Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Anglican

20th November 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / 1 Comment on 20th November 2016

jaremiah-23-bJeremiah 23:1-6

1Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3Then I, myself, will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the Lord.

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up, for David, a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety, and this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


As with the vast majority of the writings of the prophets, the environment in which Jeremiah finds himself is one of corruption in the religious establishment. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spent much of his time speaking God’s word to an unreceptive audience, just as 21st century prophets find themselves doing; and when an oracle, such as this, starts with “woe” it’s more than just bad news for those in the sights of the prophet. Given that attendances in “mainstream” churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting in particular – have been declining for many years I would not like to be a bishop, or equivalent, in any of them, and have to read this passage from Jeremiah. It’s the responsibility of clergy, at all levels, to guide the faithful flock and to build up that flock by welcoming new people and helping to convert non-believers into believers. Though the number of clergy involved in child sexual abuse in Australian institutions is small, and the proportion of errant clergy is no larger than the proportion in the wider community, the churches’ response to the issue is one which continues to drive people from our churches. Jeremiah doesn’t mince matters. ‘Woe to those shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep’ is bad enough for the perpetrators of abuse, but the passage goes further. Those who have not attended to the problem are also in the firing line, and God is not happy! ‘I will attend to you for your evil doings.’ I’m reminded about a public meeting with one of the bishops, in which we were told 10% of people in the suburb we were in considered themselves Anglican, only 2% attended church at least twice a year making a parish unviable, and the solution was to make the parish bigger to have more people contributing to the cost of running it. Where is the Good Shepherd, bringing the lost sheep back to church? This scream from Jeremiah is all about divine judgement. We’ve been hit in the face with the reality of declining attendances, and then we’ve been hit with a warning of judgement to come because we either haven’t attended to the problem, or we’ve exacerbated it. There is no forgiveness in this passage, though we, as Christians, would expect, and hope, to find it.

On first reading I missed a challenging word, but then thought “hang on a minute”! God says that He will gather the flock from the lands where HE has driven them. Wasn’t it the unfaithful shepherds who had driven them away and not attended to them? I looked at several commentaries to check what renowned scholars were saying about that, and there were very few who said anything. A scholarly answer suggests that the shepherds were driving them out of their own land, and God was driving them to foreign lands, for their own safety, before being rescued and returned to Israel.

Jeremiah continues issuing the word of the Lord against a people who will not listen. God will take over feeding the sheep, and looking after them. He will be like The Good Shepherd and go looking for those who have been lost, bringing them back to the fold himself, because those who have had responsibility for that task have been like the hireling. When the lost have been returned to the fold, God will select a new breed of shepherds, one which will look after the flock faithfully. Ouch!! Are we listening, or are we just hearing?

Thankfully, there is hope of redemption and reconciliation for the flock which has been scattered and decimated. We can look forward to God bringing in a new era where we can live in safety, where the religious community will be well supported, where people are brought to Christ on a daily basis, and where the Good News will be celebrated.

When our Jewish friends celebrate the Passover, it is not a memorial of an event well in the past, but a real-live moment in their own lives, such is the connection with scripture. If we took the same approach with the birth of Christ then how would that affect our lives? Is that how God will bring back to the fold the lost sheep who don’t know they are lost?

 

 

6th November 2016 (All Saints’ Day)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
let-them-praise-dancing
from indulgy.com

Psalm 149

1Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the assembly of the faithful.
2Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
3Let them praise His name with dancing, making melody to Him with tambourine and lyre.
4For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He adorns the humble with victory.
5Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches.
6Let the high praises of God be in their throats, and two-edged swords in their hands,
7to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,
8to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron,
9to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.

 


Joy, joy, joy! With joy my heart is singing, for the one who sings, prays twice, according to St Augustine and many who have followed him. I am reminded of a visit one of my theological college lecturers made to a distant country, which shall not be named. On noting an absence of musical instruments in churches he visited the lecturer asked the reason, and was told that it was OK for the Romans, the Anglicans, the Uniting Church, and Protestant churches to have musical instruments, “but not in the House of God”!

The Psalms formed the hymn book for the Hebrew people. Music was as much a part of their life as it is for most of us today; and it is appropriate that we use our musical talents to worship God. Whilst the first verse of Psalm 149 encourages us to “sing a new song” I think the intention was that such new songs should be meaningful, directed towards worshipping God, and not banal, over-repetitive, or monotonous. From that you might gather that I have encountered all three, and sometimes in the one song. With the demise of nearly all parish church choirs in the Anglican tradition we have lost the opportunity to hear beautiful music played and sung. A four-part harmonisation of some of the still popular hymns is far more uplifting, even for those with little musical involvement, than singing the same hymns in unison. There is a desperate need to a return to singing in parts. The motto of the Royal School of Church Music is “Psallam spiritu et mente”, which means “singing with spirit and understanding.” New songs, created in that vein, can be hugely uplifting, and be of benefit to everyone.

The people are encouraged to be glad for what their maker has given them, and to rejoice in having someone, as monarch, who cares for everyone, and loves them unconditionally. We are encouraged to include dance in our worship, though there are many who believe church services to be an inappropriate place for that. Indeed, the original dances mentioned in this psalm were not celebrations for the Lord in thankfulness for the wonders of the world, but had overtones of military might, somewhat akin to the Haka performed by the New Zealand All Black rugby team. Nevertheless, dancing was encouraged, and should still be. Different means of producing music are encouraged: the version in A Prayer Book for Australia renders this as “with timbrel and with harp” but the important point is that all musical instruments should be welcomed. You could hardly expect the writers of the psalms to include bassoons, flutes, violins, harpsichords or organs, all of which were invented many centuries later.

Verses 4 and 5 continue this theme of celebration and worship with pleasure and adoration being expressed on the part of the Lord as we concentrate on the good things of life; but the tone changes drastically with the second half of verse 6. Why, oh why do we humans have to think that they must engage in violence to overcome those who think differently from ourselves? Why do we so easily forget that “vengeance is mine” as written in Deuteronomy 32:35? Why do we assume that we have the right to extract vengeance on behalf of God? Why do we not learn from such admonitions? Over the centuries verses such as 6b to 9a have been used out of context to defend actions which should offend the vast majority of sane people. We only need to look at areas of the world today where there is conflict to see this playing out time and time again. Psalm 149 is not just Christian scripture, it is scripture for Jews and Muslims alike. We are all “people of the book”. [I was surprised to find that, in Arabic, a Muslim is someone who adheres to Islam, but a Moslem is someone who is evil and unjust].

Some years ago it was said – if someone can give me the reference I’d really appreciate it – that if the governments of the world spent half of their defence budgets on cultural exchange programmes there would be no wars. Most of Australia’s cultural exchange activities are run by small organisations which are not allowed to compensate hosting families for the additional costs of having an extra person with them for up to a year, and though those costs include food, water, electricity and transport, Centrelink is unable to consider the extra person a dependent because school fees are paid by the biological parents; and those who come a volunteers are expected to contribute out of the money they are not allowed to receive. We need to rethink our priorities when dealing with people overseas. We may think we have the best living conditions in our part of the world, and we may believe that God has given us those good living conditions because we have been faithful – though that’s hard to justify with many churches becoming less and less relevant to the people around them – but does it give us the right to extract vengeance because other people don’t agree with us? I think not.

Fortunately, Psalm 149 returns to its original focus on God. Let us truly “Praise the Lord!”

11th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Jeremiah 4:11-18

11It will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse — 12a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. 13Look! He comes up like clouds, his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles — woe to us, for we are ruined! 14O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved. How long shall your evil schemes lodge within you? 15For a voice declares from Dan and proclaims disaster from Mount Ephraim. 16Tell the nations, “Here they are!” Proclaim against Jerusalem, “Besiegers come from a distant land; they shout against the cities of Judah. 17They have closed in around her like watchers of a field, because she has rebelled against me, says the Lord. 18Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The set text omits verses 13-18 and adds verses 21-28.

Psalm 14

1Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
2The Lord looks down from heaven on mankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
5There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
6You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
7O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


The principal aim of these reflections is to look at one passage of scripture from the selection set down for the Sunday before I post my comments. However, the selection of readings is supposed to have a common thread, and sometimes that thread requires a look at more than one passage. Today is an example.

The author of Psalm 14 is clearly expressing negative comments about the “fools” who do not believe in God and follow the teachings of scripture: the Lord looks down to see if anyone is wise and seeking after God, but “they” have all gone astray. Who are “they”? It’s incredibly easy for us to separate the wheat from the chaff and include ourselves on the “good” side of that separation, then label everyone who isn’t with us as against us. Sometimes that separation takes on a self-righteous tone which demeans us. Some years ago an Anglican bishop I knew was invited to the ordination service for a Roman Catholic deacon. Though the service included Holy Communion the Anglican bishop was not allowed to take the bread (or wine) because he wasn’t “Christian”, that is, he wasn’t baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. At my son’s baptism we had Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church clergy participating, and the sermon made a point that we were not making a new Anglican but a new Christian. Far too often I hear comments along the lines of “you don’t do things the way we do, so you’re not Christian” even if the last bit is by implication, rather than direct statement. Psalm 14 rails against those who did things differently from the established trend, but the author wasn’t a prophet, rather a hymn writer. When we look at what a prophet was saying about the situation we are faced with a quite different scenario. Within verses omitted from the set text for the week – why they were excluded begs other questions – Jeremiah shouts “O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” [v14], “Besiegers come from a distant land” [v16], and “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you” [v18]. Once again the prophet is crying that the leaders are just as corrupt as any of those against whom they rail. Isaiah put it another way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” [Is 53:6]

It’s very easy for us to think that these passages refer to times in the history of the Jewish communities, but, as with all scripture, there is a message for us in the 21st century just as much as there was when Jeremiah was writing, mostly in the 7th century BC. What this combination of passages calls on us to do is to look at ourselves and see if we are guilty of classing ourselves as “good” and others as “bad” when the labels could easily be reversed. Have we lost track of what we are called, by God, to do in this world? Have we put ourselves above others as better Christians? Have we failed to recognise the Christ in others and looked for ways to denigrate those who are different from us, or approach our task of worship differently? How many false prophets have we allowed into “the Church”?

I have no doubt that sexual misconduct by those who have been able to get into influential positions in the church, either as clergy or lay leaders, is contrary to the message of love which comes from God, at least as perceived by the vast majority of Australians, but I truly wonder if we have been like the hireling who deserted the flock of sheep when a wolf attacked [John 10:12]. Only a tiny proportion of those entrusted with God’s work in the various denominations has failed to honour that task, yet we have allowed a very negative response from the non-church-going public to cloud the very good work done by the majority, and we have allowed those many good Christian leaders to be tarred with the same brush as those who have brought disgust.