When Discipleship Comes Knocking

The continuing story of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and now, Isaac, is commonly a strugglesome one for me. The astonishment and hope of God’s covenant with Abraham is offset by the punitive behaviour of Abraham and Sarah towards Hagar and her child, and then the story of Abraham and his child.

I know this story is thousands of years old and told in a context well beyond my own. This only drives me deeper into the story and its tribulations. I was relatively okay with it until College, when the Old Testament lecturer asked us “Do you like the kind of God who would ask a father to execute his child?” and suddenly my applecart was empty.

Now, before you start defending God (as if God requires our defence), or attacking the lecturer, take a breath. I know God resolves the dilemma, and that the resolution is not only Isaac’s life, but blessings multiplied (unless you’re the jumbuck). I note, additionally, that the dilemma only existed because God created it in the first place.

Sarah is disconcertingly absent from the story; I wonder why? Would she have cried out this time, rather than laugh?

Isaac is old enough to carry the means of his execution, so there’s an established relationship between parents and child – a child marked as God’s covenant and the hope of God’s people.

And then this. Sacrifice is inherent to so many stories, within our faith tradition and without. Jesus’ sacrifice lies at the heart of how we understand ourselves.

But what of this?

Is this what discipleship means when God takes us to extremes, when God invites us to move and act beyond any boundary we have set for ourselves?

Last week’s Gospel reading saw Jesus reveal to us that his presence causes division, so much so that even those closest to us can become our enemies. We water it down, and ameliorate the implications of Jesus’ language: “It’s hyperbole and rhetoric – the art of every compelling public speaker”, or, “It’s the language of comparison, so that we know where our priorities really lie.” Every preacher (with an eye to long-term job prospects) has done it, to soothe the congregation.

We can be horrified at the prospect of God’s call to Abraham (and Isaac) and breathe sighs of relief when a replacement is found.

Then we tell ourselves that God wouldn’t do something extreme like that nowadays, and the water drips on the stone, beginning to shape it to our particular need.

From Abraham to … us.

“I think God has called me here; the family is happy/the location is right/I feel at peace / we have good friends here / there are good schools …”

We consider the cost of following and, like the stallholders in middle eastern markets, we haggle over the price.

This is not Abraham and Sarah, despite their flaws. They left their original home and followed God’s call to a foreign country; they attended to an improbable, impossible promise and discovered its truth, with their occasional detour. So when Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, he trusts God despite the appalling implications of extinguishing the only tangible sign of hope in God’s promise.

Dare we trust God enough to risk it all?

What if God’s call to us requires more than attention, but requires obedience? The hallmark of call in Scripture – and our Church – is not peace, but discipleship; not convenience, but obedience.

As we find our way with the living God, let us not be too hasty to dismiss our call because of improbability or inconvenience, but look to the one who shapes and completes our faith, Jesus Christ.

 

Appropriating Mr Fraser

It’s really quite easy.

These are the words which raise trepidation for me, especially when I am in a conversation about computer stuff. I am purchasing a new programme, or hardware, or struggling when a problem has arisen which is beyond my capability, and I ask the obvious question “How does this work?”

It’s really quite easy.

At this point, my concern traditionally gives way to assertiveness and I am inclined to make comments which cause harm to the salesperson-customer relationship. If it was so easy, do you think I’d be here?

I have similar conflicts and response with people proclaiming the ease of their discipleship. When people talk about their faith in Jesus as if it’s a walk in the park, and all their “struggles” are cosmetic; when discipleship is dissipated to such a degree that it fits snugly into the culture around us; when people quote bible verses about suffering as they deal with traffic, or a head cold, or a computer programme.

The readings this weekend, about Hagar and Ishmael [Genesis 21] and persecuted disciples [Matthew 10] are not easy, because the lives of those to whom they are originally addressed are not easy.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is always hard to bear, but particularly so in our current world context, as people are forced from their homes as refugees all across the Middle East. To think that Sarah and Abraham had a deliberate hand in their suffering is equally hard to understand.

We can see from their story that God resolved their struggles, towards life and hope, but only at their uttermost point of need, after a despairing mother is unable to watch the impending death of her only child.

When we teach memory verses to children saying that “all the hairs on your head have been counted”, do we do acknowledge that those heads may well be in the noose, or on the chopping block, because of what Jesus is saying?

When we talk about discipleship, it is not easy to preach on following Jesus when it leads to divisions – especially in our families. Following Jesus can lead us to places and people we would not choose to see.

In this week of Uniting Church celebrations, we acknowledge our discipleship of Jesus. If we are honest – and that is one of the hallmarks of our Uniting Church – then we also acknowledge that as we rejoice in our life in Christ, much of this journey is rigorous and costly. One of our claims as Uniting Church, is that we are “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards the promised goal”.

It is not easy to live out this life of faith in our world, especially if we take Jesus seriously and live in the world, not hiding in our ecclesial bubble, or singing songs of praise so loudly we cannot hear the cries of those in need.

The assurance we have – even in the appalling story of Hagar and Ishmael – is that God has not abandoned us, and will not. Knowing that I will not fall without my God’s hands beneath me is nice when I’m struggling to prepare a sermon, but everything when my life and the lives of those around me are under threat.

Forty years of the Uniting Church is a robust, biblical number; memories of exile and exodus, wanderings in the wilderness, and rising above flood waters. Where may our travels with God lead us next?

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 

 

Life In The Cloud

I have been thinking about the Uniting Church, our fortieth anniversary this week and what it means for me to be part of this cloud (crowd?) of witnesses.

I love the Uniting Church, although there have been times when I was unsure that we would make it this far. I love our attempts to understand ourselves in this place – in the context of twenty-first century Australia – and the faithful, fallible, foolhardy, sometimes false and occasionally fabulous, choices we make as a result.

I love the Uniting Church like that refractory child remaining steadfastly unconvinced (‘Why can’t you just do what I ask you?’), knowing that the energy for obstinacy and mistakes is the vitality which makes for creativity and wonder.

I love the Uniting Church like the grandmother who is always telling me how good it used to be, but who says in the next breath that ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to be living in this day and age’.

It’s the Uniting Church like the eccentric uncle who is always finding something wrong: with his health, with his house, with his neighbour, with his neighbour’s cat, with the fact that no one else can see how wrong things are and that no one ever listens. And he’s the first one to slip you some cash when you need it.

There’s the cousin, about whom everyone always rolls their eyes, who notices a wonderful flower or bird in the garden, or wears outrageous outfits, or marches in protests, but never has time for the “important” things, like getting the washing done, or tidying the house, or simply settling down. ‘And where did you get those leg warmers?’

Or when the Uniting Church acts like a great mum, saying ‘We’ll sort this out together’, and doing just that, when it seemed like there was no way of solving things. Or the great dad, providing support and encouragement, quiet and steadfast, without any fanfare.

Like any family, there are times when I am frustrated or annoyed. I am impatient that we seem to have constant meetings, reflections, or consultations, about everything. I despair that, like the most fallible of teenagers (and others of every age) we succumb to peer pressure and the facile values of the world around us.

Once or twice, I have been ashamed of our Church. I can’t believe how much some of us invest in trying to hurt, or accuse, or blame. And I am humbled by how much some of us bear when that hurt, blame and accusation strike.

Some families forgive easily, with grace and great example. Forgiveness usually comes at significant cost, but it is the only path in the life that Jesus Christ offers to us.

Like a lot of families, in the Uniting Church we don’t talk about our love much; most of us just get on with it. Sometimes, though, it would be good to name it out loud, to bear witness; we love and are loved by, our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. And because we are so loved, we do our best at living out that love in the lives we lead.

We are pilgrims on the way towards a promised goal; “on the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and [we have] the gift of the Spirit in order that [we] may not lose the way.”

Grace, peace and love and many thanks for our shared lives.

 

How baffling you are, O Church,

and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer,

and yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed,

and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal

and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world

more devoted to obscurity, more false

and I have touched nothing more pure,

more generous, more beautiful.

How often I have wanted

to shut the doors of my soul in your face,

and how often I have prayed

to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,

because I am you,

although not completely.

And where should I go?

 

from The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto

 

This is a revised article of one I wrote for Ruminations, the Rural Ministry magazine, in 2004.

Learning the Three-Step

Trinity Sunday. Eggs, oranges, kettles and ice cubes, complicated drawings of triangles with arrows in all directions; the children’s talk almost no one wants to give and certainly not for a second time.

Dr Ben Myers, Lecturer in Theology at the Uniting Church College, has released a humorous series, Tweeting the Doctrine of the Trinity. “How to combat Trinitarian heresy, #4: Have you come up with a really helpful analogy? Well done! Now please don’t tell anyone about it, ever.”

The Trinity seeks to describe God’s extraordinary relationship as three in one and one in three, yet explaining it is almost always a hindrance in us understanding it at all.

The character of God has been described as a dance, as a movement of God – Creator, Son and Spirit – as each influences the other, leading and being led. It’s an image of wonder and beauty. God as community; loving, dancing, creating, celebrating, moving … and welcoming us into the community of God. Is this just theological playtime, or is there something more?la ronde de la jeunesse

If we understand God as community, then our relationship with God is affected, at the same moment as God asks something of us. What does it mean to create and live in a community which reflects the character of our God?

Watch the news, if you have the courage. There is an investment from those we support, and from those who seek our harm, to divide our world, into “us and them”. It’s almost as simple as that, and appeals to our baser instincts. An illustration: the media reports concerning the horror of the London and Manchester attacks obscured a larger scale horror in Kabul, and dissipated the widespread condemnation by international Muslim leaders of all these atrocities.

Us and Them.

Someone’s skin colour, someone’s name, are used as markers of divergence. How do we have a conversation about recognition of our Aboriginal sisters and brothers in our Constitution without defaulting into the same lazy, hurtful stereotypes?

The character of God has inherently different characteristics, and yet are all one. How do we, as disciples of the living, dancing God accept, welcome and celebrate our differences, not only as a reflection of this God, but of God’s deliberate intent?

Community is not easy, but it is necessary. We are citizens of God’s community, and the hope of that belonging enables and inspires us for the journey ahead.

Learning God’s dance takes time, effort and our deliberate intent. We need the imagination of God, the example of Jesus and the power of the Spirit that we may not lose our step.