Blessed are you: the Beatitudes of Matthew 5

This Sunday the lectionary offers an abundance of gifts: the classic prophetic declaration that God desires us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8); the ringing apostolic affirmation that we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24); and the words which Matthew puts on the lips of Jesus himself, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3).

Those words of Jesus are the first words of blessing in a set of eight blessings (usually known by their Latin name, as Beatitudes), which begin the sermon on the mount (5:3–12)—eight short sayings in which Jesus pronounces blessings on specified groups of people. It is a key section of the book of origins, which provides the Gospel passage this Sunday and on each Sunday throughout the current year.

Often in the Christian church, people marvel at the insight revealed in these sayings of Jesus. And, to be sure, the words offer a deep sense of spirituality, a penetrating insight into the way that God wants human beings to live.

But this collection of sayings is not quite unique and original to Jesus. For Jesus was drawing deeply from within his own Jewish tradition. And the resonances with Hebrew Scriptures are strong and consistent throughout these blessings.

The form is clearly Jewish; there are blessings right throughout Hebrew Scriptures. Blessings are offered in the opening creation narrative (Gen 1:22, 28, 2:3) and throughout the narrative books (Exod 18:10, Deut 28:3-6, Judg 5:24, Ruth 2:19-20, 4:14, 1 Sam 25:32-33, 1 Kings 1:48, 8:15, 8:56, 10:9, 1 Chron 16:36, 29:10, 2 Chron 2:12, 6:4, 9:8, Ezra 7:27, Neh 9:5).

Many psalms offer blessings addressed to God (Pss 28:6, 31:21, 41:13, 66:20, 68:19, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48, 113:2, 118:26, 124:6, 135:21, 144:1) and blessings appear also in some prophetic books (Jer 17:7, Dan 2:20, 3:28, Zech 11:5). Blessings continue on in this form in Jewish traditions, right through to the present day.

The influence of the Hebrew Scriptures can also be clearly seen in the content of these blessings, for they relate traditional Jewish piety regarding the poor, the humble, those who hunger, and those persecuted (as noted below).

A persuasive theory is that Matthew has actually expanded a briefer set of Beatitudes, known to him through early Christian tradition (which may be reflected in Luke 6:20–23), by adding in assorted categories of “the pious” which were known to him from Hebrew Scripture.  

Certainly, the effect of placing these sayings, with their traditional Jewish flavour, at the head of the first block of Jesus’ teachings, is to infer that they provide the key to understanding all the subsequent teachings of Jesus in like fashion. Jesus, in Matthew’s opinion, teaches and preaches as one steeped in Hebrew scripture and tradition.

Each one of these beatitudes is based on texts found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In blessing the poor (5:3) and the meek (5:5), Jesus echoes those psalms which speak of those who are poor and meek, who will receive the justice of God and an earth cleansed of evil-doers as their reward (Ps 9:18; 10:1–2, 8–9; 12:5; 14:6; 40:17; 70:5; 72:4, 12; 140:12). Isaiah 61:1 speaks of the good news to the poor; Proverbs 16:19 commends being poor and having a lowly spirit as desirable for those who trust in God.

The blessing offered to the meek, “for they will inherit the earth”, recalls the refrain of one of the psalms (Ps 37:11, 22, 29), whilst the blessing on the merciful evokes the prophetic valuing of mercy (Micah 6:6–8; Hosea 6:5–6).

The blessing of the pure in heart who “will see God” recalls Moses (Exod 3:4; 33:7–11, 12–20; Deut 34:10) as well as words of the psalmist (Ps 17:15; 27:7–9).

Jesus’ blessing of those who hunger and thirst (5:6) similarly evokes earlier biblical blessings on such people (Ps 107:4–9, 33–38; Ezek 34:25–31; Isa 32:1–6; 49:8–12). But in this saying of Jesus, it is specifically those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness, or justice, of God who are blessed. That righteousness, or justice, is a central motif of Hebrew scripture.

Righteousness, or justice, is highlighted in the story of Abraham (Gen 15:1-6, 18:19), is found in many psalms (Pss 5:8, 7:17, 33:5, etc), and recurs regularly in the oracles of various prophets (Amos 5:24, Zeph 2:3, Zech 8:7-8, Mal 4:1-2, Jer 9:24, 33:14-16) as well as many times in Isaiah (Isa 9:7, 11:1-5, 42:6, etc). Jesus draws on this tradition in his blessings, and in other teachings.

The blessings uttered by Jesus upon those who are persecuted (5:10, 11–12) recall the promises of God to such people (Ps 34:15–22), as well as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (Ps 22, 31, 69, 71, etc.). God’s blessing is especially granted in situations of persecution.

The first eight blessings, which all share a tight, succinct form, are framed by the declaration about such people, that theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10). The beatitudes thus summarise the criteria for a person to enter the kingdom of heaven—humility, peacemaking, mercy, purity, and a commitment to righteousness or justice in all of life.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

Repentance for the kingdom (Matt 4)

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:13). The first public utterance of Jesus, in the book of origins which we know as the Gospel according to Matthew, is a word-for-word repetition of the signal proclamation by John the baptiser: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:1-2).

This passage is set as part of the Gospel for this coming Sunday. It is an important passage in the book of origins, for it sets out two key elements in the declaration made by Jesus, which are central to understanding the purpose of of Jesus, as Matthew understands it.

The first element, repentance, is proclaimed by John and repeated by Jesus. The Greek word metanoia, which translated as “repentance”, is a powerful word; it refers to a complete and wholesale “change of mind”, a deeply permeating and thoroughgoing change of how one lives. It is no mere trifle; it is a serious, and challenging, concept.

John first asserts the need for such a thoroughgoing transformation, when he instructs the Pharisees and the Sadducees to bear fruit worthy of repentance (3:8). This theme is repeated by Jesus in various teachings: you will know them by their fruits (7:15-20), the tree is known by its fruit (12:33-37), and the warnings given to the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (11:20-24).

In the teachings of Jesus included in this Gospel, Jesus provides clear and detailed instructions as to what “fruit” is entailed in this way of living, such as: go beyond what the Law says, to seek perfection (5:21-48); do not place stumbling blocks in another’s way (18:6-9); and give your possessions to the poor if you wish to be perfect (19:21-30). Repentance is serious and demanding.

The second element is the kingdom of heaven—also proclaimed by John (3:8) and then regularly included in the teachings and parables of Jesus. In Matthew’s understanding, the kingdom is closely linked with righteousness 5:10, 20; 6:33; 21:31-32; 25:46).

Such righteousness requires deep and abiding repentance—that change of mind, heart, and the whole being, that comes from entering into covenant relationship with God, and following the way of Jesus. (And dikaiosune, the Greek word usually translated as righteousness, can equally be translated as justice, which, of course, gives a different flavour to our understanding when we read that English rendering.)

The kingdom is both God’s gift to those who are righteous, or just, and the realm where God’s righteousness, or justice, will be the norm. There is a marvellous treasury of parables about the kingdom found in Matt 13, some additional parables in Matt 20 and 22, and then three final and powerful parables in Matt 25. They signify that the kingdom includes both a gift (it the place where God’s justice, or righteousness, is freely evident), and a demand (it is the way that God requires righteous lives, or just lifestyles, from human beings).

Often the parable is told with a single focus point: the kingdom of heaven is like … (hidden treasure, or fine pearls, or a mustard seed). Some parables are more developed, involving a series of characters, recounting a developing storyline. Each parable, nevertheless, drives towards a clear central point, explaining the nature of the kingdom that is proclaimed by Jesus, as gift and demand.

Jesus teaches that entry into the kingdom is premised on faithful service (7:21-23); it is those who produce the fruits of the kingdom who will share in this realm (21:43). Alongside Jews who are faithful followers of Jesus, the kingdom will include those from beyond Israel—a Gentile centurion (8:10,13) and a Canaanite woman (15:28) are specifically commended. They are welcomed because of their faith, which has been made evident in the way they respond to Jesus—they place their complete trust in him. (We are not told that they become followers of Jesus; they simply trust him in that moment of encounter.)

The passage set for this Sunday thus serves as an introduction to key themes that are expounded by Jesus throughout his teaching ministry, as well as an overview of key elements that will recur throughout the year, as excerpts from this Gospel appear in the lectionary week by week.

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The icon shown is a 19th century representation of “the kingdom of heaven”, from Petersburg.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

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See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John)

The fourth Gospel in our New Testament describes itself quite explicitly as the book of signs which is intended to foster trust in Jesus the anointed one (see John 20:30). Like the other three Gospels in the New Testament, it begins by placing Jesus (the anointed) in relationship with John (the baptizer). This relationship is declared in the selection from the opening chapter which is found in the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

So scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

Nevertheless, it is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John (the baptizer), in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

The account we have in the book of signs dates from many decades after the lifetime of John and Jesus. This section seems to have been written as a defence against any idea that John, who came first, might have been regarded as superior to Jesus. The words and actions of John deflect attention from himself, and place Jesus in the spotlight. And some of his followers leave him, and take up following Jesus!

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

My friend James McGrath is an expert in this relationship; he has blogged about this at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html and he has written a blog which has links to all manner of interesting discussions about the relationship between John and Jesus, at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different form of Judaism on this Gospel.

The early prominence accorded to John the baptizer joins other indications in the book of signs—the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria (John 4), and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus (John 12), for instance—in pointing to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is described as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

This Gospel thus includes indications of the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It is already a sign to what would eventuate after the first century, as the Gospel spread and took hold amongst Gentiles beyond the Jewish homeland.

The image is sourced from peacesojourner.blogspot.com

Reflecting on faith amidst the firestorms

We have been surrounded by images of fire, for some weeks now. The last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with terrible images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape.

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time. And fire has been the constant theme.

In this context, there is one short verse in the Psalm caught my attention, this week, as I read the lectionary passages and pondered what I would take as a focus for today. I wonder if you noticed the verse that jumped out to me, when we said the psalm together, earlier? “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7).

These fires that rage, these flames that burn … are they really a message from God, to us, a message of punishment? That is how such events have been seen by some—the bushfires now raging, the floods that swamped North Queensland last year, the five severe cyclones that hit Pacific Islands a few years back, the massive tsunami that ravaged Asian countries over a decade ago—each of these have been explained by some zealous preacher or another, as a sign of God’s punishment.

It was not too long ago that a prominent sports star gained publicity by suggesting that the fires early in the season were sent by God to punish us—punishing us for the many sins committed by people in Australia. Others have made claims that God is punishing us for the decisions made by our church in recent times.

And just a few days ago, a breakaway Baptist pastor in Arizona made the audacious claim that the fires are actually punishment from God because he was denied a visa to visit Australia. He said on Facebook that “maybe if Australia wasn’t banning and deporting preachers of the Gospel, they wouldn’t be under the judgement of God”. And, as you can see, he clearly linked this with the bushfires, using the map of blazes and a picture of one of the fires.

We must, of course, distance ourselves from this kind of simplistic and arrogant claim. Simplistic, because this preacher has been banned from over 20 other countries—and they are not ringed with fire at this time. So a simple cause and effect connection is far too simplistic.

And simplistic, also, because making an interpretation of a naturally-occurring event, and attributing that to the intentions of the deity, is far too easy to do. Our scientific knowledge helps us to have insights as to how events in nature—like fires, storms, cyclones, droughts, and so on—how these actually form and manifest within the natural order of things. Our scientific knowledge also helps us to appreciate how the way that human beings live makes a contribution—however small or significant you believe it may be—to these events of nature.

And such a claim is breathtakingly arrogant in its nature. How can any one of us human beings dare to claim that we know, absolutely and definitively, the intentions of God at any one point in time? And that we can unambiguously declare those intentions?—usually, it must be said, in the voice of an angry prophet, making a negative judgement on the morality of the people.

So I don’t want to go down this track. “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7) can’t be taken at face value, as a literal, simple explanation of the fires as expressions of divine punishment. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. We need to reflect more deeply.

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How do we make sense of these fires, when we gather, today, as people of faith? We have seen so many images of the fires. Some of us have been close to the fire front. We have all breathed the smoke generated by those fires. What do they mean?

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity.

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

In the evacuation centres, chaplains from a number of different denominations have been present, offering comfort and support to people who have been forced to leave their homes in the face of the fires. A number of my colleagues have been there, for days on end, over recent times, in the midst of people in turmoil, helping them to go gently in the midst of the upheaval and anxiety.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/06/what-are-the-churches-doing-during-the-bushfire-crisis/)

For us, at some distance from the fires, we too need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health. These fires call us to care, deeply, lovingly.

And yet, there is a question that recurs in situations like I have just described—situations of need, of loss, of intense grief and despair. That is this simple question: where is God? The simple answer—God sent this to you, God is punishing you—does not satisfy. We need another take.

The Adelaide theologian, Dr Norman Habel, wrote a hymn reflecting on just this question, in the context of bushfires that occurred on Black Saturday in 2009. (It goes to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace.) It begins like this:

Amazing flames that scorch the sky, like hurricanes of fire,

Alive with eucalyptus oil are roaring higher and higher.

These swirling balls of oil ablaze that leap o’er trees at will,

Descend on fields and flock and homes, explode and burn and kill.

And then, he asks the question:

Where’s God in all this swirling ash? Where’s God in all this pain?

Awaiting somewhere in the sky to one day send some rain?

The answer comes in striking imagery, in confronting declaration:

The face of God is burnt and black; the hands of God are red!

The God we know in Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead.

The answer which Norman Habel offers is this: God is here. God is right in the middle of all this mess. God is not remote. God is not the one pulling the strings, away up in heaven, ready to send rain when enough prayers have been sent up to him.

No: God is here, in our midst, incarnate, one with us, suffering alongside us. God is crying as the house burns, weeping as the birds and animals flee, sobbing as the stock die, grieving as the firefighters are overwhelmed and their truck is overturned. God is here, with us. Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead, grieving with us, mourning with creation.

The last verse of the hymn, then, is this:

Christ, show us now your hands and feet, the burns across your side,

and how you suffer with the Earth, by fires crucified!

And this reminds me of the poem that I shared with you some months back, about how we encounter God, and where we encounter God. The poem by Lisa Jacobson expresses the clear notion that God is not up there in the heavens, as the priest might claim, but down here in the land, as the black fella would say. To find God, we need to look for God; but not look up, to the heavens; rather, look down, look at your feet, look past your feet, to the stones—hear them singing? and the rivers—feel them vibrating? And sense how the earth is yearning, groaning.

Stones singing and rivers vibrating; that twofold expression of the inner life of the earth is also the key that unlocks a different understanding of God—as a being not remote and removed from humans on earth, but as a being beside us, around us, underneath us, in the earth, in the stones, in the rivers, in our very being.

And this, of course, is rightly acknowledged in this poem, as the insight of black fellas—the centre of spirituality for the First Peoples of this ancient continent, the heart of life and spirit for the Ngunnawal people, the people who have cared for the land in this general region from time beyond what we can measure, and for the Ngambri and Ngarigo people more locally, and for the Wiradjuri to our west, and for the first peoples of every city and region across this continent. God is in the land, God is in amongst us.

This understanding of where we find God, how we enter the depths of spirituality, is set forth very clearly in a clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, which clearly affirms:

So we have adopted an affirmation that when we hear the stones sing, when we feel the rivers vibrating, we are connecting in a new way, with God, who is here, and has long been here, in this land, the land which God created at the first.

This claim arises from a different way of thinking about God, pondering the claims of scripture and engaging us on a journey of reflection and prayer, exploration and discovery, at the edges of our faith. Both the Australian poem and indigenous Australian spirituality have taken hold of this insight, that God is in our midst, amongst us, within us.

That is the same claim that the Gospel writer makes, when he writes that the angel told Joseph that he was to name his child Emanuel—God with us (Matt 1). That is what that child, grown to be an adult, taught about the reign of God—that it was here, in our midst—the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17).

That is what the ancient Hebrew psalmist affirmed, about the whole of creation—humans, animals, insects, birds, mountains and valleys, trees and forests—that when God created this whole creation, it was the spirit of God that was breathed into every living creature (Ps 104:30).

And the psalm we have read today affirms that God is active and at work in the creation. He is not an absentee, uninterested, disconnected God. God is active, over the oceans, in the desert, through the forests, in thunder and flames. God is here, with us.

And this, after all, is the story that we tell, and retell, each year, each Sunday: the story of God, come to us in the human being Jesus, friend of sinners and advocate for the outcast, Jesus arrested and condemned as a criminal, Jesus, despised, crucified, hanging on the cross. That is where God was to be found, most profoundly, most assuredly—in the very midst of our life.

And as Jesus suffers and dies, so God suffers, and feels the sharpness of the moment we call death. For that is where God is. Here, in our midst, amongst us.

Just as God is with us, in the midst of our lives, in the midst of this creation, present in the animals and humans, the ecosystems and great forests, so also God suffers with the earth, as part of the earth. So, for me, the psalm does, indeed, speak a truth—a confronting, challenging, disturbing truth.

For the fires we are experiencing now are the result of the way that human beings, collectively, have been living, not just this year, or for a few years, but for many years—for centuries. The clear observations of science are, that as we have industrialised our societies and pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere, we have developed an environment that is drier, and hotter; more vulnerable to firestorms and more liable to flooding; for the creation is groaning, it is out of order.

And in the processes of nature that are at work, that we have intensified and exacerbated, we see tragic results in the multiple fire fronts that have surged in recent weeks—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and other observable events around the world.

And in the midst of those cyclones, and meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways. So, yes, I think that the psalmist does speak truth. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

God has not singled out a nation, or a people, or particular individuals for punishment. God, indeed, is not manipulating what occurs, intervening whenever and however God wills. God is in the systems, in the processes of our natural environment, and as the fires rage, God is indeed speaking to us through those flames of fire. The challenge, for us, is to pause … to listen … to understand … and to act in response.

Thanks to Dr Byron Smith for this prayer in response: https://www.commongrace.org.au/prayer_for_bushfires, to Dr Sarah Agnew for this lament: http://sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com/2020/01/choking.html, and to the Rev. Jennie Gordon for this blessing: https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/about/

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

Pastoral Letter from Canberra Region Presbytery

The following letter has been prepared for the people of the Congregations across the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. I am sharing it here for the interest of those beyond that network, with the intention that that it might inform and encourage people about the work taking place on-the-ground amongst the communities where the fires have hit hard in recent weeks.

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Dear friends, the last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape. 

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time.

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity. 

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

We need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health.

We need to be mindful of those in the midst of all the affected areas, whose homes are gone, whose friends are scattered, whose memories are burnt and whose hopes are scarred. We can pray for them. We can give to the bushfire disaster funds that have been set up to support people on the ground. The Uniting Church has one, as do Red Cross, the Rural Fire Service, and many other charities and agencies. (https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/)

Above: Bushfire, by Gabrielle Jones: an invitation to pause and reflect, in the midst of the fires.

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We can pray, especially, for the Disaster Response Chaplains who are on the ground amongst these people—listening, comforting, praying; holding people in their time of grief, offering consolation and providing practical support. These chaplains are trained to work closely on the ground with the emergency services and the local councils in each location. 

These chaplains work with the volunteers from local churches and service clubs, who are providing meals, water, and a comforting presence to people in great need. Along with the volunteers they work with, they exemplify the ministry of hospitality, expressed through compassion and practical assistance, that is fundamental to the faith we share. 

To assist us with our prayerful support of these people, here is an overview of the ministers, pastors, chaplains, and key lay leaders who have been contributing so effectively to the local disaster responses in each location. Please uphold them as they go about their ministries in each place.


Julie Fletcher has been ministering in Braidwood and working closely with churches and organisations in the town, since the fires broke out there in November. Julie and husband Neil have formed an ecumenical co-operative with other churches and the Moderator’s Bushfire Appeal has already provided funds to assist as they meet the practical needs of people from the areas surrounding the town where the fires have struck. Roads are still closed between Braidwood and the coast.

David Russell and Susan Cann have been active, first in Bega and then in Merimbula, where David has been in placement for some years. David estimates he has had contact with a thousand people since the Sapphire Club was opened as an evacuation centre. This is the kind of ministry that we can support from distance through our prayers. 

Karyl Davison came to the area after the initial damaging impact of the fires had swept through. She has been based at the Merimbula RSL Club, where she has ministered with about 400 people. Ian Diamond travelled to the coast with her and is based at the Tathra Beach Country Club, where almost 400 people sheltered—along with about 70 pets! Most evacuation centres do not accept pets, so Ian set about ensuring that people with pets had a safe and secure place to shelter.

Michael Palmer is an Anglican minister serving the Uniting Church in Eden, and with the UCA people led Peter and Pam Skelton has been working long days and well into the nights to make properties safe, after most of the people in the town were evacuated. The hinterland of Eden is particularly at risk at this time. Instead of worship on Sunday, 

Michael opened his own home to the people still in town and met with people for conversation and prayer, with a cup of tea as well. He also spent some time visiting people who had stayed, praying with them. Some people have been unable to leave the town because they had no fuel and no funds.

Uniting Church ministers Yvonne Stephenson and Kath Merrifield, along with Ray Lemon, from the Assemblies of God, have served at the Batemans Bay evacuation centre. Yvonne, who lives in the area, has been active as a chaplain from the very start of the emergency and has done stirling work in difficult circumstances.

Up to 5,000 people have been fed, sheltered, and comforted in that town. Members of the Batemans Bay congregation cleared the pews so that people could sleep in the church. Some hardy souls were sleeping on the pews, which had been pushed together to form beds! Sunday worship was an informal gathering for prayer and singing over a cup of tea. Power has been cut to Batemans Bay on and off for some days.

Terence Corkin, who lives just out of Moruya, has spent a number of days at the local evacuation centre, helping people to adjust to their frightening situation. Terence and Julie have had to leave their own property for a time during the past week. He reports that the immediate threat of fire has diminished, but there are many people in the town from scattered communities that have been burnt, with little prospect of returning soon. After a period without power, the electricity is running. A fine layer of ash covers everything.

At both Bateman’s Bay and Narooma, a number of homeless men have been sleeping in swags and old vans in Church carparks. They have become the hands, heart and feet that clean the toilets, wash dishes, clear the gutters and are the protectors of church property and drop in centres.

Di White and Kath Crapp, in the town of Narooma, have marshalled and organised a great team that has provided food and water, shelter and support, for the many people evacuated into that town. Monty’s Place operates from the Uniting Church building, so there was already a team and the know-how on hand for the emergency. Kath has expressed their gratitude in the knowledge that people are praying for them each day.

Daniel Mossfield has been at the evacuation centre in Goulburn, where people from Bundanoon and other small towns in the Southern Highlands have gathered after being evacuated over the weekend. The evacuation centre is in the Showground, which is filled to capacity with people. There are many pets at this centre, and this creates various challenges to those organising the evacuations.

At the tail end of the most recent critical period, the township of Jindabyne became a focus point, as fires in the Snowy Mountains intensified and people were evacuated from right across the Monaro and Snowy Mountains region. The Uniting Church there has a small but very fine group off leaders, including Judy McKinlay, recently elected as Co-Chair of the Presbytery, and Peter Beer. Peter is the Mayor of the region, and thus is involved in the centre of all the planning for the region. It would be very good to pray especially for him, as he serves in that position. 

Cooma has also been busy with an official evacuation centre in operation which is now in receipt of DRCN chaplaincy from ADF reserve chaplains. UCA minister in Cooma, Noel Williams, has been at his farm near Adaminaby undertaking the difficult task of fire protecting his farm as it is subjected to ever changing threat levels from two separate fire fronts, whilst also trying to truck in semi-trailer loads of hay to battle the impact from the drought to feed his 1,500 merinos and 50 pigs. Noel’s story will be similar to many within our Presbytery and that of other Presbytery farmers across the NSW and ACT Synod.

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People who have been most impacted have expressed gratitude for the prayer and practical support from others not in the immediate danger zones. We do well to keep praying, and giving, and hoping. 

And as we pray, and watch, and wait with hope, be encouraged that there are people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of no faith, all working together to ensure the safety of people, animals, and property, and to support one another in this time of need. And know that people are praying around the world for those in crisis. 

There is a collection of resources, for prayer and reflection, at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The Moderators of each Synod, and the national President of the Uniting Church, have all expressed prayerful concern for the people who are being hardest hit, and for those seeking to serve them. The President’s message is on video at https://vimeo.com/382251990

Personal friends in countries all over the world are, through the wonders of our internet age, receiving up to date information and offering prayers for those affected. The General Secretary of the World Council of Church has assured Australians of the prayers of people from churches across the globe (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/in-letter-to-australian-churches-wcc-prays-for-respite-from-the-heat-and-the-flames). 

The UCA Assembly webpage contains messages of support that have been sent by our partner churches around the world (https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/disaster/item/424-messages-of-support-from-overseas).

May you go in peace and hope in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay, John Williams, Delia Quigley, Co-Chairs

John Squires, Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing

The letter is online at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

There is a helpful list of resources relating to climate change and the bushfires at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-crisis-info/ and some prayers and liturgies for use at this time at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The image shows the Batemans Bay Uniting Church, transformed from a place of worship to a safe place for evacuated people to sleep. Photo by Pam Nuessler.

What are the churches doing during the bushfire crisis?

I have been seeing posts asking about how the churches are helping in the current bushfire emergency. Here are some thoughts.

First, I am very aware that there is a lot of energy and time being contributed on the ground by people of local congregations who have provided people affected by the fires with a place to sleep, a place to eat and drink water, and a place to talk with compassionate folk who are willing to listen. This is the ministry of hospitality, which is fundamental to being people of faith.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Canberra Region Presbytery covers much (but not all) of the areas in the south-east of Australia that are being affected by these savage fires. You can see from the images below just how many fires there are, and how many roads have been closed (as of 6 January 2020).

There are daily updates from situations on the ground, indicating what Uniting Church congregations and chaplains are doing, on the Facebook page of the Canberra Region Presbytery, which is public for anyone to read.

The major denominations each have a fund that receives donations and provides those funds to places where the need is great. Those funds are all being put to good use now, as the bushfires rage. The Uniting Church fund in NSW.ACT is at https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/

These are excellent, immediate responses. It is great to learn of these actions by people of faith. However, perhaps the most enduring contribution comes through the provision of trained chaplains at the various evacuation centres that are set up. These people make themselves available to listen to affected people with compassion and to assist in the many practicalities that need to be attended to, when large numbers of people are displaced.

My colleague Stephen Robinson (pictured below, at right) is supported fulltime by the Uniting Church, to co-ordinate the Disaster Chaplaincy Response Network across NSW and the ACT. He has been doing a fine job! There is an article about this ministry at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/2973-disaster-ready-chaplains

The DCRN is an ecumenical network with ministers and pastors from a number of denominations participating. You can read about it at http://www.nswdrcn.org.au/about_us

(The news page is not up to date—I suspect this reflects the limited personnel and the increased rate of disasters requiring attention in recent years . But the main information is clear and accurate.)

I have many excellent colleagues within the Uniting Church who are, right at this moment, sitting with people in evacuation centres, listening to their accounts of fire, loss, and grief, soothing their aggravated fears, and seeking to provide practical assistance.

The DCRN works closely with a network of church agencies, co-ordinated by a state government agency, as the image attached shows.

There’s a good overview of the ways that churches are responding to the bushfires at http://religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au/?p=9473

From afar, one thing that people can certainly do, is pray—pray for the disaster chaplains, that their energies will be replenished, their words will exude compassion, their actions will assist those in need. I am certain that they would appreciate this.

The Moderator of the United Church of Christ in Canada, the Right Rev. Richard Bott, has offered this wonderful prayer in response to the Australia wildfires 

https://www.united-church.ca/prayers/prayer-people-animals-and-land-australia

See also https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3111-a-comforting-presence-in-a-time-of-crisis and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/

Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children (Matt 2)

In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.

It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).

There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.

By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.

In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!

There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.

And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt 2:16).

It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.

The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.

That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.

This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?

I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?

It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.

As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?

As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.

On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/

For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/

and

https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/415/

For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html

For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/