All posts by RuthHerbert

The Song Keepers

We’ve just been to see the documentary film of the above name.  We found it very stirring as the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir prepared to go to Germany to sing the old German/Lutheran hymns in their own language.

What an adventure it was for those women (and one man) not only in the rehearsals for the performances  to be given in a strange land but in the  packing, the nervousness flying for the first time and leaving their beloved Australia for the first time. Gaining passports for the firs time as some had no birth certificates.

The pastor who organised them was exhausted on the day of departure

Their excitement was palpable. Getting on the bus with all their luggage, travelling to Alice Springs,the airport, boarding the plane and the subsequent flight to Munich was like a dream come true.

When the choir appeared for their first performance they looked incredible with the indigenous designs of their clothes and the smiles that lit up their faces. They brought the house down each time they sang in the Lutheran Services.  They relived the stories that their parents and grandparents had told them when they were young. They sang the praises of the white missionaries who had taken them in and protected them from those who would steal  the children.

These were the ones who lived the gospel that they preached,showing compassion and care and seeking  for justice  for the aboriginal people they had come to love.

The words of those songs translated from English that may seem foreign to us today,nevertheless carried a message of hope.  Surely,what we need  today are songs that speak to us couched in terms that we can understand and identify with .  And there are  some that have words that are not out of date and speak of situations that we really know in our world but not nearly enough.

lf our interpretation  of the gospel that we seek to bring to the 2018 world is changing,it is to be hoped  songs we sing will mirror that and will be carried by the next generations as those songs of the early Lutheran missionaries were .  Hopefully in generations to come, they too will interpret the gospel for their day and new songs will emerge that speak of love. compassion, justice, peace and hope; songs that can be translated into other languages and used to speak of the way of the Carpenter of Nazareth.

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Transformation, wholeness and healing.

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Here is a day in the life of Mark –  the account of Jesus’ first day.  Mark wastes no space in needless details. In these ten short verses we have a lot to think about.  The healing of Peter’s mother- in- law,  the healing of many in a crowd that gathered; Jesus’ retreat to pray; the decision to move on  through Galilee.

  1. The Healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.:. We hear nothing of Peter’s wife but that was not unusual in those times. Women were mostly invisible  in the gospels, unless as “Bill Loader says: “they were  a source of trouble or delight.”  But in this story  we do hear about this older woman, the mother of Peter’s wife. Home would have  been  a complex place where extended family  lived, including this sick woman. In that ancient society she mattered, Jesus cared for her, he healed her, and she recovered to serve.  This woman is the hero of the story but she remains anonymous .  She  would do what women stereotypically did -look after the men and the household. Mark does say in chapter 15 of the gospel that many women from Galilee followed Jesus and they were there at the end when the men fled. So here in this story we hear that the kingdom starts at home.
  2. Why do you think the people were brought after sunset?  The sabbath law was obeyed in that the sick were brought after sunset andt for the Jews, the Sabbath ended at sunset .  It was also reasonable not to bring the sick in the heat of the day .  Those ancient people believed in exorcism and healing.  This day, not only was Peter’s relative healed, but we hear of others being brought to Jesus also seeking healing of some sort.  There were crowds at the door, and in their ancient belief the demons were there too. The Jews collective word for demons was mazzikin, which means, one who does harm. They believed that the demons  were malignant beings, intermediate between God and people and that these demons were out to work harm on people.
  3. Some people believed that sickness occurred because of something that the parents of a person had done or was punishment for what the person themselves had done. But many believed that these demons were present and working continually in their world.  Such healing events were important to those gathered people because, here in Jesus’ healing, they recognise that something that has been prophesied for years is now beginning  and theses events  are important in fact,  as well as in what they symbolise.  Here they see and hear a man who is bringing healing and liberation to many. .   Verses 29-34 tell us why the coming of a new kingdom is good news because the Jewish writings and prophets told of God bringing such healing and liberation when a new kingdom would come.
  4. The reading ends with Jesus going back to the wilderness for prayer. This is probably a neat touch on the writer’s part to emphasise that Jesus needed to care for himself. .  He needed to regain strength and energy.  The disciples didn’t seem to understand this and wondered how he can possibly leave when there is so much need.  Jesus had come to terms with his limitations. Many locals would have been disappointed that he went off to other areas of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus was not going to be dictated to by the rules of the game, so to speak, and this not responding to the wishes of the crowd could almost be seen as not responding to demonic powers from which people in general needed to escape,  and need to even today.

5. We are reminded of Jesus’ mission . He is preaching in the synagogues and healing Perhaps we would say today that he modelled “best management practice”. He knew what he  was about and he never lost sight of that.  He could see the big picture – he could understand people and what the new kingdom would mean for them. He recognised the universal claim of human need and dealt with it.  He knew that they needed healing not only physically but spiritually because in many ways the Jews had missed the mark in their recent religious practices and the extent of the laws had become almost impossible to follow. He knew that they needed to be transformed at the touch of Jesus’  hand just as Peter’s mother- in- law was.  Their lives were to be turned around with the message that he was telling them.  The message of love rather than hate, of compassion rather than ostracizing those who were on the edges of their society and of justice rather than the unjust system under which they lived and were down trodden.

6. When we say our lives are transformed what do we personally mean?t   As 21st century disciples we believe that we have come to a place of healing where we have realised that, because of our belief in Jesus, it is as if we too have been restored to wholeness and fullness of life.  The gospel brings new attitudes, new priorities and new motives.  We have probably found that we have been spiritually healed with the assurance that we are worthy and we are loved and even though there are aspects of our lives that are unhealthy and sickly .We can be transformed to heal relationships in our lives and then to serve in ways that mirror Jesus. These cn  bring reconciliation, peace and justice in the situations in which we find ourselves.  And all of these bring a sense of wholeness – that we are who we are. Characters the the circus in  The Greatest Showman found this personal acceptance in working for Barnum. We don’t have to play the competition games many play, and that we don’t have to live by standards of the “me” generation or the materialistic boundaries of our present world.  As disciples we are learning to reach out in love, compassion and care.  We are learning to be concerned about our world and its future. We are learning to model our lives more and more on the transforming power of what Jesus taught about.

7. And we have to keep on learning, thinking, meditating, praying and symbolically fix our eyes on Jesus, that is, never give up but believe in the way that he taught so long ago.  We may not be able to parallel his acts but then we live in a different society with a very different world view.  Our healing, transforming and making whole will take place in different ways, maybe in volunteering, maybe in our work, maybe in the sporting teams we belong to or in the neighbourhood in which we live.  And each of us will manifest these according to our personalities.  But together we can keep on living the Jesus way because this is what we have been called to do and this is what we responded  to when we first heard the call of Jesus on our lives. Now is not the time to give up.

Good Samaritan

This must be one of the best known stories Jesus told.  People in the street  will often say that someone has been a good Samaritan when they have noticed someone’s kindness. The parable has inspired painting, sculpture, satire, poetry, and film. The phrase “Good Samaritan”, meaning someone who helps a stranger, derives from this parable, and many hospitals and charitable organizations are named the Good Samaritan after this story;  Well known though it is, it has levels of meaning which perhaps we need to look at again.

The Good Samaritan is a disturbing tale of prejudice, social class, neighbourliness and forgiveness told in response to the question asked of Jesus:”Who is my Neighbour?  “Neigh” comes from the old English for near and “bour” was old English for dwelling, so a neighbour was a person who had a dwelling near you.

The sting in the tail of that story concerns the rather narrow Jewish understanding of neighbour, someone near you, someone you have had dealings with, someone within your social circle who is your social equal. The inferior social status of Samaritans meant that they were regarded by Jews as little better than the hated Romans.  This story then, is not only about kindness and compassion, but also about radically broadening the definition of neighbour.

Now, let’s look at the setting of the story. We’ll try and see it in our mind’s eye. The scene is the road from Jerusalem to Jericho which was a notoriously dangerous road.  Jerusalem is 2300 feet above sea level.  The Dead Sea near which Jericho stood is 1300 feet below sea level.  Therefore, in about 20 miles this road dropped 3600 feet. It was narrow, with rocky defiles and sudden turnings which made it ideal for robbers to hide.

As late as the 19th century it was still necessary to pay money to the local Sheiks before anyone could travel on it.  As late as 1930 we are told people were warned to get off it before dark so when Jesus told this story the locals would immediately understand what could happen on this well- known road.

Now, let’s look at the characters and think about what they can teach us.

First, The Traveller.  Local people would hardly ever travel with valuable goods on the Jericho Road, so this man must have been a stranger or rather foolhardy.  People tended to travel together in convoys or caravans.  So really this man had no-one but himself to blame for the danger he put himself in.

Second, The Priest. He was the one who hurried past.  He was probably very aware that according to the law in the Torah, and we can read it in Numbers 19, anyone who touched a dead person was unclean for 7 days.  He was pretty sure this man lying on the road was dead by the way he looked and he wasn’t taking any chances because the temple and its liturgy meant more to him than the situation of the man on the road.

Third, The Levite. In Jewish tradition, a Levite is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well.

He seems to have gone over to have a look at the man before he went on his way.  He feared there might be a decoy as the bandits were often  doing this to rob  travellers.   So his motto must have been “Safety first”

Fourth, The Samaritan. The listeners at the very sound of the name would expect that here at last was the villain of the story.  This is where in pantomime the audience would have booed and hissed.

Perhaps he was a stranger who regularly travelled round selling his goods for he seems to have been well known to the inn keeper. Sometimes the hated name Samaritan was used for anyone who was a heretic and anyone who broke the ceremonial law.  Perhaps he was one whom all orthodox people hated but  did not actually come from Samaria. Portraying a Samaritan in a positive light would have come as a shock to Jesus’ audience It is typical of Jesus’ often provocative speech in which conventional expectations are turned on their heads.

Now  let’s look at the characters and think about what they can teach us.

First, The Traveller.  Local people would hardly ever travel with valuable goods on the Jericho road so this man must have been a stranger or rather foolhardy.  People tended to travel together in convoys or caravans.  So really this man had no one but himself to blame for the danger he put himself in.

Second, The Priest. He was the one who hurried past.  He was probably very aware that according to the law in the Torah and we can read it in Numbers 19, anyone who touched a dead person was unclean for 7 days.  He was pretty sure this man lying on the road was dead by the way he looked and he wasn’t taking any chances because the temple and its liturgy meant more to him than the situation  of the man on the road.

Third, The Levite. In Jewish tradition, a Levite  is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well. He seems to have gone over to have a look at the man before he went on his way.  He feared there might be a decoy as the bandits were often using this to get at travellers.   So his motto must have been “Safety first”

Fourth, The Samaritan. The listeners at the very sound of the name would expect that here at last was the villain of the story.  This is where in pantomime the audience would have booed and hissed. Perhaps he was a stranger who regularly travelled round selling his good for he seems to have been well known to the inn keeper. Sometimes the hated name Samaritan was used for anyone who was a heretic and anyone who broke the ceremonial law.  Perhaps he was one whom all orthodox people hated and did not actually come from Samaria. Portraying a Samaritan in a positive light would have come as a shock to Jesus’ audience. It is typical of Jesus’ often provocative speech in which conventional expectations are turned on their heads.

But the Samaritan’s credit was certainly good at the inn.  The hotel keeper trusted him.  He may not have kept the religious laws but he was honest.  And he was the only one prepared to help.  The love of God was certainly in his heart.   The orthodox are often more interested in dogma and protocol than concern for their fellows.  Ultimately, we are judged not by the creeds we hold but by the life we live.

The Teaching:   In answer to the question Jesus says :We must help a person even when they have brought trouble on themselves. Any person of any nation who is in need, is neighbour and our help must be as wide as we say the love of God is. The help must be practical and not just a feeling sorry. The Levite and the Priest probably felt a pang of sympathy for the injured traveller but they did nothing.

Compassion to be real must eventuate in action.  It can be costly in time and often finance but it needs to become a way of life

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What is unity in the Church?

Unity in the church is sometimes misunderstood as uniformity, but as we are all different individuals in the way we think, behave and worship,  unity has other connotations.

Unity involves  respect, acceptance of diversity, working together, listening, co-operation, forgiveness, tolerance, love and communication .  That’s quite a list! It’s a list that those who still belong to the church must work hard at, as the community of faith

In each situation where we find that we may have disunity  and problems may occur or have occurred, we have to find strategies to seek for unity.  It is as if it has to roll around in our whole being, in our minds, in our hearts, in our awareness and take us back to the prayer Jesus prayed for his disciples : John 17: 11 “….that they may be one.” I guess we have to rethink our own priorities, look at things in a different way and be prepared to incorporate that list at the top of the page into our every thought, action and prayer, however we may perform the latter. And it’s not easy but it’s worthwhile, because when we learn to deal with ideas, opinions, and attitudes that are sometimes very different to anything we may have thought of, our lives begin to follow more closely that of the Jesus we see in the written gospels.

As 21st century Christians “unity in diversity” is our mantra.

New Beginnings

Once more we have travelled the road through Lent; joined our Hallelujahs to those who lined the road to Jerusalem so long ago and relived the agony of Good Friday. Now we come to this day, when we remember the story of how a group of humble people finally realised what the message was that their beloved leader had been talking about and living out during those months of their close association with him. And now the spread of that message was up to them.

What an amazing life-changing story that is! It’s an old story.  It’s one we’ve heard probably many times before and perhaps for that reason we might tend to think we‘ve heard it all But as with so much in the Bible, we can think again and find something that will lead us into more dedicated discipleship.

I thought for a few minutes we might try to get inside the minds of the people who were closest to Jesus and try to understand how they felt in their time, which was  very different to the one in which we live today.  Cultural customs, religion and church leaders, politics and political leaders, their world view then, are a far cry from who we are and what we experience.

But let’s think first about the human emotion of grief. I guess most of us have experienced grief in our lives at some stage or another.  It leaves us stunned, disbelieving, sometimes angry, empty, with a sense of helplessness. For a few minutes I want us to step into the shoes of the disciples and try to understand how it felt that day when the women came to tell them what had happened.

The disciples of Jesus had journeyed with him for many months, they had begun to know him well and slowly begun to  understand what he was on about.  Perhaps with all his clashes with the powers of the church and the rulers of the day they might have realised that there was probably only one ending to their friendship with him.  But something might have been telling them that the authorities surely wouldn’t crucify him like so many other common criminals of their day.  Surely, they wouldn’t dare, when he had so many followers, and so many lives had been changed by his compassion, love, care and passion for justice.

Now they had been faced with his cruel death.  Imagine them in the depths of despair.  Feeling weak and helpless, lost and disappointed, it was as if they were in a dark hole and could not see any light.

What were they to do without him?  He had been their inspiration and their strength.  Then slowly, slowly they began to remember some of the things he had said to them. They began to relive in their minds his work, his words and turn them over and over so that they would have a sense of not losing him. One commentator speaking of that first Easter Sunday said: “the intensity of one person’s presence in another person’s life is equalled only by the intensity of absence when that person is gone.“ Then came the moment when the women came rushing in to tell them the news about Jesus.

And from that moment on, the disciples knew that they were grasped by a love that would never let them go. And I suppose that slowly as they began to go back to work on the lake, where they had so often been with Jesus, their depression began to lift and they felt their spirits returning. After the devastating effect of grief they began to see that the cross was like a final act to open the eyes of the world to God’s love, a love not earned by keeping the law of God, but a love that was beyond the boundaries of righteousness, a love that demanded nothing in return.

Jesus had lived his life trying to demonstrate that it is in giving love away that we find love and in giving life away that we find life.  As this realisation dawned on them the disciples must have felt resurrected, this was the dawn of Easter in human history when the disciples understood that although Jesus was no longer bodily with them they had a new message to deliver with new strength in the power of his memory and spirit.  A message that has come down to us today.  The message that the spirit of God whom we call love, lives and cannot be quenched, no matter what, when it is carried by faithful people in deed and word.

Perhaps on this Easter Day we can rejoice that the empty cross is a sign that God’s steadfast love endures. Surely the disciples must have rejoiced too. Gradually over the ensuing months as they grappled with their grief and came to the conclusion that they were loved despite all their doubts,  fears and  denials in word and action of Jesus’ new way,  the clouds of grief, confusion and depression vanished from their minds. They experienced resurrection knowing that Jesus was part of the very essence of God and at that moment they knew that in some mysterious way Jesus was alive.  Their lives were transformed, the depression lifted, they found new courage. They realized that they had to be agents of this message.

What we see happening in their lives, and in the lives of others who came after them, is proof that something amazing happened on Easter day. For us the question is: Does the presence of the Spirit of Christ mean that we become more Christ like, more open, more loving and carers for those on the margins of society? Jesus’ disciples from then till now were, and will be known, when they love as Jesus loved, when they feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, comfort the distressed, give companionship to the rejected and the imprisoned.

All disciples are called to be agents of this life of Christ and be willing to give it away in love. The apostle Paul recalls his own experience of “meeting” Jesus the one whom he persecuted and tells of how the presence of Jesus in those post Easter days swept through the lives of so many.

And this has implications in our personal, community and  church lives. Are we truly resurrection people?  Are there still aspects of our lives both private and communal that deny the Jesus we say we follow?  Grudges?  Vengeful attitudes? Selfishness? Power seeking? Bigotry? The list is long, but still we are called to be all that we can be in the power of a mysterious, amazing and incredible spirit that can lead us into life that is truly meaningful and abundant.

Easter Day is a day to be glad and re-commit our lives to being the Jesus people we were meant to be. We are called to be Resurrection people living to bring life, love, compassion and justice to all as much as we can within our own lives whether we are young, old or somewhere in between no matter in what circumstances we find ourselves.

 

 

 

The Samaritan Woman

This is probably a very familiar story for many of us.  I remember singing  with great gusto a chorus  about her as a young person: Jesus gave her water that was not in the well, She went away singing she came back bringing others for the water ….that was not in the well. This wonderful piece of drama has multiple meanings. What sort of woman was she really? There are three points that I’d like us to share.  1st she was an ostracised woman,2nd she was a mistreated woman, and 3rd she was a woman who experienced a life- saving dialogue. This woman had three things counting against her: she was a Samaritan, a ‘sinner’ and a woman

Before we launch into that let’s think about the position of this story in the gospel according to John. Last week our lectionary set down the story of  Nicodemus for us to think about.  He was of course very different to this woman.  He was a Jew and a Pharisee  a man of authority  and status.  He was the one who sought Jesus out under cover of darkness where he would be out of sight probably in case any of his colleagues saw him talking to the rebel preacher. And he went away not sure what to do.

The woman by contrast is unnamed, she meets Jesus in the middle of the day, and has no status or authority as she is one of those people who the Jews looked down – a despised Samaritan and a woman. She went away excited by what she had heard and brought other people to meet Jesus. We also have other stories in the gospel about Jesus calling a Samaritan a hero. The story of the Good Samaritan or the 10 lepers where the one who came back to say thank you to Jesus was a Samaritan.  Jesus was obviously saying something to the people of the day that was completely against the common thinking.

So, let’s look at this Samaritan woman more closely.

1st she was an ostracised woman. She was a Samaritan hated by the Jews, looked down on, she knew what prejudice was like. The ultimate outcome of prejudice was the way the Jews regarded the Samaritans. In the Jews’ eyes the Samaritans were, and I quote: “half breed heretics worthy of only being despised. “Racial or even local barriers are formidable dividers in human lives. Prejudice diminishes our humanity.

When Jesus was going back to Galilee he chose to go through Samaria, whereas many travellers would have taken the longer way to avoid going anywhere near Samaria for fear of encountering some of the people there.

And this person at the well was a woman.  Women and children in those days were the lowest of the low in society. They had no standing they did not even realise that women had a part to play in the reproductive process but rather it was all the  man’s doing! What would have been the normal reaction of a Jewish man  to a Samaritan woman?  In our way of talking he would have run a mile to avoid her.

But not so Jesus.  He was relaxing in the shade by the well waiting for his disciples to come back from getting some food, when she approached and I imagine that she came very tentatively as she must get water.  Fancy coming in that hot climate to draw water in the heat of the day, but she had no choice for she was ostracised because of her moral status even by her own people.  Can you imagine how she felt? Or the questions that were going through her mind as she carried her water jar and got nearer and nearer to the well.

Now we need to think of the second point: she was a mistreated woman. In the past she had had 5 husbands and we don’t know if they died or had divorced her. Divorce in those days was the man’s prerogative and divorce left a woman in great difficulty financially and morally.  And now she was living with a man who was not her husband. As a widow she needed a man to simply live.  There was no widow’s pension in those days and a woman without the support of a man was open to all sorts of insults as well as poverty. She was the lowest of the low among her own people.

There was rabbinic precept that said: “ Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no not with his own wife.”  And they also said:  “Better that the words of the law should be burned than delivered to women.” If she had come to the well in the early morning as most women did so as to avoid the heat of the day no one would have walked with her or spoken to her so she chose to come in the hottest part of the day to avoid the terrible feeling of being shunned.  Can you imagine how she felt when Jesus asked her for water? Shock horror, disbelief ! Were her ears playing tricks? Was it safe to approach the well.?  By Rabbinic standards Jesus could hardly have done a more shatteringly wrong thing than to talk to the woman.

Thirdly, then the life- saving dialogue begins with that question. Is this the messiah?  She is full of curiosity:  how is it ……..?  First of all she took the talk of water literally, pretty much like Nicodemus did when he first spoke to Jesus. She probably wanted this special water as relief from the daily grind of going to the well for water. But then Jesus told the woman  of new ways of thinking of God, of love and openness, non- judgemental, non- prejudiced and a way to live life to the full.  Just like drinking fresh cool water on a hot, hot day.

He spoke to her as an equal and gave her new hope in her barren life. Jesus was disregarding the cultural barriers.  Jesus the barrier breaker had come to offer her life in a way that she could never have dreamed of.  I think in the record in this gospel we have very little of the real dialogue – we have just a precis, but we get the idea. And of course the woman’s response was wonderful.

She went home to bring others to hear this radical new message of love, compassion and of barriers of all sorts being broken down. And what a surprise the disciples got when they came back to find Jesus talking in public to this despised, ostracised woman. Perhaps in his writing the author of the gospel of John also wants us to celebrate Jesus as the giver of the water of life, the new holy space, which transcends all prior religious claims and aspirations, including legitimate ones. And perhaps this is at the root of the woman being so enthusiastic in her response to Jesus – Nicodemus certainly did not seem to be so keen when he left Jesus on that dark night.

The conclusion is that the people the woman brings become convinced for themselves of Jesus’ new message.  Her actions witnessed to and empowered these others to see Jesus in the same way that she had. Then we see the poor disciples, so slow to get the message, that Jesus has to go on and explain to them how he operated ; that food was a metaphor  for the task and mission …  some sow, others reap.

In his time, Jesus courageously talked of a new way of knowing, worshipping and living.  In his time the temple authorities, the powerful regarded him as a trouble maker probably muttering to each other: How dare he try to change the way things have always been. Perhaps there are several messages for us today in this. Perhaps we need to really look at our Christian lives and see if we are biased, or prejudiced or judgemental about others.

Perhaps it is time we looked at our faith in different ways, both in relation to our own personal faith and that of our life, and the community life of the church. Perhaps we are stuck in a rut and the Spirit may be prompting us to explore new ways of worship, of service and of relating in this 21st century to those around us.  Some churches have taken the stand that their church is more than a Sunday Church which includes all who enter its doors for some reason or another. Perhaps old ideas have to change in order to bring the good news of the water of life that means people will never thirst again.  I find myself often thinking about all this.

I think if we are committed to the gospel we need to think, and sometimes be brave enough to step out in new directions.