St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Prayer

Listen!
James 5:13-20
Our reading from the epistle of James today is one that, in its misapplication, has caused a great deal of heartache over the years. It plunges us into the mystery of prayer, and the hope of the miraculous; but read lightly it also seems to offer a simple, formulaic picture of prayer, and in particular, of prayer for healing.

“This prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health” … “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you will be healed”

We read those words, and it seems a simple promise. Are you sick? Confess your sins and pray with faith and you will be healed.

But I guess life experience has taught most of us that it really isn’t always quite that simple. Where, then, do we go, when prayer – and in particular, prayer for healing – seems to go unanswered?

One possible response – and this is where I believe great harm has been done – is to take hold of the two conditions found in the text, and assert that if healing does not take place, it must be either because of a lack of faith – for it is “the prayer made in faith” that will heal the sick, or that there must be unconfessed sin, for does it not say “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you will be healed”?

So if you pray for healing and you are not healed, either you lack faith, or there is unconfessed sin in your life. Simple. But, as American journalist H. Mencken said in the 1920’s “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

But why wrong? Did James believe that healing was conditional only on faith and confession? Didn’t his life experience say that it was more complicated than that?

How are we to make sense of what he wrote?

Now I’m generally loath to start dissecting passages and talking about the original languages – partly because I think it rapidly leads to very dull sermons, but mostly because my knowledge of the Biblical languages is so much less than that of the translators that it seems unlikely I can do a better job than they have. But here I think we do need to ask some questions about the language used – a need which is perhaps hinted at by the fact that different translations of the Bible give us a very different picture of this passage.

So there are three words or phrases in the passage that allude to healing that really need a closer look.

Firstly, “the prayer made in faith will heal the sick”. The word used here is “sozo” – and almost everywhere else where it is found in the Bible it is translated as “save”, not heal. It’s the root word for “saviour” and “salvation”, and while it can refer to physical healing (in the sense of “being saved from the sickness”) that really isn’t it’s most natural meaning.

And the same sentence continues “the Lord will restore them to health”. Except that this is even worse as a translation: the word (“egeiro”) means “to raise up”, “lift up”, “awaken” – nowhere else in the Bible does it get translated as “restore to health”.

So, for instance, look at the same verse in another translation you find “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

Suddenly it takes on a very different sense. Not a promise for physical healing at all; instead, it reads as words for the one who fears that their sickness may be terminal; a reassurance that you will be saved, raised up, forgiven.

The whole passage somehow looks more like the Catholic last rights; calling on the elders to anoint the sick with oil in faith that they will be forgiven, saved, and raised up to life with God.

And then there’s one more: “anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you will be healed”. And here the word (iaomai) really does mean “healed”.

The difficulty here is not with “healed” but with “will be”. For those who are into the details of language, the word translated “will be forgiven” is in what’s called the indicative mood – it means will, definitely, be.

But the word translated “will be healed” is in the subjunctive mood, which, according to Wikipedia, is “typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility”. In other words, not so much “will be” as “may be healed”.

Confess your sins and pray for one another, James seems to be saying; for you have certainty of salvation, certainty of being raised up; and you also create the possibility of physical healing. You will be saved, you may be healed.

I’ve kind of gone on about this a bit because I think one of the biggest disincentives to prayer is the creation of false expectations about it. I guess for me it is most clear when I think about what we say about prayer to children: we can tell them, as James appeared to (before we dug a bit into his language), that if they pray with faith God will heal them; and they will believe us. But then if they pray and there is not healing, they are left either to conclude they don’t have “proper” faith, or that prayer simply doesn’t perform as advertised.

In either case, the incentive to pray is gutted by unrealistic expectations; nothing breeds cynicism as rapidly as over promising and under delivering…

And that is the outcome of much teaching of this passage and of a theology of prayer that emerges from it; a simple mechanical slot-machine description of prayer which fails to live up to its promise and leads to a disillusionment with prayer because it isn’t what it was never meant to be. Which ultimately leads to many of us simply not praying.

Which is ironic since the whole point of James writing was to encourage prayer. Are you suffering? Pray. Celebrating? Pray. Sick? Pray.

Pray, not because there is some sort of magic automatic reward, a mechanistic result of prayer, not because you know what will happen when you pray – in fact, quite the opposite. Pray precisely because you don’t know what will happen.

Perhaps your prayer will be like that of Elijah – powerfully shifting the story, challenging the injustice of rulers, leading people back to God, to faith, to compassion, to justice. Or perhaps it won’t. Perhaps you’ll see how the world is made better by your prayer and action, perhaps you won’t.

Prayer (of this sort) is, to return to our grammar lesson, in the subjunctive mood; it expresses something which is not, to create the possibility that it might be.

Prayer brings with it certainties – of forgiveness, of reconciliation with God. But more than that, prayer opens the door to the possibility of something else. You may never see prayer miraculously answered; but if you don’t pray, you certainly won’t.

So let us pray for one another; for we will be raised up, and that we might be healed.

Amen

A Day in the Park

A Day in the Park is back again this year – Tuesday October 27th. A Day in the Park is a free event for preschool children to celebrate Children’s Week – petting zoo, gingerbread figures, sausage sizzle, story tent, live music and more, from 10am in Wahroonga Park.

Congregational Breakfast

On November 8th at 7:30am, we’re going to have a congregational breakfast before Church – Chris Osborne and Kit Craig will tell us a bit about their experiences in Gallipoli earlier this year, and Ken Broadhead is going to head up a team to cook breakfast for us all :).

Pecking order

Listen!
Psalm 1 | Mark 9:30-37
Mark chapters 8 and 9 really mark a turning point in the gospel.

For the first seven or so chapters, Jesus has been teaching, preaching, healing, casting out demons. He’s gathered a following, he’s challenged those in power, he’s reached out to those outside the Jewish faith (or perhaps – he’s responded when they reached out to him). But in many ways he’s been a recognisable figure – an itinerant preacher, a figure in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, calling out the powerful for their failure to follow the one true God.

And the transfiguration, of course, confirmed – at least for the three disciples who were there to witness it – that status.

But now the tone of his teaching has changed, and at the same time, so has its audience. No longer is he speaking to the crowds; now he is talking to those who are closest to him, his disciples – perhaps just the twelve, perhaps a larger group – to those who are not just interested, not just listening in to hear the man who is flavour of the month, but to those who have taken the step of following, committing themselves to the Rabbi, the Guru.

And his message for them is one they don’t (as we saw clearly with Peter immediately after the transfiguration) want to here.

‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

They didn’t understand what he was saying to them – for it was so far removed from their image of the Messiah, that it made no sense.

And perhaps it didn’t help that Jesus spent so much time speaking in parables; maybe they were just trying to work out what he meant this time…

But that’s just speculation. What’s for sure is that any hint that the disciples might have even had a clue what Jesus was going on about is pretty thoroughly by the argument they have as they walk.

As they walked, after Jesus had told them that he was going to be betrayed and killed, they were arguing about which of them was the greatest.

And I’d say this was sad and pathetic, and an indication that they really, really didn’t get it – except that, I suspect, it’s not that far away from the experience of a lot of Christians, a lot of Churches, and certainly, a lot of ministers. Actually, it’s probably the experience of people.

We compare.

We look at one another and try to work how we are doing next to them.

We compare salaries and properties, postcodes and schools. And then when we grow up a bit, we compare how our children are doing (the barely hidden subtext of many conversations at the school-gate, not to mention the much mocked but even more practiced habit of brag booking), or our grandchildren. And part of it is a very real and healthy pride; but, if we are honest, there’s always an edge of competition about it.

I mentioned that it’s the experience of ministers – whenever you get a bunch of Church leaders together you’ll hear them sounding one another out, subtly, of course, being supportive and encouraging, but also trying to work out the pecking order – whose congregation is growing, whose Church has the money to pay the bills, where are there exciting things happening. It is, I think, the second most popular topic of conversation for ministers when they meet – the first, of course, is “things that have gone wrong at funerals”.

And the thing about this story is – we know the punchline. We know it so well – too well, probably. We know that Jesus turned the rules upside down, that he declared the first to be last and the last to be first, that he said the Kingdom of God belonged to the children, that the sinners and tax collectors would enter before the religious leaders. And yet we persist with our hierarchies, dressing ministers in fancy clothes and giving them special seats at the front of the Church, fêting those who achieve and, well, welcoming, perhaps, but making little of, those who do not.

And it’s perhaps only at the great ceremonies of the Church, at the start of life, in baptism, and at the end of life, in the funeral service, that we really recognise the truth of Jesus words, and place our pecking orders aside. In birth – in baptism, and in death – in the funeral, all people are equal.

In baptism, in death, and here.

At the communion table.

For this table is the great leveller. We call come to communion on the same footing, on the same basis. It doesn’t matter if you’re one year old or a hundred; if you’ve been in Church all your life or just walked in today for the first time; if you’re a success or a failure; if you know what you believe or if you really don’t have a clue.

It doesn’t matter if you have a degree in theology, or if you don’t know one end of the Bible from the other; if you’re a success in the world or struggling to hold body and soul together; if you’re Labour, Coalition, Greens or none of the above; if you are a theological conservative or a woolly liberal.

We come to the communion table – whoever we are – as visitors who have been brought to the party, as kids who have been allowed to stay up to eat with the grownups, as strangers welcomed in and invited to stay.

This feast, this shared meal, this sacrament, strange though it may be, reminds us who we are, reminds us of our standing before God: in the words of the old hymn: nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Here we come not on the basis of our greatness or our success, not on the strength of our goodness or our lack of badness; we come simply because we have been invited.

Here we welcomed as Jesus welcomed the child that he set amongst them as a living, breathing example.

And here we welcome one another.

Without judging, without ranking, without status.

Not because we are good enough, not because we have earned it, not even because we believe the right things.

Simply because we belong to God.

And to each other.

Amen.

Who am I?

Listen!
James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-33
Who is he?

By this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has become quite a public figure. You can’t go around for three years, preaching in the synagogues, healing the sick and the blind, feeding crowds of thousands, without people starting to talk. He’s probably quite the subject of gossip, the sort of person that everyone has an opinion about. But of course the nature of gossip is that the only person that we don’t hear about is ourselves.

So, Jesus asks… who do people say that I am.

And having made something last week of the fact that Jesus seemed to need to learn a lesson from the Syrian woman, here we seem to see something of the same again – Jesus seems to need to ask his disciples – because no one in the crowds is saying it to his face. Of course it might be a rhetorical device on Jesus’ part, but it feels to me like a genuine effort by Jesus to “take the temperature” of the crowds, to get a sense of what from his words has been heard, what conclusions the crowds are drawing from his teaching, his healing, his miracles.

And the answers are revealing. Who do people say he is? John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another of the prophets. And what do these people have in common? To answer that, we have to go back into the history of the people of Israel…

For from their very earliest days, there have been two great traditions within the Jewish faith, a pair of intertwined systems of belief that come to us in the phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’.

And these two traditions, these two strands of understanding, each have, standing at their heads, a great figure from Jewish history. Indeed, in our very next passage in the gospel, Jesus will be seen meeting with these two giants of the Jewish faith, in the transfiguration, where Peter, James and John will see him speaking with Moses, the law giver, and Elijah, the figurehead of the prophets.

The Law, with its emphasis on purity, on observance of the rules, on keeping oneself apart from the sinful, unclean world, always lived in tension with the prophets, with their emphasis on justice, on compassion, on serving the poor and being a blessing to the world. Not to say that they were in contradiction with one another – for the prophets also spoke out against those who failed to keep the law – but they clearly emphasized different aspects of what it meant to be a faithful follower of the creator God, what it meant to keep to the Torah, the living law that encapsulated what it meant to be a good Jew.

By the time of Jesus these two traditions expressed themselves in two systems of life and worship. The law was the focus of the scribes and the priests, those who saw the Temple as the heart of their faith. The prophetic tradition lived on in the synagogues, in the teaching of those whose life of worship was removed from the Temple, at least on a day to day basis.

So what does this ancient history have to do with the gossip about Jesus? Simply this: the answers given, for who Jesus might be, all come from the same tradition. Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, others another of the prophets. They are all of the prophets.

And once you notice that, you see the pattern again and again in the gospels. Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? – I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners. – The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Over and again, Jesus comes down on the side of justice, the side of compassion, on the side of humanity, over against the side of law and purity.

And Peter’s final declaration of faith – you are the Messiah – is confirmation of this pattern. Because Peter’s statement isn’t radically different from that of the people. Everyone has seen that Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets, and in that tradition there was only one name greater than Elijah, and that is the Messiah. It was the prophets who declared that another great King, a King in the line of David, a King who would reign forever, would come; it was from the words of the prophets that the expectation of Messiah had arisen. In declaring Jesus as the Messiah, Peter isn’t so much contradicting the judgment, the guesses, of the people, as he is going beyond them; naming Jesus not just as a prophet, one sent by God, but as the one sent by God.

Out of these two great strands of Jewish thought – the Law, with its regulations, its definitions of who is in and who is out, its strictures on what activities are clean and unclean – and the Prophets, with their demand for justice for the poor and the oppressed, for the fair treatment of slaves and widows and orphans and foreigners – Jesus is identified with the tradition of the prophets.

And it is unimaginably important that we, in the twenty first century, understand this. Because we too, in the Christian Church, have the same two traditions running through our history. We too have had great figures who wanted to emphasize that Christians are different from the heathen, that we should keep ourselves apart, that we should make sure that we live lives of purity – not smoking, not drinking, not going to clubs or playing cards, or a thousand other rules and regulations designed to ensure that the Christian remains unsullied by the sinful world. That is the tradition of the Jewish Law, carried over into the Christian Church.

And we have had great figures who argued that the role of the Church, and of Christians, is to stand in the prophetic tradition; to speak out for the powerless, to refuse to accept the status quo when that status quo is abusive of minorities, immigrants, women, children, the disabled. To say that the kingdom of God is at hand when the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the stranger made welcome. That is the tradition of the Jewish prophets, carried over into the Christian Church.

And when we find those two traditions in tension in our own lives, in our families, in our Churches; when the desire to keep ourselves holy gets in the way of our ability to reach out into the world; then let us remember that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the one who spoke with sinners, who was embraced by prostitutes, who dined with drunkards. Everyone who met him saw Jesus as standing in the tradition of the prophets.

But perhaps in the end, for Jesus, there was no conflict between these traditions. The Law did not demand that Jesus keep himself apart from the world – indeed, it was his understanding of the Law, that drove him out amongst the poor, the needy, the sinful, the unclean. The Law that could be summed up as ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’ did not allow Jesus to stay separate from a sinful world, but bade him go, get his hands dirty, share his life. The challenge of the prophets did not allow him the luxury of simply knowing that he was right, that he was ok with God, that he was good; it demanded that he set aside that luxury and take up instead the path of love, of radical hospitality, of self giving; the path that would lead him inexorably to the suffering that he began to teach – the suffering that Peter was so unwilling to hear of.

Love bade him go. Love bids us go. For love is the fulfilling of the law.

Amen

Can you provide temporary accommodation for a refugee?

In the light of the Australian Federal Government’s decision to accept an additional 12,000 refugees from the Syrian crisis, a number of people have indicated to me that they would be in a position to offer a temporary home for some of those in need. I’ve so far identified a couple of organisations who are working to link refugees with hosts; I’ll add others to this page as I become aware of them.

  • Enough Room are a new Sydney based organisation
  • Australian Homestay Network normally provide accommodation for overseas students, but are planning on using their expertise to assist refugees
  • UnitingCare are in conversation with the Federal Government about how they might assist – no specific details yet, but watch this space.

If you’d like to know more, contact me, or contact one of the organisations above directly!

The Lord watches over the stranger

Listen!
Psalm 146 | Mark 7:24-30
I guess if you were to make a list of adjectives that you would apply to Jesus, “racist” probably wouldn’t be amongst them. And yet here he is, in Mark’s gospel, meeting with a gentile, a Syrophoenician woman, in desperate need of help for her afflicted daughter, and basically calling her a dog – by contrast with the Jews, Jesus’ people, who are the children.

And we can try to dress it up, talk it away – I’m always fascinated to hear how take the Bible most literally tie themselves in knots trying to explain how Jesus was testing the woman, or perhaps making a joke with her, or how he knew what she would say and was just using the opportunity to teach a lesson to the disciples.

Anything to avoid the simple reading of the text: that Jesus, at this point in his story, didn’t think that gentiles were important to God.

And Mark – who goes to great pains in his gospel to demonstrate that the Kingdom that Jesus came to declare was for all, Jew and Gentile alike, has no difficulty in sharing this story with his readers. Mark, it seems, wasn’t embarrassed about the fact that Jesus, at this point, needed to learn something from a Samaritan woman.

Do we find that hard to accept? That Jesus needed to learn something? Have we forgotten the core truth of the incarnation – that God became a person, with all the limitations of humanity that go with that?

For in the end, which is more appealing, which is more an image of who we are called to be – a Jesus who always knows everything right from the start, or a Jesus who is able to learn, and to learn even from a woman, even from a foreigner.

So let’s rewind a little, and see how we came to be where we are….

Up until this point in Jesus’ ministry, he’s been working amongst the Jews. He came out of the desert (in Mark chapter one) and began his ministry in Galilee.

He’s had one short foray in Gentile territory – he crossed the lake to the region of the Gerasene people. The text suggests that he wasn’t actually heading there as a sort of mission, more a retreat, a chance to get away from the crows. And maybe you remember that story, it’s the one where the legion of demons is cast out of a madman and into a herd of pigs, who promptly drown in the lake, much to the distress of the locals, especially, presumably, the owners of the pigs.

And when the madman, now sane, wishes to follow Jesus, Jesus refuses to allow it – sends him off to his own people instead. And the people of the region beg Jesus to leave – to go back to the place he came from.

It’s not exactly a sort of “welcome to your ministry amongst the gentiles”. Nothing there to suggest to Jesus that the people outside of Israel would welcome him and his good news of the Kingdom.

And then we come to the start of Mark chapter 7, when Jesus starts to get into arguments with the teachers of the Law – he heals many people, but the Pharisees have a go at him because his disciples don’t wash their hands in the prescribed way before eating. And the first half of Mark 7 is really Jesus ranting against their petty minded reading of the law, condemning the scribes and Pharisees for keeping the letter but disregarding the spirit – and at the same time, declared all foods clean; fundamentally breaking, denying, one of the pillars of Judaism.

There’s more than a hint here that Jesus is starting to be disillusioned with the understanding of God that the religious leaders of his people were offering.

And then we get to today’s text:

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre

Tyre was 30 miles away from the sea of Galilee. You’d have to ask Kit, or one of the Cartophiles to be sure, but I’m guessing that’s a couple of days, maybe three days, of walking. And it’s far enough away to really change the character of the place. Because Tyre is on the Mediterranean coast, it’s a port town, and as such it’s a much more cosmopolitan place than Galilee – by this time it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria-Phonecia. A good place to go if you were trying to get away from the Jewish authorities. A step out into the wide world, out of the provinces and into the relative anonymity of the big city.

But even there, Jesus could not escape notice. His reputation was bigger than that, and a gentile woman came to seek his help. And her faith gets him. For though his first response is exactly what you might expect of a Jewish Rabbi, a man from Galilee born and bred, a student of the law of Moses passionately committed to calling his people back to the worship of the one true God; his first reaction, to turn away the foreigner, the woman who is not from the people of God, that reaction has just enough of a question in it, just enough uncertainty to open the door to her faith.

Let the children be fed first, he says, it isn’t right to give the children’s food to the dogs

OK, she replies, but don’t even the dogs get to eat?

And it clicks into place. The children of Israel have rejected him, cast the bread of life aside, and the dogs of the gentiles have come to eat the feast that the children have cast aside.

And Jesus’ ministry to the people of Israel is blown wide open, into the ministry to the people of the Kingdom of God.

And the thing is, despite the sort of stereotypical understanding the old testament as portraying a provincial God of wrath and anger, by contrast to the New Testament God of universal love and fellowship, this revelation, this insight that Jesus seems to get in the face of the Syrophoenician woman whose little daughter was sick, was already there in the law and the prophets, in the wisdom of the people of Israel. We read it today in the psalms:

The Lord watches over the strangers;
Upholds the widows and the orphans.

There’s no question but that God, as portrayed in the understanding of the authors of the Old Testament, favoured one people over another, but as I’ve often noted before, there is also a counter-current within Old Testament law and (especially) the prophets; a voice which insists that God is the God of all, not just of us.

The Lord watches over the strangers.

The strangers. The foreigners. The other. The homeless. The Syrian toddler drowned fleeing war, the Afghani mother in a refugee camp, the asylum seeker on Nauru referred to only by a number because “there are too many called mohammed”.

The Lord watches over the strangers.

Maybe it took the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman for Jesus to get what the psalmist meant. Maybe it takes something of the same for us.

The Lord watches over the stranger.

But what do we do to those who are different, those who don’t fit our mould, speak our language, follow our customs?

The Lord watches over the stranger.

Amen.