A prayer for Maundy Thursday

Catch me in my scurrying

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and with my neighbours on this earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams,
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared to your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying of a child,
in the hunger of the street people,
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smouldering resentments of exploited third-world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;
and somehow
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something …
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a saviour followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me enough peace to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you …
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something …
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

51h4cyW5xxL._SX491_BO1,204,203,200_Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg Books, 1981, 123-125.

Lent: a time to follow

I’m not ready, Lord.
I don’t want to go.
The Advent candles are barely snuffed out;
the straw bales from the stable
are still in the dumpster out back.
And now this?
It’s just February, for God’s sake!
I’m not ready.

Let it go, let it go

I’m tired, Lord.
The year’s got off to a rough start.
I know I should be fresh, alert,
full of new-year resolve and ready for anything:
‘Yes, Lord!’
But I’m not.
This is hard work.
Just showing up is a tough gig.
I don’t want to go.

Let it out, let it out
let it all unravel

You want forty days of ‘on’ and ‘upward’?
You want six Sundays of resolution and surrender?
You want my life? my undivided attention?
‘Simon, are you asleep?
Could you not keep awake one hour?’
Frankly, Jesus, no.
I don’t have it.
I don’t feel it.
I can’t do it.

Let it free, let it free
let it all unravel

I know the way, Lord.
I know where this road leads.
I’ve been around the block before.
That’s the issue, isn’t it?
I know what you expect
and I know what it costs.
God knows, I tell others often enough.
If I front up with ‘all of me’
I know what it takes:
it’s all ‘giving up’ and ‘letting go’;
it’s all vulnerability, exposure,
opposition and conflict.
And everything so deeply felt.
Honestly, Lord, my heart aches enough already.
And, besides, this ‘all of me’
feels like a hollow gift to give.

Let it go
Let it out
Let it all unravel
Let it free
And it will be
A path on which to travel*

I’m not ready, Lord,
… but I’m here.


*With thanks to Michael Leunig for his constant inspiration

Words for Good Friday

Beautiful words for this Good Friday from my friend Beth Barnett

a man who doubts
a man who cries
a man who shouts
in desperation to the skies
a man
who dies
this is our God

a world at war
a world that groans
a world in pain
a world alone
a world
without a home
this is God’s world

see him naked
sore abused
despised rejected
justice refused
look at him now
is this God’s face?
this is our God
this is God’s grace

my heart so black
my heart that’s worn
my heart so bleak
my heart forlorn
and yet
a soul reborn
this is God’s grace

Image: ‘The crucified Jesus’ by Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441)

Words for Maundy Thursday

At the end of our Maundy Thursday service tonight, after the sacraments of foot washing and communion, we will conclude with this reflection on the story of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14.32-52).

The Boy Mark

That night, lamp bright, in the upper room
I served him with meat and wine,
When he told the Twelve of his coming doom
Their grief was mine.

Unsleeping, weeping, I lay and listened
As they talked and the hours moved on;
Till the moon rose and the white roofs glistened
And the last man had gone.

Then catching, snatching a sheet about me,
Which doorways, walls concealed,
I tracked their swift shadows until they brought me
Here to the oil-press field.

Hidden, unbidden, among silvered trees
I tensed as he strode my way:
But a bough’s length distant he dropped on his knees
And parted his lips to pray.

These words I heard on the moonlit hill:
‘Father, hear thy son!
Remove this cup, and yet thy will
Not mine be done!’

Now, on his brow, great pearls of sweat
Glisten like drops of dew.
Silently, under Olivet,
My tears are falling too.

Three times he climbs from his lonely prayers
To Peter, James and John,
Sighs, and returns, and leaves as theirs
The ground they sleep upon.

Then a sound rebounds on the cool night air –
A cry from the Kedron bridge,
Torches, like hearthless fires, flare,
Winding towards the ridge.

I see, through my tree, where the leaves hang dumb
And moveless as the dead,
The dark, torch-blooded soldiers come,
With Judas at their head.

Proud, uncowed, he keeps his tryst
In the flarelight and the moon.
I know, too late, that he is the Christ
Too late, or else too soon.

No friend, at the end, to give him hope!
Then clutching my tangled sheet,
I fling myself wildly down the slope
And land at his friendless feet. . .

Yes, he smiled at the child, at the boy’s whim,
A smile in which love prevailed,
But I saw the men who surrounded him,
And my courage failed

At the jeering, sneering, flickering sight,
And here where this cypress is,
I left my robe in their hands that night,
And my soul in his.

Author unknown

Image: ‘The arrest of Christ’ by Bosch  (c1530)

Some images and words for today

An early morning fog over the city today.  It felt appropriate to this Wednesday of Holy Week.

Words from the poet Mary Oliver:

Lord God, mercy is in your hands.
Pour me a little,
and tenderness too.
My need is great.
Beauty walks so freely
and with such gentleness.
Impatience puts a halter on my face
and I run over the green fields
wanting your voice,
your tenderness,
but having to do only with the sweet grasses
of the fields against my body.
When I first found you
I was filled with light.
Now the darkness grows,
and it is filled with crooked things,
bitter and weak, each one bearing my name.

And a prayer for today:

God of light,
shine your light today
into the darkest corners of my heart.
God of grace,
clear away the bitter and shadowy things.
God of love,
fill me with the presence of your spirit.
God of hope,
lead me into this day
as your servant in the world.

A Prayer for Palm Sunday

Lord Jesus, we greet your coming,
pilgrim messiah, servant king, rejected saviour.

Lord Jesus,
help us to follow you.

You trod the way of a pilgrim
and ascended the hill of the Lord;
you followed the path of your calling
even though Mount Zion gave way to the hill of Calvary.

Lord Jesus,
help us to follow you.

You rode into Jerusalem on a donkey,
symbol of humility and lowliness,
mocking our dream of pomp and glory,
demonstrating the foolishness of God before the eyes of the world.
You have shown us the way of humble service,
the way of true greatness.

Lord Jesus,
help us to follow you.

The cries of ‘Hosanna’ soon turned to ‘Crucify’.
The acclamation of the crowds gave way to fear and contempt.
You have shown us the cost of love
and you have called us to follow in your way:
pilgrims of the kingdom,
living out the foolishness of God,
and trusting only in your forgiving faithfulness.

Lord Jesus,
help us to follow you:
grant us humility;
grant us courage;
and grant us your grace sufficient for the journey.

Adapted from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples, Baptist Union of Great Britain, 2005.

Palm Sunday in art

This Sunday is the sixth Sunday of Lent, and the last before Holy Week begins. It’s traditionally called Palm Sunday and recalls Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem — the place of his crucifixion — on the back of a donkey.

It’s an evocative story, especially for those of us who work out our faith in the centre of the city. Street parades abound here, celebrating all sorts of things. Parades signal the beginning of Moomba and herald the ‘heroes’ of the Melbourne Cup, the AFL Grand Final and the Grand Prix. But this one … this one set long ago is so full of awkward contradiction given the violent and tragic events that follow.

I confess that as a preacher, it’s a story I struggle with. I’ve always thought it wiser to leave it to the poets and artists.

Here are some artworks that tell the story differently.

The Echo of Ashes

“Remember you are dust
and to dust you shall return.”

the large brown bowl
rests on a purple cloth
its roundness holding ashes
freshly burned
black and ready for wearing.

blackened thumbs
press the ancient sign
upon the waiting foreheads.

I hear the message repeated
until it haunts and hunts me down:
remember, remember, remember
you are dust, dust, only dust
someday only dust will remain.

the echo of the Lent stained ashes
speaks the truth of my humanity:
the humbleness of my beginning,
the simplicity of my departure.

A few wise words
echoing through Ash Wednesday
urge me to deeper things:
renewed dedication,
constant compassion
and mindful awareness.

I leave marvelling
at how simple and sublime
is this envelope of the soul,
which one day returns
to dust, dust, only dust.

Joyce Rupp, Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems and Reflections for Every Season, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2010.

Through weakness …

Paradox copy

Paradox #4

Through weakness we are strong
Luke 9.18-27

A few years back, I lost a dear friend. She had been a youth leader in one of my early ministries. Not long after the birth of her second child, she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent cancer.  Her fight to stay alive was brief and her early death neither fair nor right.

As I sat in the funeral service, my daughter Ali sat next to me, her arm linked through mine. I felt deeply for the husband sitting in the front row and the two small children beside him. I felt angry that such an injustice could be allowed. More than anything, I felt sad and eventually the tears came. As they did, I felt Ali press in closer. I looked down to see her staring up at me, eyes wide with a mixture of concern and disbelief. After a few startled moments, she buried her face in my arm. Later that day, as we stood together at the graveside apart from the crowd, she said, ‘Dad, you sacred me. I’ve never seen you cry before. You’ve always been so strong.’

It is a fact that mixing images of strength with tears is as culturally challenging as blending oil and water. Like Ali, we have learned to see the two as contradictory. As a young man growing up in a family of men, I certainly learnt early on that my own bent to tears was a hindrance to the prized development of strength. In the journey from weakness to strength, from boyhood to manhood, tears were a backward step.

In this season of Lent, we are exploring the paradoxes of Jesus’ teaching in his journey to crucifixion. According to my dictionary, a paradox is ‘a statement or proposition that leads to a conclusion that appears to be absurd, senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.’ There are many of them in the gospel story: in losing life we find it; in fasting we feast; in foolishness we are wise; in poverty we are rich; in humility we are exalted; in dying we live. Absurd, senseless and contradictory statements every one of them, yet infused with such truth, Jesus says, that in surrendering to them our lives are transformed.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel is no different; full of absurd contradictions.  Here is Jesus alone with his disciples, pressing them to know what the people make of him: ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, an ancient prophet,’ they say, passing on what they have heard among the crowds. ‘And what about you,’ Jesus prods, ‘Who do you think I am?’ It’s Peter who answers: ‘The Messiah of God!’ he declares. In Matthew’s gospel, Peter’s faith is rewarded with one of the great affirmations of scripture, ‘Blessed are you Peter. Upon you and your faith I will build my church.’ But not here. In Luke’s account, Jesus’ response is ‘Ssshhhh!  Be quiet; tell no one.’

While Matthew is keen to trumpet the Divine calling of Jesus from the rooftops, Luke’s purpose is entirely different. Luke wants to remind his readers of the extraordinary cost at which that calling comes.  Peter is right to identify Jesus as the ‘Messiah.’ That he is, but Peter has no clue as to what this vocation means.  Like all Jews, the disciples lived in expectation of the coming Messiah, the one who will free the people of Israel from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. They imagined a great conqueror riding in with his army, swords in hand, to smite the oppressor and lead the people to a new age of victory and liberation. For the Jews, there was no more potent image than that of Messiah, the embodiment of strength and power without equal; an image in which they invested their hopes and longings for the future.

Ssshhh! Jesus says. He doesn’t deny his identify, refute it or walk away from it. Messiah indeed, but understand this, he says in the words to follow, the Son of Man must now suffer, be rejected and die. Resurrection will come, victory will be ours, but only through the cross. Victory through defeat; triumph through tragedy, strength through weakness. It is absurd; it is senseless; it is contradictory, it goes against everything that Peter and his like have come to believe, and yet it is truth.

If Peter is not knocked off his feet already, then what follows is even more challenging. “If you want to be my follower, then understand this,’ Jesus says, ‘to do so you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.’  If the blow to the collective Jewish ego was not hard enough, this more personal thud to the stomach comes with a debilitating force. This paradox is not only mine, Jesus says, it is yours as well. Only through weakness is there strength to last; only through defeat is there any victory that really counts.

It is heavy stuff, these words of Jesus. Like all the paradoxes we deal with in this season of Lent, this one is both convicting and compelling. The challenge, of course, is in how we live it.  How many times have your heard these words of Jesus? How many sermons have stirred your commitment and unsettled your heart? But it’s the living of it that is so wretchedly difficult. For to live it we have to make it concrete. We have to move from the shelf of grand and pious propositions to the one labeled ‘things to do today.’  If real and lasting strength is only found in vulnerability and weakness, if discipleship is only lived in self-denial and sacrifice, then what difference will that make tomorrow.

I can only tell you what difference it will make for me tomorrow.

It means I will need to resist the temptation to hide behind titles and positions, Messiah or otherwise. In her own gentle way, my wife has reminded me in my few moments of grand achievement: ‘You know, Simon, being admired is easy. It’s being known that takes courage.’ It’s true: titles and positions provide nice pedestals on which to sit and enjoy the admiration of the crowd, but it’s only in the vulnerability of relationship, getting down off the pillar and getting dirt under our nails that we have a lasting impact on the lives of others.  The Messiah is not the Messiah through title but through suffering.  Coming out from behind our titles and credentials is compromising and messy and prone to misunderstanding, but it’s what makes a real difference.  For only through weakness is there strength.

It means embracing the struggles of tomorrow as part and parcel of the journey.  Not everything is a problem to be solved, a mountain to be scaled or a challenge to overcome.  Indeed, tomorrow’s humility is found in accepting that there are challenges I will never overcome, as much a part of my own humanity as they are of others. This business of taking up my cross is not a once-only proposition but a daily embracing of my weaknesses, limitations and brokenness and in allowing them to be gathered up in what I offer to God and to you each day.  For only through weakness is there strength.

It means the purpose of today is not personal happiness but the giving of myself for the sake of others.  Despite what all the self-help books say, the ultimate aim of a Jesus follower is not the realization of my true self, the transcending of my limitations, or to soar on the winds of self-actualization. My ultimate aim is to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and love my neighbour as I love myself.  As Christians, we are defined and saved through self-giving not self-fulfillment.  For only through weakness is there strength.

It means being free to weep with those who weep, to struggle alongside those who struggle, to stand resolutely with those who are diminished or defeated by life. Being associated with success and celebrity is one of the great temptations of life and no less so for people of faith. Following Jesus tomorrow means I cannot favour those who look good or make me look good. My calling is to heal as much as to be healed, to hold as much as to be held. And in so doing I offer myself, my own story, my own struggles, my own vulnerability to those who need it most, for only in weakness is there strength.

In this Lenten season, we follow Jesus all the way to the cross. The story of Jesus is one of extraordinary vulnerability.  The Messiah? Yes, come to bring release to the captives, sight to the blind and hope to the downtrodden. But an armoured knight riding on a white horse? No. Instead, a suffering, bleeding servant, rejected, defeated, crucified and buried.  Resurrection will come. Death will give way to life, but only through the valleys of self-giving and surrender, for only in weakness are we strong. In this confounding paradox is the wisdom of God. What’s more, in it is the call of God to you and to me: deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. May we find the courage to do so.


A Morning Prayer for Lent

Lord Jesus Christ
I commit today
to following you.
Grant me strength
to deny all that is self-seeking,
to take up your burdens
of love and justice,
and to walk every step
in response to your call.

Feasting & Fasting

This past Sunday at Collins Street, the second Sunday of Lent, we explored the next of our Lenten paradoxes. There were some requests for the text. I usually shy away from putting things like this on the blog. Sermons are not everyone’s cup of tea, and might even send some readers running for the hills. Still, you can always click away to something more interesting!

Paradox #2: Through fasting we feast … through feasting we fast

(Luke 5.27-35 & Luke 9.10-17)

Here we are on the second Sunday of Lent. In the season of Lent we commit 40 days (46 including Sundays) to follow the story of Jesus from his testing in the wilderness to his execution in Jerusalem. It’s an arduous journey as we watch Jesus move progressively closer to his death.

The most commonly asked question of this season is ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Traditionally it’s a season of austerity and self-denial. We want to identify with Jesus, to share his vulnerability and sacrifice, to take up our crosses and follow him. And so we give things up in a symbolic way–coffee perhaps, chocolate, wine, Facebook or food. Lent is the season for sackcloth and ashes. It’s a time to give up. It’s a time to fast.

ImageBut here’s the thing. This coming Thursday night, right slap bang in the middle of Lent, we are launching an art exhibition that’s all about food. To coincide with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, that annual celebration of gluttonous sensuality (!), we’re set to display artworks here in the church that celebrate the pleasures of the feast. No sackcloth in sight. Is it just a case of bad timing, or is it a more serious disregard for the spirit of the Lenten season? Wouldn’t we be better to strip the gallery walls, defrost the fridges, close the cafes and sit quietly in the corner with our stale bread and water? It’s a fair question.

It’s the question Jesus was asked in today’s first reading from Luke’s gospel. Fresh from his own 40-day fast in the desert, Jesus moves almost immediately to the feast. In fact once Jesus leaves the desert behind, he spends most of his time at the table, eating and drinking all the way to Jerusalem and often in the most dubious company. The Pharisees are horrified. ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ they keep asking him. ‘Why are your followers feasting when they should be fasting?’ Their exasperation with Jesus’ eating habits grows as the chapters progress. In anger they brand Jesus a glutton and a drunkard. So offensive is his table behaviour they begin scheming for ways to get rid of him. My sense is these Pharisees would be none too pleased with our little art exhibition.

It’s an odd thing, this seamless movement of Jesus from fasting to feasting. For the Pharisees, there can be no such movement: ‘Choose this day whom you will serve … will you fast your way to righteousness or will you feast you way to damnation?’ For the Pharisees, feasting and fasting are polar opposites. But for Jesus feasting and fasting are two sides to the one coin. And there is our paradox: for Jesus, it is through fasting that we feast and through feasting that we fast.

Both fasting and feasting have a noble history among God’s people. At their best, both have sacrifice at their core. Fasting is a practice of personal sacrifice, part of an intense commitment to prayer, confession and devotion. In fasting we sacrifice the body’s most pressing physical needs to signal our surrender to God’s call. This is certainly the case for Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness. Through fasting Jesus is saying, right at the beginning of his ministry, ‘I am in need of grace; I am completely and utterly dependent upon God.’ Feasting, on the other hand, is an act of communal sacrifice. Through the feast we sacrifice our personal interests to the covenant obligations of relationship with God and with each other. We say in unison at the feast, ‘We are in need of grace; we are completely and utterly dependent upon God and each other.’ Theologian Norman Wirzba argues that both practices of fasting and feasting are at their best when they embody a ‘sacrificial sensibility.’ Jesus can move so easily from fasting to feasting because both are expressions of the same self-giving and sacrifice, both lead us to the same place of surrender and devotion.

But not so for the Pharisees. You get the distinct impression that these deeply religious blokes have a very complex relationship with food. Indeed for them both fasting and feasting have become so compromised they can no longer discern a relationship between them. Fasting has become a way of demonstrating their piety for others to see, an act of self-promotion for the religiously insecure. In the process fasting gets loaded with so many rules, codes, footnotes and sub-clauses. Like today’s supermarket shoppers who stand for hours in the isles reading the fine print on every tin and packet, any residual joy in the practice goes down the toilet. Rather than an act of surrender, fasting is an act of anxiety. So too with feasting; what was meant to be an act of community celebration and mutual self-giving becomes one of exclusion and self-protection. The dinner table for the Pharisee has become a closely guarded place to keep the religiously impure at a distance. It’s why they are so deeply offended by Jesus’ willingness to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. Because for them feasting is now the primary means of separation and self-preservation.

As a young apprentice cook with a stint in a large hotel, I spent much of my brief tenure preparing feasts of various kinds; large, extravagant feasts for large, extravagant people. In the hotel’s Grand Ballroom our task was to impress. Glorious, illuminated ice sculptures rising dramatically from centre stage with the most opulent displays of seafood, crushed ice and cascading champagne flowing down to the buffet below. Beautiful chauffuard meats, rich desserts, intricate chocolate lace work, decadent creams and displays of the most gorgeous seasonal fruits you can imagine. For the most part these feasts were arranged and paid for by those who wanted to impress, arriving at the venue in their stretch limousines and decked out in Chanel. There’s no doubt, feasting has a long history as an act of indulgence and ego. History is littered with those who have used the feast to claim glory, to exercise power, and to enforce elegantly veneered but brutal systems of social exclusion. When the feast is reduced to such a self-serving act of conspicuous consumption, it is nothing more than gluttony. The truth is, both feasting and fasting can lead us to heaven or pave the way to destruction. Disconnect either from the fundamental value of sacrifice and it becomes nothing more than empty show.

The second gospel reading is the very familiar story that we often call the feeding of the 5,000. Frankly, this does a serious injustice to the women and children present, likely many more thousands than the men. On the hillsides outside Bethsaida, Jesus spends the day with a great mass of people, healing the sick and teaching about the kingdom of God, both obviously spiritual activities, very Lenten really. But then, as the sun begins to set, tummies start to growl, the crowds become restless and hungry. Assuming that their spiritual work is done, the disciples are keen to announce the benediction. ‘Send them away now Jesus,’ the disciples say. But Jesus wont. There is no division for Jesus between physical need and spiritual need, no boundary between spiritual disciplines and material ones, no demarcation between the church service and lunch. Fasting and feasting are one and the same. ‘You give them something to eat!’ he says.

What follows is an extraordinary demonstration of Kingdom values, of a table that is open to all with an abundance to share and still there are leftovers. There’s no fasting here, yet as this motley crowd picnics together on the abundance of God’s provision, they are gathered up in something deeply spiritual and deeply sacrificial. No conspicuous consumption, just conspicuous grace. No self-protection or self-promotion, just this extraordinary experience of community and communal dependence upon God.

Today we have welcomed into our community a group of people committed to the feast, a group of people living here in Central House who will welcome people to the Credo table each and every day. In so doing they provide a tangible embodiment of grace to those for whom grace is rare. In order to feast with us here at Collins Street, they have had to let other possibilities and opportunities go. This feasting is a sacrificial act, not only on their part but on the part of those who come each day: surrendering and embracing; giving up and enfolding; fasting and feasting.

There is something awkward about feasting in the midst of Lent, but it’s an awkwardness I am more than happy to live with. As we take our place in Melbourne’s celebration of food and wine we do so with a distinctive voice, a sacrificial sensibility, a unique perspective on the role of food and the table in our lives. We do so holding the paradox that Jesus embodied in his journey to the cross: through fasting we feast, and through feasting we fast.