Previous Letters from the Clergy are available on this page.
If you grew up in the church, you’ve heard over and over that idols were bad. Some churches go so far as not to allow pictures of Jesus for fear that the picture would accidentally turn into an idol. For some, false idols are a point of fear—to the point of fighting—it seems as if a lot of power was assigned to those false idols. They’re wood, metal or nowadays, plastic. They have no power and can’t cause problems apart from what we humans cause the problem to be. There is a bit of freedom in knowing that objects hold no power; God has all the power. Our job is to remember that God is what we worship and that those objects can’t hurt us!
Idolatry distorts, exaggerates and mutilates something true. Idolatry is above all a negation of worship. If idolatry in theological terms is a heresy, it’s primarily a heresy about humanity. It’s the negation of humanity as a worshipping being: the one for whom worship is the essential act, which ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfils it.” No one is capable of eradicating the yearning for God from one’s soul. Therefore, we either learn to come before the true God in prayer and solemn feast or we delude ourselves with the worship of idols.
It’s easy to place our identity in something or someone other than God. Whether it is our social media following, our position at work, our skill-set or the achievements we pursue, many have their identity wrapped up in the wrong thing, which is a difficult way to live. If your identity is in your work, your skills, your looks or anything else, you will constantly feel like you don’t measure up; these things are harsh masters. But when our identity is secured in God, we can live in freedom. While we will still fall short, God’s love will never fail us and will square up any difference, abundantly.
The pursuit of money and the acquisition of things is also an idol. Many trust their money more than they trust God. But hear me on this. Money isn’t bad, it’s a tool. And like any tool, you have to use it correctly; otherwise, it can be lethal. Money isn’t the problem. It’s how we use and view it (if we love it) that can become a problem. Many have placed their hopes and dreams on money. They trust it to provide for them, care for them and protect them.
The problem is, it can’t live up to what we’re trying to get from it. Money has become the ultimate thing for many of us. If the motivating factor in our life is money and not God, that’s an idol.
We’re obsessed with being entertained and it comes in many forms—from Netflix to holidays and video games to podcasts, but it’s not that entertainment is bad. When our lives become all about the search for entertainment and chase of the best experiences we can find, then it has become an idol. It has become more important than God. I would argue that entertainment is good and a gift from God but we should worship the giver not the gift.
We’re obsessed with sex in our culture. It’s everywhere. It might be the only thing we think about more than money. We’ve taken a gift from God and made it into the god of our lives, and for many, their lives are controlled by it. To even question the sexual ethic in our society will bring a slew of accusations, showing how tied to our idol we actually are. Our sexual identity, sexual practices and sex lives are sacred to us. Perhaps the church shares some blame. Rather than portraying sex as a good gift from God, in recent history, it has heaped guilt upon shame. You could argue this is one of the factors that brought the over-exaggeration of sex. But regardless of how we got here, for many today, sex is an idol. We value it more than we do God.
There’s an endless list of products promising to simplify and add comfort to our lives. We’ve made our lives much easier and more comfortable than at any other time in history. Tasks that used to take all day can be done in minutes. Many simple tasks are now automated. While that’s a good thing, our pursuit in life shouldn’t be comfort alone. Jesus tells a very different narrative for his followers. He says that his followers will face trials, persecution and difficulty. As a sidebar, comfort in the classical sense of the term, as in “comfort and joy” means building up; strengthening. Quite a different meaning from today’s. While today’s notion of comfort isn’t bad, it can become damaging when it becomes the main pursuit in life. When comfort is an idol, we will struggle when God calls us to something difficult.
Mobile phone addiction is an increasingly worrying trend, especially for Gen Z and Millennials, and it’s certainly not confined to them. For many, we simply cannot live without our phones (or online presence). The problem isn’t our phones or social media or any form of technology. It is the value we place on it that makes it a problem. When our lives revolve around how many likes we get, what our following looks like, or if we can’t sit in silence for 5 minutes without refreshing our newsfeed, we might have an idol in our hands. Anything that takes the place of God in our life, anything that becomes more important than him, is an idol.
This isn’t a list of things to avoid, a weapon we should use to beat ourselves down or munitions to shoot at others. This is a list of things that can take the place of God in our lives. When a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, ultimately it becomes a destructive thing. That’s idolatry. What we should do with this list is use it to prayerfully evaluate our lives to make sure nothing has become more important to us than God. So how do we know if something has become an idol? Here are 4 questions to ask ourselves to help us to identify idols in our lives:
Where Do I Spend My Time?
Where Do I Spend My Money?
Where Do I Get My Joy?
What’s Always On My Mind?
Let’s really think and pray about those questions. They’ll lead us to what either is an idol or what we might be tempted to make into one. Idol worship today might look different from how it looked in Biblical times, but it still exists and must be avoided.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
TOUCH & GO
Jesus was someone people wanted to touch and be touched by. Jairus doesn’t simply ask Jesus to come and heal his daughter, he very specifically says, “Please come and lay your hands on her.” In St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already performed a number of miracles that didn’t involve physical touch. Yet Jairus carefully requests the laying on of Jesus’ hands to bring about his daughter’s restoration.
In the midst of all this is the account of the bleeding woman. As Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ house, a woman in the crowd touches Jesus to relieve her of a hemorrhage that had clearly consumed her life. Just after Jesus walks past her, she reaches out, grabs a piece of his cloak, gives it a quick squeeze, lets go… And is healed instantly. Jesus notices that power has gone out from him; many were touching him and jostling him at the time, but none of them was tapping any divine power. That’s why the disciples are rather incredulous when Jesus asks, “Who touched me?”
The woman in question is mortified: She didn’t belong in the crowd to begin with. She too had been forced to jostle as she jockeyed for position. What the others didn’t know was that according to Jewish law, every person who came into contact with this woman had been made unclean. For the good of all, she needed to remain far away from others because so long as her problem persisted, she carried the contagion of the profane. So when Jesus singles her out as having touched him with a purpose, her joy at having been healed turns to instant dread: just as her life was about to begin anew, it looked like it might end. That’s why she appears before Jesus with fear and trembling.
To her credit, she tells what Mark describes as “the whole truth.” She could have lied, but she admits the nature of her condition. Suddenly every person wondered if they had rubbed shoulders with this unclean woman, but before the imminent panic starts, Jesus calls the woman “daughter” and sends her away with a benediction. Jesus restored her to the community and conveyed to everyone that the holiness he bore was more powerful than any potential contagion of the profane that anyone else could bear.
Meanwhile, Jairus had come to Jesus on the most urgent of errands. Time was of the essence, yet Jesus has stopped. Even as it looked like Jesus was ready to move on, men with tears in their eyes came rushing in. Jairus perceives their message from the pained look on their faces. Jesus ignores the messengers and turns directly to Jairus, speaking words that were either
the dearest thing any person has ever spoken or the very height of folly: “Fear not, only believe.” The account shifts from one daughter to the next as Jesus heads to Jairus’ house. The role of touch comes in again in that Jesus takes the little girl’s hand as the prelude to raising her from the dead. Twice Jesus touches someone unclean. Yet not only is Jesus not contaminated, the ones who had been unclean are made holy. Jesus re-establishes the boundaries that once defined the community. What does this account from antiquity mean for the Church today?
In St Mark’s Gospel, two dead daughters appear before Jesus. They come to Jesus “just as they are”—dead—but they leave their sacred encounter changed—alive. Still today, the Church faces the challenge of being both a welcoming community and an agent of transformation in the name of Christ. One without the other will never do, for if we welcome without hoping for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we display the love of the Gospel but none of its power. If we insist on transformation to take place before we welcome someone in Christ’s name, we hold out for the power of the Gospel, but fail to display its compassionate love. The compassion of Jesus Christ forms the context into which everything flows, and we cannot be Christ’s representatives if we cannot muster that welcoming presence in the Church today. Neither can we display Christ if in the name of welcome we adopt some casual “live and let live” approach to the shape of our lives.
In St Mark’s Gospel, a new community bursts onto the scene because Jesus wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way to let that community be established and grow in grace. In and through all of this reaching, whether we know it or not, we’re still reaching for Jesus’ hand. That holy hand is still available, but it now comes through my hands and yours. When those around us touch our hands, can they feel Christ’s love and power, his welcome and grace?
In the end, it doesn’t matter whom we encounter in this life. In all cases we’re called to say the very words our Saviour spoke to those deemed beyond hope: “Fear not, only believe.” New life begins right there.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
THE FAITH OF OUR FATHER
It was a simple request, the kind that parents make of their children all the time: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard”. Parents have good reasons for asking their children to do as they say. It’s helpful when they let their kids in on their reasoning, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just say “Go. Work. Today. That vineyard”. That is a parent’s prerogative, and a child has to decide what to do in response.
Sometimes, a child responds like the first son in Christ’s parable. The father says, “Son, go work today in the vineyard”, the son listens to his father’s request, looks his Dad in the eye, and says: “I will not”. This sort of push back is fairly common. Kids say “NO” or “I will not” to their parents for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s out of a determination to assert their independence: “I will not be home by ten”. Sometimes it’s to express their fearfulness. Sometimes children say, “I will not” to get attention or express their grief. Other times it is simply to get their way—whether that way is right or wrong. Jesus doesn’t tell us why the first son verbally defied his father’s will. But Jesus does tell us something interesting: “Later, [the first son] changed his mind and went” to work in the vineyard.
Sometimes, everything in us wants to yell NO to the call of our Father. God calls us to go and work, to live by different principles, to develop new patterns, and we often say: “I can’t do it; I won’t do it; I don’t want to do it; you can’t make me do it”. And then later, we come to church, because we’re trying to do it. Maybe it’s partly out of fear of what might happen if we persist in defying God; that’s wise. Maybe it’s partially out of curiosity about where the path He’s pointed might actually lead; that’s good. Perhaps we change our mind and do what He says out of gratitude for all He’s given us; that’s only right. Maybe we go out of partial devotion—because experience teaches us that, even where we can’t see clearly, our Father has good reasons for what He asks; that’s true.
Holy fear, curiosity, gratitude and devotion are all different aspects of humility and humility is the absolute requisite for growth as disciples of Christ. We can only grow big by recognising how small we are before God’s great mind and heart. It’s only as we know that we’re simply in God’s Kingdom—that we’ve got a long way to go to become truly mature—that we start to get big. The reason is that as we become humble, we start putting our trust more in God and less in ourselves. We start obeying His commandments, even where a part of us is still saying, “I don’t want to”. We take a step of trust and that leads to a step of obedience and then one more step of trust and another of obedience, until suddenly we’re actually walking with God.
Jesus doesn’t say what got the first son up and walking toward the vineyard in the end. Maybe it was holy fear or curiosity; maybe gratitude or devotion. The important thing is that he went. Jesus tells us: “Then the father went to the other son, and [the father] said the same thing—‘Go and work today in the vineyard’”. And “he answered, ‘I will, sir’.” No hesitation or whingeing. No, “I’ll get to it in a minute” or “Do I have to do it”? Just an instantaneous ‘yes’ to his father’s instructions. “But he did not go” and work in the vineyard, says Jesus. He makes this beautiful profession of commitment to his father, but then he does not do as he promised. Great talk without the walk. Maybe he just liked the idea of doing the right thing but lacked the will to do it. Perhaps he had very good intentions but was easily distracted. Maybe he wanted to please his father but lacked a full sense of what really was pleasing to him. Perhaps he thought that saying yes was the same as living yes.
But that’s not true. Jesus finished his parable and then turned to the chief priests and the elders and asked this powerful question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted”? It’s obedience not oration that makes the Father proud. Jesus goes on to say that God looks more highly on the genuine repentance and obedience of somebody who’s been a low-life-tax collector, a prostitute, a rebellious son—than he does the pseudo-piety of someone who’s been an upstanding, courteous person but perseveres in being disobedient to his commands.
How does this apply to us? Are we more like son #1 or son #2? Every study suggests that Christians are remarkably articulate when it comes to claiming faith in God, belief in the Bible, respect for Jesus Christ but do we really trust and obey? Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”. With whom, specifically, are we doing that? Christ commands: “Go and make disciples”. Whom have we personally led to Christ or mentored in discipleship in the past year? God the Father says: “Bring the whole tithe into my storehouse”. Did our giving of time, talent, and treasure in the last six months approach 10%? The Father also says: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips”. How is our language these days or the words we speak behind others’ backs?
These are just four areas of discipleship—our behaviour towards difficult people, our nurture of faith in others, our personal stewardship, and control of our tongue. Doing the Father’s will encompasses much more than this of course, but let’s focus on these; let’s pick one part of the vineyard of discipleship to which the Father calls us and start doing less “talking about” and more “walking about” there. Some will say: “I’ll do it when I have more faith, when God gives me more reason to trust”. Yet God says, I’ll give you more reason, when you do it. It is impossible to know the reality and dependability of God by merely paying lip service to the Father.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith, and they’re not two sides of the same coin. The disconcerting fact is that the opposite of faith is sin. Initially faith is not a feeling of certainty and impregnability, it is a fact that is embodied in the action of obedience. The action of obedience is building our lives on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ. The more we obey him, the more positive results we’ll see—in our lives and in the lives of those we touch. These results will then spill back as positive feelings that will encourage us to obey even more. Faith in God and obedience to His commandments are the very legs of discipleship. They are the way by which a follower of Christ moves through life and grows. The more these legs are exercised, the stronger they become, and the more ably and prosperously will walk into the stature that the Father wills for us.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
The Last Word
Logos—Greek for word of God, wisdom, computation, reckoning, measure, sum-total, esteem, consideration, value, relation, correspondence, proportion, explanation, inward debate of the soul, continuous statement, narrative, particular utterance, expression, speech, plea, pretext, ground, theory, argument, rule of conduct, principle, law, reason, formula (ten commandments), tradition, relationality through the person of Christ—the Word of God, the Holy Spirit of whom illumines the codified writings called Holy Scripture.
This community lives by the word of God, no other is needed. This word is given to the community through human agents whose task it is to make clear the purposes of God through the word they speak. They are to do so in and out of season, remaining faithful to their task whether the word is welcomed or not. What Moses said to Israel echoes to us today: we are to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Church’s very identity is built around the dynamic presence of God’s word amongst us to form us, free us in relations amongst ourselves through Christ, to sustain us in all of the challenges and threats we will encounter in life.
This assertion is difficult to live by. There has always been the temptation to live by another word, another power source, another means of identity. The temptation to seek words that comfort rather than confront, words that side with cultural and political preferences rather than question their validity, words that are toned down to make accommodation—rather than words that may disturb or discomfort. To fall into this temptation is to ignore our call as God’s people, not only as those who know God’s word, but as those who bear God’s word by what we say and how we live. When we abandon that word which forms us and gives us our identity, we stop being the people of God.
There are times when knowledge is not enough. There is a higher principle that must be at work in the community of the word than mere knowledge of it, even superior knowledge. This principle is relationality—to God and others through his Holy Covenant: a place where the spirit behind the word makes itself present. Recall that St Mark tells us of this in the story of the exorcism in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath. As he does, his teaching is met with astonishment. There is an authority about his word that has a ring of truth unlike any other teacher they’ve heard. Jesus speaks as though the truth of this word were his very own—nothing but the truth.
In the midst of their astonishment, a man possessed by a demon cries out, “Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us?” In the pain of recognition he shouts, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” We know the rest. Jesus silences and exorcises the demon, leaving the man convulsed on the ground. St Mark—unlike the other Gospel writers—does not tell us what Jesus was teaching or what Jesus said to the demon to cast him out. He doesn’t tell us anything more about the man who had been possessed.
Instead St Mark presents us with the witness’s curious question in the wake of the demon’s departure: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” The question means nothing unless we hear it as a proclamation intended for those reading this story. St Mark is telling us that the power by which the demon was cast out is the very same power at work in Jesus’ words, in his teaching. St Mark will continue to speak of Jesus stilling a storm, raising a dead girl, feeding a hungry crowd, curing an epileptic and cursing a fig tree—all as a way of demonstrating the power of Christ’s word in the community that bears his name.
Jesus has entered a world where the demonic power of evil cripples, alienates, distorts and destroys life, in order to silence, bind and cast it out. His words have that power. But knowing about those words—even knowing them—is not enough. We must understand them as God’s word to us, God’s word for us, God’s word in us, so that they engage us and begin to silence, bind and cast out those demons that cripple, alienate, distort and rob us and those around us of life.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
Are you saved? Not only the question, but the word itself makes many of us queasy. It has the capacity to cull up memories of shouting hell-fire and brimstone preachers, or, encounters with self-assured Christians whose very asking that strongly implies they are and we’re not. The question reeks of an attitude of religious superiority and smacks of religious exclusivism contrary to what Jesus was about. Yet salvation is a common concept in the Bible, the words “saved”, “salvation” and “saviour” appear about 280 times. As we are now into the Easter season, it is a good time to review what we mean when we say “Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world”, what Biblical faith means when it speaks of being saved, how such salvation can be personal—how that happens—and its results. Are you saved? Why?
What is salvation? In the Bible the word has a broad range of meanings. Salvation means wholeness. It suggests an event so dramatic that it fills the blank places of our lives, while restoring those who have been crushed, maimed or destroyed. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus healing, restoring sight, mobility, hearing or speech and reaching out to those who have been rejected or crushed by life, acting in such a way that they can be restored both to life and community. Salvation means wholeness.
Salvation also means deliverance, as was the case with Israel. Because of their rebellious complaint against both Moses and God, God has sent fiery serpents to punish the people. As they begin to die, they repent and cry to God for help. God instructs Moses to fashion a poisonous serpent of bronze and set it on a pole so those who have been bitten can look at it and live. God, who can punish when scorned or mocked, saves when embraced. The Wisdom of Solomon, recalling the event in prayer, says “the one who turned toward [the serpent on the pole] was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all… For you have power over life and death; you lead mortals down to the gates of Hell and back again”. Salvation means deliverance, and in its most dramatic instances, deliverance from death to life.
But salvation is more than being saved from something, even if that something is death. Salvation is about being saved for something. Unfortunately, when we hear the question, “Are you saved”, we almost universally fall into thinking of nothing more than escaping damnation and Hell — concepts which have
more to do with Dante’s Inferno than with the Biblical witness. What’s important for us is knowing that the Biblical notion of “being saved” is far more dynamic a concept than escaping eternal death. More than being saved from death, salvation is about being saved for life.
Eternal life, as the Bible talks about it, isn’t just life after death. The eternal life for which God saves us is a present as well as future reality: a quality of life that you and I can experience now. Eternal life is life empowered by God, life which can’t be stopped, even by death. Not only is it life that continues into a future beyond death, it’s life that transcends death in our present. Eternal life is what enables a newly widowed person to continue living, and to risk loving another once again. God’s gift of eternal life is what empowers the one who has been betrayed to risk trusting again. It permits one who has been crushed by the defeat of life’s deadly circumstances to begin again. God’s gift of eternal life is what lets someone who was victimised in childhood leave victimhood behind, trust the power of God to give new life, and to risk at precisely the places previously hurt. It gives courage and hope to the person facing terminal illness, permitting those caught in the grip of such illness to suddenly decide that enough treatment is enough, and it’s time to entrust themselves to another. It’s not hope in hope, nor hope in life. It is a recognition that linked to God’s love and power, nothing can destroy us—not loss, not failure, not betrayal, not victimisation, not illness, not even death itself.
Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something sought through our own actions or decisions, much less earned by determined tenacity. Further to this, salvation and its eternal life aren’t rewards for our faith: we’re not saved by our faith. The Bible doesn’t say, “by faith in Jesus Christ you have been saved” (a common misunderstanding of what Christianity professes). We’re not saved by our faith. St Paul says, “by grace you have been saved… this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”
God sent Jesus Christ to establish a relationship with us, to forge a link to God. Like the ancient bronze serpent God gave the dying Israelites, those who look to Jesus Christ are healed in those places where they’ve been poisonously bitten or crushed. The transformation from death to life comes as we embrace God’s gift of Jesus Christ as our source of light and life. In that embrace we die with Christ to the past and are raised with him to new life, not just metaphorically, but actually! That’s the point St Paul continues to press. St Paul is saying that in our looking to Jesus Christ, God joins us to
the risen Lord in such a way that we may now live out of the power of his resurrection. Resurrection isn’t simply a future event. We can be raised to new life now!
How? By welcoming it, by embracing God’s embrace. Salvation and its gift of eternal life is after all, not a status achieved by believing something about Jesus, or an achievement because we’ve confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. It is first and foremost a relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ—a relationship the Bible calls faith. “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” Faith isn’t believing this or that about Jesus Christ. It’s simply looking to him as the source of life, embracing him as God’s gift to us and giving ourselves to living out of Christ’s power.
Faith isn’t about creeds or doctrine, though both are important and have their place. Having trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity… with the Incarnation? Not feeling very fervently faithful? That’s not the question. Faith is simply looking to Jesus, and in that gaze discovering a relationship with God so that God fills and empowers our lives and gives us the strength and will to obey him. When that happens, you and I experience salvation, power that makes life eternal here and now. For Jesus Christ not only brings the light of God’s presence, not only enlightens us as to life and its purposes but more, he’s the linchpin between God and us, the conduit through whom God’s life-giving Spirit flows into our lives to defeat the power of sin and death and give us eternal life.
As you and I live into this, the “Why”? of our salvation begins to emerge. The purpose of our lives begins to change. We no longer live for ourselves alone, because we know that the life we live is not ours alone. It’s a gift God continues to give us to be a force for his love and good works in this world.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
Peace Drives Away Fear and Ushers in Life
As the disciples were locked away in fear after the crucifixion, Jesus comes among them, bestowing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ identity and presence with the frightened disciples brings peace: “Peace is with you.” Jesus is the embodiment of God’s peace now made visible in the nail-torn hands and the lanced side. In these signs Jesus sends his followers into the world in the same way the Father has sent the Son into the world. As the disciples are commissioned, so are we, in the empowering presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus literally “breathes into” his followers the Holy Spirit (wind, or breath). John uses the same verb and tense used in the Genesis account of creation as God “breathed into” Adam the breath of life. The words that accompany the gift of God’s Spirit are words of life, forgiving one another as we have been forgiven. When sins are forgiven, they stand forgiven; when sins are retained, they are retained.
The absence of Thomas from the group on the eve of resurrection occasions Jesus’ appearance to the disciples eight days later. Thomas’ response to the disciples’ witness, “We have seen the Lord”, is his request to see Jesus’ visible wounds. When Jesus comes among them, the words of peace are spoken once again, together with Jesus’ offer that Thomas touch and see. Jesus’ words, “Do not remain unbelieving but believing” express the promise of Jesus’ presence. Thomas’s confession, “My Lord and my God”, brings us back to the beginning of the gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Jesus is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the fulfillment of God’s incarnate word. Jesus’ response to Thomas does not use scolding words as a question might imply, but a statement of reality: “Because you have seen me, you have believed”.
These words stand in parallel with the second half of the verse as words of benediction to all who have not had the experience of Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. Through the signs or works and words of the gospel and the experience of the disciples and followers of Jesus throughout the gospel, we too have seen and heard the living witness of the word become flesh. The concluding words of chapter 20 express the purpose of the gospel and the evangelist’s selection of signs and words that are necessary for us to see and hear. There is much more not written in this gospel, but what the evangelist has included fulfills the gospel’s intention in a twofold way: (1) “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” and (2) “that believing you may have life in his name”. The heart of the gospel is in the centrality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. In his Son, God has chosen to redeem our lives from sin and death that we may have life beginning now, even life eternal as God’s children in the name above every name, Jesus Christ. This is the message of Easter; this is the incarnate word made present in our world; this is the crucified and risen one who leads us in our daily walk of discipleship.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
From a Dust Heap to a Mountain Top
On Ash Wednesday, recall the words of the burial rite at the committal of the body which read, “We have entrusted our brother/sister N to God’s mercy and we now commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The essence of these very words will be echoed to you on Ash Wednesday by the priest when he inscribes the sign of the Cross in ashes on your foreheads on the first day of Lent: “Remember O man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.” Like Peggy Lee’s popular song, these words urge us to ask, “Is that all there is (to a life—dust and ashes)?”
The words spoken by God to Adam and Eve after the fall demonstrate the gravity of their offense of disobedience: “Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return,” and these words resonate with us today, reminding us that by nature and deed we always-already are these living bags of dust and ashes waiting to be buried. Likewise dust and ashes are not very valuable goods: dust accumulates as a result of neglect, and ashes are left in the wake of destruction by fire: dust is dust, ashes are ashes, and the only thing that can be done with these elements is to sweep them up and throw them away. The same can be said of our righteousness—which, at the end of the day when our energy to uphold our hypocrisy dissipates—wears like a threadbare and moth-eaten coat, and of our virtue which tarnishes, decomposes and disintegrates in the short span of a disingenuous, malevolent and spiritually penurious life.
So if it is the case that we are these filthy and useless things, why do we gather on Ash Wednesday and cover ourselves with even more of the same? Perhaps to remind ourselves not only what we are, but who God is, and what he did in and through the incarnation of Christ. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God demonstrates and offers an alternative to beginning in the rubbish heap, and after a brief, wretched and sinful life, returning there as a final destination. The alternative is “The Way of the Cross,” the paving of which Christ’s death invested worthless dust and ashes with infinite value. And the infinite value of this substance can be immediately realised by changing our purpose—or repenting and accepting what God offers us as an alternative to this tiresome path of doom: his mercy. Changing our purpose entails a change of perspective and disposition—from asking with sardonic self-pity, “Is that all there is?” to asserting resolutely “That’s all there is,” mindful of the fullness of grace. On the one hand, all we can pray for is God’s mercy. On the other hand (which may not know what the first hand is doing), God’s mercy is ALL we can pray for, because it comprises the totality of our intentions and is the very foundation of our faith in Christ.
In changing our purpose, we will also begin to act in surprising new ways—for example in beginning to practice a humble piety that is based on God’s mercy and not on pride or anxiety over the possibility that someone else might be outdoing us. A righteousness built and cultivated on divine mercy continuously checks and obliterates any attempts of rationalising and demonstrating that whatever virtue we might possess is rooted in the dust and ashes that we are. From the foundation of divine mercy, a magnificent temple can be built and we are the living stones of this structure.
God has committed himself to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has given us a sign of this commitment in the cross of Christ, and in each of our own very stylised crosses that he exhorts us to take up and follow him. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the great season of Lent, and we come to take upon ourselves the very sign of the Cross and to commit ourselves to Christ and await his inevitable return. Liturgically we may be preparing for Easter Sunday 40 days from now. But what we are doing is preparing to stand up and be counted: immediately in this place as disciples of Christ and ultimately before the great judgment seat of Christ—humbly hoping to be recognised as subjects of infinite value. Let us reflect further on the words of the burial office, that do not end with “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but continue stating, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, who died, was buried, and rose again for us…”
To him be glory forever.
Our Saviour is not just for Christmas
The Slaughter of the Innocents is a part of the story of Bethlehem, and the birth of Christ. These killings, into which Jesus is born, designated very young children to be killed—birth to age 2—by military assault weapons and other means; by soldiers who burst in like madmen. These killings happened in Bethlehem, and they have happened in every age. Madness, mayhem, paranoia, zero-sum thinking: these are part of our human condition, which places our selves, fears and desires at the centre. But they’re not all that we are.
The story tells us that the Christ child was born into bedlam, mayhem, the madness which is our world. The child was born because, pervasive as this reality about us is, it’s not all we are. The story was written to give us hope. The story tells us that our salvation is born in the midst of such times, into the heart of our darkness, in a moment when time is shattered and new time begins. And our salvation is brought to us by a survivor of the worst that can befall, by a child whose light was not extinguished, a child who understands deeply what has happened, a child who remembers, a child who was not killed. This is the Child who grows in wisdom and stature, who amazes the rabbis in the temple, who has a perspective unlike anyone’s.
The story tells us that the people of Bethlehem were barely aware of this child. Devastated by the slaughter, picking up their splintered lives, their broken hearts, their stabbing fears, their traumatised surviving children, they also found among the wreckage the words that promise the Messiah will be born to them, especially to them. They carried this promise, in tears, as they buried their dead children.
The story tells us that God does not abandon us to face our peril alone. That God drew Mary and Joseph to this place and this time for this birth. We tend to think the slaughter was later, after the birth and after the flight, but it’s possible that the time frame here is very short, that the star brought the kings to the moment of birth, that Herod’s angry order was given impatiently early, that the rumours of murder were rife in the streets as Mary lay down in the straw. It’s possible that the carnage was beginning even as she gave birth. And so perhaps she gave birth among the slaughtered.
The hope of our time lives among survivors. We cannot outrun, outgun, or outwit what is monstrous in this world. But in facing the truth of our reality, we can see light in its darkness, and hear angels—messengers of God—singing there, for it is into this reality that Christ comes, why we celebrate Christmas.
May we remember that Christmas comes to meet our desperate need of our Lord and Saviour. God with us is the theme.
Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.
And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.
The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.
—G.K. Chesterton, from A Child of the Snows