we will find that we don’t have to do a huge amount of coercion and convincing.  There are many people who – knowingly or otherwise – are just waiting for someone to say “Are you thirsty?  Let me draw you a little water”.  We have found it abundantly in the love and forgiveness and welcome of Jesus.  We, too, “must go by way of Samaria”. 



A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2014


For all that I have done many funerals in my time, and I still do them regularly, I really don’t like funerals.  Equally, I don’t like Ash Wednesday.  Actually, this is one of the most difficult services of the whole church year. I find it difficult to look someone in the eye and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.  But that’s a touch of reality which we need to hear at least once a year.

When we attend a funeral, we are faced with two realities – that of death and that of unfinished business.

Every funeral I attend or conduct reminds me that I, too, am mortal.  Death and taxes are said to be the two unavoidable realities of our life, and some folk manage to avoid most taxes.  But none of us can avoid death.  Someone once told me that life is a terminal condition.

So, it is clear that death must come, not only to everyone else, but inevitably to me in due course.  Except that I cannot be sure of that “due course”.  I have conducted funerals for everyone from premature and still-born babies, through children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged and elderly folk, and even for a lady of over 103 summers.

In this service of Ash Wednesday, we use ashes to mark the forehead of each person, as we say, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return: repent and believe the gospel”.

The first part of this reminds us mortality and the transience of life.  The ashes themselves are made from last year’s palm crosses – rejoicing at the coming of the King has become a symbol of mourning.  And I’m sure you’re all aware of the words frequently recited at funerals – “earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust”.  And in Psalm 103, the psalmist gloomily tells us that:

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.

So, as you receive the ashes, remember your mortality.

A favourite line which I like to quote is that ‘no man on his death-bed ever lamented, “I wish I had spent more time in the office”’.  It may not be entirely true, but so often in working with families in preparation for a funeral, I am told of the dreams and hopes of and for the deceased which were never fulfilled.  This is especially true, of course, of those who died “before their time”.  But most of us have regrets in some areas of our lives.

And this is the second – yet perhaps really the primary – meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  The second part of what I say in marking people with ashes is “repent and believe the gospel”.  Ashes in ancient times represented sorrow, repentance and mourning for personal and national sin and its consequences.

Today’s liturgy provides us with a considerably more detailed prayer of confession than is usual in our Sunday Eucharists.  And it is good for us to reflect thoroughly from time to time on how “we have sinned against [God] in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do”.  And it is very good to hear the declaration that God forgives us.  The “gloomy” psalmist whom I quoted earlier also says in the same psalm:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
   so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far he removes our transgressions from us.”

So, this evening, we come as sinners aware of both our sins and our mortality.  But we come also knowing that in Jesus Christ there is the antidote to both.  On the day we call Good Friday, Jesus himself died to bring about the forgiveness of all our sins, and in his resurrection he opens for us the door through death to new life.  Reminded as we are of sinfulness and mortality, we can still leave this place forgiven and restored, with hope in our hearts, the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”.

The ashes will remain on our foreheads only until we wash.  The forgiveness and life will remain forever.     


You are God’s Building


Many years ago – it’s funny how more and more of my stories begin like that these days! – many years ago, when I was a lad, I met a retired couple at church who were seriously unto prospecting for gemstones. We lived in Kalgoorlie, and there were several good areas, not more than an hour or so’s drive from town, where quite a wide range of gemstones was to be found. I went on a couple of day trips with these folk and came home with a nice little haul of coloured rock, rough samples of what, I was assured, were good bits of gems which needed work.

In due course, the couple took me to their gemstone club, which met in the manual arts department of my old high school. There, over the course of a few evenings, I was taught to cut up my samples with a diamond-bladed saw and put them into a small “tumbler”, rather like a miniature cement-mixer, lined with abrasive paper, and left to run for several hours.

As the stones were tumbled at speed, they rubbed against the abrasive lining and one another. The end result was smoothly rounded and polished “real” gemstones, fit to be attached to cufflinks, tie clips, brooches or even gold rings. They looked pretty flash and the hobby interested me for at least several weeks 🙂

When I am doing marriage preparation with couples – many, many times over recent years – we necessarily talk over the area of communication and the resolution of conflict. By way of illustration, I usually show them a set of coffee tables which grace my study, and which I made in night classes at Toodyay District High School in my time as rector of that parish. I explain that, from basic timbers salvaged from a house my Lions Club demolished, I created my “masterpiece” entirely with the aid of friction – saws, planers, chisels and lathe, drills, sanders and sandpaper, and finally the application of polishes. All the processes involved friction and any amount of heat. And I tell my couples that a good marriage will have its fair share of friction and heat as two different people grow to become one, adjusting to each other’s likes and needs, and forming a strong and lasting bond.

As most of you know by now, KT and I have been married exactly forty years this very day. And I’d love to be able to say that we’ve never had an argument or a cross word, but I’d hate to be loudly contradicted while I’m preaching! In truth, I readily acknowledge that we’ve had our share of conflict and of situations that required serious discussion, heart-felt apologies and forgiveness, and even some fun “making up”!

In today’s readings from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the subject of conflict, as he speaks about relationship and forgiveness.

Jesus speaks of someone coming to make an offering at the temple – for which we can appropriately substitute “church” in our context – and remembering that he/she is at enmity with a “brother or sister”. It is clear that the offering and its accompanying worship of God must wait until there is reconciliation with the one aggrieved. I would add “at least a serious attempt at reconciliation”, because not always will the one hurt accept an apology and grant forgiveness. Then, Jesus says, it will be appropriate to come and bring the offering and, by implication, rejoin the people of God in worship and fellowship. I note that Jesus says, “If you remember that your brother has something against you”, but I’m sure that it is equally relevant if you have something against your brother or sister – in the faith and/or in the family
In each Eucharist, as you are well aware, we have the moment which is called in the Prayer Book, “The Greeting of Peace”. Sadly – and sometimes frustratingly to us clergy, at least – this greeting has tended to degenerate into a free-for-all, in which we catch up with one another’s health and family situations, and even the weather. Whether I or anyone can actually change this back to its original intent is a moot point; but let me explain its intended significance.

Our Eucharistic liturgy follows a simple pattern:
• Gathering – greeting, prayer of preparation, hymn of praise (“Gloria”) and prayer of the day
• Ministry of the Word – we hear readings from the Bible and listen to the sermon, which – ideally – expounds the scripture and makes application to our lives as church and Christians
• The Prayers of the People – in which we bring to God our concerns for the world, the church, the community, the sick and suffering and we remember those who’ve died in the faith
• Now we come to preparation to receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In this section we acknowledge our unworthiness to receive the Sacrament (the “prayer of Humble Access” or “Approach”, and we confess to God our sins – all that has damaged our relationship with God and with one another – and hear the words of Absolution, assuring us that we are reconciled to God in accordance with God’s promise to “all who turn to him in faith.
• And so to the Greeting of Peace. Reconciled with God, we turn to one another and express our acceptance of and unity with one another, including forgiveness and reconciliation as necessary. We are, as the priest declares, “one body in Christ” and “Christ has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross”, and thus we “share his peace”.

To return to my original stories, it is clear that in any relationship – friendship, marriage and church – there will be times and occasions of conflict. I have many memories of conflict in the churches where I have served as priest – serious disagreements at Parish Council meetings, how money should be spent, the times of services, arguments over the placement of flowers, unhappiness that so-and-so didn’t clean the toilets properly, and various interest groups debating who should have the use of the church or hall when – to which, I have no doubt, you can add many conflicts you have experienced.

In our Prayer Book wedding service, we say that “as God has called [Fred and Mary] together in marriage, so he brings their differing gifts and hopes into a unity of love and service”. And we all know that such unity does not come magically and mysteriously in the wedding service, giving the couple an automatic and everlasting happiness. We well know that the grace of God in bringing us together is sufficient as long as we are willing to adjust and even compromise to build a great and lasting relationship. We will – in the nicest possible way! – knock the corners off each other in the tumbler of marriage and will probably after many years begin to look and speak and think alike – not by the victory of one over the other, but by the gradual and willing adjustment of each to the other, creating something beautiful for all to see and admire.

As Christians everywhere, but especially as the people of St Barnabas’, we are called together by God, and “as he has called us together, so God brings our differing gifts and hopes into a unity of love and service”. When we come to church, we cannot guarantee that the congregation will be made up entirely of people who are “just like us” – in fact, we probably wouldn’t enjoy that much, if at all. We are, like my gemstones and the timber we salvaged from a demolished house, in a pretty rough state. But God is at work in and among us to create something beautiful.

In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul has been berating the people of the church over their divisions – jealousy and quarrelling”, he calls it. He urges them to concentrate on what matters – it’s not about who is more important than whom, nor about who is the better leader to follow. Rather, he sums it up by saying, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

I like the expression, “God’s building”, because it is not a concrete word, like a building of bricks and mortar completed and signed off. The word, in the Greek in which St Paul is writing, means “a work in progress”.

After forty years, KT and I are still a work in progress, and will be as long as we live.

And we all – as individual Christians, as a parish, and as the church on earth – are God’s work in progress, and we are called to work together with God and one another to bring that “building” closer to completion.

Apology, forgiveness and reconciliation are the stuff of our relationships;
love and service are the evidence and outworking of God’s great and beautiful creation.


Presentation of the Lord




Thirty-one years ago today, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, on a hot and windy evening in Holy Cross Cathedral, Geraldton, the Archdeacon formally presented me to Bishop Ged Muston, declaring me to have been examined and found to be “fit for the office” of deacon.  There being no public objection to this, the Bishop laid hands on me and said, “Stephen, Take authority to execute the office of a Deacon in the church of God, now committed to you; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  And everyone said, “Amen.” And I went away a newly-minted Deacon, let loose on the church as a sort of senior apprentice.

 And a year later, on the eve of this same Feast, same climatic conditions, same Bishop, same Archdeacon, same declaration of my “fitness”, but this time as a Priest.  This time, it was not just the Bishop laying hands on my head, but all of the clergy present – a dozen or so, according to the picture you’ll see in the church lobby this morning.  And, believe me, the feeling of all those hands on my head and shoulders was weighty indeed, though probably not as weighty as had been the bishop’s statement of the “dignity and importance of this office”.  After I had answered numerous questions about my commitment to serve God and the Church, all those hands were laid on, and the Bishop said, “Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the church of God”, and quite a bit more!  And off we went to practise.  And I guess that thirty years on, I’m still practising!


I’ve occasionally wondered if the Bishop had a particular reason for the deaconing and priesting’s happening on this feast of the Presentation of Christ, and long since decided that 1st/2nd of Feb was a convenient date because a number of the clergy were travelling through Geraldton about then to return to their far-flung parishes after the summer holiday. 

 Lest this become just a self-serving celebration of the “Feast of the Presentation of Steve in the Cathedral”, let’s think for a few minutes about the Feast which Mother Church has given us for today.

 I want to suggest that we can talk of “presentation” on four levels:

 Firstly, of course, we have Jesus being brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem.  He is forty days old, and the Law and custom required two things to happen this day.  One was the “purification” of his mother.  Hebrew law declared every woman who gave birth “unclean” for a period of forty days after the birth.  This had do with the shedding of blood in childbirth and meant that she was not allowed to attend the Temple for worship until she was “purified”. 

 The second part is that every first-born male child had to be brought to the Temple, presented to God, and “redeemed” with another sacrifice – usually that of a lamb, but Joseph and Mary, being probably not too well off and a long way from home, came with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”, as we read in the Gospel.  The son was therefore a gift from God, given to God, and given back to the parents and the world.  This is a concept to which I’ll come back shortly.

 The writer to the Hebrews from whose letter we read earlier, brings out some of the significance of this event.  He stresses the humanity of Jesus, who shared in flesh and blood – was fully human like us – so that he could destroy death and all its power.  We are left with no uncertainty that Jesus is any less human than we.  The story of the Presentation celebrates One who, while fully divine, is equally fully human, fully Jewish and undergoing all that both humanity and Jewish law require.  The Hebrews’ writer goes on to tell us that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”. 

 The old man, Simeon, and the probably-even-older Anna, understand something of this.  They have been waiting many years to see God’s Messiah.  Simeon says of Jesus that he is:

“your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

 Jesus is God’s “gift that keep on giving”.  He is presented to God in the Temple; redeemed at the cost of a couple of pigeons; given back to his parents; given as a sacrifice on the cross to restore us to relationship with God; and given back to us in the resurrection; so that, again to quote our Hebrews passage, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”.

 This principle of sacrifice  – of giving and being given back can be seen in that many, if not most, sacrifices in the Jewish Law were “fellowship offerings” – that is, the animal (lamb, goat or bull) would be killed and put in the fire on the altar.  Some parts would be totally destroyed, but most of it would be carved up and served to the worshippers present.  They got back their sacrifice – perhaps with roast potatoes!  Give to God and God gives back in spades!

 The principle carries through somewhat in our practice of ordination.  The late great Howell Witt was my Bishop in the Diocese of North-West Australia, when we lived in Paraburdoo.  When I spoke to him about offering for Ordination, I remember him telling me that I could feel called, but it was the church which chooses – both, we hope, under the direction of God who is always the caller and chooser.  And we got though the process of a Selection Conference in Perth under the direction of Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, who sent us to Melbourne to study.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

 So there is a sense in which, at an ordination both the candidate and the church present a person not just to the Bishop, but to God.  This is an offering which we believe God accepts and then gives to the church and the world in service. 

 Carrying on with this theme of presenting offerings to God, let’s think about what is happening at this and every Sunday Eucharist.  Before the Great Thanksgiving, we sing the “offertory hymn” and the “gifts of the people” are brought to and presented at the altar – gifts of bread and wine, and gifts of money.  These are our offerings, our sacrifices, giving to God some of what God has given us.

 So we pray, “Through your goodness we have these gifts to share.

Accept and use our offerings for your glory

and for the service of your kingdom.”

 And the offerings – money, bread and wine – do not simply vanish in a cloud of smoke, never to be seen again.  In fact the money is taken and used by Parish Council to enable God’s work in the parish and beyond.  I’m very proud that, as a parish, we give away a significant portion of our income for God’s work beyond our boundaries.

 And the bread and wine, symbols of our life and labour, become for us the Body and Blood of Christ – taken, blessed, broken and shared, giving us life and hope and renewal week after week until Jesus returns.

 Which bring us to the final “presentation” for today. After everyone has received the bread and wine, we pray together,

            “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.

            Send us out in the power of your Spirit

            to live and work to your praise and glory.”

 You see, we all – not just those ordained or otherwise specially set apart by the Church – are a sacrifice, an offering to God.  And God accepts that offering and gives us back to the world to be light and salt and leaven – to make a difference, and to do works of love which will continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth and in heaven.

 Today, then, I give thanks to God, to whom I was “dedicated” as a baby, called in baptism a child of God, called and chosen and ordained to serve.

 Today, I give thanks to God for you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, called to mutual love and service, and to whom I happily continue to pledge my love and service.

 Today, I give thanks to God who has abundantly blessed me – and us all – with life and health and material and spiritual blessings.

 And, above all, I give thanks to God for the “inexpressible gift” of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, through whose great sacrifice we all are “redeemed” and reconciled with God and one another.


Whom do I follow?

EPIPHANY 3A – 26th January, 2014 – St Barnabas’, Rivervale
I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25

Today, as you are all obviously aware, is Australia Day, a public holiday and the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. There are those who call it “Invasion Day”; and many others are, not inappropriately, seriously uncomfortable with celebrating an event which precipitated the downfall of most of the “original inhabitants” of this land.

On the other hand, Australia Day, at its best, is a celebration of all that we hold in common by way of our lifestyle, our “multicultural mix”, our shared values, and the freedoms which our great nation offers. And fireworks, barbecues and a public holiday are – in my opinion – not a bad way to celebrate this well. We do need, however, to guard against complacency and self-satisfaction.

Our national anthem says that “for those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. And in the last two-and-a-quarter centuries we have welcomed people from most nations on earth as settlers here. However, these days, there seems to be more and more reluctance to welcome; and our political leaders are making Australia less and less accessible to those who are fleeing unjust and oppressive regimes around the world. Whoever is hardest on refugees can expect to be elected to our Federal government.

It may be simplistic of me to say this, but a major part of our problem as a nation seems to be our reluctance to accept change or challenge to our life and lifestyle.

With my Dad and two brothers, I came to Australia as a migrant in 1966. We came seeking a new life with opportunities that were probably not available in our homeland of the UK. Australian governments were crying out for new settlers – so much so that our entire family came here for the princely sum of ten pounds. I think both Australia and we got a bargain!

One of the things of which Australia used to be proud was that everyone was entitled to – and, in theory, received – a “fair go”. We as individuals, groups and as a nation believed in equal opportunity. And it was a good theory if you were white, male and employed. But under the surface of the nation were always tensions over gender, language, race and “usefulness”.

We rightly rejoice in democracy, freedom and equality before the law. But in reality not all have been treated as equal. We can honour with our lips “truth, justice and the Australian way”, but all too often, when we scratch just beneath the surface, we will find sexist, racist and unjust attitudes and actions.

There is a verse which has been added to our national anthem by well-meaning Christians and is used in many Christian schools which is a good ideal for all of us who are both Australians and Christians. It reads:
With Christ our head and cornerstone,
We’ll build our Nation’s might.
Whose way and truth and light alone
Can guide our path aright.
Our lives, a sacrifice of love,
reflect our Master’s care.
With faces turned to heaven above,
Advance Australia fair.

If only!

Lest my sermon become just an idealistic dream of what our nation should be, let me call you back to the Scriptures set in today’s lectionary. Because much of what I say about our nation is recognisable as challenge in the church.

Last week, we heard St Paul praising the Church at Corinth in glowing terms:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In today’s passage from First Corinthians, however, we begin to hear the “but…”

The Church at Corinth, founded by Paul himself, and nurtured by his disciple, Apollos, is indeed flourishing; but beneath the surface there are many problems and challenges. Through the course of the book, we will hear of division, immorality, superiority, fights over food laws and spiritual gifts and more.

Today’s problem is division. The missionary work which Paul and his companions had put in here had certainly resulted in a growing church. Corinth was a strongly multicultural city. There were:
Greeks, obviously, for Corinth was in northern Greece;
Romans – Corinth was a major garrison city for the Roman army;
Jews – Paul originally preached in the synagogue there and worked and lived “for a considerable time” with Aquila and Priscilla who had been exiled with all the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius;
and there were undoubtedly “foreigners” from all over as slaves and traders.
The church seems to have included some from all of these groups.

With this multiracial, multicultural mix was also a variety of religious and philosophical views and beliefs – worship of the Roman gods and the Emperor, worship of the Greek gods, and Judaism, at least, were all part of the mix.

Out of all this smorgasbord of race and religion, God called and formed, through Paul, Apollos and Aquila and Priscilla, a church of some size and significance. And for a time all was well. Now, some years later, Paul has heard from “Chloe’s people” that all is not well and that the local church is beginning to divide into groups under the names of various church leaders.
“What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

It sounds rather like our denominations, really, doesn’t it? I am often asked about various churches and their differences. “What’s the difference between your church and the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the Pentecostals?” And, while I can list off quite a few differences, along with the history of how different denominations came into being, I would rather talk of what unites us – the Scriptures which we call the Old and New Testaments; the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, to which 95% or more of Christians happily assent, whether or not they recite them in services as we do; Baptism, even if we differ in methods of administration or the age of the candidate; and the Eucharist, Mass or Lord’s Supper, in which we are fed with the body and blood of Christ, whether understood literally or symbolically.

The truth is that that which binds us together is greater than the things which divide us. The church as a whole is the Body of Christ, an image on which Paul expands later in this Epistle.

Finally, lest we get complacent and talk only of divisions in the larger church, let’s remember that St Paul is addressing a local congregation, “the church of God that is in Corinth”. And it is within that fellowship that division is occurring. They are divided over whose teaching is the best – Paul, Peter or Apollos – and some claim the distinction of following only Christ. Each group undoubtedly considers itself to have the “pure” gospel. In essence, of course, we all aim to “follow Christ”, just as did Peter and Andrew, James and John in today’s Gospel reading.

The Corinthian problem is a bit like various folk here at St Barney’s saying, “I follow Lionel”, “I follow Dave” or, “I follow Keith”. There may even be, many years hence, some who will say, “I follow Steve”. God forbid!

In every parish of which I’ve been in charge over the last thirty years, I have heard good and bad stories about every one of my predecessors. And I can be certain that there are folk in each of those parishes who still talk of me – some favourably and some disparagingly. That’s fine!

All of us who are called to lead are human and fallible. Apollos probably didn’t get it all right; Peter certainly didn’t; and I have reservations about some of St Paul’s attitudes, too! But each sought – as do most Christian leaders today – to give up their nets, take up their cross and follow Jesus.
Paul tells the Corinthians, later in this Epistle, to be imitators of him, the second time adding – very importantly – “as I am of Christ”.

This our calling – not just priests’, pastors’ and ministers’ – to imitate Jesus, to follow his example of love, justice and self-sacrifice. If we put Jesus first in our thinking and the good of his church and the world next, then we will be unified and undivided as parish, church and nation.


Swords into Ploughshares?

ADVENT SUNDAY – 1st December, 2013 – St Barnabas’, Rivervale

Yesterday afternoon, I conducted a wedding in the Chapel of one of our long-established Church Schools. A beautiful afternoon, with a delightful couple, surrounded by supportive family and friends, and serenaded by a small but more than competent choir and a fine organ.

The only somewhat jarring note for me was a piece of so-called “poetry” read to the couple. It began:
“Today is a day you will always remember
The greatest in anyone’s life
You’ll start off the day just two people in love
And end it as husband and wife.
It’s a brand new beginning, the start of a journey
With moments to cherish and treasure
And although there’ll be times when you both disagree
These will surely be outweighed by pleasure.”

To be fair, some of you may well think it beautiful, but I can only be thankful that the “poet” is that prolific writer “Anonymous”  I was intensely grateful that St Paul’s great poem about love – from 1 Corinthians 13 followed, balancing the books somewhat!

Thankfully, however, the final couplet of the “poem” set me thinking about today’s sermon and the Season of Advent. It reads:
“Tomorrow can bring you the greatest of joys
But today is the day it all starts.”

Advent is the very beginning of the Church’s year – a kind of “New Year’s Day”, if you like. And the theme for the first Sunday of the Advent Season, as we heard when we lit the first candle, is that of “Hope”. It is a season of looking forward – partly for Christmas – but more accurately, to the coming of Jesus Christ among us, not simply as a baby in a manger, but as Lord of all when he will restore creation to its originally intended perfection.

Today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah is a poem of – to my mind – somewhat greater quality than the wedding one! Isaiah’s picture of God’s coming reign is pure poetry and parts of it have been quoted often in a world which longs for peace.

Outside the United Nations building in New York there is a wall bearing the inscription, “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. Isaiah.” And there is a statue in the gardens of that building of a man hammering the end of a sword into a ploughshare, and the words of Isaiah are on the statue’s plinth. Ironically, the statue was donated to the UN by the USSR in 1959, a time we know as “The Cold War”, when world peace was then, as now, an elusive dream.

And still our world is in need of true peace, not just the absence of war – as good as that would be, but the active seeking of wholeness, healing and justice.

But what secular people who quote the words about swords and ploughshares tend not to realise is context of Isaiah’s hope. His vision of peace is one where
“ Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’”
Isaiah’s vision in one where people are learning and walking in the ways which God decrees – ways of justice, mercy and humility, to quote the prophet Micah, as I did last week. There will be no true peace in this world without the willingness of all to follow the instruction of its Creator.

And the One whose coming we will celebrate at Christmas is the “Prince of Peace”.

“But”, we might say, “he has already come, in a stable some 2,000 years ago, and there is still no peace”. How true that is. In fact the armies of Rome and the leaders of God’s people, Israel, saw to it that the Prince of Peace was unjustly tried and summarily executed, so that those who held power would not be threatened and challenged.

Advent reminds us that we live in a period of “already, but not yet”. The Prince of Peace has already come, but we can not yet experience that shalom which is God’s peace throughout the world.

The peace of the world is not dependent on the United States and her allies (including Australia) going into battle to enforce “democracy” in the troubled parts of the world. Isaiah tells us that we have it all wrong if we believe we can fix everything. He says that:

“He [the LORD] shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples”

And that that precedes the beating of swords into ploughshares and the abolition of war from the educational curriculum.

So, are we to stop bothering about working for peace and justice, because it’s all up to God sometime in the unforeseeable future? Are we to give up in despair and go hide in safe little communes and continue our worship privately, so as to remain unchallenged and unchallenging?

No – a thousand times, no! The first thing this passage from Isaiah tells us to do is to “go up to the house of the Lord”, both to learn his ways and to walk in his paths. In this period of “already but not yet, we have all sorts of work and worship to do.

The “poem” with which I began is accurate when it says
“Tomorrow can bring you the greatest of joys
But today is the day it all starts.”

At every Eucharist, we recite “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.´ And when St Paul narrates the institution of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians, he says,
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

This and every Eucharist is the story of “already but not yet”. Tomorrow may well bring great joys, but today, this morning, in the remembering and eating and drinking, it all starts.

We have come together to “the house of the Lord”. We have learned again of his ways and we are sent out to “walk in his paths”.

And as we go, taught, fed and encouraged, we will – in our own, perhaps minuscule, ways – begin to prepare the way for the one who has come and is coming to restore all things to the perfection which has always been the dream of the Creator.

The Lord, who is coming and for whom we wait, be with you!

Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – St Matthew’s, Guildford – 17th March, 2013

“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

American writer, Anne Herbert, is credited with coining this phrase which has become something of a cliché in recent years. And there are whole organisations across the world which have jumped on the band-wagon, encouraging people to do random acts of kindness, and some which actually do such acts.

In the “West Australian” this past week there were several stories – I think in the “inside Cover” column – of people who were the recipients of such acts of kindness. There was an elderly lady (I think) who, when she came to the register at the supermarket, found that the previous customer had left some money with the “checkout chick” to pay for the lady’s groceries.

And I was reading elsewhere an article by a journalist who was left standing at Denpasar Airport check-in with, somehow, no money for her fare home to Australia. A young surfer came over, asked her what she was crying about, and paid her fare ($550) outright. She was able to pay him back later, but the random act of kindness had an immense impact on her.

And I well remember some years ago, KT and I were eating dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in Redcliffe, when an elderly couple (we’re the elderly ones now, I suppose!), obviously travellers, came in, sat near us, and asked the waitress for a bottle of wine with their meal. When told the restaurant was only licensed for BYO, they asked resignedly for soft drink. We had almost finished our meal. So, after we had paid our bill, we drove to the nearest bottle shop, bought some wine and took it back to the restaurant, gave the bottle to the waitress for the couple and left rapidly. I imagine there was a smile on the couple’s faces, and we certainly felt pretty good too!

One of the problems with “random acts of kindness” is that many people misread and misinterpret them. Comments from readers beneath the article about the journo stuck at Denpasar Airport, suggested that all “random acts of kindness” are done so that the giver/doer of the act can feel proud or praise-worthy, and that altruism is a myth of self-aggrandisement. I suppose there will always be “knockers” and detractors – especially, it seems, in Australia.

Today’s Gospel story is that of an apparently random act of great kindness and of senseless beauty. A woman – Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead a few days previously – brings in “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” We are told that “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” and we are left wondering why Mary should do such a seemingly extravagant act of kindness and senseless beauty. Talk about “over the top”!

Judas Iscariot, disciple, treasurer and future betrayer of Jesus, protests at this senseless waste. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he asks indignantly. And we rightly infer that he considered himself “the poor” who could benefit most!

Many is the time someone has offered themselves to serve God – as a priest, monk, nun, missionary or as some other servant of God through the Church – giving up the possibility of wealth or career or marriage or children – to be told by families, friends or others that “you are mad to do that for God and the Church”. Yet many have given their lives in such devotion to the One who, as St John reminds us, “first loved us.” And many still give even life itself to serve Jesus and his Church.

And such offering will always be regarded by some folk as wasteful. In last week’s Gospel story we read of the “wastefulness” of a father welcoming home his wastrel son with a robe, a ring and shoes, with a party and a fatted calf on a spit-roast. The elder son’s complaint was of the wastefulness and “unfairness” of his father. And, perhaps, we had some sympathy for him!

And it may be this morning that we want to agree with Judas. 300 denarii is a year’s pay for a farm labourer – thirty or forty or more thousand dollars in our money. How many meals for the poor, how many nights in cheap accommodation, how many medical check-ups, could that much money buy for the needy of our cities and streets? Many, of course.

But here is a particular set of circumstances which we may never understand. If you’ve ever been truly in love, there will have been many times when you would give everything you had to benefit the object of your love. We would perhaps happily walk to work and save the train fares for a while to buy her that ring she likes so much, or to buy him a ticket to the Grand Final. And would any giving or giving-up be too extravagant to save the life of the child we love?

If we keep this story of Mary’s act of kindness in its context in John’s Gospel, we might regard it as an act of thanksgiving for Jesus’ raising of her brother Lazarus. And a gift of gratitude would not be inappropriate. But I don’t for a moment think that this gift was tied to any past event.

There is another saying which often appears in the same context as Anne Herbert’s instruction about random kindness and senseless acts of beauty. It is “Pay it forward”. In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” I remember seeing a movie called “Pay It Forward”. The book, by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and the movie describe “pay it forward” as an obligation to do three good deeds for others in response to a good deed that one receives. Such good deeds should accomplish things that the other person cannot accomplish on their own. In this way, the practice of helping one another can spread geometrically through society, at a ratio of three to one, creating a social movement with an impact of making the world a better place. A great idea, no doubt, but even one good deed “paid forward” could change a world.

Jesus seems to understand Mary’s act of pouring this pricey perfume over his feet as a sort of “paying it forward”. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”, he says. And we realise she couldn’t wait for his actual death and burial. She needed to show her love for him now! How often after a person dies do we wish we had said or done something more to express our love while they were still alive? It is not unusual to see at a funeral that vast sums of money have been spent on oversize floral tributes or grandiose coffins, as though we can make up for the omissions of the past. And I’ve so often heard people say, “I wish I’d told him/her more often how much I loved him/her”.

Jesus is one whose whole life was a case not only of apparent “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”, but also one of “pay it forward”. Today’s Gospel story takes place just a few days before Jesus gives his life in the ultimate act of extravagance and generosity. At the cross he dies that we might live; he makes peace between a sinful world and an all-righteous God; and he enables eternal life for all to spring from his own death.

On Maundy Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus saying, “As I have washed your feet, so you should wash one another’s feet” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. This is our calling – “Pay it forward”. Jesus has given us much so that we will give to others, and loved us so much that we will love others. “You always have the poor with you”, he reminds us; so there will always be the opportunity to pay it forward.

“You don’t pay love back”, said the lady, “you pay it forward”. We have been, and are, greatly loved. Pay it forward!

The Lord be with you!