Notre Dame, Holy Week 2019


I have never been there.

I have heard stories, by family and friends, for more than four decades, of extraordinary majesty and beauty, sitting in the heart of Paris.

Seated now in ash, Notre Dame awaits the future, having survived wars great and awful, the depredations of monarchs and despots, and the seething anger of revolutionaries. It has endured too, the attention of so many devotees and others.

Already this morning, several friends who know the lady have spoken reverentially, and with sadness. Tales of soloists in the cathedral, echoing the voice of heaven; of sitting and waiting for God to speak; of marvelling at an inspired imagination, and those several artisans who could make hope real.

Perhaps they may build again, or restore, but it will never be the same. There will be photos and drawings for ever, but never enough to capture its entirety.

There will, wonderfully, be stories, like the ones my friends are telling. In that way, a building becomes alive, not because of stones, but through awe and worship and wonder.

In this week, of all weeks, this holy week, when we live and tell our experience of the crucified, and risen, Christ. In this week, of all weeks, our story is one of what God has imagined and brought to reality; and we bear that story in our lives.

Let us tell it well, because all is changed, all made new.

International Women’s Day: A Prayer

I was asked to compose a prayer for International Women’s Day.
I wrote this, particularly, with my grandmothers, my mother, my two sisters and two daughters in mind and heart. And, of course, my wife.
I hope this small piece does justice to my task.

May this one day,
life-giving, life-bearing God,
cause us to remember for each day,
every day.

We give thanks for leaders and servants,
for scientists and prophets,
for farmers and economists and radical actors.

We have been blessed by nurture,
by proclamation, insight
and scintillating humour.

We have seen hope enfleshed,
as the courage
to crack the shackles of disbelief
and dismantle the bastions of culture
is lived out again and again
and again.

For those who suffer,
who risk their lives by living them,
who are unsafe because of their humanity,
we pray justice,
we pray action,
and we pray it now and always.

For these women,
and so many more.

We bless you,
for your image we have met in them,
for grandmothers and mothers,
sisters and daughters,
of our shared blood, or
shared story.

On this day, we pray.  

Easter Is Why

I am listening to my favourite piece of music as I write this. It is the first classical recording I ever purchased, at the record store in the Manning Building at Sydney University.  Apart from the beauty of the piece, it raises the memory of when I first heard – and saw – it.

I had just been to a movie, Children of a Lesser God, where a teacher of students, who are hearing impaired, is asked to show what a piece of music “looks like” when someone is unable to hear the sounds. And so, I fell in love with the Second Movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, and Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb moved into second place.

We are invited, as disciples, to bear witness to the gospel which has changed our lives. What does that look, and sound, like? Our word “martyr” is a direct descendant of the Greek word which means to bear witness, to testify. We bear witness not just with our words, but with our bodies, our very lives.

Easter is when God bears witness to us. It is when Jesus Christ, in his very life, testifies to all that God is, in mercy, and suffering, and hope. And love.

We are inheritors of a story where the God of all creation, and all of history, becomes as one with us, suffers and dies. We wait, in silence, and are astonished when Christ’s resurrection proclaims God’s intention to save creation and all within.

So, when we are asked to show what this symphony looks like, to those whose hearing is impaired by all the other demands and voices and fears and sounds of our raucous world, what shall we do?

How shall we bear witness to this Christ, with more than our words, or with actions that confirm our words?

Some of us persist with the false dichotomy, being either “evangelists” or advocates of “social justice”. This conversation is a waste of God’s mission and a waste of our time. When Jesus healed people, they received their lives back socially and physically. When Jesus offered forgiveness, it was restorative of life and community.

I was asked recently why our Uniting Church is so engaged – and progressive – around concerns in our community. I responded that our faith in Jesus places us squarely in the marketplace of our world.

Our faith in Jesus has us kneeling beside those whose lives seem beyond repair. Our faith in Christ crucified would have us nowhere else, and whether the brokenness comes from our own hands, or the hand of another, that is where we belong.

Easter is why we feed those who are hungry for bread and justice and forgiveness; that is why we advocate for refugees, chained by politics here and overseas; that is why we agitate about fair treatment for those trapped in the prison of addiction; that is why we offer a voice for our planet, particularly to those leaders who ears are stoppered.  

And we are not there only because Christ is crucified.

We are there because Christ is raised.

The hope of Christ’s resurrection proclaims our belief that forgiveness for sins is real. We believe that chains can be broken, and prisoners released; we declare that our ears can be opened, as well as our hearts.

Easter is why we worship, in voices and languages and music which reflect the world in which we live, the hospitality we offer and the God whom we serve. We worship and witness and serve, imitating the crucified and risen One, with the Spirit’s inspiration, to the glory of God. 

#easteriswhy

A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday | Malcom Guite

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.


Dust and Ashes Touch Our Face | Brian Wren

(Walter Michot/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)

Dust and ashes touch our face,
mark our failure and our falling.
              Holy Spirit, come,
              walk with us tomorrow,
              take us as disciples,
washed and wakened by your calling.

Take us by the hand and lead us,
lead us through the desert sands,
bring us living water,
Holy Spirit, come.

Dust and ashes soil our hands –
greed of market, pride of nation.
              Holy Spirit, come,
              walk with us tomorrow
              as we pray and struggle
through the meshes of oppression.

Dust and ashes choke our tongue
in the wasteland of depression.
Holy Spirit, come,
walk with us tomorrow
through all the gloom and grieving
to the paths of resurrection.

Words and music © 1989 Brian Wren
Hope Publishing Co.

As we gather for worship this weekend, as we meet to pray with friends and family, we consider the ongoing ravages of drought in our state of NSW and western Queensland;
we consider the flooding crisis in Townsville and now in several farming communities in Queensland, where there had been years of drought until this new disaster;
we consider the bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria, and the warnings in Western Australia.

We pray for the immediate needs of individuals and communities.
We pray for the wisdom of community and political leaders.
We pray for the ongoing and imminent disaster of climate change – for courage and wisdom to act and to lead.

Raise your voices in lament for those suffering and near to breaking,
confession for our ignoring the truth, and our failures to act,
intercession for those in fear and need,
raise your voice and hands in hope because the risen, crucified Christ is with all who suffer, and with all of us.

And when you pray, move your feet.

A Pastoral Letter

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!

As the Advent season draws us closer to Christmas, we listen for the familiar stories of Jesus, where God’s love becomes flesh and enters our world and our lives. We open ourselves to what God may be saying to us at this time.

We know the temptation to take possession of this gift from God, as if it were ours alone. Yet when we make the gift a possession, it is lost. John the Baptist speaks with authority, echoing God’s voice in Isaiah,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Our decision to enlarge the definition of marriage at the Assembly Meeting was made after months and years of prayer, biblical and theological reflection, and discussion. It was made with integrity and hope. For many, it was painful; some due to the long waiting, and some in the decision itself. Our church laboured hard, together, to hear God’s voice and act on God’s will.

The Assembly’s decision has been deeply troubling to some within our church community. Over this season, the Presbytery of South Australia will meet, and consider a proposal which may suspend the Assembly Marriage Resolution and ask the church to work through this once more.

The immediate need is pastoral care for those affected. In truth, that is almost all of us. However, this is an especially upsetting time for the members of our church and community who are lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex.

The well-being of many of our friends is being deeply impacted. Some are finding this almost too much to bear.

This decision is about our families, our friends, people we love. At this time, as always, we are called to bear witness to the love of God in Christ; to embody that love in our church and our communities.

The dignity and sanctity of all humanity was spoken into being at creation and is proclaimed anew to us at Christmas in the child of Bethlehem. Christ’s death and resurrection ensure our salvation, not because of who or how we are human, but because of who and how God became human. A truly precious, and gracious gift, in which we all share.

Please pray for our church, especially for the South Australian Presbytery. Consider the words you choose and how you participate in conversation (both formally and informally) around the Assembly Marriage Resolution. Please care for all within our LGBTI community, pray, and listen, remembering we are all formed, loved and valued in the image of the one God, in whom all life is found.

Grace, hope and peace for this Advent and Christmas journey,

Simon

In Human Hands

One of the pleasant, even hopeful, illusions about Christmas is that everything else takes a back seat.

My childhood memories, fuelled by nostalgia, are my mother reading a mixture of Gospel stories and Christmas fantasy to us on Christmas Eve, as everything else was set aside. We had critical rituals for the season, marking it as separate from every other day. Christmas itself was early morning worship, followed by presents and family meals; nothing else intruded.

I imagine that this is an accurate reflection of Christmas for many other people; however, it has had many incarnations since I was a child. People we love have died, others we love have become part of our Christmas community, and we have moved – almost all of us – around the state, even around the world. As have most families. Like many others, I work over Christmas.

Our Christmas illusion is simply that, and our celebrations need to happen in the midst of everything else.

Our imagined Christmas, hermetically sealed from reality, is precisely not what Matthew and Luke are describing, as Mary conceives and Joseph begins to comprehend. The tinsellated version some of us like to tell is nice and neat and tidy, where even the mob of sheep is well behaved.

That’s not the story, though.

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the shadow of what could happen hovers over Mary’s pregnancy and we witness the reaction of Joseph, then the community, followed by strangers from the East, and then Herod.

The wonder of Luke’s account is far too astonishing to fit neatly anywhere, as a tiny baby is born while the whole Roman empire is counted and angel armies appear in the sky.

Jesus appears in the midst of everything – empires and despots and foreign sages, a census of the known world and a family drawn into social chaos and divine intention. The angels rejoice and stock workers are wondrously overwhelmed as God turns up.

And the sign of this God, our God, the God of all the ages and all creation, is a baby. Jesus Christ, at risk, among us.

This is why Christmas, told as Matthew and Luke tell us, makes sense. This is why Emmanuel, God with us, is absolutely vital. Jesus is in the midst of it all.

The humanity of Jesus – that he can be held in human hands – embraces and implicates everyone.

This embrace is for communities where drought is crippling, for those struggling with addiction, and for those who will be fearful of violence in their own homes this Christmas. This embrace is for those who are imprisoned, or punished for seeking refuge, and the implication is for our voices to speak and our hands to act.

Jesus’ complete humanity is about all of us. As our church has affirmed a larger understanding of marriage, we declare that our own humanity – gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender or intersex – is valued in the eyes of God. This is our discipleship to Jesus Christ, compelling us to follow, as an extraordinary community in service to an extraordinary God.

And God turns up. Certainly in the joy of a shared meal, as friends are made welcome and strangers become friends.

Even more certainly when someone who believes they are not worth God’s attention is reminded, by our invitation and embrace, that God invites shepherds to bear witness, before anyone else, to the birth of Christ.

Emmanuel becomes tangible when people spend money in rural communities to support them, and to let them know that are remembered and valued.

God is with those who suffer the injustice of violence, in their homes, from government, or from the church. We will not be silent: we will speak and act and pray and proclaim for those who are bound in silence.

The hope and wonder of Christmas, as Jesus breaks into the world, is that God gets in our way. Whether Jesus interferes with our “neat and tidy”, or sits with us in our silence, Emmanuel declares that we are worth all of God’s passionate involvement.

God with all of us.

If The War Goes On | Iona Community

This has been written, and rewritten several times by the Iona Community. I first encountered it when the United States led coalition entered Iraq in 2003. At the time, the composers wrote

“it has since been revised and also, sadly, become relevant yet again, due to the current sabre-rattling by the Bush & Blair cliques, in the face of opposition to their stance from majorities in both their countries.

Please feel free to reproduce this in worship and other non-commercial situations, on condition that the copyright acknowledgement is also shown.”

If the war goes on
and the children die of hunger,
and the old men weep
for the young men are no more,
and the women learn
how to dance without a partner
who will keep the score?

If the war goes on
and the truth is taken hostage;
and new horrors lead
to the need to euphemise,
when the calls for peace
are declared unpatriotic,
who’ll expose the lies?

If the war goes on
and the daily bread is terror,
and the voiceless poor
take the road as refugees;
when a nation’s pride
destines millions to be homeless,
who will heed their pleas?

If the war goes on
and the rich increase their fortunes,
as the arms sales soar
as new weapons are displayed,
when a fertile field
turns to no-man’s-land tomorrow,
who’ll approve such trade?

If the war goes on
will we close the doors to heaven,
if the war goes on,
will we breach the gates of hell;
if the war goes on
will we ever be forgiven
if the war goes on… and on… and on…

Armistice | Andrew Motion

Now one thousand five hundred and sixty-four days end
every hour hand of every watch on the face of the earth
snaps to attention a fraction shy of the number eleven.
Their minute hands are still quivering with the effort
to complete the circle and therefore give the signal.
Whenever has machinery fine-tuned or otherwise
been able to refute with such a passionate precision
the idea that the body of time might flow like a river
and reveal it instead as a wide continuous landscape
a block universe where the sudden spotlight moon
introducing her face between cloud-curtains alight
now on one man dead already and now on one dying
while the scattered hinterland suffers its consequences
or delivers its warnings all connected but unavailable.

*

Then the minute hand in a spasm seals its promise
while penny whistles shriek and church bells clamour
while whizzbangs and 59s complete their trajectories
while long-faced telegram boys prop their bicycles
on lampposts and front gates and for the last time
press forward to deliver their dreadful condolences
and lark music like a distillation of daylight itself
which a moment before was neither here nor there
sweetens as it escapes the pulsing throat of the bird
and rain also accustomed to no discernable voice
patters and pounds and performs on barren ground
and a very simple breath of wind entirely fills the air
and everyday clouds performing manifold contortions
saunter off and dissolve in the horizon of their origin.

*

Soon rolling out plans from their corridors and offices
highly efficient angels of the resurrection will descend
to align with names they went by in their earthly lives
nine million or thereabouts bodies and body-fragments.
What is the duration of individual grieving they allow
beyond an agreed upper limit of sixty-six characters.
Think of Private Roy Douglas Harvey who was killed
a reserved and thoughtful schoolboy from Hillhead
leaving behind among other valuable relics a diary
completed up to the evening before his dawn attack
along with a much-thumbed Collins Gem dictionary
from the pages of which rose and will continue rising
these words as time and space maintain their relation
my task accomplished and the long day done.